22 Hours and Counting: An Outside Project Update

When I started working toward being outside a total of 150 hours this year, it was all about the walking. Mostly because it was the middle of winter, which is not really lounge-on-the-patio weather. If you’re going to be outside in January in Kansas City, you’ll want to keep moving.

I found that I really didn’t mind bundling up that much if it meant getting out of the house for a little bit.

But then February and all its snow, ice, and thunderstorms happened. The only time I left the house was to dig out my car so I could refuel on caffeine and Trader Joe’s dark chocolate peanut butter cups. Any extra progress I’d made in January to the goal of 150 years was lost in the cold, black hole of February.

After many days of not spending any time outdoors, these last few weeks have literally been a breath of fresh air. It’s been lots of walks to the library, to the grocery store, to the coffee shop, around the small lake down the street. Each outing has been diligently added to my tracker, building up my time.

But it didn’t occur to me until today that being outside doesn’t mean that I have to be active. Walking is great and I need more of that, not less. Still, I’m learning this year that there is much to be said for just being instead of always doing.

I’m looking forward to a lovely spring season of adding meditating, reading, and eating al fresco to my routine. Bonus points if there are also happy hours on the patio.

What are your favorite out-of-doors activities? Do you like to stay active out there or are you more likely to just hang out under the sky?

Turn Off Notifications, Take Back Your Time

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I’m a sucker for productivity hacks. I love the idea that one little tweak to my daily habits or routines can save time, boost efficiency, or make me feel like more of a pro.

Admittedly, few of these helpful hints get so ingrained that they’re actually useful in the long run. But one of the biggest game-changers for me recently has been turning off notifications on my phone. Several weeks ago, I read this guide from Coach Tony that advocates, in part, for never seeing another badge icon again. While it’s a year and a half old, the recommendations have never felt more relevant for my phone/life balance.

In an ideal world, I’d remove social media apps altogether and keep my phone on airplane mode for regular intervals and never check my email while watching TV with my husband. But an ideal world this is not. And so what I’m striving for is “better” instead of “perfect.”

Turning off notifications has been like a weight lifted off my shoulders. I still check my phone too much and spend too much time doing the scroll, but I no longer react to every new email, social, or file-upload alert. None of my apps display badges anymore, so I don’t feel that constant nagging to open something back up or guilt over not having addressed something yet, especially in the evenings or over the weekend when I’m trying to be off the clock. I know that I’m still spending plenty of time in my inbox—it’s not going to go ignored for too long.

Someone told me recently that as a workforce, we’ve quickly adapted to checking our email on a Saturday—but that we wouldn’t dare going to see a movie on a Monday afternoon. Part of the joy and reward in being my own boss is that I get to make those decisions about when I’m working and when I’m not (and choosing, sometimes, to go to a weekday matinee).

But with one phone to manage all things, those lines are just too hard to define sometimes. Engaging on Facebook as Mallory Herrmann is off-the-clock time but engaging as Mallory Herrmann Editorial Services LLC is not. How do I split those hairs when I’m glancing through social media while in line at the grocery store?

Changing how reactive I am to my phone doesn’t solve those problems, but it has made it easier to be more intentional about how I spend that time. When I open up the email app, it’s because I’m ready to read some email or to follow-up on something specific, and not just because my phone has been dinging at me all morning. When I’m ready for the weekend, I can discourage myself from opening Asana or Dropbox or Dubsado to check a project’s status—I can look at each and every one of those notifications when I’m ready to do the work on Monday.

Unplugged: 24 Blissful Hours without My Beloved Phone

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The time spent on my phone has officially become unsustainable. It’s often my closest companion all day, never more than an arm’s length away. Like so many bad habits, I don’t even realize what’s happening . . . and then I can only cringe when I see those stark weekly usage reports.

then and now

I did a “digital detox” a couple months back. I’d just finished reading How to Break Up with Your Phone: The 30-Day Plan to Take Back Your Life, which culminates in a challenge to give up your phone (or, better, all screens or internet-enabled devices) for 24 hours and had convinced (coerced?) my husband to participate with me. We did a puzzle instead of watching TV and both read more than we might have otherwise.

I could sense that I had benefited from the exercise, but I was also practically counting down the minutes until time was up and I could get my hands back on my phone.

This time, I was participating in the National Day of Unplugging. Inspired by the Jewish Sabbath, a day of rest beginning at sunset on Friday, the day encourages participants to engage in life beyond their devices for 24 hours.

I turned off my phone around 6:30 on Friday, just before my mother-in-law came over. We usually visit over or around the TV: she shares our interest in true crime, and that always sparks interesting conversation related to whatever series or docuseries we’re following.

But this time, we (gasp!) left the TV off. A chat about how everyone’s week was going turned into funny anecdotes from the workplace; mentions of recently read books sparked the retelling of childhood memories. With tea in hand and candles lit, it felt very hygge. We turned toward each other instead of arranging ourselves around the television. And it was lovely!

The rest of my unplugged time felt just as wonderful: listening to vinyl records with Ali; attending a workshop without fear of my phone ringing (or temptation to check it under the table); running my errands on foot, spending the time outside feeling untethered to any schedule or route; reading a book on the couch in silence.

I actually found myself a little reluctant to re-engage, to open myself back up to the inbox, to dinging notifications, to the compulsion to scroll through feeds.

While I don’t think I’m ready to be unplugged a full day every week, I’m setting a goal to try it for an hour each day. I often spend that much or more reading, but still find myself reacting to each vibration or choosing to pick up my phone to look up a word . . . and then losing track of time or purpose as I get sucked into one app or another.

It’s kind of unnerving to realize how reliant we’ve become on having a tiny powerful computer in our pocket. But I appreciate the resistance I’m seeing in so many circles: setting aside time away from phones, being less reactive and more proactive in how technology is used, not being so afraid to just unplug for a bit.

Have you tried a digital detox? Is unplugging part of your regular routine? Tell me what’s working for you!

One Helpful Trick for Preventing Writer’s Block

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I started this post intending to say that when you write a lot, you start to write better. Words come more easily, you develop a kind of muscle memory that helps keep you going.

And do you know what happened? Writer’s block.

Proving, if nothing else, that the universe has a sense of humor.

Writing can be a tricky business. Sometimes I sit down to write and feel like my fingers just cannot type fast enough to keep up. Other times I’ve made myself dizzy spinning in my office chair, hoping to catch any thread of anything to say something at all interesting or valuable.

Practice does help. As I started building my freelance business, that’s one of the greatest things I noticed: as I transitioned out of a 9-to-5 job that only required me to write in email form—and started writing more long-form content—it became easier to write well. I was more likely to have the speed-typing problem than the chair-spinning problem.

But like so many things in life, a plateau is inevitable. You get into a groove and then it becomes a rut.

One tool I’ve been using to stave off such a rut is the Morning Pages practice from Julia Cameron. I haven’t actually read The Artist’s Way (or at least not past the introduction; curse you, shopping ban) but I’d seen Julia’s name in enough acknowledgements sections to be familiar with the gist of this practice that so many artists swear by: three pages of longhand, stream-of-conscious writing every single morning.

There are no rules to Morning Pages. You just have to keep doing them.

My own Morning Pages practice is still very new. But while there was some horror in showing up on day two and feeling like I’d already run out of things to think (and then write), it’s making a great addition to my day. Usually part brain dump, panic over to-do lists and deadlines, and trying to remember whether or not I’ve already fed the cat, it’s also showing me patterns in my thinking, releasing mental clutter, and giving me the opportunity to play with language that I otherwise might have thought but not written down.

It’s also a chance to engage both my inner critic and my inner mentor, to practice my real-live handwriting, and to reform that callous on my right ring finger that I’ve hated since I was a kid.

If one of the most important ingredients of good writing is just to keep doing it, Morning Pages is creating an invaluable daily space to do just that—writer’s block, be damned.

On Writing Rituals and Routines

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I had a professor in college who said he had a dedicated laptop for writing. It had never been (would never be) connected to the internet. He only wrote on that computer, standing up at a podium.

I often find myself trying to create a specific writing ritual, but I haven’t found anything in particular that’s stuck. Sometimes I write at my desk on a standard desktop PC. Sometimes it’s on my laptop (at my coworking space, at the library, on my couch, in bed) or even on my phone. I write at 8 a.m., at 8 p.m. Occasionally at 2 a.m. I write in silence or with music, with coffee or without.

I’m learning that it really doesn’t matter as long as I keep going. Stephen King wrote in On Writing that “the sort of strenuous reading and writing program I advocate – four to six hours a day, every day – will not seem strenuous if you really enjoy doing these things and have an aptitude for them.”

Even as a bookworm and a professional writer, that can be a tough benchmark to hit consistently.

There’s always extra stuff on the to-do list, things to be tempted by: getting trapped in my inbox, worrying about my personal brand, doing chores around the house, trying to exercise more than once a year, not shopping, binge-watching Game of Thrones with my husband.

But it feels great to make the time.

This morning I spent a couple hours on my bookkeeping and on client work, and then I spent the afternoon reading a novel from cover to cover before sitting down to write. It felt like such a luxury!

And a rejuvenation. It turns out that writing after a few hours of reading a book (especially when you’re reading for recreational purposes and not out of obligation or requirement) feels a little less harried than after a big chunk of time in front of a screen . . . or several.

Maybe one day I will have an eccentric or very specific writing routine. Until then, I’ll just keep plugging away whenever—and however—I can.

What about you? Do you have a setting, time of day, or tools that you always use to write?

Closing Loopholes: Sticking with the Shopping Ban

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I’ve been requesting books almost compulsively from the library, and they’re coming in faster than I can read them.

I told myself that it wouldn’t be too difficult to give up buying books as part of our 2019 shopping ban because I’ve become such good friends with my local library branch. And that’s mostly been true. Mostly. Because some books are designed to be kept or journaled in or referred to again and again.

I was on the waiting list for Julia Cameron’s seminal The Artist’s Way for weeks before a copy was available. And though I was delighted to get it and start reading, I soon realized that her process is intended to be followed over 12 weeks. I only got to keep the library’s copy for three weeks and—because it’s wonderful and lots of other people are waiting for it—no renewals allowed. Unless I wanted to fork over 30 cents a day for three months (and irk plenty of library employees and patrons in the meantime), I would have to give it up before I finished it.

The search for a loophole began.

This could ostensibly be considered a work-related purchase! Exploring creative processes and improving my writing are essential to my work! I told myself when we started the shopping ban that things needed for the continued operation of my business would be allowed. Plus, it’s just one book. And I think I really do need it!

But I had already convinced myself not to buy new file folders last month just because they were pretty and had stopped myself from buying new wall art just to fill up blank space. I don’t need this book. If we’re being honest, I probably don’t even have time in the next 12 weeks to fully commit to the process. It’s okay to wait.

So with only a little bit of grumpiness I added it to my “for later” book list and moved on. I’ve got plenty to read—including Cameron’s The Right to Write, which is its own delight, and Notes from a Public Typewriter, pictured above and my favorite book of 2019 so far—and more than enough to do until I’m ready to dig into The Artist’s Way with the time it deserves.

150 Hours: A Quest to Spend More Time Outside

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Like most self-improvement projects that I’ve decided to jump into, I got the idea for spending more time outside on Facebook.

Someone shared a link about the #150hoursoutside project, which is intended to help kids spend more time outdoors.

I connected immediately with Leah, herself an “idea person” prone to creating or jumping into new projects. But even more so with the concept of setting a goal to spend 150 hours outside in 2019.

I have good friends who are serious runners, horse trainers, dedicated hikers, elementary teachers, and avid gardeners. They regularly spend time outdoors in support of their occupations and their hobbies. Me? I could go weeks only being outside to get in and out of my car at the grocery store or the library.

My sister tells a story about a kid in her preschool class on a field trip to the zoo, asking if they could please turn down the A/C. She had to tell him, “That’s just the wind.”

I can relate.

150 hours over the course of one year works out to a little less than 3 hours per week or a little less than half an hour per day. That seemed perfectly reasonable. It takes about 15 minutes to complete a lap around our block, so doing that a few times most days is definitely achievable. (I do appreciate a good SMART goal!)

I had an early advantage: we had several days of 50- and 60-degree weather, definitely not the norm for Kansas City in January. It was easy to take longer walks in sunshine and chilly—not frigid—weather. I started out with a streak of ten days in a row of spending at least half an hour outside.

But then the ice came. And the snow. And the single-digit temps.

Honestly though, I think I’ve found it easier to bundle up with two pairs of pants and a fleece-lined hat than I will find handling peak Midwestern heat this summer.

In any case, the time outside has literally been a breath of fresh air. Sometimes I take along a podcast or album I’ve been enjoying, but mostly I walk in silence. I’ve been meditating on my big-picture goals and my daily to-do lists, drafting the things I’m writing at the moment (like this post), or just remembering to enjoy looking at the trees. Plus, it beats sitting in front of my HappyLight—no matter how much I appreciate its full-spectrum glow this time of year.

I’ve discovered that it takes me about 15 minutes to get to my local library branch and 20 to get to my favorite grocery store, which make perfect (non-shopping) afternoon errands to complete on foot.

So far I’ve got 10.5 hours under my belt, which puts me just slightly ahead of schedule for the year. I’m genuinely enjoying the #150hoursoutside challenge, so I’m excited to continue taking afternoon-slump strolls and keeping my FitBit well-fed each day.

Freedom from Routines: My Surprise at Missing the Structure

I’ve written before about the hate/hate relationship I have with my alarm clock.

It’s been a long time in the making: I was not a morning kid or a morning teen (sorry, Mom!) or a morning college student. I’m certainly not a morning adult. So I was none too sorry to stop it using it completely and forgo commitment to any routine when I became a full-time freelancer.

arrows-background-black-and-white-745365.jpgBut it turns out there can be a downside to having a completely unstructured sleep pattern. Like regularly staying up until 2 a.m. watching Black-ish working and taking naps every afternoon. Add in the manic rush of the holiday season and I was feeling more than a little disoriented by the time 2018 came to a close.

I knew better than to set any kind of resolution, but I did want to be more intentional about my sleep habits and general daily routine in the new year. Let’s just say that the first week did not go as planned. (Can’t break a resolution if you don’t set a resolution!)

But this week I’ve been working out of a coworking space, which has encouraged to get me up and going earlier in the morning, be more productive during the day in an office setting, and more comfortably relax in the evening—and to get to bed before the stroke of midnight. I’m not sure if it’s the space itself or just the change of scenery, but it’s done great things for my sense of accomplishment.

Away from home, I’m not getting distracted by the TV or snacks or a sudden urge to vacuum. It’s easier to draw the line between work and not-work when there’s a short commute at the end of the day. (Otherwise, it’s remarkably easy to let the workday just bleed right into everything else.)

I don’t have any plans to return to a regular 9-to-5 schedule, but this week has given me some insight into how far I’d swung out of any routine—and made me appreciate the value in creating a little structure in my day.

How about you: Is routine your friend or your foe? If you’re a freelancer or remote worker, what tactics help you stay in the groove?

The Tidiness of KonMari and the Joy of Book Clutter

Ali (that’s my husband) and I have been watching Marie Kondo’s new show on Netflix. I read her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, not long after it came out and was smitten with the idea of only keeping what sparks joy. I have such a tendency to hold on to things just because I have them—but what’s the use in having fifty T-shirts if I only enjoy wearing two of them?

If you’re unfamiliar with the basic premise of the KonMari method, it’s that you gather up all your belongings by category (such as every article of clothing you own) to consider what to keep or discard, rather than the more traditional decluttering tactic of tackling one room at a time. You hold each item and ask whether it sparks joy, whether you get some feeling of love or thrill from wearing, using, or looking at it: if it does, keep it. If it doesn’t, thank it for its service to you and let it go.

But giving up clothes comes easier than paring down my collection of books, the second category to prune using the method. I just like having them, even the ones I’ve already read more than once and even the ones I’ve owned for awhile and haven’t yet cracked open. There’s a Japanese word for buying books and never reading them—tsundoku—and I certainly relate to that spirit.

More than just an affinity for collecting books, though, there’s a sense of vastness in having a large personal library. Keeping shelves stocked with books is a nice reminder that there’s so much out there still to read and learn and enjoy, no matter how many titles I read. As a recent Fast Company post puts it, “An antilibrary is a powerful reminder of your limitations — the vast quantity of things you don’t know, half-know, or will one day realize you’re wrong about.” So much possibility exists!

I like what Marie Kondo encourages in suggesting that we let go of the things that no longer spark joy in our lives. Ali and I are planning our own KonMari-style tidying. But books do create joy for us, and I’m definitely not planning to force myself to give mine up any time soon.

Tell me what you think! Are you diving into the KonMari method in your home? Are you ready to give up books for the sake of tidying?

2019 Shopping Ban: Why I’m Not Shopping This Year

I was searching for a pair of boots in the back of the closet—ones I usually just wear around the holidays—when I found it. A plastic bag from Kohl’s with a pair of boot socks and a couple of shirts that still had their tags, the receipt crumpled up in one of the sleeves. I had no idea how long they’d been stuck back there and I was too embarrassed to check the date on the receipt.

I know I’m not the only one who’s been here.

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One of the books that really stuck with me in 2018 was The Year of Less from Cait Flanders. I’ve had my moments of minimalism over the years, but mostly my tendencies lean more toward packrat. I buy things on an impulse, I like to “take advantage” of a good sale, and I get sentimental about the things around me.

I’ve flirted with the Container Store method (buying my way toward organizational salvation), the KonMari method (keeping only what sparks joy), the cash-only method (put those credit cards away), the wait-30-days method (don’t shop on impulses). None has been an outright failure, and yet . . .

What I liked about Cait’s book is that it points to something beyond the stuff itself—and also the money itself. It’s not exactly that the things I like to buy are terrible or extravagant or regrettable. It’s just that it’s become a habit. I didn’t have any trouble spending my money before, but now I have the Amazon app in my pocket and find myself looking at Target’s clearance endcaps more than weekly. Yikes.

My apartment houses two adults and a cat but it’s stuffed to the brim with stuff: stuff we don’t really need, stuff we don’t actually use, brand-new stuff we don’t even know exists in the back of our closet.

So we’re going to stop.

My husband and I are doing a 2019 shopping ban.

We can buy groceries, fresh flowers, birthday cards. We can buy household and personal care items like laundry detergent and shampoo, but only when they run out. We can buy cold medicine and cat food.

But no books. No clothes. No trinkets or gadgets. No throw pillows or vinyl records or scarves or impossibly adorable baby clothes for our niece and nephew.

It’s going to be tough: I love to shop and to find clever things and to support local makers and to send gifts to my loved ones.

But it also already feels like a relief. There’s a line in the sand and an opportunity to reset that impulse. I hope that by the time this year comes to a close, the biggest thing I’ve bought myself this year is some mindfulness.