Tuesday, September 28, 2010

6th Month Update: Out of Control Still?

It has been 6 months since my 41st birthday so I am halfway through my allotted time for this project.

In that time, I've written frequently about my desired changes and the difficulties in achieving them, but I feel like I've made little progress. Sometimes I feel like I've written more about them than I've done. Other times I remember all of the organizational work I did, the major events we worked on, and the small successes along the way. I'm not sure whether I am proud of myself or ashamed.

It's been a running theme in my blog, I find, to chastise myself for all I haven't been doing. I've spent the past two weeks planning on cleaning up the house, and instead it has gotten messier. I have allowed chores to pile up. I don't even have a good excuse for a lot of it, other than depression and stress (which are exactly the sort of thing I'm supposed to be working against with my projects).

Habits are a hard thing to change and I have a lot of bad habits. I'm addicted to being online, which is why writing in this blog is the one major success I've managed to be fairly consistent through this time. Since most of my other projects involved being offline, they've been spottier in execution. I'll go along fine for awhile but then a project will come up and I'll get busy, and the next thing I know I'm spending way too much time online and not using the time I have wisely.

I've gotten so bad, I've canceled my idea of having a monthly theme because I never seemed to do them. Instead I've been concentrating on one idea: Doing the Work. That's right, I'm not very successful about staying focused and actually finishing my work.

For next month, I will work on this even harder. I'm halfway through the year, and I would like to have more to show for it. Here's hoping that my journey will improve.

How about you? If you are on your own journey of self-improvement, what has been the most difficult and what tips do you have for solving these sorts of problems?

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Lottery of the Job Hunt

I was reading a blog post a few days ago (I don't remember where) talking about the lottery. I don't play the lottery, although I know my parents buy two tickets a week. I've bought a scratch card a few times in my life, and even won a few dollars once or twice, but generally I laugh and agree with those who say it is a "tax on the poor" or a "tax on the mathematically-challenged." (And don't get me started on how it doesn't actually help education because they simply pay less for education out of the general fund, so it is like the schools didn't get the extra money at all, but the general fund benefited!)

However, I found it interesting how many people wrote in to say that they knew they were unlikely to win but they paid the $1 for the hope and dreams they get when they think about what they could get if they won the lottery.

I dream about what I'll do when I get a good paying job all the time, without paying a $1 for the privilege. Because my husband and I are both unemployed right now, both for longer than 6 months now, we have put our lives in a sort of holding pattern. The Unemployment Insurance benefits we get keep us going (barely) for the short term, so that we can cover our bills and survive while we look for work, but we know it won't last forever. We feel lucky to be able to manage, but we've always been fairly frugal on the day to day stuff (not as frugal on collections, but that's a different story!).

Being unemployed, one of the tasks I do all the time is look at job listings. I'm happy to say that there have been a few more per week the last few weeks, so maybe things are picking up. I got an email the other day indicating that I might be called in for an interview in about two weeks time, for a very good job which I would love to get (but realistically have to know that they are interviewing a bunch of people with more experience than I because it is a very good job indeed).

I often think ahead to how our lives could be if my husband and I had good careers going again: about moving to our dream house, taking vacations, and being able to relax a bit about money once again.

I don't have to pay a dollar for this dream, but I wonder if I have just as good a chance at winning some of these jobs as striking it rich in the lottery. The job market is almost as tough as the lottery--with just as bad of odds, it seems. At least it shouldn't be as random but have some connection to how deserving I am as a candidate so maybe the odds are more in my favor than the lottery, but still, sometimes it feels hopeless.

The good thing about this hopeful daydream is that it keeps me focused on applying for jobs, unlike the hope connected to the lottery which only takes more money out of pocket. I guess that makes me the winner, even if this new interview leads nowhere. I can keep trying and I am really out nothing.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Small Pleasures, Needed Treasures

I just finished a slice of freshly baked banana bread. I'm happy to say that it was a particularly good slice, not suffering from dryness like some breads I have baked. I love banana bread because it uses up the over-riped bananas (which I will not eat in that state but I feel guilty to throw away because I didn't get to them when they were good); I also love it for its taste. It's a small pleasure in life.

I've been thinking about small pleasures lately. Last weekend I took some time to reread a series I like (because a new book had come out--Artemis Fowl, for the curious). I read a lot of children's fantasy books. Some people find this strange. After all, I'm a 41 year old Ph.D. with no children. However, I find that children's books (and young adult fiction, at least before the Twilight books made the YA section unreadable with goth clones) are more imaginative and interesting than many of the SciFi and Fantasy books aimed at adults. Artemis Fowl is a fun read, with an interesting take on heroes, villains, and the fairy world. Sure, it may rely a bit on fart humor occasionally, betraying its target audience, but I enjoy the books.

I hadn't been reading much for fun lately. I had quit reading for fun during the last stages of my Ph.D. because it was too distracting (I tend to get caught up in reading and be unable to stop until I finish the book, forgoing chores, tasks, and cooking dinner to read). Afterwards, I guess I was both too busy and too busy feeling guilty about not writing (how can I read a book if I don't have time to write my novel?).

It felt really good to get out a book and spend an afternoon reading something just for enjoyment. I think we all need to indulge from time to time, in moderation at least, in our favorite pastimes, whether that is reading, biking, chocolate, or whatever.

I am going to treasure my time to read, to eat the occasional banana bread slice or dark chocolate piece, and to NOT work, organize, worry, and fret. These small pleasures are the needed treasures to make life worth living.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Exceptional Life: It Isn't About Being an Exception

Trent over at the Simple Dollar just had a post called The Myth of the Exceptional Life.

It is not unusual for me to disagree with Trent; although I enjoy the site, he does sometimes have opinions I disagree with--often not about finances but general philosophy and outlook.

I found this post interesting for two reasons: 1. He implies that an exceptional life is about being an exception and that 2. Exceptional life means comparing yourself to others (which seems to be about material goods).

I disagree with both of these ideas. I don't believe that living an exceptional life means that few have it. Sure, the word "Exceptional" comes from "Exception" but I don't know that it necessarily excludes the majority of people. I am not sure where the idea that if you could live a great life (one that is better than what you might have led) it excludes other people from doing so to comes from --rather than the idea that it excludes that lesser life you could have led. It is not a Zero Sum game. I believe everyone could lead an exceptional life (under the right circumstances--but each would look different than the next).

I also don't believe that the exceptional life necessitates people comparing themselves to others or being drawn to material goals. Trent, in his youth, was obsessed with keeping up with the Jones--doing as many people do and seeking to impress through spending. He now counsels against this, which is great, but he also tends to associate everything with that mindset.

Maybe because I am older than him (I believe) I see things differently. My exceptional life was never about other people, although some people like Trent would see it that way since it partly involves material things. My exceptional life is partly about my collections and about the home I desire. However, collections don't have to be about comparing to others but about the inner joy that I gain through my interests. I am a book collector; I love books. I love reading books and being surrounded by books. I have books that you just can't walk into a library and find. I have beautiful and scarce books. For me the physical object of the book is important and I am the curator for a future generation, caring for this edition of the book for the future. This brings great joy to me but it is not about materialism the way his gadgets, clothes or car might have been. It is part of how I view myself.

I am spending this year seeking ways to gain my exceptional life. It is not a myth. It is not about being an exception to others (as if only some people can gain the best life they can) nor is it about comparing myself to others. It is about recognizing what I want for my future and figuring out how to get there. This is partly trying to find a job which is not just a paycheck but is a calling and partly about getting myself organized and content with my life. The contentment will come as I get in touch with who I really am, now that I am almost 42.

I have found that who I am changes over time and somewhere while I was getting my degree, I lost track of who I am and what makes me happy. I also lost the ability to pursue the goals I say I want (like writing my novel). I am still working on gaining that back. When I do, I think my exceptional life will come.

Monday, September 20, 2010

State of Mind=State of House, Inbox, and Desktop

I've noticed something about myself. It might be true that correlation does not equal causation but it is an interesting correlation.

Whenever I am feeling particularly bad about myself (stressed, overwhelmed, behind in my work), I also have a messy house, messy email inbox, and messy computer desktop. If I can take care of these three things, life seems to be more under control.

I don't know that the messiness of these three items are causing my feelings or are a symptom. I do know that if I am feeling overwhelmed on a project, I'll leave items saved on my computer desktop instead of filing them away (because "I'm in a middle of a project and it will quicker this way"). I will also be getting a lot of emails and won't be sorting them or deleting them. I will also not have enough time to do house cleaning. So my feelings may cause the messiness but the messiness also adds to the feelings. I can't find things I need in my email box. I find my computer files to be unorganized. I can't find the paperwork I need for a project or forget to do something because I lost a note.

Either way, I think there are a few solutions:

1. I need to recognize the symptoms right away and take steps to remedy it. If my email or desktop is getting cluttered, I need to spend a little time straightening it out instead of goofing off on the internet. Same with house cleaning.

2. When I feel too rushed for time to do simple tasks, I need to recognize that I am only making things worse for myself. Often I do have the time, but I'm making excuses for myself (and being a bit lazy).

3. I have plans to fix things when I wake up each morning but then I get caught up in various projects and don't get to it (all of last week was like this) so I need to do more and think about it less. Instead of planning to straighten up, I should just designate an hour each morning and do it.

My state of mind is cluttered right now, I'd say. Certainly my house, inbox, and desktop are cluttered. The only way one is going to be free is if the others are.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Pushing Buttons: Family Stresses

I remember when I was writing my dissertation. I dreaded talking to family, especially my mother. She lives nearby and we talk fairly often, but I still dreaded it for one reason. She would always ask me how my dissertation was going.

This is not a bad thing to ask, of course, but it was a BIG button to push. It brought up feelings of extreme guilt and frustration. Even a simple question made me feel horrible.

I have similar feelings now when my mom asks about applying for jobs or writing my novel. I am applying for jobs but getting nowhere. I can't get an interview. I also have made no progress on my novel because I've been too caught up in tasks I promised to do for the volunteer groups I work with (I'm really overextended in these groups but don't know what to do about it).

I used to say that my mom pushes my buttons so well because she installed them.

The thing which most be remembered when this happens, though, is that the person asking the questions doesn't mean anything terrible. My reaction of irritation and guilt is all from internal sources with the question as the trigger.

I have to learn how to deal with the frustration brought about by my guilt of incomplete tasks (one of which I am in control of and one of which I have little control over, since I can't make people give me a job interview).

Snapping at my mother because she asked me those same questions (again! and again!) doesn't help.

I know from past experience that I'm not the only one who has these problems but the only solution I have so far is to remind myself that I am in control of my feelings.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Falling Behind: The Cycle Begins Again

I'm falling behind in my work. That's right, my system is breaking down yet again. My house is messy, my inbox full, my to do list overflowing, and my stress level is high.

How did I get that way? I'm not really sure. This seems to happen in a cycle pretty often.

Here are some factors which tend to lead me back:

1. Something unexpected happens: This time it was our main computer. It died. The worst part of this is we didn't have our data properly backed up. I don't know how much we lost but it worries me. The hard drive has been replaced and we have the computer back but the data may be lost forever. (Everyone, back up your data now! You'll only regret data which isn't backed up!)

2. I get busy: I have spent the past few days working for one of my volunteer groups. I have taken on too much for them, I think, and it has become difficult to keep up.

3. I took a break: Because we had a very busy weekend volunteering, I took a break on Monday. This left me with too much to do on Tues and Wed and a messy house from the stuff we had out over the weekend which has not been put back. I tell myself that I deserve a break (like on Monday) but do I deserve the guilt I feel when I look around at this mess?

I think the reason why I keep coming back to this state of disorganization and stress is because I don't really have a clear system in place yet. I have been trying to establish a routine and some organization but it isn't there yet. I have been cleaning and organizing in order to establish the system but because there is no system, I have trouble finishing the organizing before things get out of control again.

I know that under this current layer of stuff, I have the beginnings of a more organized life but I don't want it to be under layers of stuff! I need to be able to maintain a more clutter-free existence. I also need to be able to handle the volunteering I have and still have time for job applications, novel writing, etc. Right now I don't feel like I have time for these things and that is not the way this is supposed to work.

I'm going to spend today trying to get caught up again and then Friday I'm going to work on my system. If I could get a good system of planning and organizing down and stick with it, maybe I could have better control over my life. That's what I've been working towards for all of these months. I hope that I am closer to it today.

Monday, September 13, 2010

A Lazy Day: Necessity or a Cop Out?

I'm taking a lazy day today. We just had a very long weekend of volunteering and I'm tired and my feet hurt.

I have tons of things I need to do. The laundry should be started. There are things to be picked up and put away. Another volunteer group meets tomorrow night and I have 4 or 5 tasks I should finish before the meeting.

Instead of doing any of them, I've been reading, looking at forums and blogs on the internet, and eating chocolate cookies. I had a late shower this morning after waking up without an alarm clock, so I even started my morning in a lazy manner.

It's actually been fairly pleasant, although I may pay for it later when I have too much to do and only one day to do it in.

Sometimes we really need this time to decompress and relax after a lot of work.

On the other hand, sometimes this becomes an excuse to procrastinate again.

I'm telling myself that I'm decompressing and trying to enjoy it.

It will be procrastinating if I don't get the stuff done by tomorrow late morning.

I've decided that is how you tell the difference--whether the truly important and more time critical stuff does eventually get done. If so, you were just putting it off temporarily because of the need for a little relaxing.

If that relaxing keeps going and the work isn't done in time, it was just procrastinating with an excuse.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Give Some of Your Time: A Win/Win Situation

This weekend, starting today actually, I'll be busy with two different volunteer groups. I'll be working one event for about 12 hours today and then divide my time between the two groups tomorrow for a total of another 9+ hours and then spend another 8 hours on Sunday. I'm expecting to be tired by Sunday evening.

Why do it at all? First of all, because doing these events give something to my community. These groups are shorthanded and have a lot to do so they need people like me.

Second, I enjoy what I do for them. I will have fun during these three days, although there will also be tedium, hard work, and (in past years when the weather was hotter for this weekend event) miserably hot. (I'm glad it is supposed to be reasonably cool this weekend which will make it easier).

Third, I gain experience at these events which might help me in my job hunt. By participating in these groups, I can talk about how I have worked in an educational environment (running school tours today) or in publicity (I'm both groups' publicity person).

It is really a win/win situation when volunteering. I also get to know a lot of great people. Yes, sometimes I meet some annoying people or get frustrated by internal politics which sometimes go on in groups like these. I suppose that I learn a lesson about getting along with people too. That can't be a bad thing to learn either, so maybe even that is a win for me.

Don't think that you don't have time. Many of my groups are able to use even just a few hours a month. They just need someone to be reliable and show up each time. Heck, in one group we do an event every other month and if I could just count on someone to show up at that event to help set up chairs, it would be a huge bonus for the group.

Don't you have a little time every month or so to give to a community group? Think of the benefits--for yourself and others.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Patience, grasshopper......

Patience. It's something often counseled but too often hard to find when you need it.

It is in short supply in many peoples' cars, to judge by their driving and the road rage you see all of the time.

I find it can be in rather short supply inside of me, as well.

I'm impatient about finding a job (I can't believe I've been out of work so long and haven't had an interview in almost 2 months). I'm impatient with some of my volunteer organizations which I feel are poorly run and where I am under-appreciated (one thing I have the most trouble dealing with is anytime I feel like I'm not appreciated or respected--get me feeling that way and I become angry and defensive--a bad combo). I am sometimes too impatient with my husband. I try not to be but it's so easy of a trait to fall into that it is easy to slip.

Most of all, I'm impatient with myself for not doing the things I need to do. I have a novel to write. I have tasks I've promised people I would do for my volunteer groups. I have a house to clean and organize. I have so many tasks which need to be done and I'm often frustrated that I am not making fast enough progress on them. I'm frustrated at myself for procrastinating on some things, letting other things slip entirely, and letting obligations push off my writing.

I think there are two solutions:

1. I need to make progress on some of the things I am most unhappy to not be making progress on, to let up on the guilt I feel about these projects. And then I need to give myself a break on my past transgressions. It does no good to beat myself up over this. I need to figure out how to learn from my past but not to dwell on it.

2. I need to practice the fine art of patience with others around me. This often means reminding myself that I can't read peoples' intentions. This is what messes so many people up in driving. They'll say "that guy just cut me off" or "that pedestrian walked so slowly that I missed the only traffic opening" or "nice signal, buddy! did you see that guy change lanes without signaling?" And they'll act like the person did it deliberately at them when the driver complaining does the same things--not signaling far enough ahead every time, walking at a normal pace in a crosswalk without thinking about the needs of the driver who might have to wait a few extra seconds, or moving into a lane in order to get where they are going despite some person not really wanting to let you in. When YOU are doing it, it is needed--you are in a hurry or you forgot or you had the right of way. When SOMEONE else is doing it, they are in the wrong and getting in your way or are an awful driver.

This happens because we forgive ourselves the little lapses because we have a narrative that explains why we did this but we can't forgive the little lapses in a stranger because we have a narrative where it is done TO us. I see this all the time in others. I'm actually a very patient driver but I see others who are not and it bothers me, especially when I know that the behaviors they are upset with are ones they do as well.

Meanwhile I am impatient in other circles. I do the same things in volunteering that others do in the car. Someone does something I find annoying in my volunteer group and I get irritated as if they did it TO me--specifically to annoy me.

I think in both cases we are too busy being the center of our own universes. We create narratives to explain the behavior of others and accidentally place ourselves as part of the explanation for their behavior. Honestly, the other person probably is busy thinking of their own narrative and aren't thinking of us at all.

We are each the center of a tiny bubble and as we interact, the edges of the bubbles ripple when we come in contact. We each translate our interaction based on being the center of the universe. We can be a lot more patient if we see others that way. Each person we come in contact with has a crazy, busy life and so much going on beyond our own concerns.

That stranger who was rude wasn't even really thinking of you but of the sick child back home. That driver who didn't signal may be rushing to work, worried about layoffs. We need to cut each other a little slack. Sure, we shouldn't be rude and we should use our signals when we drive, but when others don't, it doesn't hurt to think that maybe they have something bigger going on and not blow up as if it were a personal affront aimed directly at us.

I aim, starting today, to cut others a bit more slack and to do the same for myself. That doesn't mean I excuse or condone bad behavior but I'm not going to subscribe evil intentions or bad character to every little thing either.

I'm going to practice a bit of patience with the world, including myself. I can't let every little thing gnaw at me. It will be better for everyone if I learn to let a few things go.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Donating Your Stuff: My Experiences with Organizing

I've spent the past year or so going through my closets and knickknacks to try to get rid of my excess stuff. This is particularly true during the last month when we've been going through all of our stuff, in the garage, boxes, closets, and drawers.

We generally sort things into three piles. There is the trash can full of stuff (or recycling since we have a lot of files which I am trying to purge). There is the sale pile. We try to sell things on eBay or other places (although we've had little luck with that in the past year or so as eBay as been an increasingly poor source for selling). The third and largest pile is donate.

Donation is a great way to get rid of still usable stuff (clothes, blankets, knickknacks, non-valuable books, etc.

I move the donation stacks out to a location out of the way--on a table on our enclosed patio this time. I then put the items in bags and make a list of things by categories. For instance, my current stack includes 5 sweaters, 15 tshirts, 3 jeans, 2 jackets, 1 blanket, 2 board games (1 unused), etc. I then decide where I am going to donate the stuff.

There are a lot of choices, from the typical Goodwill, Amvets, or other local charity thrift shop to specific charities which need actual items (children's hospitals or women's shelters sometimes want gently used toys or clothes or books). It is a great time to support a cause you care about. It can be more work, of course, to figure out that you want to support your local animal shelter, call them to find out if they want your blankets and towels (they often do), and then get the stuff to them. On the other hand, it can be very rewarding to know that your unwanted items are helping a cause you care about in your community.

When you donate your stuff, be sure to record what you donated. If they offer you a receipt, take it. Remember that it can be useful come tax time. I have a folder for receipts for taxes and that's where mine goes.

There are websites where you can value your stuff for tax purposes. Remember that you can't charge the same as a new price. Some tax programs will have a "value this" feature that will help you set a fair price for the items. Make sure you kept enough info on your list to figure out the pricing.

Take a look at:


Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Obsessions and Cataloging

One side project which has come out of my current organizing project was an unexpected one.

My husband and I are big readers and book collectors. We have many bookcases--many of them doubleshelved (with books behind the row of books you can see). We also have books in boxes in the garage and closet because we've run out of room.

My husband decided that cataloging our books would be useful. He is using LibraryThing and is adding our books to this online database system. So far he has about 1,500 books listed but is probably only 33% of the way through our books. He's been doing this for about 4 days now.

It's made me think about obsessions. We have an obsession for buying books. We'd talked about cutting back and avoiding going to the bookstore because I have three shelves of books in my "to read" section. I don't need new books if I have that many to read. Yet a couple of days ago my husband says, "Let's go to the bookstore" and even though we had just talked about how we wouldn't do that, we did it anyways. We bought 5 books while we were there.

My husband is getting pretty obsessive with the cataloging also. He's spending all day at it, pretty much stopping only for email and meals.

I think that collectors and people who are addicted to various substances are probably closely connected. There is probably something in the brain related to addiction which is also present in the brains of collectors. It is like an addiction, an obsession. It can also ruin some people's lives. Collecting and hoarding aren't that far apart, when you get right down to it. It's just that hoarding is often stuff which has little monetary value, isn't maintained or cleaned and is getting in the way of normal life. A collector will generally try to maintain the item and keep things clean, and a collection often will be seen to have value (although not everyone will agree on that part, as there are some weird collections out there), and it hopefully doesn't get in the way of life.

On the other hand, collecting, like we collect, does get in the way of life. We have a very different life because of our collections. We have less cash and less space. We also have less time because our collections take time and work. Books are just one of our collections, also, so we truly have an addictive personality. Our house is overrun with stuff. It's amazing to think of sometimes. People often sing the Addams Family theme song when they visit ("their house is a museum, when people come to see them...").

I don't want to go the opposite direction. I never understand the people who brag about minimalism and not owning things. I find many of the pictures of minimalist modern homes to be cold and impersonal. I may read Unclutterer but that doesn't mean that I'm interested in getting rid of our collections. People who talk about getting rid of books and only using the library do not understand our lives. Many of our books could not be found in our local library. Some of these editions are beautiful and scarce. They are a joy to look at, not just a reading copy paperback of the text.

When I look around, I see a crowded house, it is true. But I also see a house where everything has a story to tell. The items have history and meaning.

It's true that some parts of collecting worry me; addictions are not a good thing. Collecting is a borderline addiction so we have to be careful and not cross that line. However, we are also defined by our collections, and for the most part, I like it that way.