Category Archives: For Brilliant Friends

Feeling the hard feelings

I’ve been taking another whack at breaking down my phone/media addiction lately. I’m rarely without a book or a podcast or a show on in the background or a video game to play or several all at once.

I think I’ve managed to cut it down to one at a time, at least, and I’m rebuilding my old ability to endure silence and practice stillness. I’ve gone on long walks in silence—no headphones, no reading while I walk—and from time to time managed patches of time without a phone or screen in reach, just reading or journaling or sitting and thinking.

And I’m starting to see why I avoid it. There’s a looming sadness that I hadn’t let myself notice. I think I’m happy on the surface and happy at my core, but there are thick strata of loneliness and failure and existential dread in the middle, and I’m glad I’ve stopped ignoring them.

It’s not easy, but it feels healthy to sit quietly and just think and feel whatever I think and feel. I have an intuition that all the bad feelings will be in there until I feel them, and it may take a while to get through it all, but at least now I’m making progress instead of continuing to hide it.

Part of it is the huge changes in the world and closer to home over the last few years—politics and pandemic and the resulting loss of close community and regular feasts with friends. I’m coming to recognize that I miss life as it was, and while my life is good and will likely get better, it won’t go back to how it was.

Part of it is the inevitable reckoning as I approach 40 and see how far I have yet to go to realize my dreams and mission. I realize for all my thinking and talking about books, it’s been forever since I published one of my own. Years in, my program of writing courses has reached thousands and helped many but not broken even. I fear my publishing company may be holding my authors back as much as it helps them. My kids are growing up, and as much time as I spend with them, I’m not sure it’s enough.

And finally, part of it is a growing awareness that I don’t know how to get where I’m going. Our efforts to buy a homestead for rich hospitality seem stymied by the market. I can’t crack the nut of how to get my businesses properly profitable for me and my authors. I’ve got at least eight books burning and burning inside me, and yet I face powerful avoidance every time I sit down to write.

I’m finding I deeply crave a less individualistic culture, where I’m surrounded by traditions and supports, where there are apprenticeships and communal Sabbaths and norms of hospitality and known prayers to pray. It seems I’m tired of making all this up as I go.

I’m not going to try to wrap this all up with too tidy a bow—it’s real sadness and I’m really feeling it, and I’m still in the middle of it—but three things help.

One is that, while there are difficult realities there, I know my read on them and the resulting emotions fluctuate, and I’m pretty sure I’m just in a downswing right now. I’ve been here before, and it does get better.

Second, I’m finding this is undercutting my confidence in planning and effort. I’ve had it up to about here with planning and effort, and I’m increasingly ready to slow down, listen, find the heart of God, and do the one right next thing that is needed instead of all the scattershot things I can think of in hopes that one of them works. That seems like a healthy direction.

Third, and strongest, is that I don’t ultimately depend on any of this going right. I desperately want it to, but if it all falls apart, I’m still with God, already and forever.

Debt Snowball for writing goals

Working on a long-term plan to balance my writing projects. I’ve got 8 writing projects on my mind, of which 4 hold burning urgency.

I’m terrible at this, incidentally.

I’m trying like crazy to cultivate a delivery-focused mindset these days—work on one thing at a time and finish, then move on. I’m really bad at it. I can’t stand the idea of letting go of the other things to focus on one.

But I’m (intellectually) convinced it’s the better path. Say you’ve got five 10-hour jobs, and 20 hours this week. My usual approach would be to split up my 20 hours, get 4 hours into each job, figure I made some good progress, and repeat.

But say I manage to ruthlessly focus on one job at a time. 20 hours in I’m done with two jobs (and can hand them in or hand them off or stop thinking about them), and next week I can do the next two.

Part of my brain still screams, “But you didn’t even start the others!” And that’s true. But IRL, nobody cares how much you’ve started. And it’s actually freeing to get some of the jobs totally off your plate.

In trying to get myself to actually let go of some of my writing projects long enough to actually finish any of them, I realized thinking about it like a “debt snowball” is a great idea. (That’s a personal finance thing where you maintain minimum payments on all your debts but one, and hit that one really hard, then when it’s done up your payments on the next, etc. Good way to gain momentum on early payoff if you can swing it.)

Talked with my genius wife K about this—I had an intuition that the “highest interest first” or “highest balance first” had a parallel here, but needed her help pinning it down. We agreed “balance” means remaining total workload (word count or hours). That approach would mean start by focusing on the one I can finish quickest, then move on to the next quickest, and so on.

But “interest” is where it got interesting. I figured it’s something like impact or earnings potential. But K blew my mind with the idea that interest equals the emotional toll not finishing has on me.

In other words, start with the book that hurts most to have not written.

I did a quick ranking (again, brutally difficult, because I want to do all of them all the time), and also a quick estimate of how many hours each one is likely to take. I don’t fully trust the latter, but it was eye-opening.

My big amazing favorite (but long, complicated) novel Frobisher clocked in just under 100 hours estimated for this (hopefully final) major editing pass. A lot of the others came in around 40-80 hours. A quick, stylish non-fiction book in the form of brief aphorisms, principles, and anecdotes was 110. Frobisher is definitely up there, but I would have expected it to be 5-10x the smaller quicker books. Double feels surprisingly do-able.

Frobisher and one other quick, exciting project topped my “high-interest” list, and it’s surprisingly motivating to realize within an estimated 120 hours of focused work I could have two of the projects I care most about ready for next steps if I just focus on those.

Not that 120 hours is trivial amid life, day job, client work, and four kids. But that’s a goal I can get my hands around, and it gives me lots of reasons to sneak in extra hours writing instead of goofing off.

Certainly more motivational than knowing that with 120 hours of work I could be partway through eight or even a dozen projects.

A Notebook to Help Break Phone Addiction

I’m on another kick lately of trying to cut down on my device usage and spend time thinking, reading, walking, and processing without a lot of distraction and evasion.

I’m not great at it yet, but when I manage it it’s refreshing, and I’m starting to reach more clarity and depth on some ideas I’ve been processing for a long time.

One trick this time around is that I’m carrying around a notebook—just an old half-filled composition book, nothing fancy—and writing anything I want in it whenever I want, no plan or template or pre-defined direction.

It’s like nicotine gum. Instead of trying to cold-turkey quit all the brain stimulation of shows and podcasts and scrolling on my phone, I’m replacing it with something. But this something takes me deeper and helps me draw out and process what I’m feeling and thinking, not just avoid it.

Basically 40

I turned 39 yesterday, but for maybe a few months now I’ve been practicing thinking of myself as “basically 40.”

I find that every age has its own benefits, and I’ve genuinely enjoyed every stage of life so far, but I can’t deny that 40 is still a milestone that looms large. I know it’s arbitrary, but it feels like a point at which I should definitely have something to show for myself, or know what I’m doing, or something.

So a part of that practice is definitely preemptive and self-protective. Getting used to the shock so it’s not as much of a shock when it actually comes.

But a big part of it is also getting a head start. If it’s arbitrary, why not figure out what I’m doing now? Why not just go ahead and work toward whatever level of accomplishment or responsibility or stability I think I’m supposed to achieve by 40?

I’ve decided to take being basically 40 as a golden opportunity. Instead of letting it sneak up on me with whatever big heavy societal expectations it’s going to hit me with, I’m going to pounce on it instead.

I call the shots around here.

After all, I’m basically 40.

Some thoughts on prayer and if/when/why it works

My interaction with God has been a little anemic lately. On reflection, I’m finding some patterns that are probably at the root of this. Here’s what most of my conversation with God looks like lately:

  • vague spontaneous thanks for generally nice things
  • vague spontaneous requests for fairly specific (but unlikely) last-minute interventions, without much expectation or follow-up
  • vague requests for insight or guidance or help, without much time spent waiting/watching/listening for an answer
  • most critically, a tendency to ask for things that will get me out of having to care or engage

Now that I’m starting to pay attention, I’m remembering what I’ve learned in the past. God seems much more responsive, and more consciously present to me, when my communication with him is basically the opposite of those patterns. Specifically, I want to get back to communication with God that is:

  • Specific, not vague. My rule of thumb on this one: if God does what I’m asking, will I be able to tell? Similarly, when thanking God, I find it helpful to try to thank him for something I’ve never thanked him for before (even if it’s just a new phrasing/angle on a longstanding gratitude).
  • Intentional, not (just) spontaneous. Spontaneous is actually great, but it needs to be built on a history of real, focused communication. I tried this today by setting aside some time to talk with God about my to-do list, outstanding projects, daughters, wife, friends, and a few other issues that came to mind in the process. It was pretty abbreviated in form, but I’m already feeling the difference between proactively asking for God’s help with the things I care about and randomly winging a prayer his way if something looks like it’s about to go south.
  • Listening, not just asking. When I think about it, it’s so dumb when I ask God for guidance and then pay zero attention to what happens next. I’m trying to start acting like I think he might respond if I ask him something, and pause for a moment to see if I experience any noteworthy shifts in my attention and desires, new thoughts or ideas, or a new gut sense of what’s the wise or foolish way to proceed.
  • Willing to engage with pain, discomfort, effort, and sacrifice. This is the huge one. I typically haven’t been a fan of the aphorism that God helps those who help themselves (which, as far as I can tell, has no discernible connection to most actual Christian theology). That said, I’m realizing that there’s a profound difference between asking God to help me enter into beneficial sacrificial effort and asking God to help me dodge it.

To expand that last one a little, I’m realizing that a lot-a-lot of the times I ask God to help, it’s basically me trying to get out of having to do anything. Please calm my girls down (so that I don’t have to get up from my dumb phone game). Please make sure that panhandler gets something to eat (so that I don’t have to, because I really don’t feel like making eye contact this time). That sort of thing.

But that’s contrary to the whole heart of what I believe God’s doing in the world. The entire point is that Jesus (who was showing us exactly what God is like and how he works) entered straight into the center of the messy, dangerous, painful, complicated guts of the broken world, depending fiercely on God to give him everything he needed to get through it. He was the one who entered so deeply into the pain and depended so fully on God that he made it straight through death and out the other side, blazing the trail for the rest of us.

So if I’m following Jesus on the trail he has blazed, I should be walking straight into the heart of the pain and complication, exactly where I won’t be able to handle it, asking as I go that God keep giving me the strength to dig deeper in, the love I need for the people I meet there, the provision they (and I) still need even after I’ve given the shirt off my back, the forgiveness that lets me unjustly take the blame and stay quiet, the peace I need to enter the chaos without freaking out and giving up.

In sum, I should only be asking God to show up if I’m willing to be the body he shows up in.


PS – There’s a risk, after that glorious crescendo of self-sacrifice, to feel like you should go out and give everything you own and save everyone you see and take up every cause immediately all the way on the spot. Going back to the “listening” point, I’ve found great balance to this urge in the practice of asking God which people/needs/causes I should be serving and caring about at any given moment.

This lets me take on the ones that he directs me to and freely not worry about the rest, trusting that other people also serve him and he knows what will be the best, most beautiful, and most freeing way for each of us to join him.

Just how much “relaxing” do I really need?

I’ve been thinking about rest lately. Having a fitful 4-month-old will do that.

Strangely, what got me thinking wasn’t the many sleepless nights. It was when we collectively conked out one Saturday and did pretty much nothing but family movies, Wii games, convenience foods, and (finally!) solid naps for everyone, including the grown-ups.

And it was good to veg out and all, but really it wasn’t that good. By the end I felt more sluggish than energized, even though it was all the “relaxation” I could cram into one day. Instead it brought into focus a question that has been bugging me for a while now: Just how much “relaxing” do I really need?

Put differently, when do I expect that I’m going to put down my phone and actually do all the life-giving but effort-requiring things I’m remembering I love but rarely do these days? Will I ever touch Latin again? Write good theology? Read actual books like a gentleman?

There’s some part of me that assumes that once I rest up and feel a little less zombie-ish I’ll start digging in on those things. And that’s probably kind of true, at least for the ones I already do sometimes, but really what’s going to make the difference is better free time routines. I want to stop being someone who defaults to smartphone-poking-while-“watching”-Netflix in my free moments.

A few early discoveries on this path:

  • Most of the entertainment I consume doesn’t particularly rejuvenate me. Books are probably the exception, for whatever reason.
  • Constant stimulation isn’t necessary. It’s rare for me to be without a book or a show or a background podcast these days, and I’m finding just sitting quietly is actually quite nice. Boredom isn’t as scary as I thought.
  • Walks are brilliant. This one I’ve known all along. It’s fresh air and low-key exercise and, if you’re with someone, good company and a chance to talk. I’m trying to take a walk or two a day, and it’s lovely. Sitting on the porch reading a book for 20 minutes is also remarkably refreshing.
  • Walks and quiet time also help me figure out what I actually want to do (and when and how). Figuring this out is (unsurprisingly, in retrospect) a key step in the transition from vague aspirations to real life changes.
  • Finishing looming background tasks is more restful than avoiding them, even if they’re scary and ambiguous. We faced a couple big complicated tasks head-on (after weeks to months avoiding) and, while they made for a tricky weekend each, we feel so much relief and freedom now that in my book it’s totally worth it.

One way I’m applying that last one, incidentally, is to shorten my books-in-progress list. I’m generally in the middle of, say, eight books at a time (which is probably not industry best practice anyway). Instead of a page of this and a page of that, I’ve started plowing through one book at a time (or one fiction and one non-fiction) until it’s done, and I’m now down to maybe four books in progress instead of eight or ten. It’s been surprisingly freeing. I hadn’t realized how much brainspace books-in-progress take.

What about you? What have you found truly restful and life-giving?

Cheers!

–Ben

 

AutoHotkey Hacks for Lazy Nerds Who Like Webcomics

I am beginning to seriously groove on AutoHotkey. It’s a free open-source program that lets you automate things on your computer. A pretty common application appears to be making up your own keyboard shortcuts and/or autoreplace rules.

I initially found it early in my vim kick–a kick which, for the record, is gamely stumbling on as I continue to insist to myself that one day I will learn enough to make vim so magically, brilliantly super-efficient that it will…well, make up for the dozens to hundreds of hours I will have spent learning stuff about vim, I guess.

Anyway, I was getting all excited about vim and learned that many power users remap their keyboards so that CapsLock becomes Esc and vice versa, because vim involves hitting Esc a lot and the CapsLock key is closer and easier, and so I charged ahead and found a little program (the aforementioned AHK) that would let me remap the keys in a fairly straightforward, untechnical way, and I did, and I thought little more of it except for putting in a mental pin to remind me to look more into AHK’s capabilities at some point.

That point was a couple days ago, and boy are my arms tired! Wait, different joke.

Anyway, I started reading up on AutoHotkey a little more and it’s amazing what it can do! It’s really a full-blown scripting…thing. (Application? Tool? Sorry, The Giver. No precision of language here.)

I once jokingly told a colleague that I wasn’t satisfied with the fact that I’d semi-automated a report to where I could run one query, paste the results into one spot in Excel, hit refresh, and send it out. I wanted a single button that would run the query, paste the results, and send the report for me. And then I wanted a machine that would push that button for me every day.

It appears that AutoHotkey is that button. And maybe also that machine. Time will tell.

For now one of my favorite uses I’ve put it to is creating keyboard shortcuts that pull up ‘dashboards’ of all the websites and/or files and/or folders I need to monitor or work on a particular project, task, or topic. It cuts out the friction that slows me down from getting to work (on, say, writing) because I’d have to open the story and the planning document and my music and my tracker and whatever. Or whatever.

I’m sure there will be more on this later, but just as an appetizer, install AutoHotkey and run a script containing the following code, then hit Ctrl-Shift-A. You’re welcome.

;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;
;Fun Dashboard Ctrl-Shift-A
;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;
^+A::
navOpenInNewTab := 0x800
navOpenInBackgroundTab := 0x1000

sites:=”www.reddit.com|www.xkcd.com|

www.smbc-comics.com|www.penny-

arcade.com/comic”

ie := comobjcreate

(“InternetExplorer.Application”)
ie.visible := true

Loop, Parse, sites, |
if A_Index = 1
ie.navigate(A_LoopField)
else
ie.navigate(A_LoopField,

navOpenInNewTab)

return

Life Changes and a Usefully Motivational Writing Doomsday Device

Let’s see. I started a new day job yesterday – still an analyst, but analyzing new things. So that’s exciting. I’m loving the work and the people and the space, and, while I’m exhausted between the tons of learning and the raising two young girls, I’m already feeling a whole new level of calm.

We moved some good friends into their new house over the weekend, and that’s exciting as well. They’re part of our little cabal of friends who share meals and watch each other’s kids and ponder deep questions together and such, and it’s really been time for a new house for them so their kids can run around without worrying about downstairs neighbors and they can host dinner without cramming everyone into a tiny apartment dining room. The new place has an open floor plan and an awesome basement den and a room for every kid and a potato in every chicken–wait, not that last one. But it’s great. Still a lot of unpacking, but it’s all downhill (i.e. easier, not worse) from here and I think it will be a big relief for all of us, and especially them, and it’s been way too long coming.

As for book stuff, after a surge of 10,000+ words of Hubris Towers Ep. 7 in a few days last week I haven’t written any more as I adjust to the new job. Should probably knock that out, though. I expect the whole thing will be 12-14k, so if I can squeeze in a little time we can get started on edits. And it’s going to need more edits than usual. Trade-off for relatively rapid writing.

On which note, check out themostdangerouswritingapp.com. Finally a tool that gives me real-time word count, rate in words per minute, and a timer. And a motivational doomsday countdown to boot!

I can’t believe how hard it’s been to find a live words-per-minute writing tool. I’d think that would be built into Scrivener and available as a Google Docs plugin and a thousand free apps. But I’m happy now.