Focus: Channeling your energy to accomplish your priorities

I’ve just spent the most recent twelve months with my head barely above water, the tight rope strung 5 feet deep (I’m 5’5″,) and my balance dependent on the pure absence of distractions of any kind (writing included.) I thank my lucky stars that this tight-rope walk has a shoreline and a clear, sandy beach. Since September, however, it feels as if I’ve been waiting for my clothes to dry. Enough with the metaphors? Well, let’s put it this way: My life’s purest passion is writing, and these are the first non-technical words I’ve written since I began my master’s degree program late in the fall of 2011.

I have a forty-five minute commute to and from work, and I found myself Friday night instead of looking forward to the weekend as usual, mentally punishing myself over and over for not putting my passions back into action sooner. What have I let go? Oh, let’s see, only EVERYTHING that makes me feel whole and pure and productive at the end of the day. I’m thankful for clothing choices made to conceal the ‘muffin top’, because sensible amounts of healthy eating and dieting have continued to elude me. I have a novel sitting in the coffers begging for a loving editor, yet I haven’t read a word of it in nearly two years. The novel my publisher released last winter hasn’t sold a fraction of the copies my others have. I haven’t blogged for you in nearly a year (SO sad for me!) Many rooms in my house have succumbed to abysmal amounts of clutter, a reflection of my recent attitude toward housework and our tendency to scare housekeepers away with the sheer volume of work.

This is situation of my own making, however, so while I’m beating myself up over it, I wouldn’t ever want anyone to feel sorry for me. This blog is about making time in your life for the things that are important. Good health, fitness, career satisfaction, writing, and cleanliness are important to me–they are PRIORITIES. No matter how tired or burned out I’ve become over the last year on my journey to higher education and self-improvement, I cannot be my best self, and neither can you, if we lose sight of our priorities. So I went in search of advice that inspires me (and thus, hopefully inspires you) to focus and channel our limited energies to accomplish the priorities we’ve established.

Blogger Lynn Terry has the following words to say about getting the most out of your life when so much seemingly ‘needs’ to be accomplished: “It’s not just about time management, or doing the things ‘experts’ (or well meaning friends & family) say you should be doing. It’s about doing what is most important to you. Period. Because you cannot do it all. And you DO get to choose.

Know where you are.

Know where you want to be.

Know what it’s going to take to get from here to there.

Then… go do it!” (http://www.clicknewz.com/4043/time-management-tips)

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? There are several keys to remember in this advice, however: 1) It’s just as important to know why something is a priority (or why it makes you happy), as it is to identify the priority in the first place. In other words, is exercise a priority because it makes you feel good, or because someone else thinks you need to look more toned in a bikini? 2) Once you decide what is important and why it’s important to you, you must develop goals related to that priority. 3) Time must be given on a regular basis to achieving those goals. The time needed must be scheduled in just an any other appointment would be. Finally, 4) Don’t be so hard on yourself (and I will try to follow this advice myself)! These are choices I’ve made, things that I’ve decided are important to me. Once I’ve regrouped, there can be no guilt over stagnation should it occur (the proverbial undried clothing), because I’ll be making my choices with my priorities and my limited schedule at the front of my mind. I’ll check back in soon and let you know how that goes!

I Have Room for Just One More Thing

You do remember, of course, the basic rules of math that began roughly in the first grade: If your answer (in this case, an amount of time) remains the same, then in order to add something (a new activity), you must subtract something else. Right? You are only awake for eighteen or nineteen hours per day. You have to take a shower and brush your teeth (if your plans include the presence of other people). You must eat, drink, and pee. Many of us must fit an eight (or more) hour work day in there. What’s left? Hmm. Somewhere in the range of eight hours, I think. What will you do with your eight hours?

I’ve talked, at length, about finding your passion and allocating time for it. No matter what. Who knew, however, that we could be passionate about so many things? My kids, while demanding, are also a whole bucket of fun. Writing still invigorates me like the first intake of air on a crisp winter morning. Conversations with my husband often lead me to giggle like I’m thirteen again. Also, I have to nurture my body for as long as I have it, so there’s that fitness thing again and healthy eating. I also like to learn new things, and even though it’s taken me fifteen years to do it, I’ve joined the legions in our nation’s virtual classrooms, headed for a graduate degree.

Alas, have mercy already! There were only eight waking hours left. Per day. And I’ve gone and given most of them, for at least a year, to a Master’s program! So back to basic math: To add, I must take away. I shall not take away from you if you read this blog because I still have so much to share about making time. (Plus, I’m bound to have some epiphanies along this path!) I shall try mightily not to take away from my family. I shall try to keep following my own advice.

I will be taking a year-long hiatus from novel-writing (there’s that pesky subtraction), but I can share the happy news that my latest title is finally available for sale in the meantime. It’s called “The Son I Seek” and you can order it online or through your local bookseller. Here’s a copy of the promotional bookmark:

I’ll get an excerpt up here as soon as I can so you get a small glimpse of poignant romance slashed right in the gut by a rude set of twists (my favorite thing to do to the unsuspecting reader!)

For tonight, I shall close the laptop and force my eyes to shut so I can get up early and exercise. Until next time, keep stealing moments to pursue the things you love the most so that you can inspire the rest of us.

Oh, How I’ve Been Spanked!

I’ve reconnected with my dear blog by doing a read-through, and I’ve now thanked the Almighty, that I started my first post with the “Something’s Gotta Give” Theory! One year ago, in September, I hung up my cooking mitts and took a full-time job working five days a week for the first time since having baby number three.

Something’s gotta give, for sure. In this case, those somethings have been sleep, exercise, luxurious days gardening and canning, shopping trips while kids were in school…and, oh, so painfully, time to write! Looking back at my days working part-time and giving advice to you, my reader, I’ve realized two things: I’ve been a bit of an idealist (though a well-meaning one); and I need to follow some of my own advice!

To be fair to my career choice, I’ve taken tremendous satisfaction in becoming excellent at my job again, with daily practice giving me an interest I haven’t had in years. I have also taken on a commute with this job. I’m happy to say that I’ve taken my own advice on this: I use the 90 minutes extra to think about the writing projects I have in the works and expand upon them. I also use them to listen to music and decompress before facing the family again.

I still exercise in the mornings before work about three days a week. This I could do better on, but I find by Friday, the need to catch the extra sleep I need and I nix the half-hour-early wake up time. I’d like to go to bed earlier to accommodate an earlier rise, but I find my evening time after the kids go to bed to be critical to writing and editing. My afternoon nap is no longer optional, unfortunately.

Healthy eating is still part of our routine as a family, but I’ve found quicker ways to a healthy meal. Packaged salads are helpful, as are pre-cooked chicken strips and already-shredded cheese. Greek yogurt is my new savior for breakfast with a ribbon of almonds for some crunch. Crock-pot cooking has become essential in the colder months. Also, my kids are getting old enough to be of help and they can all make a pretty mean sandwich.

Here’s the beautiful thing about all the trials and tribulations of joining forces with working moms: I feel like the tricks I learn about time-saving now really apply to a much broader group, and a much more challenged group, of women. So while the idealist in me has been massacred several times over in the last year, the optimist in me realizes that the desire to eek out time to write, have fun, spend time with the kids and my spouse, will conquer any amount of challenge thrown into my 24-hour day.

Stayed tuned for more caveats as the occur to me. In the meantime, enjoy this fabulous (and fast) summer recipe for dinner (feeds six):

6 – Large Flour or Whole Wheat Flour Tortillas

1 – Bag of Brocco-Slaw (shredded Broccoli, Carrots, and Cabbage found in the Produce Section)

1 – Small Bag of Shredded Cheddar or Mozzarella Cheese

12 – Slices of Thick-Sliced Deli Turkey or Chicken

Ranch Dressing and/or Sweet Asian Chili Sauce for flavor

Place a Tortilla on a plate, put two slices of Deli Meat in the middle. Sprinkle Brocco-Slaw and Cheese over the top. Garnish with Ranch Dressing and/or Sweet Chili Sauce. Tuck both ends over contents and roll the tortilla shut. Cut in half on the diagonal and serve with strawberries and veggie crisps.

Refuse to be ‘Pigeonholed’

Do you ever feel categorized, like the path you’ve chosen in life led you in such a successful, self-defining direction that you’ve never dared to deviate from it? Do you feel ‘pigeonholed’ by your family and friends? Perhaps you don’t know what this means, so let’s examine the phrase. The verb ‘pigeonhole’ means: 1. To place or file in a small compartment or recess.2. To classify mentally; categorize.3. To put aside and ignore; shelve. Let’s take an example: Supermom–you pride yourself that your kids are not only credible athletes year-round, they’re raising steers for the county fair, taking ballroom dancing lessons, and learning the guitar. Yes, you have amazing kids who will achieve even more amazing things. But your husband still wants you to iron his shirts, after all, you stay at home most of the time. (Yeah right, your minivan has more miles on it than a UPS truck!) Your kids want you to sew their costumes for their recital. Your mother wrote the local paper to have you nominated for mother-of-the-year and they want to interview you to find out what makes you tick (besides the adrenaline that drives you to speed through yellow lights en route from soccer practice to the feed store before it closes.) The school wants you to become the parent-teacher liason (because what other mom encounters so many other parents in her daily life?) Being a mom, being truly brilliant at it, defines you. Your greatest satisfaction is the admiration you and your family glean from being so accomplished. Well done.

But wait, isn’t there more to you than motherhood? Weren’t you an exchange student to Peru fifteen years ago, when your plan was to train in medicine and then become a missionary to South America? No? Didn’t you win a blue ribbon in photography at the fair just five years ago, and have several of the judges urge you to go into professional portrait photography? No? Aren’t you the math whiz that makes Sudoku look like child’s play? No? You see what I’m asking here, right? If motherhood is all that makes you ‘you’, then you’ve been officially ‘pigeonholed’.

It’s easy to take satisfaction in something we do well, and to repeat as often as necessary. It’s just that human beings are so much more multi-faceted than that. Just because you do something well does not mean that you are passionate about that thing. You could be good at pole-dancing, but that may not translate into anything in your life but a way to work in some cardio. I’m a great sonographer–you give me a patient and an ultrasound transducer and I can make snapping clear pictures look as easy as frosting a cake. I spent years being great at my job, only to find that my true passion was as different from science as religion. While I was nurturing my third child, well on my way to being pigeonholed as super-baby-mom, I took that mold and dropped it on a marble floor, shattering it. I refused the label, defied the convention of new mommy-hood, and took to a new hobby–writing. My husband, a gainfully-employed computer-tech, propped his shovel against the house one day after planting hops, and announced that he’d always wanted to be a farmer. Inside of two months, we moved from town to a working alfalfa ranch where he’s further diversified into alternative energy and carpentry (and fatherhood). The fact is that it would take one helluva tricky labeler to say just who and what we are.

So go ahead, please, and discover who you are, not who everybody thinks you are. Your best creative self is dying to come out. Your passion yearns to be spent. Work hard to redefine yourself, to break molds and form new ones. By refusing to be ‘pigeonholed’, your possibilities are limitless.

What Happens If I’m Overwhelmed?

If you look at the glossy covers of the magazines at the checkout stand, it’s easy enough to see the Hollywood supermoms–Angelina Jolie, Halle Berry, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Garner–looking svelte, gorgeous, and, most discouraging of all, effortless. Realistically, though, how many of them do you think could stay trim without a personal chef to prepare their under-1000 calorie diet and without their buff fitness coach? How much work do you think they’d get done without their half a dozen nannies? Plus, how awful do you think their outfits would be if their stylist wasn’t there to check any missteps?

Don’t look at these women and woe the state of your own meager bank account! I understand your quandary–After all, wouldn’t we all like to have Bob Green on speed-dial and Ken Paves waiting in the wings to style our hair? There is a lesson to be learned from these Hollywood moms, though: When you have too much to do, and it is your job to appear naturally confident and in control, you MUST delegate, delegate, delegate.

So how does this apply to us busy people living a ‘normal’ life? If you need help, admit it first, and then start with your family. If your kids are too little to be of help, do you have a mother, an in-law, or a sibling with any extra time to help you defray your overwhelming list of tasks? Don’t be afraid to ask–there may be a chance to bond over the activity, or an opportunity for you to return the favor when you’re less stymied. If the whole family is old enough to help, it’s time to divide tasks and conquer. Make a chore chart and assign each family member a task to carry out for the week. If your kids drag their feet, give them incentive–a movie night at the end of the week or a weekend dessert fest. My kids earn ‘Bear Points’ for doing chores. They get to be spent at ‘Build-A-Bear Workshop’ when they’ve earned enough points to go shopping.

If you’re still buried in an insurmountable number of tasks, make a list of these and take a look at it. Which of those tasks do you intensely dislike? Is it weeding the garden or scrubbing toilets? If you’re a writer, is it editing that you despise? Highly successful people will universally admit that they rarely perform the tasks they abhor most. They’re smart enough to be where they are, after all, and smart people hire someone to do the dirty work for them. Think you can’t afford to hire a housekeeper or gardener? Calculate how much time it would take to complete the job yourself. If you think of your time as money, how much does it cost you to do it yourself? (For example, if you think of your time as worth, say, $20 per hour, and it took you 5 hours to complete the gardening, that’s $100!) Surely you could hire the job out for less than that. Plus, it’s worth the preservation of your state of mind to let someone else lighten your load. You’ll be more productive doing what you enjoy most and the peace of mind in that is truly immeasurable.

Just When You Think You’ve Got Your Priorities Straight…

Epiphanies often strike during the most ordinary moments. Today, for example, I spent the morning with my girls, cleaning their very messy room. (We’re talking hurricane worthy here.) As a reward for all of our hard work, I took all of the kids shoe shopping. (Since it’s been a good month since we’ve had a decent snow storm, it didn’t seem fitting to make them keep wearing their winter boots.) Thus began our adventure into Retail-land. We live fifteen miles away from a town whose biggest accomplishment was the addition of a second stoplight fifteen years ago. As you can imagine, our choices are limited. We passed through the four or five viable options for retail shoe stores, found decent deals on adorable shoes, stopped along the way for milkshakes, and poured ourselves back into the car at about 6:30, exhausted. From the blissful silence of the backseat, I heard my oldest daughter: “This has been a really fun day, Mom. You know, usually, you’re stuck working on your computer all of the time. Today, you spent the whole day with us.”

She might as well have sucker-punched me, because I always thought she and her sister and brothers were too busy playing with each other whilst I immersed myself online or writing, to notice that I wasn’t with them. Silly me. Something as simple as an early spring shopping trip and milkshakes made my children feel like they had me all to themselves. I thought I had my priorities all figured out–I put my family first, above all else, right? Yeah, right. Not if you ask them. But theirs were not the mutterings of starving kids–if they need fed, I feed them nutritiously, nor were they the complaints of ill-dressed, ill-bathed rugrats–if they need baths or showers or decent clothing, I see to these needs too. What I am missing, and what my daughter spelled out clearly today, is that caring for my kids’ needs is not the same as meeting their emotional quotas.

They need more of my uncluttered, undistracted time. There’s so little time to begin with, isn’t there? But if I haven’t been filling it by addressing my top priority–my family–then what is it all for, really?

The take-away lesson here is not to tell you that I’ll be spending more time with my children and hanging up the laptop for the time being. That too would be foolish, because the computer is truly a writer’s lifeline. What I am going to do is rewrite my priority list and then I’m going to do a time log, logging all of my major activities during a forty-eight hour period. At the end of the forty-eight hours, I’m going to see how much time I spent doing the activities that I’ve said matter to me most. The results might be astounding, or they may be predictable, but the ‘test-time’ will give me a clear idea how much time I spend doing the things I most cherish. Obviously some habits need to change, but re-evaluating priorities lends habit-kicking focus. Try this exercise too and you’ll be well on your way to finding your best life. I know I can’t wait to get started.