progress updates: January 2019

I didn’t make any resolutions or goals for 2019, per se, but I did have some lifestyle changes I want to make. Here’s how things went for the month of January.

Ragged Mountain Reservoir
Ragged Mountain Reservoir

In 2018, I didn’t use enough vacation leave and found myself in danger of losing days as my work anniversary month concluded. So, I crammed in some days off as my workload allowed. This is not ideal, and it is also an indication that something is off-kilter with my work/life balance. So, I decided that for 2019, I needed to plan some days off in advance so I’d actually use my vacation leave, since I rarely take actual vacations. So far, I haven’t used any of my leave time yet, but I have scheduled a long weekend in February and am taking Spring Break off in March, and have plans for May and July on the horizon. I’ll be looking ahead to other times of the year when I can take off a week or more without negatively impacting my workload.

snapshot of a Fitocracy month indicating workouts recorded

I tend to get really busy once the semester begins, because that’s when all my “extra-curricular” activities kick in. One thing that often gets de-prioritized is physical activity. So, for the month of January, I mapped out a workout schedule to fit around my regular obligations with a varied plan that would keep me from getting bored or using “recovery” as an excuse to not do anything. It’s worked, mostly, though it does require me to make some adjustments towards the end of the week if I haven’t also done a good job of getting to bed on time and sleeping enough. This process has been helpful for me to reach my goal of 219 workouts in 2019.

infographic for the YNAB principles

Midway through January, I decided to have a hard conversation with myself about my budget and long-term goals. This was in part due to a decision in early January to start seeing a therapist again, and the impact that would have on my budget. Despite making more money than I ever have or ever thought I could, I still manage to spend nearly all of it every month, living paycheck to paycheck. I had been trying to use Mint to make and stick to a budget in 2018, but that just wasn’t working. I’m giving the YNAB philosophy (and software) a try this time around, and it’s already helping me re-think how I budget and how I make spending decisions. If you decide to give it a try, too, I highly suggest reading the book and/or making use of the free webinars. On its own, the platform is okay, but it’s so much better if you understand the underlying system.

simplifying and organizing, one t-shirt at a time

Monday night I finally put together the cheap bookshelf I bought for temporary storage and organization. Living in a one-bedroom apartment with limited closet space has taught me how to stack, organize, and reduce the clutter of nostalgia and maybe-somedays. This bookshelf is the latest edition to my never-ending quest to maintain clean and organized surface spaces.

In the process of rearranging that corner of my bedroom, I ran across a small box that was the start of a “remove one thing every day” project a while back that never went anywhere. I seized upon this opportunity and inspiration to sort through my ever-expanding t-shirt collection (curses upon you, shirt.woot!) and withdraw a few from the “don’t fit and probably won’t wear again” section. I added a few unused kitchen utensils and promised myself that as soon as I returned from Internet Librarian, I would take it to the local charity shop.

We’ll see.

standing is hard!

I’m a faithful reader of Lifehacker, and a great deal of their content tends to come from the perspective of the home office of the freelance worker or telecommuter. Most of the workspace photos are of home offices, and I frequently find myself drooling over the elegant and clean custom setups. Meanwhile, I work in a cubicle that can be only slightly modified, and I simply don’t have the budget to really do up my home work space for the contractor work I do at Blogcritics/Technorati.

That being said, I’ve been thinking off and on about trying to do a standing desk setup at home, just for a change of pace and to off-set the sedentary aspect of my daily work. But again, I keep running into the issue of cost for anything fancy, so I’ve been putting it off. However, last night I was particularly frustrated with the prospect of spending a few more hours sitting at my desk at home after a full day of doing the same at work, so I decided to improvise.

I used a plastic drawer bin that I use to store random office supplies (pens, pencils, staples, batteries, etc.) to elevate my monitor high enough, so that was simple. And, since the monitor can be tilted down (and isn’t too high) it’s easy to switch it back to something comfortable enough for sitting at.

The keyboard and mouse solution was a bit more complicated. I didn’t want anything permanent, since I knew I’d want to be able to switch back and forth between sitting and standing until I built up my standing stamina. In the end, I borrowed a bookshelf from one of my IKEA bookcases (stacked the DVDs that were on it — will probably pick up another shelf for long-term use out of the as-is area the next time I’m up there) and elevated it by resting it on top of my comic book short box. The box is just long enough to stabilize the longer bookshelf, but light enough (and with handles) to move it around as needed.

Satisfied with my handiwork, I set to clearing out my task list. However, after only a few minutes of standing, I began to realize just how little I stand on a day-to-day basis. So far, I’ve only been able to stand for 20-30 minutes at a time, and am generally uncomfortable the whole time. But, hey, if this means I’m exercising those muscles while still working at a computer, I consider it a win-win.

set it and forget it

One of the things I love about my new system of managing email and tasks using flags and due dates is that I never have to remember when something needs to be done. If it’s not in my “due today” list, then I don’t need to worry about it, and instead I can focus on the project at hand.

Today I had nothing scheduled on my calendar (yay!), so I’ve been focusing on my current number one project. In the midst of doing this, I identified a small project tangentially related to this one. Rather than stopping what I was doing to follow up on that (because I might forget it later), I instead took a few moments to create a Task in Outlook that described the project and a rough outline of subtasks that also identified why I’d created the task in the first place. Then, I set the due day for about two weeks from now.

It’s not an urgent project, so I don’t need to do it sooner, but I wanted to make sure that it would still be fresh and relevant, while also giving myself time to wrap up the things I’m currently working on. When that task pops up in my “due today” list, I’ll reassess whether I can start it then or if I need to push it back further. Until then, it’s off of my mind, allowing me to use what mental energy I have on the project I have in front of me.

still tweaking

One thing that I’ve learned about myself over the years is that I am an inherently lazy person.

A few weeks ago I wrote about changing some habits and workflow. Today, as I tweaked my daily tasklist process yet again, I thought I’d post an update/continuation.

One thing that I’ve learned about myself over the years is that I am an inherently lazy person, so I need to set short goals and rewards in order to not let the laziness and procrastination take over. I managed to go five weeks with the 10/15 split method of organizing my day, but when I found myself not doing the things on my schedule, I realized I needed to change it up a bit to keep at it.

Yesterday in my end-of-day wrap-up and planning for today session, I took a sticky note square and began listing attainable goals for the projects I’m currently working on. By attainable goals, I mean things I could do in a 1-2 hour stretch. That’s about how long I can work on any single project without getting burnt-out and distracted, which is why I try to always have several projects in the works at any given time.

Rather than scheduling specific times to work on specific things, I let it flow a little more organically, checking the time only to make sure I wasn’t getting too sluggish. Guess what? It worked. When I’d start to slack off a bit, I’d glance at the list again and I could see the endpoint looming, which encouraged me to delve back into the work.

I thrive and fail in structure, but mostly thrive. Big, long-term projects frequently overwhelm me because I am still learning how to structure my time to work on them, particularly when they have squishy end dates. By setting smaller goals and continuing to trudge towards completion, I will be much happier because as soon as the project is finished, it means I can start working on the next one. And the next project is always more exciting that the one I’m working on right now.

tweaking my workflow

Over the past year, I’ve become a Lifehacker fanatic. I read the site regularly, and sometimes I even use it as a reward for finishing some unpleasant task. While I don’t do every lifehack suggested or install every app suggested, I have been making incremental changes in the way I approach things. Here are a few:

  • Earlier this year, I used HabitForge to get into a routine of going to bed by 11pm and getting up at 6am, which I’ve mostly continued to do. I’ve not done so well at the other routine of eating breakfast at home, but that is partially due to not being dilligent about having breakfast items on hand (i.e. I’ve been out of milk for almost a week now and I still haven’t remembered to pick up some when I had the chance).
  • Numerous ideas of how to process/manage email and tasks have led to my current system that is a hybrid of flags and search filters in Outlook, and the daily planning that defines my dayjob workflow.
  • I have a growing collection of DIY gift ideas for next Christmas, should my family decide to go the “make it yourself” gift route again. I’ll be better prepared this time.

I’m certain there are more things I could point out, but all I can remember right now are the relatively new ones. Everything else has either fallen away or has become so integrated that I don’t remember why or when I started doing it.

One more thing: I’m regularly inspired to clean my physical desktop when I see yet another need and cleverly organized featured workspace.

laundry on the cheap

Mom has been using this homemade laundry detergent all year and giving bottles of it to my sister and I (and anyone else who asks). It cost her around $12 for a year’s worth of laundry (or so I remember), even with giving stuff away, and she has leftover ingredients to cut the cost for this year. I’m gonna make a batch for myself after I move into my new digs.

custom recipe file for iPhone/iPod

Use your Google Notebook and the free Gnotes app to cull together a custom recipe box on your iPhone or iPod Touch.

I’ve been playing with a iPod Touch from work for the past few weeks. One of the first things I did was dig around for interesting and useful free apps that don’t require constant 3G connections to work effectively. One thing I knew I needed was a functional note-taking tool that would sync the notes with my computer(s), and that’s how I stumbled upon Gnotes.

Basically, this application syncs with your Google Notebook and pulls the text of the notes to the iPod/iPhone. The first thing I did with it was type out the words to some choral pieces I needed to memorize, and after I got comfortable with the interface, I began thinking of other things I could do with it.

One of the apps I first searched for was something to collect, store, and display recipes I wanted to use. There are plenty of free and pay apps for recipe collections, but I didn’t want fifty bajillion recipes to sort through, and I don’t have a wireless router at home, so I needed something that could be used offline. Then it hit me — why not use my Google Notebook for this, too?

It works well, and I have the ingredients list with me for last minute grocery shopping. Here’s how it looks on the iPod Touch:

recipes with Gnotes screen 1recipes with Gnotes screen 2

One down side to this versus using a printout or paper note card is that you can’t see the whole recipe in one screen, so you’ll need to make sure you scroll down far enough to have everything visible you need for that step in the process. You also might want to edit the recipe instructions to include the amount of each ingredient (if it isn’t like that already) within the text, to avoid scrolling up and down each time to check for quantity.

pay off that debt!

Lifehacker turned me on to the Federal Reserve Bank Credit Card Repayment Calculator today. If you haven’t already, do take a look. With just a few keystrokes, you can find out how long it will take to pay off your consumer debt, how much interest you will pay over that time period, and what your monthly payments should be to do so. You can tweak the numbers by changing the monthly payment or changing the pay-off time.

I was able to get a personal loan earlier this year that allowed me to free up some of my budget and pay off most of my consumer debt in 36 months, but it wasn’t enough to cover everything. The balance on my remaining credit card is rather steep, and I was beginning to wonder if I’d ever pay it off, but now I know that if I keep plugging away at the monthly payment I’ve been sending, I’ll have it paid off in a little over a year. Whew!