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The Power of No

December 28, 2017

Vices are never genuinely tamed.... You can more easily remove than control them. -- Seneca, "Epistle LXXXV," trans. by Richard M. Gummere

As the year draws to an end and I plan out the changes I hope to make in myself in 2018, I've been thinking a lot about the power of the simple word "no."

Most New Year's resolutions are framed in general terms like "exercise more" and "eat better," making them difficult to follow and easy to give up. (What, for example, does "more" exercise look like?) A better way to frame such a resolution might be "exercise daily," which at least gives us a standard by which to judge our progress.

But what if the resolution was framed as "No day without exercise?" True, it's an absolutest declaration, but for some reason it holds more power for me than the simple affirmation. With the force of "no" behind it, such a statement feels as if you'd have to have a reason (and a really good one, at that) to not comply.

So here are my tentative "no" resolutions for 2018:

  • No internet/email before noon. (Mornings are when I'm at my creative best.)
  • No computer use after 9pm. (So I get to bed at a decent hour.)
  • Nulla die sine linea. (No day without a line [of writing].)
  • No day without some exercise.
  • No week without a digital sabbath. (One day of no computer use.)
  • No month without two submissions.

I'm also going to do as I did last year, and export my browser bookmarks before deleting them all, so I can start the new year with a digital "clean slate."

So we'll see this year if "no" resolutions are easier to keep than "regular" ones--I'll keep you posted. Best of luck to everyone for 2018.

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After Action Review

December 3, 2017

When I was in the Army we'd often conduct an "After Action Review." AAR's, as they were known, were meetings used to find out what had worked well and what areas needed improvement. "The company was ready to leave at 0600, but the trucks didn't arrive until 0730. The person with the key to the gate wasn't informed of our field problem and so didn't come to open the motor pool until the usual time--0700" or "Having the platoon's ponchos in the upper right-hand pocket of their rucksacks made it quicker to drag the simulated casualties off the landing zone." AAR's corrected mistakes and streamlined procedures, and were an official part of any exercise or field problem.

This year, I decided to conduct a personal AAR to see how I did at hitting the goals I laid out for myself at the end of 2016. Here are the results:

I didn't read Plato daily, as I intended. I did read lots of Plato, as well as several "improving" authors such as Aristotle, Ptolemy, and John Stuart Mill. However, I didn't do it every day. Nor did I always write daily. There were days that were taken up with school writing and other writing-related tasks (such as creating submission lists for articles, stories and poems). But I can't in good conscience say that I put at least one line down every day. My goal for next year will be to correct this.

On the other hand, I did improve my health. I lost roughly 20 pounds this year, saw to some issues, and exercise now more than I used to. This year's task will be to build upon those gains and further improve my health. I also submitted more works than in 2016, though I'm going to try to increase that even more in 2018. My tachygraphy improved, too. I'm more familiar with the symbols than at the beginning of the year, and practiced almost every single day.

My biggest success of 2017 was in the field of chess. I started watching "how-to" videos right after the new year. In February, I joined a local chess club and practice with them twice a month. I also try to play at least one quick game a day against the computer. While I'm not yet where I'd like to be in terms of skill, I've improved quite a bit from the guy who just "knows how the pieces move" twelve months earlier.

As the year draws to a close, you might consider taking a half-hour or so to do your own "After Action Review." I'll bet you'll be pleasantly surprised about some areas of your life, embarrassed about others. But once you've seen where you are, you'll know better what you need to do next to keep moving yourself forward.

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Time Management and To-Do Lists

October 25, 2017

In my February entry, I mentioned how I'd started using a timer to be more productive by pretending I was back in school. One thing I didn't mention was which tasks I do during those periods I'm "in class" and how I choose them. For a long time, I was a devotee of "time management" systems such as David Allen's "Getting Things Done." But I always seemed to end up spending as much time managing my time management as accomplishing my tasks. So I set all those methods aside and worked out my own system.

My method is simple: I keep a master list of tasks to which I add items as they come up or I think of them. For big tasks that have multiple parts ("Revise Master's Thesis," say), I follow David Allen's suggestion and break them down into smaller steps. Then on Sunday night, when I plan out my week ahead (you do plan out your week in advance, right?), I transfer tasks from the master list to my calendar. I generally put down three per day, to allow for the inevitable things that end up changing what we intended to do that day.

Each morning, I prioritize the tasks on my calendar by simply asking myself which one I would be happiest to have accomplished at the end of the day. Then I sit down and do that task until it's done. I repeat this with the next task. Eventually, I run out of either tasks or time. If I run out of tasks before time, I turn to my master To-Do list and pick something else to work on. If I run out of time, on the other hand, the undone tasks become the first ones I tackle the next day.

Simple as it is, this is the system that works for me. Feel free to experiment with it and see if it improves your productivity.

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The Guide and the Trail

May 22, 2017

In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott suggests a writer should write a minimum of three hundred words a day. While she doesn't come out and say it, I assume she doesn't mean three hundred words of stream-of-consciousness free writing; rather three hundred words of prose that moves your current fiction or non-fiction work forward, or which improves some part of your writing craft. Three hundred words with a definite purpose. This makes sense, because there's a difference between wandering and making a journey. Both can be difficult or pleasant by turns, both can be revelatory experiences; but only one has a definite goal in mind, a definite ending place that gives a sense of satisfaction when it's reached.

Writers are guides, taking readers through the landscapes that the writers themselves have created. You have show them the sights, get them to feel what you felt when that sudden plot twist happened, to ooh and aah at the same beautiful vistas that moved you; scaring them, enraging them, getting them to think and feel in turn. But a guide needs to have a trail--they can't just wander aimlessly. And while the trail may never leave the woods, may never come to a lodge or a road or a town or civilization of any kind, it still has to have a starting and an end point and move from one to the other; and the guide has to know how keep the audience interested and engaged in the scenery around them.

So when you sit down to write your three hundred words, make sure it's to further a stated goal of some kind, even if the goal is just to get a character's background straight in your mind, or to get better at writing dialog or describing the world that you're building. But don't let it be (or become) aimless writing. Aimless writing should only be a pleasure to be indulged in after the hard work of cutting the trail, pounding markers along the way, and preparing and smoothing the ground for the feet of the reader is done. Aimless writing is for when you're back at the lodge, your feet by the fire, warmed in your soul by the feeling of a day's work well done.

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Back to School

February 13, 2017

I graduated from high school over thirty years ago. Yet, I've come to discover that going back to school, in a sense, is making me healthier and more productive, both at work and around the house.

I had been scheduling my workflow around "days." Clean-the-kitchen day. Clean-the-bathroom day. Vacuum-and-dust day. I'd write in the morning (since I know I do my best work then), and spend the afternoon alternating between writing and things that needed to be done around the house. Problem was, I'd often spend the afternoon alternating between "research" (i.e surfing), working on other projects and madly trying to get the "day's" housework done before my wife got home that evening.

I also spent a lot more time than I intended sitting at the computer, not moving, which isn't good for my bad back. Sure, I'd bought a cheap kitchen timer and set it to go off every thirty minutes, but it always seemed to ring just as I was getting into the thick of some work, meaning I either had to ignore it and continue on, or get up mid-sentence.

The idea came to me when I read an online post from an acquaintance in which she said she had started taking twenty-minutes breaks from her writing to clean the house, and discovered she got a lot more cleaning done than she expected. For some reason, I was reminded of those ten minute breaks to change rooms between classes. So I decided to go back to school.

The first thing I did was set my timer for forty-five minutes. During that time, I'm "in class," working on, well, work. When the timer dings, I reset it for fifteen minutes and vacuum or clean the showers or fold clothes, or whatever I can get done around the house. At the end of fifteen minutes, I go back to "class" and work on writing. About 11:30, I go to "gym" by working out, then eat lunch. At 1pm, I'm back in class until 5. Then I go home from "school" and start dinner. After dinner is my time to do whatever interests me, or maybe get a little ahead for the next day.

Errands that have to be run are bundled together on one day and treated as a "field trip," in order to not spend too much time away from "school."

I've been amazed by the results and really feel that I now accomplish much more than I used to. If you're looking for a way to get more done during the day, you may want to consider creating a "school" of your own.

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Not Resolutions, But Habits

January 5, 2017

The new year brings many resolutions--I'm going to lose weight/save money/exercise more/write every day. And many of those resolutions go by the wayside in just a couple of weeks, if they last that long. The reason is that many people make resolutions, not realizing that what they are actually mean to say is, "I'll develop the habit of..." For example, "exercising more" really means "exercise every day." This is a habit, rather than a resolution.

So how does one build a habit? There are countless guides on the Internet, and a quick search is bound to find a dozen good articles on the topic. But I'd like to also offer my personal method of building habits. I start by deciding exactly what habit I want to cultivate. Otherwise, there's no way I can set a goal. Once I have a final goal, I pick a daily goal that moves me towards building the habit I want to cultivate. The daily goal I pick is impossibly easy--reading a single page of a book, or ten push ups or writing just one paragraph.

It seems silly to set such easy goals, but I've found that a number of small successes builds a habit quicker than hit-or-miss attempts to reach more ambitious goals. Repeated small successes build momentum. And remember, these goals are minimums. I'll gladly do more if I can. The idea is to build the habit by doing the action every day. And if you want to do something every day, smaller goals make that more likely.

Once I have my daily goals set, I make sure I do them every day--even if I have to stay up an extra few minutes to accomplish them. (This is another reason for keeping my daily goals short.) I don't allow myself to go to bed until I've taken care of my daily goals. It's important not to miss a single day--it takes several weeks of doing something daily to make it a habit.

Here's a real-world example: When I set my daily goal for practicing tachygraphy, I decided it would be a single sentence. So writing "I'm too tired to practice tonight," was all I needed to accomplish my goal. Some days that was all I wrote. Other days, I wrote more. But I wrote something every day. I've been practicing tachygraphy now for almost eighteen months, and the habit is firmly established. All by setting an easy daily goal, and sticking to it.

Whatever method you use, good luck in building new habits in 2017.

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2017 Andrew Gudgel
This page last updated on 20171228.