Friday, January 25, 2013

Two-Step To-Do List

Do you find yourself at the end of the day having gotten nothing much done? How about when you have a to-do list? Do you then find yourself getting all the easy or small stuff done but not those items you’ve been avoiding all along? I think I have something that might work for you.

Many years ago, I fell in love with Excel – well, actually it was Lotus 1-2-3, Excel’s birth mother – and life hasn’t been the same since. I use Excel for so many things – budgeting, tracking story ideas, record-keeping and during my last job I used it to facilitate projects. Now, I’ve taken the same system I used there and adapted it to my own life.

Here’s what I created first, my to-do list, a spreadsheet with the following columns: priority, task, deadline, requirements and completed. I simply assign a priority (currently from 1 to 4), a short description of what the task is, what’s required (i.e. money, postage, phone #) and then record the date I’ve completed it. I put a string of weekly tasks, like washing clothes, at the bottom of the list separate from the main body, so that I could just copy and paste those in every week and assign priorities.

Now you may think the completion date isn’t really important, especially for items like "clean the shower," but I urge you to get in the habit. Here’s why – the day will come when you can’t remember when you mailed that gift or filed your income taxes or the last time you had your propane tank filled and you will be grateful for the record. Don’t pick and choose either because you cannot anticipate what you will need to know. 

What to do with the completed tasks? That’s easy (and important): first sort your Sheet 1 (which I entitled “Current To-Do”) then cut and paste the completed items to Sheet 2 (Which I named – wait for it – Completed Tasks).  I sort the Completed Tasks sheet periodically by date, but I can search for words to take me right to the task I’m looking for when trying to locate the date I did something.

On Monday I instituted a new Excel spreadsheet, my Daily Schedule. Does this sound like overload? Well, it might be if I was being really good at completing tasks according to their assigned priority or completing every Priority 1 task each day. Guess what? I wasn’t. Why? Well, because I was effectively keep tracking of what I had to do with the To-Do List, but still managing to avoid those things that were a challenge OR I just didn’t want to do.

With the Daily Schedule I divided the day into 15 minute increments and entered some standard items into the morning and evening time periods, leaving me with a reusable schedule by saving it at that point. Then I saved it as the Daily Schedule for 1-21 and scheduled tasks into the leftover time slots. 

The other thing I added to this (off to one side) was a list of how many minutes I wanted to spend each day on various things like Twitter, novel writing, blogging, etc. I found that by adding up the minutes I thought it would take me to do the regular items, chores and the preferred items, I had to work 10 hours a day. This set a fairly realistic goal for me. I think if you add up the approximate minutes it takes you every day just to be a functioning human, you’ll be surprised and more realistic about what time is left for other things – like pursuing your dreams.

I work the to-do list against the daily schedule, copying and pasting items from the to-do to the daily, and so far, it’s working.

I know there are many people who aren’t particularly adept at or comfortable with Excel and would not recommend it to someone for whom it’s a struggle. However, if you use Excel in your life anyway, you might want to give this a try. I expect 2013 to be my best, most effective year ever!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Intentional Reading

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to read all of the John Steinbeck novels. I’ve done pretty well so far, having read East of Eden, Cannery Row, The Red Pony, The Long Valley, The Pearl and even Travels with Charley, which isn’t a novel. I’ve just started The Grapes of Wrath

Last year I decided to read all of Jane Austen’s books. It was a wonderful experience. I find if you read one book after another, fairly close together, it’s a lot like watching a season of a television series in a marathon manner. Where there is repetitiveness you recognize it and as a writer that’s fantastic. It leads to a better understanding of how a great author thinks. Deep immersion in Austen caused me to become frustrated with the horrible restrictions on women of her time and truly appreciate my own freedoms. 

Since I published my first novel, Red Mojo Mama, I have spent a great deal of time doing obligatory reading as I’m sure many of you have. That is to say, I have owed it to a number of my compadres to read their works. While this has been enjoyable and informative, I miss reading an author I already know I love and especially reading enough of that writer to really appreciate their genius. 

I watched a PBS/Ken Burns special on Mark Twain recently and it has inspired me to read those of his books I haven’t already read and re-read those I have. I already know I love Twain, but now I want to study his use of dialog, how he captured the voice of his times. 

After reading Austen and Steinbeck, I think they had that trait in common with Twain, and that perhaps that is what makes an author magnificent – the ability to play back to the reader what a people and era sounded like. The authenticity of that speech and thought pattern captures the reader and won’t let go. 

So, while I will definitely continue to read the works of my brother and sister writers, I’m going to continue to make a point of structuring some “intentional reading” for myself periodically. It’s great for my inner scribe.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Hanging Out with Steinbeck

This post was scheduled to be about the lost month of December, for me a complete blur. However, today I really dug into Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck, given to me for Christmas by my lovely daughter, so the nature and tone of today’s post has altered greatly, thank goodness.

If there were one author I’d most love to emulate it would be John Steinbeck. I find hope, for myself and all humanity, in his writing. I confess I cannot read Hemingway because of his generally bleak, and inevitably (at least for me) depressing storylines. Steinbeck, on the other hand, views life and people with a realistic eye, but not a jaundiced one. For most downsides there is an equal and companionable upside in the nature of man. We are not destined to anything, but rather hold the keys to our salvation in our own hands, according to my interpretation of Steinbeck’s works that I’ve read.

I’m sad to say that I’ve only read three and of those I only truly remember Tortilla Flats, because I now recall the film versions of Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, rather than the books. I’ve made reading all of his novels one of this year’s resolutions and I’m looking forward to working my way through them, even those I’ve already read. His stories lift me up and that is the quality I wish to capture most of all in my own writing. I have no wish to be maudlin or preachy, but instead to tell tales that are true to the human spirit, both soaring and frail, and in many instances triumphant; real people living real lives, even if they are made up, and coming out whole on the other side. This is as good an ambition in authoring as any, I think.

So, I will happily return to my reading of Steinbeck's adventures with his poodle Charley as he crossed the United States in 1960, in perhaps one of the first truck-bed campers. Fair warning, I’ve already found several quotes I love, so you’ll be hearing more from Mr. Steinbeck in the future.  Here’s a sample to chew on until then: “A sad soul can kill you quicker, far quicker, than a germ.”