The app that (almost) does everything.

A computer screen with a calendar on it.
Photo by picjumbo.com from Pexels

Yesterday morning at 8am my phone went ‘ping’. This happens every second Wednesday at 8am. This particular ping is to remind me that I’m going on Ultra106.5 with Scottie the next morning and that I really need to prepare something that I can talk with him about.

I find this incredibly helpful. In fact, my Google calendar is one of the tools that I really would not like to be without. I’m sure I could manage using a paper calendar, but I’m also sure it would be a lot more work. My online calendar, that’s safe ‘in the cloud’ and appears on my phone simplifies my life and gives me peace, it keeps my house tidier and helps me with my relationships. In fact, there is a lot of life riding on the shoulders of my calendar. It’s the app that (almost) does everything!

Here are some ways I use my calendar:

Medical appointments – as soon as they are made they are put in the calendar. No more little business cards with dates and times floating around in my purse. 

Bills – just last week I found a note I had written to myself about various annual bills for my business and when they were due. That note was only helpful as long as it was in my sight, and once you pin a few of those notes on the pin board, the important ones become somewhat invisible. But putting the bills in the calendar with a reminder seven days earlier will mean that I will make sure there is enough in my account to cover the bills when they come.

Invitations – yes, a beautiful wedding invitation looks great on the fridge, and I keep them there, but I also block out the day in my calendar. Who likes being double booked? And if I’m not sure that I want to go to that particular party, I can put in a RSVP reminder as well, to give myself time to think about it.

Birthday and wedding anniversary reminders – Facebook is great and all, but I want to make sure that I don’t accidentally miss the special people in my life. I put the dates in my calendar with an annual repeat and I know we’re all good. I can also put a reminder in a week or so beforehand so I have time to buy a card or a present.

Church roster – our roster used to come out on an A3 piece of paper. I would go through and highlight where my name appeared. But who wants to store huge pieces of paper? No, straight on to the calendar. It clears up my office, and it clears up my head.

Public holidays – always good to know when you’re planning ahead.

Appointments with myself – some things you do as a matter of routine. But some days, those routine things don’t work. An example is that every morning I spend 15 minutes in silence with God. But on the Thursdays when I go into Ultra, I don’t have time for those 15 minutes and they need to happen later in the day. As the day can get hectic very quickly, those precious minutes can easily get lost. I now have a repeating appointment with myself on Thursdays at lunch time to spend 15 minutes in silence. I take that just as seriously as an appointment with a friend or client. People also use this method to make time to write, or practice music, or spend time on their art. If it’s in the calendar, it’s an appointment.

I use Google calendar, and while they’re not paying me to say this, I think there are many benefits to using an online calendar that’s also available on your phone and therefore always with you.

I love the reminder facility. I can make the reminder as long as I need it to be to make sure I can travel to the appointment in plenty of time. I can even add travel time into the calendar so that I get reminded ten minutes before I have to make the half hour trip. Or I can make the reminder go one day or one week (or even longer) before the calendar entry if there’s some preparation involved.

I love that I can have different calendars too. I have one that’s just for me. But I have a second calendar that’s shared with Moz. This is a calendar for things we do together, like dinner with the parents or our small group night. It’s also good for documenting things that the other person might like to know. For example, when Moz blocked the whole day out for four-wheel driving last weekend, he shared that to the joint calendar. That meant that I knew I was free to do whatever that weekend and he wasn’t expecting me to be around. I have a women’s event coming up at church, so that’s in the shared calendar so that he knows I won’t be around and he can watch an action movie with the sound up loud.

We also use the joint calendar when we’re planning out our quarterly rhythm/routine. We book in holiday weekends and maintenance weekends and Sundays where we’ll sit together in church (rather than serving separately in some capacity). It’s nice to have a tentative plan made in advance, and we use the calendar to remind ourselves of that plan.

You can also share a calendar with someone who is not your significant other. When I was working at the university, my supervisor shared his calendar with me so that I could figure out when it would work to have our supervisory meetings without having to play email pingpong. 

The YouTuber and podcaster CGP Grey uses a separate online calendar to plan out an ideal week. On it he puts things like the three hours he plans to spend writing in the mornings. Or the four hours needed for podcasting recording. Or animating time. He marks out the days in one of his online calendars so that he can remind himself, ‘if everything is going well, you should be writing right now.’ (Or exercising, or podcasting, or animating.) It’s not something he has to stick to, but it helps  keep him focused. 

So while I think you could get some of these benefits from using a paper calendar or diary, I find that an electronic calendar works very well. It does away with paper clutter. It gives me peace that I know what my days hold. It helps me to book my appointments so that there’s room in between them. It helps me look after the people I love. And it helps me to bring rhythm to my life and to make time for the things that are important.

A calendar is a very handy tool.

Is there a topic you would like me to write about? Please let me know at ruth@ruthamos.com.au or @aquietlifeblog on Twitter or Ruth Amos Author on Facebook. 

And if you’d like to hear the chat I had with Scottie this morning, you can listen at A Quiet Life on any pod catcher or find it on my website.

A Day Off

Last week I took four days off. It was a retreat, a holiday, a time with no ‘shoulds’. It was wonderful. I went to a little town called Dover, rented a studio apartment with a view over the bay. The weather was misty, wet, cold, sunny, windy, rainy, all the things. It’s spring here, that’s the weather you get.

I wanted this time to be useful and restful. I tried to stay off the socials, I read novels and non-fiction books, I played my bass guitar, and I went for walks and runs. And I also watched TV and played Candy Crush and just sat on the couch and stared at the water. (And for those wondering, Moz came down and joined me for one of the four nights and spent the rest of the time doing fun stuff like four-wheel driving and helping out at church.)

The two non-fiction books I read were:

Space Maker – how to unplug, unwind and think clearly in the digital age, by Daniel Sih

And 

Sacred Rhythms – arranging our lives for spiritual transformation, by Ruth Haley Barton

And one thing those books had in common was an encouragement to explore a weekly Sabbath.

You know I love the idea of a day off each week. I know that just having one day a week where I stop trying to control the amount of work I’m doing, stop trying to get on top of my to do list and just trust God that he can keep the world running without my help, that day is essential to my wellbeing.

But reading these books encouraged me to take the whole thing further. Now, I don’t know fully where I stand on this yet but I’m feeling challenged to go even deeper into what ‘a day off’ means.

Both authors encouraged their readers to really think about what ‘work’ is. Because it looks different for each of us. For some, gardening is life-giving; for others it’s a chore. The Sih family don’t cook on a Sabbath, the Haley Bartons cook food that they find special and enjoy eating. 

Ruth Haley Barton works from a home office like I do. She says that at times she has had to close the door and not even go into her office on a Sabbath. Daniel Sih avoids email, the internet, texting, and writing, and talking about global events. 

For Daniel Sih, writing on his to do list is too much like work, so that activity is banned on the Sabbath. Ruth Haley Barton also encourages us to take a break from anything that causes worry and stress, and in that list she includes to-do lists as well as budgets, taxes, wedding planning and major decision making. 

Maybe we could just ban the word ‘covid’ on a Sabbath and see how restful that is?

Both of them agreed that having a break from screens or phones is important, though Daniel says that now that his kids are older, the ban is ‘more nuanced’. I feel like having the ability to contact my family or be contacted by them is really high on my priority list. But I also worry a bit that I am just addicted to the screen and all the apps contained therein. I’m thinking on it.

Ruth Haley Barton suggests that we don’t buy or sell anything on the Sabbath. That we take a break from our constant consumerism. Daniel says that rest might involve ‘eating at a café’, which of course requires buying things.

In terms of what goes on the list of things to do on a Sabbath, both of them are in favour of restful pursuits such as sleeping in, reading a book, riding bikes, getting out as a family to do an activity such as bushwalking or staying in to play a board game. It’s a day for rest, for community, and also for spiritual practice. That might mean going to church, though for me, church is often a work-related place. It might mean just taking a few minutes to read scripture and meditate on it through the day.

The major thing they had in common was the idea that this one day – 24 hours – is set aside for rest. And that we should not take this lightly, but instead prepare ourselves, write lists of what we consider work and what we consider rest and play, make sure we’ve done all we need to do beforehand so that the day is not chipped into by urgent tasks, and definitely do this once a week, one day out of seven, and preferably the same day each week so that we know it’s coming and we can look forward to it.

I am, as I said, still working through this. And I’m encouraged by both authors that this is a very counter-cultural discipline and therefore it’s difficult to do. But I feel encouraged that my Sabbath-taking needs to enter a new phase and I’m looking forward to the days of rest that will be ahead.

Where do you stand when it comes to a day of rest? Do you have Sabbath traditions? Or do you find it just too hard? Let me know by emailing ruth@ruthamos.com.au, or tweeting me @aquietlifeblog or find me on Facebook. I’d also love to hear from you if you have a topic you’d like me to talk about. Just let me know!

Routine or Rhythm?

Ursula Le Guin's writing schedule:
5.30 am–Wake up and lie there and think.
6.15 am–get up and eat breakfast (lots).
7.15 am–get to work writing, writing writing.
noon–lunch.
1 pm–reading, music.
3 pm–correspondence, maybe house cleaning.
5 pm–make dinner and eat it.
after 8pm–I tend to be very stupid and we won't talk about this.

At one stage this year, I would once or twice a week go to the same excellent café near my house, and buy myself a nice coffee to start the day. The lady who ran the shop noticed that I was turning up regularly, and she also must have noticed that I didn’t look ‘dressed for work’. She asked if I worked from home and I said I did. She then talked to me of the importance of having a routine when you work from home. I couldn’t agree more, but I decided to tell her the truth – the reason I was there regularly was that our washing machine was broken, and I needed to bribe myself with nice flat white as I did the unwelcome task of taking our clothes to the laundromat.

I do agree with her though, routine is very important. I think it’s important whether you work from home or not.

But, you say, routine sounds so boring!

Yes. Yes it does. And maybe we should change the word we’re using. I prefer the word ‘rhythm’.

We’re made for rhythm. Our bodies have their own circadian rhythms, times when we feel more energetic, times when the best thing we can do for productivity is to have a nap. 

Our years have a rhythm – summer, when the days are long and we feel energetic and full of life. And the dark winter, when hibernation feels more the thing.

It is a strange time for me to be writing this, because this week Moz is on holidays. And everything changes when Moz is on holidays. Our lives become more loose, we are out of routine.

But in a way, that’s the point. Moz is a school teacher and the rhythm of his year revolves around term time and holidays. So while the weekly routine might be a bit mixed up, this is part of our annual routine. Part of the rhythm of our year.

If we’re not intentional about our routine, deciding what we want to do and when, then we will unintentionally fall into a routine that may be less helpful to us. We might have a routine of playing on our phone for a couple of hours when we should be getting ready for bed. We might have a routine that squeezes too much into the day so that we never get to relax or to do some exercise. But we will generally find ourselves doing the same thing at the same time each day, unless we plan otherwise. It’s how we’re made.

Here are some suggestions for being intentional about the rhythm of your life:

Annual rhythm – It’s helpful to book holidays at the beginning of the year. I am also making sure I’m aware of when the busy times are and when I can take a breather afterwards, just knowing helps with the work it takes to get through the busy times. Even the church seasons are helpful – Lent, Easter, Advent, Christmas – these ‘holy-days’ bring rhythm into the year.

Quarterly rhythm – Moz and I have become more intentional about looking three months ahead and booking out adventure weekends, sit-together Sundays, and days to do maintenance on the house. The three months can slip away without important things being taken care of unless we look at our calendars intentionally.

Weekly rhythm – The Sabbath is an important one – the routine of having one day off a week. We can also schedule in times for exercise, family dinners, and regular times to meet with friends.

Daily rhythm – We might plan out a morning routine to start the day right. We can plan to do more intense work in the times of the day when we have more energy according to our circadian rhythms. In the evenings we can practice good sleep hygiene – turning the screen off an hour or so before bed, taking the time to calm down, having a set routine of getting ready for bed so that the brain and body knows it’s time to sleep.

I want to share with you one of my favourite quotes about schedules from Annie Dillard in her book The Writing Life:

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living.”

Here’s some things that need to be a part of our life rhythm:

  • Exercise
  • The time to prepare and eat healthy food
  • Sleep
  • Social connection
  • Time to switch off and relax

If you’ve got those things locked in (most of the time) then you’re going to be in a good place. And then, yes, sometimes you can have a special take-away night or spend a whole day in bed watching movies. It’s part of the rhythm.

Discipline gives boundaries that make you feel safe. And in those safe boundaries, your creativity can flourish. 

Permission to say no

Did you ever have those times in school when you really didn’t want to do the Physical Education activity for the day? Where you knew that it was going to be awful and that you were going to get a ball smashed into your head, or drown in the pool, or something awful like that. And then, just by luck, you got a sore throat and a sniffy nose, and if you screwed your eyes tightly enough you had a headache and you went to your parents and said, ‘I’m sick, can you write me a note?’ And then they wrote that amazing note of wonder:

Please excuse Ruth from today’s activity, she is not well enough to attend.

And then you got to go to the library instead and read? And the whole day was saved?

Or was that just me?

I know I got sick way too much when I was a kid. I think it was the way my introvert self coped when I was starting to feel peopled-out. 

As an adult I have realised that getting sick is a very bad way of coping. There are better ways.

But there have still been times when I’ve caught myself thinking, ‘I wish someone would get me out of this commitment. I wish that my parents could write me a note saying I didn’t have to come.’

Moz was getting ready to go to work the other day. He put his jacket on and then checked all the pockets to make sure he had all the things – watch, phone, wallet, keys, pen – you know, all the things. As he patted his jacket, it made a crinkly noise. 

‘What’s that?’

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. He unfolded it and showed it to me. It was a note that simply said, ‘No.’

A green piece of paper with the word 'No.' written on it.
Moz’s permission slip

Our pastor Pete had given it to him. It was a permission slip. Permission to say, ‘No.’

I love it.

For some commitments we feel like we need to have a Really Good ReasonTM not to do things. That our own reasons are not good enough and that we need some authority to step in and tell us we don’t have to go.

Sometimes, we can feel so overwhelmed that the thought of being hit by a car and having to go to hospital is appealing, because at least then we could sit still for a while.

If this is you, I’d like to write you a permission slip. My permission slip simply says, ‘No.’

You can tell people, ‘no’ and not give a reason.

You can say ‘no’ and not even have a ‘good enough’ reason in your own mind.

Sometimes, ‘no’ is a very reasonable response on its own.

Now, this doesn’t apply to everyone. And the problem I have here is that if you’re thinking, ‘I wish this applied to me, but it clearly doesn’t.’ Then chances are that it does apply to you. And if you’re thinking, ‘Oooo excellent, I’ll take that,’ then maybe you’re the person who needs to stretch yourself just a little bit more.

You’re going to have to be sensible here.

But, seriously, if you’re in the place where sitting in a hospital bed seems more appealing than what you need to do in the next week, I’d suggest that a little bit of saying ‘no’ is in order. 

Give it a go.

Find out that the world will still spin without you.

You have my permission to rest.

If you’ve found this helpful, please feel free to share it with a friend. And if you want to hear me talk more on this subject then my podcast is just the place for you!

If you would like to read more, in My Year of Saying No, I tell the story of my own saying no journey, what I learned about saying no, saying yes, and bringing peace to my life.

And a gold star for you!

A few years ago, I decided that I needed to help myself to simplify my life. I called that year My Year of Saying NO, and I even wrote a book about it. 

I am very good at saying ‘yes’ when people ask me to do things. I find it very uncomfortable to say ‘no’. I’m sure a lot of us do. So to help me make this new habit, I used a reward chart.  The actual chart was a very cute picture of a princess making her way along heart-shaped stepping stones to a castle. I hung the chart above my desk where I could see it every day. I bought some shiny gold star stickers and each time I had one of those difficult ‘no’ conversations, I stuck a gold star on the chart. When I got to the end of the chart I rewarded myself with a few days away.

It was a big reward, but it was a big lesson for me to learn.

My research tells me that reward charts work very well for children aged 3–8 years, and I don’t see why they won’t work for us adults aged 30–80 years as well. (And older, and younger of course.) In fact, if you google ‘reward charts for adults’ you get some really excited articles written by beautiful people who have discovered that they are ‘allowed’ to use stickers just as much as the kids are!

Using a chart like this is fun, and it helps encourage us in the activities we want to perform. So, just in case you are interested, I thought I’d write a post giving a little direction so that you can have fun with stickers too!

How do reward charts work?

1) Decide on the activity you are measuring. It is important that these gold stars are linked to an activity that you are doing, not a result. That is, you get a gold star for eating mindfully, not for losing a kilogram. You need to be able to do the activity and then reward yourself. So pick an activity, and write it down on your chart.

Activity ideas: Drinking six glasses of water in a day, working out, cooking a real meal, spending nine hours in bed at night (without your phone), practising a musical instrument for half an hour, walking for half an hour, meditating or sitting in silence with God for 10 minutes, writing 300 words in your novel, ringing your mother. Basically, anything you’d like to do more of.

 Don’t overcomplicate it. Don’t try to achieve too many things at once. Just pick one, write it down and go with it for a while.

Another important part of this step is to write down why you are wanting to achieve this thing. Why do you want to go to the gym? To feel more energetic and to sleep better, maybe. Why do you want to practise the piano? So you can play that special song for your friend and really bless her. Write the reason for the activity – this really helps you keep going when the going is tough.

2) Decide on the reward you will receive at the end and write it down. Promise yourself a reward that is something meaningful, that is worth working for. 

Reward ideas: a bike ride, a movie night, a new book, a new toy, a pedicure, an afternoon off to read a book, an overnight at a B&B, a special meal out at a five-star restaurant.

Your reward could be related to the activity. For example, if you are giving yourself a star for every time you go to the gym, the reward after 20 sessions could be some new gym clothes. If you and a friend or partner are working on your goals together, your reward could be a weekend away for the two of you. 

It is important that you write the reward down. And it is important that you actually give yourself the reward once you reach your goal. The gold stars on the way are really great motivators, but I think that reaching the goal is also worthy of a celebration. We really want to celebrate success here!

3) Make that star chart, buy the shiny stickers (they don’t have to be stars, they can be any stickers you like) and go ahead and start measuring.

The star chart shouldn’t be too long. When people make these behavioural charts for their children, I see (and this is not backed by any kind of scientific study) that the resulting good behaviour lasts for about two or three weeks. 

It’s the same with us adults. We are using some extrinsic motivation here to hopefully build the intrinsic motivation that will turn this activity into a habit. But if we have to wait 100 days before we get any kind of reward, we are going to lose focus and even the sticking of a gold star to a chart will become a chore. So maybe make it three or four week’s worth, but no more. (Again, this is not backed by scientific studies, you do you.)

One last thing. When I was doing research for this post I found a new use of reward charts that I hadn’t seen before. They were charts for things like gratitude, and for noting when you feel positive. 

I love this idea. You can feel like you are miserable all the time, but if you stick a sticker on a chart whenever you are grateful for something, or whenever you notice that you’re feeling positive, then you  will be able to look at your calendar and clearly see a record of good things. And I think that will, in itself, add joy to your life. Beautiful.

Do you use a star chart or some kind of reward or tracking system? What do you do? How well does it work?

If you’d like to hear me chatting about this, my podcast A Quiet Life is available on Spotify, Apple podcasts and all other good podcatchers or you can find it at my website.

How to achieve your GOAL

Last time I wrote about doing jobs and activities where you enjoy the process and not just the outcome.

Celebrate small successes
Photo by Ylanite Koppens from Pexels

It made me think about the types of goals that we can have in our lives.  How it’s better to focus in our goals on process rather than outcome. On systems rather than milestones.

We all know the weight loss goal: lose 10 kg. It’s a goal I’ve had for quite some time now. It was an especially depressing goal when my weight was going up. I’d be focusing on ‘lose 10 kg’ and each time I weighed myself my weight increased by another 500 g. It became totally depressing. The goal was big and imposing and impossible to do all at once.

Now, I haven’t lost the dream of losing those 10 kg. I know I’d like to be 10 kg lighter. But the process, the thing I’m actively working on, is to go to the gym six days a week and work out on the cross trainer for half an hour at the highest level of pump that I can give it. And to cook at least six meals at home per week so that we eat less takeaway food. 

This means I can tick that off each week, and see how I’m going, even when the weight doesn’t seem to be budging due to other factors.

Another area where I apply this type of goal setting in my life is in my writing. At the beginning of this year I was really struggling to get going on the rewrite of my novel. The goal was to take the last couple of chapters and turn them into another 50,000 words or so. Tricky. Imposing. Impossible to do all at once. And therefore, very difficult to start.

Instead, I changed the goal to one of writing 300 words a day. This takes me about 15 minutes. It’s not a huge goal, it’s not a 2-m high-jump (sorry, still on the Olympic examples here) it’s more like a 15-cm step up. I can do it. And once I get started, I can often keep going. I can happily write 500 or 1000 words. But I don’t have to. I just try to hit that tiny goal each day.

So many of our goals or the things we are striving for are dependent on factors that are out of our control. There is so much in life we can’t control – the weather, the emotional state of others, the level of expertise of the other job applicants. It’s easy to worry about those things so much that we don’t get started on the things we can do something about – our own job application and making it the best that it can be, our own emotional and mental wellbeing, and the wearing of a raincoat.

I was reading a book by Michael Mosley this week where he used the word ‘goal’ as an acronym. Now it’s not the best and most memorable acronym out there but I think the approach it outlines is good.

Get

Opportunities

Approach

Look for successes

G is for get. What do you want to get? What are you aiming for? This is the overarching goal, the 10 kg or finished novel or new job. This gives you a direction to head in. And I think this is important.

O is for opportunities. What opportunities or resources are out there to help you succeed? Do you need to join a writer’s group? Or read some articles on resume presentation? Or join a gym?

A is for approach. This is your plan. What are steps are you going to take to reach your goal? This is the 300 words a day. This is exercise six times a week. This is the process. Remember, you need to love the process, and it needs to be achievable for you. There is no point coming up with an approach that you don’t think you can do. A lot of writers insist that waking up at 430am to get words on the page is the only reasonable approach. I know that approach is not for me and if I tried it I would get no writing done. What approach are you going to use?

L is for ‘look for successes’. You need little milestones along the way. You need to cheer yourself on. In terms of weight loss, I might not be able to cheer the 10 kg yet, but I can cheer myself on for the increased fitness I’m seeing at the gym. For writing I can rejoice in every 1000 words, every chapter finished, every new creative idea that springs up. 

Mosley says ‘notice and celebrate small milestones’ and I agree, that celebration of small milestones along the way is so important. If we wait for the big milestone we might find that 1) we never get there or 2) we get there but it feels a bit empty. But if we celebrate along the way we have a life filled with celebration and I think that’s a wonderful joyful way to live.

What method of goals or systems do you use?

Do you have a special way of celebrating small successes?

Did you know that as well as this blog I have a podcast? You may have friends for whom you think this information is great but they prefer to listen rather than read. They can find my podcast at A Quiet Life on any pod catcher or they can go to ruthamos.com.au/podcast/ and listen there.

Feel free to share this blog with anyone you think would enjoy it. I’d love to get the word out as far as possible. People can sign up to read it at ruthamos.com.au or on WordPress. 

Enjoy the process

A tennis ball

We’ve been watching the Olympics a lot lately, getting our fix of all the different kinds of sport. So I thought I’d start this blog with a sports example.

Here’s a story about Novak Djokovic:

“[Tennis champion] Novak Djokovic said in an interview with the Financial Times that “I can carry on playing at this level because I like hitting the tennis ball.” The interviewer replied in surprise: “Are there really players who don’t like hitting the ball?” Djokovic answered, “Oh yes. There are people out there who don’t have the right motivation. You don’t need to talk to them. I can see it.”

(From James Clear’s newsletter).

Moz, in his role as a teacher, talks to a lot of kids who are thinking about what they should do with their lives. And it’s not just kids, I think that some adults are really wondering if what they do is ‘all there is’ and whether they could change to do something else. They might be unhappy in their job situation, or maybe they’ve been laid off or something like, I don’t know, a global pandemic has happened and has changed their life or the way they are thinking about their life and they’re looking for what they want to do next.

My life has been a journey to find the process that I enjoy. 

I started my working life as a check-out chick, then a bank teller. I was unhappy in both of those situations, basically because I was an introvert operating with a flat people-battery all the time. These jobs weren’t right for me, but I have a friend, Judy, who worked in a supermarket for 30 years and really enjoyed it. I interviewed her in my podcast.

I left the bank to have children, and worked as a family day carer and a stay at home mum, again, using up my social energy to the utmost. But again, my friend Kerry just loves family day care and that’s where she knows she belongs.

To help with the resulting depression, I decided to go to university. And I loved it. Just loved it. I thought I’d be happy working at a university for the rest of my life. And I was happy for a good 15 years. But that time came to an end too. I have another podcast interview with Matt who serves God and the university and finds it fruitful and rewarding.

When I was thinking about leaving the university, I thought long and hard about what I wanted to do with myself. Like Djokovic, I wanted to do something where I enjoyed the process, and not just the outcome.

One thing I love to do is write. I know that some authors like ‘having written’ but I like the process of writing as well. I like to sit down at my computer, just like I’m doing now, and pounding out words. This makes the job of author an ideal job for me. 

I also like to read, and I read very quickly. I have a good grasp of the English language, and now that I’ve worked as a scientist, I have a good grasp of science too. And this enables me to work as an academic editor. Believe it or not, I like the fiddly process of working with words to make them sound beautiful. I like bringing order out of chaotic journal articles. I like the process.

When Moz talks with the kids at school about what they want for their future careers, they are often thinking of the outcome. ‘I want to make lots of money’ or ‘I want to be famous’. This is really short-term thinking, happily-ever-after thinking. Thinking that when you get to a particular point, you’re going to be happy from then on because everything will be perfect. I get trapped in this kind of thinking all the time. But I’m learning to change. I think it’s much better to think of the types of things you enjoy, and how those can be used to solve a problem or to give value to others.

Do you enjoy being inside or outside?

Do you like to bring order or make a creative mess?

Are you the ‘sit quietly and read and write’ type like me, or do you like to be active?

Do you fill your battery by being with others or by being alone?

The more you understand these things about yourself, the more you can look for a job or activity where you can give value to others and also be fulfilled yourself.

I really love to encourage people to find these things that suit them and do them to the best of their ability. It took me 40+ years to find out what suited me. I had several false starts. But I couldn’t be happier now.

My sister also has walked this path. She knew she wanted to be a musician, but what sort of musician? She tried classical and jazz performance, she tried music teaching, she tried working in administration (another of her gifts), and then she found film composition. That is her happy place, working in film in all sorts of ways. Composing, orchestrating, going and doing all the recording in the studios. One film she worked on recently (supporting the composer), Minari, was nominated for an Oscar. 

Once again, it took her a while to find her thing, but now she’s found it she’s unstoppable.

Nothing we do is wasted. I’m grateful for all my experiences on the way through. They have built me into what I am today. But I’m more than grateful for the ability now to work in a way that I love on projects that I enjoy.

I can’t encourage you enough to find activities where you enjoy the process. Not just the pay cheque, but the work you need to do to get the cheque. Enjoy hitting the ball. Whether it’s for money or just for love. It’s life changing.

Fun! (And how I forget to have it)

A woman dancing to music from her phone
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Last year, I read a book called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. It was more than a book, it was more like a self-paced course to help blocked creatives become creative again. I didn’t know that before I started, I just read it because it had been suggested by so many people in podcasts and blogs. It was a worthwhile experience.

It’s full of activities and prompts to help you dig into your own creativity and to find joy and to make time to explore and make and do. 

One of the activities, fairly early on, was to write a list of 20 things that you enjoy doing.

Now, I wasn’t in the best of places at the end of last year. I don’t really think anybody was. I was not in crisis yet, but I was well on the way. 

I found it really hard to write a list of 20 things I enjoyed doing. 

And maybe a week or so after I wrote the list I thought, ‘Hang on. I enjoy dancing. Dancing is a big part of who I am. Why isn’t dancing on that list?’ 

I had lost touch with myself. I had lost touch with the part of myself that had fun.

Playing and having fun is a big part of being human. It’s an important part of mental health. 

And it’s a very easy thing to squeeze out of our lives.

I am a Type A personality. I admit it. I love lists. I love structure. I love to Get Things Done. But I can get so involved in looking at the jobs that need doing and crossing them off that I forget to enjoy life on the way through.

I like things to have purpose. And that’s good. But some things should be done for no purpose. Just for the joy of it. Not to monetise, not to add to your body of work, not to be part of your business. But just for fun.

My father-in-law has started a new project. He’s fulfilling a life-long ambition to make a model train set. In their back room he has a table on wheels and on that table is a train track that goes around and around, and he’s sculpted some hills and some rivers, and used 3D printing to make houses and train stations and people and so on. Last weekend, to celebrate his 70th birthday, all the boys in the family went to his place and worked on the train set. They wired in lights, used Arduino technology to make them come on in interesting ways. They worked on the train whistle. 

Now, I looked at the train set and my whole self went, ‘But why?’ What is the point of this? You can’t even make a story out of it. It just goes around and around.

But that is the point. That is the whole point. This project is play. It’s deep play and it’s great.

Moz is teaching himself to play piano. I enjoy listening to him play through worship songs, or some Elton John or Annie Lennox. He plays just for the fun of it. He doesn’t want to be part of a worship team or a band that plays gigs every week. He just enjoys playing. I love that. I need to put more of that in my life. I think all of us need to have these fun things in our lives.

I’m not good at play. Mostly I just look at all the things that need to be done, and try to do them. Try to get the whole list crossed off before the week ticks over and I have to do it all again.

Or if I do enjoy something, like writing, then I write whole novels and sell them and try to make a living doing that. 

I’m trying to change though. Now I put on funky music and dance in the kitchen, just for fun. I have an adult colouring book to work my way through and I’m trying not to stress too much when I colour outside the lines. I play card games with people and try not to mind when I lose. I mess around on the bass guitar, not for any reason, just to enjoy the music. I meet with friends for coffee and laughter and fun conversation.

Fun reminds me that I don’t have to ‘do’ all the time, that it’s OK sometimes just to ‘be’. That I am valuable for who I am, not just what I produce.

It’s so easy to lose this part of ourselves, but life with out light and laughter is no life at all. In all our organising and bringing order to our lives, let’s not forget to leave room for a little bit of fun every now and then. Make time to do the things you enjoy, just for the sake of enjoyment.

What do you enjoy doing? What do you do to bring fun into your life?

Decision Fatigue

A pair of feet stand at five arrows all pointing in different directions
There are so many choices

I don’t know if it’s because I’m officially a ‘highly sensitive person’ (according to the book Quiet by Susan Cain) or that I’m an introvert, or what, but I seem to need a lot less stimulation than other people. I know that if I let it go too far, then I risk depression, but generally I am a happy person when my life is filled with routine and order and when I don’t have to deal with many changes.

One of the places where this shows up is at breakfast time.

You see, I eat the same breakfast nearly every morning. I soak oats in milk overnight, I add some stewed pears and some Greek yogurt and I’m good. It’s delicious, nutritious, and filling. 

Moz, on the other hand, could not bear the thought of eating the same thing every single day. He doesn’t much mind what he eats as long as there’s some variety. Some mornings toast, sometimes an omelet, sometimes cereal, sometimes fruit and yogurt. Variety.

The thing is, I try to limit the decisions in my life as much as possible, because in my line of work I need to make decisions every day. Many decisions. 

If I’m writing a novel, I need to decide what the characters are doing. How they feel. What arguments they have. What the threat is. And so on. And at the moment I am making decisions about a whole world. What does it look like? What’s the currency? What kind of activities are available?

If I’m editing, I need to decide on the right word, the right turn of phrase, the exact place to put a comma. 

And because I work for myself, and my time is my own, I have to decide what to do with it.

I don’t need to be bothered with deciding which breakfast cereal to eat in addition to all the other decisions I make.

I asked google how many decisions the average person makes in a day and the answers ranged from 70 to 35,000. I guess if you look at the very detailed and subconscious choices you make, e.g. whether to start walking with your left foot or your right, the answer could come to 35,000 (one choice every two waking seconds of the day). But in terms of the choices that contribute to decision fatigue, I’m going to go with Sheena lyengar’s research that estimates that we make about 70 decisions daily. 

Our ability to make decisions decreases with the number of decisions we make. And once we run out of oomph we are inclined to make mistakes, like procrastination, or impulse buying. You know this if you’ve ever gone to the grocery store at the end of a long day. 

One way to limit decision fatigue is by limiting decisions. Here’s a few ways you can do that easily in your daily life:

  • You can limit the clothes that you wear. Steve Jobs apparently wore the same clothes every day (not the exact same clothes, we assume, but different sets of the same colour and style of clothing) so that he didn’t have to think what to wear.
  • I’m not as extreme as Steve Jobs, but I try to wear shirts and trousers or jeans that are grey, black or navy and then add a colourful jumper or scarf. And (don’t tell anyone) I often wear the same outfit twice in a row. I have specific outfits for when I’m leading church or giving a talk. I know that they look good, so I don’t mess with them. I don’t try to choose what to wear every time. I just put the suit on, and get the thing done.
  • You already know that I limit choice in what I eat. I haven’t gone all the way to a weekly meal plan yet, but some people swear by them as ways to help with the choices when shopping and when cooking the evening meal. For a while we invested in one of those meal plans where a box of groceries and a couple of recipes get delivered to your house each week. That got us through some tough times and meant we ate a lot less takeaway food. We only had to decide each week between the two delivered recipes (though even that choice was too hard sometimes).
  • One of the stories in Sandra Felton’s The Messies Manual is about a woman who struggled to choose what to eat at a restaurant. She made it easier for herself by deciding to limit her choice each time. One time she would have a fish dish, the next, poultry, the next red meat. That way, she didn’t have to choose from the list of every dish on the menu, but only two or three dishes.
  • You can limit decisions by having a schedule or routine. You might not be able to schedule your whole day like I can, but you can have a morning routine that you just do automatically. And you may be able to schedule things like exercise or grocery shopping.

I’ll show you what I mean by this by explaining how I schedule my gym visits. At the moment I am trying to get to the gym to do 30 minutes of vigorous exercise six days a week. But if I didn’t schedule it, I’m sure I wouldn’t feel ‘in the mood’ most days and I wouldn’t get it done. It would be a decision I would struggle with. 

So I go with a routine:

  • On Mondays my exercise is a lunchtime thing. I head to the gym at around 1pm.
  • Tuesdays I go on my way back home from my writing group, Creative Space. I put my gym clothes in the car so I don’t have to go home to get changed. If I did go home I would struggle to get back out the door to go to the gym.
  • Wednesdays I go first thing: breakfast, put on gym clothes, exercise.
  • Thursdays I go and write my novel at a cafe first thing, then gym on the way home, clothes packed as on Tuesdays.
  • On Fridays the gym comes after my coffee visit with my Mum. That visit generally falls at about lunch time so I pack a muesli bar as well so that I can’t talk myself out of going if I’m hungry.
  • Saturdays and Sundays are a bit more fluid, but I will try to go first thing on a Saturday and I go after church on Sundays, especially if I’m leading.

I still don’t make it to the gym every single day, but you can see how I’m making it easy for myself by scheduling, linking the gym with other activities, and packing what I need so that I get rid of excuses. This is a schedule for an ideal week, and no week is ideal. But if I didn’t have this picture of what I’m aiming for then I think I’d be hitting nothing most days and not exercising at all. Without the schedule, each day I would have to decide, ‘do I want to go to the gym?’ And the chances of the answer to that being ‘yes’ are much smaller if I’m deciding afresh every time.

If you’re struggling with decision fatigue, or finding it hard to make the myriad choices that are required to get through the day, then I encourage a little bit of planning. See if you can cut down the choices you have to make by meal planning or just deciding to limit your breakfast to one type of food. And work on a schedule for the activities where you need willpower. 

Why other areas can you see that you can pre-decide? Do you have a special way of dealing with those ‘extra willpower needed’ activities? Do you like a daily schedule or are you a more spontaneous person?

How and why to sleep well

I’m not an ‘early bird’ or a ‘night owl’. I’m more some kind of ‘permanently exhausted pigeon’.

From https://www.gemmacorrell.com/

No, that’s not quite the truth, it’s just a quote from Gemma Correll’s brilliant comic that I like. I’m more of an early bird these days. But I do seem to need more sleep than your average bear.

Sleep is so very important. I’ve been reading the book Rest by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang and I’ve learned a bit about what sleep can do for you:

  • It helps your body to grow
  • It helps your body to fight infection
  • It helps your body to repair wounds and scratches
  • It is a time when myelin is generated (a substance that helps your body to send nerve signals and is damaged in MS)
  • It is a time when your brain washes out toxins
  • It is a time when brain injuries are repaired

Lack of sleep is associated with increased risk of ulcers, heart disease, breast cancer, diabetes, dementia, and cognitive decline.

Sleep is a time when your brain solidifies its memories. Visual, emotional and procedural memories are solidified during rapid eye movement sleep, and verbal memories during slow wave sleep.

And while we sleep, our subconscious mind works on problems from the day, which can lead to moments of insight. We can wake up and find that our problems are solved!

When we are busy or trying to be productive, it can be tempting to cut into our sleep time. To think of sleep as unproductive, wasted time.

‘No sleep is going to be lost time’ says Pang. And when I look at the list of things that sleep helps with, I have to agree.

Sleep occurs in cycles that are 90 – 110 minutes long. If you get woken in the middle of a sleep cycle you feel groggy and horrible. But waking at the end of a cycle makes you feel more refreshed.

You can plan for this by looking at the time you wake up and counting back in 90 minute blocks to find the best time for you to go to bed. For example, if you need to wake up at 6 am then going to bed at 10.30 pm will get you five full cycles (if my maths is correct) and 7.5 hours sleep. 

I need more like 9 hours sleep myself, but my husband Moz is fully loaded at 7.5 hours. A while back, he would do his best to head to bed at 10.30 pm in an attempt to get all his cycles in before the alarm went off in the morning.

There was a problem with this calculation though. The thing was that in order to get all the sleep he needed, he had to drop off to sleep as soon as his head hit the pillow. He came to bed needing to fall asleep straight away. And that kind of stress is not very sleep-inducing.

Now, he’s fixed that by heading to bed a little earlier. He’ll be reading in bed at around 9.30 or 10 pm and turning the light off shortly thereafter. That means that often his sleep cycles finish early in the morning. He often wakes quite relaxed and refreshed at 5am. But that’s ok. He just gets up and goes to his study (leaving me still peacefully snoring) and plays on the computer or peruses the internet until it’s time to get going for the day. The activities he used to do at night he now does earlier in the morning. And he’s a lot less stressed, but he’s still getting the sleep that he needs.

There are even smart watches that keep track of your sleep cycles. You can tell them the time that you need to be awake and they will use a vibrating alarm to wake you at a time near to that where you are in a good place in your sleep cycle and less likely to be groggy. No more waking out of deep sleep to the insistent buzzing of an alarm.

Even naps are helpful. Did you know that Winston Churchill took afternoon naps all the way through World War II? Even a five minute nap apparently helps your memory work better. A 30 minute nap helps renew your depleted energy (I took one of those right before writing this) and a longer nap can cut your day in two so that you can work longer into the evening. 

I know that some people who nap for longer wake up feeling disoriented and groggy, so I prefer a nice 30 minute nap. Enough to restore energy, but not too deep into the sleep cycle.

I want to finish with a few tips for getting yourself a good night’s sleep. 

Turn off your screens an hour or so before going to bed. The blue light from screens keeps you awake and the dopamine hits from social media or the adrenaline from playing games or watching TV dramas are not going to help with the calming down either. A book is a great alternative.

Keep your screens and your work out of the bedroom. Use the bedroom for sleeping. Keep your work life elsewhere in the house so you’re not drawn to worrying about it at night.

If worrying about things keeps you awake, choose a time of day when you will worry, either a few hours before bed, or first thing in the morning. Dedicate that time to worrying and write down your worries. Then give them to God (I put them in a shoebox that is God’s inbox). When worries wake you at night, you can tell yourself that you will worry about that in your ‘worry time’ and go back to sleep. (It sounds strange, but it works for me.)

Make sure you do some exercise, again, earlier in the day and not immediately before you’re going to jump into bed and turn your light out. And make sure you don’t drink caffeine late in the day either. Most people stop drinking caffeinated drinks after lunch so that the caffeine has a bit of a chance to leave their systems.

A warm, milky drink before bed and a cool room should be a good combination that will lead to a peaceful and restful night’s sleep.

I am still working on my sleep habits. But I know it’s worth working on and getting right. Sleep is not wasted time, it is incredibly important for both mental and physical health. I hope you can prioritise your sleep and be energised and ready to face each new day.

PS here are a few websites you might also find helpful 🙂

https://www.healthline.com/health/sleep/sleep-calculator#not-enough-sleep

https://startsleeping.org/sleep-calculator/

https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/sleep-hygiene#general-suggestions