October 1*

The smoke haze is back.

In so many ways, October feels like a new beginning. The light changes. The air changes. Kids are back at school, and even here in California, it’s pretty definitely no longer summer.

I grew up with an even stronger school-schedule vibe than most people: both my parents worked as teachers. When school began in the fall, it didn’t begin just for me, but for all of us. Now an adult by any measure, that sense of beginning as the days shorten and the mornings chill stays with me.

Beginning too means looking back, reflecting. Where is the world? Where am I? How am I doing? 2020 has been so strange. After all the early months’ chaos, in the past few weeks I think some of the changes have settled in. I’m in a different place, I think, than I have previously been.

1. The seven months since this began – March to now – is the longest period of time I’ve spent without jetlag in over ten years (or maybe fifteen).

2. These seven months also include the most total hours I’ve spent at home at least since high school summer vacations.

3. Ten years after everybody else, I’ve gotten into Spotify. Lately I’m retro in my music tastes: country, electronic dance music, and Prozzak’s album Forever 1999 (which doesn’t sound like 1999, but does sound like today through the lens of someone who came of age in 1999. It’s silly and funny and heart-melting and I love it.)

4. I’ve let go of long lists of plans and dreams and ambitions and next steps and someday-I’d-like-tos. Too many were starting to feel like shoulds, like weights or clutter rather than freedoms.

5. Instead, I’ve got three things I’d like to do over the next six months, one more I’d like to do over the next two years, and one more for the next five years. This feels simpler. It fits on a sticky note.

6. I’m reading a lot, and I have conversations going with two separate friends about books.

7. One of my oldest friends, who I became friends with mostly through letters(!) during summer vacations back in high school, sent me a long chatty birthday card; today I sent her a card back. Texts with other friends feel like a modern version of the one-day letters I imagine Victorians sent to each other. “What kind of flower is this?” “Have you read that?” “Is the smoke okay where you are?” “I can’t believe your daughter is four years old already!” “You have chickens now?!” “Here’s what it looks like where I am.” “I don’t know when I’ll see you, but I miss you.”

8. At work, I’m in the middle of shifting from a management role to an individual contributor path. This, too, feels simpler, and I think more in line with the self I most think of as me.

After two weeks of clearer air, the smoke is back today, blowing in (the news tells me) from the Glass fire, miles north. The hills across the bay and the hills across the highway are both invisible. The air smells again of campfire. The temperature is over ninety degrees, but there is little value to shade, because the sun itself is shaded by the smoke.

If you’re reading this, I hope you’re finding value in your own new beginning – or if fall doesn’t feel like a beginning-time to you, to your own keeping on.

Stay safe, and breathe deep when you can.

—-

* I wrote this yesterday, posting today.

Peace and planning in 2020

dsc_0612

Hiking at the Pinnacles, Dec 2020

A few weeks back I re-read Getting Things Done. It’s a classic of productivity, and I’d been feeling overwhelmed: not by big things, which happily have settled down, but by daily life’s minutia. I needed to wrangle things into place, and make space to move forward.

Getting Things Done is interesting. The core idea involves capturing all the things, getting them out of your head and into some other system so you can free up your brain for other tasks. This resonates with me. I tend to shy away from looking at what I’ve signed up for – I just don’t want to know. But really, I do know, and that knowing drags at me.

As I made my list, beginning to clear the clutter in my head (and make things actionable: it’s not “clean up office,” it’s “put away shoes & makeup”), I started to think about how similar the ideas are to other practices of mental clarity. From Marie Kondo’s “does this spark joy?”, to the early Arts & Crafts movement & William Morris’ “have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful,” to traditional rhythms of spring cleaning or breaking or burning possessions at various celestial or cultural milestones, to cleaning up one’s desk before beginning work – the notion of streamlining, getting things in order, creating a fresh start by creating a fresh sense of place is fundamental. As humans, we tell ourselves this story, these instructions, over and over again.

And so. It’s New Year’s. I don’t have New Year’s resolutions; I’ve learned I don’t think in years. Instead, I have a short list of goals for January and some habits I’m banking on to get me there. I’ve cleaned out my closet and the pantry, and detailed out the spreadsheet that tracks the house remodel. Tonight I’ll celebrate with hot cider and fairy lights on a rosemary tree, and watch my breath steam up in the outdoor cold.

What does your fresh start look like?

A January Experiment: Focused Deep Work

Late in November of last year, I took on some new responsibilities at work. My team grew. My role grew. The amount of stuff I’m responsible for grew.

I’m going to have to do some things differently.

So in January, I’m going to experiment.

First, I overhauled my schedule so that I can have a solid block of focused work time each day, mostly first thing in the morning. Making this happen took an amazing (to me, anyway) two hours of focused effort on overhauling my calendar – but while I was at it, I also built in three visits to the gym, two long walks, and a preset day to work from the San Francisco office. This is all weekly, so it gives me a lot more predictability, and I feel good about having that work time to look forward to.

Second, over time I’ve gradually reduced my own multitasking. If I’m in a meeting, I don’t take my laptop, just a notebook and pen. This reduces the temptation to check email, especially because…

Third, I’ve turned off all email and chat notifications on my phone. I’ve also decided not to check email until after my daily focused work time.

So that’s January! I’m looking forward to seeing how it goes. I’m hoping that in combination, these changes will lead me to get more thoughtful work done, at a greater level of depth, while feeling less scattered.