Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Maybe a Strong Gust of Wind Wouldn't Be a Bad Thing

I have a headache. While I'm sure much of it has to do with the intersection of my allergies with the rapidly changing Central Pennsylvania weather, I'm equally sure that I can blame the merry-go-round that is the impending month of May.

The end of the semester is approaching, as are two writing events I love: my critique group's semi-annual retreat and the Pennwriters conference. This weekend, I'm going to a show at York Little Theatre and participating in a chapel choir concert in Lewisburg, honoring the retirement of our director, Dr. Payn. These are all wonderful things….so why does my head hurt?

Well, for starters, as a visual person, I've littered my living space with little reminders of all of the things I need to do, both for these events and on a day-to-day basis. Even when I am alone in a quiet house, everywhere I turn, something calls to me.

The need for visual reminders (beyond the usual lists) is a double-edged sword. Leaving things out where I can see them reduces my anxiety over forgetting to do them, but, at the same time, it increases my stress when my eyes have no place to rest.

Apparently I'm not alone. Researchers at Princeton have found that:
Multiple stimuli present in the visual field at the same time compete for neural representation by mutually suppressing their evoked activity throughout visual cortex, providing a neural correlate for the limited processing capacity of the visual system.

Um, yeah. What I just said. Too many reminders and I can't focus. My brain can't take it all in, and even if it manages to do so, it can't process what it took in. Or, in plain English, from an article in Psychology Today:
  1. Clutter bombards our minds with excessive stimuli (visual, olfactory, tactile), causing our senses to work overtime on stimuli that aren't necessary or important.
  2. Clutter distracts us by drawing our attention away from what our focus should be on.
  3. Clutter makes it more difficult to relax, both physically and mentally.
  4. Clutter constantly signals to our brains that our work is never done.
  5. Clutter makes us anxious because we're never sure what it's going to take to get through to the bottom of the pile.
  6. Clutter creates feelings of guilt ("I should be more organized") and embarrassment, especially when others unexpectedly drop by our homes or work spaces.
  7. Clutter inhibits creativity and productivity by invading the open spaces that allow most people to think, brain storm, and problem solve.
  8. Clutter frustrates us by preventing us from locating what we need quickly (e.g. files and paperwork lost in the "pile" or keys swallowed up by the clutter). 
"But," I whine, "I need my reminders!"

So what's an overwhelmed visual person to do? Two things:

Make lists -- not just of what needs to be done, but of what I've accomplished as well. So much of what gets done in a day leaves no visual evidence behind (those emails I finally drafted and sent, for example, or the slides I created for class that live on my laptop and not amid the pile of papers on my desk). As a result, the things that are calling to me bully me into believing that I'm not accomplishing anything, even when I've put a sizable dent in the to-do list.

Corral it little by little. While I know that clearing my workspace is important, I'm at a point where I don't have time to get off the task treadmill long enough to do it right. So, as a stop-gap measure, I need to take short breaks throughout the day to stash like items in a (well-marked, brightly colored) folder, to pick up and put away a few things that have simply been neglected and to pool the clutter in one (or two) spaces rather than letting it call to me from all over the house. 

Ah. A plan. I feel better already.

Now if only Mother Nature would decide what season it is.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Day of Reckoning

Yesterday was Easter Sunday, the official end of the Lenten season. That means that today is the day of reckoning for 40 Bags in 40 Days. Did I make it?

I did not.
Over the course of the 40 days of Lent, I got rid of somewhere between 15 and 20 bags of donations, trash and recycling. The majority of the non-trash items went to two local consignment stores (clothing) and the local library (outgrown books and prizes for their summer reading club which included a Thirty-One bag and signed copies of Casting the First Stone and Diverse Divorce -- things I would not normally "get rid of"). Nearly everything else was recycled paper, including magazines that had sat untouched for months. While it was a great feeling of relief to get rid of some of that clutter, pieces of paper and issues of magazines don't add up very quickly when you're marking progress in terms of garbage bags.

Still, this was a valuable experience, one that reminded me of a few things:

  1. A goal is a good thing to have…Even at the outset, 40 bags in 40 days seemed like a lot, but I opted to aim high, especially since I have no doubt there are at least 40 bags of useless stuff in our house. 
  2. …but it works better if it's clearly defined. The 40 bags part was clear enough, but…what constitutes a "bag"? A plastic grocery store bag? A paper grocery store bag? A kitchen trash bag? A yard waste trash bag? Once again, I aimed high, classifying a bag as something between the last two. That's a lot of paper and magazines…which is what makes up the bulk of the ordinary, dust-collecting, "I know I'll get to that someday" clutter at our house.
  3. An unreachable goal doesn't make me virtuous - just more likely to be disappointed. If normal, everyday trash and recycling "counts," then we hit our goal. But in the Lenten spirit of almsgiving, I included in my tally only those things I wouldn't have normally gotten rid of, and so I fell far short of 40 bags. 
  4.  My daughter is a dynamo when she's in the mood to clean. Credit where credit is due -- a substantial portion of our 15-20 bags was a result of my daughter's self-imposed, well-timed spring cleaning. Without her, the final numbers would have been much lower.
  5. Sometimes you have to move the endpoint. 40 bags is a worthwhile goal, and not hitting it in 40 days doesn't diminish its value. So I'm going to keep de-cluttering, and tallying those bags (something between a kitchen trash bag and a yard waste bag, depending on contents) on the kitchen calendar. I want to see how far we get by the end of 2014.
So, was "40 Bags in 40 Days" an epic fail at our house?

I don't think so. One of the things that made this a great goal for Lent was that it focused on simplifying and sharing what we have with others who might need it. Over the past 40 days, we've made a good start toward clearing things out, tackling overdue tasks (that mountain of papers to be shredded) and setting guidelines to avoid falling into the same trap again (no one is allowed to start a "to be shredded" pile. That's just asking for trouble). 

Best of all, I've gotten much better at answering the "do I really need this?" question in the negative…and finding someone else who might appreciate the thing I don't need.

Some of our best family habits and traditions have begun as resolutions for Lent or Advent, and I fully intend for "40 Bags in 40 Days" to be a Lenten resolution again next year. Unless, of course, my house is completely devoid of unnecessary clutter by then.

Okay, that one might just make me chuckle from now until Lent 2015.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Extroverts and Word Count Wednesday

When my friend and fellow writer Gwen posted the introvert graphic on Facebook on Monday, she included this post:
Some day, I'm going to write "how to care for extroverts." Because we're just as misunderstood.
Facebook being Facebook, it was only a matter of minutes before someone posted the corresponding graphic.

And less than an hour after writing an entire blog about my introverted side on Monday, I read this one and thought, "Wow. All 10 of these are true!" (Perhaps this is why I fall prey to so many quizzes on Facebook…)

So apparently I'm an extrovert with a dash of introversion. Or, to tweak a line from my favorite movie, I'm the worst kind. I'm high maintenance but I think I'm low maintenance.

Nah. I harbor no such delusions. I know I'm high maintenance. Which actually has nothing to do with introversion and extroversion, and everything to do with my Jersey roots. Interestingly, Gwen is from Jersey too.

Since I lack the graphic design skills (and the time and desire) to create a corresponding high maintenance/low maintenance/introvert/extrovert graphic, I will settle for enjoying the two I've found this week and accepting the fact that neither is a perfect fit. Though I'm ten for ten on this one, I stand by my original assertion that even extroverts can have a dash of introvert lurking inside them.

But since today's blog is about extroverts, I'm going to offer up a little bit of #5. If you can tell me what movie my high maintenance/low maintenance quote (in italics above) came from, I'll enter you in a drawing for a small prize. Just post the name of the movie in the comments below. And if you're ten for ten on the introvert poster, and the thought of an unnamed (small) prize makes you nervous, keep in mind that I'm a writer who sells Thirty-One. It's a pretty safe bet that your prize will fall into one of those categories.

Oh -- this week's word count from the introverted extrovert: 2040. But it's early in the day, and I hope to add a few more in between errands -- or at least get the stuff I've scrawled in longhand in my notebook into a word processing program so those words will "count" next Wednesday.

Happy Wednesday! 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Visiting Today

Happy to be featured in a lovely write-up on Marsha Hubler's blog today!

Marvelous Monday

Ahhh, Monday. Now there's a phrase you don't hear very often. But now that I'm retired, the peace and quiet on Monday morning when I'm alone in my own house, everyone else is where they're supposed to be and the and the promise of a brand new week stretches ahead…..there's nothing like it.

Don't get me wrong. I love my weekends with my family. And this past weekend was an especially busy one, filled with sister time, fun with friends and lots to do. A writers' conference on Saturday that offered the opportunity for meeting with people I usually see only on Facebook. Dinner and a show with longtime friends. Church with my choir friends, singing some fabulous Palm Sunday music.

And so today I breathe. And that's exactly what the introvert who lurks inside me needs.

"I am an introverted extrovert. That means I can show up big and shiny but am an introvert at heart."

Those who know me would laugh at the idea that I consider myself an introvert at all, but that's because I'm not introverted around them. Around friends and under certain circumstances, I am indeed big and shiny (all five feet zero inches of me). But without quiet time to recharge, I am grouchy and, well, not-so-shiny.

Most writers have at least a little bit of introvert in them. While we may get our ideas in chaotic environments, we nurture them in quiet times. Though we treasure time with friends and family, we need to balance it with time alone -- one part social, one part solitude. Each introvert has her own perfect ratio.

And so on Sundays, when my family is less-than-enthusiastic about what Monday holds, I try to keep my eagerness to myself. But I know that as soon as the door closes behind my daughter on Monday morning, I will start my day. My schedule. My routine. I will write and plan and clean and organize, though rarely all on the same Monday. I will relish the silence that seemed overwhelming those first few Mondays when all the world was occupied and I was at home defining the next stage of my life.  I will begin work on the somewhat overwhelming list of wonderful things I hope to accomplish in the next five days -- a list which usually includes coffee dates or lunch dates that keep me from becoming a hermit who works in her pajamas. I will feed the creative part of my soul in these quiet hours so that the social part of my soul is hungry when my family returns home, ready to live in this house that is my workshop for so many hours each week.

Every Monday, I begin the task of nurturing the part of me that is introverted so I can revel in the part that is extroverted. And today, it is time to begin again.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Word Count Wednesday Obstacle: Procrastination
Procrastination. I know why I do it. I certainly know how to do it (let me count the ways!) I know the reasons behind it -- or I thought I did.

Since I wanted to use facts to make this blog topic relevant to my fellow procrastinators, I pulled the file of articles I've collected on the subject, only to find that the piece I wanted wasn't in the file. So I did an Internet search and came up with a different article from the same source ("Procrastination: Ten Things to Know"), expecting to nod along with all ten descriptors.

Only I didn't.

So I went back to my web search and found a quiz, which, of course, I took. Halfway through the quiz, I started to feel better. I mean, it didn't take a clinical psychologist to figure out which descriptors indicated serious procrastination, and they truly didn't describe me. I don't save my Christmas shopping until Christmas Eve. I don't actively look for distractions. I didn't fit the descriptions for any of the three types of procrastinators. And I absolutely believe that my procrastination is part of a time management problem, something the article says is not the case. So, by the end of the quiz, I wasn't surprised to find that I didn't fall as high on the procrastination scale as I thought I might:

According to your results, you are somewhat of a procrastinator. Your score indicates that you either procrastinate significantly in a specific area (or areas) of your life, or are a moderate procrastinator overall. Whatever the case may be, this can become a serious problem.
Huh. Y'know, that's actually accurate. I procrastinate significantly when it comes to things I don't like to do (but I think that's called human nature, not procrastination). Unfortunately, I sometimes also have trouble getting started on the things I do enjoy.

The more time I have on my hands, the worse I am at getting started. When the clock is ticking, I make myself work. And before you start nodding knowingly, let me assure you that I am absolutely not motivated by a time crunch. Time crunches stress me out, and almost always lead to mistakes, so I don't do my best work under tight deadlines.

Yet it seems I need a deadline of some kind to take a task seriously. When company's coming, I clean my house. When I am teaching a class, I plan my lessons. When an editor wants a piece by a certain date, I get it written.

But when I have what feels like endless time at my disposal…that's how much time I take. Just to get started.

Which brings me to Word Count Wednesday. Early in the "week" (last Wednesday up to and including today), the deadline loomed, nudging me toward my laptop. It helped that my students are doing presentations this week, so my class preparations required less time than usual, leaving me more time to write. I composed the usual blogs and revised an article for submission, though I was a little disappointed that all those article words didn't "count" because I'd written them several years ago.

And then it was Wednesday.

Instead of celebrating the words I'd written and jumping online to report my success, I eased into the day. I checked email. I read. I visited Facebook (always a mistake when a deadline is looming). I practiced self-flagellation in the form of comparing my output to that of a fellow writer under deadline who'd written an insane number of words in one day, a number that made my measly output feel very insignificant indeed.

Finally, I began the article that I'd decided to work on today. And, as usual, it wasn't nearly as hard as I'd made it. Once I got started, I made progress bit by bit. I fought the urge to bolt from my chair when the words went into seclusion. I stayed off the Internet (mostly).

And I put close to 1000 words on the page.

The article isn't finished, but the first draft is in good shape -- for a first draft anyway. And, as I tell my students, it's easier to edit a rough draft than a blank screen. (That's conventional writer wisdom that I've heard from numerous sources, not Lisa wisdom, if, indeed, there is such a thing).
And so now, with this blog completed, my Word Count Wednesday (W-W) total is 2932.

The new week starts tomorrow, and I have no doubt it will bring all sorts of new challenges, distractions and ways to procrastinate. But I am strong. I am invincible.

I am writer.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Gift of Gab

I talk too much. Pretty sure I always have. I'm from Jersey. I talk long, fast and often.

But lately, I've been feeling self-conscious about some of my spontaneous conversation. On Saturday morning, I called the customer service department of a company I deal with frequently. Not surprisingly, I was put on hold to wait for the next available customer service representative. While that's unusual for this company, it's not unusual for a Saturday morning. So, when I got a cheerful greeting from the customer service rep who picked up the call, I said, "Well good morning! Aren't you cheerful for someone who's jammed this morning!"

Okay, admittedly "jammed" wasn't my best word choice, but I was being friendly. There wasn't a hint of sarcasm or attitude in my voice, though I'd been on hold for close to ten minutes. In a world where customer service is quickly becoming an oxymoron, I appreciate people who manage to be cheerful when things are hectic, so I thought I'd say so.

Wrong audience, apparently.

Feeling awkward, I switched gears and launched into no-nonsense business mode, since that seemed to be the appropriate tone, all the while wondering why I should feel awkward for trying to be nice.

Maybe our e-mail/text-oriented society has made conversation obsolete. Maybe my natural chatty tendencies have been exacerbated by the fact that I no longer work in a people-rich environment. Maybe I'm more annoying than I think I am.

Maybe it's all of the above.

For whatever reason, I find myself second-guessing my interactions, feeling self-conscious instead of self-confident. Should I take a "just the facts, ma'am" approach to life? Live by the adage that "silence is golden"? Or just plow on through, understanding that some people simply won't appreciate my Jersey Girl charm? (No, that's not another oxymoron.)

Well, if you know me at all, you already know the answer to that question. You're also well aware that if I even attempted one of the first two, I'd probably explode. Or implode. And although self-preservation (even at the risk of self-consciousness) is a reasonable motive, it's not the only one I have.

I like connecting with other people. I enjoy a good impromptu conversation with the barista at Starbucks, the mom at McDonald's or the cashier at Target. And while I understand those people aren't
there merely for my conversational pleasure, I also believe that in a world where we spend a great deal of time with our faces in our phones, it's important to preserve human interaction wherever we may find it. Too often, I am one of those people, checking Facebook here and e-mail there, but I try my best to put my phone away when I'm involved in a face-to-face interaction with another person (and yes, the barista, the mom and the cashier all count as other people).  

I will try to remember that not everyone has the gift of gab, and not everyone appreciates it in another person either. I will try to rein myself in when it becomes obvious that I'm involved in an interaction with someone who wishes I would just stop talking. And I'll try not to let it hurt my feelings, because really, it's kind of silly that it does.

But when it comes to doing anything other than talking long, fast and often?

Well, that's just not gonna happen.