Julie’s Week 9: Check Your Headspace

I have an unquiet mind.

Ensō, a symbol of Zen

Ensō, a symbol of Zen

I think the first time I realized this, I was trying to meditate with the guidance of a former partner who was a very devout Vajrayana Buddhist. I was sitting on a round meditation cushion, and my legs kept falling asleep while I tried to hold the prescribed posture. The minutes passed, and I couldn’t stop the thoughts from entering, and I couldn’t stop my mind from latching on and going for a ride on each one.

I don’t feel bad about my mind; Pema Chödrön herself, in one of her lectures, admitted to having an “unusually busy mind.” I’ve been reading Chödrön’s work, and the work of other Buddhist teachers and practitioners, since college. As I’ve moved away from the religion I was raised with (Roman Catholicism) and away from the others I’ve had brief dalliances with (Wicca/Paganism, Unitarianism, shamanic practices, etc.), I’ve found much of what I’ve come to believe is true echoed in Buddhism, specifically Zen. The unexpected passing of my mother has moved me to take my spirituality more seriously.

The friendly inhabitants of the Headspace app.

The friendly inhabitants of the Headspace app.

My first step is to begin a regular meditation practice. A little while ago, I purchased a subscription to Headspace, an app that offers guided mindfulness meditation programs that build skills incrementally. It also features focused sessions to help with things like sleep, creativity, and how to defuse anxiety in a crisis. I’m going to start the beginner’s “Take Ten” program at around 10:30 pm each evening. I’ll be meditating for ten minutes daily, at first, and then I’ll take up a more advanced program.

A famous quote attributed to His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama goes as such: “Do not use Buddhism to become a Buddhist. Use Buddhism to become better at whatever else in your life you are doing already.” I’m going take this to heart. Here’s to the first small step in the journey to becoming a calmer, more gracious, and more compassionate person.


Julie’s Week 8: When Disaster Strikes…

Don't get it twisted.

Don’t get it twisted.

Well, the last two weeks have been a mess. A slushy, icy mess. With a big frozen turd stuck directly in the middle.

My university called a grand total of five (!) “snow days” (this is southeastern Arkansas, so it was more like some sleet, ice, and a light dusting of snow). In addition, I was gone—at conferences—for some additional days. By the time I finally met my first-year writing students this past Thursday, I realized I had seen them for exactly four (!!) class days in entire month of February. I will need to do some serious surgery on my schedules to get us back on track.
It would have made sense to use those days “off” to get work done. But I didn’t. I spent my precious snow days watching TV, napping, and generally being a waste of life. I definitely have a propensity toward laziness, but I’m also feeling a lot of sadness, loneliness, and generalized, career-related angst. There’s the apathy that comes with loss; nothing seems to matter anymore. I eat junk food. I get in fights with people I know, and with people I don’t know. And then, little by little, all the good progress I’ve made comes undone.
I’ve still got one day left to post—one day to save Week 8 from being washed away with nary an impact. I’m going to use it to concoct a strategy that I can use when things go bad–a disaster plan. Here goes:
  1. Get clean, in some way. Take a shower. Brush my teeth. Do the dishes, take out the trash, put in a load of laundry, pick up the stuff that’s not where it’s supposed to be and put it back.
  2. Get away from energy sucks. This includes avoiding social media for 12 to 24 hours. Anyone who knows me knows that social media can turn me into the absolute worst version of Julie Platt that is known to exist. I am aware of this. I am not proud of it. I can get away from it. I will.
  3. Pick an item on my to-do list that I have been avoiding, and do it. Pretty much the same as eating a frog (see Week 6).
  4. Pick a reward, and enjoy it. I’m in the process of making a list of rewards that don’t include spending money (see Week 5). A few I have so far: enjoy a beer, cook something good, take Dobson for a walk, play a game for 30 minutes.
  5. Listen to Allegra, Heather, and Katie’s HBIC playlist. I WOKE UP LIKE DIS
Have a good end to your Week 8, bitches.

Julie’s Week 6: Frog In My Throat, Delicious!

I begin this week with a quote that is usually attributed to Mark Twain: “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” That quote is often followed-up by this one, also attributed to Twain: “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And If it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.
What does it mean to eat the frog? Well, I ate a frog this morning without actually meaning to, and it made my day exceptionally better. Let me explain. I hate grading. I mean, I really hate it. I find it to be the most soul-eroding task I have to do as an academic, and I procrastinate on it to shameful extremes. I’ve avoided grading to the detriment of my teaching evaluations, which is where I’m generally and consistently zinged. I don’t even want to talk about how bad it’s been in the last few years, but let’s say I ended up giving out a lot of extra credit points out of sheer guilt.
21-year-old me in Taiwan, May 2001, pretending to eat a raw baby octopus. It's not a frog, but you get the idea.

21-year-old me in Taiwan, May 2001, pretending to eat a raw baby octopus. It’s not a frog, but you get the idea.

So why, exactly, do I hate it? I think I’ve finally figured it out. It’s not because it’s tedious (although it definitely is that) and it’s not because I’m annoyed with my students for being lazy or careless (although that definitely comes in to play). I hate it because, for me, it’s where I have to face my own failures as a teacher. When I read a student draft that misses the mark completely, I blame myself for not teaching the student well enough. I second-guess all my lessons, and agonize over the things I must have done wrong. It’s painful. I hate it. Never mind that it’s not completely true, and that students are also partially responsible for their own learning (or their lack thereof). I am the worst teacher ever and I suck, and this subpar writing is the proof. So, I leave all the grading work to the very last minute, and even beyond that last minute.

But I didn’t do that today. Today, I got up, fixed a cup of tea, opened my laptop, and began grading. I kept grading and grading until all the grading was done. I felt so relieved—the kind of relief I hadn’t felt in a very long time. And I felt freedom—the freedom that comes with knowing that the absolute shittiest thing I had to do was done. The rest of my day—dog walk, more work, cooking dinner, eating dinner, cleaning up, doing errands, more work, writing, etc.—felt calm and under control, with very little lingering guilt. I had experienced the joy of eating a big, juicy frog first thing in the morning.

“Your ‘frog’ is your biggest, most important task, the one you are most likely to procrastinate on if you don’t do something about it. It is also the one task that can have the greatest positive impact on your life and results at the moment [. . .] Discipline yourself to begin immediately and then to persist until the task is complete before you go on to something else.” My frog this morning was grading student work. I ate it. It wasn’t great, but wasn’t that horrible; the anxiety I experienced while procrastinating was far worse. And once my frog was gone, the rest of my day was so much better.

This week, and next week, are going to be especially busy and exhausting. On Thursday, I am driving my writing center staff to Austin (an 8+ hour trek) for the SCWCA conference, where I will present twice, attend a board meeting, network, and look after my minions, some of whom have never attended an academic conference before. Next week, I will hit the road again with my colleague to be featured presenters at the SWCA conference in Nashville (Our pictures are in the program. Really!). So. I’ve got a lot of writing ahead of me, in addition to course prep and grading and meetings and general day-to-day work. So, I’m going frog-hunting. Each morning, I’ll identify the biggest and juiciest frogs, and eat them immediately upon hitting my desk. I mean, after all, I do live in the South.

Julie’s 52 Habits Update

Week 5: Did a little more taking stock of my money; realized that things are kind of complicated and I’ll need to spend a good afternoon sorting through all my bills and figuring out how much to budget for. I’m going to hit pause until I return from my conferences.
Week 4: Pomodoro-ing has been very successful. It’s much easier to write when you only have to do it in short bursts.
Week 3: Still behind on the Morning Person course. However, I am still getting up and getting ready immediately. I’m going to start making my bed every morning, too; it’s a small task that doesn’t take too long (like, 4 minutes?), makes my room look spiffy, and makes me feel responsible.
Week 2: Paleo-ing in fits and starts. I have seriously underestimated the depth of my emotional eating k-hole. Again, I’m going to hit pause until I return from conferences, and try to avoid eating deep-fried-deep frying on the road.
Week 1: Still knocking it out each day. Woot!

Julie’s Week 3: Morning Is Broken

So, let me be clear on my attitude toward mornings. I like being up. There’s something about being up early that makes me feel like I have purpose and control in my life. I like the quietness of early morning, and the feeling of possibility. That being said, I hate getting up. I’m at that stage in my life/career where I’m always tired, and for many years I lived in a climate where for five months out of the year, all I had to look forward to in the morning was brushing snow off of my frozen-shut car doors.

I’ve also discovered that I have a pretty serious sleep problem. I often set an alarm and go to sleep, only to wake up and discover that the alarm went off at the appointed time, and was then calmly shut off…by me. I don’t sleepwalk. I sleep-sabotage. Once I discovered that I was doing this, I started setting more alarms. I would set my clock, then set an alarm (or two or three or four) on my phone. Then I bought another clock. Then I set my stereo to wake me up as well. I think the most alarms I set to go off was six: two alarm clocks (one of which was the “Sonic Alert” clock meant for the hearing-impaired) three different alarm clock apps on my iPhone, and my FitBit, set to vibrate on my arm at 6:15am. That morning, I vaguely remember a few sounds, and my body moving around, then tumbling back in bed. I slept peacefully until 8:46. I need to train my dog to jump on my face or something, because I’m not sure any kind of machine will be able to help me.

It looks so encouraging.

It looks so encouraging.

Maybe getting to the source of the problem is the next step. My bedtime routine is hardly serene; it usually consists of working on the couch until I’m too exhausted to continue typing, then dragging myself toward the bathroom to swallow my pills and, if I’m lucky, wash my face and brush my teeth (yes, I just admitted that I don’t always do that before I go to bed. Yes, it’s gross. Yes, I’m gross). Then I lay in bed and shut the lights out only to tap away at my phone until I pass out with it in my hand, which usually leads to me having to search though the blankets to find it in the morning, which leads me to that routine. My mornings are usually me stumbling out of my bedroom to make coffee and feed my dog, then sitting in my pajamas with my computer in my lap, aimlessly kind-of-working while the wasted time ticks away, and then it’s 12:30pm and oh god not again and what the hell is am I doing with my life?

I want my bedtime routine to be restful and conducive to quality sleep, while my mornings are reflective and productive, without me rushing around or being a sloth. In short, I want my sleeping and waking life to look and feel like it came out of Real Simple magazine. Enter Little Green Dot’s 28-day How to Become a Morning Person online course. I received the first “lesson” in my inbox a few hours ago; I’m planning on reading it once I’m done with this post, as I lie here on my bed in a posture-destroying position, various screens flickering and too-creepy-for-restful-sleep music playing. I get the feeling that I won’t be able to do the same tomorrow.

Habit Tracking

Week 1: Still haven’t broken the chain on two hours of distraction-free work daily, but I need to be careful not to look at my phone or get up and start putzing around in the kitchen while I’m doing it.

Week 2: More or less, a complete failure. I kind of broke down early upon hearing some bad professional news (yes, I eat my feelings), and some of my paleo recipes didn’t turn out to be as good as I had hoped, so I wasn’t all that into eating them. I’m going to redouble my efforts, though, and add three restrictions this week to make sure I stay on the wagon: no skipping breakfast, no junk (it’s really embarrassing to be 34 years old and still indulging in cheese puffs on the regular), no eating after 8pm. I’m going to put all of these into Way of Life and track them that way. Try again. Paleo again. Paleo better.

Dalyn’s Week 1: Hit the Ground Saving


The apples don’t fall far from the tree.

Full Disclosure: When I was growing up, the room of my floor was covered, about a foot deep, with layers of my belongings. The crust consisted of clean clothes that never seemed to make it to the closet and pages that I’d torn out of the latest issues of the many, many magazines to which I subscribed. Underneath, the mantle was predominately paper: magazines, notes passed in class, old homework, permission slips…you get the picture. The outer core, the most substantial layer, was a packed mass of dirty clothes, paperback books, and old stuffed animals, which led to the inner core of single shoes and earrings, the detritus of crushes past, and mementos of friendships that never really were. Every square inch of my floor was covered, and every day I walked on all of it.

Even as a kid, though, I loved the idea of being organized. I read articles about how to organize your locker and make it look cool. I tried organizing my books alphabetically, by color, by genre, by how many times I’d read them. I bought caboodles.

In the end, my mom mostly gave up, saying only, “You’ll take care of your stuff when you’re the one paying for it.” She was mostly wrong. I suffer from many of the same problems, and hopes for fixing them, that I did when I was 14. As a result, of course, I love New Year’s. I love the resolutions and the lists and the strategies. I love browsing the Container Store catalog and combing through thousands of pins. I love talking about my plans with my partner. I love the hope. So, naturally, I jumped at the chance to be part of this blog.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my life. But, here’s the bottom line: There isn’t a single thing that I can think of that I feel I couldn’t be doing better. 

And I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a perfectionist, so please refrain pointing out how awesome my kids are and how great my life seems. Both of those things are true. It’s also true that I have a partner who works nights, three kids at home (all aged five and under), chickens and cats (because three kids isn’t enough, I guess), and the never-ending demands of being an adult like paying bills and seeing the doctor and signing those permission slips that still seem to get lost in layers of paperwork. To top it all off, I’m trying to get tenure.

So, yes, I resolve to be more organized. Yes, I resolve to save some money. Yes, I resolve to improve my relationships. Yes, I resolve to be healthier. Yes, I resolve to be more effective at work. Yes, I resolve to just generally be more awesome. And, yes, I do have more specific goals and tools that will help me reach them. That is, after all, the whole point of this blogging endeavor.

Recognizing that I do tend to make a lot of big changes at once and then forget about them, I thought I’d change things up for once and start small and easy. In other word, my house and finances and health will be a mess for a while longer. But, as a family, we’re in the middle of a big change and having some kind of “emergency” fund is going to be even more important than it already is. So.

Goal: Save $3000

Tool #1: 52 Week Money Challenge

Most of you have probably already heard of this. Apparently, I’m a year late in terms of trends. So it goes in Central Vermont. The concept, though, is simple. During the first week of the year, put one dollar in a jar. During the second, week, put two dollars in the jar. Keep it up through the entire year and you end up with a jar of $1378. So, yesterday I put a dollar in one of our piggy banks.

Since then, though, I continued to read about the challenge and plenty of people have hacked it in interesting way. Some people do it backwards so that you aren’t saving the most substantial amount of money during the holidays at the end of the year. Some people randomize their contributions to their savings, paying what they can week to week but making sure they still hit the overall amount. Basically, there are many variations and now I’m not sure that the traditional way is the best way for me. I’m going to stick with it, but completing it still only gets me halfway to my goal. So, I’m wondering if I should just double my contributions or do two different versions or try something else in addition to the 52 Week Money Challenge.

In the meantime, I’ve saved a dollar. And I’m taking suggestions.

Julie’s Week 1: Don’t Break the Chain, or Why the Hell Would You Try Something Like This?

Hello there. If you’re reading this, we’re probably not famous yet.
We’re probably still just two mild-mannered women writing professors who are known mostly to our own social and professional circles. Well, I’m not very mild-mannered; in fact, I’m kind of loud, and overly ambitious, and too quick to anger, and far too much of a smart-ass to succeed in the job I have. I’m returning to the office tomorrow and I’m legitimately scared of how many things I have to accomplish before classes begin. Last night I woke up at 3:43am in a reflux-induced coughing fit. My reconstructed left knee feels stiffer every day, and I can’t remember the last time I exercised. My spare bedroom has turned from a perky home office into a trash heap that I’m embarrassed to open the door to. There’s a pile of financial documents on my kitchen table. My chin is broken out, my teeth feel filmy, and my toenails make me look like a hobbit from the ankles down.
All of this brings me to why I’m writing—why we’re writing. We want to improve ourselves and our lives. A lot of the good habits I established when I was younger have eroded away, and many bad habits have crept insidiously into their places. That doesn’t mean that my life is a complete disaster (although it seems that way at times). Looking at my life now, I see a lot of accomplishments, and a lot of joy. However, I see lots of new fears and urgencies. The life of a 22-year-old recent college grad with a gym membership and a fondness for oddly-named cocktails is different from the life of an almost-35-year-old junior professor who gets panicky thinking about eye cream and her 401(k).
So, Dalyn and I created this blog. We’ll each be trying, tracking, and documenting one new habit or lifehack every week of 2015 (hence the name 52 Habits). These strategies are aimed at everything from improving our health to organizing our homes to increasing our academic productivity to nurturing our relationships. We’ll try to keep each habit going until the end of the year, so by December 31 we could each be tracking 52 potential new habits (yeah, that was my idea, and I’m not 100% sure it’s a realistic goal for a human being). Along the way, we’ll reveal our triumphs, our fears, our passions—our stories. Thanks to Dalyn for agreeing to go on this crazy journey with me, and thanks to you for reading about it.

All of this brings me to Week 1 (technically it’s Week 2, but this is the first full week of 2015 so, like, bite me). The first habit I’ve selected is Don’t Break the Chain, a strategy that has been around the lifehack blogosphere for some time. According to the almighty Internet, Don’t Break the Chain was developed by one Jerry Seinfeld to keep him consistently productive. It is incredibly simple—you just make an “X” in the square of a basic paper calendar for every day that you completed your chosen task. Eventually, you will create a “chain” of Xs and thus have the visual reminder not to break it. It’s a feedback loop, essentially.
Sorry for that.
IMG_2667Now, I don’t really do much paper anymore. Not that I don’t like paper. I love paper. I idolize paper, especially these pretty Moleskine and Rifle Paper Co. notebooks I keep in my work bag for when the perfect moment strikes (so far it hasn’t). My laptop is my main workstation and my iPhone is my Star Trek Tricorder, so I’ve grown accustomed to keeping a digital calendar, to-do list, notebook, file cabinet, etc. So, I will be keeping track of my chain(s) with a Chains.cc, a web application that is also available for iOS. My first chain is at least two hours of distraction-free work (course planning, grading, etc.) per day. I can do them all together, or space them out during the day.
IMG_2668I’ve used a lot of distraction-free software, but the one that I like best is Self-Control (free, OS X only) which blocks sites and mail servers that I specify for chosen amounts of time. The trick is that you will not be able to access those sites for that specified time period at all, even if you restart your computer or delete the application. If you think you won’t need that, cool for you, but after ten straight years of graduate school I have known new and terrifying abysses of procrastination into which I no longer wish to fall.
So, this week, for me: Don’t Break the Chain using Chains.cc, with 2 hours of distraction-free work using Self-Control.
Let’s do this.