Let “Finishing” be your Drug of Choice

As much as I despise psychological profiling, I know I don’t score highly as a completer/finisher.

Nevertheless, few things beat the thrill of finishing something; it’s a natural high.

If you have woken up to Monday morning blues, could it be the hung-over unfinished things of last week that are to blame?

If I ever start to feel bad about myself, I often find that not finishing something is at the root of the bad feelings. Conversely, actually finishing just one thing can put me back on top of the world and inspire me to go on to finish something else.

Unfortunately, it sometimes feels as if the price to pay for finishing is too high; I often settle for the cheaper thrills such as being ‘tweeted’ by a ‘celebrity':

 

Finishing doesn’t have to be an expensive drug. There are all sorts of small things you could finish in the next five minutes – like emptying and reloading the dishwasher.

In order to get the week underway, I prescribe what I call a “finishing ladder”.

    1. Start with a small task and finish it. It feels good.
    2. Enjoy the endorphins but move up to a slightly bigger task before they subside.
    3. By the time you have two “finishes” under your belt, you’ll be looking for your next hit – go get it!
    4. Move on up the ladder towards bigger tasks.
    5. Before the day is over you just might be hooked on finishing.

Try to finish some stuff today …

Your dopamine receptors will love you for it.

Going Public with Thomas Carlyle: “Know Thy Work”

Thomas Carlyle

I like Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881). He’s one of my rugged 19th Century romantic existentialist individualists. I don’t buy the whole package of his thought (women never seem to get a mention, for instance), but he can be forgiven for being a man of his time as much as I will need to be if any of my thoughts survive me.

Apart from anything else, Carlyle wrote 21 volumes of the history of Freidrich II of Prussia; and he didn’t even have the Internet! This suggests that he had one thing nailed: he knew how to knuckle down and get on with his work – probably because he didn’t have the Internet.

So, as my contribution this week to the #GoingPublic audio project, here is an excerpt from Book III of  Carlyle’s “Past and Present” that gives us a clue about the root of his productivity, his attitude to work. It amuses me, the way he dismisses “Know Thyself” with a disdainful sweep of his hand and then goes on to expound “Know Thy Work” with increasingly dizzy conceits. But I also find it invigorating. How about you?

The full text is available here.

Check out a wealth of other great audio clips from the Going Public Project.

Freelancing: a Time Management System that Works for Me

As a natural procrastinator and date-phobe, deadlines do nothing to lower my blood pressure. In the last two years of trying to get established as a freelancer I have tried every single time management strategy available. I have probably spent as much time re-structuring my diary and prioritising to-do lists as I have spent actually working. More recently, my growing workload has made it an imperative that I get this thing nailed down – pinned down, to be precise.

All my experimentation and money spent on index cards and software has not been in vain. I’m going to share with you the system that I have evolved to suit my way of working in the hope that it might help other freelancers like me.

You will need

  • A large cork board
  • A large assortment of different coloured pins (I have about 50 of each colour)
  • A marker
  • Some labels
  • Possibly some coloured tape or sticky notes that are the same colours as your pins (these are to indicate deadlines)

    It should start to look something like this.

  1. Take the marker and divide the board into eight rows (for days of the week and a label) and as many columns as you can fit across it.
  2. Label the bottom seven rows Monday to Sunday (or Monday to Friday if you strictly don’t work weekends …  as if!)
  3. Use the top row to add labels for each coming week. These will need to be removable so you can update it with fresh weeks every so often.
  4. You are ready to go.

How to use it

There are a few simple principles to grasp:

  1. Each pin represents an hour’s work. When you take on a new job you need to estimate how many hours it is going to take you and set aside that number of pins (I write at about 500 words an hour and copy edit at about 1,500 words an hour).
  2. Use different coloured pins for different clients or jobs.
  3. Populate the “calendar” with the pins, showing when you are going to do each hour’s work. Each of my days has space for nine pins (nine working hours). Loosely, the first pin is 8am-9am and the last pin is 5pm-6pm (with an hour off for lunch).
  4. Use a specific colour (I use white) to block out days when you are not available and hours when you have appointments or non-work commitments during the normal working day.
  5. Indicate your deadlines with a piece of tape (or even a dedicated pin) in the colour for that job.
  6. You can play with the pins as much as you like but there is one rule: red pins can’t go past the red deadline, and so on.

Advantages

This system works for me because there is something about physically moving pins around that really helps me to understand how my time is distributed in a way that paper or a computer screen never does. I can tell at a glance if someone phones me up and says “can you do it by Tuesday?” If a job takes less time than I expected I can just subtract a few pins. For each hour of work completed, that pin gets removed and put to the side so progress towards completion can be seen instantly (and taking a pin out is a nice feeling). If something else needs to be slotted in, it is very easy to arrange the pins around it.

Handy tip: take a photo of the board with your phone camera and set it as your screensaver/background so you can carry it around with you.

There is lots of flexibility and scope for creative variation, but here are the basics.

It is not until you start using it that you realise the elegance of the system. Give it a go!

Review: 3-2-1 Stop Running and Start Living by Lorilee Lippincott

321 Stop Running and Start Living 321 Stop Running and Start Living by Lorilee Lippincott

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you are anything like me you have a vague sense of desperation about how cluttered and busy your life is and an equally vague idea that at some point you will go about simplifying it. The problem is knowing where to start. I have found myself wishing that someone would just take me by the hand and lead me through each room in my house in turn and help me to rationalise and minimise. So, Lorilee Lippincott’s book 3-2-1 Stop came along at just the right moment.

In fact, Lori’s approach goes a lot deeper than just de-cluttering the material environment, she takes the reader by the hand through the attitudes and aspirations behind our desire for simplicity, too. This is not simplicity for its own sake but simplicity with purpose that is rooted in our dreams. It is about making emotional as well as physical space in your life.

I think it is Lori’s conversational style and her generous and candid revelations about her own journey that make this book such a pleasant trip. It is exciting, too, because right from the first page you catch her infectious expectation that things can and will change for you. Beginning with some ground rules about attitude, Lori tackles the problem of “stuff” in the first section of the book. She gets down to brass tacks within a few pages. It’s not rocket science, it’s not merely theory, it’s common sense seasoned by experience and practice. Most of her practical recommendations are things I have half-heartedly attempted at some point in the past but I have benefited from having someone saying, “do this” then “do that” – once again, small steps. She even makes you take a step back and think about furniture. She then goes on to look at some of the typically problematic areas for simplification, and this includes personal areas such as money and past regrets.

These words come from someone who has actually walked every step she takes you through and that makes them personable and authentic. This book has become my “manual” for spring cleaning this year (and beyond) and it has renewed my commitment to a minimalism that is liberating and intentional.

Visit the website for 3-2-1 Stop Running and Start Living. 

View all my reviews

Java Apps that Make my Little Nokia (almost) a Smartphone

I have had a Nokia 6303, described as “no-nonsense easy-to-use handset” for about 3 years now. I have looked at upgrading to a Blackberry, iPhone, or high-end HTC but I’ve never found a good enough reason to switch to something that costs three or four times as much as this reliable classic. I’m quite sure that some people who think they need a top gadget to do what they want to do don’t realise the potential of these Java enabled handsets running on Symbian 40.

Here’s a few things that give it the edge over  the buggy rushed-to-market do-everything other phones that I have come across:

  • It’s cheap to replace and free on a lot of low monthly tariffs.
  • It’s frightfully robust. I have dropped it on hard floors and in wet grass countless times.
  • The battery life is exceptional. I charge it once a week, which is usually more of a top-up than a full charge. Although I use it only occasionally for longer conversations, I use it constantly for browsing and for twitter, texting and email.
  • GPRS coverage (although a lot slower than 3G, of course) seems to be available absolutely everywhere in the British Isles.
  • There are a huge range of Java apps out there for any purpose and they are generally very reliable.
  • Memory card slot gives me more storage than I need for music on the go.

Here’s my pick of Java apps that give me an almost-smartphone – all of them are also FREE:

Browsing: Opera Mini.

With the slowness of GPRS you need a light and lean browser that is perfectly adapted for a smaller screen. Of all the ones I have tried, Opera wins by a long way. It is very customisable, you can specify the quality of images or eliminate them altogether for faster browsing. Tabbed browsing is supported, too, and works well. Bookmarks can be synchronised online with an Opera account on other machines and it has a built in feed reader – sweet!

Social Networking: Snaptu.

Snaptu has an iPhone like menu of icons and a number of its own internal apps. I use it all the time for Twitter as it handles lists and multiple accounts very smoothly. It’s great for Facebook, too (although I’m not on there any more). Multiple useful tools within Snaptu also include several feed and news readers, a weather app which can be set for multiple locations, and a neat little Google Calendar interface.

Calendar: Gsync.

Synchronises the internal calendar with an online Google Calendar.

Task management: Mobile Task Manager.

This little gem by Tommi Laukkanen has become the final answer to my list-making habit. A lightweight and simple app that manages any number of lists embedded (if you want) to three or four levels. I have my daily to-do list on here as well as shopping lists, gig set lists, project planning outlines e.t.c. It is elegant and unfussy and does the job very nicely thank you.

GPS: Mobile Trail Explorer (MTE).

Again, although these phones don’t have built in GPS, they will connect to a bluetooth GPS unit (of which there are many to choose from) like the BN901S. Mine cost £16 on eBay and I keep it in the car. Mobile Trail Explorer is a fully featured and very flexible GPS tracker once again by the brilliant Tommi Laukkanen. It uses OSM or Google Maps if you need them, caches maps to save data calls, allows you to record and save KML files and various other waypoints systems as well as having a navigation function.

QR Code Reader: Bee Tag.

Using the phone’s built in camera to read QR codes. Seems to work 90% of the time and is certainly adequate to the job although it struggles with tiny codes, this may be more a limitation imposed by the 3.5 megapixel camera.

E-Reader: WattPad.

Thanks to the adjustable smooth scrolling screen, I use WattPad to plough through classics that are free to download (in the public domain). Perfect for reading after lights-out. Most of the contents of Project Gutenberg are available, no shortage of good stuff.

Bible: YouVersion.

Most people I know with Android use this but, the marvelously handy YouVersion is available for Java, too. Unfortunately it doesn’t cache so can be a bit slow sometimes, but there are a wealth of translations to use.

In addition, for email, most of these S40 phones have their own email reader embedded with the texting and messaging menus and they can be set up to synchronise with any POP and SMTP accounts for sending and receiving. Synchronisation can be scheduled or on-demand.

So … er … yep – I don’t see why I should bother putting up with the sort of trouble (and expense) that smartphones have been giving people lately.

Mistakes: The Departure Point for Creativity

Light bulb patent application. Photolithograph...

Edison's Light Bulb

Accept that you will make mistakes as everyone does. If mistakes are so inevitable would it not be better to incorporate them into your creative process and use them as opportunities to be exploited rather than set-backs or even fatal flaws in the project.

The ever wise Dorye Roettger famously said, “There are no problems – only opportunities to be creative,” and for a person who adopts this as their maxim, every mistake made in the creative process can become an extraordinary opportunity, too.

At the very least, a mistake can be a lesson in what doesn’t work. The inventor Thomas Edison said, “Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won’t work.” However, a mistake can be so much more than that. It can be a prompt that kicks you off the tramlines of your typical thought processes and in pulling your best effort in order to compensate for your “mistake” you may find that you excel yourself or stumble into new paths.

A chess player who makes an error in their opening line of play could throw their opponent off guard with their unorthodoxy, be forced to invent a new line of strategy and work ten times harder because of their vulnerability.If your inventive mind has a tendency to fall into a rut a mistake can jerk you awake and bring you back to a sense of presence in the task.

A songwriter who always finds themselves going back to the same old chord progressions could take a hint from John Lennon and switch to a less familiar instrument. He is reputed to have done most of his writing at the piano because it was much less familiar and he was therefore more likely to stray into new musical territory. He may not have called it progress by mistakes but this is much closer to the kind of attitude that an opportunist creative needs to take to make the best of the inevitable.

Hints for using mistakes as a departure point for creativity

Get Socratic: Ask “why” at least five times until you get to the root of something. “Why did this happen?” “Why do I see this as a mistake?”

Get Freudian: Is this slip up some expression of a deeper subconscious intelligence? How might this “mistake” be seen as a wise move?

Get Existential: Instead of lamenting your stupidity in the past, even the past five minutes, embrace the fact that you are here now and nothing will change that. Enjoy the moment. Assess your options in the “NOW”.

Zen Out: Walk away from it for a while and settle your mind on something else. You may have made a “mistake” because you were trying too hard or wanting it too much. If you take a break and look away as if you do not care quite so much, you give your mind a chance to engage the subconscious.

A creative breakthrough is never far away from a mistake, let it find you.

Using Beads as Visual Reminders of Values and Priorities

I periodically attempt to realign my daily activities with my values, goals and priorities in life. Being someone who has “serial passions” (i.e. I get profoundly “into” things for weeks or months and then drop them for the next thing), I am constantly needing to check that the stuff I am spending my time on is developing in line with some sort of overarching sense of meaning.

This afternoon I got into this by imagining that I was the me I hope to be in two years time, getting some thoughts on paper to send back in a time machine to the me now. Some good stuff came up and I was able to identify five categories into which I could fit all the things that matter, and that I should be doing with my time.

At various points I have worn what I call a “matter band”. This is just any old elastic band that goes around my wrist but it reminds me, whenever I see it, to ask the question, “does what I am doing right now matter?”.

Today I took this one step further, my matter band now has matter beads on it, too. Beads have been used for thousands of years to focus the mind in prayer. Putting this together was a meditative and prayerful process of re-orientation. I’m also hoping it will nail down some of what I have been trying to develop in terms of a “values based” time management system.

We have an old box full of beads so had a rummage and I made myself a bracelet with a different bead symbolising each of the five broad areas I had identified.

"Matter Beads"

1. The Heart – Loving People: This one is to do with reaching out to others, being generous with my time and skills, listening, flowing  downwards and outwards. Something Rumi said comes to mind, “step out of your house like a shepherd.” Lots of activities fit into this from staying in touch with people by letter and phone, through preparing material for the people I am mentoring, to giving practical help or sitting and listening to others. I’d love to grow in these things but I’m repeatedly foiled by being absorbed in personal projects.

2. The Butterfly – Growing Creativity: Last year I felt I emerged from a chrysalis, leaving one job to give more time to creative stuff that had been brewing for a long time. Growing creatively for me now means investing in two or three very concrete and specific projects in the now. I know what they are and need to keep them to the fore. The sense that surrounds this butterfly phase is one of giving wings to dreams and embarking on what I might call in the future, “my life’s work”.

3. The Flower – Stewardship and Providing for Needs: This is about doing the things I need to do to make sure a roof stays over our heads and food on the table. It’s not just about putting time and effort into developing income streams and keeping to budgets but also about creatively looking at meeting our basic needs through things like growing vegetables. Cultivation of this area of life is mundane but rewarding, like gardening.

4. The Fish/Alpha Symbol – Simplifying: This covers a broad category that covers putting the house in order, getting rid of clutter, paring down, being organised, practicing the presence of laundry and dishes, hewing wood and carrying water. Making space to keep the main thing the main thing. This bead is also a reminder to let “ΙΧΘΥΣ” be the “α”.

Cloisonne beads

I'm a sucker for cloisonné

5. Cloissoné – HUGS: This is the only coloured bead, blue and green cloisonné symbolising quality time with loved ones, breathing, worshipping, being in nature, enjoying life.

The bracelet serves as a reminder to be present to what I am doing at any given moment and to be conscious of how and why it matters … and, I guess, I hope, I am less likely to fritter time away on inconsequential nonsense that has nothing to do with these five things.

One final thing I noticed was that I took a very long time over choosing the beads. I passed over some of the more obvious beads to symbolise certain things, because they didn’t feel right. For instance, I initially picked the butterfly for simplicity and a sense of “touching the world lightly” but the more I looked at it, the more I realised it needed to stand for the creative development, so it displaced the star which never made it into the final five beads because it just didn’t fit even though it was saying something to me about “shining a light.” What this indicates is that although I chose the beads to fit the categories I now have an odd feeling that the beads are shedding new light on those categories. Make sense? No … ok, well, welcome to my world … this is how I roll.

Surrounding ourselves with symbols, I think, has a similar effect to the hole behind the strings in the body of a guitar. Symbols take the sound of a single note and amplify it so that it sets all the harmonics in motion and deeply enriches that simple sound. This is one of the most precious things about being human; a butterfly is never just a butterfly, it’s a thousand metaphors and it dances like a needle, stitching Heaven and Earth together. And a butterfly lives alongside other sound-holes of meaning on my bracelet of things that matter.

Other posts a bit like this one:

How to be Brilliant at Anything

Five Wise Things I Learned from My Dog

Two Little Time Management Tips

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