Decision Point. Set. Match.

Anyone else feeling overrun with decisions that need to be made lately? What’s the perfect holiday gift? Do we invite the family to stay with us, or travel to them? It’s not just the holidays, though they seem to make it all a bit more anxiety-inducing. Personally, I’ve been staring down my mental decision trees for so long now, all I see is brambles. For example, with five days of NaNoWriMo remaining, I was noodling through the following: tether myself to my computer, coming up only for life-sustaining necessities, in order to churn out approximately 5,0000 words per day to make the 50K finish line; OR be (relatively) normal, but fail to qualify as a “winner” this year. 

For some of you, this isn’t much of a conundrum. For me at the time, the decision wasn’t straight forward. In retrospect, it felt like a microcosmic reflection of a number of decisions that have been tripping through my mind lately, and which, like the cosmos itself, are expanding ever outward in scope and importance. Should Julie and I continue feeding energy into this blog or use that time and effort for other writing goals? Should my family stay the course on limiting screen time for the kiddo, or use the electronic babysitter to create more time for my husband and I to get work done? Do we continue here in New York or once again go adventuring? Etc., etc. And I always wonder, even when the issues appear entirely disparate, how will any one of these decisions impact the others? 

Photo by Jens Lelie on Unsplash

Back to NaNo and my pie-in-the-sky goals, the last five days of November this year included Thanksgiving, complete with family commitments (and actual pie), not to mention a host of other seasonal temptations. Perhaps these facts are enough to drive you firmly in a certain direction. For me, though, the pull between “winning” and “family” is stronger than I should probably admit. Even though I do really believe that every word written is in itself a win, the decision to give up going for the gold was still tough. 

What pushed me over the tipping point, however, wasn’t family, nor missing out on Black Friday (which turned out to be one of my higher word count days), but the needs of my story. Sure, I could have rushed it. It wouldn’t have been the first time (hello, NaNo manuscripts from 2014-2017). While I still believe there is a certain dark logic in the adage, ‘don’t get it right, get it written,’ admittedly, it can make the revision process not just longer, but hairier . It’s one thing to realize you have a plot hole or two, or a character that isn’t fully developed, or an internal inconsistency – it’s another thing all together to realize you’re staring down all this AND MORE as you start your revisions. So, in the end, I decided discretion was the better part of valor this time and I’d let my story continue to spin out at its own pace. Which is to say, I’m hoping to be done with the draft before Christmas, but I’m willing to give it the time that it needs, even if that means I’m still plugging away at the first draft into 2020. 

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Eeking out time to write

Photo by Kevin Ku on Unsplash

It’s mid-November and the scent of NaNo is in the air. No matter the chill northerly breeze pulling the last leaves from skeletal trees, I keep getting whiffs of that funky mixture of exertion, stress, and self-doubt that fogs high school locker rooms at half time.  And the scent of hope – of potential victory – tingles at the edge of our senses.

But you’re against the clock! The minutes seem to fly by in the blurred manner of hundreths of seconds. You’re frozen by the escape of time, watching the flock of numbers wing south, while you gape at the white expanse before you.

No fear! You’re already deep in and the only way to truly overcome this challenge is to slay it. YOU CAN DO IT! Even if it feels like time itself is arranged against you, here are some bona fide cheats that can help you bring your manuscript (whether it’s a NaNo enterprise or other) home before the clock runs out.  And because the holiday season is practically upon us (another period when writing time runs thin as deadlines draw near), think of these tips as gifts you can give to yourself.

1. Give yourself five minutes. If the average writer can hack out 50 words per minute, then five minutes will give you 250 words. Now, clearly 250 words per day isn’t going to get you to 50,000 words in a month. But if you can give yourself 5 minutes to write, 5 times per day, that’ll get you to 37,500 words by the 30 day mark, which is getting pretty close. So even on the days when you feel like there is JUST NO TIME to write (or do much of anything else besides survive), challenge yourself like this: get up five minutes earlier and use that time to write. Stay up five minutes later, in order to write. See if you can squeeze five minutes of writing into each meal, and voila – you’re on your way. (Don’t believe me – check out Jeff Somers’ great article “The 9-Minute Novelist” in Writer’s Digest. The numbers don’t lie.)

2. Give yourself a break. It’s true that you can’t do everything – at least, not until you get your hands on Hermione’s time turner. You’ve got to focus on the thing you want to win. Every coach and every player – every fan even – knows that you’ve got to have your head in the game if you’re going to stand a chance. The player thinking about that school assignment, or the crush of their dreams, or whether they’ve got the ingredients to make mac n cheese from scratch, because even though it’s yummier, the mac n cheese from the box is probably loaded with chemicals – THAT PLAYER – is going to miss the chance to shine. So order take-out for the family (bonus if you can get someone else to pick it up), let the dust bunnies frolic for another week, and focus on what counts (your words!).

3. Give yourself permission to say ‘yes.’ We all know that kids aren’t supposed to have unlimited screen time anymore (even though Scooby-Doo and Johnny Quest were my after school nannies and I think I turned out fine…more or less). But that doesn’t mean that if you let them binge on a little extra TV or game time in the next two weeks that their brains are going to be forever damaged. In fact, isn’t this why you regulate their electronic consumption the rest of the time: so that you’ll have the spare hours to toss at them when you need it? Well, your need is now. Spend that credit.

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Calming Calendar Chaos

We’ve almost made it to October and in my little part of the Midwest we’ve actually had decent weather for sideline sitting so far. And we’ve been doing a lot of sideline sitting! I wrote about keeping perspective on your kiddos and sports here. Today I thought I’d write about how we determine priorities when we have schedule conflicts and how we try to maintain sanity with three boys who are all involved in sports year round.

Some days, the dropping off and picking up for practices can be a little hectic and I have to remind myself why do sports. (They love the activity, it teaches them teamwork and how to take direction from coaches, it helps them with time management, they build friendships, learn how to handle losses, etc.) I’m pretty sure sports could overrun our lives, though, if I didn’t set a few ground rules.

The first ground rule is to follow our family priority list. I read somewhere the importance of making a priority list for your family. (And honestly, I can’t remember where, but if you’ve heard this before, please let me know and I will give proper credit!) You don’t have to hang the list on the wall in some fancy Pinterest frame, but you do have to talk about it with your kids and explain your reasoning. And no, I didn’t get my kids’ input on it. We’re not a democracy. We’re a benevolent monarchy…So, our family’s list looks like this:

  1. God
  2. Family
  3. School
  4. Sports

When there’s a schedule conflict, we hold it up to this list. For example, for some reason, Sunday mornings are no longer off-limits for meets and practices. This annoys me. Anyway, if a Sunday meet or practice shows up on the calendar, we hold it up to the list. Is it higher in importance than their Sunday School class? Nope. So they don’t go to the meet or practice. Here’s how it’s helpful: we are being consistent with our priorities as a family. If I had to make a decision every time we had a schedule conflict, there would be so much whining, arguing, and inconsistency. When I use this list, I’m not making a decision. We are just observing where things fall on the priority list and proceeding accordingly. I don’t think I could handle having to make the call every time.

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Date Night and Other Imaginings

I went out on a date with my husband this weekend to a Live/Counting Crows concert. The music was great – I hadn’t been to an outdoor rock concert in almost twenty years. We hired a sitter who we’ve had over before, but not regularly. She’s super competent and the kids love her, so I walked away without batting an eye. As I was chilling at the concert, it occurred to me that I’ve lost that guilt of leaving the kids. And I remembered the time when it was a very stressful, concerned feeling to walk out the door. The time when it felt impossible to have everything ready for the kids and to get myself ready and to actually walk out without someone having a fit. So, I reflected on that time and have some random thoughts below.

I was in MOPS for a long time (Mothers of Preschoolers) and now I’m in MomsNext, which is for moms with kids elementary-aged through high school. Each table had a mentor mom – a women who had kids in college or older. I remember the mentor moms in MOPS encouraging us young moms to get away without our kids. To keep dating our husbands. And I could see their point. Yes, I desperately wanted to wear something that wasn’t stained with markers or boogers. Yes, I wanted to go out and have a conversation with my husband. But how? The logistics of it were exhausting to even think about.

When you have the littles, budgets can be tight and babysitters can be scarce. And no matter how much you want to make plans to get out, you usually just end up falling asleep on the couch surrounded by toys that make too much noise. And then the next day starts it all over again!

Instead of a couple, you and your husband become a team – dividing chores and supervision of the spawn – which is cool. It’s good to work as a team, but there’s always this danger of slipping into co-workers or co-habitants. You can become two people living under the same roof, coordinating schedules and tag-teaming domestic disaster management.

Which can all work really well in the moment, except one day, sooner than you can imagine, the kids are going to grow up and move out and you are going to wake up next to a stranger. And yes, you and said stranger will have achieved this huge accomplishment of raising little people into, hopefully, contributing members of society. But just as becoming parents can feel like a loss of identity as a couple or as a professional, there will be a loss/change of identity when the kids move out. Your lives won’t be defined by doctors’ appointments and team schedules. Grocery shopping for a ravenous teen army will become dinner for two again. And if you haven’t invested in your relationship with each other during the parenting years, you’ll be starting over.

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“So, what do you do?”

Who else freezes in horror, stumbling through a mumbled response to this simple question? Show of hands?

It USED to be so clear cut, right?

“Oh, I’m a student.”

“I’m a professional.”

“I’m a parent.”

A nice short sound-bite – just the kind of response people expect. That people want.

It’s a question I’ve come to dread. I’ve spent way too much time trying to think of ways to ask this without stumbling into a minefield of assumptions. (If you’ve got good ones, SHARE THEM in the comments, PLEASE!) And only slightly more time trying to figure out how to distill what I do now into something that is comprehensible to most other Americans in under 30 seconds. (I’m a stay-at-home-parent but I also do freelance consulting in the realm of political risk and network analysis specializing in the Middle East and Africa *breath* AND I’m trying to launch a writing career. Wait, I see from your expression that I’ve lost you. Was it at ‘stay-at-home’ or ‘freelance consulting’?)

Here’s the thing though: study after study indicates that the U.S. population is increasingly working from home, and will continue to trend that way. Which means that even more of us are going to find it challenging to answer the question. At least in a tidy little soundbite. Do you admit that you work from home? Do you define yourself by that? Or by your title? Do you acknowledge a hybrid-ness to who you are?

Because as soon as you’re not in the office, more of your personal life is going to creep into your day. Which is a great thing! There are efficiency gains to be had all over the place! No more time lost in commutes. The laundry can get done while you’re on that phone call. More free time to spend doing fun things with the family instead of running errands that couldn’t be done during regular working hours.  And as working hours become more flexible, the chance to pursue other passions,  becomes possible in a way it frequently isn’t if you’re tied to a desk 40+ rigid hours a week.

The flip side of the coin, though, is that people are going to struggle with how to arrange that time and how they identify themselves (more on both of these issues in subsequent posts).

A couple of things to consider, both when you’re trying to determine how much information to throw into your soundbite, and even more when you’re trying to unpack the answer someone else gives you:

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