Friday, January 29, 2010

Multitasker in Recovery

I received some feedback at my performance review that led me to a realization about myself. The combination of my "helper" personality and my tendency to multitask results in my habit of juggling several different tasks or projects at once. This applies to any given moment (having several windows and projects open on my computer at work) or point in time (starting projects at home and taking forever to finish them). Deadlines have always motivated me. However, much of what I do at work is developing and implementing strategic projects and initiatives, which often don't have deadlines.

A coworker told me that she has to finish a project once she starts it before she can move on to something else. Her husband is more like me, but she keeps this in check by reminding him he has to finish the project at hand first. Unfortunately, Mike and I are both starters more than finishers, so I don't have anyone to keep me in line! I do love the feeling of finishing a project, but I think I'm often too ambitious and scattered--I don't do a good enough job focusing one thing at a time, so it takes me longer to get things done.

(For example, I started a cookbook project to finish pasting a bunch of recipes into a 3-ring binder and index them. I finished the pasting before Christmas, but I still haven't finished the indexing. Also, we have been living in our house for 10 years, but we still haven't painted the dreaded pink walls in the hallway, or finished our bathroom project. Sigh. My best excuse is the fact that I have 3 kids and a full-time job. But I have to laugh when people tell me they admire my ability to read so much. They haven't seen my house. Reading is another one of my projects, and it is never ending!)

So one of my personal goals for 2010 is to narrow my focus (at home and at work). I need to prioritize a few top projects and FINISH those before taking on anything else. I also need to stop volunteering for so much. I've ordered Regina Leeds' book One Year to an Organized Life at Work in the hopes that I can apply the same principles at my workplace.

I truly believe that one of my greatest skills is my ability to multi-task. I am great at it. But I think it is hampering my ability to get projects finished, so I need to use it selectively. I just read an interesting e-newsletter that talks specifically about the problems presented by multitasking. (Try the New York Times game linked below at your own risk--I did horribly! But I also would never text in the car!!) The article really spoke to me, especially at this time of my life--I'm guilty of many of the things she mentions! I'm reprinting it here with the permission of the author, Daphne Gray-Grant*:

PW #207 - Are you frittering away your life by multitasking?

I work mostly from home and I'm the mother of triplets. In some ways, I think I'm a marvelous multitasker. Heck, I practically defined the term. When my kids were small, I could feed two babies, change the diaper on the third, talk on the phone and plan dinner, all at the same time. So please take me seriously when I say I know multitasking. But when it comes to writing, I think it's a bad idea.

In theory, multitasking sounds brave and competent. Truth be told, however, it's more accurate to describe multitasking as "being distracted." Scoff if you like, but I think writing is a bit like driving; it requires your full attention. To get a more visceral understanding of what this means, you might want to play a brief online game dreamed up by the New York Times.

Working from the principle that many people mistakenly think they're pretty good at multitasking while driving, the game sets out to measure your reaction time when distracted. How does it work? Well, it puts you behind the wheel of an imaginary car and asks you to change lanes -- repeatedly and quickly. Then, it sends you text messages, which you're expected to answer. (And if your answers have too many errors, you get a text message saying "Sorry, I can't understand you!")

After you've responded to three text messages, the game then sends you a score. Average reaction times show that most players are .24 seconds slower at changing lanes while texting and miss 8% more gates. (Confession: I did much worse than that!) Try it yourself!

So how does this principle apply to writing? I think there are five main ways in which writers try to multitask (and I suggest you avoid ALL of them while you're writing.)

1) Checking email. This is probably the most disruptive -- and compelling -- distraction of our day. According to a calculation by Merlin Mann on his website 43 folders, if you check your e-mail every 5 minutes, then you're checking it 12 times an hour. Multiply 12 times an hour by 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, 50 weeks a year (assuming you take two weeks of vacation and not counting your at-home email habits) and that means you are checking your email some 24,000 times each year. That's awesome -- in a bad way! As Mann asks: "What are you not working on during that time?"

2) Surfing the web. How often are you checking Facebook, Twitter, blogs or just generally surfing the web? Sure it's attractive (I adore Twitter for example), but I don't let it control my life. All computer related habits should be delegated to set times of the day. Start by trying to limit yourself to once an hour for each. From there, reduce even further to only once or twice a day. Or, possibly, use this "distraction" as a reward for when you finish your writing.

3) Talking on the phone. Here's a hard one. Not only can it be fun, it can also be essential for your job. If there's a call, you can't afford to miss, it takes nerves of steel to ignore a ringing phone. To solve this problem, try to schedule your writing as an appointment -- and then treat it like a meeting with your CEO. If necessary, leave your office and perch in a coffee shop or at a boardroom or library table.

4) Doing research while you write. Please, don't ever mix your writing with your research. These are two separate tasks and the research should always come first. That doesn't mean there won't be information gaps when you write but don't use them as an excuse to stop writing. Instead, insert a blank "marker" in your text -- like this ________ or this XXX -- and then research how to fill it/fix it later, when you're editing.

5) Eating. I see a lot of people eating lunch at their computers. This is a bad idea -- not just for you, but also for your computer. Crumbs and liquid can kill your keyboard. My daughter lost her laptop when she spilled a glass of orange juice over it. But it's also bad for you. When you've been working hard writing, you deserve a break. So, pat yourself on the back and go eat your lunch (or your snack) elsewhere. Multitasking. It's not just being an extra-hard worker. It's being a distracted one.

*A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of the popular book 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a brief and free weekly newsletter on her website. Subscribe by going to the Publication Coach.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Want an idea for all those Christmas cards you received?

I typically keep the card fronts so I can reuse them for gift tags in upcoming years. However. As a result, I have piles of old Christmas cards. As I approached the stack from this year, I knew that I could not keep them as well. So I did a search on the internet and found a great solution to my Christmas card dilemma:

They are accepting used, all-occasion (including Christmas) cards until February 28, 2010. Donations can be mailed to St. Jude's Ranch for Children, Recycled Card Program, 100 St. Jude's Street, Boulder City, NV, 89005.

St. Jude's Ranch for Children takes in abused, abandoned, and neglected children. The kids help volunteers make new cards by attaching a new back to the card, which they then sell to fund their work.

I was so inspired by this idea that I went and dug out all our old Christmas cards (that were in my Christmas boxes) to find more to send off! This is another example of something I've always kept (my mom taught me the trick) but I'm letting go of.

I e-mailed St. Jude's Ranch to verify they also want Christmas cards (the site says all-occasion cards), and they responded to say that they want card fronts with no writing on the I guess I will weed through them and keep a few for gift tags and recycle the rest.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Healthier eating choices for the whole family

South Beach Progress

I've been on Phase One of the South Beach Diet for 8 days now, and it's going well. We bought a new digital scale to replace the analog one we've had since we got married (and doesn't seem very reliable), so I'm not exactly sure how many pounds I've lost...but they are melting away. I also feel much healthier.

I'm sure cutting out alcohol, sugar, and wheat is partially contributing to this feeling, although I am definitely counting the days until I can add grains and fruit back into my diet. Phase One (purposely strict to limit one's cravings) officially ends on Saturday, but I will end it one day early, since Friday night my sister and I will be helping my mom celebrate her birthday at Edgefield, and I want to be able to enjoy a glass of wine.

I did go out to lunch with friends twice this week, and I did fine. The first time was sushi, and I had miso soup, edamame, tofu, and sashimi. The second time I had a yummy roasted vegetable salad with grilled chicken on it--the dressing was honey mustard, which I realized later technically breaks the Phase One rule (no honey or sugar), but oh well. I have not missed bread, but I have missed rice and oatmeal.

I stocked up on tons of veggies, organic olive oil, jarred red peppers, and whole grains (organic brown rice, wild rice, and quinoa), in addition to Wii Fit Plus, at Costco this week. Last night I made Indian chicken (with coconut milk and cauliflower), spiced lentils, and garlic-sesame green beans. We had the leftovers tonight, and they were delicious.

Kids Get Healthy!

This week has focused heavily on food, because 3-year-old Nick has been horribly constipated, to the point of groaning and pain. He has a horrible diet--drinks tons of milk (regular and chocolate) and eats a lot of starch (toast, macaroni and cheese, rice, etc.) as well as string cheese and eggs. Very few veggies, and the only fruit he seems interested in at the moment are bananas (also not good for constipation). He's in that skeptical 3-year-old eating phase. Things he used to enjoy he turns his nose up at now. Fortunately, the constipation seems to have passed because we've cut way back on his milk intake, and we're feeding him popcorn (high in fiber) and other healthy foods.

We've decided that our entire family needs to eat healthier. As it is, we realize we our way healthier than most American families, but we still have lots of room for improvement. We typically eschew high-fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated oils, and most processed foods, but like any parents, we have our weak moments when we have given into our kids, or into convenience.

Mike and I have found ourselves being short-order cooks for the kids at times, even though we swore we would never do that! It's not all the time, but any time we make something we think the kids won't like as much we'll make macaroni and cheese, corn dogs, or spinach ravioli for them.

We've both been reading a lot about healthier eating (I'm reading In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan right now), and Mike read about a great idea to encourage healthy eating in kids: the "no thank you plate." Now the kids can put food on the plate that they do not want to eat. We've had some grumbling about the healthier choices we're putting in front of them (especially our efforts to limit snacks right before or after dinner), but overall I believe it's going well. They will get used to it!

Part of my kitchen revisit will include getting rid of anything that doesn't fit into these healthy eating guidelines, including a big barrel of Red Vines, which I allowed Kieran to buy with his allowance during a weak moment at Costco! They are stale anyway. Who can eat a big barrel of Red Vines before they go stale, anyway? Personally, I hate the things. Hope Kieran won't notice their absence.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Okay, Make that Two Years?

I failed to "organize my life" in 1 year, even though I did make tons of progress toward that goal. I plan to get back on track with following the book. I'm going to start all over again this year, revisiting the rooms I decluttered, organized, and cleaned last year--because they can use it again!

In the meantime, I will reclean the study after all the Christmas wrapping and cards are put away for good (it's Christmas at our house until after Epiphany) and take photos to show off our progress. Stay tuned!

I will also work on the family room in between revisiting the other rooms. It's the last big major room to tackle, and it's not helped by the fact that the shelf on which several photo albums were perched fell down today when 6-year-old Kieran reached up to get a spool of thread. Poor thing met me at the door in tears--he felt terrible! But one of my upcoming tasks is to go through old photos, weed some out, and organize the rest.

I have also expanded my life organizing to include organizing my health. After over-indulging during the holidays like so many other people, I decided to try the South Beach Diet. In recent months I've been noticing a spare tire around my middle, and I'm determined to get rid of it (or at least reduce its size!).

Although I've had some success at tracking calories in the past, I felt that this recent weight gain calls for more drastic measures! I'm also reading a bunch of books on healthy eating for inspiration. (That's the way I get inspired...I read.)

So far, Phase One of the South Beach (the hardest phase) has gone fine and has not been as hard as I expected. I started on Saturday. The hardest part has been giving up my beloved granola or oatmeal for breakfast. (During Phase One, you can't eat grains, fruit, sugar, or alcohol, among other things.) The first night I made a delicious dinner of chicken, garlic, fresh basil, red pepper, zucchini, mushrooms, and pesto. I used two pounds of chicken, so I had lots left over to take for lunch this week. I also went grocery shopping to stock up on vegetable juice, vegetables, unsalted mixed nuts, and soups. (I love the fact that I am actually encouraged to eat nuts every day--yum! that helps stave off hunger...)

Last night I cooked some chicken/turkey meatballs in a lime-ginger-tamari sauce (okay, so I cheated on the fruit a bit by using lime), served over a bed of spinach. Tonight my dear sweet husband made steelhead with tomatoes, garlic, onions, and capers (using a South Beach recipe he found online--isn't he a sweetheart??).

I've been eating plain yogurt, turkey bacon, and veggie juice for breakfast, and the yogurt is actually growing on me (forgive the pun). This morning I mixed some cinnamon, nuts, and stevia in the yogurt to sweeten it a bit.

The real test will be on Wednesday, when I'm meeting friends for sushi at the rotating sushi bar. I figure I can eat sashimi, edamame, and miso soup, right?

Beyond organizing my health and my house, my job is changing this year again, so I will add my job to things to organize. And so it a never-ending cycle.

So far, so good! 2010 will be a good year--I can feel it.