Back-to-School Vibes

Even when you’re no longer a student

It’s been over a decade since the last time I was a full-time student, but this time of year still gives me the warm fuzzy feelings of back-to-school excitement. New school (or office) supplies, fresh notebooks, a renewed sense of routine . . . okay, maybe that last one is a long shot this year.

Still, even in the midst of a global pandemic and ongoing anxiety about time, September feels like a great time to hit the reset button on the year. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be taking stock of 2020 so far, preparing to make the most of the last quarter, and starting to look ahead to 2021.

Gathering the Supplies

I may not need any #2 pencils or a new set of watercolors, but I did do some online supplies shopping to restock my go-to pens, the 2-by-1 sticky notes I use to mark my favorite lines in books, and even a disco ball (because why the fuck not).

I’ve also been following a recommendation from my favorite feng shui consultant and cleaning my desk each week: When I shut down for the weekend, I pull everything off, wipe it down with lavender-scented cleaning spray, and then put everything (or rather, everything I want to keep) back with intention.

stack of new packages on desk: a disco ball, post-it notes, and sharpie markers

Setting a Curriculum

Like day planners and cookie recipes, when it comes to goal-setting programs I have no brand loyalty and I’m keen on trying them all. I’ve written SMART goals and intuition-led intentions, and I’ve focused on quarterly objectives and on “the one thing” each day.

But this year, I’m really digging the Chalkboard Method. My summer “chalkboard”—it’s actually poster board because chalk gives me the creeps—is part to-do list, part goal tracking, and part manifestation tool. And it’s been working out marvelously, helping me stay on track with everything from networking to paying off a credit card and to seek out dreamy new clients.

Getting Good Grades

Two years ago, my business bestie and I started a new tradition of getting together around this time of year for a couple Get-Shit-Done Days. We hang out in Denver, where we drink coffee and eat cupcakes and admire the mountains and set our laptops up to tackle the big picture things we’ve putting off.

Like everything else this year, our 2020 business retreat is going to look a little different—but we’ll still make the time to dig in and care for ourselves and our businesses and each other. And it’ll make all the difference in preparing for Q4 and beyond!

Are you a grownup who still gets excited for back-to-school season?

What are you doing to take advantage of the rest of this year?

Tell me about it!

What on Earth, 2020?

Living during a pandemic

To say that this year has been tough is not new or unique, but it sure is true.

I know I’m not alone in struggling with the fear of the pandemic, with the heartbreak of racism, with the weight of work, with the deterioration of mental health. The last time I posted something here, it was tips on maintaining productivity and a little sanity while working from home. It felt like an upbeat cheer for finding success in the midst of a strange time.

But, Reader, that already seems like a very long time ago. Today, I’m just trying to take it day by day without losing my ever-loving mind.

One day at a time

During a recent Zoom call with a business mastermind group, I confessed that I’m still learning—two years after leaving corporate life—to let routines go when they’re no longer serving me. There are days when a checklist from “make coffee” all the way through to “evening gratitude journal” is what I need to feel grounded and productive. But there are also days that seem to require both a long morning hike and an afternoon nap to keep me feeling like a competent human being.

I’m realizing they can both be right. Today can be whatever I need it to be.

With unending uncertainty about the future and so many of my pre-pandemic self-care tricks (impromptu lunch with my sister, book club in a friend’s living room, dinner and drinks with my parents, a weeknight movie) off the table . . . It’s okay to take each day as it comes, doing what I need to feel like the best possible version of myself before I see another headline that makes me want to punch a wall or find another canceled vacation that’s still showing up on my calendar.

Protecting what’s most valuable

That means some days I log nine or ten hours at my desk, and some days I only check my email to make sure I haven’t missed anything urgent and then take myself for a long walk.

And—maybe most importantly—I’m learning to count both those days as wins. I’m trying not to worry about the things I’ve left undone while I’m on a trail or enjoying a novel. My mental health is just as valuable as any item on my to-do list, and not just because it’s a means to staying productive the rest of the time.

What good is it to make it through 2020 if I end the year feeling completely burned out or hollowed out?

I’d love to hear from you! How are you holding up? What is helping you survive (or thrive!) during this strange and difficult year?

Tools for Getting by While Working from Home

Life During a Pandemic

I’ve been working from home full-time for very nearly two years, but this past month has been the most difficult by far. Introvert or not, I’ve gotten pretty stir-crazy without the ability to work for an hour at my favorite coffee shop, attend a lunch-and-learn at Central Exchange, or meet up for an end-of-day drink with my sister.

Fortunately, I’ve collected a few tools that had made it easier me to find success as a solopreneur—and that are frankly saving my sanity during this pandemic.

To-dos

I read several years ago that the average person uses something like 17 different methods to keep track of their time. Notebooks, calendars, sticky notes, countless apps? I can relate. I still use each of these for various purposes, but Trello has become my hub for tracking client projects, administrative tasks, personal reminders, and more. With the ability to create template checklists, set due dates, and to separate tasks by card, list, or board, it has been tremendously helpful.

Tracking time

Because I don’t keep very consistent hours and work on a wide variety of projects, keeping track of where I’m spending my time can become very hairy very quickly. I’ve been using Timely for about a year and it has made life so much easier! It tracks what files and applications I’m spending time in so that I can see exactly how long I was working on any given project (and, inevitably, how much I’m squandered on The New York Times spelling bee).

Email

With even fewer events on my calendar and all the days blurring together in quarantine, my schedule has slowly skewed later and later. I often find myself working late at night, and appreciate Boomerang’s help in keeping me looking a little less like a night owl (until I rat myself out on my own blog). With this extension’s help, I can set my Gmail account to only fetch new messages at certain times of the day (rather than seeing a constant influx of new mail) and to schedule sent mail for a more reasonable hour. Lifesaver.

Sounds

Have I mentioned that I miss being able to leave the house? A Soft Murmur offers enough ambient background noise to break up long stretches of silence (not conducive to my own sense of peak productivity), but not so much distraction as my current Spotify playlist (also not great for productivity). “Coffee shop” sounds are not as good as the real thing, but I’ll take it.

What tools are helping you maintain some sense of productivity (or some sense of sanity) during this period of isolation? I’d love to hear about them!

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.

Getting out of the house

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.

Being vs. doing

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.

No more badge icons

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.”

iphone with screen turned off sitting on a table in a ray of sunlight

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).

On the clock, off the clock

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

Digital detox

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.

Stop relying on the TV

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.

Baby steps

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.

Finding the thread

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.

ink pen and open notebook that only reads "Ummmm..."

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.

Morning pages

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.

Seeking a routine

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.

Setting priorities

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.

No renewals allowed

six library books on a shelf

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.

Essential to my work

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.

A new challenge

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.

tennis shoes on asphalt covered in snow

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!)

In sleet, in snow

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.