How Your Tech Changes You

This is the third and last part of my series on relating to technology in a healthy way. I’d love you hear your thoughts in the comments.  If you haven’t read the other two parts, they can be found here: Part 1 and Part 2 

(This post contains some affiliate links. These links allow me to earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.)

A few more thoughts on our relationship with technology. 

The tools we use change us. Archeologists can tell the difference between the skeletons of sword-wielding warriors and ordinary people because using the sword at that level actually changes the structure of the warriors’ body. The British archers who ended the age of armored knights on horseback as the ultimate weapon of war similarly became one with their bows. An archer’s bow arm became highly overdeveloped, and this is visible even in the skeleton. 

These are extreme examples, but every tool we use changes us both physically and mentally. The swordsman becomes one with his sword when he fights. He does not “use his sword” to fight. He fights, and the sword is an extension of himself that gives him new powers. 

Our phones and computers are extensions of our powers as well. 

My phone gives me the ability to speak to people across the world, to learn new things, to take notes about things that are important to me. I have become accustomed to having these powers, and I do not think this a bad thing. In a certain very real sense, we do become one with our phones and computers. It is not surprising that many people become anxious without their phones. I am sure many swordsmen feel incomplete without their weapons. They are missing a part of what they have come to think of as themselves. How could they not be anxious? 

It’s fine to become one with your tools. In fact, only when you are one with your tools can you work at your highest potential. The only trouble is if your tools somehow diminish you, if you lose the abilities you had before you had the tool. 

If the swordsman gains the ability to fight with his sword, he gains as a warrior, but if he can never set the sword down, he will be diminished as a man. It would be hard to write, to eat, or to show affection while constantly holding a naked blade in your hand. 

The same is true of our phones. We gain abilities from our phones, but if we can never put them down we lose parts of our humanity. The information they make available to us is wonderful, but we can’t lose our ability to just be bored occasionally. As Manoush Zomorodi says on page 5 of Bored and Brilliant, “We may feel like we are doing very little when we endlessly fold laundry, but our brains are actually hard at work. When our minds wander, we activate something called the ‘default mode,’ the mental place where we solve problems and generate our best ideas, and engage in what’s known as ‘autobiographical planning,’ which is how we make sense of our world and our lives and set future goals. The default mode is also involved in how we try to understand and empathize with other people, and make moral judgments.” These are important powers which we can only access if we’re just a little bit bored. If we have a constant stream of phone calls, texts, games, and videos keeping our brains constantly busy, we will never go into “default mode” and we will be less than we could be as a result. 

Keep the control in your hands

It’s also important to keep our tools as tools and not let them make us slaves. We should have tools that fit us, not force ourselves to conform to our tools. Really good sword fighters often had swords specially made for them, or at least chose a sword that suited them better than others. 

We should customize our devices to do what we want them to do for us, and to not do what we do not want them to do. I want my phone to enhance my ability to communicate with friends, to organize my life, and to share my ideas with others. Otherwise I want it to be as unobtrusive as possible. I have turned off all notifications except email, text, calls, and my library app, and have muted everything except calls from my contacts. I have no games and no social media. (I kind of wish the news wasn’t so easily accessible, but I don’t usually have a problem with it.)

I installed Google Docs for writing, Todoist for organizing, and I take lots of pictures of my kids so I can send them to my parents and in-laws. I have been trying to call my friends more than I text them lately, as I think the level of connection achieved is higher, and I can do other things (like laundry and dishes) while talking, but not while texting. 

My phone—while I do use it very extensively–is my tool and not my master. It is an extension of myself that I am comfortable with and which I believe makes me better at being what I want to be. 

I hope you’ve found these ideas useful and interesting, and that you are inspired to make your devices healthy and welcome extensions of yourself. It will probably take a long time and a lot of adjustment to find the exact set of tools and rules that helps you lead your best life, but it is worth every bit of effort you put in. Your future self will thank you, as will your friends and family. 

 

Tech and Your Family

This is the second part of a three part series on making technology work for you. If you haven’t read the first section yet, please find it here. (This post contains some affiliate links. These links allow me to earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.)

Now that you have come up with a real plan for how to manage technology in your life, you are ready to look into managing your kids’ technology. But even with a coherent plan, you can’t just make rules, even highly intentional and rational rules, and expect smooth sailing, especially if you’re talking about teenagers. 

 

Start with yourself

I have done a lot of reading on this subject. Some of the authors were parents, some were counselors who deal with parents and children, and some were just very productive people. 

Based on my research, my own experience, and what my gut tells me, the first step for any successful control of your teen’s tech use is to set an example of intentional and virtuous technology use. 

As a responsible adult you likely have a lot of reasonable and necessary uses for technology. And you might also waste lots of time. To your kids, the two look identical. (You might have trouble telling the difference sometimes too–I know I do.) So a good way to be more intentional with your own tech use, and to set a good example is simply to tell your kids what you are doing when you are using your phone or computer. “Hey, honey, I’m going to check my email.” “I am going to look up a recipe for roasting a chicken.” “I am looking for a craft idea to do with you this afternoon.” “I am reading an article about___.” “I am texting your grandmother pictures of you.” “I am texting my friend.” 

Just saying what you are doing on your phone can help you stay focused on what you are going to do, as well as let your child know that you are actually doing something reasonable with the time you are looking at your phone instead of him.

It’s also important that you be able to set your phone down. Give your kids phone-free quality time. Put the phones in another room during dinner. (More about family dinners later.) It turns out this is more important than you might think. On page 56 of his book, The Distraction Addiction, Alex Pang describes a study in which pairs of people were randomly assigned to have conversations with each other, either with a visible smartphone present, or without a phone present. The study he cites noted, “It was found that conversations in the absence of mobile communication technologies were rated as significantly superior compared with those in the presence of a mobile device, above and beyond the effects of age, gender, ethnicity, and mood.”

So make sure you can set your own phone aside if you want to make effective rules for your kids. 

 

Make sure that screen time is not the only option

A lot of families struggle with screen time rules because screen time is by far the most alluring option open for their kids. They can do something screen-related or they can do… nothing? Chores? This might be the single most important step to take in making sure your kids have a healthy relationship with tech–making sure they have other things in their lives as well. 

Do they have friends that they can have over or go and visit? Do they have real-life hobbies? Growing plants, raising pets, building models, biking or hiking with friends, etc. are all good things that teach real-life skills and are just plain good for you both physically and mentally. These and other activities are what Cal Newport calls “high quality leisure activities” because they require input, and are deeply satisfying. High quality leisure activities are also great opportunities for parents to spend quality time with their older children, and for siblings to spend quality time with each other and really enjoy one another. 

It’s important to set rules, and enforce them, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect screen time limitations to be followed if the alternative is staring at the wall. 

 

Set clear and reasonable boundaries. 

Smartphones are very powerful. They have access to literally the entire internet, with all of the information, and all of the filth that entails. They can have addictive games installed on them, and have a million other ways of encouraging you to spend all your time looking at them. 

They also have great potential to help you live your life better. I use mine for my productivity system, writing blog posts and books, and talking to my friends. 

Since the internet and internet connected devices are so powerful, it is important to give kids guidance and boundaries for their use. Below are the rules I would suggest. 

 

My tech rules

(For the record, my kids are 3 and under. I imagine by the time my kids are teenagers this conversation will be somewhat different. I taught middle school and highschool for a few years though–and loved it–so teens are not an unknown topic for me. These are the rules I would recommend to any of my friends who do have teens.) 

I don’t think kids under 18 should have full-function smartphones. They are designed by very very smart people to be addictive, and your teen’s brain has not developed fully. Any addiction they form as a teen will be much harder to break. That being said, if your kid is driving, or otherwise leaving the house alone, it seems sane to allow them to have a way of calling their parents/bosses or other important people in their lives. There are a number of devices that allow only calling, texting, and some offline apps. I recommend getting one of these for a minor child who will be leaving the house alone. The device can be returned to you when the child returns home, which should allow for proper supervision. 

If you do give your child a smartphone, don’t let him have it in his bedroom. People (adults or children) are most likely to do stupid things on their phones alone at night, and it’s also really bad for your sleep. 

Boundaries for teens

If your child is in middle or highschool, he will likely need internet access for his school work, and a computer for typing papers. I think it’s important for kids to learn how to type properly before leaving school. I recommend a program like Mavis Beacon, or whatever they use nowadays. I recommend giving students access to a computer in a public area (and only in a public area) and having an effective internet filter like Covenant Eyes

Your child may need to have his own email account. If you have a decent relationship with your kid, this shouldn’t be a problem, though depending on the age of the child, it might work well to have them share their passwords with you. I would not allow my teenage children to have social media accounts. (The only exception I can see myself making to this rule at this point would be if my teenager had a business and was using a social media page exclusively for business purposes. In this case I would imagine that adult advice in managing the account would be both helpful and welcome.)

As for computer games, that is a personal decision that each parent has to make on their own. Different people are more or less likely to form addictions. If you know you have a tendency in that direction, you should be more careful with your kids, because addictive behavior is influenced by genetics. I think my rule would be absolutely never more than an hour a day of entertainment screen time, and gaming only as a social activity. (The only exceptions I would make to the social rule would be games that teach you to type, or other practical skills.)  I don’t think I’d let kids under 10 or 12 play either. 

These are just my rules. Everyone has their own needs and difficulties. But no matter who you are, no matter what your rules are, you need to have a good relationship with your kids to make it work. 

 

No rules will work unless you do this

Having the perfect rules, and having perfect technology habits yourself is not enough. If you take nothing else away from this blog post, I want you to take this away: The most important thing you can do to keep your kids safe on the internet (or elsewhere) is to develop an open and loving relationship with them. 

Let them know that they can talk to you about anything. You don’t want your kids being too embarrassed to ask you about the disturbing pictures they saw on someone else’s computer. You don’t want them to be too scared to tell you if someone tried to take advantage of them. 

 

Here is some advice therapists, counselors, priests and others often give on this subject: 

Eat dinner as a family, and make it a pleasant daily ritual. It’s good for your health and for your relationships. And talk during dinner. Talk about anything and everything. Most of all, let your kids talk. Let them ask questions, tell stories, and argue (courteously of course).

Make sure your children know you love them no matter what. Children have love languages too. If you’re not sure your kids know you love them, make sure of it. Discipline should show love, not make your kids doubt it. There are many ways to discipline, and you need to find one that works for each of your kids. Whatever you pick, it is vital that it leaves your children very clear about what expectations and consequences are, and also leaves them feeling loved and respected. Make sure your relationship with your kids is based on love, not fear. 

Teach your kids about their bodies.

Making sure children know how their bodies work and what appropriate and inappropriate touch are like, and what to do if they see or experience anything inappropriate. This knowledge must be age appropriate, but the general consensus is that it’s better to go too early than too late. 

When you do teach them about their bodies, be sure not to leave them with a sense of shame or embarrassment at the topic. If your child senses that you are embarrassed by the topic, it can lead to an unwillingness to discuss problems that arise, and even marital difficulties later on. 

If you are for any reason incapable of giving a reverent, honest and open explanation of bodily processes to your child, then it might be a good idea to ask a trusted friend to explain it. 

 

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.