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Finding Focus

I’m sitting here on my ottoman, a whole list of things I want to get done, not doing any of them (at least not until I started writing this blog post), and wondering why I spend so much time thinking about what I want/need to get done as opposed to actually *doing* it. I do this everywhere…though I am somewhat more focused at work when I can be (which isn’t as much as I’d like, because…other people).

That said, even here at home, by myself (well, just me and the dogs), I am…unsettled. Unfocused. I know what I want/need to do, but I can’t decide what to do first, or for how long, or what to do when I get interrupted, or…well, you get the picture.

Part of the problem is that I’m interrupted so often (even here at home), that I have trouble getting into anything because it seems futile. I know that happens a *lot* at work, and here at home with the dogs too. I’ve gotten so used to that, and it’s so disruptive to being “in the zone” with anything that I often just don’t even try. I pick at things, piecemeal, afraid to get too deep since an interruption is inevitably just around the corner instead of really focusing. It’s far less efficient and less satisfying than being able to actually put my head down and work steady for a good couple hours on the same project, but it’s often all I can do to actually make progress on anything.

Even just now, writing this post, I had to get up to let the dog in, but when I sat back down, I checked my email before coming back to this. Is there anything else that needs my attention? Do I need to shift focus again? Is it okay to try to get back in the zone for another twenty minutes or so?

I’ve trained my brain to be like this, to just work shallowly around all the interruptions throughout my day, and I get stuff done, but not nearly as efficiently or satisfyingly as I could if I were able to actually focus, even for just a full hour at a time.

Thing is, I probably could, it’s just that I hate being pulled out of the focus zone so much, and it’s happened so often, that the fear (or certainty) of it happening again keeps me from allowing myself to really delve into anything at all. And I’ve trained myself to give into that fear, unfortunately. Which means to “fix” it, there are a couple of things I really need to work on.

The first is planning. I’ve gotten lazy about both keeping track of projects and scheduling the smaller parts of the whole. The only way to be able to focus on anything is to first know what it is I wanted to focus on in the first place. I have a ton of projects to keep track of for work, and also a bunch for both the house and my writing. Today I wasted a ton of time just trying to decide whether to clean first, or write this blog post, or do some editing, or rearrange furniture…and that’s only four different things! If I had a running list of to-dos, and then either late last night or first thing this morning, I looked at that list and my day and actually scheduled when I wanted to do what, I wouldn’t have wasted all that time. I would have had a plan to follow, and even if I was interrupted or thrown off the schedule, I still would have been able to pick it back up from the last undone thing, and could have continued from there.

I have the tools to do this. I have a main calendar program and a list program that is easily used for automated reminders and scheduling. I also have a digital paper tablet that I can hand-write on (which often works best for me when making initial lists before they get scheduled into the automated one). The only thing I don’t have? A routine habit for maintaining the system.

The second thing I need will arguably be more difficult, and that is to somehow get over the fear of being interrupted, and learn to get into the “zone” of focused work more quickly so that even when I am interrupted, I don’t lose so much time. Part of that is knowing what I need to do when, but the other part is just retraining my brain so that when the interruption has been dealt with, I just check my list, figure out what I’m supposed to be working on next, and then just slide right back into it. That is a discipline thing, and it’s going to mostly involve using my to-do list to “trigger” my brain into focus-mode. It’s going to involve a lot of willpower.

I’ve been employing that throughout writing this post. Whenever I feel myself losing focus, I close my eyes briefly, remind myself that I’m writing a blog post, and then continue. I think what I’m going to do after I’ve finished this is to rearrange the screens on my cell phone so that my to-do list is the only thing on my home screen. That way, after any interruption throughout the day, I can unlock my phone, my to-do list will be right there, and at the top will be whatever is scheduled for the day and not yet checked off.

I think doing these two things – maintaining a to-do list/calendar and using it to trigger/ground my focus after every interruption, I can alieviate at least a little stress from my life, and hopefully spend more time actually focused on tasks rather than wondering what I should work on next or picking at things piecemeal throughout the day.

Next up on today’s impromptu to-do list: Update the actual to-do list, and schedule a time (either late night or early morning) to pick the priority items for any given day.

This sort of thing is why I should take vacation days more often. I have a hard time stepping back, looking at what’s causing me stress, and figuring out how to fix it when I don’t have time and space to just be quiet and think. Evaluation/re-evaluation days are important.


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Time for a Retreat

I don’t know if it’s the year, or just the fact that I’m getting older, but I’m starting to have trouble keeping track of things. Work projects, personal projects, health stuff…things I really need to keep track of and could easily just track in my head previously. Call it age, call it pre-menopausal brain fog, or just the stress of the “Year of Constant Change”, but I feel like I’m catching up instead of keeping up more than usual, and I’m not gonna lie – between that and politics, I’m stressed out.

Stress isn’t good for us. Constant stress, even less so. And when I was looking at the top of my growing-out hair the other day and found that my natural part line was quite a bit wider than it should be, I did what any sane woman would do and freaked the heck out.

I did that quietly, because my husband is nearly bald, and there’s really not much to be done for male pattern baldness (that I know of). So I am trying to be sensitive to that, but whether we like it or not, society judges women more strictly than men on their looks, and hair is a big part of that.

Naturally, I went searching WebMD and YouTube for pics and information (I consider WebMD to be pretty reliable, considering I’ve sat in a doctor’s office and watched them look stuff up there on numerous occasions). And I found that my widening part is called female pattern baldness, it’s either Type I or II (hard to say from the pics) and while it can sometimes be genetic, there are several other things that can cause it – mostly internal health issues like thyroid problems, anemia (which I tend towards), illness, and *stress*. Best of all, most of those things can be treated and the hair loss reversed from the inside out.

Last spring I was very sick for an extended period of time. I got sick shortly before the pandemic became a “thing”, and was ill for over two months. I was in the middle of a very stressful work project when I got whatever it was I got (I don’t think it was covid, but who knows), and I didn’t start getting better until four weeks in when the project was finally finished (recovery was incredibly slow). But during that time, there was a day or two where I noticed actual clumps of my hair coming out in the shower. So I’m wondering if that’s when this slight baldness started. Maybe it was worse then – I wasn’t going to the hair dresser or dying my roots then, so I wasn’t really looking at the back/top of my head much, and I expected to get it cut again, so I wasn’t too worried about hair health.

I haven’t noticed any major hair loss since then, so hopefully I just need to get “de-stressed”, make sure my iron is up, get my thyroid checked (will happen automatically with our required wellness blood check for work this fall), and make sure I’m giving my adrenal glands what they need.

The medical stuff is all well and good, and all things I’ll definitely take care of and monitor. But the stress…man…this year, keeping that down to a managable level is nearly impossible.

*Nearly* being the operative word. I can do this, I just need to be very mindful of it.

I need to stop paying so much attention to the news…and FB is the worse place for that, I’ve found. Facebook just shoves it right in my face, so to speak – it’s hard to ignore or get away from it there. So I need to really limit my FB time, and when I am there, I need to ignore that little red dot on the “News” icon telling me there’s new stuff to scan. I know everything is currently running at near-apocalyptic levels without FB telling me every single hour of the day. I need to focus on my immediate life, and the day-to-day that I’m having trouble keeping track of. I’m hoping that not letting the news cycle get to me as much will also help me regain some focus both personally and professionally.

I know who I’m voting for, both at the federal and local levels. The pandemic is what it is, and I’m taking the precautions I feel the need to take while not panicking too much about it. I don’t need constant input or news for either of those two subjects – I just need to keep on keeping on. Stay the course, so to speak.

I also need to take some time off and regroup. Do something for me. Something that will overshadow everything else, and allow me to just focus inwardly for awhile. So I’m going to do just that Thursday of this week. I’ve scheduled vacation days for this Thurs-Fri, and next Mon-Tues (that tends to work better than to take one full week…I get called less by work if I’m not out for a full 5 days of any given week for some reason).

Thursday at 2pm, I have an appointment at the tattoo shop to start a full back piece that will require at least four, maybe five sessions over as many months coming up. It will be a huge project, and will require me to focus on my own body, staying healthy, healing properly, and taking good care of the artwork.

For those of you sputtering, “but…the pandemic!” Yes, I know. Really. I truly did weigh this decision against the health risks quite heavily before deciding to schedule it. And part of the reason I have six days off is so I can isolate myself completely while the wound is fresh, and not be anywhere other people are until it’s healed enough to seal over. I have everything planned to where I won’t have to leave the house from Thursday night all the way through the following Weds, except to walk my dogs at night (I don’t come into contact with others while doing that). I can focus solely on taking care of my skin, and more importantly, keeping my stress levels down while I figure out how to get back on track and *keep myself there*.

Call it a personal, literal retreat.

The fact is, I need to do something drastic. Something that will get my focus off of everything for a few days and allow me to reset my mind in a better place. And I know from experience that getting tattooed gets me there. It’s a form of therapy for me – not just getting the tattoo (which requires focus and discipline to deal with varying levels of pain for hours on end), but healing it afterward. It’s what I need right now. So that’s what I’m going to do.

Are you stressed out or overwhelmed with the year? What are you doing to take care of yourself and “get centered”, so to speak? When’s the last time you “took time” to retreat from the world?


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Slowing Down to Make Progress

We’re getting our share of the polar vortex this week, apparently. Though it’s not nearly as bad as the midwest got last week – more like normal “winter” here. So, while I’m not enjoying it (or having two restless dogs stuck inside for a good week), I’m doing my best not to complain too much. It’s a good thing I have extra eye drops at home. Nothing beats sub-zero temps with even colder wind chills to make your eyes water and then dry out even worse than normal while thawing. Ugh.

I’ve talked a lot about financial and routine changes lately, and something that is benefiting from the routine changes is writing. I’ve been a lot more disciplined lately (in a lot of things), and that has had the very good side effect of doing late-night chores a bit earlier, and getting back to my office earlier as a result.

Also, given the lack of ability to just “buy stuff” when I want to in order to do/learn/organize things, my mind tends to be more focused on the here and now, rather than what’s happening (or what I think should happen) in the future. I still plan, and still look ahead, but there’s less immediacy to it, if that makes sense (because anything that requires a purchase of some sort is not happening “right now” or even “next week” anymore…there’s a waiting period for everything).

Ironically enough, while I’m more conscientious about money and spending, I’m less concerned about…well, pretty much everything else. When forced to wait and/or plan far ahead for nearly everything, it actually removes a source of mental stress – there’s no point in worrying about or planning for something that isn’t happening anytime soon.

And that leaves me with more mental energy & head space to spend on other pursuits.

Like writing.

It still takes me a little while to get into a story when I sit down most nights, but that’s okay, because I’m sitting down earlier. I’m using my Neo, which isn’t optimal due to the darkish screen, but it’s easy on the eyes and the keyboard is a million times better than the one on my laptop. Not being on the laptop also keeps me away from distractions, though I do need to remember to upload my writing to the laptop once a week (which I keep forgetting to do). Luckily, the Neo does hold quite a bit of writing, so I won’t run out of space anytime soon. But keeping scenes and chapters organized is easier in my writing software.

One of my “indiscretions” back in November was to pre-order the Freewrite Traveler (I’ll be done paying for that this month), which is basically the modern version of my Alphasmart Neo. The screen is e-ink and not backlit, and the keyboard is manual with Cherry MX switches. It won’t ship until this summer, but I’m looking forward to it both for the lighter e-ink screen that I’ll be able to see better in my dim office, and also for the fact that it will connect to wifi and upload my writing sessions automatically (the Neo requires an old printer-to-usb cable connection, and acts as a keyboard emulator).

Until then, the Neo works just fine, and I’m really glad to have it. I don’t think I’d be nearly as productive working on my laptop and fighting the constant cursor jumps due to the too-flexible case (not to mention the crappy keyboard).

I am going to have to work on my computer set-up, but not until I get my longevity bonus this spring (May). Hopefully I’ll have at least one draft done and ready to format and cover by then. Whether I do or not will probably determine how much I’m willing to spend to upgrade my set-up. So, we’ll see. Lots of potential writing time between now and then.

I think my next feat needs to be finding some time in which I can edit, format, and create cover art for books. Time that isn’t normal writing time and also doesn’t require more screen time on weeknights, which means a few hours on the weekend, preferably.

I have a few ideas, and a book that needs reformatting (not to mention several that need new covers). If I could get the one book done by the end of February, I’d be happy with both the progress, and having a new time slot mapped out for that kind of work.

And that would be great progress.


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On Personal Rituals

A week and a half ago, I broke my Matcha bowl. For those of you asking “your what-now?”, a Matcha bowl is a small bowl or cup used to make matcha, which is a powdered Japanese green tea. It’s got a gentle form of caffeine that makes you alert without giving you the jitters, and like most green teas, it’s got all sorts of good-for-you compounds in it.

Matcha is what I start my weekdays with, without fail. And while you can certainly make it in a regular mug, it’s never going to come out as well as preparing it more traditionally in a bowl with a bamboo whisk, IMO (and yes, I have tried).

So, when I dropped my first and only matcha bowl after my shower that Thursday morning, I was pretty horrified. Matcha bowls – good ones, aren’t sold just anywhere, and normally I’d have to order one online. Luckily, I’d seen several at the local bookstore just down the block from where I work the week before, and I had enough money to splurge on a locally made one instead of going with something cheap and mass-produced. Whew!

That afternoon, I walked to the bookstore on my break, got a cup of tea and spent a good 10 minutes choosing which matcha bowl I wanted, and headed back to the office with a sense of relief that my morning matcha ritual would still happen the next day.

I’ve run out of matcha before, and it’s not pretty. So it goes for a few other “rituals” in my life – not normal routines, though messing with one of those throws me off pretty heavily too, but there are certain things I do either daily or weekly or whatever, that when I don’t get to do them, my whole world feels so off-kilter that I have trouble functioning until I can “reset” and partake in whatever ritual it is again.

The difference between routines and rituals for me is…a routine is something I can do without much thought. It needs to be done, and I do it at a set time on a set schedule so I know that it gets done, and I don’t give it much thought aside from “it’s time to do [whatever]”. The only tools that really matter for a routine are whichever tools will allow me to complete the task as quickly and efficiently as possible so I can move on to the next thing.

A ritual is something I pay attention to. Something that gets my full attention and focus, even if just for a few moments. Something comforting and restful that centers my mind. And something where the tools are just as important as the motions.

Making the tea that my husband and I each take to work every morning and afternoon is a routine. I use travel bottles with tea strainer inserts and a loud timer because I’m always multi-tasking while it’s steeping. I fill the baskets with our favorite daily black teas, do other things while waiting for the water to get hot, fill his first because he likes more bitter brews than I do, do one more thing, go back and fill mine, and when the timer goes off, take the baskets out and let them sit to cool for just a minute while I do one more thing and then come back screw the bottle bottoms back on and put them in my work bag to keep warm while we’re getting ready for work. Pure routine, I could do it in my sleep.

With my matcha though, I put the water on to heat, get my bowl and set it on the counter. I notice the texture on the outside, the smooth glaze on the interior. I get the matcha power from the fridge and sift through it with my little bamboo scoop, noting the texture of that and breaking up any lumps in the tea powder before putting two small scoops of tea in the bowl and tapping the scoop on the side. I put the powder back in the fridge and get my bamboo whisk, feeling how light and small it is in my hand, and then I pour a little warm water in to make a smooth paste with the powder before pouring enough water to make the brew (maybe 1/4 of the bowl full…depends on the bowl and how thick/thin I want it).

I whisk it briskly, watching the water take on that beautiful emerald green hue and those creamy bubbles form on the top, feeling the texture and how much resisting energy there is. I tap my whisk on the bowl a couple times, rinse it under water and put it back on its ceramic stand to dry.

Then I hold the bowl up to my nose and breathe in deep, letting the fresh, grassy scent start to wake me up. I take a small sip to test, close my eyes and enjoy the flavor and the texture on my tongue, and set the bowl on the counter to wait, carrying it with me to sip on as I go through the rest of my morning routine.

The ritual part of that routine takes an incredibly small amount of time – only a couple of minutes before I’m forced to refocus on the routines that get me out the door (mostly) on time. But that few minutes makes all the difference in the world as to how my day starts and continues. It’s a quick but satisfying reset in the middle of my normal morning bustle. I perform this particular ritual every single weekday without fail – even Tuesdays when I’m in a bigger hurry than normal.

And that’s why breaking my one matcha bowl was such a huge deal to me – the incredibly rare times when I’ve run out of matcha powder have consisted of poor substitutes and serious angst on my part simply because I can’t recreate the actual “ritual” with anything else. Can I survive without it? Sure – absolutely. In time, I’d learn to live without it if I had to. Do I want to? Not if there’s any way on earth I can hang onto it.

As I mentioned earlier, I have lots of routines (I am 100 percent routine-driven), but very few actual rituals, and that’s because it’s very difficult for me to make time for such things. I have that little bit of time in the morning, and a tiny slice of time late at night…and sometimes, I don’t even get that depending on what the other “lifeforms” in my house are doing/needing/whatever. If I can’t keep a very rigid schedule, then I generally give up on elevating something from routine to ritual, because it’s frustrating and generally futile. In order to “care” and focus, I need the time and mental space to do so. Mental space and quiet are often harder to come by than time, just due to interruptions, unfortunately.

I think we as constantly busy people don’t make enough time for personal rituals. We’re forced by tradition or family or social mores to make time for social ritual, but taking/making time for personal ritual is too often seen as “selfish” or “introverted” (like that’s a bad thing…which it’s not), or a snub to others around us. Or it’s just not taken seriously, and we’re interrupted constantly, which keeps us from that deep focus and tactile/sensual attention (“mindfulness”, if you want to use a buzzword) that a ritual really requires.

Do you practice a particular ritual regularly? Something where the tools and environment matter, and it’s not just a rote routine? Do you find it difficult to maintain, or are you better at protecting yours than I am at protecting mine?


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