High Gear

Given the radical shift my life is about to undertake, I've begun to feel a bit overwhelmed. So much to do, so little time and all that.

To combat this increase in to-dos, I'm going to more heavily implement the schedule your day tactic so that I may better manage my time and tasks. And I'm not talking about merely identifying a handful of things I'd like to accomplish tomorrow; I mean scheduling my day down to the hour.

With my new job, adult responsibilities are going to begin to creep into my life, undoubtedly encroaching on the things I'd really like to be doing. By scheduling my days, I hope to be able to set aside sufficient time for both work and personal responsibilities. I want to put my best effort into all of my endeavors, and I don't want anything to fall by the wayside.

If I don't manage my time—if I don't ensure my life runs the way I want it to—no one will.

With that in mind, I'm going to be diligent and ruthless in my scheduling. This goes for obligations as well as hobbies. If I want to read, it needs to be on the schedule. If I want to work out, it needs to be on the schedule. If I want to write, it needs to be on the schedule.

This approach will allow me to focus on one thing at a time without worrying about all the things I'm not doing. Rather than try to keep track of everything on my own, in my head, I'll be able to look at my schedule and know what I should be working on right now.

It will take much experimenting and tweaking, but it needs to happen. It's the only way I'm going to be able to do all of these things well.

As summer draws to a close, it's time to kick things into high gear. It's time to come up with a plan and execute it. It's time to take things to the next level. Stay tuned.

P.S. If you're on App.net, you can find me there as—surprise—andrewmarvin.

Thanks for reading! Want more? Grab the free QLE Manifesto. Perhaps follow me on Twitter. Need something? Email me.

The Next Era

All of a sudden, my August has exploded with busyness.

After ZenGeek's money episode, with no returns coming in from my big boy job applications, I decided to pick up more hours at karate. The next day (naturally), I got an email asking if I'd like to interview for an adjunct position at a community college. I interviewed yesterday, and now I'm going to be teaching English composition in the fall. Out of nowhere!

I'm excited about the job. I love talking about writing, and the additional income stream will be a welcome relief. But I also feel heavier, weighed down with the added responsibility. On the ride home alone I thought of eight different tasks to add to my to-do list.

My work experience has fluctuated over the years. I've worked two jobs—9 AM to 3 PM and 4 PM to 9 PM—and been utterly exhausted, but financially stable. I've also worked very little, far from what could even be considered part-time, and had lots of time to do what I love and be financially stressed out all the time.

The key, of course, is balance. Having nothing to do but record podcasts, jam with your bandmates, write blog posts, and do yoga and karate is great, but it's not the most lucrative lifestyle. On the other hand, working two jobs while trying to find time to fit in the things that make you happy isn't the most relaxing way to live.

But I shall persevere.

Life is comprised of different eras. Being a kid leads to high school, which leads to college, which leads to grad school, which leads to (in my case) wandering, which leads to employment. Each of these eras brings with it new people, places, and experiences, all of which are part of the overall journey.

Whenever we transition to a new era, things can seem overwhelming. This is because of uncertainty and unfamiliarity. Things are different than they were before. We're surrounded by strangers, we don't know where we are, and we might be doing something we've never done before. It's scary. But with time, we settle into the next era, and it becomes the new normal.

Since finishing graduate school, the path before me has been cloudy and uncertain. Every day was plagued by a small, but persistent, voice asking, what are you going to do next? I didn't have an answer for a long time, so having some structure with this new job will be a positive change. I don't know how it will go or what it will lead to. I don't know who I'm going to meet or what I'm going to learn.

I do know that QLE will continue unabated, and I do know that whatever happens will work out for the best. One way or another. As always.

Thanks for reading! Want more? Grab the free QLE Manifesto. Perhaps follow me on Twitter. Need something? Email me.

The Necessity of Rest

Quite often, life reminds me of the importance of rest.

I say “life reminds me” because I rarely plan “rest” as a part of my day. When I go too long without it, it always finds a way to force itself into my schedule.

By “rest”, I don’t necessarily mean sleep. Rather, rest is a break from my regular routine. Maybe it’s a skipped workout, or a couple of days without picking up my bass, or a round (or nine) of indulgent eating.

It’s easy to feel guilty about resting when we could be doing more productive activities. But the way I see it, rest itself is highly productive because it enables us to return to our normal lifestyles with renewed enthusiasm.

Earlier this month, I was in the middle of a long butt kicking streak. I was writing a lot, enjoying my work, eating healthy, and adhering to a solid workout routine.

Then, my 25th birthday happened.

My birthday fell on a Wednesday this year, so celebrations began the preceding weekend (read: Thursday). Friends took me out to lunch, my family had a party, and I was also celebrating my friend’s birthday, as he was born five days before me. Long story short, I fell off pretty much every wagon I had been triumphantly riding.

I had trouble finding the time to write. I stopped working out. I missed my yoga class. I slept in. And I ate about a metric ton of birthday food over the course of six days.

Of course, I felt guilty about breaking all my healthy and productive routines, but my friends and family were quick to use my 25th birthday as a rationalization for my stepping off the path.

It sounds like an excuse, and I suppose it is, but at the same time, it wasn’t until I stopped moving that I realized how necessary my little vacation was. My muscles were sore from working out six days a week. I was weary. I was burnt out. I was tired. So, life found a way to sneak some rest in there. If you don’t give yourself a break once in a while, eventually you’ll crash.

Now that my actual birthday has come and gone, my vacation is over. It’s back to healthy eating and exercise, and it feels fantastic. I can approach these things with fresh strength and focus.

In music, a rest is an interval of silence; no note is played. Victor Wooten teaches his students to “play the rest”, which means to treat it just like any other note, even though none is audible. The rest should be felt, as opposed to rushing through it to play the next note.

Rest in real life is the same way. We need time designated to let our bodies and minds recover from the diligent adherence to our normal routines. It takes energy to stick to a workout, eating, or writing regimen. Every once in a while, you need to take a break. Go ahead. Skip a workout. Have some birthday cake. Sit and do nothing. Then go back to being awesome.

No matter how much we love our routines and lifestyles, we still need to be able to rest and enjoy it guilt-free. Afterward, we can come back stronger than before, with new appreciation for the lives we lead.

So, go on. Take a break. It’s Friday.

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Finding the Space to Create

My first cubicle job was working as a graduate intern at Southern Connecticut State University. To be fair, it wasn’t a true heads-down-no-talking cubicle job. Being a graduate intern in Student Life requires a lot of energy, as well as considerable availability beyond the 9–5 hours. But, I was working in a manmade box, and some days were spent entirely at my desk, being — or trying to look — busy with menial tasks while dreaming of other things.

In retrospect, I’ve come to appreciate my job there, but it was during those cubicle days when I made an entry in “Thoughts”, one of my running Notesy files:

I wish I wasn’t so busy so I could get things done.

In rereading that sentence, I remember what it was like to be a busy graduate intern — busy in the sense of having lots of little things that needed to be checked off, none of which I truly cared about.

At the time, Quarter-Life Enlightenment was still just a pipe dream in the back of my head, waiting outside the bonds of 9–5 cubicle life. I wished I didn’t have so many obligations so I could focus on the things I was passionate about. I wanted to make things. Things that mattered. I don’t have time to fill out van request forms; I have a life to live!

I was reminded of this period of my life while reading Michael Lopp’s most recent piece, “A Precious Hour”, wherein he discusses the dichotomy between busyness (the “Faux-Zone” of productivity) and creation (the true Zone):

As a frequent occupant of the Faux-Zone, I can attest to its fake productive deliciousness. There is actual value for me in ripping through to my to-do list. I am getting important things done. I am unblocking others. I am moving an important piece of information from Point A to Point B. I am crossing this item off… just so. Yum. However, while essential to getting things done, the Faux-Zone is not a replacement for the actual Zone, and no matter how many meetings I have or how many to-dos are crossed off… just so… the sensation that I am truly being productive, that I am building a thing, is false.

My day job as a graduate intern was, for all intents and purposes, full of busyness. Many things needed to be done, but rare was the opportunity to create something. I may not have been conscious of it at the time, but this busyness frustrated me.

It wasn’t until I was asked to prepare a presentation for the annual Student Leadership Retreat that I found fulfillment. My “Simple Happiness” presentation was a labor of love and probably one of the best things to come out of my time at Southern (relationships notwithstanding). It wasn’t a to-do item to be checked off. It wasn’t some arbitrary task that had nothing to do with who I was as a person. It was a chance to build something I cared about and something that would have real meaning for people. It was a chance to create.

If nothing else, I appreciate my old cubicle for showing me that I will die should I ever be forced to work in one full-time. I need a creative outlet where I get to be nerdy and make things, whether it’s a slideshow about minimalism or daily articles on QLE.

As Lopp points out, though, busyness isn’t quite unnecessary. Things do need to get checked off, and at most jobs, that’s how you get recognized. The more things you check off, the more things you are given. The better you are at checking things off, the more trust and responsibility you receive.

But, if you’re like me, you can’t be busy all the time. You need to be able to make stuff. You need to be able to focus on the work you care about, even if it’s not the work you get paid to do.

But where do you find the time?

There are lots of productivity systems out there. Personally, I’m a fan of David Allen’s Getting Things Done, but the name never sat quite right with me. It always sounded like an endless quest to cross things off of to-do lists. Because what happens when you get things done? Other things take their place. Thus, there never really is a “done” moment. You’re always trying to get down to zero tasks — to “done” — but it never arrives. What’s the point?

It’s true: there will always be more things that need to get done. But what I realize now about the GTD system — and about productivity in general — is that it’s not about getting down to zero. That’s impossible; you’re never going to run out of tasks to do. What productivity does is help you control the busyness. If you don’t manage all the tasks that need to be done whether you like it or not, the time to create vanishes.

Thus, what we need to be able to do is find the space to create. We need to be able to get all the little things done quickly and efficiently so that there’s time for what really matters. Controlling the busyness, rather than allowing it to control you, creates space in your life. Beautiful space. And time. Time that can then be used for what’s most important, whether that’s spending time with loved ones, exercising, or creating.

Acknowledge the busyness. It’s here to stay. But learn to keep it confined. Do not let it run your life. Find the method that works best for you, and stick to it.

There’s a time to be busy, and there’s a time to create. The world will always provide us with busyness. Finding the time and space to create is up to us.

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The Clean Slate Monday Theory

I like to start the week off with as clean a slate as possible. Mondays are tough, but a little preparation and perspective makes it a lot easier to get off to a good start.

For me, the Clean Slate Monday Theory consists of two components:

  1. Tying up loose ends
  2. Making a plan of attack

Both of these need to be completed in advance to ensure a smooth start to the week. Allow me to explain.

Tie Up Loose Ends

This is a matter of taking care of all the unfinished tasks that have accumulated over the course of the past week. For example, by the time Sunday rolls around, my living quarters are usually in disarray. My desk is cluttered, my bed is a mess, I should probably clean, and there’s a good chance I still haven’t put away my laundry.

Walking into this mess Monday morning is detrimental. We don’t realize it, but these little tasks weigh on us. A small part of your brain has to spend energy reminding you, “Oh, I still need to do this. Oh, I still need to do that…” The longer you have to remember to do something, the more mentally taxing that task becomes, which stresses us out.

I usually dedicate an hour to all these miscellaneous things on Sunday night. Clean the desk. Vacuum. Put the laundry away. Throw some new sheets on the bed. This helps me wake up Monday morning feeling calm because — quite literally — my slate is clean. It’s a much better feeling than waking up in the middle of a disaster area. “Happy Monday! Look at all this crap you still haven’t done.” That’s no good. The last thing I want is to have old stuff nagging at my attention at the start of a new week. Make it a fresh start.

Make a Plan of Attack

Tying up loose ends also enables you to successfully execute step two, which is to make a plan of attack. Starting the week with a clean slate is great, but not having a plan makes it easy to squander all that potential for productivity. Sometimes, figuring out what needs to get done is more difficult than actually accomplishing it.

Thus, make a plan in advance. What do I need to do tomorrow, and when? What’s the week look like as a whole? Write it down. You can get as granular as you like with your to-do list, as long as it makes good use of the clean slate created by tying up the previous week’s loose ends.

A Weekly New Year

Everybody hates Mondays, except for Shawn Blanc:

Mondays are my favorite day of the week for the same reason the morning is my favorite time of the day. The morning is when my mind is most clear — there is not yet the accumulation of “mental clutter” from the activities and worries of the day and the whole day looks like a blank canvas.

Shawn’s definitely got it right. Why is Monday so terrible, but New Year’s is so great? With the former, it’s “Ugh, another whole week of work.” Well, then on New Year’s it should be “Ugh, another whole year of work!”

The difference is that we see the new year as an opportunity for a fresh start, not as “back to the grind”. We should try to treat Monday the same way. Why not? Making an entire year bigger and better than all previous years is a lot of work, but making the next seven days as productive and enjoyable as possible? Much more manageable.

Mondays can be a source of stress if met unprepared. However, a clean slate — literally and mentally — can help start the week on a calm and productive note.

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How I Stopped Working Out and Felt Better About Pretty Much Everything

I teach karate, for those of you who don’t know.

The chief instructors work out for two hours Monday and Wednesday, followed by a meeting that can last up to an hour. While I’m not a chief instructor, I was invited to these workouts, and subsequently have been participating for some time.

While I consider it a great privilege to attend these workouts, they put a significant strain on my Monday and Wednesday schedules. I get up at 9am, drive twenty-five minutes to Windsor, do the workout and meeting, and get home around 1:30. I need to be at my studio by 3pm to get ready for the day’s classes, which last until 9pm. That means I have a 90-minute window with which to take care of my entire non-karate life. Between showering, eating lunch, and posting something here, — not to mention my thesis — these twelve-hour days are pretty hectic.

Now, this schedule was counteracted by the fact that I didn’t teach on Tuesdays and Thursdays, which meant I’d have twelve-hour Mondays and Wednesdays, interspersed with leisurely Tuesdays and Thursdays. It sounds doable, but over time, the weight of Monday and Wednesday drove me to the point where I couldn’t find the motivation to do much of anything on my off days. All I wanted to do was rest.

This continued for many months, until, during a conversation about my thesis, my instructor reminded me that my attending the workouts and meetings was completely optional. If I wanted to spend a morning getting a chunk of writing done, it wouldn’t be a big deal.

I was conflicted, because I value the workouts themselves, but I could feel myself getting burnt out with my current schedule. One day, I decided to take the morning off to work on my thesis. That was probably three weeks ago, and I haven’t been up to Windsor since.

Cutting out those Monday/Wednesday workouts has had a profoundly positive impact on my mood and attitude. Here’s why:

  1. I save gas. It may not seem like much, but twenty highway miles each way twice a week burns a decent amount of fuel. It’s only a few miles to the studio where I teach, so without the Windsor trips, my gas tank lasts exponentially longer. I don’t get paid to attend the workouts or meetings, so I also save a bit of money on gas.

  2. I save time. Understandably, sometimes the workout is intense and worth the trip, and sometimes we’re off our game and it’s pretty unproductive. Including travel, workout, and meeting, I might use up to four hours of my day, hours that might be used more effectively elsewhere. That ninety-minute window gives me only enough time to get a handful of things done. With the morning free, I get much more done and go into work feeling accomplished, rather than frazzled.

  3. I save stress. To be blunt, meetings usually put me in a bad mood, depending on the dynamic. In this case, even though the meetings are tailored for the chief instructors and not me specifically, I still felt obligated to participate and share the criticism when it came to discussing business areas we needed to improve. Long story short, I rarely felt energized or motivated after meetings, and more likely would feel pressured and stressed out. No longer.

  4. I save energy. Two hours is a long workout, and teaching four classes afterward — which itself is respectable exercise — is pretty demanding. I like to work out hard, so being exhausted when teaching my own students decreased the quality of their classes. I’d have low energy, be more impatient, and more likely to get annoyed with a snarky eleven-year-old. Now, I’m working out in other ways, which leave me invigorated instead of exhausted. Instead of showing up at work fried, I can have a productive morning writing or getting things done, which leaves more energy for teaching stronger and more enjoyable classes.

  5. I save sanity. The result of all this is that my mood is tremendously improved. I’m not exhausted from overtraining. I’m not stressed because I feel like I got nothing done. I’m not depressed about spending my entire day off being tired instead of productive. I’m not cranky when I teach my students. I come to work after a productive morning excited to teach class. Overall, I’m much better equipped to deal with life that day.

My point is this: sometimes you don’t realize the effect something has on you — for better or worse — until it’s not there anymore. It could be a meeting, a commute, or some other time-suck. It could be an object on your desk, or a pile of paperwork. It could be a relationship.

I didn’t fully understand how negatively my trips to Windsor were affecting me until I eliminated them. Only then did I realize how much better I felt. Sometimes the drawbacks outweigh the benefits.

Now, there are some things — most things — you can’t control. You can’t just stop doing your job, no matter how stressed out it makes you. (Although, you could quit.) But, it’s important that we remain aware of and examine the things we can control and change them when necessary.

If your commute involves a two-mile stretch of lights and stop-and-go traffic, then find a different way to get to work. I’ll always take a scenic, enjoyable route over a direct, but infuriating, one.

Have you been using a broken umbrella for months because you’re too lazy to buy a new one? BUY a new umbrella! You’re soaking wet all the time.

Are you sick and tired of tripping over the office garbage can every time you get up from your desk? Then MOVE the garbage can!

It sounds silly and obvious, but sometimes we become so acclimated to these annoyances, we don’t even notice them anymore. We just feel their effects. We don’t realize how little effort it would take to improve our lives in some small way. And usually it’s the little things that make a big difference.

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Sacred Time

Dave Caolo has a new sacred time rule:

It sure is a different time. When I was a kid, my father came home from work at 5:30 and that was that. No more work until the next morning. Today, the opportunity to “log on” and “check just one more thing” is ever present, and we must make a concerted effort to punch out and stop. Even if it’s just for four hours. Stop.

The Silliness of Busyness

Speaking of busy:

Courtney Carver, writing for Zen Habits, on the silliness of busyness:

If you are anything like me, you are busy because you want to be or because you don’t know how to be un-busy. You are busy out of misdirected guilt because you think if you do enough, you will be enough. When you decide that it is ok to live life your way, you can stop being busy and start doing things that matter. You can talk about your meaningful day instead of ranting about your busy schedule. Decide today that you are enough, even if you never do anything, accomplish anything or produce anything ever again. You are enough.

"If You're Busy, You're Doing It Wrong."

Cal Newport:

This analysis leads to an important conclusion. Whether you’re a student or well along in your career, if your goal is to build a remarkable life, then busyness and exhaustion should be your enemy. If you’re chronically stressed and up late working, you’re doing something wrong. You’re the average players from the Universität der Künste — not the elite. You’ve built a life around hard to do work, not hard work.

Fascinating study.

Via Ben Brooks