Examining ‘To-Do’s, past and present

As I wrote on May 17th, I am Creating Space to Be Myself Now. A key part of that, and one which is probably a bit overdue, is letting go of thinking of my old lists of To-Do’s and projects as still current. What I’ve realized is that my experiences of the past few years are so significant that they change my priorities. If I ever decide to activate any of these ideas again—even to put them on a mental backburner with intention of doing them sometime soonish—they will be informed and altered by all that I have learned. That will make them better, should I ever want to do them later.

The first step to allowing new plants to grow is to turn under the old growth and let it turn to compost. I’ve been picking my careful way through a yard overrun with withered branches. Time to prune and put this fertile matter to better use.

The first category of stuff I want to clear away is the To-Do’s I set up for myself about good habits. Everything they tell you about only being able to install one, maybe two, new habits at a time and about it taking four to six weeks to get a habit into daily practice is true. Huge ‘New Year’s Resolutions’ style lists are only useful as a way of giving recognition to change you want to welcome into your life; honor them as that, but don’t try to tick all those boxes off every day.

The two, and only two, habits I want to work on now are about my wellness:

  • Meditate more often, because it eases my anxiety and inflammation.
  • Move more, because it feels good and promotes both my physical and mental health.

There are no other habits waiting in the wing. When these two are automatically happening more days than not, what I need next will present itself to me. I trust my future self to make the right decision.

So where do I have those old lists, clogging up my thinking space? The most obvious of them is the site Habitica, which is a combo of task manager, habit builder, and fantasy game. Fun! And it was useful at one time—my routine now of making the bed every day was formed using this tool—but I overloaded it. And why did I start using it in the first place? Because I’d overloaded the project and task tracker OmniFocus and needed something less overwhelming. Ha!

I still love OmniFocus as a tool, and find it particularly helpful for less frequent tasks (e.g., routine medical checkups; renewing business license) and big projects that take place over weeks, months or years. Since I’ll be keeping it, it’s time to thank Habitica for its service and let it go.

What load was I carrying in Habitica that I’m now setting down? Mostly lots of things that allowed me to check a box and feel like I’d accomplished something.

  • Habits I already have: make the bed, restore general order in the house, do laundry when it needs to be done, wash dishes every day, avoid caffeine, avoid Twitter, usually go to bed at a reasonable time, water the houseplants.
  • Habits I currently want to build, but for which I clearly need to find motivation in some way other than a checkbox: meditation, movement (listed here in many separate parts: strength-building, stretching, aerobic exercise).
  • Other commendable habits that I am not currently choosing to create as a daily part of my life: read all my backlog of books and digital articles, write letters and postcards, check my blood pressure every day (which seems to fall in the category of things that feel like they don’t provide a reward, only the potential for bad news), scan or document old papers or other souvenirs before getting rid of them, volunteer or do other helpful actions for a cause, learn computer game programming, learn another language, keep the area in front of our house swept and looking nice (much harder since fatigue as a side effect of my medications). (Oh yes, and losing weight, which is not a controllable project when your metabolism is being significantly affected by medication; I remembered this when I was unpinning and closing the tab that had Habitica and saw the pinned tab with Lose It! next to it. Not on the list right now. Bye bye!)
  • Pointers to the task list already represented in Omnifocus with encouragement to whittle that pile down.
  • Pointers to my inboxes, paper and digital, with exhortations to empty them. Ditto the stored collections of “to be processed” materials (e.g., genealogy and other family-memorabilia which I’d like to hand off to someone who wants it or document some of it and then let it go).
  • Creative work, which I am now choosing to routinely provide myself opportunities to do rather than assigning to myself as a repeating task. This includes writing, but also curation/sharing on my websites, sewing, D&D gamemastering,

Look at that massive load of expectations of myself I was carrying every single day! That’s way too much. That’s so much it’s just silly!

I am picturing myself laughing at a huge backpack, overstuffed and with all kinds of things hanging off of it on strings. Completely impossible for me to lift, let along hike along for day after day carrying it.

I wipe my eyes clear of happy tears and take the whole thing apart, tossing much of it away. It flies through the air, transforming into moldy applecores and old packed sandwiches, and lands in the trench I’ve dug down my mental garden, ready to be covered over and turn to new soil.

Why and How I Changed Paths

I was diagnosed with the mildest form of a rare autoimmune disorder in fall of 2017, the first symptoms of which had presented themselves at the end of that July. This was just over one year after my biological father had died and I’d suddenly become executor of his estate, and point person for all matters pertaining to cleaning out and selling his run-down and junk-filled little house.

I was prescribed a short dose of prednisone, a steroid which is highly effective at knocking disorders into submission, if not entirely into remission, but very hard on the body’s systems otherwise. I was a whirlwind of activity that fall—adding significant storage and worktable space to our home office most notably, but active on a great many projects in parallel—and the week of steroids only kicked that up a notch. The meds did their job and my symptoms abated. I felt a huge weight lift also as the estate officially closed and, with the scattering of his ashes, my duties as executor came to an end. I turned my attention with relief and eagerness to my own projects, and somewhere inside I began to give myself permission to stop scrambling so hard

Some of that slowing down was just plain stumbling. It was the fatigue of all the hard work I’d been doing and the shocks I’d been weathering, exacerbated by life under the Trump Administration. The anxiety brought on by the past few years—compounded by perimenopause and (though I didn’t understand it well then) the side effects of my medications for my disease—was showing its fraying edges.

Thanks to my years of practicing Discardia, my instincts in times of overwhelm and low mood are good. I began to create space around myself and turn my attention from that which drains me to that which restores my calm. I unfollowed a large amount of my Twitter list, already quite low, to tune my Twitterstream to a generally more positive mood. I returned to my love of games and began thinking about how to create happy, positive, calming games. But I was feeling very tired.

At the very end of December 2017 and in the first days of 2018 I began having symptoms of the more intense form of my autoimmune disorder and my life changed completely. Because my symptoms I had to change major aspects of my daily routine, even after I very rapidly got a confirmed diagnosis and began taking medication—twice the dose of steroids as before. Extreme sensitivity meant I had to change my wardrobe entirely, not only fabrics but the style and fit of clothes. Massive fatigue transformed me from a “these are the 30 things I want to do today, but here are the most important 10” person to a “it was a good day, I got 1 thing done” person. And increased anxiety and overwhelm (plus being on immunosuppressants) further limited my ability to participate in social and political life. The medications distorted my body over the months, bloating my torso and giving me ‘moonface’. But they did work to put the disorder into submission, possibly even remission entirely, though I won’t know until I fully taper off the medications.

And there’s the real challenge. Prednisone works great to knock disorders like mine into submission, but the hell it puts you through along the way is brutal, so you want to take it for as short a time and as low a dose as is possible while remaining effective. Other immunosuppressants like, the post-transplant medication Cellcept, can maintain that symptom suppression with milder side effects (for me mostly bloating and distortion of my lower torso, plus some fatigue). So as soon as my symptoms abated, I added Cellcept to my regimen and began the agonizingly slow process of tapering off prednisone.

You can’t just quit prednisone, you have to wind it down very, very slowly. And because—at the kind of peak dose I was on (40mg/day)—it says to your cortisol system, “Hey, I’ve got this, go take a vacation” you find that side effects continue to be life-disrupting for months and months. I dropped from 40mg a day to 30mg a day of prednisone on February 13, 2018, after taking that highest dose for just four weeks. My taper reached 20mg a day on March 27, 2018, and 10mg a day on May 12, 2018. But it’s that last part that is the most difficult to wean your body off of as you wait—and wait, and wait, and wait—for your cortisol system to wake up again. It’s May 24, 2019, and I am just next week hoping to bring my tapered dose down to 2mg a day.

Had I known then what I know now, I’d have done my taper differently instead of going too fast last summer and winding up needing to spend three months holding at 5mg a day. Now I taper ridiculously gradually by altering my dose within a week. I was at 3mg a day. Then after at least two weeks at that dose, I started taking 2mg instead every third day: 3/3/2. If that is giving me trouble at the end of the first week, I go back to 3mg a day for two weeks before I try it again. If it’s okay, then after two weeks of 3/3/2, I try 3/2/2. That’s where I am now and it’s going well. Next Wednesday I’ll begin a couple weeks of 2mg a day before I evaluate whether I can proceed to 2/2/1. Best case, which I’m learning is unlikely, I’ll be off prednisone in about three months.

Whenever I do finally break free of prednisone, I need to spend at least another month letting its influence leave my system before I can start to consider beginning my Cellcept taper. I’m hopeful (and pretty confident) that that is not nearly as rough a process. But even so, I can expect that the soonest I’ll be living without my body altered by these medications or the presence of this immune system disorder will be over a year from now.

My life has been radically changed for multiple years. My fatigue and anxiety forced me to bring my world to a standstill; to stop the ride so I could get off and evaluate things. And that evaluation and this experience have brought me new skills (meditation and acceptance, most valuably) and clarified priorities. I am not the same person I was, and for all the difficulty, I feel good about who I am now.

Even if I had my old energy and health back this instant, I would not resume the life I had before. I am closer to center than I was and I like that. I continue to work to regain my strength and vigor, but for new priorities. I feel that I am standing in the early morning sun beside a large field, shovel in hand and ready to continue the slow, satisfying work of turning the earth for a garden.

Creating Space to Be Myself Now

One of the key lessons for me of the past few years is that it detracts from my wellness to try to have both my list from before the various crises in my life and my list of what I need and want to do now. However much I say, “oh well that old list is on the back burner”, it is still bubbling and using my mental fuel. I can’t have two #1 items, even if I tell myself that one of them is not active for the moment. I gotta recalibrate and bring it together in one calm vision for myself.

The best thing about accepting that is that the process of integrating my expectations of myself is an inherently therapeutic process. Though the enhanced calm is important, most of that benefit is coming from really giving myself permission to drop things. Not just shove them back ‘for right now’ (i.e., years), but let them go. Discardia is good for the soul and for reducing that overwhelmed, inflamed feeling.

The biggest change is re-orienting myself to my writing and other creating. I am refocusing myself on the creative work and away from the idea of producing products on a particular schedule. It doesn’t make anyone less of a Real Writer to give a work the amount of time it needs to come to fruition. Nor is it mandatory to bring out a new book every couple years. The publishing industry would like you to, but I don’t write for a publisher; I write for myself and my readers.

As I’m sure a lot of stay-at-home parents or others who are outside the paycheck economy have struggled with, validity is not measured by take-home pay. Much of our culture sends a different message, so it takes work to find solid footing to appreciate yourself and what you do. In my case finding that footing is helping me recognize a few “to-do” items on my list which were more cargo cult enacting of “being a publisher” than necessary to the process of writing and sharing my work.

One thing that prompted some of this change is that the medication I was prescribed about a year ago limits me to two cocktails a week. I find I really can’t be an active cocktail writer under that constraint and I don’t want my work and my wellness to be in conflict, so I’m giving cocktail writing a big “I love you, man, you’re the best, no I mean it, I love you, all you guys” sloppy hug and going home.

Not writing a sequel to The Art of the Shim: Low-Alcohol Cocktails to Keep You Level lowers the need for a lot of the capital P publisher infrastructure we’d created. Simplifying that part of my life is some of the work I’m doing this month and I’m already enjoying the lightness it is giving me. I don’t have to put out a book this year because it’s been “too long” since the last one. I don’t have to feel guilty over a long list of posts and essays I thought at one time that I’d write. Cool ideas! Okay to let them go!

This exercise in looking at where my time vs. where my mental energy goes vs. my actual current priorities has also unveiled some time sucks that I can prune away. Goodbye, Twitter. It’s not me, it’s you. You make me anxious and distracted and frankly, you have too many nazis and misogynists and racists and homophobes and paranoid dudes who think giving babies free food is gonna take food off their own plate. Ugh. Good riddance to that distraction.

I looked at the carefully curated list of accounts I followed, added a lot of them to the website feed reader built into WordPress.com, let go of the “need” to keep up with some, and made a monthly reminder to check the other two that couldn’t go in the feed reader to see what they’ve been up to. Then I added the Switcheroo Chrome extension to redirect me to my WordPress Dashboard every time I try to go to Twitter.com. It feels fantastic and I am already getting a lot more done with my day.

Yes, I’m on Mastodon, but both it structurally and my decision of the number of people I follow on there are designed to be very quick to keep up with. It doesn’t devour twenty minutes of my time multiple times a day in the way Twitter can.

I’m excited about this paring down and focusing. I’m excited about the space I’ve created for healing and for whatever creative projects I want to do now. I’m grateful to myself for the permission to let go, to be done with things. My shoulders feel lighter.

I’ll be posting more in the coming days as I part with some of these past projects. I hope you enjoy this somewhat random tour through my interests. 😀

So many projects

Living in one place for many years allows unfinished projects to proliferate. Every time you move, there's a chance that something gets completed or discarded, but otherwise they often linger on, awaiting that extra time to work on them which seems perpetually just around the corner.

I've been in my current home for over nine years. And I've been in my virtual homes for longer: thirteen years of hosting on Typepad for this blog and somewhere around as long for Apple laptops which permit me to easily migrate all my files to new machines when I upgrade.

My intention is to carry on longer still in this apartment and operating system (blog hosting is t.b.d.), so it's necessary to routinely evaluate what's built up around the place. That's where Discardia comes in.

I practice Discardia not only during it's four appearances a year, but also on a daily basis. Through repetition I've made it a routine habit to question why things are present in my home and workspace. Often the answer is appreciation, but sometimes it's frustration or disinterest. The latter two become upgrade projects or get discarded (to charity, trash, etc.) And, yes, sometimes the upgrade projects do linger too, but thanks to online ordering and other services (and, checking my privilege, the budget to take advantage of them) it has gotten a lot easier to solve a problem when it presents itself rather than just adding it to a to-do list.

Omnifocus is my tool for tracking all my projects (and complex habits like periodic big picture reviews of my life priorities). As with the physical items in my home and the files on my computer desktop, the projects and tasks I have created in Omnifocus are subject to the same questioning: "Why do I have this? What is it bringing to my life? Is it helping me be who I want to be?" and the same steady adjustment or pruning.

Some people find it overwhelming to have a lot of projects, but by being very clear with myself over which projects are active now and which are not, I avoid beating myself up over not doing it all. Time and energy are finite, and self-care is necessary if you're going to achieve things in the long haul, so I keep short the list of what needs action today. Scratching off the last thing on that list opens up the opportunity to respond to the moment and my mood—and not infrequently that relaxed next action turns out to cross off something on one of those inactive lists.

 

So what's active for me today?

Well, it's the start of the work week (since we were traveling yesterday) and that means laundry. Since we talked our landlord into putting a washer/dryer into our house, laundry days have become fairly pleasant. That rhythm of moving the loads along keeps me moving on the rest of my list as I can play the game of trying to finish things before the next buzzer. Even the time consuming part of folding laundry has been upgraded to a treat as that's when I watch fun stuff on my iPad. (Thanks again to my best friend Lance for cluing me in to the Acorn TV app and their collection of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple mysteries!)

I've got a writing client now, so most of those between-load work sessions and much longer stretches over the days to come will be spent researching and writing about the history of specific cocktails. Look forward to an announcement later in the week about this project.

The ongoing work of handling my late father's estate continues. Mercifully matters relating to the house are now in the hands of my realtor and her fix-up crew, so I'm no longer schlepping over to the east bay to clean. The focus now is a combination of bureaucracy—most of those hurdles already cleared—and sorting through the last 10 boxes of papers and memorabilia. I'm hopeful that by the end of the month our house will return to a less cluttered state. The chaos has already been reined in to just the room where my home office is located; soon I won't have banker's boxes looming on either side.

As the estate project comes under control, I'm catching up on everything that was dropped during Pop's medical crisis and my handling of his home when he went into the hospital and after he died. Bit by bit, I'm clearing messes, tackling minor to-do's, and consolidating project support items.

Alongside all this is the background hum of life: processing bills and statements, maintaining our home and small container garden, handling our publishing business Sanders & Gratz, prepping for the next D&D session I'll be gamemastering, and chipping away at my long-term projects (many of which involve bringing bits of my online creativity and other memorabilia into this blog at their appropriate past dates).

If time permits, I've got other writing I want to do: first, an election slate for this very important election, and, ongoing, more work on Bibulo.us and on my history book about servants in Elizabethan England.

Familiar lessons from closing a business

Thanks so much for sharing this Bryan! I’m a huge fan of Makeshift Society even though I’ve figured out that I’m one of those folks who gets more work done alone at home. Very glad you all took the opportunity to create this experience—and glad you were able to make this experiment and extricate yourselves from it with relatively minimal pain.

Seems as though about two years is the right amount of time to figure out that the plan isn’t going to work. When I had my one-woman bookstore in San Jose in the mid-1990s I spent roughly that time in site prep (built-in bookcases, signage) and being open. By a couple months before the end I had determined that though the store could pay for itself, it could not pay me. My initial runway was shortened radically when the long-term relationship I’d been in while planning and opening the store and during its first year ended, leaving me with a need to pay my own security deposit and rent for a new apartment, and thus needing the paychecks I’d been getting by without.

Thinking through “What if we learn we’re wrong about something and we need to close in a year or two?” is a great exercise for anyone planning a business. I was able to safely walk away from the end of my grand adventure because I’d planned my payments to my major investor such that I could continue making them while working a post-adventure full-time job. Sure, a painful expense comparable to car payments or hefty student loans, but doable—and enabling me to keep both my honor and my credit rating.

There’s certainly no defeatism in doing this planning. Something hard to predict could turn out to be a major factor—as with the differences between SF and Brooklyn you found—or a huge influence on your market could appear after opening—as occurred for me when Barnes & Noble opened 30,000 square feet of bookstore space in the south bay within a few months of my 400 square foot store opening, or when after I’d managed to pivot to add games to my offering as a funny little sideline called Magic: The Gathering came out, quickly becoming 70% of my business, the supply of Magic: The Gathering dried up for a couple months. You just never know. You make your best guesses, work up a range of spreadsheets, and go for it.

The best thing about sharing experiences like this is how it helps everyone guess better.

Small Business
Planning
PostMortem

[This was a comment on the article “The mystery of the white dress shirt: Death and life of a Brooklyn coworking space” by Bryan Boyer on Medium.]

Decide where we draw the line and then defend that line

One of the important ideas behind the holiday I invented, Discardia, and the book which I wrote about it, is that we should think about our limits and preferences. We should decide where we draw the line and then defend that line.

Which is why, despite some wonderful conversations and shared links here in Facebook, I'm in strong agreement with this video and after July The Art of the Shim will no longer be on Facebook.

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