Saturday, November 22, 2014

The secret to getting anything done

A little bit at a time.

I know.  It sounds so obvious, so simple.  It is.  But it can be difficult to do.

I've recently noticed an uptick in my reading.  Last month I blew through eight books, and this month I'm well on my way to finishing ten, which averages to a book every three days.  I didn't all of the sudden create more time in my day, so I wondered: what happened?  What changed?

This actually is not a post about reading more (I'll save that for another day) but I will run with this example.  I have always read multiple books at one time, but lately, with the GOEs looming over me, I've set minimum reading requirements for myself.  Every night, I must read a chapter or certain percentage of a title.  Otherwise, I would never finish books like the thousand-page A History of Christianity.  A chapter, I can manage.  A thousand pages?  Not so much.

Of course this strategy applies elsewhere as well.  Don't fall off the wagon, or if you do, get right back on.  Small bits add up to something big.  It's a cumulative effect.  I clean my house in small stages.  I prepare for parties by cooking dishes that freeze well up to a week beforehand.  I write papers by working backwards from my due date: if I want the 20-page paper done in five days, I must write four pages a day, building in an extra day for editing; in three days, seven pages per day.

The small steps I set for myself minimize my dread in approaching the tasks.  The time that it takes for me to talk myself into reading a one thousand-page historical volume may be used instead to already complete a chapter and push me along my way.  Instead of worrying about how I can make 60 servings of chili, three pans of cornbread, several batches of fudge, salad, and guacamole for a party, and make sure my house is sparkling clean, I bake a tray of fudge, wrap it up, and place it in the freezer.  The next day brings the next step, and I can wait to worry or dread or fear tomorrow.  But in the immediate moment, I take baby steps.

The trick is, and trouble threatens, in convincing yourself that the small step actually is vitally important.  It won't be that big of a deal if I skip reading just this one night.  I don't need to start addressing Christmas cards quite yet.  My work project can wait another day--it's only an outline.  I can do that practically in my sleep!  When you get too far behind, it feels nearly impossible to recover.  The advice is not dissimilar from diet wisdom, no?  One failure must not derail you.  The sum of all days matters more than any one particular day.

That's why last night, even though it was Friday, even though the weekend was looming large, I read my systematic theology and began our holiday shopping.  Because I knew today, I would be glad.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Post Title That Will Change Your World

If you haven't already guessed it, the post title is meant to be tongue-in-cheek.

But in all seriousness, has anyone else noticed the way writing has changed over the past few years?  In the age of smartphones and more consumable content than we could ever possibly digest, our attention spans have increasingly decreased.  We want tiny bits, pithy--no, more like ironic and clever--blurbs that make us sound smart and interesting, but we do not want to undertake the intellectual labor of reading to understand anything on a deep level.

We need soundbites, not essays.

We want fast, black-and-white answers, not complicated and contextual solutions.

We prefer bouncing from image to video to gif to comic strip, not sitting with a concept for a sustained period of time.

But what about all of the material that does not easily fit into the format of quickly consumable bits?  I catch myself skimming novels now because I have trained myself to work through thousands of pages of weekly reading for graduate school, to scan online articles relying merely on headings and topic sentence, to search for bolded text, images, and white space to navigate writing pieces.

I came across this piece the other day about rewriting famous literature titles so that they would be more click-able.  What a shame, I thought as I opened the link.  And how true!  Titles matter (and in fact, I hate crafting one that is fitting) but not to the extent that we now esteem them.  After all, titles are supposed to call you into a journey, a process, of exploration, discovery, and illumination that is found best by reading, not scanning.

I am one of those minimalist voices now, I suppose.  I crave a world where there is less--less to read, less information to share, less stuff to buy, less (unnecessary) work to do--but more depth and meaning.  I want to slow down and savor rather than operate on warp speed all the time.  I worry about how technology is changing us and hope that we will take a moment to reflect on how it shapes us, not so that we uncritically reject it all, but so that we decide how we embrace, how we adapt to, and how we resist some of its advances.

But if I said that up front, would anyone have read this post?

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Navigating the holidays: the essentials vs. the extras

Christmas, Thanksgiving necessitiies

It happens the day after Halloween.  We all know what I'm talking about: the holidays decorations come out in the stores, Christmas playlists begin trending on music streaming sites, and the obligatory naysayers and outcries against seasonal commercialization raise their voices.  Like it or not, ready or not, we have to think about the holidays; it is too hard to avoid the subject matter.

But I believe that there is a middle ground we can find: we can enjoy the holidays without being driven crazy by them, we can celebrate festively without going too overboard and forgetting their meaning in the first place.


It's funny: I have a very different perspective on Christmas (my chief holiday tradition) now that I work in the church.  Many of the things I associated with the holidays--plenty of fun-filled leisure time off, travel to be with relatives, activities and entertainment galore--are not part of my reality.  I say that not as a complaint but as an observation.  Instead I am one of the people brainstorming festive Christmas and pre-Christmas-appropriate parties and crafts and games.  Others must travel to me if they want to see me at all since I'll be working.  I play a part in putting the holiday show on for others.  If I want to be cynical about it all, I would say that I am less a consumer of Christmas cheer than I am a producer or supporter.

I hate speaking in these terms.  It makes it sound like the holidays are something that we can bottle up and sell, which of course isn't the point.  But that's how we tend to treat it, isn't it?  Let's eat a slice of "Happy Birthday, Jesus" cake, snap a picture of our child with Santa, put out a perfect Thanksgiving spread, and spike our favorite eggnog for the yearly holiday open house and call it good.  It's about consuming experiences--taking them in quickly, cheerfully, and hopefully, photogenically--more than it is about savoring them.

I thought I would miss some of the Christmas traditions that my work necessitated that I leave behind, but, to my surprise, I don't.  

I focus less on the countdown to Christmas Day now and more on the arc of the entire Advent season.  I notice the Sundays leading up to Christmas now.

I still bake a few favorite Christmastime treats for my family but I am less concerned with packaging dozens of cookies for every friend and neighbor.  Everyone already has too many, and I'm too focused on making sure every kid has a part in the Christmas pageant to do the math required to quadruple our recipe for peanut butter buckeyes.

I understand now in a profound way that I am not essential to holiday family traditions--at least at particular times of day or night.  The show goes on whether I am present or not.  Christmas Eve dinner gets eaten, even if I'm not there to cook it or set the table.   Thanksgiving family gatherings happen, merrily and energetically, even if Dan and I aren't around to celebrate, since I take a weekend of retreat that time of year in preparation for the busy work season ahead.  It doesn't matter if we gather around the table or fire at five o'clock in the evening on the actual holiday or ten o'clock the morning after--as long as it happens sometime, and we're together, the timing is inconsequential.  It sounds simple and obvious, but we all seem to forget.

All this said, I find plenty of room for the things that matter: the present opened one day early because that's how my and Dan's families "have always done it," the Advent/Christmas (or sometimes, depending on my organization skills, New Year's) cards that the Southern girl inside of me just has to send, the fleeting but bursting excitement in my chest every Christmas Eve when we light the candle at the end of the service to mark the arrival of God to this earth, in the very flesh.

These moments are the essential ones, the holy ones.  They redeem the commercialization of our holidays, the greed for more, more, more that the holidays can inspire.  They remind us that holidays are about making time to celebrate the extraordinary in the midst of the ordinary, about connecting and celebrating with the ones we love, about realizing that beauty, hope, and wonder are always transforming our experience, if only we take the time to look.

photo credit

How do you distinguish the holiday essentials from the extras?  Has your perspective changed over time?

Saturday, November 15, 2014

On my nightstand: November edition

Here's a look at what I've been reading this month. To see more of what I've been reading or to trade book recommendations, follow me on Goodreads. I'd love to hear about any recent literary gems you've found (or books that I shouldn't waste my time reading)!

Big Little Lies

I loved Liane Moriarty's What Alice Forgot, so I was not surprised that this title also one me ever.  Moriarty's works are chick lit at its best--charming, heart-warming, and uplifting.  The book premise sounds sinister, but she weaves a tale that ultimately provokes sympathy in the reader.  Kudos to Moriarty too for tackling a difficult issue--domestic abuse--with grace, nuance, and courage.

You'll notice that I'm ramping up my religion reading in preparation for the GOEs (General Ordination Exams), which I will take in January.  This book is not for the faint of heart.  It is over one thousand pages and densely packed with Christian history of best the East and West.  Neither is it easily skimmable.  That said, if you are a history buff, or if you are interested in filling in some of the gaps in your knowledge, MacCullock's book is well done.

This book was not surprising but enlightening, if that makes sense.  We all know instinctively that women do not project confidence in the same way men do (generally speaking).  But Kay and Shipman put science to anecdotal evidence.  I tend to get frustrated when distinctions between the sexes are too overdrawn--after all, we find what we look for--but their takeaway advice was on the money, particularly concerning raising "good" girls.  The book is slow to get started but hits its stride in the later chapters.  Bottom line: Women should think less and act more.  

The Liturgy Explained
Full disclosure: this short little work was written by one of my seminary professors.  It is easy to read in one sitting and illuminating for church geeks and church novices alike.  If you're interested in dabbling more into ritual and liturgy--and especially in understanding what the Episcopal Church does and why--pick up this book.  It is both accessible and deep, a combination that is a rarity.

This book is actually a compilation of three small e-books.  Negative reviews point out that the book's content is skimpy for the price, and I must agree.  However, the content is great.  Vanderkam always delights and inspires me with her out-of-the-box thinking, and she is thoroughly--almost exhaustively--practical.  Not only does she talk about using time well, she shows you how to use time well with real life examples.

I didn't fall head over heels in love with this book like some others did, but I appreciated its message.  I feel like our world keeps getting fuller and fuller, noisier and noisier, busier and busier, and this book was a good reminder not to try to do it all but instead focus on what most matters.  Visual learners will enjoy the books graphs and pictures that clarify principles.

I honestly didn't think that this book would live up to the hype, but it does. I'm already biased against books, movies, and other cultural media that goes viral, so I prepared to subject this book to great scrutiny. But Niequist voice shines: she's poetic and authentic and seductive as she describes the power of the table and food to draw us together. This book is like a good friend and warm cup of tea and rich chocolate cake all in one: empathetic, comforting, and indulgent.

The book's concept seemed winning, but it fell flat in execution.  For the book's length, there was little reward (Of course, perhaps that is partly the point?  Aren't most legal briefs and documents long on words but short on substance?).  This book is entertaining enough to read once, but only once, if only for the novelty of absorbing a story through the transfer and exchange of documents, letters, and emails.

I'm linking up to Modern Mrs Darcy's Twitterature (a monthly book review linkup). To see more book reviews, head over to the site!

What have you read recently?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

May we begin an email relationship?

I'm probably in the minority--no, I know I'm in the minority--but I actually like email.  The introvert in me likes that I can check it on my own terms, that I can engage when I have energy and find the right words rather than responding in the immediate moment.  The writer in me revels in crafting text rather than having to speak on the fly.  And the relational side of me likes that we can use the tool to connect quickly and easily with those whom we love (and those whom we work hard to love!).

You probably noticed that there was an annoying pop up that greeted you when you clicked over to the blog.  It's for my newsletter.  I'm trying something new: beginning in December, I will send out a monthly newsletter.  In the newsletter, I'll aim to be a bit more intimate and personal.  I'd love for you to respond directly to the email and let me know what's going on in your own life.  Engaging directly via each other's email inboxes seems more friendly than via the blogosphere, right?

I will still be posting over on this site two or three times a week, as usual.  But I'll share some things that I don't post on the blog once a month by email and see what develops.  Does this interest or appeal to you?  If so, will you sign up and join me?


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