List Making Mania

For the last couple of weeks, maybe longer, my anxiety has been running amok. Anxiety is a sneaky beast and doesn’t always show up as heart palpitations and shaking. Sometimes it’s the feeling of being behind on everything, or a sense of impending doom, or even thoughts about how there’s no possibility you can do it all, for whatever value of “all” you want to consider.

a blooming dogwood tree with green grass and a cloudy sky
The serenity of April didn’t extend to my brain

As I reviewed the month of April during my not-quite-really-a-vacation last week, I began to understand why I’ve been feeling anxious. A bunch of things that wouldn’t have been noteworthy alone happened all at the same time: a project that had been difficult from the beginning continued being difficult and I ended up making the worst hourly rate I’ve made in years; another challenging project was, well, challenging; I had to do an entire rewrite on a piece; three families I care about encountered extremely difficult times; and those were just the bigger things. All the normal day-to-day difficulties persisted, too.

Once I identified the source of the problem, I got down to figuring out what I could do about it. This sounds pretty simple, but it took a few days. I’d wanted to do so many things during my quasi-vacation, but it turned out what I needed was to rest. It was Friday before I felt like even tackling trying to solve the anxiety problem. I made more progress on Saturday and Sunday than in the entire week.

On Friday, I wrote a long journal entry and pondered the question of why I was feeling like my life is out of control (it’s not). I ended up making a bunch of lists, one for each area of my life that I felt I was not keeping up with:

  • Work/money
  • Exercise
  • Food/nutrition
  • Gardening
  • Housekeeping
  • Home projects
  • Personal projects
pot with a pink geranium in front of a triangular-shaped garden bed
A geranium with my raised beds in the background

Then, I wrote out the steps I needed to take in each category to feel better. I half-expected to feel overwhelmed at this point, but instead, it all felt much more doable written out like that. Saturday I worked in the garden and ended up feeling better about that—it’ll always be more work than I can get done, but now at least I might end up with some tomatoes—then Sunday I did a ton of cleaning and straightening.

My favorite iris bloomed this morning


I’ve always been a list-maker. And it is always surprising how much better I feel when I’ve given thought to the steps necessary to complete a project, write a book, grow a garden, or whatever endeavor I’m chasing at the moment. Why is it so easy to forget?

Are you a list maker? Does it help you feel calm? Or does all of this seem a bit much?

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Challenges, Barriers, and Finding a Path Around Them

How many times have you decided to do a thing, figured out the steps you need to take to do it, then berated yourself for not getting it done?

Here’s an example: Improving nutrition. For years, I would decide to “eat better” then really struggle to do so. The soundtrack in my brain was pretty ugly. I wasn’t eating well because I was lazy, didn’t really care, etc.

In order to change my dietary habits, I had to break the process down into steps: making a menu, listing the items necessary for the menu, shopping, prepping, keeping the kitchen clean, and accounting for the time it takes to cook. Turns out, nutritious meals don’t just magically appear when you decide you want to eat better.

Even after I plotted out the steps that are necessary to improve my nutrition, there were still barriers. What would I do when I was *really* hungry and needed to eat immediately? How would I handle the craving for something sweet after a meal? What kinds of snacks, if any, are appropriate between meals? The answers to all of these questions turned out to be much more important than I realized in those early efforts to improve my nutrition.

This same process of recognizing barriers has turned out to be crucial in everything important goal I’ve worked toward, including running Smiling Tree Writing, developing an exercise routine, home improvement projects, and on and on, right down to doing a better job of keeping the bathroom clean. When I identify the barriers I can figure out a way to walk around them.

When it came to better nutrition, I decided to make it a pleasure as far as possible. Usually Saturday or Sunday mornings are dedicated to a leisurely press of coffee and time on the sofa with my iPad and a notebook, browsing new recipes and listing the ones I’d like to try, looking at the weather forecast for the upcoming week (I like to grill on nice days, or have stew on chilly days) and creating a menu that includes what we have on hand, what we need to shop for, any prep that needs to be done, and options for lunches and snacks for the week. If I’m planning to exercise, I’ll include that, too, because sometimes I get dinner started and my partner finishes it while I go run.



It’s a bit of a time commitment, but since I’ve been doing it, we’ve had far more enjoyable and healthful meals. I don’t feel guilty for what I eat (most of the time) now. Splurges and treats are largely planned in advance. One of the biggest barriers was actually having to figure out what to cook each day, so the menu was an important path around it.

I can think of a bunch of other examples of how this process of figuring out what’s stopping me from reaching a goal has led to a breakthrough. Sometimes it’s a very small thing—I wanted to spend a little bit of time working on my quilt most evenings, and putting my sewing box with everything I need within reach on the coffee table helped more than I imagined. Before, it was on a shelf on the other side of the room, about 8 steps from the sofa. Those 8 steps were a barrier when I was settled in and comfy.



Have you ever identified a barrier and charted a path around it?

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Ideation

One of my strengths as a writer is being able to think up lots of ideas—story ideas, ideas on how to tell a story, ideas on how to find new clients, ideas about running a business. Ideas are usually the easiest part of the process.

Even though I like brainstorming and coming up with ideas, I don’t usually enjoy pitching story ideas to publications. One reason is that it takes a ton of time, and it’s unpaid time. Another is that publications aren’t great about responding an uncomfortable percentage of the time.

The problem is that if I don’t spend time brainstorming on a fairly regular basis it’s much harder. Recently, an agency client asked me to put together a list of potential ideas for one of their clients. They were paying me to do the work, which was awesome, and since it’s one of my favorite things, I agreed. When I sat down to actually start the list, I felt that deer-in-the-headlights thing. Frozen. Unable to come up with anything. For one panicky moment, I thought I’d lost it; my idea well had run dry.

Of course, 10 minutes of reading and an hour or two of thinking (while doing other things—you can’t let ideas know you’re chasing them, you have to come at them sideways) I had a pretty good list. But it was a good reminder that even the things you’re good at require some practice.

I’m adding “participate in a pitch fest once a quarter” to my list of goals for 2022!

A beautiful setting helps stimulate creativity

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Nourishment

I’ve been thinking about the word nourish lately. What it means when it comes to nutrition, creativity, self-care, business, and even lead generation. I guess this time of year is the time when I reflect on my goals in every area and what’s working and what’s not.

I used to divide my task list each day into sections: Work, Self, and Home. It helped me remember that the tasks I did to take care of my household were important, and not just impediments to running my business. The Self section came after that, when it became clear that taking care of myself was equally as important as my business and my household. If I’m not engaged in some creative pursuit, my performance in all other areas suffers. If I’m not taking care of my health, my productivity declines.

A image of four triangular raised beds, mostly empty, with a few plants scattered here and there.
My ever-growing medicine wheel garden, early in the season.

This time of year, I look at each of those areas and think about what my goals for the year were and how did I do? Did I get closer? Did I change my mind about any of them? Did I just ignore them and coast along?

After a visit with my doctor last week, it became abundantly clear that I wasn’t making progress toward some of my health goals, which made me reconsider the work I’ve been doing in that area, which led me to the word nourish. As I began to plan some shifts in how I eat (I’ve been following a low carb, keto-ish plan for a few years, and I’m going to move to more of a whole-food, lower fat plan), I also began to think about what else I might need to spend some time nourishing.

Google tells me that there are two definitions of nourish:

1. provide with the food or other substances necessary for growth, health, and good condition
“I was doing everything I could to nourish and protect the baby.”
2. keep (a feeling or belief) in one’s mind, typically for a long time
“he has a long nourished an ambition to bring the show to Broadway”

Those two definitions can apply to all three of my focus areas. There are certain business goals I’ve nourished for a long time (I’m happy to tell you that one of my longest-held income goals is within reach this year). This week, a friend and I have blocked out some time to talk about our business plans for 2022, and help each other figure out how to reach our goals.

Of course to meet those health-related goals I need the right nourishment, and not just when it comes to food. That definition includes “other substances.” In my case that means the right mix of exercise, medications, and rest. The best formula of all of those things changes over time, and it’s helpful to consider what’s working and, for me, right now, what’s not.

Nourishing my creative self is one component of good mental health. The thing that’s been missing here is creative writing. I’m trying to build that habit back, but it takes consistent nourishment!

Do you find that proper physical nourishment improves your creative life? Do you have long-held goals that you keep well-fed?

As a gardener, I know how important it is to keep the soil nice and balanced and full of nourishing substances. If I can manage that, surely I can manage to nourish all the facets of myself, too.

Two triangular raised beds, surrounded by saw dust, filled with healthy-looking plants.
One section of the garden, later in the year.

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Seasonal Changes

Every spring, and again every fall, I find myself feeling a bit lost. I skip workouts, or ignore my weekend to-do lists, and feel generally either frantic (usually in the spring) or discontented (in the fall). I’ve come to realize that my schedule needs to be readjusted seasonally.

In the spring and summer, most of my spare time is spent outside, either in my flower garden or my family’s big vegetable garden. The weekends are filled with cookouts, trips to the creek, boat outings, free concerts, camping, parties, and other outside activities. It’s hot, so I exercise earlier in the day, usually first thing. I don’t love exercise in the morning, but that’s what works best when it’s 90 degrees at noon.



In the fall and winter, I have to chide myself to go outside. There’s nothing happening in the garden, other than a long list of chores that need to be done, and especially since the pandemic, friends and family aren’t having many indoor gatherings. I want to find the beauty in winter, and be comfortable with the colder temperatures (and let’s be honest here: I live in Tennessee, where it’s rarely below freezing during the day) but I’m still not there. I move my exercise to the afternoon, or in less virulent times, I go to the gym. I detest wearing layers of clothes and constantly cold toes and fingers make me cranky.

Knowing that the lack of sunshine and activity is going to affect my mental health, I’ve started focusing on projects that bring me joy and that are easier to do during the winter. I’m learning to quilt – all by hand – and find it a relaxing, fulfilling hobby. I read much more during the cold weather, and work on making my habitat more pleasant. I cook more and am always delighted to have some of the garden produce preserved. This year, I’m adding writing fiction back into the mix after neglecting it for a couple of anxiety-filled years.



One of the unexpected gifts of the pandemic was a focus on self-care during the winter. Going into the cold months of 2020 I challenged myself to find ways to enjoy being at home, and tried to embrace the idea of hygge. It worked, to some degree. I did much more decorating during the holidays, and wrote letters to friends and family I’d usually see. I printed and framed a bunch of family photos and made a big gallery wall that I love.



Even with all the activities and self care, I still found myself depressed by the end of January. This year, I’m going to try even harder to spend time outside to see if that helps. There are a couple of hikes that I want to do and I’m building a better cold weather wardrobe. I’ve returned to running after taking a year off, and that means being outside — oddly, I quite enjoy running in cooler weather, once I motivate myself to get out there — so hopefully that will help too.



I’m also trying to work about two hours a day more while it’s cold out. It seems reasonable to work a bit more when the garden isn’t calling me to come see what’s blooming. Plus, my work brings me great satisfaction and January is an excellent time for marketing.

Do you find your schedule changes significantly during the winter?

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