Managing Technology in Your Life Part 1

Several months ago someone asked me to write about teens and technology use.  I thought it sounded like a fun topic, so I researched the subject. I fell down a rabbit hole of books about tech and kids, tech and society, social media, etc. Then I read Digital Minimalism–by far the best of the lot–and was thoroughly overcome with a sense of inferiority. I knew that no blog post I could ever write would be anywhere near as good as that book. And I also knew that I couldn’t just write a blog post that said, “Read Digital Minimalism. Just do it. You will be happier.” 

So I didn’t write at all. But I finally decided that I just had to share its ideas. You should really just read Digital Minimalism, but I will try to make this blog post the next best thing. 

Start with a plan

When you’re coming up with screen time rules for your kids, the most important thing is to have a coherent idea of the role you want tech to play in your life. Making up arbitrary rules doesn’t work. You need a coherent and principled system, like digital minimalism. 

On his blog, Cal Newport (author of the book Digital Minimalism) defines digital minimalism as “a philosophy that helps you question what digital communication tools (and behaviors surrounding these tools) add the most value to your life.”

It’s not about going home and throwing out your TV, your smart phone, or your laptop, unless you decide rationally and intentionally that this is what is best for you and your family. You might, but that’s not really the point. The point is to use your technologies to help you get what you want, rather than letting them run your life. 

What do you want?

So the first step in coming up with a tech plan is to list your goals as a person and as a family. What would your perfect life look like? What do you want to achieve? What kind of leisure activities would you like to spend your time on? What would you like your kids to be and do? What sort of quality time do you want to spend with your children? What talents do you want to develop? What talents do you want your kids to develop? What big financial, relationship or personal goals do you have in your life? 

Really take some time to think about these questions, because the answers will be the basis not only for a sound tech strategy, but also for a happier and more fulfilling life.

 

What tech do you use?

The second step: List all of the tech you (and your family) regularly use. This includes devices (eg. Laptop, smart speakers, ipods, smart phones, TV, gaming consoles, etc.) It also includes services and social media platforms. (eg. Cable, Netflix, Facebook, Instagram, etc.) 

Be thorough. Really take stock of the technologies you use and how you use them. And how much you use them–which might be hard. A time tracker might be useful for this. There are automatic time tracking programs for both computers and phones which can tell you how much time you spend on which apps. If you want to track all your activities, not just the ones on particular devices, you can also use the pen and paper method, or there are apps that you can use on your phone to track your activities of all kinds. It can be quite interesting to see how much time you spend on different things, but time tracking is hard. I tried it for about 3 days (using a simple app) and by the third day I gave up, exhausted from the effort of trying to be always aware of what I was doing. 

Cal Newport actually recommends taking a 30 day break from all inessential technologies just as a sort of detox, so you can think more clearly about what you have been spending your time on and whether you want those things back in your life. This might actually be easier than tracking your activities.

 

Is your tech helping you get what you want? 

Step three is to compare your two lists. Look at each technology in your life and ask yourself three questions. 

  1. Does this device or service help me achieve any of the things I have decided that I value? 
  2. Is this device or technology the best or only way to achieve that goal? 
  3. How can I minimize the downsides of this technology and improve its effectiveness for my purposes?

If anything on your list does not pass the first test, then get rid of it. If it’s not making you happier or helping you achieve your goals, then you don’t want it in your life. 

The second question is where things get more complicated. An example would be Facebook. Let’s say I’ve decided that keeping in touch with my family is very important to me, and Facebook helps me do that. But is Facebook the best technology for helping you stay in touch with family? Or when you log in, do you mainly see angry political ranting and cat videos that distract you for the next 15 minutes (or the next hour) and take you away from your family who is present. Consider alternatives. I, for example, don’t use Facebook for anything personal. I have some friends who live elsewhere who I want to keep in touch with, and I have chosen to use a group chat instead of Facebook, because I think that this maximizes my meaningful interaction with my actual friends in ways that Facebook does not. 

But maybe you decide that Facebook is indeed the best choice for you. This is where question 3 comes in. How can you use Facebook so that you minimize the negative consequences of it? I do use Facebook. I used to find it irritating, frustrating and time wasting. I was frustrated that my email was constantly full of updates. But I had found that it was the most effective way to advertise my blog, so I had to figure out how to mitigate the negative consequences of having it in my life.

Because my only purpose for having Facebook is to advertise my writing, I blocked all email notifications. I have Facebook only on my laptop, and not on my phone. I post links when I write a new blog post, and then I leave. I have learned that looking at my Facebook feed makes me angry and sad, so I pretty much limit my Facebook use to posting links and leaving. (I also occasionally network using the private messenger function, but never on my phone.) This works very well for me.

Other people might need to use Facebook because of a Facebook group that they participate in. It is possible to bookmark that group’s page, so that when you need to check your group you can go directly there without looking at things that irritate and distract you.

These are just examples. Maybe the technology you’re looking at is Netflix. Maybe you have decided that watching a TV show or film with your spouse or your kids is a valuable way of connecting with them, and that Netflix is the best way of accomplishing that. But maybe you are frustrated because you find that every time you look at Netflix you spend half an hour being irritated because you can’t figure out what you want to watch. Maybe a good choice for you would be to make a rule that you don’t open up Netflix unless you have already decided what to watch, or that you will set a 10 minute timer, after which you will pick whatever has looked best so far.

The point is that every technology you have, every service you subscribe to, everything you own, takes a certain amount of space, time, mental energy, and sometimes money to maintain. Is it worth it, and how can it be minimized? This is the decision you have to make, based on your own goals for you and your family

Now that you have made a coherent and principled system for making technology decisions, now you are ready to tackle the sticky issue of how much and what technologies are appropriate for your child to use. 

That will be for next time. 

 

Sharing a Friend’s Stories

A few weeks ago I posted about how excited I was to have finished writing a book. But I would not have written that book if it were not for a particular friend and mentor who I met as a child and who pushed me to write, to be confident that I could write, and who, in fact, was the one who suggested that I start writing the book that became Heaven’s Hunter.

Her name is Colleen Drippé, and today I would like to share her work with you. If you are interested in science fiction, first of all, you will like her work. She has a lot of fun building interesting worlds for her characters to live in. But even if you are not a hard-core science fiction person, you will still love the characters. Her characters deal with difficult and dramatic circumstances, but the hardest problems they face are–as it is for all of us–the ones within themselves. Seeing her characters struggle and overcome is both entertaining and inspiring.

To learn more about any  of the books, or purchase them, click on the picture, which will take you to the book’s page. (This post contains affiliate links. Purchases made through these links pay me a small commission at no extra cost to you.)

 Freed by the annihilation of the corporation that owned him, archæological looter Eduardo Sabat goes into business for himself.  But why does he accept a search and rescue mission in the same region of Quele Colony where he suffered his most terrible experience as a corporate slave?  He isn’t sure, but he suspects there are still some things he still has to resolve.  In the end, the ever surprising Godcountry region has its own answers for him – answers that will change him beyond his wildest dreams.

I have read this one a couple of times, and it’s just plain a lot of fun, as well as an invitation to some self-examination. I highly recommend it.

 

Young Helen Kley of El Colony, a world dominated by women, doesn’t know what to make of the two young men who suddenly come bursting into her life, rescuing her from a humiliating kidnap attempt. That they are offworlders, she has no doubt, that they are corporate agents of some sort, she suspects. Otherwise why do they withhold their names, giving her only the number of a safe line to contact them? In the end, she becomes friends with the one she dubs “Pro” (the other she call “Con” because of their differing attitudes) and simply learns to think of them as her guardians. Only when she comes of age, two years later, and is by custom given her father’s name and an invitation to visit heretofore unknown relatives on his homeworld, does she learn the truth about her adopted guardians. In fact she learns truth after truth as she and Pro, whose real name she finally learns, must battle their way through one adventure after another as they seek her missing father while avoiding his enemies. In the end, she faces not only threats from the outside, but also the need to come to terms with her own values and background — to choose and to choose rightly. Everything she has learned to care about depends on her choice — her own happiness and the welfare of those who have become dear to her.

I just read this one recently, and I think it’s my favorite so far. It moves quickly, the characters are attractive and relatable, and I found the plot quite satisfying. It has plenty of action, good conversations, interesting monsters, and some really inspiring characters.

 

Treelight Colony has enjoyed more than a hundred years of peaceful, agrarian life, in isolation from the rest of the civilized galaxy. But now they have been bought by the unsavory Pesc Corporation, who plan to drag them into the modern world and make them part of the interstellar family.

Pesc sends Marja Sienko, a social engineer on her first assignment, along with her corporate slave and a robotic secretary, to prepare the colonists to be modernised. But it isn’t long before Marja suspects that the Corporation has something else in mind — something both sinister and mysterious. And she is meant to play a part in their plans — not as their delegate but as their victim.

While Marja struggles to modernise landowners who prefer to live like medieval vassals, the Star Brothers arrive for their periodic visit to check on the colony diocese, and Brother Brendan Stillman and his two semi-civilised Lost Rythan “helpers” discover that something is rotten in the “peaceful” colony of Treelight. Highwaymen abound, the bishop knows more than heís telling, and a group of “druids” have formed a symbiotic relationship with the surrounding forest.

Brother Brendanís superior, Father Moto, deploys Dust, a former criminal turned hacker, to snoop through the Pesc Corporationís files to discover what’s really afoot, while, back on Treelight, the native forest (whose “trees” are more than mere vegetation) slowly toils to reclaim the planet as its own.

I haven’t read this one, but it does sound intriguing.

 

Father Ruiz of the Star Brothers, sets off to convert the heathen of Fen Colony and finds himself in a moral rats’ nest.  Dealing with a totalitarian government, an invasion of rebels, an entrenched native hierarchy and warring tribes, not to mention the gelens themselves, who turn out to be moon worshipping semi-telepaths, his difficulties multiply.  When his first convert turns out to be a war criminal and the most powerful empath on the planet, things can only get worse.

I read this one a few years ago. Imagine the worst possible peer pressure you have ever experienced. Then multiply it by 100. Imagine that the people who wanted to influence you could actually get inside your head…. That’s what the main character of this book has to deal with–be prepared to share his pain. But you will share his victory as well.

 

Sequel to Colleen Drippé’s book Gelen, Vessel of Darkness continues the story of Fen Colony, home of the Drayak tribe and their psychically gifted gelens. Mutated from Earth normal, these semi-outcasts have now begun to find a place within the tribe. Vess Lorn’s son, known as Spear, a gelen himself, but also a member of the Drayak royal house, has been elected king of Drakendon — and things will never be the same. It isn’t an easy job, however. Spear must not only juggle an uneasy alliance with the stranded forces of Net Central, the offworlders, but also confront a new menace. Dilich Hayan, powerful gelen and North Islander, has arrived at the Drayak Citadel, carrying with him an ancient curse as well as the hopes of his own unbalanced people. Through his patterning, a bridge is formed with a new power rising in the west and suddenly not only the gelens but everyone in the colony is threatened. Dilich is not happy as the “vessel of darkness” and tries to fight free. But his own struggles are not enough — both king and queen (Ella Trenre, a gelen whose powers equal those of Dilich) must stake everything in the battle, along with Rac Marcus Wolfbane, a newly ordained priest, the pirate, Render, Spear’s two smuggler brothers, and Racka, a man tormented by the murder of his former mistress, who serves as the king’s advisor.

I haven’t gotten a chance to read this one yet, but it’s definitely on my list.

 

Finally, there’s the third book in the Gelen series, Dawnstrikers. It’s not out yet, but it sounds awfully exciting too. You can preorder it by clicking on this link: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08ZLX82TF

Planet Fen, lost colony, is now cut off permanently from the rest of the civilized worlds. Unfortunately a lot of people are cut off with it: the occupying troopers and their families, innumerable bureaucrats, scientists, technicians and even a missionary or two. They are all outnumbered and culturally swamped by the native colonists, a mixture of half converted primitives and a contingent of ferocious xenophobes who want all offworlders exterminated.

In this, the third book of the Gelen series, the bishop and the commander at Havekgerem, both have their hands full. The former must rein in a group of Faring Guards, fanatical, axe-wielding Lost Rythan exiles who are determined to protect him at all costs, while the commander tries vainly to police the region with his disgruntled troops. And in the midst of this come the Dawnstrikers, native blackshirts blindly following their charismatic leader as he hatches a plan to not only kill all foreigners but also to wipe out their rival tribe. And they almost succeed —

I certainly hope you enjoy her work as much as I have.

Why It’s Important to Celebrate

As it is Saint Patrick’s Day, it seems like a good time to talk about celebrations. And so of course I will start with a quote from a well-known atheist–Ayn Rand. In Atlas Shrugged, a character comments, “Parties are intended to be celebrations, and celebrations should be only for those who have something to celebrate.” The character who said it was explaining why she found a particular party so insipid–everyone was trying to feel special by surrounding themselves with the trappings of celebration, but they had done nothing worth celebrating, and so it didn’t really work. They–and she–still instinctively felt the emptiness of the occasion and were deeply unsatisfied. 

You need a reason to celebrate

Now of course we can celebrate many things other than our own accomplishments. We also get to celebrate the accomplishments of our friends–especially the ones who have already died, like Saint Patrick. We do not earn the right to celebrate at Christmas and Easter; Christ earned it for us. 

Birthdays are also a good excuse to celebrate. I suppose an argument could be made that celebrating a child’s birthday is an excuse for the parents to celebrate their accomplishment in keeping their kids alive for another year. But people can be pretty wonderful, and a person’s wonderfulness is certainly worth celebrating at least once a year. The same goes for weddings, anniversaries, visits of out of town friends and relatives, and other such occasions.)

But the idea that celebrations need to be earned still has merit. You can’t just celebrate whenever and however you want, for no reason. It is meaningless and fundamentally unsatisfying. 

You need to celebrate when you have a reason

But if celebrations ought to be earned, then that means that when you have earned it, you really ought to celebrate. 

The first time I can recall really putting this idea into practice was the day I finished sewing my wedding dress. After months of planning, designing, sewing, and fitting, finally, a couple weeks before my wedding, it was done. I was so excited that I invited all my housemates to go out for frozen yogurt with me at the local frozen yogurt place. That was the most enjoyable frozen yogurt I ever had. I felt like I had earned the celebration, and I felt that my friends were happy at my success as well, and that made it all the more delicious. 

Since then I have tried to incorporate the idea of celebrating accomplishments into my life. 

I like to have dinner parties or go out for dinner with my husband to celebrate milestones on projects that are important to me. Somehow these parties or outings are just a little more special because of it. I have dinner parties just for the heck of it as well, but I think I genuinely enjoy the celebration parties more. (Maybe it’s partly that I get to tell my guests about my accomplishment, and so I know that others are celebrating my win as well. Perhaps it is because I have particularly wonderful people to call friends, but I think that they really enjoy celebrating my wins with me as well.) 

Celebrating helps you be more productive

So having an accomplishment to celebrate makes me enjoy my celebration more, thus making my life happier, but I have noticed the reverse as well. Knowing that I will celebrate my accomplishments makes me more motivated to accomplish things. When a project is very time consuming, it can get discouraging. It starts to feel like you will never ever ever be done. I have been translating a book that is over 700 pages long for the last few years, and even though I enjoy the work, that project has definitely sometimes felt like it would never be over. But I have been celebrating reaching the end of each chapter, and it really helps me keep going. I attack each new goal re-charged by celebrating the accomplishment of the previous one. 

The science of habit formation agrees with me here. In Atomic Habits, James Clear describes how habits are made up of cue, craving, response and reward. One way to encourage the formation of desired habits is to make the “reward” part of the habit particularly satisfying. This is where celebrating your milestones comes in. It’s the start of a new self-reinforcing good habit of accomplishing your goals. 

Do what works for you

Maybe hosting dinner parties doesn’t sound fun to you. (I would love to try to change your mind about that, but another time.) Or maybe you’re on a really tight budget. Celebrations don’t have to be complicated or expensive. And the accomplishments we celebrate don’t have to be earth-shaking. It can be as simple as enjoying a glass of wine with a friend when you finish painting your living room, or playing volleyball with friends after you take your finals. (Or taking a nice warm bath. Whichever is more your style.) Even just calling a friend to share your good news is a good way to celebrate. 

Next time you set a big goal for yourself, take a moment to think about how you will celebrate when you reach that goal. I think you’ll find that you will not only enjoy your celebration more than you expect, but that you’re also more likely to achieve your goal when you have a concrete plan to celebrate afterwards. 

What Makes a Good Day?

I had a good day. My back was hurting, the baby cried, the toddler wouldn’t leave him (or me) alone, and I never did get around to washing my giant pile of dishes. I also broke the washing machine. But it was a good day anyway. I went to bed feeling satisfied.

So I started wondering what makes a good day. It doesn’t seem to matter very much what actually happens. Sometimes a good day is spent partying with friends. Sometimes it’s spent at work, just doing your job. Sometimes it’s a day of housework. Sometimes it’s spent quietly at home not working. It can be fun or just calm, noisy or quiet, at home or out, alone or with others.

So if good days come in all kinds, what makes them all good?

And, more importantly, how can we have more of them?

Goals

My current theory is that good days are days where you feel satisfied because you accomplished something you wanted to do, or at least made progress in that direction.

If you were supposed to go to work but instead you slept in and drank tea, you probably wouldn’t consider it a good day.  But if it’s a day off, and you sleep in and drink tea, then that’s great, because you’re accomplishing your goal of having a relaxing day off. And at the end of the day, you will be able to sigh with satisfaction as you crawl back into bed, saying, “that was a good day.”

Now if you can only have a good day by accomplishing a goal or making progress to the goal, then that implies that you have to set goals.

To do lists

There’s a lot of different ways of setting goals for the day. The most obvious is probably the to do list. Writing a to-do list is great, because it says, “here are these concrete tasks that I want to accomplish today.” It is a simple and relatively easy way to take control of your time. It’s easier to maintain than a schedule, and it really helps you remember your goals so you can accomplish them. It’s also been shown that crossing things off a list when you do them gives you a little dopamine rush. Crossing things off lists just makes your brain happier.

A lot of people think that to do lists are sad–just piles of things you don’t want to do, but have to. But there’s no reason you can’t put pleasant things on your list too. After all, self care is an important part of life. If you want to put your feet up and drink a glass of wine in the evening to help you wind down, why not write that on your list? Is it any less valid of an activity than washing dishes, or renewing your driver’s license? Is taking a few minutes to relax and read a mind-broadening book somehow inherently less valuable than cleaning the bathroom, just because it’s more pleasant? I don’t think so.

Of course, cleaning the bathroom is important. But aren’t you more likely to be able to keep up with your routine housekeeping tasks if you get a little break now and then?

If you write “clean bathroom and then eat chocolate” on your to-do list, won’t that make it more pleasant? (Unless you are one of those unfortunate people who doesn’t like chocolate. In that case, replace chocolate with whatever makes your life better.) And by all means, put “write to do list for tomorrow” on your to do list for today.

The idea of crossing a bunch of things off lists doesn’t appeal to everyone. But there are other ways of setting goals for the day. Some people theme their days. For example a housewife (oh how I dislike that term) might decide to make Fridays kitchen day, or Saturdays laundry day. Or maybe every second Saturday of the month is yard work day.

Other goals

But these methods assume that your goal involves accomplishing tasks. But sometimes our real goals aren’t about productivity but about just living. If you aren’t feeling well, maybe what you really need to do is set a goal to rest and relax.

You can also set virtue goals. Today, I will smile more. I will yell at my kids less. I will be encouraging and supportive.

St Ignatius of Loyola writes about virtue goals in the Spiritual Exercises. He calls it, “particular examination of conscience” and suggests a method for it, which is not unlike the method that Benjamin Franklin used for his famous “virtue journals.

Whether or not accomplishing goals is really the secret of having a good day, learning how to set goals and work toward them is definitely essential to having a good life. My last post was about the tool I use to help me stay on track with my goals. What methods do you use?

 

Some Helpful resources. (These are affiliate links. I get a commission for qualifying purchases, at no extra cost to you. However, I am recommending these books because I liked them and think that you will benefit from reading them, not because I am paid to do so.)

Atomic Habits

This book simply and clearly explains how habits are formed, why people so often fail to form the habits they want to form, and how to stop beating your head against the wall and start making real progress

 

Digital Minimalism

This is the best book on using (or not using) tech to make your life better instead of letting it control your life. One of the best written books I have ever had the pleasure of reading.

 

How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big

This book is hilarious, as you would expect from the author of Dilbert. Parts of it are rather random. Half autobiography, half self help book, half comedy, it is full of good advice and funny stories. (Yes, I know that makes three halves.)

Why I Let My Phone Run My Life

One of the biggest struggles I’ve had since quitting my teaching job to take care of my own children is staying organized. I was a reasonably organized teacher. I had binders for every subject, specially labeled computer files for each week of each class, and I even (mostly) stayed on top of my grading.

But home life is harder to organize. There are so many things to keep track of, and less boundary between personal tasks and work tasks. Feeding and caring for the baby needs to be done, but eating and showering equally needs to happen, and there is no boundary between baby time and mommy time. As far as babies are concerned, everything belongs to them, especially mom’s body.

And then not only are there baby needs and mommy needs to balance, there’s also a house to care for. Food to cook, and, if you’re like me, other projects that aren’t as optional as they might seem to others, because doing them is the only way you can feel that you are still your own person and not some new nameless being known only by the generic title of “mom.”

 

So, how to keep everything organized? How to remember to take showers, to get meat out of the freezer so supper tomorrow will actually happen, and to send that email, all while a baby wants to be held every minute of every day (and night)?

Ideas that didn’t work for me

I tried writing lists on little scraps of paper the day before, but I was frustrated by having to rewrite all the routine things that had to be done every day, or most days, but that still managed to be left on the back burner if I didn’t explicitly plan them.

I was always discouraged about having forgotten to do the dishes, or vacuum, or sweep….

So I tried the command center thing.

I put an inspiring quote on the wall. I made white board calendar templates and framed them so I could write reach month’s events as they happened. I made a weekly schedule so that I could have a recurring checklist of daily and weekly tasks. And I made a menu board.

The menu board worked pretty well. I often filled it out, but the weekly planned schedule didn’t. If I couldn’t do Monday’s tasks for some reason, my whole week got thrown off. And besides, seeing my list of daily and weekly tasks that I still wasn’t doing despite having a chart on my wall was just discouraging. Even though I could cross off all the things I did, all I was really seeing was the things I hadn’t done.

And then even when I did do a task, it wasn’t worth the trouble of going to the kitchen to cross it off, because then I would just have to wipe off all the marker the next day and start over.

So the command center wasn’t working.

I tried redoing the quote, redoing my weekly board to be more user friendly, reorganizing things to make my writing supplies easier to access, but it still wasn’t working.

 

That’s when I heard about Todoist, and the idea of a phone-based system that was actually designed to help people manage complicated work schedules as well as personal tasks was enticing.

I installed it on my phone, and I have never looked back.

Five ways Todoist helps me stay sane

 

Remembering stuff

You know that feeling where you know you need to do something but you can’t remember what it was? And how frustrating that is? Or you know you need something at the store, but you can’t remember what?

I don’t have that problem nearly as often now, thanks to the todoist inbox.

If I notice I’m low on soap, I can just grab my phone and add a task. If someone mentions something they would like to have, I can add a task, and when their birthday rolls around, I know what to get them. If I hear a cool song on the radio, I can write that down too so that I can listen to it again. Or if a friend recommends a good book, or I get a letter I need to answer, or if I just come up with a marvelous idea that I can’t act on right away, all I have to do is grab my phone and type a couple words.

 

Then, when I have a few minutes to sit down, I can take all my notes and put them in the right categories, and schedule them to pop up automatically when they need to be done. The program is designed that way, so it’s really easy.

 

Shopping

 

Having the inbox function is great for shopping, because when I run out of something in the bathroom, or think of something I need in the bedroom, I don’t have to either remember it or go to my specific shopping list place to write it down. I can just add a task to my shopping project right there on my phone.

And then I don’t have the issue of forgetting my shopping list, because it’s right there on my phone, and I rarely forget to bring my phone.

Another great feature for shopping is that I can share the shopping project with my husband, so he can add items to the lists as well, even when I’m already at the store, (and vice versa.) It helps smooth out communications that way.

 

Marriage meetings

 

Another way todoist helps me and my husband communicate is helping us organize our weekly marriage meeting. (If you’re married and not doing a weekly marriage meeting, you should really consider it. It’s amazing. Read this article to get started on the right foot.)

We were doing the meeting thing but it was a little hard sometimes because we couldn’t remember all the little things we needed to talk about. So it dragged out and got disorganized… And we would write down the decisions we made each week on a piece of paper, and then forget to look at it again.

Todoist changed all that. Now we have a shared meeting project where we can both dump the things we need to discuss, and when we get to the “what needs to happen around here” section, all we need to do is look at the list. It’s easy, effective, and satisfying.

And then when we decide what to do, it’s easy to schedule things and decide who will do them right there in the app.

 

Menu planning

 

I’ve also started using todoist to plan my menus. I love it because I can plan my menu anywhere or anytime I have a free moment. I can be in bed having trouble sleeping, sitting in a chair nursing a baby, or waiting at a doctor’s office, and I can just whip out by phone and plan a menu, creating appropriate shopping list entries at the same time, and scheduling cooking tasks, like get out frozen meat at the appropriate time.

I still have an occasional day where dinner time rolls around and I don’t know what to make, but it is so much less frequent now.

 

Keeping it together

 

I sometimes struggle with depression, get sick, or just get overwhelmed. And as frustrating as it is to be sick, depressed, or overwhelmed and need a break, the worst part is when it’s basically over, and you’re able to start getting back to work. Picking up all the pieces of your life, and trying to remember where you were after a good night’s sleep is hard enough, but after a week of being out of it, on vacation or sick–that’s practically impossible, and likely to send you back into the pits of overwhelmed despair.

With todoist, though, I don’t have to worry about it. The undone tasks pile up in my to-do list, yes, but I can just chip away at them one at a time, and they get automatically rescheduled when they are supposed to be. It only takes a few days to get back on track with household tasks.

And for more unusual projects, all the tasks are still there. I don’t have to recreate the whole idea in my head again every time I have to take a break.

 

To sum up

I have been using todoist every day since July, and it has been incredibly helpful, both for accomplishing everyday mundane tasks like cooking dinner, but also for helping me move ahead on exciting projects and accomplish big goals. Out reminds me to exercise, to write, and to keep in contact with friends more consistently. It helps me plan activities to do with my kids, dates with my husband, and gifts for my friends and family. It also helped me finish writing and publishing my book.

Perhaps most importantly, it makes it easier for me to forgive myself for not accomplishing every single thing every day. If you can’t get through everything on your list for the day, that’s okay. It keeps track of what you did accomplish, how close you came to the goal you set yourself for the day, and lets you reschedule tasks easily and simply for another day. I love waking up in the morning and looking at all the things I can decide to do today. And then in the evening, I can look and see how many things I accomplished, and what things I get to do later.

Todoist has been a lifesaver for me. I have been not just more productive, but also more relaxed since I started using it, and while I still have plenty of challenges, todoist helps me face them.

If you want to use it too, it’s available at Todoist.com, or in your phone’s app store

(For the record, I use the free version of todoist, which is available for free to anyone, and I have not been asked to write this review, nor am I receiving anything in return for it. I just happen to think it’s a wonderful way to use tech to help people be happier and more effective.)

I wrote a book!

It’s been a long time since I posted, and a lot of that has been because I was busy getting my science fiction novel ready to publish, and getting it printed. It’s finally available to buy here on Amazon. I am so excited!

I’ve been writing this story off and on for a few years, and after 2 major revisions and countless minor revisions, it’s finally ready to go.

It’s a Catholic space adventure story with themes of revenge, loyalty, faith, hope and friendship.

(Affiliate link)

The Sanity List

There’s a baby screaming and grabbing your ankle, a toddler emptying out your spice jars, and you have a headache…. There’s just no way you’ll make it until nap-time, or whenever the babysitter arrives, or your spouse gets home.

Or maybe you’re at work, and you didn’t sleep well the night before, your coworkers are driving you insane, your computer is refusing to work, and you just don’t know if you’ll make it through the day without screaming at someone.

Whatever situation is making you feel desperate, if you’re feeling that way, you’re not going to be thinking clearly. You feel trapped, frantic, and like there’s just no way you can survive. And this is not a good frame of mind for creative thought or good decisions.

Which is exactly why–sometime when you’re not frantic–you need to be proactively creative and make pre-crisis decisions.

This is where the sanity list comes in.

Everyone has activities that make them feel better when they’re stressed, though not everyone has figured out what they are. The idea behind the sanity list is to write some super simple relaxing activities down and post the list somewhere it’s easy to see. You know that next time you’re feeling that way, you aren’t going to be in any state to come up with great ideas, so you do that beforehand.

I’d like to share the sanity list I just wrote, just to give you some ideas. (My stressors usually involve a couple of adorable children who don’t have off-switches, so my ideas will reflect that.)

 

Say an Our Father

When you feel swamped by stress and screaming and frustration, sometimes it helps to realize that you really can take a few seconds away from whatever your troubles are, and lift your thoughts to God. And the last phrase of the Our Father–“forgive us… as we forgive those…” is always a helpful reminder when you’re angry.

Play music

Music has the ability to change the mood of a situation very quickly. Find some music to calm yourself and the situation down. The act of choosing a song to listen to can also help just by breaking you out of your cycle of negative thoughts. For at least a couple seconds you are thinking of doing something that might help, instead of just trying yourself how impossible it all is.

Go to a store

This won’t work for everyone, but when I’m having a really bad day, I sometimes find it helpful to pack myself and the kids into the car and go to a store. My kids like the new things to look at, and so I usually get a break from the crying…and if not, at least there are other people around to keep me from murdering anyone–just kidding (mostly).

Call a friend on the phone

I do this a lot. I really enjoy talking to friends, and often they have an outside perspective on my problem that allows me to find a solution. Or at least they sympathize. Which is also helpful. In any case, the phone call helps pass the time and take my mind off how angry, frustrated, or tired I might be.

Go for a walk

Just getting outside for a few moments can sometimes clear your head. Try checking the mail. Your screaming kids won’t kill themselves in the thirty seconds it takes to walk to the mailbox.

If that’s not enough of a break, going for a walk sometimes helps. If I’m home alone with the kids that means getting two small kids into clothes, loading them up in a stroller, and going around a few blocks. My kids love going outside, so it can be a good redirect for them, and even though the walk itself might only take five or ten minutes, the whole process of getting everyone dressed and out the door takes longer, and gives positive direction to the chaos.

And yes… going for walks doesn’t get the dishes washed or the laundry folded, but it’s good exercise and it might just keep you sane. And that’s more important.

Eat a snack

If you’re feeling desperate and angry, is always worth checking to see if it’s been too long since you ate. And if there’s kids involved and they’re being awful, they’re likely hungry too. Eating a healthy snack with protein in it can often make this difference between a good afternoon and a terrible one.

Exercise

Strenuous physical activity is a good mental break, and it can also make you release endorphins which will make you feel better. One of my favorite exercises for when I’m going crazy is running up and down the stairs a few times. I’ve never liked jumping jacks, pacing back and forth indoors doesn’t get you tired enough, and pushups are too hard. Running up and down the stairs is just the right amount of challenge. It tires out your leg muscles, but it also makes you breathe hard, which is good for your health, and I find it’s an excellent outlet for anger and frustration. It only takes a couple minutes.

Writing a sanity list and posting it somewhere easy to see is a very simple way to make your life more intentional and less reactive. It gives your calm, level-headed self a way to reach your frantic upset self when you need it the most.

If you’re interested in ideas for living more intentionally, check out some of these other articles.

Finding the underlying problem

Getting out of survival mode

Choosing your personal style

Letter to my future self

Dear future self,

I’ve been seeing parents dealing with their teenage and middle school children lately, and sometimes it makes me cringe. Based on my own memories of being a teenager, and my experiences teaching teens for three years, it seems like a lot of people go about it all wrong.

Here’s a few things I want to be very careful to remember in ten years, because I can only assume that the parents I see have forgotten these things, and their children suffer for it.

 

Teenagers aren’t scary monsters

Teenagers are not horrible monsters that come and replace your sweet babies after a few short years and do their best to ruin your life. Based on the reactions I get when I tell people I like teaching middle school, and the self-pitying comments I hear from parents, I get the impression many people think this.

Adolescence is just the next stage in a child’s development, and while it will be difficult because of hormones, mood swings, and potential personality clashes, it can be a wonderful time if managed properly. Young adolescents have the energy and enthusiasm of a child, coupled with a budding adult intelligence, which makes them a lot of fun if managed properly.

 

Teenagers need respect

Just because you are someone’s parent doesn’t mean that you can disrespect them and their ideas and still expect them to respect you. Respect is a two way street, even in parenting.

Teens and preteens are if probably more sensitive about their personal dignity than you are. If you demean your child you are placing him in an impossible situation: either he must accept it and see himself as worthless, or, if he wishes to see himself as redeemable, he must see you as wrong.

 

Teenagers are neither adults nor children

They are not adults, of course, and they need to be guided towards good choices and guarded from bad ones. Internet filters and rules about technology are necessary. Just as you wouldn’t give a fourteen year old a car, a credit card, and a full liquor cabinet with no guidance, a full-function smart phone is too much for a teen to handle without guidance.

However, this does not mean they can or should be treated like two year old olds.  They must be given opportunities to learn responsibility. And this means no more and no less than giving them responsibility. They need to be treated as competent if they are ever to become so. And they have to be given the opportunity to make mistakes. The great thing about giving a teenager limited responsibilities is that they can learn about making mistakes while the consequences are manageable.

A twelve year old should be able to do all of these things:

  • Keep track of their own school work. (It’s not your job as a parent to pack your fifth grader’s backpack–don’t let anyone tell you different. If they forget something at home, the consequences will be relatively small, and should be felt by the child.)
  • Decide what appropriate winter wear for the day is. (If you’re doing something unusual, guidance can still be helpful)
  • Plan and cook a simple meal for the family
  • Babysit younger siblings (maybe not for days at a time, but certainly for an evening out).
  • Do their own laundry. This doesn’t mean they have to do all their laundry, but you shouldn’t have to hunt down their dirty clothes, or did their clean ones.
  • Earn money working for people (they will need help connecting with people to work for)
  • Respectfully and intelligently discuss their own rules and discipline. (Teach your child how to respectfully ask for exceptions or modifications to the rules)
  • Set personal goals (with help)
  • Start budgeting and tracking their expenses
  • Go to the store, ride bikes, or take walks in a reasonably safe neighborhood without a hovering adult.
  • Order their own food at restaurants without your help. (Giving them a budget is reasonable)
  • Start using power tools under supervision
  • Mow the lawn
  • Take care of their own garden plot
  • Remember to bring their own things to routine events. Church books, school supplies, etc.
  • Understand that they are a contributing member of the household with responsibilities in making everything run smoothly.

 

Depression is not just a bad attitude

A lot of teenagers suffer from more or less severe depression. If your kid has consistently bad moods, low energy, poor sleep, or general lack of motivation, it’s likely not just a bad attitude. You won’t solve it by yelling at them. It’s probably not their fault.

 

If your kid has these problems, look for simple solutions first.

  • Trauma: if the behavior came on suddenly, figure out if there was a trauma of some kind. Gently try to get your kid to tell you what happened and work through their feelings in a positive way. Having a good, respectful relationship with your kid is invaluable for this. (Depression-causing trauma doesn’t have to be something serious like sexual assault. Even something as trivial as being called a “baby” by an authority figure can cause long term issues if not sorted out. Trust me.)
  • Exercise: Make sure your kids are getting enough strenuous activity. Outdoors is best. If a person is already depressed, they will almost definitely need company to help them exercise.
  • Nutrition: a good multivitamin can do wonders, especially for girls. And almost everyone who doesn’t live in the tropics can benefit from taking vitamin D3.
  • Social life: does your kid get out and spend time with good friends often enough? Healthy social interactions can keep you break the downward spiral of negative thoughts.
  • Responsibility: if you have nothing in your life that is your responsibility and of which you can take ownership, minor depression can quickly develop into feelings of worthlessness. It’s important for everyone to feel that they have a role to play and that they would be missed.

Depression is sometimes a physical condition that doesn’t respond to normal methods like those above. Antidepressants can help in extreme cases, but alternative medicine usually has fewer side effects and can sometimes yield very good results.

 

At the moment, dealing with a two-year-old, I look forward to the day when I can have an intelligent conversation with my own child. I look forward to being able to start having a friendship with my child, to trusting her, to learning things from her, to watching her mind grow and develop as she becomes a woman.

I know it can be hard to share a house–and especially a kitchen–with another woman, and this is probably part of why so many mothers struggle with their teenage daughters. And I know it’s hard to watch a child struggle and learn things the hard way, and that this is what growing up looks like. And I am sure I will have my share of arguments and disagreements with my children as they grow up.

But hopefully this letter will remind me that my children are people and that they want to be treated like people. And that adolescents can be very enjoyable.

The Trouble with Survival Mode

You’ve probably been there. You want to clean, but you have to rescue the crying baby from the over-exuberant toddler. Once you get the baby asleep, though, it’s time to make supper. You’re almost done making supper–fighting off the toddler who is  grabbing knives or emptying the dish soap and screaming–and you’re about to sit down to eat when the baby wakes up screaming again…After supper–which adds to your pile of unwashed dishes–you think about cleaning again, but the toddler finds a previously unexplored cabinet and empties its relatively dangerous contents into the floor next to the baby…. At which point you give up…. For a few minutes. Then you realize that giving up doesn’t actually do you any good.

You’re miserable because there’s so much stuff to do, and it just seems like no matter how hard you work you never get ahead. It’s like bailing out a boat that has a hole in it and you keep bailing and you stay just ahead of the leak so you don’t quite sink. But all you have to look forward to is more bailing because the hole never gets smaller and the water never stops coming in.

What happened?

When you first got into the boat you probably had a destination in mind. You noticed landmarks, or measured your progress by looking at charts, and mapping out a course. But you’ve been bailing for so long that your life has shrunken to an endless cycle of filling a bucket, dumping it over the edge, filling a bucket, dumping it over the edge. It’s gotten so bad that you don’t even notice that you’re drifting off course. Or that you have the tools to patch your leak, if you would just stop for five minutes.

If fact, you don’t even notice that you’ve forgotten why you got into the boat in the first place.

Now of course in real life it’s not dumping buckets of water out of your boat. It’s working to pay bills, fixing things that get broken, pulling the toddler off the crying baby (I assume that’s not just me), getting dinner on the table, packing school lunches, mediating disputes, checking emails, worrying about money, worrying about kids…. And it goes on. You feel like if you just keep your head down and keep working, maybe there will someday be a light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe when the kids are old enough for school. Wait…. Then there will be even more bills to pay… So, maybe when the kids move out? (You can survive another twenty years of this, right?)

That’s just the trouble though: keeping your head down. You have to look up sometimes.

In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey tells the story of busy workers clearing a jungle. They are working so hard, getting so much done, hacking up trees and vines as well as they can. Suddenly the leader tells them, “Wait, stop, you’re cutting down the wrong jungle!”

This is how we can end up if we let the tunnel vision of survival mode run our lives. The tunnel vision is good when you’re putting out a fire. It’s great not to be worrying about what you’ll be doing in ten years if you are busy saving the town from burning up. But life isn’t supposed to be a constant series of putting out fires. If it is, you’re doing it wrong.

The point that Stephen Covey was making with his jungle story, was, as he put it, you have to “begin with the end in mind.” You have to be able to break free of crisis-mode tunnel vision so that you can remember what your goal is, and think about what it will take to reach it. Maybe if you look up from bailing out your boat for just a moment you’ll realize that you can just swim to shore. Maybe you’ll realize that someone threw you a rope or that someone’s willing to throw you a rope if you just ask.

This sort of crisis mood can come into just about any aspect of life.

Financial

Financial survival mode looks like this: You try to at least pay the minimum payment on your credit cards, you’re probably renting, and you run out of money by the time the next paycheck comes. You aren’t quite sure what you spent the money on, but you’re too busy to find out and you definitely don’t have an emergency fund so even if you do succeed in paying your credit cards off, if you have to call the plumber, you’re right back where you started: paying interest on credit card loans.

The first step is to choose to believe that you don’t have to live that way. The second step is to sit down with your spouse if you’re married or if you’re single by yourself with a friend who knows about money or a financial advisor if you can get one, and figure out what your goal is. Your goals will depend on who you are. It could be anything from, “we will be debt free by next Christmas” or “we will be in position to open our own home in three years,” to “I want to start a business that provides all the income we need in five years.”

Then, once you’ve determined what your goal is, make a plan to reach it. Divide it up into actionable steps. Schedule them. And most importantly, plan how you will keep checking your progress. It could be as simply as putting a monthly reminder on your calendar to see if you are making the progress you want.

This book could get you started in the right direction: Why smart people do stupid things with money.

Marriage

Working with your goals in mind is particularly important in a relationship. It’s easy to end up going through the motions of married life, if you don’t remind yourself what you’re trying to accomplish. Presumably you got married so that you could help each other be happy together. Maybe you didn’t think it out quite like that beforehand, but that’s generally why people want to get married. And so if you start taking each other for granted, bickering over chores, or just feeling unappreciated or upset in general, it’s likely that the real problem is that you’ve lost sight of your goal.

The steps for this are the same:

First, recognize that you don’t have to live that way. Assuming that you and your spouse are sane, decent human adults, you should be able to work out a plan together to help each other be happy, and then execute that plan.

Secondly, block out some time to be alone and sit down together and discuss the things that are bothering you. Seriously, do it. If you need a babysitter get one. (If you can’t afford it, do it anyway, and add money goals to your discussion. It’s that important.) If the kids have to eat junk food and watch cartoons one night, or if you have to call in three favors from your sister in law, just do it. And then drink some wine, eat some chocolate, listen to some music, whatever it takes to be in a good mood, and talk it out with your spouse.

I highly recommend the marriage meeting format. It’s simple and really helps the conversation be productive. (My husband and I have been doing them every week for at least a year now, and we recommend it to all our friends.)

And finally, come up with a plan to reach your goal. Set up actionable steps, schedule them. One good step might be scheduling time for intentional communication, like a weekly marriage meeting. Or scheduling fun things to do together–dates don’t have to be expensive. Or getting the kitchen sink fixed… whatever you decide will help you make each other happy.

And then follow through on your plan.

Parenting:

Survival mode parenting, also known as reactive parenting, looks like lots of stress, yelling, and chaos. The kids are always doing something unacceptable, and you’re always tearing your hair out and yelling at them. You probably resort to screens frequently to keep them quiet, and if you don’t, you’re likely constantly sending one or more of them to their rooms. You can’t stand their behavior, but they don’t seem to change no matter what you do. You yell and punish and cry, but they never seem to get any better. If anything they get worse and worse.

Parenting will always be stressful. Children are difficult– that’s just the way it is, but there’s no reason why it has to be absolute misery all day every day. There is no virtue in being miserable. American parents seem to feel that they have to be stressed and overworked or else they’re just not doing their jobs. Which is completely baloney. Following a vocation, like marriage and parenting, should make us happier. If we’re constantly miserable, we’re likely doing something wrong.

So first of all, tell yourself that you don’t have to be miserable. Sleep deprivation might be inevitable at certain stages in your children’s development, but long-term misery should never be required.

Then, sit down (with your spouse if possible) and figure out two things: what kind of people you are trying to raise your children into, and what exactly is making you miserable.

As far as the first question goes, you might think that you already know the answer: well, obviously I want my kids to be good people. But that’s not specific enough. There’s a lot of ways of being good people. You have to choose a few traits that are extra important to you. My husband and I want to raise children who are confident, resourceful, and truth-seeking. Some people prioritize kindness or generosity above everything else and tailor their parenting techniques for those goals. There is no one right answer.

As far as the second question goes, you might be surprised when you figure out what the underlying problem really is. Maybe the whole issue is that you’re not getting enough sleep. If you could get enough sleep, everything else would fall into place. Or maybe the trouble is your children scream too much and it’s stressful for everyone. Or perhaps you just need a system for everyone to get some chores done every day so that the house is not always a mess. Maybe you’re really just lonely, and some company would solve your worst problems. Or you could just be working with an ineffective philosophy of parenting, and just changing a few of your assumptions will make everything easier.

Then form a plan to achieve your newly clarified goals. For example, you’ve determined that you want your children to be independent, so what changes are you going to make to your discipline system to encourage personal responsibility?

You figured out that you need some time to yourself every week so that you can feel like a human? How are you going to get it? Hire a babysitter? Trade off time with your spouse? Trade off time with other parents? Teach your kids to entertain themselves? Get your kids some new activities they can do independently? The answer will depend on you, your kids’ ages and personalities, and your other circumstances.

And finally, once you’ve made your plan, figure out how you’re going to ensure that it happens. Are you going to reassess your progress every week? Every month?

 

Getting out of survival mode is less about working hard and more about working smart. You have to figure out what you’re actually trying to accomplish, and what’s stopping you so that you can formulate a plan to fix it.

Resources

Here are a few books that should help: (Affiliate links: I earn a small commission if you buy through these links. There is no extra cost to you, and I heartily recommend all of these books)

 

This is a book recommended to me by a financial advisor. It’s a great basic roadmap to why you have money troubles, and how to get out of them.


This book is a good overview of the ways of thinking that will make you happier and more effective.

 

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is in a relationship or is planning on being in one. It explains a lot of the misunderstandings that arise between spouses and how to solve them and have a happy and satisfying relationship.

I’ve read a lot of Catholic books on marriage, and many of them tend to be discouraging. This one is not. It shows a balanced view of marriage–admitting the struggles, but pointing out the graces and joys. It also has a balanced idea of the roles of husband and wife–sticking to what the Church actually says, not personal opinions or outdated stereotypes. Every 21st century Catholic married couple should read this book.

 

This is one of the best books on parenting that I have ever read. It gives practical tips and makes good parenting seem possible and achievable.

 

Pamela Druckerman, an American who lives in France, points out some of the odd habits of American parents, and contrasts them with how French parents raise their children. She combines the best of both worlds, and tells entertaining stories. I hadn’t laughed so hard in months. It also helped me de-stress my parenting style a bit.

 

Leftover Rice

White rice is one of those things that’s just never quite the same leftover. I love white rice and we generally eat it at least once a week, often more frequently than that. We have a rice cooker, and it’s a fuss free,  inexpensive, and gluten free starch. It also goes with just about anything.

But what to do with the leftovers? Of course, you can just have “leftover night” and pull all the leftovers out of the fridge for everyone to pick something to microwave. I do my fair share of that.

But if you want to take it up a notch, or if you just don’t like microwaved leftover rice, here’s a few ideas you might not have thought of.

Fried rice

Fried rice is a staple at Chinese restaurants, but it’s not too hard to make something similar at home. You just need to saute some carrots and onions, maybe some peas, in oil until they are well cooked. Add the right seasonings–I like pepper, garlic, and ginger– lots of soy sauce and a little sugar, and some finely chopped meat. Then you throw your leftover rice in, stir till it’s warm, and voila! A quick one-dish meal.

Rice pudding

Rice pudding is a surprisingly delicious dessert that uses basic staples and is pretty hard to mess up. And it’s a fantastic way to use leftover rice. If you turn your leftover rice into rice pudding, you can serve it in wine glasses at a nice dinner party and no one will ever guess that it’s Wednesday night’s supper leftovers. (Yes, I have done this.)

Here’s the recipe I generally use.

Rice casserole

There’s a lot of nice rice casserole recipes, but the general idea behind them is that you take some meat, some veggies, some sauce and some leftover rice, mix it together or layer it into a baking pan, sprinkle cheese over it, and bake it till it’s hot and the cheese is getting golden. It’s a great way to use leftover meat and vegetables too.

Chicken salsa rice casserole is one of my favorites.

(incidentally, this makes a fabulous freezer meal.)

For this, you chop up some cooked chicken meat and layer it in a pan lasagna-style with leftover rice, cheese, and a sauce made of half salsa and half sour cream. Top with more cheese and bake. It is fast and easy and very satisfying. Don’t skimp on the sauce if you want it to be moist and delicious.

Eat it with bananas

I know, it probably sounds weird. The first time I ever heard of this was when my eighth grade teacher said it was good. My classmates and I, being typical middle schoolers, mostly looked at her like she’d suggested we all grow extra heads. But about fifteen years later, I suddenly decided to try it. And it was as good as she said.

Here’s what you do. Put some leftover rice in a bowl. Peel a banana and mash it up in there with a fork. Now you have a banana rice mixture. Sprinkle cinnamon over it, pour some milk in, and eat it like a cheaper, healthier version of cold cereal. I enjoy it occasionally as a bedtime snack.

 

I am sure I have only scratched the surface of what can be done with leftover rice. Do you have any favorite ideas?