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Here’s the painting I started on August 19 (L) and its second stage, done today (R). The difference in color is mostly from the light in the room where I took the photos.



Our last day in Mexico, last month, I took a photo of this window, whose multiple layers caught my eye. I drew it almost immediately, but could tell it really wanted to be a painting. I hardly ever paint; when I went to list the categories for this post, “art” and “drawings” and various other media were on my list, but I had to add “paintings.”I actually watched a few YouTube videos on Acrylics for Beginners (Katie Jobling and Clive5Art were helpful), then dove in today. I like the way this medium urges me to work roughly before adding details. Those will have to wait until the weekend, probably.It’s on canvas, 9″ x 12”.

In my struggles with the bugbear Procrastination, it helps to post little successes. So here’s a recent one: knocking off a small but important, and for whatever reason, dreaded, task first thing every work day.  For me, it’s listening to my voicemail messages. I have a habit tracker in my weekly to-do list–some people make one for the whole month, but I find that daunting and therefore counterproductive–and “messages first” has been one of the habits on my list for the past few weeks. Not surprisingly, it is not only fun to check it off my habit tracker right away, but the relief of not having that reproachful little light blinking at me is like an energy boost for the whole day. Also, you know, people appreciate it when I retrieve and respond to their messages promptly. Funny, that.

So as not to imply that the route away from procrastination is lined with roses, I want to report that I’ve been letting my clothes and shoes pile up instead of putting them away every evening (fortunately, this can never get more than two weeks out of hand, because I have to do it when our cleaner comes). It’s discouraging; sometimes it feels as if I have a set amount of do-it-now energy, and if I improve in one area, I have to backslide in another. But I know that’s not really true. Bit by bit, the better habits are becoming easier to maintain.

So, over to you. Do you have one task that is not actually that difficult, but that for some reason is a block for you, that you would like to take care of first thing each day? What is it? What helps you, or might help you, to remove the block?

The Trump-is-never-wrong crowd is trying a new tactic: pointing out that the occasional mass murderer favors a different candidate than Trump, or a different philosophy than the right-wing, anti-immigrant, white-nationalist, white-supremacist, and/or misogynist views of most of them, and trying out a facile false equivalent. The Dayton killer wanted Elizabeth Warren for president! So she is to blame if Trump is to blame for the others!

What revolting nonsense.

Of course one should not blame a particular leader just because a person who admires them commits a crime, even if it’s in their name. Deranged people are everywhere. It really was not J. D. Salinger’s fault that Mark David Chapman read his own alienation into The Catcher in the Rye and saw the murder of John Lennon as a reasonable response, nor the fault of Martin Scorsese or the actors of Taxi Driver that John Hinckley saw in it a reason to attempt the assassination of Ronald Reagan. (Am I dating myself? So sue me, I’m 51.)

Trump’s rhetoric is different than these for at least two reasons. One, not just one but many people citing his inspiration have attempted or committed violence that they specifically related to that rhetoric; and two, he specifically calls for violence, or applauds it when it’s suggested:

“How do you stop these people?” he asked [of undocumented immigrants, at a rally]. “Shoot them!” someone yelled from the crowd, according to reporters on the scene and attendees. The audience cheered. Supporters seated behind Trump and clad in white baseball caps bearing the letters “USA” laughed and applauded. “That’s only in the Panhandle you can get away with that statement,” Trump replied, smiling and shaking his head. “Only in the Panhandle.” (“‘Shoot them!’: Trump laughs off a supporter’s demand for violence against migrants,” Washington Post, May 9, 2019)

Do I need to cite other examples? Don’t you remember? There have been many.

If one’s innocent words are twisted to justify violence, one might say nothing, so as not to fuel the flames. If one’s words have said anything that a reasonable person could misconstrue as an incitement, the decent thing to do is express shock and dismay that this has happened, and stress that one does not want anyone to do harm in one’s name. Trump, in contrast, goes out of his way to wink at violent vigilantes, while occasionally mouthing peaceful platitudes after his arm is twisted into it.

The “your kid” test is useful here. If someone, call them X, continually suggested that your kid ought to be locked up, that your kid ought to be bodily removed from school, that your kid has replaced them and is a threat to other people’s livelihoods and even their lives; if X said “What do we do with people like this kid?” and smiled at the response, “Shoot ’em!”; and if someone plastered X’s name all over their van or wrote X’s name in firearms or said “X is right about [your kid],” and then shot your kid dead, would you think that X bore any part of the responsibility? Not all of it, of course–the killer bears by far the greatest part–but any of it?

Trump says all of those things about undocumented immigrants, and for that matter, about Mexicans and Central Americans in this country; asylum seekers; and legal immigrants from countries he despises. The blame for taking up arms against them, as the Gilroy and El Paso and other killers appear to have done, falls mostly upon the killers. But some of it falls upon Trump.


The thrill of seeing this on my phone is not the only benefit of keeping my inbox clear

I achieved Inbox Zero in June and, miracle of miracles, have kept it up for about four work weeks. Now that I have scraped away the detritus of accumulated posts, I can see more clearly my process for handling (or not handling) them as they come in, and it’s as good as therapy for learning about myself.

I should say, before I continue, that if a full inbox works fine for you, great. My wife just uses her inbox as her to-do list, done list, archive, everything, and manages to take care of what’s important and not be stressed out by the pile. For me, when I try that, everything gets mixed together and I lose track of things: those I need to respond to right now, those I don’t want to respond to, those I don’t want to make a decision about, those I ought to delegate but I haven’t figured out to whom . . . It’s fine for me to have a big, unsorted archive (I use a mail program with an excellent search function for just this reason, though I also create dozens of folders). But using my inbox as an archive is the road to ruin.

Here’s what I’m observing as e-mails enter an empty inbox:

Procrastination is a reflex. I read an e-mail that requires some small action: a reply that will take a little thought, a scheduling decision I have to make. Immediately, there’s a feeling of drag, best described as “I don’t wanna,” and a desire to look at it later. Anything but just dealing with it now.

There is nothing rational about this; in fact, it’s barely a thought process. It’s a reflex. Why do right now what I can put off until tomorrow? Except I’ve promised the people I work with that I will respond within a day (with allowances for vacation), and I’ve promised myself that I will get my inbox down to zero at the end of every work day, so I’m forced to notice myself trying to delay the inevitable. It’s not exactly news to me that I do this, but it’s such an ingrained habit that usually, I hardly notice it in action. But as I’ve written before, I’m trying to train myself into better habits, and slowly, they seem to be replacing the “put-it-off” tendency. Reversing it with incoming e-mails is the next phase.

A little bit of spam is nutritious. I get my share of articles, newsletters, podcast notifications, and posts to e-mail lists, and while most writers on the subject advise unsubscribing from all such sources, I actually find them rather soothing. If I have a little spare time, I’ll read them right then; if they look interesting and I don’t have time, I’ll file them into my rainy-day reading folder; most, I delete outright. Occasionally I notice that I’m deleting everything from a certain list, and I unsubscribe. But scanning ten newly-arrived posts in my inbox and realizing that eight of them can be dispensed with gives me the same kind of satisfaction I get from putting “Water office plants” on my to-do list every week. Watering my plants doesn’t really need to be on the list (it’s not a task I will forget), but it’s a fun little item that’s a three-minute break from my more difficult responsibilities, and I get that dopamine mini-surge from checking it off. Being able to delete several e-mails painlessly: my drug of choice.

I’m learning to trust my system, i.e., myself. My effective system for remembering tasks is to write everything I need to do–whether today, soon, or eventually–in one notebook. Other “systems,” like putting things on my (physical) desktop that I’m going to “get to soon,” only work when there are just a few items. Very few. Three or fewer. When there are ten, the “system” is no longer effective because I can’t see at a glance what I need to do, and when there are a hundred, they’re just another intimidating pile. When e-mails pile up in my inbox, it’s because I’m using it the same way I use the surface of my desk–I’ll just leave this here because I need to get to it soon!–and it doesn’t work any better with e-mail than with paper documents.

Sticking with Inbox Zero nudges me to trust my system. If I can do something right away, great. If not, I write down the related task, along with deadlines, and note any context needed in parentheses:

  • Due Wed.: Check in with Pru about October 20 service (see e-mail)

Then I file, or simply archive, the e-mail. Now I’ll see that I need to check in with Pru by Wednesday, and if I can’t remember the details, I’ll know where to find them. The temptation to leave the e-mail sitting “right there” (which soon means “under a heap of 200 other e-mails”) is fascinating. It’s like a little voice of mistrust, whispering, “Never mind your stupid notebook. Just leave the post here. That’ll work fine,” when 40 years of experience have taught me that it doesn’t. Getting back to zero is a reassertion of trust in myself.

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I already knew that Inbox Zero helped me to do my job better and thus feel more calm, happy, and competent, as well as making my correspondents more calm and happy and making their jobs easier. It turns out it also provides an interesting peephole into my own mind.


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