Wednesday Witness: On Busyness

Blogger’s Note: This post first appeared as part of the Wednesday Witness blog series on the St. Michael Catholic Church website.

“Idle hands are the devil’s playground”—so goes the old saying, and I can verify its truth. So many of the sinful traps I fell into as a young man were concealed in downtime and baited with curiosity and pleasure.

It’s good for young men to keep busy, but I am no longer young. These days I struggle with having too much to do rather than too little, and that, too, can be a sin trap. A mentor of mine even has an acronym for BUSY:

Burdened Under Satan’s Yoke

Even if you work for the Church, as I am blessed to do, the acronym may still apply. Perhaps the best Christmas gift I got this year was the Monk Manual, a special sort of planner based on the prayerful patterns of work and reflection in monastic life. This beautiful leather-bound book serves not only to organize and schedule your work days, weeks and months, but leads you to examine what you achieved versus what is really important to you, at which points in the day you were at your best and worst, the state of your relationships and habits, and what God may be trying to teach you. Continue reading

If It Doesn’t Help, It Hinders (Addendum)

I had the most productive work day I’ve had in weeks today, by implementing a few relatively minor changes. First, I closed my browser when I wasn’t using it, and relegated email to first thing in the morning, mid-day, and late afternoon. This kept the browser closed most of the day, and kept me feed-free (except for the red flashing light on my smart phone, which I’ll need to deactivate).

I also removed all the the buttons from my web browser’s Favorites or Bookmark bar except my work email login, the U’s homepage, and the college intranet site. Yesterday, if I wanted to check Facebook, Gmail, Yahoo, the Yankees score, or blog comments, I had only to click the button at the top of the browser – this afternoon it was disconcerting to notice the number of times my mouse-arrow reflexively climbed the screen to click on distractions that were no longer there, each time forcing a conscious decision on my part about whether I needed to log in. The vast majority of the time, the answer was no. (I didn’t use the timer, but I would estimate that, this blog post included, I’m in the 30 minute range for today.)

Finally, I imposed a gentler discipline on my schedule. I had been forcing myself out of bed at 5:30 a.m. in order to stretch, shower, pray a rosary, and eat breakfast, and still have time to write fiction for a while before starting my workday. The alarm sounds, it’s dark, I’m inevitably tired; my shower’s slow, I drift in and out of awareness as I pray, and it takes a full hour and a half to ready myself for…what? I stagger downstairs and doodle as I try to write something worthwhile, yawn and drink some coffee, trying to awaken some creativity.

So today, I set the alarm for 6, with the same goal of 7 a.m. for fiction writing. I urged myself to move briskly, but also told myself, “If I’m 10 minutes late, the train is not derailed, it’s only delayed.” (Truth be told, I didn’t articulate it that way until just now; my actual thoughts were more abstract but no less compelling.) I started writing at a little after 7, set a deadline for myself, and stopped more or less on time, resisting the urge to write until I hit a block, and resisting the urge countless times throughout the day to take “just a few minutes” and do a little more. As a result, right now, I can’t wait for morning and the chance to write more.

As I’ve transitioned to working from home, I’ve tried to impose discipline, filling my work calendar with blocks of time for reading, writing, responding to email, etc., and when I’ve fallen off the pace, or run over the time allotted, I’ve basically said, “Well, forget that; I’ll never get caught up now.” Today I was a bit more flexible, and it paid off. When a colleague called unexpectedly, I wasn’t distracted by what I Ought to Be Doing, and at the end of the day, I accomplished more than I set out to. That feels so good, I should try it again tomorrow.

If It Doesn’t Help, It Hinders

Following a session on social media at last week’s retreat at work, I decided today to re-open a Twitter account. Approximately five minutes ago, I closed it again.

I had been reading (for work) that classic of business management literature Good To Great, navigating two or three chapters devoted to the importance of an organization identifying that one thing at which they reasonably, realistically become the best, and then, with equal discipline, eliminating all those opportunities and activities, however valuable, that distract from that one thing.

It through me into a personal tailspin, and I posted a question to Facebook: “at am I going to stop doing that is keeping me from writing fiction?”

Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

  • Twitter (completely re-eliminated), as well as much of my daily Facebook, blog, and general internet surfing (I’m thinking 30 minutes maximum across all platforms, and I have a timer. I post things quickly…but then  I let myself get sucked in.).
  • My fledgling sourdough baking habit. Brewing takes precedence; it is becoming a communal activity with friends and fellow parishioners.
  • Leisurely mornings,  snooze alarms, and any notion I can afford to sleep past 6 a.m.
  • New volunteer commitments, and any old ones I can reasonably abandon.

I also need to make the most of my work hours, to get my 40 hours in each week in as close to 40 hours as possible. I need to devote at least two hours a day to creative writing and the reading and research that will support it. And of course, regular prayer and exercise will help me stay the course, but that takes time, too. I need to cultivate these habits before the new wee one arrives in December. Wish me luck!

The Second Third, Week 12 (Belated): Get It In Writing

Blogger’s Note: The whole idea behind these “Second Third” posts can be found here.

Since high school at least — maybe even prior to that — I’ve wanted to write, if not for a living, than at least for kicks and a few extra bucks. I went to college thinking I wanted to teach biology, but a year of chemistry and lab alongside my first English class (a creative non-fiction course) tweaked my thinking. I felt like I could write, felt like I should write…and by sophomore year, I figured I would write if I could find a way to make a go of it.

A poetry professor, when he learned I hoped to be a writer, advised that I not major in English (Yale didn’t have journalism), insisting that those who hire writers would see someone who know composition or literature and little else. He said I should choose a major that permitted me to take a little bit of everything, so I would emerge a well-rounded thinker. I chose anthropology, focused on human evolution, and took science courses, history courses, you name it.

I graduated and began looking for work as a writer. Everyone seemed to want experience, or an English or Journalism degree. I applied for obit writer in the Rapid City Journal. No dice. I sold housewares and luggage at Younkers department store in Sioux Falls, and began to think about teaching again. We learned we were pregnant, moved to Michigan, and I took temporary work installing fixtures in a new Kaybee Toys store outside Detroit. The new manager saw potential and offered me full-time work when it opened. Instead we moved in with my folks and kept looking.

Finally I got an interview with The Pioneer, a six-day-a-week newspaper where I grew up. The editor told me later they were looking for someone with experience or a journalism major, but wanted to know what a Yale grad was doing applying to their little paper. I showed them some writing samples, and they agreed to “test” me — have me come to a city commission meeting with the editor and write a story, not for publication, of course; her story would be for paper. We went to the meeting; I wrote the story — not as fast as she would’ve liked, and I didn’t know AP Style, but the story was solid. She actually agreed to run it and pay me as a freelancer for several weeks while the reporter I was replacing wound down his remaining time at the paper.

I’ve worked as a writer ever since, which is a victory. In my time at The Pioneer, I served as a reporter, editorial writer, columnist, copy editor, night editor/paginator, weekly editor, assistant managing editor, and occasional photographer. (We all took our own photos.) After that, I went to work for Ferris State University, initially as a three-quarter-time, multi-purpose writer: alumni magazine articles, fundraising pieces, letters…until my boss decided, after a couple of rewrites by her marketing firm, that the new Ferris view book needed a different voice, relatively young but well informed. She turned the entire piece over to me, an amazing amount of unwarranted trust. It came off well, and they hired me as full-time media relations manager. From there: corporate marketing, writing sales material, direct-mail copy, and web content for FedEx, Cargill, Sherwin Williams, and RSM McGladrey. Then back to campus at the University of Minnesota, first as a “strategic writer” (a multipurpose position like my first stop at Ferris) and ever since, as presidential communications officer and speechwriter. I’ve even done a little freelancing in my free time, for neighborhood newspapers and international martial arts publications. I’m a kung fu writer!

It’s been a good career, encompassing nearly every kind of professional writing you can imagine outside of fiction and poetry. Unfortunately, there lies the problem.

You see, I’ve dabbled in poetry for years, and have more than one novel started…but as a father of four with a full-time job, I barely find time enough to spend with my wife, let alone hole up again and write fiction. In this regard, in fact, I sometimes wish I’d taken the Kaybee job: At the end of a long day writing, the last thing I want to come home to is more writing. Get up, battle traffic, write, review, revise, review, revise, battle traffic, eat, crash, repeat. My kids used to say I was a writer, until they asked me to show them something I’ve written. It wasn’t a book. They were underwhelmed.


In my Second Third, however, things are looking up. My infinitely patient writer friends continue to prod and cajole me. And I’ve lined up a new position, working on a few bigger publishing projects. I’m looking at a much more flexible schedule in the short term and the ability to work remotely. Less time on the road and in the office. Less time shopping content to multiple reviewers. More time to read and write — and the ability to carve out blocks of time to work on my own stuff.

Y’know how smokers are told to never quit quitting. Rest assured I’ll never stop starting — but it’s about time I finished, don’t you think?