Dec 16

Setting Your Own Agenda

One of the most frustrating things is the feeling that you aren’t setting your own agenda. The day gets away from you. You feel obligated to do things for others. The line between your day job and your home life blurs. It’s all well and good to intend to set your own agenda, but how do you keep it?

Setting Your Own Agenda

The Problem

Logically we know that there are 24 usable hours in every day. We know that we have to sleep for about 8 hours, and that we probably have to work roughly 8-10 hours. Then, that leaves anywhere from 6-8 hours for our own pursuits.

So how is it that days pass and it feels like we’ve got nothing done?

I used to find myself in that weird time warp all the time. See, I’m a procrastinator by nature. (Or maybe it’s nurture. I think I started doing it in high school as a way to take control of my personal agenda and rebel against how my parents thought I should be using my time.) I can take any little thing and turn it into a full-blown project if it means that I’m not working on the task I should be working on.

Example 1: Once, in grad school, when I needed to be writing a novel for my novel writing class, I completely arranged my bookshelves by subject, and then alphabetized them by author. (It is worth noting here that when I was in library school, I didn’t engage in that sort of behavior at all. Again, I can’t be made to do the thing I ought to be doing.)

Example 2: Remember the perfect storm? Yeah. I totally wrote a blog post instead of writing my course schedule.

Anyway, I have this tendency to put off what needs to be done. I like to do that by taking up other activities. And since I’m a first-world consumer with access to functionally everything I need, plus like 98% of the things I want, that means I have all the distractions I could want.

So, how do you get away from reading the internet for hours or scrolling through your phone when you should be working?

The Key to Setting Your Own Agenda

I wish I could say there was a way to cut out distractions easily so you could focus on work. There isn’t. But there are some good workarounds.

If you find that your phone sucks you in when you only intend to like a couple of Instagram posts, then may I recommend this super simple phone hack? This won’t stop you from reaching for your phone when you’re bored, but it will stop you from always feeling like you need to reach for it. Cutting out notifications was key for me, because it allowed me to focus on my own agenda, rather than letting my phone set it for me.

It’s been about 8 months since I first posted about that phone hack, and it’s definitely changed my relationship with my phone. I no longer feel obligated to respond to notifications simply because I don’t get them. And when I do stop to check my phone, I can do it on my terms and at a time when I have a moment to do so.

Oddly enough, the sun still rises and sets just as it always has if you aren’t constantly checking on who liked your tweets.

But maybe your problem is the internet in general. Maybe you find yourself sitting down at the computer to get to work, only to lose the first hour to nonsense. I totally get it. The struggle is real.

But here’s how I tackle that. I have a three-tiered approach.

Firstly, I only check email after I’ve completed at least three things on my to do list. If it’s a day I’m teaching, that means I may enter grades, scan student papers, and lesson plan before I check any emails. I also try to only check my email two to three times a day. That way I’m not babysitting my inbox all day, hearing notifications and adjusting my schedule to meet that of those who happened to send me an email.

Secondly, if I know I really have something to get done, I use the Strict Workflow Chrome Extension. When I click that little tomato in the upper righthand corner of my browser window, it gives me 25 minutes of focused time by not letting me access social media. Then, once that 25 minutes is complete, I get five minutes of break. And I repeat that as many times as necessary. It’s really good for grading and editing sessions.

Thirdly, I try to drown out all distractions. I used to exclusively use Stereo Mood for all my ambient music needs. They had some great channels with instrumental music that were ideal for writing. Now, I either find an instrumental station on Google Play, or I find a fantastically rainy soundscape on Ambient Mixer. (Check out my favorite Ambient Mixer atmospheres!) When something is playing, it’s much easier for me to ignore all the other sounds that usually become distractions.

Setting Your Own Agenda Is an Uphill Battle

Now, here’s the thing. You have to make yourself set your own agenda. My three-tiered approach and phone hack won’t do anything if you aren’t fiercely trying to control your time. You have to have the willpower of a saint, and you will have days where you fail miserably.

But remember, everything is a process. Don’t be hard on yourself if you lose an hour to creating the perfect Snapchat story. (I have been known to do that.) Take the yoga approach, here. You’re growing. And each new day is a new day to put some of this into play.


What about you? How do you go about setting your own agenda?

Sep 16

The Transformative Practice of Saying No

Before you get too far into this post, just know that I’m not so good at saying no. I’m working on it, which is to say that someday I hope to be an expert who says no to like 89% of everything.

The Transformative Practice of Saying No

Saying no is hard for many reasons. For me, I think it’s a combination of expectations people have for my gender, as well as the how I was socialized to be accommodating and flexible IN EVERY SITUATION. (That’s a whole blog post in itself, and I have a short story I’ve been working with on the subject. Suffice it to say that I haven’t worked through it all and I’m still figuring out how to tell people that I actually have preferences and opinions.)

Even so, I know that saying no is important because I want to have time to do what I want to do. Too often saying yes means adapting to someone else’s agenda for your time. And while there are times when you absolutely have to devote your energy to things you don’t want to, it really sucks when you find you’ve willingly devoted your energy (and the fucks in your bucket) just because you’re being accommodating and trying to help someone else out.

Picture this:

It’s Friday at 5 PM, and you’ve had a terrible week at work. You’ve agreed to go out for drinks with a few coworkers because it sounds fun, but also because it’s habit to say yes. By the time you leave the office, all you really want to do is put on your pajamas and talk to a pile of takeout Chinese about your week, but you go out anyway, because you said yes when you were asked.

You wind up staying out later than you planned, so naturally you sleep in on Saturday. But you still don’t get enough sleep because you told someone yes when they asked you if you wanted to the farmer’s market. While it’s not really your thing, you haven’t seen that friend in a while, and maybe it would be nice to have some local produce.

After looking at vegetables you don’t even like for two hours, you head home to work on a project. Someone contacted you about writing a story for their blog, and you said yes. Retrospectively, it’s nothing you really wanted to write, but you said yes without thinking, so you spend 2 hours on Saturday doing it.

After you send off a crap draft that means nothing to you, you take a shower and get dressed so you can go to a party that is full of people you used to know pretty well, but not so much anymore. You said yes to the Facebook invite, but the whole drive there, your head is screaming no. 

You leave the party by midnight, and hit the bed hard. There were ten personal projects you wanted to do earlier that day, but you didn’t get to them. And you know that you won’t be getting up early on Sunday to do them because you’re exhausted. Who the hell does that many things in one weekend? Fucking crazy people. You know you’ll wakeup around 7 Sunday morning, which will give you enough time to do a load of laundry and get groceries and maybe prep some lunches for the week before you have to go to Sunday dinner with your family.

So, that whole scenario sucks, and I can’t tell you how many weekends of my adult life have looked like that. It may sound dumb, but I’ve spent a lot of time saying yes to things that I had no desire to do. I mean, I’m an introvert. I like to spend time reading the internet on my couch while my dog snores loudly by my side. I like to coerce my boyfriend into having date night at home so we can have popcorn and watch a movie we’ve seen a million times before. I don’t like going to loud places, being in large crowds, spending money, or feeling like I never got a break when it’s my day off.

So, how do you go from saying yes and giving all your time to others, to saying no and filling your time with what you want?

Saying No Takes Practice

As dumb as it may seem, saying no takes practice. It’s hard to say no when we’re hardwired to be positive. (I don’t know if we’re hardwired, it just kind of feels that way.) Also, the things people ask you to do are generally good things. Even now, if you were to ask me to attend a party, I’d probably say yes out of reflex. Parties are great, right? Well, for some. The thing about parties is that I get a social hangover. I hate having to be “on” for a large group of people, and I hate situations where I can’t just have small one-on-one conversations. Those are very exhausting for me. So parties, for the most part, are a no-go.

One thing I’ve found that makes saying no easier is giving the recipient of my no an alternative. When I tell someone I can’t work with them on a project, or that I don’t want to go to a big happy hour meet up, I usually try to suggest something else. Like instead of working on a project for someone else, I’ll suggest ways we can collaborate that are equally beneficial. I absolutely work one of my goals in there too, so I don’t feel like I’m saying yes and getting nowhere with my own work. If someone wants me to go to a big party, I’ll make an excuse about why I can’t go, but ask if they want to go have coffee or lunch sometime soon.

It’s taken years for me to get here, and I’m not 100% perfect at it, but this is how I started practicing saying no.

How I’ve Been Saying No

I’ve been saying no a lot lately, and more preemptively than anything else. I’ve functionally become inaccessible to my friends, which isn’t ideal, but it’s how things have to be right now. I’ve hit a point where I’ve realized that if I have to give 8 hours a day to a job, then I should also be giving 8 hours a day to passion projects. And saying yes to passion projects means saying no to going out, to hanging out, and to even texting back and forth. (Though, admittedly, I’ve been pretty incommunicado since discovering this super simple phone hack.) I also find that I don’t engage with people who I know will ask me to do things. I get tired of saying no, and I know they get tired of hearing it and sometimes get mad. So, I will simply avoid situations where people can ask me to do things I don’t want to do.

I’ve also been saying no to extra work a lot lately. This semester, I’m only teaching 4 classes instead of 5. (“Only” being a relative term, here.) I’m also trying to be very purposeful about how I spend my non-working hours. This means saying no to Netflix binges unless they happen on the treadmill, and mindless internet wandering. Now, if I could only cut out the mindless Snapchatting, I’d be hella productive.

But Shouldn’t I Be Saying Yes?


No, But Really

Why do we think that the whole world will open up to us if we say yes? I think pop culture and pop psychology want us to think that mindless positivity and acceptance of any and all invitations will lead us to a beautiful new life. But that’s really stupid. Seriously. If you say yes, you have to mean it. And to mean it, you have to want to say yes. If you don’t want to say yes, saying no is really the best answer.

And let me leave you with this. I’m sure you’ve heard someone say, “Saying yes to something means saying no to something else.” Think about that the next time you say yes to anything. What are you saying no to? And if you’re saying no to something you want to do, then is it really worth it so say yes?