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‘Fer Cryin’ Out Loud’ Category

  1. From “To-Do” to “Done”

    May 26, 2019 by Diane

    A writer friend wrote a poem a day during Poetry Month in April. He said, “I get an idea for a poem, write it in the evening, polish it the next morning, and then,” he brushed off his hands, “done!”

    Oh, how I envied him, getting to done.

    My problem is, I’m always doing. I’m rarely done.

    I rewrite the first page of my novel endlessly.

    I check out five books from the library, and before reading any, I check out five more. The towering stack taunts me.

    I flit from one project to another at work, and if it wasn’t for external deadlines, I’d continue to flit and polish and perfect and whatever it is I do to avoid getting things done, while my To-Do list grows longer than Rip Van Winkle’s beard.

    I need to get to DONE!

    Squirrelly thoughts

    Part of my brain thinks along these lines…

    If I finish (fill in the blank), then what? There might not be another novel in me. The book I want at the library might not be available, so I better check out everything. If I don’t do (fill in the blank) perfectly, I’ve failed.

    This is poverty mentality. It’s scarcity thinking. It’s a trap.

    Another part of my brain reminds me…

    Half-baked is better than burned.

    There will always be another book to read.

    A job that’s good enough and off your plate is preferable to a job that wears you down in your quest for perfection, which, as the saying goes, does not exist.

    And no, you don’t need to take on more than your plate can carry. The eyes-are-bigger-than-the-stomach syndrome results in nothing more than heartburn. No joy in that.

    Why can’t I get things done???

    I could just throw away my To-Do list. Done!

    But then I’d turn into a sloth who watches Wheel of Fortune into the wee hours, if such a feat is possible.

    It seems to me, three things are holding me back from getting to Done. See if any of these resonate with you:

    1. Lack of Time

    I mean, come on! I’ve got THINGS TO DO. Look at the list! How can I possibly get them all done?

    Well, I can’t. At least, not all at once.

    If I decided to run a marathon, and the most I’d ever run was from the couch to the refrigerator during a commercial, would I lace up my Skechers and line up at the starting block with well-seasoned athletes? Probably not. Besides, I don’t even run from the couch to the fridge, because I live in a miniature playhouse and can just reach over.

    But I can run for one minute. And if I add a minute a day, by the end of the month, provided it’s not February, I’m running 30 minutes a day. Or thirty-one, if it’s January.

    What if I applied that same logic to the dreaded To-Do list?

    Let’s say I start at 10 minutes a day. I can get a surprising amount done in 10 minutes.

    That stack of magazines? I’ll plow through them, ripping out articles I want to read, tossing the rest in the recycle bin. Done!

    I’ll read two of those articles. Done!

    I’ll edit one page of my novel. Done!

    I’ll weed out a file cabinet. Vacuum. Make salads for lunch. Draft a blog post. Done, done, done, done!

    Add a minute a day, and by the end of the month, I’m spending 30 minutes on tasks. Think of how much I can accomplish in 30 minutes! Makes the head spin, doesn’t it?

    There’s just one catch: Anyone who’s read my ramblings for any length of time knows I’m commitment-phobic. I’d sooner watch Wheel of Fortune than commit to 30 minutes on a task, because if I commit to 30 minutes of anything other than TV, I might actually get something DONE. God forbid.

    Scary thought.

    Plus, I have the squirrelly belief that I can do everything all at once to perfection.

    Talk about high expectations. No wonder I’m burned out. No wonder I can’t get started. Which brings me to hurdle number two (and three, but let’s not skip ahead):

    2. Overwhelm

    When I print out my To-Do list at work, it’s as long as one of those receipts from CVS pharmacy. My eyes glaze over. My stomach tightens into a hard ball. I have the urge to surf the net, spiral down the email rabbit hole, or cram something sugary in my mouth.

    I’ve discovered I can accomplish three tasks a day. Not fifty. Not five. Three. If I complete three tasks and have time left over, I tackle another. Three items on a To-Do list leaves plenty of white space. Room to breathe. And for an introvert like myself with limited energy to spare, breathing room is good.

    Many days, I accomplish more than three tasks. But tricking myself into focusing on three helps me overcome the feeling of overwhelm.

    What if my boss expects me to accomplish more? Well, if I work X number of hours a day, and there’s just one of me, and I need to eat and go to the bathroom X number of times during those X number of hours, the math might not add up. In which case I’ll say: “This isn’t sustainable. If you want me to be accurate, and finish the jobs you’ve assigned, something needs to go.”

    Yeah, in a perfect world.

    Some bosses are open to that kind of honesty. Luckily, mine is. If you’re not so lucky, all I can say is: pace yourself. Remember, doing more than is humanly possible isn’t sustainable in the long run. And no job is worth dying over. At the very least, don’t overload your plate on your off hours. While many organizations expect an employee to be plugged into the system 24/7, it’s my firm belief that we worker-bees need to educate the powers-that-be about what’s realistic, and what’s in the realm of: “in your dreams, bucko.”

    But I digress.

    Which three things do I choose to tackle on a given day?

    Whichever three would keep me up at night if I didn’t accomplish them. Not everything on the list is numero uno. Some are fives. Or sevens. I start with the most important, and work my way up. This applies to my task lists at work and at home.

    Sometimes, that number one item is so important, I can’t muster the energy to start. Like submitting my short story to a literary magazine. Or rewriting my novel.

    Which brings me to point three:

    3. Resistance

    In his book “The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles,” Steven Pressfield writes:

    “Resistance’s goal is not to wound or disable. Resistance aims to kill. Its target is the epicenter of our being: our genius, our soul, the unique and priceless gift we were put on earth to give and that no one else has but us. Resistance means business. When we fight it, we are in a war to the death.”

    Yeah. That bugger, Resistance, disguises itself as perfectionism, procrastination, laziness, fear, and whatever it is that keeps us from acting on those projects that feed our souls.

    For me, the disguise is perfectionism.

    In Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Picard’s famous command was: “Engage.” He meant, begin. Go forth. Picard never added, “But only if you’re positive you’ll make zero mistakes.”

    No, settled in his captain’s chair, legs comfortably crossed, he commanded, “Engage.” It was outer space, fer crying out loud! He didn’t know where the ship was headed, or what lay ahead, or how he’d deal with whatever crisis occurred—and there was always a crisis. Didn’t matter. With a casual flick of his finger, Picard was ready to brave the unknown.

    Occasionally, someone on board would request, “Permission to speak freely,” which, if granted, gave the officer a free pass to say whatever was on his mind without being punished.

    What if I applied Star Trek logic to those Things I Want To Accomplish that makes Resistance sneer? With those nifty words, “Engage,” and “Permission to fail,” and “Granted,” I might actually get to “Done.”

    Wow. What a concept.

    So, for those of you who have hung in reading this 1,466-word post, my formula for getting from To-Do to Done is:

    Make your task list manageable and realistic
    Choose the three most important tasks to work on
    Do the work in a set interval of time
    Give yourself permission to fail
    When you’re done, let it be. It’s as good as it’s going to get.

    Which, in my book, is Done.


  2. Compassion: Lighting up the Shadows

    April 7, 2019 by Diane

    Over the past couple of weeks, I finished a short story and entered it in a contest.

    The beginnings of this story came to me one morning as I warmed up on the keyboard. It was worth exploring, so I tucked it away in a file I call Write Aheads.

    When I read the announcement for the short story contest in a local paper, I scrolled through my Write Aheads, came across this beginning, and thought it had potential.

    Hmm. Wonder where this might lead.

    It was the kind of story that revealed itself word by word. As E. L. Doctorow said, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

    It was pure blind trust on my part, following that feeble light.

    Enter Detective Bloch

    The protagonist, I discovered, was a detective with multiple personality disorder. In the third paragraph, he contaminated the evidence at a crime scene. He wasn’t likable. His energy was dark. In short, he was an anti-hero. He even told the reader straight up, “Don’t make me into a hero.”

    The fact that this character sprang forth from my subconscious gave me pause. Was I mentally unhinged? Steven King wrote dark characters. As did Michael Connelly. And Robert Crais. Were those writers unhinged?

    When this detective first appeared on the page, he caught my interest. The actions he took surprised me. Not to mix metaphors, but as I continued to write the story, the way he played cat and mouse—only showing his cards when he was good and ready—made me want to follow, and by the end of the first scene, the curve ball he threw rocked me back on my heels.

    I was all in. I had to know what happened next.

    Playing God

    As writers, we play God with our characters. We give them form, imbue them with habits and thoughts and emotions, bring them to life in the fictional world we’ve created. No matter how flawed they may be, how despicable, they’re our creations.

    This detective, this anti-hero, wasn’t the sort of character I’d want to know in real life. But in my fictional world, he interested me. I was curious to know more. And when he revealed why he did what he did, I felt compassion.

    Which brings me to…the assignment

    I’m sharing this, because the assignment for week 6 of the LIFE XT program was:

    Add Compassion. Use leaving the house as the cue to Notice-Shift-Rewire the habit of Compassion.

    As I left my house, I immediately forgot to notice, shift, or rewire. But by the end of the week, driving home from the grocery store, listening to politics on the radio, I had the opportunity to practice compassion. Nothing hardens my jaw as much as political news. It’s all fake. Except, of course, the news I tune into. And while I’m being honest, I may as well admit: the only side that’s right is mine.

    Did I remind myself, while grinding my teeth into a fine powder, that there are people on the opposite side of the aisle, listening to a different version of the news, who are having those very same thoughts about me? Did I use this moment to practice compassion?

    No.

    But I did practice Presence. I turned the radio off.

    My “ah-ha!” moment

    Circling back to Detective Bloch, I reflected upon how, in spite of his dark nature, I could feel compassion for the character.

    That must be what the Big Kahuna feels for the evil among us.

    Writers and the Creator of the universe are similar in that we form something from nothing, and sometimes that something goes rogue (Don’t eat the apple, Adam!). Yet in spite of how wrong, how vehemently opposed we might be to someone’s actions, we can still be curious about what brought them to that place, intrigued about where they’ll end up, and interested in learning their story.

    Being curious, intrigued, and interested are pathways to understanding.

    And understanding is the bridge to compassion.

    Well.

    I could always be curious about someone who angered me.

    Intrigued? Hell, ya!

    Interested? Why not?

    But could I remember to take that long view, that God-like perspective, when someone was in my face shouting their opinions?

    Maybe.

    At the very least, I could take a giant step back. Make room for something more divine to light up the shadows between us.


  3. Gratitude: The View Ain’t So Bad From Here

    March 31, 2019 by Diane

    Root canal.

    Just hearing those words makes me jumpy.

    Obama jokingly referred to the bank bailout as being as popular as a root canal, which pissed off those who do it, but illustrated perfectly how the rest of us feel about having it done.

    So when my dentist told me I’d need the dreaded procedure, and gave me a referral to an endodontist, my hand shook as I signed the form.

    Who to believe?

    My previous dentist, the hypochondriac, never mentioned root canals.

    No, it was my new dentist who opened the can of worms. I switched to him, because:

    • My previous dentist no longer accepted my cheap insurance.
    • I had a limited pool of dentists from which to choose.
    • The new guy, Dr. A, got rave reviews on Yelp. Well, two. But there were only two.
    • He seemed friendly when we met, although I could have done away with the handshake.
    • He was downright handsome.

    After his initial examination, Dr. A told me, “The good news: your oral hygiene is excellent. The bad news: your crowns need replacing.”

    My previous dentist never mentioned that scenario, either.

    “Good News, Bad News”

    I soon learned, this handsome fellow liked those phrases. He also relished the word “extreme.”

    In my next visit, while I waited for the Novocain to kick in, he scurried across the hall to examine another patient.

    “The good news: there’s no problem with your teeth. The bad news: your gums are receding. It’s extreme.”

    While I waited for the squishy stuff to harden into a mold of my teeth, he scurried next door to consult with a third patient.

    “The good news: your gums are in great shape. The bad news: you have extreme cavities and you’ll probably need to mortgage your home to pay for the dental work.” (I may have misheard that last part, but the subtext was loud and clear.)

    Off with the Crowns!

    Replacing my first crown went without a glitch, although I shivered in the chair, having a deep fear of dentists. Had my dentist also been a clown, I may have been scarred for life.

    After the procedure, Dr. A said, “You might elect to have a root canal,” then shoved his hand out to shake.

    Why would anyone elect to have a root canal?

    Replacing my second crown, Dr. A ran into a snag. During the procedure, the nerve was exposed. It was “extreme.” He didn’t offer good news, just the bad.

    “There’s a ninety-nine-percent chance you’ll need a root canal,” he said, and shoved out his hand.

    Oh, how I hated this man.

    I wondered if he was getting kickbacks from the endodontist.

    I refused to take the bait. Or his hand.

    A second opinion

    The pain began. Heat, cold, chewing…everything hurt. With dread, I visualized enduring a root canal, of something going horribly wrong, of ending up in the hospital.

    I googled “holistic dentists,” called one, and asked her opinion.

    “If the nerve was mechanically-exposed, ozone treatments MIGHT work,” she said, “but I can’t guarantee it. If it was cavity-exposed, you’ll need an extraction or a root canal.”

    What!? I thought those words didn’t exist in the vocabulary of holistic dentistry.

    The lesson begins

    I was in week five of the LIFE XT program, which I began blogging about here.

    The instructions for the week:

    Add Gratitude. Use sitting down to meals as the cue to Notice-Shift-Rewire the habit of Gratitude.

    Since eating involved heat, cold, and chewing, this proved to be a challenge. Still, I told myself I was grateful to have teeth, and to have a credit card to pay for the fixing of those teeth.

    On Sunday, in desperation, I called my dentist on his cell to find out how the nerve was exposed.

    His brother answered.

    His brother didn’t know.

    Dr. A, he told me, was “extremely” ill and in the hospital.

    “I’m so sorry!” I said, metaphorically backing out the door, grateful for my health.

    Root canal? Or no root canal?

    I didn’t need a neon sign to tell me I’d need to deal with the problem tooth. So I scheduled a visit with endo-guy. I convinced myself that after performing whatever tests endodontists perform, he’d straighten and announce, “You don’t need a root canal!”

    I was willing to take the gamble.

    The day came. I had a plan. If I needed the procedure, I’d visualize lying on the beach. I’d visualize Dave waiting for me in the waiting room. I’d remind myself it would be over in an hour. I’d remind myself of the line I’d recently heard on a tv show: no matter what happens, I’ll get through it. I’d count my breaths: two hundred and twelve of them, the length of time, I was told, a root canal would take. (I ‘d worked out the math in the shower when I should have been practicing Awareness.)

    The test

    I’d read the reviews about endo-guy on Yelp.

    • He had a lousy bedside manner.
    • He’d do the work without telling the patient what he was doing, then disappear.

    I considered those good reviews. I prefer not knowing what a dentist is doing. I don’t want to be that involved. My new dentist is far too chatty. He even offers a mirror so I can watch.

    Endo-guy ran through a list of questions, then performed the “ice” test, applying an ice-cold instrument to one of my regular teeth. As soon as I felt the pain, I raised my hand. He tested the crowned tooth. No pain, then, after several long seconds, I raised my hand. He tested a regular tooth. Up went the hand.

    “It took longer for the crowned tooth,” he said, “which could be a problem. Is the pain gone?”

    “Yes.”

    “If it goes away quickly, that’s good. Let’s try again.”

    He applied the ice to the back of the crown and my hand shot up, followed by the rest of me.

    “That’s a good sign,” he said, and straightened. “You don’t need a root canal.”

    Oh, the joy! The relief! I was ready to dance down the hallway.

    “Is the pain still there?” he said.

    “Well, yes,” I admitted.

    “That’s bad. You need a root canal.”

    The sun went behind the clouds. I stared at him.

    “You can think about it,” he said, “decide later.”

    I didn’t want to think about it. My anxiety would shoot through the roof. I’d lose twenty pounds. I’d end up in the hospital, like my dentist.

    “What do you advise?”

    “A root canal.”

    There it was. I could either go home and worry myself sick, or I could suck it up and get it over.

    I sucked it up.

    After all, I had a plan, right?

    The plan goes awry

    Endo-guy sprang into action. I didn’t have a chance to back out. He shoved a rubber dam in my mouth and went to work. Other than the shot he jammed through the roof of my mouth, nothing hurt. But the whole experience was so overwhelming, my ability to visualize anything vanished. I couldn’t remember my reminders. Counting breaths didn’t occur to me. All I could do was clench my toes so my focus would be on my feet instead of my mouth. He barked orders. “Open wider!” “Resist against me!” At one point I reached up to brush something from my cheek and he barked, “Don’t touch anything! There’s a lot of sharp instruments here!”

    It was all a blur. And then, it was over. Faster than I thought it would be.

    And endo-guy disappeared.

    The view ain’t so bad from here

    I was grateful it was behind me.

    I was grateful I’d had the nerve to get through it.

    If the alternative had been an infection that reached my bone, I could even say I was grateful to have the root canal.

    Gratitude shifted my outlook.

    I had a choice. I could be fearful of the bad or grateful for the good. Anxious of what scared me, or thankful for what gave me strength. Leery of the germs on my dentist’s hand, or comforted he was trying to put me at ease.

    By adopting an attitude of gratitude, I saw all that was right in my life.

    Above the dark clouds, the sun was always shining.