Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Signature Styles

One possible version of Bets 
Today, over at Organizing by STYLE, inspired by the New Jersey teacher who's wearing the same outfit for the first 100 days of school, I wrote about adopting a uniform for work. Men have done it for years, and recently, women have been trying out this idea as well, whether to teach about sustainability or simply to make life easier.

This whole concept got me to thinking about my characters. If each of them had to choose one outfit as a signature look, what would it be?

Charli was the easiest -- jeans and a white tee shirt. The jeans would be comfy and faded and, in keeping with both comfort and fashion, would probably be ripped as well. Depending on her destination, the tee shirt could be slouchy or fitted, the look finished off with sneakers, flats or sandals.

Dark-haired Marita would go with something black -- black pants or black jeans -- and would top it off with something animal print, much as we first saw her in Casting the First Stone. Just as in that first scene, the animal print would be her pop of color, and she'd layer a black silky jacket or cardigan over the top, finishing the look with black boots, strappy black sandals or black stilettos, depending on the season and her destination.

Angel would, of course, be Marita's polar opposite fashion-wise. She'd go with something soft and feminine -- a casual dress in a pastel like pink or lilac, or maybe with flowers -- with a pair of flats or maybe a wedge if she wanted to be more dressed up.

And Bets? She'd refuse to be tied to just one outfit. Her signature? Drama. And the prerogative to change both her mind and her outfit.

Come to think of it, it's been a while since I visited my Casting the First Stone Pinterest board. I think it might be time to add some new outfits to it.

Monday, September 17, 2018

More Than Just Keys

Did I mention my house key is in a flip flop print?
(Photo: Home Depot)
In novels, dialogue and actions reveal character. By paying careful attention to what characters say and do, a reader can pick up a lot of clues about what makes characters tick and what's important to them.

Possessions can be revealing, too, both in novels and in real life. This afternoon, as I was waiting in my car for a family member to return, I took a good look at this item I pick up at least twice a day. Some of its contents aren't mysterious at all. Keys to the important places in my world -- my house, my car, my shared office at work. A "Leah" charm with a pigtailed little girl on it, and another imprinted with Bucknell University, both of which have been on my key ring for so long I forgot they were there.

Others go beyond face value. The bright pink "Jersey Girl" ribbon that comes in so handy for plucking my keys out of the depths of whatever bag I'm using isn't just about being able to take the girl out of Jersey, but not taking the Jersey out of the girl. I bought it on one of our first trips to take my daughter to college in Connecticut, and every time I see it, it reminds me of that trip and, by extension, my daughter.

The pale, nubby starfish hanging from my key ring brings back memories of another trip -- the one and only cruise we took. I no longer remember which Del Sol, or even which Caribbean island, for that matter, I bought it in, but every time the sunlight hits it and it turns purple, I remember not only the trip, but also the tough days in which that magically purple piece of plastic made me smile and, for just a moment, picture being back on a Caribbean island.

Finally, there's the Miraculous Medal that I added to my key ring when my mom was sick. I was driving back and forth between Pennsylvania and New Jersey pretty often, and I got in the habit of tucking a Miraculous Medal into my pocket when I traveled. For a while, my mom wore one around her neck as well and, when this one showed up in the mail, I wasted no time adding it to my key ring collection. It brought me hope and comfort in a time where both were in short supply; perhaps that's why it has lingered on my key ring.

One thing's for sure: my key ring would be lighter and less bulky without all these extras. Then again, it would have a lot less character.

Which of your possessions tells a little too much about you?

Friday, September 14, 2018

Friday Feature: Handling Information Overload

Do you feel overwhelmed? Too much information, too little time to take it all in?

Given the amount of information available to us, either by choice or seemingly floating freely, it's almost inevitable that we become overloaded from time to time, if not on a daily basis. More and more, research tells us that multitasking is not the answer; in fact, rather than helping us get more done, multitasking makes our brains work harder because we toggle between tasks.

In her article in Fast Company, Lisa Evans offers four low-tech, common-sense solutions to managing information overload. (Spoiler alert: one is to avoid multitasking). In addition to keeping the flow flowing, these strategies have other, broader payoffs as well.

How do you manage the constant, insistent flow of information?

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Know Thyself: The (Im)Perfectionist's Guide to Sorting Your Stuff

For more than a decade, I've been teaching and writing about organizing, using silly style names like I need to see it and I know I put it somewhere. Initially, I taught lessons and ran small groups with elementary school students, helping my kids who struggled with organizational skills to look at the process from a different angle. Mostly, I focused on helping them to explore ways of organizing that worked with what they did naturally, helping them to focus on what they were doing right instead of what they were doing wrong.

When I retired, I took my show on the road, and discovered that adults enjoyed the silly names and styles-based approach as much as the kids did. It injected a sense of humor into a process that could be fraught with self-recrimination as we struggled to do something that seemed to come so easily to everyone else.

And I do mean we. From the very beginning, I was in on this process. My students knew what my desk looked like (the opposite of clean and clear, thankyouverymuch) and they knew I was in this with them. I wasn't preaching the same old-same old; I was in the trenches with them, turning my I need to see it/drop and run styles into a system that made it possible for me to find what I needed when I needed it.

As an educator, I knew instinctively that balancing strengths and needs was key, but it wasn't until I started teaching positive psychology and exploring character strengths that I realized there was a whole field devoted to coming at things from our strengths. Discovering there was research behind what I'd been doing all along was the final puzzle piece, one that legitimized this instinctive process for me, the psychology instructor.

It was pretty early in this process that I thought Organizing by STYLE might make a good book, but it wasn't until after I retired that I started blogging regularly about it. Even then, I couldn't quite find my way in -- a way that made sense beyond a succession of blog posts.

Then last spring, with the help of Sarah Reinhard at Our Sunday Visitor, I began shaping these ideas and lessons and blog posts into a book. I signed a contract and got down to the hard work of turning my dream into something tangible.

Last week, I got an email from my editor telling me that my not-quite-a-book-yet had a name. Know Thyself: The (Im)Perfectionist's Guide to Sorting Your Stuff is due out next spring.

Know Thyself will be my fifth book, tipping the non-fiction to fiction ratio back in favor of the non-fiction realm in which I started. I'm pretty sure Marita and Bets will have something to say about that, though, and will insist on tipping the scales back to even, if not in their favor (eventually).

Meanwhile, I'm left pondering a question that I'm surprised never occurred to me before. Which of the personal and organizational styles fits each of my characters?

If you've got an opinion on that subject, feel free to comment below. I promise I'll read them all as soon as I float back down to earth.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Friday Feature: Work-Life Balance?

A year or so ago, I did a lunchtime presentation on work-life balance. It was a hot topic, not one of my choosing, but important to those in attendance. Much of my focus ended up being on not aiming for perfection and cutting ourselves some slack — understanding that finding that sweet spot where everything falls into place wasn’t likely to happen daily, but taking time to appreciate it when it did.

At least I hope that’s the message I sent.

Fast forward to last week when I came across this article in Quartz. I came away with the notion that nomenclature itself (work-life balance), it seems, is part of the problem. In a balancing act, we are sometimes perfectly balanced, but often a bit off-kilter, trying to align everything just so — perfectly, if you will.

And that is how life goes. Being off-balance doesn’t make us failed and miserable. It makes us human.

I came away from the article preferring the term “work-life blend,” a descriptor that leaves me feeling less pressured because it’s more reflective of the give and take of daily life. I blend my work and my life every single day and there’s a certain beauty to the blend — a wideness — that makes me feel as though I’m working within a spectrum instead of tottering on the tip of a fulcrum, trying to land on the right side, as opposed to the wrong one.

This simple shift in vocabulary isn’t a magic fix, but it gives me a wider margin of error, one where the margins aren’t error at all — just an extension of what is most important to me that day. It removes the stress inherent in aiming to achieve that perfect spot atop the fulcrum and gives me permission to totter a bit on the seesaw.

Balance vs. blend. Words matter.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Planners with Character
Last week, I revisited my characters' desks. One of my friends, who's also one of my favorite readers, suggested that I go one further and write about my characters' planners. This was not surprising since she and I have a shared love of planners.

Then today, in my First Year Seminar, I did a planner check. Each year, I require my freshmen to have a planner. It can be plain or fancy, techie or old school, cheap or expensive. After walking up and down the aisles, checking out their various choices, I felt very motivated to write about planners. Even better, I got a few ideas for what my characters might use.

Angel is easy. As my friend and fellow Jersey girl Barb predicted, "Angel has the fancy planner with gold spirals and scripty font." She sure does. The cover is floral, and there might even be some flowers on the pages inside. It's a full-size planner -- 8 1/2 x 11 -- with a silky bookmark so she can leave it closed (so the pretty cover is showing) but still easily access the current week. She prefers the week-at-a-glance page.

Marita tossed a freebie month-by-month calendar from the bank into her purse, but she lives by the kitchen calendar. She used to use a white board, but she'd be a week into the new month before she changed the dates, so she went back to a paper calendar. All of her appointments as well as Charli's are on that calendar. That calendar in her purse? A way to jot down dates until she gets home and puts them on the kitchen calendar.

Bets has a sleek red leather calendar -- this year. She made a New Year's resolution to use a planner more regularly, so she thought that if she splurged on a really nice one, that might actually happen. It didn't. She sometimes uses the calendar on her phone, but usually emails herself appointment dates, which she then jots down on a notepad in the kitchen.

Charli has a school-issued calendar that she's actually pretty good about using. She wants to do well in school and so she keeps careful track of due dates for major assignments. Social events go on the kitchen calendar because she usually needs her mom for transportation. Her assignment due dates don't make it onto the kitchen calendar. As long as she keeps her grades up -- which she worries about more than her mom does -- her mom doesn't nag her about her school work.

Kelsey, a protagonist in an upcoming novel unrelated to Casting the First Stone and Chasing a Second Chance, is a professional organizer. She, like Bets, has a high end calendar, only hers is spiral-bound because she uses it a lot and she likes being able to open it up and fold the pages over, something she'd never do to an expensive leather planner. Her husband, Jake, tried to convince her to go electronic; his school swears by a shared online calendar and he thought they might do well to try that at home but, when it comes to time management, Kelsey is old school. She never buys a planner without built-in tabs for the months, and often creates tabs of her own as well.

As for me, my planners are ever-evolving. I have one for school (work) and one for home/family. I also have a few others that have morphed beyond the calendar function to become planning tools for writing and other projects.

What does your planner look like? And, if you know my characters, what do you think is the most interesting thing inside their planners?

Monday, September 3, 2018

Placing the Goal Posts

Every month, I set goals for myself. Sitting down and writing out what I want to accomplish focuses me and helps me to juggle the various aspects of my life -- one step in moving toward an often elusive work-life blend.

Often, I overshoot. Sometimes, the balls I'm juggling all come crashing to the ground.

This morning, I sat down to review my August accomplishments and set new goals for September. As usual, I'd hit a few and missed a few. Okay, I hit a few and missed most of the rest.

Often, I overshoot.

Someone else reviewing my goals might suggest that I create goals that are more realistic, or that I pull back and set goals in fewer areas. If I were being evaluated by anyone but myself on the goals I set, or if my professional progress depended on meeting my goals, that's exactly what I'd do.

But I've come to like overshooting. My goals aren't the SMART goals embraced by businesses and, taken together, they're not even the REAL goals I wrote about last spring.

Separately, however, REAL goals is exactly what they are. They represent a combination of hopes, dreams and the actions necessary to make them happen. When I judge my progress on a black-and-white, success-or-failure scale, it's easy to feel defeated, but when I focus on growth, I not only feel better, but I also know exactly where to go with my goals for the next month.

When we fail, we have several choices. We can huddle in a corner feeling defeated. We can get angry and beat ourselves up. We can lament how we'll never amount to anything because we missed an imaginary goal post we erected ourselves.

That doesn't sound very smart, does it?

I prefer to take the growth mindset approach I teach my students. Failure teaches. It tells us whether the goal posts are too close, too far, or just right. Sitting down this morning writing a short narrative to myself about my progress on each of my goals helped me reflect on whether or not my focus was in the right place, particularly as I move from August to September, from summer vacation to fall semester. It helped me to see where I did more than I set out to do and where I fell short so that I could shape September's goals accordingly.

This habit, begun when I retired six years ago, serves not only to help me make progress but, as it turns out, it has helped me to reframe failure. If we see failure as the end, or as a personal flaw, we stop moving forward but, if we see it as instructive, it's a tool not for lamenting the past, but for shaping the future.

No matter how realistic our goals, we will sometimes fail to reach them. Life intervenes, sometimes in good ways and sometimes in ways we'd rather not imagine. Tossing out our goals because we're afraid we won't reach them deprives us of the wonderful sense of accomplishment we earn when we do.

Life is full of failure. It's all in how you frame it. As for me and my goals, we plan to emerge victorious.

At least some of the time.