Friday Link Love: Special Lists Edition

deb1654baf42ccffbe2f148ea6dd7c9dThis is my last planned post of 2012. Next week I am off to celebrate the radical and improbable incarnation of God, then Margaret’s birthday on 12/27, and my own on 1/2.

I’m a sucker for a good end-of-year list. FLL is light on links this week, but each of these offerings has tons of links within it, like web-based nesting dolls. Enjoy… and share your favorite end of year list in the comments.

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Top 20 Insights, Talks, and Quotables on Making Ideas Happen — 99U

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A Colossal Year: Top 15 Posts in 2012 — Colossal

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The Best of the Best List: 2012 Critics’ Top Books — The Daily Beast

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And while this isn’t a 2012-specific list, here’s a link to my most popular posts on this blog to tide you over until I return.

Point of personal privilege: on December 23 I enter my 10th year of blogging. My first blog is long decommissioned, but I give thanks for the connections made and insights gained from this medium. Blogging almost feels quaint now, given the connectional tools now at our disposal. Yet I love the (relatively) long-form genre that is the blog. And I thank you for your companionship over the years.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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Just in Time Living

There are people in my life who do their Christmas shopping several months in advance. I guess they’re taking advantage of sales, or cutting down on the December stress, or heck, maybe they’re procrastinating some current unsavory chore by working waaaaay ahead.

I am not one of these people. At all. At the beginning of September I got an invitation to a party that’s not until the end of October and I was in awe: How do people do that?!?

I remember one August a few years back, Caroline started talking about Halloween. The conversation moved from idle chatter about the holiday to wanting to nail down specific plans. (Can’t remember what those were now.)

I said, “You know what, sweetie? It’s not even Labor Day. You don’t have school shoes yet. I love talking about what you want to do at Halloween, but there is no space in my head for Halloween planning right now. Talk to me after school starts.”

Yes, I really say things like this to my children. And then they roll their eyes.

You’ve heard of just in time business processes? Instead of keeping a bunch of inventory on their shelves or factories, companies are refining their supply chains in order to get products and parts in stock exactly when they’re needed. According to Wikipedia, “Implemented correctly, JIT focuses on continuous improvement and can improve a manufacturing organization’s return on investment, quality, and efficiency.”

Lately I have been practicing just in time living. It’s a matter of survival. Life is not structured to allow me to work months ahead. (Is it for anyone?)

Example: Monday is grocery day. I had made a list over the weekend, and it was a doozy because we are out of everything. Problem was, the longest period of time I had for shopping yesterday was the 40 minutes during Caroline’s piano lesson. So I broke the weekly list into two parts and bought only what we needed for early in the week. The rest will come later. It feels inefficient—two trips to the grocery store. But in another way it feels more efficient—the tasks are smaller, which makes them easier to pull off in the midst of a life that doesn’t have big honkin’ blocks of time at the moment.

Just in time living feels chaotic, and it is, in a way. But paradoxically, the chaos requires a lot of planning. You have to build in some margin for error and unexpected circumstance. You need good systems. Just in time relies on “signals or ‘Kanban’ (看板) between different points in the process, which tell production when to make the next part. Kanban are usually ‘tickets’ but can be simple visual signals, such as the presence or absence of a part on a shelf.”

So I am obsessive about getting things onto the to-do list. Which is a challenge, because our brains don’t remind us of things at convenient times. You don’t realize you’re out of toilet paper when you’re on aisle 9 of the Costco. You realize it when, well… you know.

When just in time living works badly–which is much of the time lately–it feels like I’m perpetually behind. Nothing is ever spectacular, it’s all just good enough. But those few times when it works well, I feel like a domestic ninja: In the moment. No wasted moves.

It also makes Sabbath all the more important: one day a week when I’m not making any mental calculations.

Is your life “just in time”?

How do you “do it”?

Friday Link Love: Mrs. Jesus, Mandatory Sandwiches, and a Wee Bit of Death

Let me first dispense with the Links of Self Promo:

New Website // Order the Book // Sign up for the Goodreads Giveaway

OK. Now that that’s done…

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Interactive Cloud of 6,000 Light Bulbs — O.C.L.

That’s Obligatory Colossal Link:

Gorgeous!

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Small Good Things — Paris Review

A lovely little essay about how writers illuminate the sacramental nature of ordinary things, particularly food.

The author talks about Raymond Carver’s story “A Small Good Thing,” which you may recall is about a couple who lose their 8 year old son, and they are tormented by the phone calls from a hapless baker who is demanding payment for the birthday cake he made for the boy.

I performed that piece for Prose Interp competitions in high school. I read it now and cringe to think of my performance. What did I know at 18 about the heartbreak within that story? Nothing. I knew nothing.

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Famous Writers on Death and Mortality — Flavorwire

I’ll say it—Christopher Hitchens was a pretentious old crank—but I cannot wait to read his book Mortality. In honor of its publication, here are 20 writers on the last great mystery:

“We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves.

I wish for all this to be marked on by body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography — to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience.” – Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

By the way, if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend Sum: 40 Tales of the Afterlives by David Eagleman. So, so imaginative and poignant.

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How the President Gets Things Done — 99U

I really like 99U. Lots of cool ideas there. Here are some things that Barack Obama does to make his life easier and more efficient, including offloading trivial decisions like what to eat and wear.

#5 warmed my Sabbath-loving heart:

5. Your personal time is sacred.

The president has three moments in his schedule that are unquestionably his: the morning workout, his dinner with his daughters, and the nighttime after his family falls asleep. Each block of time serves a different role for Obama: the gym keeps his body in good health, the late night helps him catch up on work, and the dinner is especially sacred time, with the added benefit of giving the president a bit of perspective outside his hectic workday.

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Historian Says Piece of Papyrus Refers to Jesus’ Wife — NYT

This has been making the rounds. This scrap of papyrus suggests that Jesus might have had a wife—it would not have been unusual at the time, folks—and  that there were female disciples (not earth-shattering to anyone who’s actually read the gospels—sisters are all over that good news!). Here’s the pertinent bit:

“This fragment suggests that some early Christians had a tradition that Jesus was married,” Dr. King said. “There was, we already know, a controversy in the second century over whether Jesus was married, caught up with a debate about whether Christians should marry and have sex.”

People have been wondering and arguing about this guy for a very, very long time. Disagreement over contested truths are nothing new. Giddy-up and praise be.

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Should Lunch Breaks Be Mandatory? — BBC

I’m not sure how I feel about mandating lunch breaks. Especially for people with a long commute and/or kids at home, there’s something to be said for compressing the workday so they can get home at a decent hour. Still:

One obvious reason to do lunch is to slow down and gain some perspective. If we burrow into work, and don’t come up for air during the day, we will have a hard time thinking strategically or putting our daily tasks into broader context.

By taking a lunch break, we can think outside the box. In the interviews I conducted for my book, I was struck by how many senior leaders stressed the importance of strategic “downtime” – lunch or some other block of an hour or more per day – to break up their thinking and spur them to be more strategic.

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What Americans Actually Do All Weekend, in 2 Graphs — NPR

What do you see in this graph? I see:

  1. A lot of sleep.
  2. Religious activities are only 37 minutes… and yet many worship services last an hour. So what’s up with the other 23 minutes? Oh right: sleeping.

Well, whatever the weekend holds for you, I hope that the leisure bit is a nice big piece of the graph.

Friday Link Love: How Creativity Happens, Generosity, Musical Black Holes and More

Hey there,

I’m off with the beloved to a weekend in the mountains before It All Starts Again — here are some things to keep folks busy in the meantime:

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Colossal Turns Two — Colossal

Colossal is one of my favorite sites, and I loved reading the story of how Christopher Jobson first started it. He got the idea while waiting for jury duty:

So I sat. And waited. For some reason I launched a text editor on my laptop and started making a list of things I had been thinking about doing lately (read: procrastinating for months). At first it was just ten simple things that we all put on our lists “get in shape” and “read more books”. But as I sat there, with this day of civic boredom stretching into infinity before me I became ambitious. I made spaces instead for 100 things and decided to get specific. “Learn to kayak. Run a 5k. Take a course in ceramics.” Because why not? All that pot throwing has to be pretty calming and therapeutic or meditative right? The list went on and on. There were plenty of easy things and lots of hard ones. I put “Finish a book” on there about a dozen times because I’m terrible about finishing anything I begin to read. Then, way down toward the bottom, at number 83: “Start a blog.”

The entirety of 2010 was spent Doing the List.

There’s so much to love about this when it comes to how creativity happens. First, there’s the importance of fallow time (there was no WiFi at jury duty, which is what initiated the list. Then there’s the creation of a list. Lists are powerful; I write about them in Sabbath in the Suburbs because we created lists of suggested things for the kids to do on Sabbath, to try to stave off the “I’m bored” monster. Then there’s the very unsexy part of creativity which is actually implementing all these lofty ideas, bit by bit, action by action. Here’s the first image he ever posted:

Thanks for such a great ride, Chris.

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What Successful People Do with the First Hour of Their Work Day — Fast Company

Brian Tracy’s classic time-management book Eat That Frog gets its title from a Mark Twain saying that, if you eat a live frog first thing in the morning, you’ve got it behind you for the rest of the day, and nothing else looks so bad. Gina Trapani explained it well in a video for her Work Smart series). Combine that with the concept of getting one thing done before you wade into email, and you’ve got a day-to-day system in place. Here’s how to force yourself to stick to it…

More at the link…

What do you do? I’ll admit it–I answer e-mail. Sometimes I blog. It helps me ease into the day.

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Louis CK, TJ and Dave, and the Power of Slow Comedy — Splitsider

I am a big Louis CK fan, though I don’t watch his show (maybe I should). I liked this article about comedy that builds, rather than providing a one-liner every 20 seconds (though that’s fune too). Mike Birbiglia’s stuff is like that too.

I first discovered the concept of slow comedy while taking a level 3 class at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater in New York City nine years ago. My instructor, Michael Delaney, was a long time veteran and one of the strongest performers at the theater. I desperately wanted to make a good impression in his first class. During one of my first scenes, which took place in a prison, I decided to make my character into a ridiculous prison caricature, threatening to rape my scene partner while sharpening a shiv. I’d even made the threat into a silly song, because I’d decided this prisoner was way into Disney movies. “What a bold character choice!” I thought to myself. A few minutes into the scene Delaney stopped everything and asked me, flat out, who I thought this character I was playing really was, and what he was all about – his name, why he was in prison, his hopes and dreams. I stammered and tried to explain that he was just some angry prisoner who probably also loved The Little Mermaid, but he wasn’t buying it. And right then he went into a speech on improv and comedy that I’ll never forget:

“If you create a world with ridiculous characters, you may discover something funny in your scene. But I believe the stronger decision is to play real, grounded characters that are vulnerable and affected by the world around them. You take your time, perform at the top of your intelligence, and react realistically to what happens. Now, this won’t always lead to a hilarious scene. Sometimes you’ll have a scene that won’t be funny at all. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t successful. Sometimes you’ve just made some interesting theater. And if that sounds awful, know that the audience will not hate you like they will if you try to force something funny on them and it falls flat.”

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Isolated and Under-Exposed: Why the Rich Don’t Give — The Atlantic Cities

…as a share of their income, the richest people in the U.S. are giving at a significantly lower rate than the less affluent.

The study looked at tax returns for people with reported earnings of $50,000 or more from the year 2008 – the most recent year for which data was available. The report found that for people earning between $50,000 and $75,000, an average of 7.6 percent of discretionary income was donated to charity. For those earning $200,000 or more, just 4.2 percent of discretionary income was donated.

Turns out lower giving among the rich likely has much more to do with where they live and who they live near.

As this accompanying article from the journal notes, when the rich are highly concentrated in wealthy enclaves, they’re less likely to give as compared with the rich living in more economically diverse neighborhoods. The report found that in neighborhoods where more than 40 percent of taxpayers reported earning $200,000 or more, the average giving was just 2.8 percent of discretionary income.

In other words, concentration of wealth is also isolation from the less fortunate.

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Imagine: The Music of the Universe — Duke Divinity Call and Response

I’m just finishing A Swiftly Tilting Planet with the girls. Not one of Madeleine L’Engle’s best, but I love her descriptions of the “music of the spheres” — the ways the heavens sing of the glory of God. Turns out there’s something to that:

A recent Spark story in News & Ideas is about an astronomer who studies black holes. With a bit of techno-engineering he found that the sound of a star dying is approximately a D-sharp. How delightfully geeky and wondrous.

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Is God Good… All the Time? — Andrew Kukla

Andrew is a friend from seminary who has a way of drilling down on the big questions I’m thinking about too. Here he takes on the “God is good… all the time… all the time… God is good” call and response:

Do I think that God isn’t good?  Not exactly… it’s never that clear and straightforward for me.   I don’t think God is evil, or amoral, or capricious (well… there are moments).  It’s just that the statement “God is good all the time” is the kind of statement made of the God that died for me back [during a difficult stint as a hospital chaplain among the poor of Atlanta].  I had to kill that God… strung that God up on the cross and nailed the hands and feet and pronounced God dead.  Here is the wonderful thing that occurred to me because of that experience.  When I killed the God of my own creation, the God that fit my categories (like goodness), when I killed that god the God that really is – a God of mystery and wonder and grace and life and love – was resurrected, came alive to me in ways I had not previously experienced.  To borrow from Joseph Campbell I had begun to worship the mask of God created by my theology and thoughts and (most problematic) my needs rather than the God that lay beyond the mask.

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I Believe in God. I Don’t Believe in God — Guardian

This:

In a celebrated essay on Russian literature, Isaiah Berlin famously borrowed a quotation from the Greek poet Archilochus to distinguish two very different sorts of thinkers: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” The fox, like Berlin himself, can commit to a plurality of values, even when they are incommensurable.

The hedgehog wants to subsume all reality under a single idea or principle. Speaking for myself, I fear hedgehogs, whatever the brand of reality they want to sign up to. Yet hedgehogs, and certainly clever ones, are well defended by their consistency. By contrast, foxes are in the awkward and vulnerable position of contradicting themselves. I love the church. I hate the church. I believe in God. I don’t believe in God. I do it all the time. And I am totally unrepentant. It seems to me that one of the marks of sanity is that one can live with contradiction.

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Creationism is Not Appropriate for Children — Bill Nye (video)

The Science Guy makes it plain:

And I say to the grownups, if you want to deny evolution and live in your world, in your world that’s completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe, that’s fine, but don’t make your kids do it because we need them. We need scientifically literate voters and taxpayers for the future. We need people that can—we need engineers that can build stuff, solve problems.

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Off to eat great food, hike some mountains, and sit in a hot tub. Etc. See you next week…

Tech Support: Five Programs That Helped Me Git ‘Er Done

My sister-in-law is writing her dissertation and Facebooked the other day, “Do you suppose I could thank ‘lattes’ in the acknowledgements?” I told her that I almost listed Evernote in the acknowledgements of my book, but decided against it.

In lieu of that, here are the software programs and technological marvels that helped me get the book written. Consider this the “tech acknowledgements” for Sabbath in the Suburbs:

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The pomodoro technique: OK, this is more of a concept than a program, although it does require a timer. The idea is simple: work for a specific amount of time (e.g. 25 minutes), then take a break for a (shorter) period of time (e.g. 5 minutes). That’s it. If you’re prone to goofing off or procrastination, it’s great because a break is never more than 25 minutes away. If you’re a raging perfectionist who has a hard time getting started because it can all be immaculate in your head, pomodoro helps you hack your brain: I’m not writing a book, I’m just working for 25 minutes. No big deal.

Of course you can download the book to learn more, or buy the cute tomato-shaped timer, but really, what more do you need?

I wrote major sections of the book using a modified pomodoro. Consider it a very practical way of living out Anne Lamott’s “bird by bird” idea, which you can read about here. Or E.L. Doctorow’s bit about how writing a book is like driving at night: you can only see as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole journey that way.

Wondering how you could write an entire book? Do it in 25 minute chunks.

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Self Control: Self Control allows you to block websites (and apparently e-mail servers) for whatever amount of time you specify. I use this program every weekend during tech sabbath but also on days when I’m feeling like that dog from Pixar’s Up. SQUIRREL!!

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Social media: yes, the big two can be major black holes of time, but they are also great places to test ideas, take informal polls, and even get grammatical reality checks (is it “any of us is” or “any of us are“?). Blogging is also great for these things, of course.

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Things: Things is the to-do list I use for everything, not just for the book. It’s intuitive, it’s elegant, and it jibes with Getting Things Done methodology, though you don’t need to be a GTD disciple to use it. There’s an iPhone app as well, and as of this month, the new version includes Cloud Sync so you no longer have to sync your devices manually. So far, so good.

I used the to-do list to break down the book project into manageable chunks. I do this with every writing project and it helps me maintain forward momentum. Sometimes the tasks are tiny (brainstorm for 15 minutes, print out scripture passages for exegetical article) but those are perfect for an otherwise busy day.

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Evernote: Even if I hadn’t said it in my first paragraph, c’mon, you knew that was coming. I wrote the book entirely in Evernote. First I collected my information (research, anecdotes, quotable quotes) into a series of notebooks. Then I started writing short vignettes and sketches of scenes. Those evernotes became whole chapters as I realized how effortless it was to write in that program.

Writing in Evernote has many advantages:

  1. It’s in the cloud, which offers an additional layer of security and peace of mind.
  2. There’s a note history, which means you can look at past versions of notes without saving versions using crazy names like “chapter 3 REALLY NEW version 2.”
  3. It’s very fast and autosaves constantly, unlike that behemoth Microsoft Word.
  4. It has all the basic formatting you need (italics, etc.).

All that said, there are two pretty big drawbacks:

  1. Evernote for Mac does NOT have word count, which I’ve bugged them about repeatedly. So every so often I’d dump a chapter into Word and see how I was doing. It’s not a big deal, and my publisher required the manuscript in Word anyway, but I wanted to mention it. (I understand that Evernote for PC has this feature. Where is the justice? How long, O Lord?)
  2. While there is basic formatting, it does not do smart quotes. Yeah, that’s big. But once I put the doc in Word, I did a global replace and the quotes came through fine. Besides, once you’ve gotten the thing written you should be editing your work with a fine-tooth comb anyway, right? Dumb quotes help keep you on your toes.

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So thank you to all the product managers, programmers, engineers, QA people, etc. who put these programs together. You made my job easier.

Incidentally, just today I saw this list of alternatives to Microsoft Word. Can’t vouch for them but I’ll be taking a look.

What technological marvels help you do what you do?

Get-It-Done Book Review… and Giveaway!

See below for a chance to get free stuff in the mail! Yay! Free stuff!

Being busy is a form of laziness–lazy thinking and indiscriminate action… Being overwhelmed is often as unproductive as doing nothing, and is far more unpleasant.

–Timothy Ferris, The Four Hour Workweek

I’m a bit addicted to time-management books, but their quality, usefulness and readability are all over the map. I read Ferris’s book and got a couple of things out of it, including the above quote which is brilliant IMO, but overall the book just didn’t hit home with me.

I recently found a new book that embodies the quote above and is actually fun to read. Stever Robbins has a personal productivity podcast (say that five times fast) and has put his best stuff into a book, The Get-It-Done Guy’s 9 Steps to Work Less and Do More.

Robbins’s book blends a lot of high level thinking (what are your goals?) with nitty-gritty techniques for being more productive (here’s one: to keep from getting distracted when working a project, make an “interruption list” of things to tend to when you’re done with what you’re working on). His chapter on procrastination has a lot of practical suggestions and is a great complement to Anne Lamott’s angst-ridden meditation on the subject in Bird by Bird. And chapter 1, “Live on Purpose,” deals with goal setting in a very intuitive way. I’ve never really gotten the “vision/ mission/ goal/ objective” distinction, and his stuff on “goal ladders” is simple and makes sense to me.

Robbins also has a great sense of humor. This may be the only time-management book in which zombies play a prominent role. In a section on e-mail, he talks about templates and macros as a way to streamline your communication:

Let’s say your boss has you saying no to a dozen different requests each day: a dog show invitation, a request for money, and someone claiming to be a long-lost child, asking to be added to the will.

Those are pretty different. You want to respond to each individually, but your responses can have paragraphs in common. All might start like this: “Mr. Boss appreciates your letter. Your tragic plight is touching.” Then you add a paragraph or two crushing that person’s hopes and dreams, and you finish up with, “Mr. Boss regrets that he can’t do more for your deeply troubling situation.”

Some of the latter chapters get more theoretical, and the one on building relationships seemed a little utilitarian. Yes, building a network does help you be more productive, but part of my job is to love people whether they can be useful to me or not. Still, it’s worth a read if for no other reason than that he takes that treacly starfish story (you know the one) and gives it a much-needed twist.

This would be a great book for a young person starting out in a career who really wants to get their life together, although others would find it valuable too. (No book of this genre is going to work on people who don’t want to change or who can’t see the need.) It’s a quick read, with several novel suggestions for working smarter.

And! Because I love hearing tips on how other people make their life work, leave your favorite lifehack/best idea in the comments. On Monday I’ll choose someone at random and send them a copy of the Get-It-Done Guy book.