What does a high school student need to survive and thrive in today's world? A snappy-looking three-ring binder and color-coordinated folders can only take you so far in life. So, welcome to my first “Small Ways” post in a while.Read More
I’m obsessed with helping people. I’m not a doctor, therapist, convenience store clerk, park ranger, or general contractor, however – so I can’t help you with your foot fungus, daddy issues, lotto habit, insatiable botanical curiosity, or basement renovation. What I am is a writer, editor, and natural-born teacher with a tremendous work ethic and an innate desire to help the world be as lovely and humane a place as possible. So my blog is focused on sharing small lessons I’ve learned: small ways to be a better writer, a better worker, and a better human.
Writers always want to know how other writers write: what their routines are, what recommendations they have, how they come up with their ideas, and what tips they've picked up over the years.Read More
As we collectively attempt to embark on Taking Breaks from Work in honor of celebrating the holidays with our families and friends, I take a break from my own pre-holiday workload to admonish you: SERIOUSLY, TAKE A DAMN BREAK this holiday season. Do it like you mean it. Do it like Santa is real, and he'll remove a present from underneath the tree every time you sneak back into your work email to "just take care of one thing real quick." Do it like you're being scored on how good you're doing at being "on break," and a bad score will transform itself into an extended bout of toilet-embracing food poisoning brought on by Aunt Edna's under-cooked meatloaf. Do it like Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is standing behind you, waiting to smilingly pummel you at the slightest mention of spreadsheets, wireframes, project deadlines, client calls, pursuits, upcoming meetings, or even mere P-R-O-D-U-C-T-I-V-I-T-Y.
We are trained to push ourselves hard. In modern society, being a "hard worker" is a badge of honor — something you trumpet at the very top of your resume. Increasingly, in our technology-riddled daily lives, we're conditioned to believe work should never end.
I am a hard worker, and I'm generally quite proud of it. It means I'm doing right by my colleagues and clients. It means I'm trustworthy, and it means people can ultimately count on me to deliver on my commitments. If you too are a hard worker, you too should be proud of yourself. But the thing is, being a hard worker — especially one who doesn't give him or herself occasional and genuine breaks from said work — doesn't always mean we're always doing right by ourselves.
If you ask anyone I've ever supervised or trained, they'll readily tell you that I regularly berated them to Take Breaks. (In my nice, well-meaning-big-sister-to-everyone sort of way, of course.) Which is why it's summarily hilarious that I'm often terrible at letting myself take breaks.
When it comes to working, I sometimes push myself too hard. I'll metaphorically chain myself to my computer for hours at a time. I'll forego doing things that matter to my personal life in favor of doing whatever it is that will help me feel Accomplished and Satisfied about my work-related To Do list. While that kind of behavior undeniably shows a strong work ethic, it's also undeniably nonsense. It's not healthy. It leaves me occasionally feeling like a failure in the personal realm. It doesn't help me cultivate a feeling of inner balance or peace — rather, it often throws me into a sad-faced panic when, at the end of the day, I realize all the things I neglected to do FOR MYSELF.
I'm always telling myself to take more breaks. I'm also still failing regularly at it. But I'm proud of the fact that I've been doing a little better over the past couple weeks. And I'm very proud of the fact that John and I have sworn to one another that — when we head to Isla Mujeres, Mexico, for our own holiday/family vacation — we're not even bringing our damn computers.
So, this holiday season, do yourself a favor and TAKE A TRUE BREAK. Use the opportunity to remind yourself how genuinely beneficial breaks are for our bodies, our minds, our souls, and our relationships with the people around us. When you come back from your break, remind yourself to take breaks during your regular, non-holiday-themed life, too. Breaks bring us back to ourselves — to a core that still exists outside of who we are in our professional lives. Breaks let us breathe. So, this holiday season, give yourself the best gift ever: an honest-to-goodness break.
With that said, I'm taking my own advice and signing off for the holidays. Look for my next post-Mexico blog on Wednesday, January 17. I hope you all have the best holiday breaks imaginable, with no questionable meatloaf anywhere in sight.
Listen to other people. Don't just act like you're listening. Really listen — to the advice they give, the ideas they have, and the things they feel it's important to tell you.
My life is a better place because I finally figured out that I myself don't always have all the right answers about it. For example, just over a year ago, my amazing and wonderful fiancé, John, told me something important and I listened. He helped me see a truth about myself and my life that I wouldn't have seen otherwise. Listening to what he had to say helped me change my life, start a new business, and set myself on a path to living a life I'm vastly better-suited to living.
This advice applies no matter who you are and what you're doing. It applies whether you're successful or struggling, whether you think you've got your shit together or you absolutely know you don't.
One of my clients is a successful entrepreneur. He readily admits that one of the primary reasons for his success is that, at some point, he learned to listen to other people. He now makes it his business to ask for help and advice from all the smartest people he can find. Listening to sound counsel is exactly what helps him thrive.
Listening is also incredibly important as we navigate this eternally insane political climate. We're never going to get anywhere if we don't listen to one another, and really try to understand what those who hold opposing views are saying. It's hard to do sometimes. I readily admit that. But we should all keep trying.
So, next time you want to interrupt someone or tune them out, try listening instead. It's not that much to ask. I can't promise it will always yield something of life-changing or success-generating value. But I can say that, if you genuinely listen, it sometimes just might.
Most adults rarely make time for play. Improv comedians and childcare professionals aside, most of us don't let ourselves indulge. In addition, we're so freaked out by the day-to-day realities of our world that we rarely let our children out of our sight. We're losing the ability to play, and, in many cases, preventing our kids from learning to do it properly in the first place.
We should all be playing more. Playing can be how we learn — how we help our brains grow.
Several years ago, I saw author Michael Chabon speak on the topic of "play" — as in, making room for play in our lives and our children's lives so that our imaginations learn to play. (To be clear, I'm paraphrasing something I heard nearly a decade ago, but I think this was the gist of it.) He talked about his own childhood: Of his gold-toned memories of taking off on his bike for hours at a time, inhabiting worlds of his own creation and becoming the hero or conqueror of each. Of the amazing freedom he — and his imagination — came to know and love as a result. As an adult, Chabon could write amazing, fantastical books because, as a child, his imagination had learned to play.
Chabon transposed these memories with the modern-day reality of his own young daughter at the same age. He and his wife were loath to let her ride her bike anywhere alone. Even permitting her to ride solo to the convenience store just around the corner was enough to give them heart palpitations: TOO MANY THINGS could happen. So where would her self-created worlds be built? Only created under parental or adult supervision? Would she be hero or conqueror of anything beyond the confines of the interior of their San Francisco home? It wasn't the same as what he'd been allowed. It wasn't fair.
Chabon posed a very real conundrum: in an unsafe, stress-laden world filled with dangers seen and unseen, how can we retain the ability to play freely... so that our imaginations, too, have room to roam?
Again, the fact is, we rarely do. Most of the time, our lives lack imagination or play. Day to day, our self-created worlds are largely lined with taupe office cubicles, cleaning supplies for body and home, chores and work to be done, routines to be gotten through, and maybe, if we're lucky, some Netflix or a meal out on the town. We're missing out on a ton of good ideas that our brains aren't given the freedom to have.
I'm not here to prescribe a play regimen for you. That's the exact opposite of the goal of getting YOUR imagination to do some work. I'm just here to say: encourage yourself to break out of your routine from time to time. Make yourself leave the house without a plan, and *come up with one*. And if you've got kids, try to find safe avenues to give their imaginations more room to play. But for goodness sake, try to think beyond Minecraft, Candy Crush, or anything you play on a gaming system. I'm not saying that's not valid play; just that you should challenge yourself and your kids to get outside and inhabit worlds of your own creation.
To get you started, you might think of some of the ways you used to love to play when you were a kid, and start there. Whatever you do, if you feel a little ridiculous as you're doing it, you're probably on the right track.
I'm not talking about the gifts we feel obliged to give: the Christmas gifts, the birthday gifts, the wedding and baby shower gifts. Don't get me wrong, those are all lovely gifts and eminently worth giving. But they are, in one sense or another, required of us.
I'm talking about gifts that are purely elective. No occasion needed, with nothing expected in return. Gifts you give simply because you feel like it — for the sheer pleasure of being able to give someone something that will bring them joy.
The gifts I mean don't have to be big or showy. Some exceptionally excellent gifts aren't even material objects. For example, you can give gifts of time, work, experiences, or even trust. And some material gifts don't cost money. For example, you can give things you've treasured to others so that they have the opportunity to treasure them. (I have many friends and family members who have gifted me the literal shirts off their back. Molly L., I'll never forget how I loved that yellow butterfly/pony t-shirt. Amy N., I wore your purple dress again just this past Monday. Dom C., John still wears that Nuggets hoodie all the freaking time. I could go on.)
Sometimes the smallest, most unexpected gifts are the best ones. An extra cookie you bring back for a coworker. A hilarious novelty pen that made you think of them. A flower. A joke you thought they'd like. A photograph where they look amazing. Something you wrote for them. Doing the dishes while they're not looking. Volunteering to go to the grocery store for something they said they needed.
Why am I telling you to give gifts? Practicing the art of giving helps us actively remember the people around us, and to actively think about how we can make small contributions that add to their lives. To think of them, period.
Thanksgiving is tomorrow, which generally means the opportunity to spend time with some of the people we love most. I hereby issue a challenge: choose one person you know you'll see tomorrow, and come up with a small, unexpected gift you can give them. It's ThanksGIVING, y'all. It will feel good. (Much better than how you'll feel after you've again overstuffed yourself.)
If I took a survey of the working population of the Western world — including, of course, all the incredibly hard-working stay-at-home parents out there — I'm fairly certain the majority would agree with the following statement: "I have more work than I can handle."
Why is having an overfull plate the norm? Right now, I myself have a decent excuse: I'm a new freelancer, and I'm still in the process of learning and deciding what Red Pencil should contain. But the sad fact is that this isn't a new problem for me. Except during the blissful decade I spent as a competently multi-tasking and oddly content pub or restaurant waitress — years in which I felt rather miraculously like I had time for well nigh everything — I've often taken on more than I could handle. When something falls outside my skillset, that's a different story: I'm quick to raise my hand and find the right help. Apparently, however, I have a small but nagging need to be a hero when it comes to anything I *should* be able to do.
During my time training or managing others, I gave exemplary advice: "Raise your hand when you've got too much work on your plate. Push back when people ask for unreasonable things in unreasonable timeframes. Don't be a superhero. Remember the importance of preserving your own sanity. Defend your right to your own time." I was even good at helping them to push back, reset expectations, and find a better way forward. So why can't I take my own damn advice?
This blog is not intended to answer that question. Instead, it's intended as a helpful reminder to me myself, as well as anyone else who suffers from a similar malaise, that sometimes it's best to simply acknowledge your limitations. It's not a weakness to say, "I'm full up." In fact, it's a strength, because acknowledging our limitations is yet another way we grow both personally and professionally. Be humbled, be honest with yourself and others about what you can and can't do, and move on.
I hereby humbly acknowledge that this lesson is going to be a hard one for me to implement. Like Popeye, sometimes, "I YAM WHAT I YAM." So are you. But the truth remains: who you are, and what you can do, is more than enough.
I'll get better, inch by inch. For example, instead of beating myself up over not having something amazing to write about for this week's blog, I'm just writing about what's on my mind... which just so happens to be the increasingly pressing need to acknowledge my own damn limitations. ;)
Well, if it didn't look quite so overlong as a title, I'd make it say, "GIVE THE BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT MORE OFTEN THAN NOT." Because I truly do get that there are plenty of situations when giving someone the benefit of the doubt is *not* the best idea. (For example, when I imagine someone holding a gun to my face, I don't think to myself, "Oh, whoops, I'm probably misunderstanding this person's intentions." In addition, there are many politicians who are likely never to receive the benefit of various deep pools of my doubt.)
In general, however, most of the people you come across mean you no harm or ill will. So even if and when you do have reason to doubt their good intentions, it's the right way forward to give them the benefit of the doubt regardless.
When we allow someone the benefit of the doubt, we give them a gift. The gift is a way forward that doesn't leave us pissed off, thinking badly of them, and disinclined to give them the benefit of the doubt in the future. Because, let's face it, if you've decided to mistrust someone, that's a decision that's hard to come back from.
Most of the divisions between people could be healed or at least helped by both parties simply giving the other the benefit of the doubt. Instead, we apparently prefer to assume people are idiots, or evil, or out to get us. Stop thinking that. Instead, assume good, and see what happens. How much worse can it get? What, really, is there to lose?
If it's in your nature to doubt and fear and mistrust, then my advice is to practice giving the benefit of the doubt more often. Instead of thinking, "Oh, that asshole just cut me off because he's clearly an asshole," try thinking, "Well that was totally uncool, but maybe he's not feeling well today, or he just found out he lost his job or that his mom has cancer. So maybe he didn't mean to act like an asshole." You not only get to drive on in a less singularly pissed-off frame of mind, but you've also flexed your kindness muscle in a very real way. You can drive on thinking, "And I'm not so bad myself."
My whole life I've been a champion for bright-siding. Accentuating the positive. Seeing the best in people wherever and whenever possible. I'm certain there have been occasions when it hasn't been deserved. But I know my life has been better, fuller, and happier because, generally speaking, I choose to trust that people are more good than bad.
Try trusting. If it doesn't work, I'll be sorry to hear it. But I'll just say again: try trusting.
How often do you allow yourself to sit still? And by "sit still" I mean:
- You're not watching anything.
- You're not reading anything.
- You're not looking at anything on your smart phone or your computer.
- You're not talking to anyone.
- You're not sitting still only because you're waiting for something (e.g., a bus, a doctor's appointment, a stoplight to change, the sandwich you ordered for lunch).
If you're sitting still, you are literally sitting somewhere, silent and unmoving. You are breathing and perhaps thinking, but nothing more. You are sufficing with simple existence. You expect nothing and plan nothing. You just... sit.
Why is it important to let yourself sit still? When we sit still, we enjoy a rare moment alone with ourselves. We have a chance to let our brains and our bodies be unchallenged and at rest, to quietly process the events of our days or our lives, and to simply look around and be where we are now as opposed to worrying about what's going on everywhere else.
Many people use meditation for this purpose. But I'll admit, "meditation" is too ambitious a concept for me. When I attempt to "meditate," I invariably get frustrated at my inability to stay in the elusive "zone" they speak of. When they say "focus on your breath," my brain seems to mistake that as a command to initiate feverish ping-ponging thoughts about anything and everything. So I have given up (for the time being, at least) on meditating in exchange for regularly giving myself permission to sit still.
This is #2 in line, however, because this one — sitting still and doing nothing — is also incredibly difficult for me. First off, heredity isn't on my side. My parents are both notoriously unable to sit still except in the rarest of situations. (Just ask anyone who's ever tried to get my mom to sit down to watch the entirety of a movie, or anyone who's ever tried to keep my dad content when he's not assured ready access to some highly useful project or another.) On evenings and weekends, I can't help constantly self-assigning projects. "Sitting still" outside almost invariably turns into a pressing need to pull visible weeds or go back inside to take care of that one thing I just thought of. Second, I'm an inveterate achiever. I can't stand days when I don't Get Something Done. It makes me disappointed in myself. So I'm trying to initiate a re-branding of "sitting still" as a worthwhile achievement in and of itself.
This week, my body forced me to sit still. My body got sick. I've frequently felt that my body does this precisely when I've been pushing myself too hard. It regards the self-imposed stress and unforgiving schedule and says, "Nuh-uh, honey, I don't think so. That's enough." And so I finally listen — in part because I have no choice — sitting still and letting that be enough.
The other thing is that I've started to think of some fairly good stuff when I let myself sit still. No world-shaking inventions or ideas — just things that make me smile, make me inspired, make me laugh, or make me fully aware of what a beautiful life and family I've built for myself. And in the big picture, that's better for my well-being than anything I can watch, read, scroll through, or hear from anyone else.
For the next handful of blogs, I'm going to make the small ways smaller yet. I'm going to write some veeeeery basic blogs focused on some veeeeery basic truths — truths that constitute small lessons in themselves. Because ultimately, no matter their small size, to my mind, these very simple lessons are really fucking important. So I'm going to begin with...
PUT YOUR PHONE AWAY.
Seriously. Not just down on the table or back in your purse. Put it AWAY. Somewhere it's not within arm's reach. Somewhere just far enough away that in order to use it or look at it, you have to stand up and/or move to do so.
If we keep our smart phones right next to us, we are inclined to use them near-constantly. It's a semi-accidental action that increasingly happens on autopilot. If you don't believe me, test it yourself. Put your phone somewhere within reach, and as you put it down, swear to yourself you won't pick it up for any reason for at least the next 10 minutes. Within the span of maybe four minutes, you'll no doubt have failed in your pledge. You will have thought of some question or task that seems important, and you will have picked up that phone, entirely forgetting your lofty no-phone-touching-for-ten-minutes goal. Even though looking up last season's winner of the Great British Baking Show or ordering more of that fancy beard oil on Amazon SEEMED important enough to grab for that phone, you know the truth: it's not. But the thing is, sheerly by virtue of having access to endless information and resources, we feel justified in constantly accessing them. And if your smart phone is within your reach, you will keep picking it up.
So why do I want you to put the damn phone away? Because while you're looking down at your phone, you're missing out on some fairly big and important and good parts of your own life. You're failing to see the vibrant colors of the leaves on that tree, or the look on your son's face when he made that ridiculously terrible but simultaneously hilarious joke. You're not meeting your new neighbor, because when you walked by, you were reading yet another article about the next season of Stranger Things. You're not talking to your husband, because he's shopping for a new pocket knife while you're looking up a new way to cook asparagus.
I am starting with this lesson because it happens to be one that *I* have a very hard time remembering. I go on long walks, head bent, my eyes focused on the latest Google Newstand articles about the things Google semi-creepily knows I'm interested in. I "watch" an Oscar-winning movie as I shop for a recliner that doesn't offend me. I start my morning by grabbing my smart phone from the nightstand, when really I should roll over and focus first on my amazing soon-to-be-husband. But I know I know I know that I've got to do better, because when I do things like this, I'm missing out on much of my world. And I don't want to miss out.
I'm not at all saying smart phones are a bad thing. They're not. It's simply their overuse that's the problem. So start doing yourself the small favor of putting the dang thing away every now and again. Put it in a drawer, or in another room. It's there if you really need it. But you'll have to ask yourself first if you really need it. And sometimes, you'll realize that you don't.