Hello, my friends!
Like a lot of us, I’ve been inside for the better part of two years. We don’t go to restaurants or movies or shows or parties. We live in the middle of New York City, which means that we are both around other people a lot and we walk around the city, but we are usually in our apartment. We never left. We were here for the worst of it and we’re here now, which means we are super lucky, but it also means that we’ve largely been indoors for two years.
That’s a long time.
I realized recently that my brain was moving in slow motion. I wasn’t unhappy, but I was definitely in a fog. My overarching motto was “huhhhhhhh?” This is because what we have all gone through is a lot, and continues to be a lot, and it’s not over. But that’s ALSO the problem, because for some people it’s not over and for some people it is and for some people it never was a thing to begin with. If you go to school, I know you are living in a strange world where your classmates may be disappearing one by one like you’re in a zombie movie. Our brains are burning hot and fast trying to make sense of it all. We seem to be living in Schrödinger’s reality. Everything is open but closed at the same time.
We’re all making a lot of decisions that we maybe aren’t qualified to make, and decision making is one of the hardest things brains have to do. We get decision fatigue. So it you’re feeling slow, uninspired, and a bit confused, THAT MAKES SENSE! Your brain is pumping iron trying to work out what the hell is going on and trying to steer you through it. It’s very energy consuming and produces little of value. It’s like our brains are constantly minting NFTs but the NFT stands for Not F**king Thinking.
Not a complaint. Simply a statement of fact. We live in confusing times. It’s sort of amazing we’re doing anything at all.
I write. It’s great! But my brain is glued up
, like everyone else’s. So I did what I often do when faced with a STICKY PROBLEM: I went to Holly Black. You may or may not know that Holly is the Good Witch of the Forest, who knows all. She can solve your plot problem, edit your essay, fix your car, give you a root canal, and redesign your house, and she’ll never even have to set down her coffee.* She also loves planners. She loves them. One of the few places I’ve been in the last two years was her house, where for two days, she inducted me into the world of planner culture. She showed me videos. She showed me her own stack of planners and custom planner materials. She took me to Target and the craft store. She showed me The Way.
I both love organizational tools and rebel against them in equal measure. I want them. They also make me itchy. I love notebooks and planners. I buy them and then treat them like I think they are going to grow in value if I keep them pristine. You’ve never seen a more beautiful stack of notebooks than the one I have in my office. You can look at it, but don’t touch! THE SPINES ARE UNBROKEN. If you try to crack them, it will set off an Indiana Jones and the Temple of Don’t Mess Up My Notebooks situation and a big rock will roll out of nowhere and chase us all down the hall.
It goes without saying that if you open a notebook and use a few pages, that notebook is CURSED and must be kept but never used again. It will follow you everywhere like MARLEY’S GHOST, clanking away at night, haunting you. “Why did you only write in me once?” it will ask. “What does this note even mean? You just wrote the word MEAT and you don’t even eat meat?”
For me, the complication is that I both crave order and embrace chaos. I’m like a four-year-old who runs a bank, or an accountant who’s been sent blindfolded into the yurt where someone keeps whispering that numbers are feelings. One hand wants to knock things over and the other just wants to vacuum those things up. This is what I smilingly call my process.
However. There comes a time where we must sit down with our brains and say, “How can I, your skeleton car, work with you, a grey pile of magic? Because together, we have to write.”Something needed to be done about the concrete in my brain. So I wrote to Holly and said “aggghhhhhhhhhhgghhhhh” and she understood at once and sent some photos of planner layouts and links to videos. I sat and I watched the videos.
Now here’s another thing that happens I get excited by the organization videos and try to do ALL OF THE THINGS AT THE SAME TIME. Have YOU ever downloaded four types of organizational software in one day? I have! Then I have to purge it all. THERE ARE TOO MANY THINGS.
I wanted one thing, and a simple one. I made myself choose while watching. Remember! Our brains are already tired from trying to work out if our masks are tight enough, if the elevator was safe, which seat on the subway has the least COVID, plus a thousand other things. LET’S MAKE EVERYTHING AS SIMPLE AS POSSIBLE. And I didn’t just want to be productive–I wanted to free up my brain so I could MAKE STUFF.
The one that grabbed my interest the most was this one.* It’s about KANBAN BOARDS. You can read about these all over the place online. I don’t recommend it unless you are an engineer or just like how engineers talk. They say things like “lean method” and “agile development tool”. I’m not an engineer. I’m a writer, and I saw the board like I see everything, through my Sesame Street colored glasses. I saw a COLORFUL CHART where you break things into manageable pieces and move those pieces, like on a board game. And in the end, you get stuff done! Stuff you (probably!) want to do.
Here’s the idea. The board is divided into three sections: To Do, In Process, and Done. But that doesn’t convey how clever it is, so let’s go a bit deeper.
First, I decided on the amount of time I wanted my board to cover. I used the model of the video and made it three months. I made a list of all the things I want to accomplish in the next three months, in the following categories: BOOK, OUTREACH, NEW THINGS, HOME, CREATE, and BOOKS TO READ. Those are the categories that worked for me because they reflect what I do. You’d obviously make your own, choosing your own projects, subjects, and tasks.***
I can’t do everything. I had to pick some things to focus on, and after that, set some perimeters of what to do inside those things. I couldn’t just SOCIAL MEDIA. I had to pick what and how much. I wrote this down, then broke each thing down to one task each. One thing, for example, was this post. Single, clearly stated tasks. I then took the extra step of writing the goal I wanted to reach for in each category (except for the books I want to read). For example, BOOK had a draft date. Where it got a little fiddly for me was the section about writing a book, which is the main thing I do. I have quite a lot of the book written and there is only a bit left to do, but I need to organize that bit. But mostly my writing is just…writing. So I broke the tasks down into word count notes, some specific research tasks, and the revision of two organizational documents I use to plan the mysteries and the overarching stories.
I DIDN’T LIKE IT ONE BIT. I squirmed in the chair. I was making myself decide what precisely to do. I was doing it all at once. Why was I doing this when I could be pacing in the kitchen or asking the dog questions or simply punching myself in the face?
But I did it. Then I transferred all those tasks to post-it notes
, which were organized by color, corresponding to the categories. It was time to make the board. Basically, the tools I needed were: a whiteboard/space on wall, some post its, and some washi tape. (Washi tape is fancy, decorative tape that people who like planners love to use. It is entirely optional in this process but I wanted some to make my board appealing to me and eye catching.) Don’t have a whiteboard? Wall space will do. Don’t have wall space? You can make one of these online or on a piece of cardboard. I oriented my board horizontally.
Notice that all the post-its are blurred. That’s not a visual effect. My post-its are MAGIC.
You put all your post-its in the to-do section to start. Here’s where I realized the genius of this board. You’re only supposed to have ONE POST IT in the section marked IN PROCESS. Some people may have more than one, because things in different categories will be done in sections. And some of these things take more time than others. A post it marked 5000 Words will take more time than one marked Clean Out Sock Drawer.****
For my first task, I deliberately chose something short and easy—the sock drawer. I knew I could do that in about ten minutes. I wanted to test the feeling of moving the post it down the chain. So.
I took the post it.
I put it in that middle section.
I did the thing.
I moved the post it down to the bottom section, marked DONE.
I like this kind of thing. The satisfaction of doing one of the things reduced the anxiety. I’m sure there’s a psychological term for this, but I’m going to refer to it as The Niceness.
So then I moved the post-it for THIS VERY POST into position.
I realize none of this is new. MOST THINGS AREN’T! I’m using a well-known system here. But we all discover and use things in our own way, and we don’t need all things at all times. For me, this may be a great new way forward as we steer through the fog.
The big takeaway for me is doing as much of the thinking in advance, breaking things down into tasks, and setting it up so I don’t have to devote as much time to figuring out which things to do or trying to do more than that. I deliberately set some of the barriers low. I have a book to finish, so I didn’t add in, “Write three blog posts a day, start 12 podcasts, grow fins and a beak” because that is too much. DO IT IN BITS. The journey of a thousand miles, etc. Will I use this forever? Who knows! It doesn’t matter!
I hope you are well. I hope you are making and doing what you can, and if you can’t right now, that’s okay too. There’s a lot happening, so just reading this post? Hey! You did a thing! And if you have any tips or tricks or things you are using to get through the fog right now, please add them in the comments!
* I exaggerate only slightly. She can do three of these things. It’s up to you to decide which three.
** This channel is called Heart Breathings, and its one that Holly recommended a lot. It’s a treasure trove of planner and organizational information for writers. Some of it overwhelmed me at first, because she has so many planners and systems, but if you take it in steps you can see all the cool stuff she’s built. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
*** I think for most Kanban boards you are only supposed to have three categories, but this one is mine, and I want six and I shall have six. Suck it, engineers. I shall have my trinkets.
****I don’t want to hear one word, engineers. Not one word.