Today is the last day of the Blogathon and I am proud to say that I met my goal of blogging every day in May. I also managed to sustain my daily yoga practice for 30 of the 31 days of May. I am still counting that as a personal victory. Especially since May included a trip to the east coast with 2 plane and one train trips. I think it is safe to say that I have built 2 new good habits. I intend to maintain my daily yoga practice indefinitely. I am planning on dropping my daily blog writing habit and only posting 3 days a week. I am a bit nervous about that transition because I can see the skipped days becoming a habit of their own. Only time will tell.
However, I didn’t want to end my 31-day streak with only a victory dance. I figured this post deserved to have some real content as well.
In this week’s, Mental Floss blog, Jason English asked readers to list the last 3 books they read and whether they liked them. As I have mentioned before, I am a voracious reader. I thought I would share the 3 books I read this weekend and the 3 books I am reading right now. In case you think the groupings are odd, I am a heavy library user, so the order in which I read books is determined primarily by when they become available. I am a literature snob, so I usually read nonfiction. I will admit that like everyone, I have some fiction that I love that I would rather not admit to loving with the world. Suffice it to say that my tastes are really not as highbrow as the following 2 lists might suggest.
Books I have just completed:
1. Why be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson. This memoir is a companion book to Winterson’s debut, a fictionalized autobiography called Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. I read Oranges so long ago that all that remain in my mind are impressions. Why be Happy tapped into those memories and their emotional valence, giving Winterson’s life story added depth. This is the kind of book best read in a reflective mood. I had to stop reading and give myself the mental space to process her writing several times over the course of reading it. After finishing it, I immediately put Oranges on hold at the library. I would recommend (re)reading Oranges before reading Why be Happy because Winterson references it often. I considered putting Why be Happy down and rereading Oranges first, but I just couldn’t. I found Why be Happy just too compelling to stop.
2. The Journal of Best Practices: A Memoir of Marriage, Asperger Syndrome and One Man’s Quest to be a Better Husband by David Finch. I really wanted to like this book. I was so intrigued by an inside perspective of a very high functioning man with Asperger’s sharing his view of the world. Unfortunately his writing is just not as entertaining as David Sedaris’ recounting of his OCD or evocative as Temple Grandin’s autobiography. My husband, who had also been looking forward to reading the book, didn’t even bother to finish it.
3. 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans by Karl Pillemer, Ph.D. This book reads the way comfort food feels. No surprising revelations just warm comfort. I am very lucky in that I got another chance to have grandparents after mine died while I was still too young to appreciate them. For those out there who wish they had had asked their grandparents what really matters in life, this is the book for you. If you haven’t hit that stage in your life yet, make sure this books stays on your reading list for when you are ready for their words of wisdom.
Books I am reading right now:
I am currently working my way through Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdin, PH.D., Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle. and Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries and Trailblazers who Created the American Superhighways by Earl Swift.
My yoga teacher says (weekly) that resting is the most important part of yoga. I have yet to internalize that message, either for yoga or life in general. I am a champion sleeper, but a horrible rester. My comprehension of the term “leisure time” is severely lacking. Believe it or not, I have actually gotten better at leisure over the years, but I still have a long way to go.
The evil twin of the flexibility that comes with freelancing is never feeling like one is truly off work. The one exception is the 24 hour work moratorium that I set from Friday to Saturday evening. I feel perpetually “on” and obligated to work the remaining 144 hours (except for those hours when I am sleeping). I am always looking for a professional reason to justify reading my feeds, articles or books. When I need to take a break from one task (e.g. setting up the e-commerce component of my website) I do so my doing something else on my to do list (e.g. write blog posts). I rejoiced on the day I started selling my wrapped headphones and everything crafty automatically became work-related.
I know that creativity requires time away from active stimuli. More than once I have found myself mired in the muck of my mind, seemingly unable to think my way out of a paper bag. That is where my new exercise regimen comes in. I do get that creative processing time I need between my daily yoga practice and my commitment to doing something that is both vigorous and aerobic at least 3 times a week But I have an even better way for me (your mileage may seriously vary one this one) to think and process information and ideas. Prepping meals.
Baking bread used to be my thinking time, but once I mastered slow rises, I stopped interacting with the dough enough to really make a difference. But chopping veggies for dinner? Slicing apples for a cobbler? That’s my time. It is like meditation to me. My mind feels absolutely free to wander. Every once in a while I leave dinner half-prepped because I have solved a problem I have been working on for a while or have an idea I really just need to capture and get so wrapped up in my new task that I forget to go back to the kitchen.
When I used to be a dairy farmer, I would spend hours packing cheese into containers. That was great thinking time. Unfortunately, between milking goats twice daily, making, packing and delivering cheese, I had very little energy left at the end of the day to follow up on those great ideas. My ideal retreat would be me spending several hours a day prepping food in a beautiful setting. Then I would have the rest of the day to play with my ideas and end the day with a delicious meal.
Several weeks ago, I was talking to a colleague whose organization is going through some serious leadership changes. My friend was contemplating next steps and trying to come up with a new staffing plan. In essence she was trying to figure out how many people it would take to do the job of the 2 “rockstars” who are leaving. Rockstars are those people who do the work of multiple people such that when they leave, it takes more than one person to replace him or her. My colleague is unquestionably a rockstar herself.
I have been called a rockstar for most of my professional life. My commitment or dedication is no greater than that of my colleagues. I just hold myself to a very (some have said impossibly) high standard. Like many of us, I am my worst critic and am therefore always trying to do more while simultaneously doing things better. I add items to my to-do lists faster than I can cross them off, which leaves me feeling completely unproductive, regardless of how much I accomplish in a day. Trust me, this is not a recipe for success. Just a recipe for personal disappointment.
Yesterday, for the first time ever, it occurred to me that I could keep a list of my daily accomplishments just as easily as I can keep to-do lists. Instead of simply crossing things off my ever-growing to-do list, I could write down what I do in a day, whether it was on a to-do list or not. I wonder what that would do to my own impression that I get nothing done in a day? Would I find myself qualifying and diminishing everything I put on the accomplishment list? Would I just end up raising the bar? Or, would I let myself see just how much I can do in a single day?
Focusing on accomplishments over what remains to be done is not an earth-shattering idea. It is simply flipping the focus of the list around one-hundred and eighty degrees. That leads me to wonder why there are so many apps for tracking to do lists, but very few for tracking accomplishments.
I have been trying to come up with a reason to learn how to create an Andoid app for quite some time. I have been playing with the idea of making a Shakespearean curse generator app, but clearly that idea was not compelling enough for me to take the idea any further. But, I think creating an accomplishment list app for Android is something that worth following up on. If nothing else, it will be something for me to put on my list of accomplishments for that day.
Earlier this week my mother-in-law gave my husband a Kindle. That’s not particularly unusual. She tends towards being overly generous. I have learned not to complement her on anything in her house lest she make me take it home. The unusual part is that I am envious of his Kindle.
This is very unlike me. I almost never get jealous of stuff. I have too much stuff and feel very little need to acquire more (although I wouldn’t complain if a more manual sewing machine made its way into my life). I am much more likely to envy attention and love. For example, I am regularly jealous of my husband because his cat likes to sleep with him and my cat sleeps downstairs. –As I was writing that last sentence my husband came downstairs and told me how lovely it was that his cat spent the whole night with him. Grrrr Arrgh.
The other reason my device envy is weird is because I already have a Nook that I have customized to my use and I am very happy with it. His Kindle is bottom of the line, only usable for reading. My Nook is top of the line and I love all the things I can do with it. His Kindle is small and thin, but my Nook has a bigger screen and is light and easy to carry around. So why I am envious?
Several months ago, I was bragging about my Nook to a friend of mine and he told me that he is very happy with his Kindle because it is a single function device. He already had an iPhone and wasted way too much time on it. He knew if his Kindle had more functionality, he wouldn’t read on it. He would just play games. My husband is seriously addicted to playing games on Facebook, so I am very pleased that he now spends more time on the couch with me reading books on his Kindle. Leading me to ask once again, why the envy?
I think I am envious of the fact that it is a single function device. When I want to read something and pick up my Nook, I am still left with decisions that need to be made. Do I read one of the books I have loaded on to my device? Do I listen to a podcast? Do I read my RSS feeds? Do I read the articles I have saved in Pocket? Sometimes the decisions get too overwhelming and I just pick up a paper book to read. It turns out that I don’t really have device envy. I have decision-making envy.
A few days ago I had what I thought was a simple conversation with a barista, but oddly enough, it has stayed with me. I met a colleague at a local franchise of a national chain of coffee shops earlier this week. I usually go to locally owned places, but the person I was meeting chose the location. I ordered my coffee and a bagel and the barrista rung me up. Before I had a chance to give her my money, she remembered that there was some kind of special and re-rung the sale, saving me $1.15. I almost always order brewed coffee, so I normally don’t tip at coffee shops unless I place a complicated order or the barrista does something particularly nice. I figured saving me money on a special I knew nothing about counts as doing something particularly nice. I looked around for a tip jar and didn’t see one, so I asked. She told me that they were not allowed to accept tips, but thanked me for appreciating her service.
When I was in college, I worked as a barista. I almost always worked the opening shift and had to be at work at 5am. Being acknowledged was really the only thing that made getting to work at that ungodly hour even vaguely tolerable. I really appreciated getting tips for doing something special for the customers. Not just for the money (which was very helpful, given the low wage job), but because I often felt it was a tangible type of thanks. There were the regulars whose orders I would start preparing when I saw them walk in. I would just hand them their drinks, done just the way they liked them, when they reached the register. Then there were the complicated special requests. I often enjoyed making those because it broke up the tedium of the day. Even so, it sometimes felt like a slap in the face when I would do a great job on a complicated order and didn’t get a thanks, let alone a tip.
I don’t understand why this particular chain prohibits its employees from accepting tips. I have no reason to believe their employees are paid particularly well nor receive any kind of benefits. Their no-tipping policy will, however, reduce the likelihood that I will go back to that particular chain. In the future if someone suggests we meet there, I will even offer a counter-suggestion. I know the business will not miss my patronage. On an average year, they probably take in less than $10 from me. But I will feel better knowing that I have the option to show my appreciation for good service with a tip.
I need to write tomorrow’s post today, although by the time you read this, today will be yesterday and tomorrow will be today (I think I just wandered into Lewis Carroll territory there). I am struggling to come up with a topic for this post. Usually when this happens, I peruse my RSS feeds to see if anything sparks an idea. But, I did that and nothing came to mind. I am in the process of reading 3 books, so I could write about any or all of them, except that I have a bit of a problem. I have a cat on my lap.
I know a lot of cat people (myself included) who have a very hard time displacing a cat, especially one that is sleeping. Even if that cat has been asleep for several hours. My husband used to give me a hard time about my hesitance to displace a cat. Then I caught him sitting under the same cat for 4+ hours. We now refer to having a cat on one’s lap as “being colonized.” That seems to capture the semi-permanence of the situation.
Our cats certainly do not suffer from insomnia, so it is not like I worry that my cat will lose sleep if I wake him up to displace him. So why do I find it so difficult to do? I think the problem is two-fold.
There is a reason that the Egyptians worshiped cats. There is something god-like about them. And even though I have had cats for the better part of the past 25 years, I still feel flattered when one deigns to pay attention to me. I feel like I am disrespecting a cat when I remove him/her from my lap. And the dirty look my cats have always given me when I displaced them just reinforces that impression.
We had a dog for several months once and we were constantly flustered by how eager she was to always be with us. We were so used to be the worshipers we were just too uncomfortable being the worshiped.
The second reason is Newton’s law of inertia which states that there is a natural tendency of objects to keep on doing what they are doing. Successfully battling my own inertia is one thing. Conquering both my own and my cats’ inertia is difficult to do. The fact that they are so goram cute doesn’t help matters either.
However, I did manage to come up with a blog post without having to get up to look for ideas. I consider that a win all around.
In addition to being a Tech Whisperer and crafter, I sit on a very hands-on nonprofit board and a state commission. I have been searching for years for the best tool to help me keep track of the numerous balls I am always juggling. I have tried Day Timer, a Palm Pilot, a simple notebook and what seems like every task management app out there. So far I have not found a single solution that meets all my needs and my personal style. Time management is different for every individual, so I am not at all surprised that I have yet to find the end all, be all solution. Instead, I have a customized solution that uses several tools to meet my individual needs.
I get through my days with the help of 3 apps:
- Todoist – In a lot of ways, Todoist is very similar to all sorts of free task management apps out there, like Remember the Milk and Google’s Task list. In fact, when pressed, I couldn’t tell you why Todoist works so well for me. Perhaps it is its simple layout. Maybe it is the way it organizes tasks by project. But that is exactly my point. There will always be many task management tools out there because their users are different individuals.
- Reminder Guru – Todoist sends task reminders via email. These never work for me. I find it too easy to tune them out. I tried leaving them unread until I was ready to deal with them, but they still got lost amongst my other email. Reminder Guru lets you send reminders as texts, phone calls or emails. I love that it has no pre-set parameters – you get to set the message, date and delivery time and delivery medium. Since I am the only one who knows what I will and will not tune out, I use Reminder Guru to nag me. For example, I might send myself a text reminding me first thing in the morning that I need to pay a bill. I know that I won’t drop everything and get to it then, so I will simply make a mental note of it. I will have another text arrive right before the mailman comes just in case I haven’t gotten to it yet. Then I will have a third reminder scheduled for the end of the day at which point I will either pay the bill if I haven’t done so already or set up reminders for the following day. If anything slips into the following day, I set up even more reminders so I will pay the stupid bill rather than have texts pop up at 2 hour intervals.
- Evernote – If you don’t know about Evernote, go check it our RIGHT NOW. Evernote is my spare brain. I track details, progress, resources, patterns and anything else that belongs in my brain, but that sometimes I can’t retrieve. I put all of my information here because this is a single location with great search functionality. It is my vote for best app ever.
I have noticed an intriguing paradox emerging as I blog daily. When I first started this process, I felt compelled to make sure I had the following day’s blog scheduled for posting the next day. This went double for travel days.
I have seen my compulsion dissipate over the last week or so. Tuesday I flew back from the east coast and I went to sleep with a half-written post. I was confident enough in my blogging habit that I knew I could just finish it and post it in the morning. And that is exactly what happened.
At the same time that I have seen my confidence in daily blogging growing, I am finding myself running short of ideas. I used up my backlog a while back. Now I must rely on external sources for inspiration.
I am not sure how to reconcile my confidence in my ability to blog daily with my paucity of ideas. To date, it has always worked out ok. But I still have a lingering concern that I might just get completely blocked one of these days. After all, I still have a week worth of posts to write before the Blogathon ends. I can just hear Han Solo in the back of my mind admonishing me “don’t get cocky, kid!”
I do have a secret weapon that is keeping me from getting freaked out.
For a variety of reasons my long-absent mojo has returned with a vengeance. I had really forgotten what it was like to have so much creative energy and I am indescribably thrilled to have it back. This time I am older (definitely) and wiser (maybe, somewhat) and don’t take my restored mojo for granted. I am curious to see how far I can go before hitting diminishing returns. I am not saying I want to go back to the 70 hour weeks that I worked at CubeSpace. I am saying that I believe I can access multiple outlets without diminishing any of them. In fact, there may even be a synergistic effect from feeding different aspects of myself.
I think the answer to my paradox is that I now trust the process way more than I did at the outset. Unconsciously, I know that if I spend enough of my day being creative, something will emerge for me to write about.
Yesterday I was speaking with a friend and she asked how long it would take to do a certain technical task. I paused for a moment trying to decide which number to give her. The time required to do the task itself is short. However, there are lots of little places where external issues could bog down the process. The micro-sd card, adapter or usb port could be bad, the wifi signal could be weak or intermittent or the program I am using could have just been automatically updated with buggy code. All of these (and more) have happened to me at one time or another.
As a freelancer for over a decade, I have gotten very good at estimating how much of my time a task will take. But perfecting the art of estimating externalities still eludes me. I can pretty much guarantee that in any given project, at least one unexpected issue will arise. However. how does one factor in time for the unexpected? However, no matter how many times I have done a specific type of project, I struggle to predict exactly what will go wrong and how long it will take to resolve the issue. I try to be transparent and upfront about the inevitable hiccups. But that too requires finesse. Listing too many potential issues can make me seem incompetent. Listing too few can leave the client open to unexpected surprises (even if that phrase feels redundant to me). When the economy is good, clients are generally amenable to adding some contingency time into a contract. When the economy is tight, clients, reasonably, want a firm time estimate.
I have also been on the client side of the table a number of times. You would think my own experience would make me more sympathetic to the challenges consultants face when estimating their time. And it does, but only to a limited degree. I tend to be more empathetic when I understand the process behind what I have contracted with someone to do. When the task is completely outside my knowledge or experience, I feel my cynicism creeping in. Not because that individual is untrustworthy. But because I have no idea if he/she has budgeted too much or too little time for externalities. That is why I do my best to educate myself about the work I am looking to contract out before seeking bids.
One recent example involves a broken dishwasher. A few months ago my dishwasher stopped draining. I did not have the vaguest idea whether the problem was terminal or not. I did some basic internet research and learned that the most common cause for this problem was a broken drain motor. I also learned that it was almost always more cost effective to replace the dishwasher than to repair the motor. I knew the dishwasher is over 8 years old, so its value had been fully amortized. A friend recommended a plumber who took a look at it and diagnosed the problem as a broken drain motor. More importantly to me, he explained how he determined the source of the problem. It all jived with the information I had read and he immediately earned my trust.
When it came to his estimate, he provided a range based on some contingencies that he spelled out to me. He had already earned my trust and had proven to be transparent about the process so I felt comfortable hiring him without seeking additional bids. His services may not have been the cheapest but I valued his transparency and communication and was willing to pay a possible premium for those assets alone.
My experience with the plumber confirmed for me that the best way to factor-in the potential costs of the unknown is to educate potential clients and be as transparent as possible. That approach may not work for everyone. But it works well for me, regardless of what side of the table I am sitting on.
Yesterday’s post was all about finding content to read. Today’s follow-up post is about ways to easily save that content to your smartphone or tablet so you can bring it with you and read offline. There two options that I currently use (although one has emerged as my favorite) and a third one that comes with a nice, additional feature. All 3 of the services discussed below are free and have apps that allow them to be used on Android, iPhone and Kindle Fire.
1. Pocket (formerly Read it Now) – My favorite app for saving articles to be read later. They have bookmarklets (little icons that you can add to your browser) to make saving easy. They brag that they are integrated into over 290 apps, although I only use 2. I have one on my browser for articles and posts I find while on my laptop. I have another one attached to Google Reader on my tablet. In both cases, all you need is one click to put the article in your own personal archive. I suspect their other app integrations are similarly simple. The real joy comes in the reading component. Using free apps available for iPad, iPhone, Android and Kindle Fire, your saved articles are automatically downloaded so you can read them anywhere. You will never be bored again!
2. Instapaper – This service is very similar to Pocket, except it designed primarily for an iPhone environment. I used to use Instapaper fairly exclusively in my Android device, using a third-party tool called EverPaper. I finally stopped using it when I had syncing issues. It worked well most of the time, but the second time I had some syncing issues (over ~8 months period, so it was not a frequent issue) I moved entirely on to Pocket. Bugs get fixed constantly, so they might have worked out the issues by now. For those using iPhones or iPads, there is a native app for reading downloaded articles. I have no personal experience with it, but I have heard good things from my friends who use it on their Apple devices.
There is a third option that has some nice distinguishing features. Readability not only allows you to store articles for reading offline, but it also cleans up the formatting to make the content easier to read both on your browser and your mobile device. It eliminates much of the visually distracting clutter, which at times can make a huge difference. Web designers could learn some great lessons from the Readability folks. Because I like Pocket so much for reading on my Nook, I primarily use Readability to clean up articles that I read on my laptop.
Everyone is different and will appreciate and be bugged by different features. Therefore, I recommend that you try all 3 and see which one suits you the best. Also, if you have any favorites that I haven’t mentioned here or your own experiences with offline reading apps, please share them, in the comments.