Tips for Downsizing Your Reading Library

recycling-bin-2
Photo courtesy of Hubspot


February’s theme is “For the love of books.”

In my last post, I described ways that you can acquire books cheaply or for free. But a problem for many readers is managing the collections they have. How can you assimilate new acquisitions into your current collection while minimizing the clutter? What to do with all those new and used books you just purchased?

Let’s face it. It’s much easier to build a reading library than it is to dismantle it. You know it’s time to declutter your bookshelves when:

a) You still have not read books you purchased more than two years ago;
b) Books are falling off the shelf because there’s no more room for them;
c) There’s a thick layer of dust sitting on them;
d) You’ve already read many of them and you don’t plan to re-read them;
e) You have no idea what to do with them or how to get rid of the overflow.

Here’s an idea to maintain your library so that it doesn’t begin to overflow and get cluttered. This is especially helpful if you mix the books you’ve already read with ones you have yet to read.

Pull out all the books from your shelves. Sort them according to books you have yet to read and those you have already read. Assign one or two shelves for the books you have yet to read and place unread books there. Another shelf will be reserved for those you have already read.

With each book you complete, add it to the shelf with the books you’ve already read. When that shelf begins to get cluttered, it’s time to decide what to do with them.

It might be helpful to set up bins or baskets for donations, selling, swapping or keeping for future re-use. Just like you would with your clothes closet, go through the books you’ve read – and even the ones you haven’t read – and decide if it’s better to sell it (think garage sale), donate it to a local nonprofit thrift shop, or pass it along to a friend. Hopefully the “Keep for future re-read” basket will remain empty.

Take time to go through the unread books as well. Ask yourself: When did I purchase this book? Do I still plan to read it? If you purchased it more than two years ago, and you haven’t read it yet, chances are you may never get around to it. In that case, it may be time to get rid of it.

With a system like this in place, it’s easy to keep track of what you’ve read and what you have yet to read. It’s also easier to decide what to do with the ones you’ve already finished reading.

It can be a painful process to go through your book collection. They are like treasured friends. You want to keep them around all the time. But like having a household of friends, at some point, they have to move on to new homes. If you have difficulty letting go of your books, if you’ve become too attached to them, consider asking a friend to help you sort through them.

Once you know which books you want to depart with, think of where you can take them. Check your local public library to see if they have a donation program. Some libraries might still accept donations; others don’t anymore, like the Chicago Public Library. It couldn’t handle the overflow.

Also check with local non-profits in your area, such as Chicago Books to Women in Prison and similar groups, which use donated books to send to incarcerated women. Be sure to visit their website first to see what kinds of materials they will accept. For example, CBWP does not accept hard covers because they are not accepted at prison facilities. Make sure books you donate are in good condition and don’t have writing and underlining in them.

Consider trading books with friends and family members or contribute a few to your nearest Little Free Library. Also check local coffee shops. Some may have a community bookshelf for discarded books.

Finally, when your bookshelves are decluttered, set a parameter for yourself. For every book you acquire, get rid of one from your shelf. It will force you to be more mindful of how often you add to your collection. Then as you finish reading one book, put it on a separate shelf with other books you’ve already read. Once that shelf is filled, it’s time to declutter again.

It’s fun developing a reading library, but it’s as fun when they begin to collect dust or the shelves become so overloaded with unread books that you have to get rid of them. By having a few systems in place, downsizing your book collection will be less painful and you can manage your library more easily.

 

Fresh Start 2019: Better Content Planning for Your Blog

blackboard-620314_1280
Photo courtesy of Hubspot

If your goal for the New Year is to launch a new blog or refresh the one you already have, an easy place to start is with content, namely story selection. It can be a challenge knowing what to write about as you stare at a blank page or computer screen.

If you’re constantly wracking your brain for story ideas, it could be that you haven’t planned your content ahead of time. Any successful blogger can tell you that having good content and posting frequently are keys to attracting and keeping readers. A content plan (what I sometimes refer to as an editorial plan) can help you develop your story ideas before you begin to write them and schedule them over the coming weeks and months. Having a content plan helps you sort through all your story ideas by theme and by month, while giving you some flexibility to add stories as news breaks that is worth following.

The blog planning tool I use is very simple and straightforward. It consists of three columns: the topic, keywords and date posted. (See image below for sample form.) You might be able to find similar planners online or adapt one for your own use. Make sure there are enough rows to write down your list of stories.

blog worksheet2

Here’s how the blog content planner works:

1. Begin brainstorming story ideas. Think of as many as you can related to your blog’s central theme and jot them down on a blank sheet of paper or your laptop. For example, if your blog is about budget-friendly travel tips, you might come up with stories such as using Groupon to plan tours and visit restaurants, cheaper alternatives to hotels, and cheap or free things to do at your destination.

If you struggle to think of story ideas, have a friend help you. Sometimes they may think of angles you had not considered. It might also be helpful to keep a file of news stories that may be worth covering on your blog.

2. Assign each story to a category.
As you complete your list of story idea, you may notice common themes developing. For example, you may notice six stories about tours and sightseeing trips and a few others related to overnight accommodations. In the space next to the story idea, write the theme or category. Most if not all of your stories will fall into one or two categories.

3. Jot down categorized stories on the planning worksheet. For every story categorized under tours and sightseeing, for example, write them down under the topic heading on your planner. In the line that says theme, fill in the blank with your category (Tours and sightseeing trips). Each category will have its own page, so you will want to have multiple copies of the planning worksheet. One sheet will be story ideas related to overnight accommodations, another for cheap eats on the road, and a third for tours and sightseeing, and so on.

You may only have five or six story ideas per category. That’s okay. You can add to the list as you think of more stories.

4. Determine which month your stories will be posted. For example, you might post a series of stories about springtime weekend getaways that would be ideally suited for posting in March or April, while stories about staycations might be a good choice for late fall or winter. My theme for January is “Fresh starts and new beginnings,” so my stories have that theme. February will have a different theme and my story selection will reflect this new theme.

blog worksheet3

5. Keep to a schedule.
As you post a story, enter the date in your blog planner. Most important, set a schedule of posting and stick to it. Write regularly and consistently. That way your readers will know when to expect to see updates to your blog. Consistency is key to driving readers to your site.

A blog planning worksheet can simplify your thought process and save you a lot of time down the road. Once you’ve done the brainstorming and assigned categories to each story, the hard work is over. Planning content around a monthly theme means you don’t have to scramble looking for ideas. It’s especially helpful when you’re pressed for time because you don’t have to think about what your next story will be. Just refer to your blog planner for your selection of stories. Then begin writing.

Fresh Start 2019: Five Strategies to Jumpstart Your Writing Practice After the Holidays

 

blank paper with pen and coffee cup on wood table
Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com

Getting back into regular writing mode after the holidays can be a challenge. After weeks of celebrations and shopping, writing may have been the furthest thing from your mind. If you’re still struggling to restart your writing practice two weeks into the New Year, here are some tips to get you back on track.

1. Start small. Set a daily goal of either time duration (15 minutes, for example) or word count (200 words or so). Short-term goals will be easier to achieve, and once you achieve them, you feel you’ve accomplished something significant. Do that for several days and pretty soon, you will naturally expand your goals to writing for 30 minutes or longer and reaching higher word counts.

Another smaller goal might be to write a 500-word essay, short story or op-ed piece before jumping into a novel. That way you can break down the writing into smaller chunks over several days. By the end of that first week, you’ve finished one project and you can move on to a larger, more challenging piece.

2. Make an appointment with yourself. If you are fairly reliable about keeping appointments, make one for your writing sessions. Write them down on your calendar just as you would a doctor appointment or a client meeting. Putting the appointments in your calendar will serve as a reminder to keep with your writing schedule. It will help you maintain consistency with your practice. Even if your session is only for 15 minutes, seeing it in your calendar will motivate you to keep that important appointment with yourself.

3. Meet with a writing buddy or a mentor. Sometimes having someone on your side who supports your endeavors can motivate you to keep up with your practice. Making a coffee date with a writing buddy or a mentor and talking shop for an hour can spur some interesting story ideas and keep you motivated. If you are the competitive type, you might be galvanized into action when you find out he/she is churning out pages of copy while you’re still eating holiday leftovers. A mentor can help you redouble your efforts and give you a long overdue pep talk, so you can start writing again.

4. Attend a write-in session. Write-ins are open, public forums for people to spend quiet, uninterrupted time writing on whatever piece they’re working on. Write-ins can take place anywhere and are usually sponsored by a library, university or writers group. It usually doesn’t cost anything to attend. Just bring your laptop or a notebook and pens, and your imagination. Then be prepared to write for as long as you wish. The extended quiet time helps you focus on your current piece with little or no interruption.

It’s also motivating to be surrounded by other like-minded creative individuals who are working toward similar goals. There’s a silent camaraderie in an environment like that, which is why it presents a great opportunity to jumpstart your writing practice. Because once you start writing in an environment like that, you want to keep the creative juices flowing. Check local libraries, universities and writing studios to see if there’s a public write-in near you.

5. Learn something new. Take a class or attend a workshop or lecture. There are numerous cheap or free classes you can take online or at a local community college or studio. One two-hour session may be all you need to inspire you to write, and the session doesn’t even have to be writing-related. Take a cooking class and watch how the instructor mixes ingredients. Listen to a podcast or participate in a webinar about money management or astronomy – whatever piques your interest. Sometimes focusing on a completely off-the-radar topic can spur some wildly imaginative ideas. And it’s just plain fun to learn something new.

Experts suggest it can take six to eight weeks to form a new habit, so it may take that long to get back into your writing groove. Be patient with yourself. The world was not built in one day. Neither will your novel. Try any one of these baby steps to jump start your writing practice.

Taking a break happens to all of us. The key is getting started again right away. Don’t let too much time pass. It’s a lot like falling off a bike. After you fall, you have to dust yourself off and jump back on the bike. Then just keep pedaling. You’ll get to your writing destination in no time.

7 Ways to Improve Your Professional Life in 2018

road-1668916_640

Happy New Year! Welcome to 2018!

With the flip of the calendar, not only have we changed months, we have moved on to a brand new year. I always look forward to this time of year – a time to reassess where I have been and where I would like to be in the coming year. It’s an exciting time for me because I have an opportunity to make changes in my life to produce the kind of success that I want for myself. Rather than resolutions, I prefer to call these efforts “calls to action” or “priority-setting” because I think it’s more positive and helps drive my efforts for the rest of the year.

What about you?  Have you made any promises to yourself to change some things in your professional life?

Whether you call them resolutions, goals or calls to action, you can always find ways to improve your professional life. There’s always room for improvement, especially if you want to stay relevant in your industry or company. Here are a few examples of improvement goals any worker might consider achieving in 2018.

1. Learn new skills. Take time to assess the skills you already have. Then take a few minutes to assess what skills are most in demand for your job or in the workplace overall. If you work in sales, perhaps you need to brush up on your public speaking skills, visual design skills for your presentations, or learn a new system for tracking your contacts and sales results. You can never have enough skills, and the more updated your skills are, the more in demand you may be at your company or in the job market.

2. Mind your manners. Be aware of how you think and how you behave around others. B respectful of everyone you know and meet on a daily basis. If we have learned anything from 2017 is that sexual harassment happens everywhere every day. Be mindful of your own actions. And if you experience or witness harassment in your workplace, speak up. The best way to combat harassment is to bring it out in the open and make people aware of their behavior when it happens.

3. Take care of your health. Let’s face it, you can’t be productive at your job if you are sick. If you catch a cold or flu, stay home and get the rest you need. Your co-workers will thank you for it. Good health also means good health habits, such as getting at least eight hours of sound, restful sleep at night, getting annual physical and dental exams, eating more healthful meals, exercising regularly, drinking water instead of soft drinks, and practicing stress reduction techniques like meditation. When you feel your best, you will produce your best work.

4. Build your network. For some professionals, a strong network is vital to their business. If your own network is lacking, resolve to build it up in 2018. It isn’t how many people you know, but WHO you know. The quality of your relationships may be more important than how many people are in your network. Those who know you better are in a better position to give you what you need, whether that is career guidance, business referrals or job opportunities. Remember to offer your assistance in return. Don’t be shy about giving testimonials for good business service, pass along job leads or give helpful advice to a colleague. The good you do now can come back to you in spades later when you need it.

5. Get organized. Most people aren’t born with good organizational ability. Sometimes you have to train yourself on how to be organized. Did you ever stop to think that your lack of organization may be holding you back from performing at your best? For example, if you keep misplacing your keys or your bills keep getting lost in a pile of papers on your desk, put up a little shelving unit on your wall that contains hooks for your keys and pockets for your bills. That way you know where to find them and you don’t have to keep looking for them when you need them. Developing systems at home and at work can help you operate more efficiently.

6. Update your financial skills. If finance has always baffled you or you have difficulty making and sticking to a budget, it may be time to seek some help. There are numerous apps available to help you with budgeting, for example. Take a class at your local library or community college or download e-books that can help you understand basic finance principles. If you really feel stuck, seek out the advice of a professional financial planner. Learning about financial planning can help you not only personally, but also at work where you may need to manage a department budget.

7. Practice better work-life balance. In the competitive business world, it is easy to keep saying yes to business opportunities, projects, invitations, and so on. We can get so caught up in the day-to-day business obligations that we neglect our personal lives. Or likewise, we get caught up in our personal obligations that our professional life suffers. Practicing better work-life balance may be a simple as learning to say no. We all need time to catch our breath. Living life at full throttle eventually catches up to us. We’re not meant to live life at full speed, or we’ll simply crash and burn. To avoid burnout at work or in life, slow down. Start saying no to things that are non-essential to your happiness. Work-life balance can happen; it just requires an assessment of your priorities and making some tough decisions. But you’ll be happier for it in the long run.

8. Give back to your community. Speaking of work-life balance, one way to bring more balance into your life and your career is giving back. That can mean anything from fostering a dog or cat in need to mentoring a young professional in your office. When you do something for someone else, it gives you a warm feeling inside knowing that there is more to life than your work.

These are all common sense objectives. You don’t have to pursue all of them. Choosing one or two can make a difference in your life, not just for today but for many years to come.

The Myth of Multi-Tasking

woman-1150568_1280

With the holidays fast approaching, we can all expect to be running more errands and having more demands on our time. Time is a priceless commodity at this time of year. We want to get everything done, and still have time for socializing and enjoying the spirit of the holidays with our families and friends. How are we supposed to get it all done in time for Christmas?

At first glance, it would seem that multi-tasking is the ideal solution. Multi-tasking allows us to complete two or more things at the same time. Who hasn’t talked on the phone while shopping for gifts online? It’s easy to assume that multi-tasking allows us to get more done in less time, thus giving us more time to spend enjoying the holidays. But that may not be the case, say researchers.

According to Dale Carnegie Training, people tend to multi-task in one of four different levels.

  1. Simultaneous multitasking. You accomplish tasks by doing two different activities at the same time. For example, entering data into a computer program while talking to your banker on the phone.
  2. Task switching. In this situation, tasks are completed consecutively rather than simultaneously. You’ll finish one task then move on to the next. For example, you finish preparing a presentation then check emails for messages.
  3. Time fillers. We’re all guilty of indulging our guilty pleasures by reading horoscopes, house hunting, reading celebrity gossip or updating our social media profiles. These activities aren’t usually work related, but may make us look busy when we’re not. People often confuse these time filling activities with multi-tasking, but clearly they do nothing to make us productive.
  4. Having lots of things to do. These individual tasks and chores are usually unrelated to each other and represent the busyness of life. For example, getting the car serviced, going for an eye exam or baking cookies for the kids’ school bake sale. Having a lot of things to do is not the same as doing them all at once, which is multitasking.

No matter how much you have to do or where you fall on the tasking scale, multi-tasking is not the answer. Studies show that multi-tasking is counterproductive. Trying to do so many things at the same time, say researchers, actually makes us less efficient. Our brains are simply not equipped for completing multiple tasks that require brain power.

So while it might be easy to fold laundry while watching TV, activities like writing a speech or negotiating a contract require more focused attention because they require more brain power.

Or as the old saying goes, “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?”

So the next time you need to complete a project for your boss or are faced with a huge pile of paperwork, try focusing on one task at a time. Then turn off the TV, skip checking your Facebook feed and get to work.You may finish your work sooner than you think.

Finding Your Most Productive Hours of the Day – and Making the Most of Them

tiger

Have you ever gone to the zoo and observed the lions in their den? Or watch your cat, if you have one? Note how much they sleep during the day. But those lazy interludes are followed by short bursts of activity where they play, hunt for food, groom themselves and chase after their prey.

It may seem like they are lazy, for all the sleeping they do, but they are behaving according to their natural instincts. They have their own internal alarm clocks that dictate when it’s time to eat, when it’s time to hunt their prey and when to sleep. The time when they are at rest is when they conserve energy for when they need it most later.

As animals of the human kind, we too have internal alarm clocks that go off when it’s time to eat, sleep, play and work. If we paid more attention to our internal clocks, could we too maximize our time for better productivity?
Recent studies find that for many high-level executives and top producing professionals, early morning hours may be the most productive hour of the day. By getting up at 4 a.m. or even 5 a.m., the theory goes, you can use the time to catch up on emails, read, exercise, study for a class, or write posts for your blog. At that hour of the day, it’s quiet and there are less distractions to interrupt the flow of work and creative thinking.

But just because you rise at 4 a.m. doesn’t mean it’s the most productive time of day for you. But for many of us, 4 am is just too early to start doing anything other than sleep, unless you are a cat scrounging around for its next meal. But I believe we all have a few hours each day in which we are at our most productive. Our energy levels reach peak levels and we feel recharged and ready to tackle our work for the day. But knowing which hours are the most productive for us may be tricky, and those hours are not the same for everyone.

A recent article in Fast Company outlines a few ways we can determine our peak performance hours.

1) Ask colleagues, friends and workmates to observe your work habits for a few days or a week. What do they notice? Some workers dive in to projects first thing in the morning, while others get cranky if they get a project handed to them at 4 p.m.

2) Monitor your own performance peaks. This may be difficult for some to do because it requires you to be mindful of your habits. But if you pay attention to your energy levels and note when they are at their peak and when they are at their lowest, you can quickly determine which hours may be most productive for you.

3) Track your time (and your feelings). Using a sheet of paper, jot down how you spent your day, from checking your social media to taking bathroom breaks. Try this for at least three days in a row to get a true picture of your work habits. Next to each activity, note how you felt as you were doing them. Did you feel yourself in a “zen” moment where you lost track of time, or were you ready to take a nap? Be honest with yourself. Especially pay attention to those zen periods, which proves that the work you were doing then and the time of day were aligned.

Once you figure out those productive hours, set aside those hours to focus on your toughest project, make your calls, and do you most creative problem-solving. By tapping into that productive time slot, you’ll likely get more work done with less hassle and better results.

Idea-Generating Tools for the Not-So-Organized

coffee-1128133_1280

Ever have those moments when you’ve come up with what you believe is a brilliant idea and forget to write it down? What happens to your idea then? More than likely, it fades into oblivion, never to be implemented for your personal or professional purpose.

Whether you’re a creative professional or are someone who simply is involved in many projects, you may need a system for keeping track of all your ideas and projects. I’m a bit old school, so for me, keeping notebooks for each story or project idea is the simplest, easiest solution for this purpose. There may be other systems or platforms available on the Internet, but I prefer handwritten tools so I can write things down as I think of them.

At times, I wish I had a pensieve like Professor Dumbledore used in the Harry Potter series. With a tap of his wand at his temple, he could extract a memory and save it in the pensieve to review later. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a similar container for all our ideas so they didn’t clutter our brains?

At the moment I have about four different notebooks for four different purposes. This helps me to keep one idea or task related to one project separated from the others. When you have so many ideas coming at you at one time, this process helps to organize them so they are easy to access later when you may need them.

Here are a few ideas for organizing your ideas for creative and business projects.

Writing Logs: 

Personal journal – For most people, the journal is where they recap their personal experiences and insights about work, relationships, and the struggles of daily life.

Poetry – Write poetry? Keep drafts of your poetry in a file or notebook to separate it from other types of writing that you do.

Writing – Notes from writing webinars, lists of books to read (not necessarily about the topic of writing but stuff you want to read), writing tips from other writers, and lists of unfamiliar words to look up. Also keep ideas and bullet point for short stories, essays and other types of writing you may be doing.

Blogging log – If you manage your own blog, keep a notebook of ideas for potential postings. Include any research related to these story ideas, blogging tools and resources to help you be more productive, blogging apps that might aid your blog, and advice and tips from other professional bloggers.

Personal Development: 

Dream log – Ever have a dream and wonder what it means? The next time you remember having a dream, write it down in a journal to keep it separate from any writing journal you keep. Either use a dream dictionary or an online dream interpretation tool to look up potential meanings and jot them down next to your dream.

Inspiration log: Collect items that inspire you, such as photos, positive and uplifting news stories that you read in the paper or on the Internet, and motivational quotes.

Health/fitness log: On a diet or trying to make a lifestyle change, like quitting smoking? Use a log to monitor the foods you eat, your workouts, vitamins, water intake, etc. It might be helpful to record your thought processes as you change your health and fitness regimen.

Home improvement/buying or selling a home – Whether you are planning on selling your home or simply renovating it for your own enjoyment, it may be a good idea to track home improvements. In particular, note what type of work was done and when, and the name and contact information for contractors, real estate agents, lenders and other professionals. This type of log may be especially helpful if you are doing a series of renovations before selling the home, so you can refer to your notes when buyers have questions about the home.

Business Related: 

Job search – If you’re looking for a new job or changing careers, a career log or job search log can help you  stay on top of your progress. Keep track of all your network contacts, and write down names of people who you meet. Keep track of the businesses you approach for jobs, including when you sent your resume to them and what kind of response, if any, that you received.

Business startup – Got an idea for a new business start-up? Jot down everything you want to do to get your new business venture off the ground, including products, potential competition, potential clients, tasks to accomplish, forms to complete and deadlines.

Legal/Lawsuit: If you ever get involved in a legal issue, keep a log to recall incidents related to your case, record conversations with your attorney and list any tasks you need to accomplish.

Medical log – If you’ve ever had an injury or illness and needed medical care, keeping a medical log can help your sort through the details of your medical care. Keep track of everything, from the names and contact information of medical doctors and hospitals involved, dates and results of medical tests, conversations with medical team, and any drugs that were prescribed.

These are just a few examples of idea-tracking logs, whether it’s to keep track of your writing projects or your personal ones. You don’t have to do them all. Focus on the ones where you get the most ideas so you won’t feel so overwhelmed as you progress. It may seem overwhelming to have a log for every little segment of your life, but I find it helpful to separate – and in some cases, compartmentalize – all of life’s projects so they don’t feel so overwhelming.

Experiment with one or two types of logs, perhaps a dream log and a poetry log, or a business start-up log and a blogging blog, so you can develop ideas for your business blog. Find what works for you. If written notebooks aren’t your style, check the Internet for other possible platforms.

Whichever format you use, you’ll find that keeping multiple log books helps clear your brain of the ideas.