Finding a way to not start

jose-martinez-cookie-monster-cupcakes-5007403719_2e10472c75_b For a long time, I've been aware of the most obvious form of addiction in my family: alcoholism.

First of all, because Mom drank. A lot. And so did Mom's dad and some of Mom's brothers. A lot. Once it spirals out of the societally-determined safe zone, alcohol addiction gets obvious fast, what with all the clanging empties and lack of employment and whatnot.1

It took me much longer to spot the other, less obvious manifestations of the addictive temperament in my gene pool, Dad's workaholism, for instance, or my maternal grandmother's massive sugar jones, or everyone's need to have the television on as loud as possible as often as possible, especially when someone else was in the room. Hey, those aren't problems, they're part of being American!

I will pause for the briefest of moments to say I'm going nowhere near any discussions of the root causes of addiction, of whether addiction is a disease or symptom (although I suspect the answer to that is "yes"), or of where addiction and compulsion overlap. I am not a mental-healthcare professional nor have I done any scholarly boning up on addiction and its underlying/concomitant behavioral disorders.

What I can say, and with the rock-solid confidence that only years of experience and obsessive (haha) self-observation can bring, is that the triggers that set my own self-destructive behaviors in motion are manifold and insidious.

* * * * *

The purpose of drinking too much or working too much, like all self-destructive behaviors, is to create distance between you and something else: Distance between you and your feelings, usually the painful ones. Distance between you and another person, usually one whom getting close to would involve the stirring up of painful feelings. Distance between you and the truth, which, as time and the behavior goes on, becomes about how much distance between you and your feelings or you and your loved ones your addictive/compulsive behavior has created.

Most of these buffer reasons for addictions are pretty well-established. Freud was hip to them, for crying out loud. You do something bad because somewhere in your brain, you think it's keeping you from something worse.

Your first order of business in changing this stuff seems to be sussing out the "why": I work too much because no matter how well I did, I was told I could do better if only I worked harder. That I should do this was left unspoken, but hung thickly in the air at all times. So I work too much because it puts distance between me and the fear that I am not enough, and that I am unlovable as I am.2

Okay. I get why I work too much. What I didn't get, because I couldn't make it fit, is why I couldn't get to the work of working too much. I mean, seriously, if I love work so freakin' much, why am I screwing around in Facebook? Why am I checking my email for the 57th time, hoping against hope that it holds some horrific fire that must be put out NOW? (Or, barring that, a really, really important and necessary special offer that must be acted upon immediately?)

And then, like a bolt from the blue, I got smacked upside the head by Captain Obvious: my incessant fiddling, my noodling, my (say it with me, now) P-R-O-C-R-A-S-T-I-N-A-T-I-N-G is there to put distance between me and starting, so that I don't have to fail by finishing.

Given my fondness for the work of Seth and Uncle Steve, not to mention my up-close-and-personal experience with the Resistor and all those years of shrinkage, that this lightbulb moment comes so late in the game is more than a little humiliating.

On the other hand, I'm a shoo-in for Dumbass of the Year award. And I do like me some award-garnering.

Lest we end this section on a sour-ish note of self-flagellation (more distancing!), I will add that like all discoveries of a disastrous or humiliating nature, if I can really and truly turn them into lessons learned, I win.

And I really, really like winning. Obviously.

* * * * *

So. How does one turn a discovery into a lesson really and truly learned?

On a recent episode of my new-favorite podcast-slash-obsession, the host, Marc Maron, who quit drinking 15 years ago, describes the process of his getting sober.3 For a long while, it sounds like he had a waking-up to how drinking (and for him, drug use) was really taking away much more than it was giving. Once he really and truly got that, he said, he had to find a way of not starting, which sound like what the Program was for him. AA is all about not starting, not taking that first drink. If you don't have the first one, you can't have all the subsequent ones, which are what get you into trouble.

Not-starting looks like not-doing, but really, it's doing other things. Taking other actions. Probably small, simple actions (although we're not going to be foolish enough to bait the Resistor by calling them "easy"). And probably many actions, over a long period of time. There may be the occasional grand, cinematic gesture, like throwing a half-full pack of cigarettes into the trash just like that. But the real work begins with the not-starting later: not fishing the pack out again four hours later when you get back from dinner really wanting a cigarette. Not buying a fresh pack the next day, or the day after that, or the day after that.

And my own experience of becoming a person who didn't smoke after having been one who did, and like a chimney, and for 12 years, was that while the story of throwing away that half-pack was great, it was the actions I took that got the job done. The stupid mantra. The mass quantities of cherry Halls Mentho-Lyptus cough drops. Inventing errands. Making myself go places where smoking was not allowed (much harder to do back in 1980s-era Chicago). Keeping my hands and mouth and brain busy with something, anything else.

I do these things so I do not do that thing. I choose these actions so I do not lapse into that one.

* * * * *

Fortunately, I spend a lot of time thinking and talking about this shit. On the blog alone, I've got over six years of obsessive self-analysis. Then there are the volumes of journaling and morning pages, the now-hundreds of hours in the Google Wave with Dave (I'm kind of glad I can't see those stats), the countless discussions with friends and fellow travelers, the aforementioned years of shrinkage. Plus, in case you hadn't noticed, I read. A lot. (Obsession: it has its upside, too!)

Between all of the talking and all of the thinking and all of the reading, I've learned a good deal about the nature of what I want to stop, i.e. both "work" that gets in the way of Work and too much work, period. At almost-50 years old, I think it's safe to say that I will be addressing their root causes, fear, mishegoss, until they scatter my ashes at sea. But I'll also say that at almost-50, it is beyond time to put on my Big-Girl Pants and do some of the tedious, outside-in work of taking actions, if for no other reason than the idea of not being able to do my Work or to work or even to "work", if it comes to that, is anathema and time and gravity are conspiring against me. Those cocksuckers.

The actions?

Well, I have a long list. I may get to itemization in future posts. Or I may just dive into action and leave you hanging. To spend any longer on this post would be a starting, not a not-starting, if you catch my drift.

For now, I will leave you with my vaguely-defined commitment to (a) establishing actions that support Work and (b) establishing additional actions to ensure not slipping into "work" and overwork. These include, but are not limited to, such incredibly mundane and tedious actions as brushing my teeth, logging time, and processing emails according to a specific protocol. In other words, a lot of things I either do or should be doing regularly.

I will also leave you with this excellent post by Ramit Sethi on barriers which I wish I'd read five years ago. Or that maybe I did read five years ago and was too dense to get. Whatever. It's excellent, and pertinent to this discussion.

And, finally, I will leave you with this exhortation: try to be nice to yourself. At least as nice to yourself as you'd treat someone you were indifferent about, preferably nicer. Not in an indulgent way. Just nice.

It's not going to fix everything. But it's a start.

xxx c

1It's also terrifying enough to serve as a deterrent: I drink, but I scrutinize my intake ruthlessly, one might even say with an obsession that borders on the ironic, for fear of ending up like the family drunks.

2I would assume I also work too much because it puts distance between me and the fear of dying, probably because I always say I'm not afraid of dying, and the lady doth protest too much/etc.

3More on this soon enough, much more, but if you like your introspection served up with a healthy dose of wit, heart and savoir faire (and don't mind swearing), do yourself a favor and subscribe to the WTF podcast. Insanely good, obsessively so, even.

Image by chilebeans via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Making allowances for the way you work

photo of Colleen Wainwright Yesterday morning, I finished reading Unbroken, the true-life story of Louis Zampirini's triumphant, plague-filled journey from punk kid to Olympic runner to WWII Air Force bombadier to POW to haunted veteran to redeemed hero. It's an amazing story.

As I tore through it on my Kindle, the only way for the spindly-limbed gal to fly when it comes to oversized books, I kept thinking three things:

  1. Damn, this is an amazing story!
  2. Would I have what it takes to make it through this?
  3. How in the wide, wide world of sports did Laura Hillenbrand write this with CFS?

The joke answer, of course, is "very, very slowly." It would take a wildly robust writer a long time to research and write a compelling and historically-accurate 400-page book about a series of events in a time when everyone's last sneeze was not recorded for posterity*; it took Hillenbrand 10 years.

* * * * *

I didn't pick up Unbroken because Laura Hillenbrand has a chronic illness and I have a chronic illness and hey, why not be inspired by a writer whose chronic illness is a thousand times worse than mine to get off my lazy, relatively well ass and write, dammit; I picked it up, well, downloaded it to my electronic reading device, because I'd heard people rave over and over about what a gripping tale, what an immersive experience it was. Hard-core lefties, Republicans, old folk, youngsters, literati. Enough of a spread to render the thumbs-up agnostic.**

I picked it up because I had a long plane ride ahead of me and, thanks to tailwinds, a longer one back, and I fly in the back of the bus, where postage-stamp-sized trays jutting out into what could only laughably be called "room" preclude any sort of real work, much less 15" laptop-opening. It's a situation that calls for books one would describe as "gripping" and reading experiences one would call "immersive."

I picked it up because, after a rough three weeks patching myself up from a foolhardy near-crash outside of San Francisco, I knew I'd be spending more time alone in my hotel room resting when I wasn't strictly needed in order to spend the energy my job called for when I was.

* * * * *

Toward the end of my talk, I got a question that comes up so frequently, I may end up adding it to the presentation proper: How do you do all of this?

You see, I've just spent 50 jam-packed minutes going over Right Behavior online in our fast-paced-and-rapidly-changing modern media landscape (and indicating that much of it is now expected, if not required, in real life). All the ins and outs of tweeting and Facebooking and policy-creation and email-sig-shortening that you need to know so you don't fall behind, or worse, come off like a thankless jackass online. Understandably, this is overwhelming to people at the beginning of the learning curve. Just the idea of doing it is overwhelming, never mind the actual learning and doing.

I get this; I do. And while I answer for myself, because really, that's all one can do, I am really giving the answer for everyone, everywhere, regardless of the condition of their health or the state of their business or the vigorous and very real demands on their life: you make accommodations for what is important to you. My work is important to me, so I don't do or have a bunch of things normal people have. Lately, I've realized that my health is important to me, so I'm learning to accommodate that, too. Slowly. And, if I'm honest, as much because I'm terrified at the thought of not being able to work as I am not being able, period.***

It may help to remember that while I'm relatively facile at this whole being-online thing, I have my own c*cksucking boulders to push up my own motherf*cking hills. For example, I have always just been lucky enough with money and modest enough in my desires that I didn't have to learn anything about it to get by in relative comfort. Now the economy is squeezing me along with everyone else, AND I'm (almost) 50, AND I want a couple of bigger things that are simply not going to be possible without winning the lottery or changing my rhythm. And I don't play the lottery.

* * * * *

Everyone has their basket. The older I get, the more I think that most choices boil down to love or fear, and most of the pain in the world is caused by choosing the latter. It is much, much easier to do the scaredy-cat thing and peer into the tippy-tops of other people's baskets and become covetous or enraged or pitying or what have you. It is much harder to look at yours, get down with what's in it, and get to work. However you work. Whatever your "work" is.

But that's what's required: complete honesty looking inward, and complete love looking outward. Honesty and love. No more, no less. Not very sexy, but there it is.

I'd be surprised if anyone gets all the way there, ever, before the lights go out. I have a looooong way to go, which is why I'm spending more time in hot baths liberally sprinkled with Epsom salts than I am at the discothéque. (Well, and also because I don't think there are such things as discothéques anymore.)

Give yourself the room you need to live the life you want. That's what all this stuff about decluttering and streamlining and goal-setting is really about. Room to do what's right, and what feeds you, and what saves the world. Once you have enough room, see about what you can do to provide someone else with some before you get yourself more. (Because really, beyond a certain point, how much room do you need?)

We all know what's best for ourselves. And we can all start making sure it happens right now.

xxx c

*Actually, another thing I kept wondering while I read was how these men in the Japanese prison camps managed to keep diaries at all, much less preserve them for 60 years. Their ingenuity and stubborn determination made me ashamed of my dithering over writing software programs and WordPress glitches.

**Speaking of agnosticism, I almost certainly wouldn't have picked it up if I'd known there was an actual religious redemption in the story. In the context of Zampirini's life, though, it not only makes sense, you're happy when it happens. I'm wary enough of organized religion to say my own, little "hosanna" when one of the good guys turns up.

***I know, I know, it's messed UP. I'm not saying this is a good way to be, or that it's a place I want to stay. I'm just being brutally honest about where I am. Because in my experience, skipping that first step really makes the whole thing go farkakte.

Photo © Addison Geary Photography.

[video] Better yogurt through Post-It notes


[watch "Better Yogurt Through Post-It Notes" on YouTube; 3:03 minutes]

Like last week's video, this crazy little how-to is more about systems thinking, viewing things though the lens of friction reduction, than it is a nutty one-off hack about closing browser tabs or sticking Post-Its on things. Actually, when you really think about it, most of my videos are about that, excepting the spicy ones.1

In this case, my points are two-fold.

First, when you get stuck, stop and think (after briefly raging at the heavens or whatever): what stuck me, and what might prevent that from happening again aside from my own deep feelings of frustration and personal inadequacy.

Second, for tasks or processes you tend to repeat, in my case, making tub after tub of yogurt, look for ways to streamline up to, but stopping short of, the point of ridiculousness. In this case, it cost me zippo to write out two sticky notes at once.

I guess there's a third point, as well: a system that's working is fine. You don't have to change it! And as I hinted at in Point the Second, you don't want to go too nutty with the tweaking. Keep the goal in sight, and remember: forest, not trees.

As to all the yogurt-talk, here is a fine explanation of our delicious yogurt, including how-tos for making it in a yogurt-maker or (gas) oven. They spell it with an "h", but it works just fine down here in Canada South.

And here's that SCD page on my site, because I keep taking links off the front page in my decluttering rampages.

Now, back to bed!


1I owe what little I've been able to absorb and implement on systems thinking to my friend and client Sam Carpenter, who literally wrote the book on it. It's an easy and useful read, and the stuff is applicable to any line of work or area of interest in the physical world: kind of like uber-hacking. I wrote a review which you can read here. I also highly recommend Sam's newsletter (sign up via his website) and not just because I taught him everything he knows about making that particular system work better. (Insert winky emoticon here.)

Rid yourself of unsightly browser tabs [video]


[Watch "Rid Yourself of Unsightly Browser Tabs" on YouTube; 2:29 minutes]

After recording this, it occurred to me that there's a whole thought process behind using this hack which may not be immediately apparent in the hack itself. So if you're still confused after watching the video, or if you'd rather skip the video altogether, this written rationale may prove useful.

If you're like me, you occasionally find yourself with a fat, soggy browser and a million open tabs, wondering how the hell you got there and more importantly, how the hell to get back to the original thing you were working on that had you launch that initial tab in the first place without losing all the good stuff you just found.

And if you're like me, you probably also know about the convenient "bookmark all tabs in folder" feature baked into modern browsers. It's great for creating a collection of tabbed windows you'd use for, say, blogging (your WordPress dashboard, Flickr, a dictionary site) or your daily social media circuit (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google Reader, etc) or what have you.1

What is less obvious or intuitive or whatever (at least to me) is where and how to save them. And to answer that, you have to look at why you're saving them. (Note: this is the key, lifesaving question to ask whenever you find yourself doing almost anything automatically, a quick "why" can stop the senseless spiraling-downward, save you a boatload of pain, and start to usher in meaningful changes.)

In my case, I'm usually saving them for two reasons, one "good" and one psycho.

The "good" reason is that in wandering off, I've likely found some juicy stuff I might want to read more carefully or share or otherwise implement to make me better/stronger/faster.

The psycho reason is that I am terrified to let go of something for fear of that whole, vague, Depression-born, clutter-laden "But what if I need it later?" mindset. (In fairness, I often have needed something later, and spent stupid extra time trying to hunt it down via browser history or brain-scraping.)

My version of "save all tabs in folder", then, mimics the time-tested decluttering practice of moving clutter you're unsure about to a holding area for a certain period of time before pitching it completely. It's also not unlike what some have called "declaring email bankruptcy", moving all of your unanswered, saved, crufty emails to one folder and starting with a fresh, new "inbox zero."

  1. I have one folder in my menu bar labeled "current."
  2. When I wake up from zombie-like surfing to realize I have 20 tabs open and a column still on deadline, I execute a "save all tabs to folder."
  3. I label that folder with the date. (I use a built-in TextExpander shortcut to do this: year/month/day, written as YYYY_MMDD to keep things neat and tidy.)
  4. I save that folder as a subfolder in the "current" folder.

Now I have a neatly-marked and organized history of where I was at the moment I wandered off. I usually end up saving the subfolders for a month or so; a little distance makes a remarkable difference in the ability to discern useful from clutter-ful, which is the point. But also, if I did happen to have something immediately useful open, it's much, much easier to find in the next few days when it's stuck in a folder with the date, in a place where I can reliably find it. Which draws on another great ADD person's hack (which was just commonsense Heloise-type stuff before we all knew about ADD): "Always leave your (keys/purse/etc) in the same ONE place."

That's it!

Please let me know what you think in the comments. On the video posts, I'm especially interested in reactions and helpful feedback to make these things better. And I'm especially ESPECIALLY interested, because I'm going to teach myself how to actually use all of the great features in Screenflow this year to make better screencasts.


1In Chrome, Firefox: ⌘ + shift + D. In Safari, you have to use the drop-down menu, although if you want to get super-fancy, you can find an AppleScript that does the trick. And if you're still using Internet Explorer?Please use it right now to download a copy of Chrome, Firefox or Safari.

Corralling unruly receipts [video]

[youtube=] [watch "Corralling Unruly Receipts on YouTube; 1:54 of your life]

This week's video installment features a verrrrry old trick I use to keep all of my credit card receipts in one spot, but as I mention in the video, hey, it occurred to me once out of nowhere; maybe it hasn't occurred to everyone yet.


  1. Get a large envelope—mine is a size 12 (4.75" x 11")—of the type my union used to use to send me big, fat residual checks. Bank statement envelopes are also good, if you still get those in the mail. You can also use a regular letter-sized envelope, of course, but you will not be able to shirk your bookkeeping duties for as long as I do.
  2. Trim off the flap of the envelope.
  3. Staple the top (cut) edge of the envelope to the top, inside flap of a manila envelope.
  4. Insert in file drawer and watch your life magically change!

I guess I should note here that if you do not have a filing cabinet or use files, this will be of little-to-no use to you. However, you may find the video entertaining. (You would have to be really bored to do so, but oh, well.)

Thanks, please feel free to leave helpful comments, and if you do, please don't forget to be nice!

xxx c

P.S. January's newsletter went out today! If you're subscribed and did not get it, please check your spam folder. Partly because it's a good one and partly because, well, there are going to be a few changes in newsletter-land soon, and them what ain't opening their newsletters regularly are likely to find themselves out in the cold. And if you're not subscribed and you like this blog, you should be!

The hardest thing I did all weekend, the hardest thing I'll do all week

young man napping on foam bedding on ground

On Saturday night, I went to bed at 8:30pm.1

I didn't go to sleep at 8:30; it took me a full hour and a half of fighting myself to do that, with an assist from the back third of Breaker Morant and the front quarter of John Adams. Still, me, in bed by 8:30 on any night is tremendous. That I had just set the goal for myself that very day to be in bed by 8pm and only missed it by a half-hour was icing on the cake.

I am not quite done unpacking all of the reasons why it's so hard for me to call it a day, even on a weekend, but I have a short list:

  1. I was an only child for five and a half years. I grew up around grown-ups, and was treated like one, albeit a short, ignorant one. That treatment very reasonably ended at my being able to partake in certain grown-up activities, such as operating a motor vehicle and consuming adult beverages and staying up past 8pm and fire. So now, I'LL SHOW THEM. (I know, I know. A genius of logic, I am not. Still, I love driving, liquor and espresso, and my place is lousy with candles and incense, so at least I'm consistently illogical.)
  2. I am an overachiever. With a crippling case of eyes-bigger-than-stomach syndrome, time-wise. I always, always, always think I can get more done in a day than I can, and much less than is reasonable. So I feel like I should have gotten more done, always, and I feel like the answer to actually doing it is just pushing harder and harder, rather than revising my notions of what is right and proper.
  3. I am human. I want "me" time, or rather, "me, unplugged" time. Me-not-worky time. Me-veg-out time. And since I am relentless and/or a nimrod, time-management-wise, right up until I hit my limit, I insist on treating myself to whoop-dee-do time at night, by which time I'm so exhausted all my body wants to do is rest up for the next day of battle with my will. "Whoop-dee-do" equals an adult beverage and/or TV, since I am still dealing with my inner five-and-a-half-year-old's unmet needs.

So. Even though I missed the mark by a half-hour and spent my wind-down time consuming video entertainment, I'm calling it progress. Hard-won. Hard, period.

At the same time I'm tackling this staying-up-late/overexerting-myself nonsense, I'm also dealing with a surprise problem. It's so ridiculous, I'm embarrassed to say it, or, rather, I've been too embarrassed to say it in the two weeks since I discovered it. Now, I'm saying it:

I do not know how to rewrite.

Does that look like nothing to you? Look again:

I am a writer. I have made my living writing. I have had things I've written performed on professional stages. I have written a monthly column for actors, one in which I not infrequently stress the necessity of working incessantly at one's craft, for over four years. I have written posts on this very blog for over six years. Just this summer, I helped teach a teleclass about writing.2 And I do not know how to rewrite.

I will go into the long and boring and painful story of my revelation another day.3 For now, what is relevant and necessary to share is this: there's always something to do next. ALWAYS. I watched some of a documentary about Ram Dass. In it, he talks about his stroke, and how his reaction as he was having it was the opposite of spiritual. As someone on the spiritual path, he gave himself an "F". So he's working with his teacher, the stroke, to learn more stuff.


Anyway, once you're on the other side of whatever morass you need to see your way through, you might see how that's a good thing. Bumping up against trouble and working your way through it, on the other hand, requires vast stores of energy and patience. I'm running short on the former these days, and I've never had much of the latter.

Changing these things, my relationship to time, my ability to rewrite, may also change how I approach the blog. I'm finally ceding to the reality of finite amounts of time and energy, and I really, really, really want to get some more complex and intricate forms of writing out into the world. Books take vast amounts of time, and fuckloads of rewriting. It's one thing to dash off a pretty good first draft of a 1,000-word piece; it's another to do the same for a 60,000-word memoir. There is no dashing that.

As I move forward, then, I suppose I will do what I can do, and what I've done thus far: share what I can, when it is useful. It's just that prior to this alarming discovery, "can" had a lot more to do with my ability to process than my levels of energy or my available hours. It should be an interesting six months, if I remain committed to this new learning.

In the meantime, one thing I am very interested in doing is immersing myself in the techniques and mindset of rewriting, if there are any. An initial couple of searches didn't turn up much, which intrigues me. If writing is rewriting, shouldn't there be a lot more writing about rewriting? Or maybe there is, and I've blinded myself to it.

I have enlisted actual help in this, by the way. My writing-group buddy (we're down to just two of us) is, as it turns out, as good at rewriting as I am bad at it. And she's a mom, so she's got the patience thing down.

Still. You know. Resources and stories of how you licked the problem would be most welcome at this juncture.


1And please, don't waste one second feeling sorry for me being home on a Satiddy night. First, I am 49, I've had a million of 'em. Second, Saturday night? Feh. It's second only to New Year's Eve and most Sundays in line for the title of "Worst Night to Go Out, Ever."

2Despite my inadequacies, the stuff I did talk about, I actually knew something about. The course is really good, with tons of great information and exercises and practices, so if you're looking for a self-directed course on writing, I highly recommend you check it out. And yes, I make money if you buy through that link. Or this one! Or this one! I wrestle with it inside, this affiliate-linking thing, and I need to write up a formal policy and make explicit my reasons for affiliate-linking (or not). But for now, know that it's just that, and Amazon, and Groupon that I link to that way. Period.

3But just to head off certain questions at the pass, the reason I've been able to skate for so long is two-fold. First, like some autistic savant or functional illiterate, I used the superpowers and will I did have to get really, really good at writing a first draft. My first drafts are not perfect, but they're better than plenty of people's second drafts to pass, and good enough for gov'mint work almost all of the time. Second, whenever I did need to rewrite, I had help, bosses, clients, art directors, fellow Groundlings, whatever. Even then, change was minimal and excruciating. Whatever the opposite of fun is, it was that. And if you don't believe me (although I don't know why you wouldn't, since I'm pretty frank on this here blog), a final kind of Q.E.D. is this set of footnotes: they exist because I'm not even going to try to fancy-first-draft this. I'm too tired to rewrite to get them into the draft, so they're just going, and staying, here.

Image by slettvet via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Book review: Work the System

cogs and gears of a gigantic machine

I suppose there are small business owners and solopreneurs and plain old freelancers out there who never find themselves with too little time or too much stress, but I've met a lot more of the other kind.

Most of us seem to spend most of our time running from fire to fire, an all-too-recognizable analogy, along with Whac-A-Mole, that perennial favorite of arcade-dwelling masochists everywhere, that author and business owner Sam Carpenter evokes many, many times in the revised 2nd edition of his 2008 book Work the System: The Simple Mechanics of Making More and Working Less.

If we're lucky, we come to a moment of awakening, then follow it up with the kind of right work and right action that will get us out of the hole we're in; if we're not, we just work until we or our businesses drop dead. Carpenter was about as close to the breaking point both personally and financially with his telecommunications outsourcing business when he had, as he calls it, a kind of out of body experience: he rose up and was suddenly able to see his business differently; it was not a mass of fires but a working organism, a gigantic but self-contained mega-system made up of many smaller, self-contained mini-systems that all worked (or didn't) together. The picture worked for this engineer-minded businessman, and in that moment, he both vowed to right the system to its natural state of balance, and began the process of systematically (haha) doing so.

I've yet to describe my own epiphany in detail (saving it for my book!), nor have I fully internalized the idea that everything is a system that can be broken down into components, but I completely get how everything in Carpenter's world suddenly made a whole lot of sense, because he could actually see things differently.

And even without fully internalizing the Work the System concept, I can see instantly how I already have implemented orderly processes in many of my own life's systems, which gives me hope that I might be able to wrassle the bear that is my business to the ground with sound principles applied methodically. I point to my homemade, SCD-compliant yogurt as Exhibit A: if you'd told me 10 years ago that not only would I make my own yogurt, but that I would do it with the nonchalance and regularity of brushing and flossing my teeth, I'd have laughed...after I put down my leaded Coke and Chee-tos. And the more I scan for them, the more I can, as Carpenter suggests, start seeing them everywhere: my Photoshop workflow for creating presentation templates; my years making silver jewelry in metalsmithing; even the way I can come up with a cheese omelet and hot espresso in the morning on autopilot.

The Chief Atheist used to like saying (and, I imagine, still does), "Life is a series of techniques." This is the kernel of Carpenter's thesis, to which I might add, "...nestled together like a series of Russian dolls or CSS boxes." He says it rather overly, perhaps, section the first, which is all about the underlying theory, nudges hard up against being overly repetitive, something Carpenter cops to: it's too important not to flog at length.

On the other hand, parts 2 and 3 fly by, full as they are of actual examples from Carpenter's life and business: of the systems implemented, of the kinds of documentation he developed for them, of the crazy lessons he learned along the way. And he's funny! And earnest, and real, with diverse interests! The commie-pinko-liberal-hippie in me completely grooved on all the references to '60s and '70s musicians (anyone who brings up Zappa in a business book is my kinda guy), while the nerd in me nodded along to his invocations of Stephen Covey and his 7 habits, or Gerber and his E-Myth.

Obviously, I haven't "worked the system" for my business yet. The process begins, as I mentioned above, with a thorough internalizing of the concepts, followed by a crap-ton of paperwork (he walks you through that part, as well as sharing the documents that he developed for his company).

That's okay. First, I don't mind paperwork, and second, I understand first-hand that once you spend a little time up front thinking through and plotting out and implementing a system, the time saved on the other end is tremendous. Just ask someone who's lost cognitive faculties and is having to re-learn how to do everything with new neural pathways. Or hell, make yourself a PB&J with your feet: you'll see right quick.

Me? I'm already sold, and starting work on communicatrix 3.0: the well-oiled, smooth-running, mole-free version...


Through this evening (Tuesday, July 14, at 6pm PDT), you can get a free PDF version of Work the System by visiting the website and entering your email address. Click here now, dammit!


Image (top) by Elsie esq. via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Back to schedule, not back-to-back schedule


I've long joked that I have two settings: "full-bore" and "off." Modulation and moderation, while lovely concepts, have always existed just outside of my grasp.

Okay, that's crap. They've existed as concepts, period.

My own journals only reach as far back as freshman year of college, the ones extant, anyway, but still, you can map the signs of today's all-or-nothing Colleen. The endless, earnest lists filled with things to purchase, in order to fulfill some very specific and lofty role I'd conceived for myself. The Big Plans and Serious Resolve which make their semi-annual appearance at the end of an old calendar year and the beginning of a new academic one. And then, of course, reboot after reboot mid-term, when something inevitably went awry.

I've learned my lesson about such foolishness as saying "never again!", at least, I think I have. (See how I dodged that one? Progress!) I've definitely learned it in the area of relationships, where I was once foolish enough not only to literally utter the phrase "Well, I'm done!", but to do it out loud, in front of a witness. Who, as I recall, actually took a step back from me.

I've also learned a fair number of tips and tricks about making work work. Accountability is a huge help, but the source must be frequently refreshed, because my modus operandi, honed by years of service as the child of parents with high expectations, is to choose stern taskmasters, then win them over with circus tricks and the old soft shoe. Doing the hardest (or most important) work in the hours I'm freshest is another big one, as is providing myself with the right space (quiet, usually, and fairly neat, and often private). And giving myself some time and room to putter, since puttering seems to release some sort of magical creative chemical in my brain.

What I've finally accepted that I suck at is figuring, as in "figuring out what I'll want to do outside of the moment of commitment" and "figuring how much time it will take to do whatever I've committed to." I'm coming around to the idea that contractor-type calculations, figure it out, add 30% of the cost and double (at least) the time, may not be conservative enough. Time after time, I've found myself back in the rather uncomfortable position I'm in currently: owing a lot of people I really like a lot of stuff that seemed like something I'd not only love doing, but have all the time in the world to devote to.

To steal and pervert a line of Will Rogers', hoard time: you ain't gettin' any more of the stuff.

At my most calmly productive, I was mapping out a daily schedule for myself down to the fifteen-minute segment, a trick I picked up from my friend, Mark, one of the more successful and productive and still not insufferable people I know. I didn't have to think about what I had to do next: I just looked down at my calendar and it told me. It kind of sucked, but it kind of rocked, too. The rocking part was obvious: holy CATS, did I get stuff done! And did I feel good at the end of the day for doing it! The sucking part seems obvious, lots of me rebelling in you are not the boss of me fashion, but I'm not sure I really got at the root of it. Maybe it wasn't me wanting to fly free; maybe it was me being afraid of what would happen if I actually succeeded. You know, that whole Marianne-Williamson-by-way-of-Nelson-Mandela thing (or was it the other way around?).

In the spirit of scientific experimentation, I'm giving it another whirl, 2.o-style (i.e. with free online tools, not ugly, expensive Covey paper products). I spent the better part of 90 minutes of Sunday afternoon mapping out this week, slotting in the hard appointments and then the Quadrant 2 stuff and then all the rest, until I was looking at a screen which more closely resembled a really, really badly fragmented hard drive than a modest solopreneur's Google calendar. I also had the closest thing I've felt to an anxiety attack just afterward, but that might just as well be a function of too little sleep filled with too-weird dreams fueled by a late-night screening of one of the strangest movies I've ever seen.

All I can say is that we shall see. And by "we," I mean me and anyone reading along here. Or here, or here. I'm covering my bases on this, since all y'all join me at different nodes.

I make fairly few requests here (at least, I hope I do, as a staunch proponent of the 95/5 rule, my, such a lot of rules in a personal blog post!), but I will make one now: what do you do, or have you done, to keep yourself honest? I realize the answer will be different for every human on the planet, and that you may look at this whole post uncomprehendingly (and boy, do I envy you right now if you do). I think, though, that if you're reading this, chances are good that not only have you been down this particular stretch of road, but that you have stories to share, and stories of a personal nature are my favorite way of taking in new information.

Either way, I trust you will wish me luck, as I do you with your endeavors.

Oh, what a week we'll have...


Image by psd via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Three things per day and a special outfit


Many years ago, in an uncharacteristic bit of self-indulgence prompted by a stranger's warning that if I didn't, I'd be in serious hot water down the line, I started going in for regular shiatsu bodywork therapy.

Many amazing things happened over the course of the several years we worked together. Crazy stuff like sudden photographic images of the past floating up in front of my eyes, a ton of aches and pains vanquished forever, and crying, lots and lots of crying.

Out of all the amazingness, though, two things have stuck with me.

The first is the almost shocking way that my practitioner, who was pretty much a spinning top like me in her civilian hours, became a loving, radiant center of calm as soon as she slipped into her shiatsu duds. It was incomprehensible to me that such a shift could take place so quickly and so dramatically, but every week, without fail, and for a while, I was going every week, there it was.

The second is her calendar. In her off-hours, my shiatsu lady was, like myself, a working actor. Which is to say she had a lot of places to be on any given day, most days, since that's the way things were back then, both in the business and in our category. In 1998 or '99, it wasn't unusual for me to go out on five calls per day, most days of the week; Molly's schedule was a little lighter, since I worked more commercially and she more theatrically, but still: it was a lot of activity.

My calendar back then (pre-iPhone, pre-Palm) was a fatty, six-ring DayTimer-type thing. I kept it to Filofax size for a while, but eventually gave in an bought a big, three-ring, half-sheet binder size. Horrifically ugly, but I needed the space.

Hers was a tiny, TINY, pocket-sized, week-at-a-glance style. By "pocket-sized", I mean a daintily-proportioned pocket, at that: I believe most years, her calendars were giveaways from banks or insurance companies; I know one year, I passed along one I'd gotten.

One day, I asked Molly how she could get all the stuff she needed to do into that little space.

Molly: "I only do three things per day."

Me: "?"

Molly: "I found I could fit about three things in any given day, so I have a calendar that only fits three things in a given day."

Me: "?"

Molly (smiling): "See you next week."

To be fair and balanced (ha!), I know for a fact that at times, my Yoda-in-a-Gi by day was often a white tornado at night, going on marathon unscheduled housecleaning or data entry or file organization tears. She also did a whole lot of non-scheduled stuff of a puttery nature during daylight hours, in her civilian gear. And since her non-Yoda work was acting, occasionally she'd fill up that teeny-tiny space with 3+ auditions, and then some other items. But the scheduled stuff included things like "dance class," which she loved and wanted to keep a priority, and other things of this nature.

In other words, she had kind of a handle on it. And given that, as Voltaire said (and Gretchen and I like to paraphrase), "Perfect is the enemy of the good," a handle is a beautiful thing.

I've been toying with ideas on building or co-opting a better handle. There seems to be huge power in an actual, written-down list of stuff on a piece of paper for me, so much so that I resent its effectiveness when I actually do it, but I do it nonetheless. Me stopping was me willfully throwing aside the Franklin-Covey weekly calendar I purchased, and the reasoning went something like "I didn't quit my job and its so-called security to turn myself into the boss I hated."

What if I could be a good boss, though? What if the part of me that understands we're trying to get Big Stuff Accomplished could listen patiently to the the small, wadded-up furball of fury, fear and sorrow and then gently but firmly lay down the law? As Emma commented in a recent thread, "we need gentleness from ourselves as often as we need the drill sergeant." Which reminded me of a discussion Elizabeth Gilbert had with her small, wadded-up furball of fury, fear and sorrow when she was trying to meditate, which made me think that maybe I was onto something. (It also made me grudgingly admit that I needed to put "take another crack at this meditation thing" back on the to-do list. Oh, well.)

I did a test conversation the other night, while in the car, running an errand. Sugar cravings hit me hard, and as any good SCD-er knows, sugar is enemy #1. It's also hell on fitting into one's pants properly, so I have double the reason to avoid it, and yet there was that 7-11, one e-z right turn away, and my Monkey Brain screaming for M&Ms. (Monkey Brain is pure class, I tell you.) So Monkey Brain and I had a little confab, we both got to state our cases, and finally agreed that as an experiment, we'd hold off for now, but if Monkey Brain still wanted sugar at the end of the week, he could have an entire package of Peeps. (See? Pure class.)

I think this is a step in the right direction. I think if I can combine List of a Reasonable Length, three things sounds like a good start, with some discussion and bargaining to keep Monkey Brain satisfied and The Resistor at bay, I might have a shot at nailing some of these opportunities that have been floated out to me in recent weeks.

Of course, as a former actor who totally gets the magical power of costumes (scroll through the photos on this page if you don't believe me), I'm also thinking "special outfit." Gi? 1980s power suit and tie? Or just FlyLady's recommended "dress to shoes"?

Now taking suggestions for the costume of the peacefully productive...


Image by Argenberg via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Book Review: The Power of Less


If for no other reason than his New Year's Challenge has gotten me to actually play the guitar again, I would love Leo Babauta forever.

But in addition to being a gentle ass-kicker of the highest order and to writing the generous and excellent ZenHabits blog, Leo is also a shining example of that favorite thing of mine, someone who uses himself as guinea pig, testing his concepts on his own esteemed personage and reporting back, generously, kindly, and with far, far less swearing than yours truly, with the results. (For more of these fellow travelers, see the blogroll cleverly named "Fellow Travelers" on my Virgo Guide blog.)

In other words, Leo is a walking, talking ad for the everyday miracle that can happen when one lives by the simple (but not always instinctive and definitely not always easy to follow) credo that less is more, establishing simple but solid changes one at a time that, over time, result in a spectacularly different kind of life.

And now, because not everyone digs the bloggity-blog thing, and because sometimes it's, well, simpler to carry around a handful of dead tree, Leo Babauta has written a lovely book laying out his system for personal change so that the world (or the interested pockets of it) can follow along.

What, in a nutshell, is the Power of Less?

As I do more and more consulting work, I'm finding that one of the chief issues smart, creative people grapple with, the kind of people who read communicatrix, for example, is finding focus. Leo's point (and mine, when I can state it simply enough) is that if you pull away all the gunk first, you're left with a much more reasonably-sized bear to wrassle. Which is to say, there will always be bear wrassling, and somedays, even a smaller-sized bear will pin your ass to the ground, but really, don't you want to do what you can to improve your odds?

While he covers everything from dealing with email overload to starting an exercise program, his core principles are basic, and support every lesson and idea in the book:

Principle 1: By setting limitations, we must choose the essential. So in everything you do, learn to set limitations.

Principle 2: By choosing the essential, we create great impact with minimal resources. Always choose the essential to maximize your time and energy.

The principles take different shape depending on the desired change, and Babauta offers up plenty of real tips from his own experience for the most critical kinds of changes we need to implement, reducing project load, managing email, starting (and sticking with) an exercise regimen. But all of his examples start with the kind of sound prep that I've come to realize is essential for creating real change:

As Leo himself says in a helpful FAQ, The Power of Less distills the core principles of his blog in an easy-to-digest (and much easier to carry around and mark up, if you're into that kind of thing) book form. Yes, you could drill through his entire ZenHabits oeuvre and get the info, but if the point is to simplify, you have to admit that a neatly bound, portable volume is way simpler to use.

How can you tell if the book is for you?

I'll be honest: while I employ many principles from David Allen's GTD system, I could never get it fully up and running for long enough to say I'm "doing" GTD. Leo's "system", in quotation marks because it's really a philosophy, but he offers concrete and helpful tools to start operating under it, owes a lot to GTD, as well, but he's managed to pull the best stuff from it and leave the rest without making you feel you're missing anything.

So I'd say this: if you've tried and abandoned systems for organizing your life, or reducing procrastination, and you suspect that the reason you have is because (a) you become overwhelmed easily and (b) you have multiple areas of focus pulling you in (too) many directions, Leo's Way may be for you. Because Leo's Way is really going to be  your way, you will find and create your own systems naturally as you let other stuff drop.

And that may be just the ticket for fellow Virgos (and Virgos-at-heart)...


  • BUY The Power of Less via amazon (and I get...oh, I dunno, a quarter or something. Which is awesome!)
  • BUY The Power of Less via your independent brick & mortar indie store (and they stay in business so they're around when I finally write my own #@%* book and do a tour and come visit you in your town)
  • BUY The Power of Less via and support some guy sitting in his bathrobe and slippers in the second bedroom of his house in a suburban cul de sac

Image by hooverine via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Get your motor runnin', Day 6: Make 10 minutes make a difference

eggtimer If you're old enough, you've heard the joke already, and if you're not (or you just haven't), it's high time:

Man in NYC #1: Excuse me--how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Man in NYC #2: Practice. You %$#@*!

Note to young people: in the joke as it was told to me, the second guy--clearly a native New Yorker--did not curse. As a former New Yorker, I can assure you the cursing version is more accurate; New York moves fast, brother, and has no time for fake politeness*.

At any rate of speed, New Yorkers are a great lot for getting things done, because they have to be ingenious about it, the non-wealthy ones, anyway. Time and space are at a premium, so you both learn to make the most of what you've got and to appreciate the hell out of it. Many of the good habits I've learned, writing fast, cleaning up as I cook, how to eat while walking, when necessary, I picked up during my three years living in New York as a rich-in-opportunity, poor-in-money intern at Ye Olde Madison Avenue Sweatshop.

If email response is any indication, I recently wrote my most popular column ever for The Networker, the monthly newsletter that goes out to LA (and SF and NY) Casting members. The subject? 10 things you can do in 30 minutes each to improve your career. (Well, to market yourself, but that falls under the rubric of improvement, I'd say. I guess it's human nature to feel overwhelmed by the big, perhaps because when we compare ourselves to the infinite, we see how small we are.

So while I generally eschew all these "100 ways you can skin a cat" posts, I'm relenting this once, because it is, after all something new for me to try, which should help get my own motor running. And because we're all looking for ways to do more with less time, they're short, 10 minutes or less each. (And NOT ONE OF THEM is about taking a walk, doing jumping jacks or meditating. So there!)

Basically, these are ideas to break down huge, colossal projects like:

  • find new job
  • get a life
  • find a romantic partner
  • start a blog/learn what this #@%* social media thing is all about
  • etcetera

into manageable chunks. Most of them (surprise, surprise) will work to make you a better communicator, which is a skill that cuts across all kinds of desired goals. It's one of those fundamental, don't-skip steps that some of us step-skippers (cough-cough) try to skip anyway.

Here, then, are my...

30 Ways to Start Initiating Big Change in 10 Minutes (or Less)

  1. Park your ass in the chair, pull out your resume, rewrite the Objective or Summary so it's interesting. (Think movie synopsis, story for a SMART 8-year-old, catching up an old friend on what you've been doing, etc.)
  2. Re-record your voice mail message so that it is shorter, friendlier and more charming. (Smile while doing it; it really does help.)
  3. The Improve My Relationships Hack. Call a friend you haven't spoken to in a few weeks, but not someone you haven't spoken to in a few months. Tell them at the outset of the call that you can only talk for 10 minutes, but you want to spend it telling them how much you like them, and why. Or tell them you'd thought of calling them when you saw x the other day, but you forgot, and now you are. But do the 10 minutes thing up front. (You can schedule another time to talk later if you want.)
  4. The Be Here Now Hack. Set a timer, then go play with the dog for 10 minutes. You're setting the timer because chances are you will not want to stop after 10 minutes (I never do, unless I'm winded), and your dog certainly won't. Only your dog will be fine with this; they're great at living in the moment, are dogs.
  5. Go to your hard drive. Find your pictures folder. Create a subfolder called "Happy". Pull out as many photos from your main folder that make you smile as you can in 10 minutes. Put them in the folder named "Happy" and save that folder as your screensaver. You can do this in 10-minute chunks if you're slow or an overthinker, like me. (Cursed Virgo tendencies, they give, and they take away.) Again, set a timer. Big rabbit hole potential with this one.
  6. Pull out your favorite book, open at random and read one page.
  7. Pull out ANY piece of hard-copy reading material and read it one paragraph out loud. Now read it out loud as if you were telling someone a secret. Now read it out loud as if you were furious at someone.
  8. Put on a favorite song, one you know most of the words to. Sing out loud with it. Twice, once, just full out, to yourself, and once as though you're singing it to someone you love. (They don't have to be there. Or use the dog.)
  9. Take a piece of paper and draw yourself. Even if it sucks. Try repeating this every day.
  10. Write an email to someone you admire telling them why. You don't have to send it, although you certainly can. Later. Not these 10 minutes.
  11. Take three deep breaths. (Okay, this is CLOSE to meditating, I'll admit. But it takes way less time and is also very effective and awesome.)
  12. Ladies! Clean out your purses! (Mens! Clean out your man purse or wallet!)
  13. Go through a magazine you've been meaning to read, rip out the articles you actually think you might read, and throw the rest in the recycle bin. (Alternatively, go around your workspace or home collecting stray magazines and corral them in one place. Do the 10-minute scan later.)
  14. Clean out old files, paper or electronic, for 10 minutes. (Timer thing.)
  15. If you're a GTD-er, spend 10 minutes with your Someday-Maybe list. Pick one thing you want to still do and figure out how you could move toward that thing in 10 minutes. (Hint: think practice if it's something you want to get better at, or research if it's something you know nothing about.)
  16. Go leave a comment on someone else's blog. A good one, that adds something, not a "Great post!", dig-me kinda comment.
  17. If you haven't the night before, write out the list of things you need to do today with the time estimated for each. Check your real time against your estimated time and revise accordingly, moving forward. (I am so still working on this one.)
  18. Clean your computer monitor or your eyeglasses.
  19. Go pee. (Okay, this one won't make sense to some of you, but for others, you're going to be all "WOW. I feel SO much better!")
  20. Write out, by hand, your favorite quotation. (If you don't have one, and you should have many, I think, Google "quotations + happiness" for starters.) Do this every day for a month. I still have a journal of these I started way, way back in college. It's hilarious in some ways, but kind of inspiring in others; we really are what we spend our time thinking about and doing.
  21. Think of an object. Write a haiku about it.
  22. Think of a country. Write a limerick about it.
  23. Select a book you've been meaning to read but have been blowing off. Preferably of a helpful, edifying nature but not TOO smartypants. Preferably one you don't mind getting a little messed up. Put a bookmark in the front of it. Bring it to your bathroom. Leave it there, and remove any magazines on your way out (or ones that belong to you, if you're sharing.) From now until it's done or you've decided that it actually sucks and you're not going to read it and you're ready to pass it on to the used bookstore (or Goodwill, depending on how beat to sh*t it is), that's what you're reading in the bathroom.
  24. Repeat #22, only make sure this book is inspiring. Put it next to your bed. That's what you're reading before bed until it's done or you're done with it.
  25. Make a folder in your bookmarks toolbar called "daily." In it, put all your time-wasters: email, Facebook, Twitter; you know your poison. Pick a time once or twice per day. That's when you go to that folder, period.
  26. Make a list of your favorite books as a kid. (I hope to god you have something on this list. If not, feel free to use mine, Bread and Jam for Frances, or any of the Frances books.) The next time you are at the bookstore, buy one of these books. (Or if you're broke, the next time you're at the used bookstore or the library.) When you start beating yourself up, pull out the book and read for 10 minutes.
  27. If you don't already, get and install the StumbleUpon toolbar for your Firefox browser. NOT SO THAT YOU CAN SURF. You will use this to "thumbs up" great things you read. NOT CAT VIDEOS OR MEAN GOSSIP. (Well, okay, some cat videos.) And guess what: each thing you "thumbs up" or Stumble, I want you to write a brief review of why people should read this. If the little box doesn't pop up automatically, go into your toolbar and click on the speech bubble thingy. Do not be a lazy-ass surfer: add to the greater good; make yourself smarter in the process.
  28. If you have never heard of StumbleUpon, take 10 minutes and read this, or Google it.
  29. If you're still using Internet Explorer, take 10 minutes and read about what Firefox is. Then take another 10 sometime and install it. Seriously. You're going to be left behind if you don't.
  30. Leave a comment on this post. You don't have to take 10 minutes; in fact, I'd rather you just write. It can be some great tip; it can be something you've tried implementing before that sucks. It can be some fear about starting that you're releasing. Be imperfect. Share yourself. Use your words.

Ready? Go...

xxx c

*On the other hand, New Yorkers are some of the most genuinely kind people I've met, not to mention generous, tolerant and open-minded. City people get a bad rap, but I've found most of them to be pretty creamy in the middle, once you scratch the hard-candy shell.

Image by tanakawho via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

How doing one thing differently saved my bacon

Anyone who's read my newsletter, spent more than 10 minutes in semi-meaningful conversation with me or seen the shame that is my bookshelves knows I have a predilection for the self-help aisle.

I fought it for years, in no small part because I saw my mother devour book after best-selling book even as her alcohol intake crept slowly but steadily upward. Reading is no substitute for action. Buying and piling in artfully arranged stacks around the house, even less so. And while I'm a pretty productive motherfucker when all is said and done, I've got undeniable hard-wiring for procrastination on both sides of my genetic divide.

Dad was a frighteningly efficient accomplishment machine, but anyone who knows about "-aholic" tendencies knows that's just the flip side of the same coin. He "did" out of fear; mom "didn't". And they both avoided the root issue until the days they died.

I, on the other hand, have made it my singular mission in life to act, and to act well. There's nothing else for me to leave behind to make the world a better place, no genetic material I've given a better start to, no big pile of money to fund a groovy foundation. It's just whatever ripples I can send out there now, and whatever additional ripples people whom I've (hopefully) helped or a book that I've (hopefully) written can send out later.

So when I get stuck, when there's not only no forward motion, but no indication of what that forward motion should be, I get a little panicky. I don't think, "Oh, good...a nice rest!" or "Great! Things are just marinating upstairs!"; I start sliding into the dark place on a greased chute with no handrails.

In times like these, I grab onto those books like a lifeline and use them to start hauling myself back up. The best ones (and you do know to only read the best ones, right?) offer some kind of clearly defined, actionable steps, and when you're in a place where you can't see clearly, a well-lit staircase with an "EXIT" sign at the top is your friend. It doesn't matter which set you get on: it will get you out.

Sometimes, though, there is no time. Sometimes you find yourself in hella mess and the clock is ticking and there's just no damned time for a whole book, much less careful digestion and implementation of its contents. That's when you need this prescription-strength remedy:

Do One Thing Differently.

Yes, it's a self-help book, too. I've never read it, though. I've only heard of it, and then fondled it briefly in my shrink's office while waiting for her to come in and start our session:

"It looks like you could get everything you need from this book just by reading the title."

"You can," she said.

I'd thought about this exchange many, many times since we first had it, maybe six months ago. (Maybe a year, my memory ain't what it used to be.) I've thought about it a lot because I've been dealing with my own existential crisis for the past eight or nine months. I actually capped off the year by doing one thing very differently: admitting out loud that things were broken, and that I was taking some time off to evaluate them, four months off, to be precise.

The gods love it when we make plans, don't they? It's like Season 4 of LOST to them, or, more likely, some really good, trainwreck-y reality TV. I'm guessing they've had me on TiVo and are praying I get renewed for another 13 episodes. My Finnish dark night of the soul has been appointment viewing up on Mt. Olympus.

It was getting old down here, though. So I've been One-Thing-Differently like mad, from my kitchen to my alarm-clock setting to my hairstyle. Desperate times call for desperate measures! A few of the myriad thangs I changed up include:

  • enlisting the help of an accountability partner, a badass, take-no-prisoners type whose list of accomplishments makes me look like a piker
  • replying over and over to generalist queries into my state of health and well-being with a frank admittance of my perilous suckitude (counts as once because the first 15 times were an out-of-body experience I gained nothing practical from)
  • admitting I had fucked up
  • walking three miles each morning, whether I wanted to or not
  • billing for work done (feel free to laugh at me, the gods aren't the only ones who know how ridiculous I am)

On Thursday night, I finally had a breakthrough of the major sort. Something popped, and it feels like I'm finally on track again. Thank god. Gods. Whatever. That's an eight-month experience I don't want to repeat anytime soon.

But from the other side, I feel it my duty to say that the One Thing thing works. It really does. Those One Things got me through a lot of rough patches and gave me the hope and the oomph to hit it for one more day.

And cumulatively? Holy crap, do they add up! Try it. Try folding in a few one things, and see if there's not some kind of major, quantifiable effect at the end of six months. A kitchen you're not afraid of entering. A scale you're not afraid of stepping on. It works, folks: it really, really works.

The biggest irony in all this is that now I feel like I've got to read the book. Just to see if I did it "right" and if next time, I couldn't do it better.

You, however, have no need of it. Just do it, like the ad said. One thing. Differently.

And if you've got some sweet, sweet self-helpage you know about and don't leave it in the comments? You're no friend of mine, Klein.

xxx c

Image by greenapplegrenade via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

There's only one secret to increased productivity

sleeping on the day job It's not often I get tagged for memes of a business nature. But spiritual business coach par excellence, Mark Silver, saw through my fluffy exterior and knew I'd have something to add to the best productivity tips in all the land, the rapidly escalating group effort to corral the best of entrepreneurial wisdom by my former Great Big Small Business Show collaborator, Ben Yoskovitz. So here goes nothin'...

You don't have to explain the beauty of a project like this to a listmaker. We revel in lists: the how-to, to-do, tip-mad fests that other people put together. We live for memes, boy howdy.

What intrigued me most about this exercise was the one limitation placed on those of us who saw fit to pick up the gauntlet: Challenge yourself to pick one. Because, of course, the delicious truth is, while there are many excellent "hacks" to improve productivity, my number one tip is to choose the one that works for you.

Yup, that's it...suckers.

No, seriously, it's deceptively simple, for it means spending some time identifying what's tripping me up at any given moment. And yes, it also means I need to reassess from time to time, because my barriers to productivity shift, as well. What trips me up Monday, lack of sleep, say, or needing an injection of Karin's fun after a weekend of too much work and not enough play, may not be the issue on Tuesday, when I'll about needing to do some of the "sprints" that Dawud Miracle mentions, or Hump Day, when I'd give my right arm for some of Monk-at-Work Adam Kayce's clarity.

Of course, I won't cop out there; I'll play nice and share One Great Thing I've found that's been working for me lately. (Which I know, I know, makes this post technically about two tips, but my #1 tip is so meta, it makes my head swim.)

Are you ready for this life-changing, earth-shattering Tip of Tips?

Keep things tidy.

Yes, literally by keeping my desk clear, or at least, of all jobs but the one I have going right that second, and my surroundings neat and the dishes done and every other stupid, mundane thing my Swedish grandmother told me mattered back in 1964, when I got fobbed off on her during my parents' second honeymoon, actually makes a difference.

Hi-Baby, the CEO. Who knew?

xxx c

P.S. They may have been tagged already, this meme's been bubbling for a few days, but I'm tagging:

  • Ilise Benun (because coaches always have the best tips)
  • Scott Ginsburg (because that whippersnapper has output that puts people twice his age to shame)
  • Rebecca Morgan (because to keep so many plates spinning, she must be a productivity guru)
  • Bonnie Gillespie (because girlfriend could write four books on productivity in the time it took me to write this), and...
  • Danny Miller (mainly because I don't think anyone ever asks him any business-y questions either, but even if he knows nothing about productivity, which I'm sure ain't so, he is one of my all-time favorite writers)

Image by mer incognito via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Nerd Love, Day 4: I'll show you mine if you show me yours

I see London I've alluded before to Best Year Yet on this here bloggy, but for those of you who missed class and/or are too f**king lazy to click the links or Google it, Best Year Yet is a values-based goal-setting system which I discovered via Heidi Miller's podcast long ago, and which could just as rightly be called "The Nerdiest Goal-Setting System Yet" except that it'd be redundant.

My friend, Kathy (zen-shiatsu mistress supreme) and I spent four, count 'em, four, hours today going over our plans. We'd both done all of our (nerd) homework and I've been implementing mine since the second week of January, but Kathy's a single mom and, as I understand it, time bends in funny ways when you're situated thusly.

Anyway, I buffed out the scratches in my Best Year Yet plan and, because one of the things that tripped me up the first time I tried doing it was a lack of concrete examples of workable plans, I decided to make mine public.

Via Backpack. Because that's how I roll, baby.

Feel free to check it out (link here), and contact me with any questions or comments. You can do it via email or the comments section of this post. I'd like to keep the process as transparent as possible, to help the most people; so if you email me, I may use your question to work up an FAQ somewhere here on the site, but if I do, I promise to keep your identity a total, double-secret-probation-level secret, should you so desire.

Bottom line: if you're already doing BYY, I encourage you to post somewhere and share a link. If you're not, consider doing something similar with your goals and post a link.

Accountability ain't everything, but it helps.

Later, nerds...

xxx c


UPDATE: I got an email from my pal, Neil, asking why the monthly and weekly goals were missing. They're not: they just get a little too personal, so they're not displayed for public consumption. But rest assured, I have them and am doing them. And it's working!!!

Image by occipital lobe via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

Quotation of the Day: "Reason #1067 why advertising sucks" Edition

"I think my own addiction to narrow distractions while writing is a hard wire left from my days in advertising; if you aren't coming up with an idea, you check email to see what other crisis looms. I have found this a terrible and difficult habit to break." , former advertising creative director and current novelist Jeff Abbott, in the comments section of Paul Ford's 43 Folders guest post about "Amish Computing"