Monday marked the start of an intentional plan to revamp my morning routine.
It all started when a friend and I started reading through Gretchen Rubin's Better than Before, a perceptive exploration of the art of changing and mastering habits.
What sets Rubin's book apart from other works I've read on the topic is she breaks down habit formation and maintenance into strategies that appeal to different personality types. And she doesn't just talk about habits--she talks about the games we play with ourselves before, during and after changing our routine. She talks about the mental loopholes we come up with, the things we miss about old, bad habits, the underpinning tendrils that seem to keep us connected to old habits even after we've successfully adopted new ones. The result is a book that's packed with insight and fresh ideas about making changes in your life.
Early in the book, Rubin suggests determining a few things in your life you'd like to change--either new habits you'd like to adopt, or old habits you'd like to quit.
The biggest and hardest thing I wanted to change was developing a morning routine.
Back in the day, for all of college and my first two years of graduate school, I was a master of morning routine. I did the important things first, before they got a chance to fall through the cracks of the rest of the day--working out, prayer and meditation, eating a good breakfast, things like that.
Then, I don't know... I started my PhD, I moved overseas, I started my dissertation and got married and started freelancing and... Somehow, all of these things contributed to me basically losing all semblance of a morning rhythm. There were other factors, too. Like, we got a really comfortable bed that is honestly just more appealing than anything else in my apartment. And, more recently, my work schedule changed so that it isn't the same every week day--some days, I have to leave by 8AM to go to the office, other days I'm home all day. Over the last year, I'd tricked myself into believing that because of this very minor schedule variation, a consistent morning routine would be impossible.
But I want and need this to change for a lot of reasons.
First, I just need to be a bit more productive during the day. The pace of editing and writing has been picking up the last few months--which is a good thing--and I want to rise to meet it. I can't afford to languish my way through half the morning in a daze.
Even more importantly, over the last few years I've learned that my biggest depression trigger is not being active in the mornings. I don't know what it is, but if I don't consistently manage to get a moderate workout in within 1-2 hours of waking up, I ruminate and stress all day. If I'm not careful, this will continue for weeks and eventually culminate in full-fledged depression. It doesn't matter if I work out later in the day--if I miss the morning window, my emotional red flags go up.
Do I like working out when it's still dark out and most people are still tucked cozily in bed? (Ha... I'll pretend you didn't just ask that.) Of course I don't, it sucks the vast majority of the time. How something so unpleasant can have anti-depressant qualities is beyond me. But I try to be grateful. This is something I have full control over, and that's a gift--as long as I work out in the mornings, depression isn't an issue for me.
Emphasis on the "as long as I..." part, because that's where I run into trouble, obviously.
And so, Rubin's book inspired me to sit down and crunch the numbers--and the priorities. I realized that it only takes me two hours to do everything I want to be able to do in the morning. There's no reason why I can't keep the same routine on "office" days as on "at-home" days--6AM (for me at least) is not too early to wake up on weekdays. This would allow for a 45-60 minute workout, as well as enough time for prayer/meditation, getting ready and grabbing a quick breakfast.
The next step to changing things was understanding what was standing in my way. (I mean, besides the fact that my bed is just inordinately comfortable.)
As I reflected on the way I've been "doing mornings" lately, I realized that I sabotage my own efforts all the time. I'll "forget" to buy breakfast food at the grocery store, so my "workout" turns into a relaxed walk to the grocery store or Tim Horton's for morning vittles. I'll be "too tired" some evening to wash my fitness clothes and reason that surely I don't need to work out the next day. I'll save some really urgent work task to do quickly in the morning before working out, and before I know it I've been sucked in to stress, tasks and my email inbox, and I can't go work out when I'm bogged down by that kind of anxiety.
In short, I seem to do almost anything I can to make structured, meaningful morning rituals as hectic and inconvenient as possible.
"But at least I have my morning coffee," I reminded myself. "That never changes--maybe I can build on that." When I started my PhD in 2009, I'd gotten into this routine of drinking coffee first thing out of bed. At the time, I needed the caffeine to fuel PhD-level learning, but I've since switched to decaf. Even still, getting myself a mug of something hot is the first thing I do (read: persuade my husband to do for me). So, yes, maybe this staple routine had potential. But the more I thought, it occurred to me that this habit might be part of the problem. For some reason, once I have that warm mug in my hand, my brain goes into languishing/contemplative mode. Sometimes I stare out the window for half an hour. Other times I'm seized by some random idea for a blog post, which gets me caught up in inspired writing for an hour or two--though my inspiration inevitably fades, and I never do much with these frenzied posts anyway. Whatever the case, I move at a much slower pace through my morning, and can't seem to really get into the groove. I'm almost never productive during this time, and feel kind of like I am stuck in a Bermuda Triangle, waiting for the actual day to begin. This was the opposite of what I needed to be doing: getting up and getting moving.
I realized if I wanted to do my morning routine right, I'd have to give up my morning hot cup of goodness. Luckily, caffeine wasn't the issue--it was just the ritual I'd miss. But I could always have some tea later, when I started my work and could enjoy it in a non-restless, non-Bermuda Triangle kind of way.
And so, on Saturday, I made a schedule and taped it to my bathroom mirror--just in case, you know, I was wondering what to do if I actually managed to start waking up at 6AM. Then on Sunday, I made sure there were quick breakfast ready foods in the fridge and hung a week's worth of workout clothes on the hook in my bathroom for early morning convenience. Prep time: less than 20 minutes. Being ready to face a week of early mornings: priceless? (Yes that is a question mark. I refuse to attach an exclamation mark to anything that involves doing actual things at 6AM.)
So, how's it going so far?
DAY 1: Well, Monday was a success. I moved so quickly through the appointed activities that I finished a half hour ahead of schedule--go me! The morning was more refreshing and clarifying than I expected--I was barely groggy or bitter at all about the whole ordeal. But I found myself slightly off kilter later in the day. I think I am just not used to life being that fast-paced in the mornings. This feeling was compounded by the fact that Monday and Tuesday were extremely busy days, schedule-wise.
DAY 2: Also relatively successful, though a last-minute schedule change that I found out about Monday night forced me to be out of the apartment by 7:30 rather than 8AM, which ate into my routine and made things a bit hectic. I still managed, but I still had that off-kilter feeling--like my head was kind of spinning. Part of it is my unusually busy schedule this week, but I wondered if this new morning routine was also giving me extra energy and/or anxiety. Something to watch for.
DAY 3: Today, mindful of the off-kilter feelings I'd been having the last two days, I allowed myself to sleep in an extra 20 minutes or so. I went through my full routine, but at a slightly more relaxed pace. Part of me felt guilty--I kept hearing the voice of Gretchen Rubin in my head, reminding me that absolute consistency is key when building a new habit. But it's what I needed. The rest of the week will be more fast-paced-ness and evening meetings, so I'll have to be careful to get enough rest if I want this routine to work.
I'm writing about all of this because I know that it's the best way to reinforce this new, good thing I'm trying to do for myself. I have to share what I'm going through with others and "stick with it" by making my struggle a part of reality.
That said, I'll check back in next and let you know how it's going!
The gates of summer have opened.
In our household, this is a time for vacations, barbecues, birthday dinners, and long weekends (and... apparently long-and-drawn-out soccer tournaments??? #Iwantmyhusbandback).
On the professional side of things, for academics and post-acs, it's also a time to refocus and clarify writing goals. This is particularly true for the many professors across the northern hemisphere who are coming up on semester- or year-long sabbaticals. For them, the start of summer is a time to map out the coming months (and months!) of research and writing.
A number of my friends and clients fall into this category. Over the coming weeks, I'll be starting new programs with some of them, setting up attainable action plans to sustain their writing through the largely unstructured vista of a sabbatical.
So, these first few weeks of summer, I've been revising and reflecting on some of the questions I ask clients who are trying to manage large, long-term writing projects. One thing I've been thinking about is the difference between being productive and feeling productive.
Being productive is important for us writerly folks, especially when our livelihood depends on writing (whether directly by getting paid for our work, or indirectly via tenure and promotion requirements).
As difficult as it is to be a "productive writer" (whatever that is), I think it is even more important--and often more difficult--to feel productive. To have a sense of what one has accomplished each day or working session, and a sense of how all these tiny, daily accomplishments are contributing to the bigger picture. Perhaps a more actionable way of describing this is being mindful of our accomplishments.
In this day and age, it seems counter-intuitive to stress feeling productive over actually being productive.
Isn't the path towards a sense of accomplishment simply doing more, writing more, accomplishing more? My experiences both writing and working with writers suggests it's the exact opposite. To be productive in the long term, we have to feel it--we have to be mindful of our productivity.
Feeling productive fuels more consistent and effectual working habits, which in turn can yield a greater number and quality of finished writing projects.
When our draft writing becomes haunted by aimlessness, purposelessness or a perceived lack of progress, it will eventually grow stale--it's not a matter of if.
It starts to seem like the whole writing process is some intractable conflict against circuitousness, like we are at the mercy of ideas, sources, dialogues that are outside of our control. We forget that we are in charge of our writing and our arguments--not the other way around. We are the ones building them from the ground up.
Being aware of what you have accomplished--whether on an hourly, daily or weekly basis-- trains your mind to think in a nuanced, goal-oriented way about even the smaller and more mundane aspects of your project.
The more these mental muscles are worked, you start to gain a new set of eyes when you look at your material. This kind of vision helps you sit down to a document or MS Word file folder and see meaningful steps and strategies that are adding up to something tangible, rather than the chaos of disconnected thoughts and aimless writing sessions. This increasing ability to see the opportunities to "chunkify" and strategize in turn leads to more efficient project management, and can also help strengthen the conceptual connections between the various arguments and ideas in your writing.
The awareness I'm talking about is hard to cultivate. It involves striking a tricky balance between being mindful of the smaller building blocks of your larger project on the one hand, while also not getting sucked into the details/ minutia/ ennui that tend to accompany a work in progress.
It is most difficult to find this balance in the middle of a project, when we're "on the ground," so to speak. At the beginning or end of long-term projects, by contrast, it is easier to process our project metacognitively--to fly above what we're doing and take a bird's eye inventory of where we're going, what we're aiming at. In the beginning we do this by way of planning and strategizing, and at the end we do this in a reflective, tying-up-loose ends kind of way.
As difficult as it may be to feel productive, we can and should work on it. This is why the start of summer can be such an important juncture. Many of us are stepping out of old loops and into new ones--starting new projects, new routines, new habits. When starting a project, we can intentionally seek to incorporate mindfulness and awareness habits into our work rhythms. Some of these habits can focus on recognizing and reflecting on specific, tangible accomplishments we have already made within that particular writing projects.
Over the next month or so, I'll be posting further thoughts, tips and reflections on how to nourish a sense of accomplishment in writing, and how to channel this into stronger writing habits and outcomes.
And if you are one of those lucky souls and entering your first official weeks/ months of sabbatical, I wish you lots of clear thinking and inspiration!
The other morning, I awoke to a startling set of pictures strewn across my Facebook feed.
Do you ever find out things via social media that you wish you could have found out about in a more private, sensitive way? This was one of those things for me.
The images were not from someone's obituary, or a celebrity death announcement, or a mass shooting. They were of something that, perhaps to any other person, would seem trivial.
A dusty piano, over a hundred years old, whose middle-register keys had subtle indentations in the top from decades and decades of play time.
You couldn't see the indentations from the pictures, but I knew they were there. My fingers had helped make them. This was the piano I had learned to play on. We bought it for $50 nearly 25 years ago; to pick it up, we drove far into the country, to an old farmhouse. It was huge, a sprawling upright made of heavy spruce, with carved wooden pillars holding up the keyboard.
At the time, I was several months into piano lessons and my teacher was adamant: I needed a piano at home to practice on. Both my brothers would also take up piano eventually, but I alone stuck with it even when we were no longer required to by our parents.
Of course, I learned more than musical technique in these practice sessions.
I've tried thinking of how to write this in a dozen different ways, all of them sound just as cliche as the last. So I'll just say it. Some learn beauty from nature, some from church or coloring books or a pet or fingerpainting or collecting leaves in autumn.
I learned beauty from some of those things, but mostly I learned if from my piano.
That piano is what taught me hope is a muscle that can be exercised. My childhood wasn't always very easy (is anyone's); piano gave me a space where I could occasionally turn my back on whatever darkness there was and stare into the dimly lit pages of a Beethoven sonata.
If you don't learn beauty when you are young, it is not always an easy skill to acquire later.
But, young or old, everyone needs beauty. Without it, we whither.
Which is why the Facebook pictures were hard for me to see. They were, as photographs of pianos go, rather gruesome--parts and pedals strewn about pell mell, like a dismembered corpse. A family member had begun taking the piano apart so my parents could finally get rid of it--it hadn't been played in years. Given how large the piano was, this was evidently a monumental undertaking, and pictures were constantly being posted of the progress.
Of course, I've known for years they would get rid of it. The piano had sat unplayed in a dusty corner of the house for most of a decade, since I moved out. Still, no one had called to let me know.
The unexpected grief of it all hit me in the gut. I had all of these strange thoughts throughout the day. While washing dishes, for example, I suddenly wondered whether pianos go to heaven--as far as instruments go, mine was a saint. Later, I wished I could have held the piano's had while it was torn apart--like you'd hold the hand of a dying. I don't even know how you'd hold a piano's hand, but I had this urge to. It was weird.
We live in a digital society that is growing less attached to the thing-ness of objects, particularly non-device objects. So it is strange when, all of the sudden, we find ourselves grieving something that is old and clunky and dusty and altogether not very sleek.
But I did, I grieved.
I grieved the way the keys felt like cold marble under my fingers. I grieved the way I used to be able to lose track of time, as children do, caught up in music making without any specific objective in mind. I grieved how I used to live in those songs, as though they were entire worlds of possibility, and the way they filled me with meaning that was bigger and grander than just myself playing. I grieved my levity, my focus, my imagination--life as an adult feels much more scattered than it did then. Plain and simply, I grieved my childhood.
There is a part of writing, I think, that is about reclaiming. Revisiting the simplicity of play and meaning-making and curiosity and beauty. These are things we (hopefully) learn as children and will spend the rest of our lives trying to re-learn, because they will float away from us as wisps of music drift down an empty hallway. Writing puts words to that re-learning, and in doing so, brings the eyes of our childhood into the present.
I no longer play piano as much as I used to, even though I have a nice digital in our apartment. But the other night, as the sun was setting, I sat down and played Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata and Bach's Prelude in C Major. The evening sky provided just enough light to see the keys, the air was peaceful and mild as only an languid, summer night can be.
And as I played, I remembered. And I was grateful.
Now that you've read the title of this post, you probably think I'm going to be talking about worry. Anxiety. "Apprehension." And how to make something beautiful out of it.
Come to think of it, that would make a really good post. Or poem. And given the degree to which I do stress about things, I should figure out a way to make art of it.
But alas, worry is only one definition of the word apprehension--here are the remaining four, i.e. what I'm actually going to be talking about today:
Where do I begin?
So, this feels kind of weird to admit, but a while back I started one of those gratitude journals. Hopefully you know what I'm talking about--basically just a regular notebook whose sole purpose is to serve as a record of thankfulness.
The fact that I nearly gagged writing that last sentence should indicate you that I am not the most grateful person by nature. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy the IDEA of being, but when it comes to reality, I'm more likely to stress, gripe and poetically lament my way through life. This has often served me well--my lack of thankfulness has fed (or been fed by?) my perfectionism, which got me through three post-secondary degrees. Over the years, my subtle ingratitude has also helped hone a delightfully dry sarcasm that I like to think has brought joy (and possibly a degree of dark existentialism) to those around me.
Probably, I would have been content to live in my ingratitude forever except... I have a priest.
And one time, several years ago already, this pointed out that I seem to have trouble with thankfulness and maybe I should try building gratitude into my life. As a practice. A ritual. Until it becomes a part of me, which may take my whole life.
He suggested that every night, before falling asleep, I recall three things from my day to be thankful for.
The first night I tried this was lackluster. I kept having this problem that the memories of things I was grateful for just didn't seem as "real" or palpable in my mind as the more stressful events of the day. They'd just float away like wisps of a wind against the darker, more grounding storm clouds of (cynical) realism.
By the second night, it became too difficult to be thankful and stressed at the same time, and somehow the stress won out. For like, several years thereafter.
Then, recently, I was talking about this to a friend, who suggested that instead of just "thinking" about things to be grateful for, I write them down, bullet-point style.
I didn't need to "reflect" on them in writing, I didn't even need to extensively write my way into a certain feeling. Just write down the items, one-by-one and be done with it. Every day.
"It's different than just thinking," she assured me.
She was right. Writing the items down--even just in key words or phrases rather than full sentences--is a total game changer.
By writing these events down, I started connecting with them as real, immediate things that actually happened--not just a mental spin or wishful thinking. I started recalling these events more vividly than I otherwise would have, even days or weeks after they happened.
Coincidentally, around the time I started keeping track of gratitude points, I also started an idea book. Just a small, purse-sized notebook to carry around and write thoughts down in--as they occur to me. It's a suggestion I picked up in William Powers' Hamlet's Blackberry. I spend a lot of time on the subway and other places where serious writing is impractical, but sometimes those are also the most inspiring, creative places for me, oddly. So anyway, I started giving myself permission to jot down loose ideas, words, phrases in the moment so I don't forget them.
This turned out to be an incredibly useful habit. In fact, it seems that certain writing projects and stages of writing are actually better done by single words, thoughts, lists here and there. For example, this little notebook is where I brainstorm future episode topics for a podcast I do--it's also where I keep a running list of ideas for this blog. I've written snippets of poetry, random observations, books I'd like to read, subjects I'd like to google when next at my desk. I don't know how to quantify these results, but ever since I started the idea book, I have this growing sense that less is falling through the cracks of my own forgetfulness.
I think what the idea book has in common with my newest stab at gratitude is that both rely on writing to apprehend events and ideas that are important to me. The content that fills our everyday perceptions just whizzes by on autopilot much of the time. Like a sunbeam lights up bits of dust swimming around in the air, writing things down allows me to pluck shining bits of light from the disparate particles swirling around in my consciousness.
If I had to make a maxim out of it, I'd say to comprehend, you must first apprehend. But there is an art to apprehension, as I'm slowly learning.
There's a diligence about it, but not one that is hard and heavy--I bring the idea book with me most of the time, but don't force myself to use it if it's not a creative day on the subway. There's a mindfulness about it, and a forgetfulness--I write down something I'm grateful for, but then move on without forcing myself to feel grateful or constantly hold the memory in my mind. There's a treasuring, storing-it-all-up aspect about it, but also a distance, a not-getting-too-sucked-in-to-any-one-idea.
This way of thinking and writing has been foreign to me for most of my life. When I write, I usually feel a pressure to really sit down and write properly. As a result, there have been many occasions when I refrained from putting a thought into words unless I had the time and creativity to write a five-point essay about it, i.e. to fully bring it to fruition all at once, in all the grandeur of full sentences and paragraphs. My approach to journaling worked along similar lines--why sit down to write about a life unless I'm committed to writing in extreme detail about it.
Jotting ideas down here and there felt too loose-y goose-y, too noncommittal for a serious writer and thinker. What if I never came back to them? What if they never added up to anything? What if it made me lazy as a writer and thinker? With gratefulness, there was a deeper worry: what if I was just being delusional?
These worries have faded over time, because both practices have reaped--and continue to reap--beneficial paradigm shifts in the way I view writing and to some degree life in general.
So, in a roundabout way, I suppose this is a post about making something beautiful about the more angst-riddled meaning of apprehension.
Do you have any apprehension-style writing practices? How have they helped you?
One of the sadder facts of life is that we tend to see others' errors more quickly and readily than our own. The tiny speck in our neighbor's eye is almost always more apparent than the gaping 2x4 sticking out of our own.
Nowhere is this more true than writing and editing.
How many times have you written something and polished it to a shine, only to find a glaring mistake the very next time you look at it? (Which, by the way, is usually after you've sent it off to the hiring committee or client or professor.) A misplaced comma, an embarrassing spelling faux pas (wait, did I spell that right?), or worse... These are mistakes we would have spotted in a heartbeat in anyone else's writing except, for some reason, our own.
When I first started working as a freelance editor, part of me hoped this would magically change. I imagined that, over time, I'd get so good at editing that I'd simply stop making mistakes. Or at least stop making so blasted many of them.
This had less to do with an inflated view of my abilities and more to do with the fact that I find it extremely difficul to give myself permission to screw up, grammatically or otherwise.
Well, I have news: I still make mistakes when I write. What's more: I still make mistakes when I edit what I write.
(Anecdotal) studies show that this tendency will most likely never end, no matter how long I hang my shingle out as an editor. I have friends and colleagues who have been in the biz much longer than I have. They report staggeringly consistent findings: despite being editors, they too, have managed to retain the quality of being actual human beings, and are thus still prone to mistakes.
I'm reminded of this whenever I read Boldface, the official blog for the local branch of our national editor's association (actually, it should be "editors' association" but I'm leaving the original error in there to affirm the message of this post! Feel free to send me hate mail about it--I'm cringing too.) Anyway. Nearly every post on Boldface concludes with a tiny byline: "This article was copy edited by..." And the person that follows is always different than the author of the post--even if the original author is, by trade, a copy editor.
Because we are most blind to our own mistakes, no matter who we are or what hat we wear in our professional lives. Part of this, I'm convinced, is a defense mechanism. I spend more time with myself than with any other person, which means if I were totally aware of my own mistakes, life would probably be miserable. Instead, our minds have learned to filter out a lot of our mistakes in order to function.
The downside is, well, even when we want to see our mistakes, sometimes we can't. And others can.
It's easy to get bent out of shape by this embarrassing reality.
But I think we can also chose to see it as something that deepens our communities and relationships. I need others to help me put my best self out there, whether that means streamlining my verbiage in an important business letter, or correcting a syntax error on my website, or calling me out when I say something rude, or reminding me to stop being so hard on myself all the time.
I need others to help me with this, and they need me, and our lives are made richer by that mutuality.
And although I used to harbor secret fantasies of being a perfect writer/ editor/ grammatician, making mistakes in my own writing actually makes me a better editor of others' work. It keeps me from being some high and lofty goddess of grammar, who issues lightning bolts after every run-on sentence. Like other editors I'm acquainted with, I know first-hand what it's like to struggle and wrestle through chronic writing imperfections. I know from the ease with which mistakes happen on the page, and how important an impartial set of eyes is. And I do the best job I can so my clients can feel confident in their--and my--work.
Making errors, becoming aware of them, revising, self-editing, and all the frustrations that writing entails--these things help me hone important skills over a whole lifetime.
All of that being said... Although we can never get to a place of total perfection, it is possible to reduce the amount of mistakes we make in writing, or train our eyes to catch more of our own errors before handing our work off to others.
Next week, I'll highlight a few of these tricks to illuminate mistakes that often seem invisible at first glance. Stay tuned!
Writer's Loom Blog
In praise of tight writing in a world of loose ends.