Step away from the news. Consider a regular news detox.

In this post, you’re probably going to figure out who I voted for at the top of the ticket. OK, I’ll tell you: Hillary Clinton. For those of you who take issue with that choice, spoiler alert: don’t care.

It’s tempting to make an continuous effort to stay informed, to read commentary from multiple perspectives on a regular basis, to engage with others on news topics in a civil manner. But when the information, regarding a specific event (i.e. a mass shooting) or something more broad (uh, our new presidential administration) elicits a particularly negative emotional response, ignoring it and focusing on something else isn’t always easy or possible. (Post-election stress, anyone?)

So I propose the news detox. Give yourself the opportunity to step away from news media and random articles and commentary for an hour, half the day, a whole day, a weekend… however long you need to recover from the bullshit so that you can continue to think critically and re-engage with your work and life.

You’ve probably heard of a digital detox, a treatment for the information overload caused by a constant barrage of push notifications, alerts, messages, phone calls, and material shared of this day and age. A digital detox requires an individual to completely disconnects from her digital devices so that she is able to reconnect with and gain a new perspective on the world without the lens of social media and digital distractions. Ditch your devices and the disturbances to your attention that they lob, and after a period of time (a day, a weekend, a week, etc.) you’ll find yourself more clear-minded.

But we can’t all participate in the somewhat drastic digital detox on a daily basis when we want to scream upon hearing about yet another executive order. I need the internet to do work, damn it!

A news detox in action:

  • Don’t read news articles or commentary.
  • Don’t listen to or watch the news.
  • Keep your phone on but don’t dick around on social media or news apps.
  • Manage your push notifications so that you’re not bombarded with alerts.
  • Don’t engage with others on these topics during detox time.

This concept came to fruition for me personally on Nov. 9, when I could not handle the world. I normally listen to NPR for much of my workday and get news from the media outlets I follow on Twitter. Engaging with either seemed counterproductive to my anxiety levels when feeling so overwhelmed and hopeless in the aftermath of that election cycle. So instead, I:

  • Listened to podcasts that aren’t overtly political (come back soon, #girlboss Radio!)
  • Cranked classical music from the local public radio station
  • Found aspirationally healthy recipes for meals that I may or may not one day prepare
  • Did some wedding planning, the is the time suck of all time sucks. The wedding industrial complex is good for something. (Note: I’m not engaged. More on that later.)

I am in no way suggesting that through a news detox, you completely disconnect with news media indefinitely so that you make all decisions on purchases and civic engagement based on hearsay and the questionable advice of others. Clearly enough of that happens in this world. We absolutely need to stay informed about so many topics at all times, particularly in this period of dysfunction. But your mental health and stress levels don’t need to suffer as a result.

I’ve slowly begun to listen to NPR again, but now am more aware of when I need a damn break from the bullshit. The voice of Sean Spicer sometimes sends me into the kitchen (located seven steps away from my desk because I work from home) to grab a handful of carbs to shove down my trap between exasperated sighs and swears. Some days, my elevated stress level force me listen to Spotify’s “old school metal” playlist rather than read the Washington Post. And then other days, I am civically engaged.

If we’re going to be productive, well-informed human beings, we need to be deliberate about our news consumption. That includes taking a break when necessary, and accepting the fact that we do at times need this break in order to strengthen our ability to think critically and determine necessary next steps to effect positive change.

Bad decisions will continue to be made by elected officials, bad things will continue to happen in the world, bad things will continue to be said – and reports and commentary on these topics will be there when you come back from a news detox.

A day in the life of a permanently remote worker

I consider myself very, very lucky to work from home: I’m a permanent teleworker, part of a growing population of the workforce. Up to 37 percent of workers in the U.S. have worked from home at some point in a given month. Considering teleworking? Curious? Here’s a few components of telework life – actual work-related content removed.

Sweatpants.

Jeans.

Decisions.

Coffee.

Alarm clock and snoozing.

NPR.

Smart podcasts.

Wedding planning podcasts.

Intense focus.

Tea. Then more coffee.

Breakfast timed perfectly to limit snacking.

An early lunch to limit snacking.

Snacking on fruit to limit mindless carbs.

Mindless carb snacking.

Frustrations over technology.

Praise of technology.

Meeting prep.

Telecons that I don’t participate in.

Telecons that I do participate in.

Telecons that I lead.

Phone calls.

Instant messages.

Emails.

Deleted emails.

Unanswered emails.

Intense focus.

Cat harassing.

Dog petting.

Animal feeding.

Dog walking.

Staring out the window.

Staring at my computer.

Googling of celebrities that come to mind/are mentioned on NPR.

Pushups.

Calf raises.

Cuticle picking.

More carbs (how old are these potato chips? They taste fine, I guess).

Intense focus.

A sense of complete loss.

Being out of the loop.

Being persistent.

Being obnoxious.

More emails.

Logging off for the day.

Logging back in to check emails.

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2016 in review

collage of 9 images

Goal setting. Personal growth. Professional development. I don’t know about you, but all of my social media feeds are full of how-to’s on how to better yourself for the new year.

Before hitting 2017 hard, why not take stock of all the great things that happened in your life – personally and professionally – in 2016?

Taking a cue from this article I came across in December 2015 on The Muse (and had all intentions of pursuing a year ago. Whoops.), I developed my own 2016 in review using Adobe Spark Pages and hitting on a few broad topics:

  • Biggest wins
  • Skills
  • Notable events
  • Lessons Learned
  • Personal
  • Goals for new year

Include what you want in your project. Quantify your achievements. Exclude personal details. Capture this in a webpage, in a document, in images, in video. Share, or don’t share (although I’d argue that you do share your accomplishments particularly if you hit on professional achievements on whatever networks you use for business, or even via email to your network – it’s a great way to let your connections know what you’ve been up to and brag about all of the great, specific things you’ve done lately).

The exercise in itself will help you articulate what you’ve accomplished and enable you to focus on what you want to do next in 2017.

For example… I’ve done a lot of writing, in terms of blog posts but also in my

9-to-5. Why not expand that skill set by taking on more freelance work this next year? Clearly I’ve managed to organize my time in a way that makes room for writing. Maybe I’ll focus on finishing other writing projects I’ve been working on of late as well. I also will need to figure out how to meet these goals using time spent on planes and in airports, as I’ll be taking many trips to visit my family this year.

Do you regularly complete a year-in-review? How has this helped you? What have you learned about yourself?

Don’t go to your 10-year high school reunion

Do you have a milestone anniversary of your own high school graduation coming up next year? Have you periodically Googled “should i go to my high school reunion” several times since it occurred to you that you have, in fact, been out of high school for a curious amount of time?

If you’re approaching the 10-year mark and a reunion event is in your future, let me offer a suggestion: don’t go.

25 years? Sure. 50? Hell, yeah. 70 – do it. But don’t go to your 10-year reunion.

high school graduation throwing capsA lot can happen in the time span between your late teens and late 20s: higher education obtained, children born, careers launched, opinions shifted, dreams evolved. People certainly change, even if just by small increments.

But that decade-long march of time away from the emotional landmine of high school is really not far enough.

“So far as I have been able to discover, nobody, regardless of station, gets over high school.”

I graduated high school in 2006 and ultimately chose to skip the reunion held this past summer at a winery outside of Cleveland renowned for its party atmosphere rather than its wine. Said winery also happens to be located in a cornfield (read: inaccessible to Uber).

On the surface, convenience determined this choice. The event fell on a Saturday evening at the time when I was in the process of moving 2,200 miles, from the Washington, DC area to Boise, Idaho. Sure, Northeast Ohio is on the way between these two locales, but between packing, cleaning, and schlepping, attending this thing didn’t land high on my priority list.

But of course I debated whether or not I should go. My own Google search was “should i go to my 10 year reunion.”

I even imagined my outfit: a flattering black-and-gray lace sheath with patent leather heels, likely much more formal than what anyone else would be wearing but emblematic of my experience living in a posh place like DC (never mind that the shoes I had in mind were stuffed in the drawer at my desk at work for flip flops when it was time to take the miserable metro back to my apartment in a decidedly un-posh suburb). I planned how I would style my hair to contend with what would likely be a hot, humid night so that it would still look sleek. I picked an outfit for my significant other that would coordinate with my own – no matter that he was at that point already living in Boise and most likely not able to take time off from his new job to fly to Cleveland to stand around and sweat in a cornfield (did I say “able”? I meant “interested in”). I imagined my equally stylish friends who would augment my presence (and I to theirs, I guess), even though none of my actual friends were able to attend (oops… meant to say “interested in” there, too).  

Let’s not pretend that I had a nightmare of an experience in high school that involved bullying and tumultuous family events. It didn’t. I was just a loser. Weren’t we all? I sure was. Not overweight or underdeveloped, not overly zitty and not with an abnormally painful fashion sense, but just a not-terribly memorable dork who didn’t fit in.

In line with the cultural narrative that the popular, good-looking people in high school get fat and boring by the time of the first class reunion, and the losers turn into the most interesting, best-looking people at the party, I assumed that I’d fall into the latter camp. I was a damn good adult. Back in high school, I was a loser, and those likely to attend this reunion were not. Comparing myself to them now would certainly fall in my favor.

Yikes.

Thank goodness moving across the country got in my way of attending this 10-year reunion so that I didn’t partake in what would have been a live-action comparison exercise that many of us go through regularly on Instagram and Facebook (because people of my advanced age still use Facebook): measuring ourselves – all of ourselves, the person only we know – against what others portray of themselves. Complicate this activity by taking it to an event where we’re not only comparing ourselves to others but demonstrating the difference between who we were then and who we are now, taking stock of material possessions and appearance.

Clearly my interest in attending my 10-year reunion had little to do with genuine curiosity about the lives of others and more about how I could alter the preconceived notions others had about me so that I could buoy my own feelings of self-worth. 

I rag on the 10-year reunion and not other milestone reunion events because of the issue of time. Anyone at any age can get stuck in a cycle of contrasting the flaws of your life with the highlight reel portrayed by others, but mortality catches up with all of us eventually. The likely preoccupations that many may experience at the 10-year reunion (Who’s got the biggest engagement ring? Who’s maintained the same dress size? Who drove up in the nicest car? Who has the highest-paying job?) will matter much less as the years pass. A dear family friend of mine regularly went to his own high school reunions well into his late 80s, even as these events eventually had to be combined with those of other class years because fewer people were alive and able to attend. The conversation certainly changes by that point.

On a more lighthearted note, with the passage of time also comes the effects of aging. By the time the 25-year reunion rolls around, I’ll frankly be more congratulatory than envious of anyone I went to school with who can still fit into their prom dress at age 43 and look as good as they did at age 18.

“Feel left out by the cool crowd you’ve envied since kindergarten? Imagine how regular those people will seem when they are sagging and graying alongside everyone else.”

I genuinely cannot begin to imagine what my life will be like in 15 years, when I’m in my early 40s (UGH.) when the 25-year reunion rolls around, or what it will be like in 40 years, when i’m in my late 60s (WHAT.) by the time of the 50-year reunion. I’d like to imagine what my life will be like at these points, if I’m lucky to be alive and coherent to be around to experience it. What I can hope for is that I’ll be a person who is less preoccupied with comparing herself to others, and engages with people from the past out of interest and curiosity, not for only self-serving purposes. Clearly I’m not there yet.

The introvert’s guide to making new friends

I’m a textbook introvert. I’m outgoing when necessary (normally when required by work-related situations) but there is nothing wrong to me with passing up a social thing that only promises middling amounts of fun for a night in with Netflix. Or bailing on a purely social commitment because I don’t have the emotional energy. Or leaving a party early. No shame.

wheat and sun

Now add life events to the equation: After living for my early adult life in the same small-ish college town in Oregon where I had multiple educational and work experiences that introduced me to a ton of people with little effort on my part, I moved twice, to two much different places.

Major move No. 1 was to the Washington, DC, where I lived for two years. Tip for those who have or will soon move to a new city: Don’t do what I did. I socially relied on my much more social significant other to meet people, mostly his coworkers. When he left the area to return to the west coast to finish grad school, I had those only barely loose social ties to rely on. It was easy to hide behind the business of my 9-to-5 and side work, and the financial commitments I had, than to take up the opportunities in front of me (a fairly robust college alumni network, forwarded contact information of people others’ knew of who lived in the area, etc.). And while I loved little more than relaxing with my Kindle after an overstimulating day in the office and on the metro, my minimal social effort sure led to moments of loneliness.

Now I live elsewhere, in Boise – and I also work from home. This is the first time when I’m in a new life situation without the safety net of a job or class. And it’s scary.

I’m clearly not great at meeting new people and know that part of me is fine with spending significant chunks of my time alone, so I don’t have the searing need to get out there all the time. But I know that this self-limited outlook on my social life isn’t sustainable or healthy. Friendships are important, obviously. In addition to helping you live longer in general, strong friendships can help decrease the risk for developing depression and help you feel happier in general (read more here).

But how challenging it can be to make new friends as an adult, as I and other folks I know well have found. It’s easy to insulate ourselves in our already-established relationships, and with commitments of work and family, not everyone may feel the need to pursue new friendships. For those of us new to an area, or looking to expand our social network, those distractions that keep others from perhaps being as open to meeting new people as compared to, for example, your first year in college can make the task feel particularly daunting.

As scary as meeting new people can feel, you have to embrace the fear. Get out there.

You’re not going to meet new people at home. You’re not going to meet new people spending nine-plus hours a day in your cubicle (and if you don’t work in a cubicle, congratulations). You’re not going to meet new people doing the same thing, even if the same thing is being fearful of the task at hand of meeting new people.

  • If you like to read: Join a book club.
  • If you like to workout: Join a running group or exercise class.
  • If you know a lot of things and like beer: Join a trivia group.
  • If you like skeeball: Join a pub sports league.
  • If you’re religious: Find a church and get involved.
  • If you’re way into your alma mater: Meet up with the alumni network.
  • If you’re passionate about a particular topic: Volunteer.
  • If you need direction: Join MeetUp.

These things will get you out of the house, an important first step. But it only get you halfway there: To cultivate friendships, you also have to talk to people.

Practice on folks at the grocery store, at the gym, on your commute (JK, ignore everyone), in the elevator at work. Make an effort to project a friendly demeanor. Be open to the possibilities that come when others chat with you. Learn from others about new things to do, places to go.

Be sure to introduce yourself to someone you connect with.

I know, I know. It’s hard to open yourself up to the possibility of social rejection. The vulnerability feels terrifying. And chatting with strangers is a lot easier in some places than others (DC comes to mind). But the opportunity to connect with other people will only present itself when you put yourself out there, physically and emotionally.

This stuff may seem obvious to hyper-social people, but I’ll admit that I’m still working on it. I’ve volunteered and have plans to continue to do so. I’ve joined a couple of book clubs. I’ve taken classes at the gym I signed up for. Have I developed a strong social network in Boise since I moved here four months ago? Nope. But I’m confident that things will work out.

What about you? How do you meet people? What’s been successful in the past?

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All the things I’ve wanted to be

Digging around in old files, I came across an assignment from an undergraduate nonfiction writing class. A lot of the stuff I produced in creative writing classes from age 20-through-24 (basically, all the creative writing classes I ever took) was, uh, not that great, but that’s OK – lots of first drafts. This assignment stuck in my mind, even years later, as being a little more honest and coherent than the rest of the stuff my 21-year-old self put together for this particular class.

The prompt was to make a list. Clearly I took it as, make a list of everything I’d ever wanted to be when I grew up, which alone is an excellent prompt.

So… think about your own list. Who did you want to be someday? How did that ideal person change as you yourself changed?

Here’s mine:

Gail Cole
WR 416
October 1, 2009
Assignment 1

A writer of some kind, any kind, because I liked to draw pictures and felt that stringing together sentences into stories was the next natural step at age nine

A journalist, because adults told me that was the job for me if I wanted to write and I didn’t know any better at age twelve

A news writer, because I loved imagining my name on Page 1 of the Cleveland “Plain Dealer” that sat on the kitchen table of my parent’s house every morning

The editor of “Newsweek,” because that was my favorite source for news and since I thought its content was disappointing at age fourteen, I was sure I could someday “fix it”

A syndicated columnist for “The New York Times,” because I thought my opinions were better than anyone else’s at age seventeen

A news writer, because I thought it was exilerating, challenging and fun at the time

A columnist, again, maybe not for “The New York Times” but maybe for a small newspaper, because I thought I was better at writing columns than news stories

A writer of some type, any type, because I thought that I wasn’t good at anything else at age nineteen

An MFA recipient, because at age twenty, I thought grad school sounded fun – even though, as I told my mother this, I could hear her gritting her teeth on the other end of the call, asking, “Well, will that even help your career?”

A writing teacher, because I realized I wanted to get paid and knew this type of job was all I was going to get with an MFA

An editor of a newspaper, because it was just like writing news – exhilarating, challenging and fun at the time

An editor of a new media-type web-based electronic publication that probably didn’t exist yet, because I realized newspapers may be dying

A writer of some kind, any kind, again, just because it’s what I wanted and want to do

Want to be an artist? Then do it.

Once upon a time I wanted to be a writer. A writer, in my early-20-something brain, was someone who had a masters of fine arts in creative writing and taught creative writing classes and had a certain lifestyle and I guess wrote some stuff that was all published. To prep myself for the writing part of it, I took lots of creative writing classes as an undergraduate: short fiction writing, memoir writing, lots of craft analysis courses; my senior thesis was even a craft analysis of a text of an author I admired, Alice Munro.

Then life happened – career changes, graduate school for what was not an MFA, two cross-country moves, changing family dynamics, work projects – and I stopped writing.

Part of me knew that one day, I’d finally dive in with the focus I’ve always brought to school and work and finally try and make a go of it – completing a creative project and getting myself published, and then writing some more – but the muses haven’t come to me lately.

About three weeks ago, in my new city, I went to an author day event at the city’s main library. Why? I wanted to meet new people and learn more about local resources for writers, because I knew that I’d have time to devote to writing sometime soon, maybe. I attended a panel that discussed local resources for writers. When one of the panelists asked the small group why we were there, I froze, but heard a couple of other folks offer their own explanations- they were writing, ready to publish, looking for editors. Emboldened, inspired to announce myself as a creative type, I spoke up.

“I’m new to the area and I’m a writer. I haven’t published any of my creative writing but I’m looking for local resources.”

The panel ended. Instead of sticking around, speaking to the panelists, hearing other panels, meeting other creative types, I left, to go shopping for workout clothes (because that’s what I’ve been doing in my free time instead of writing: exercising). Sorting through racks of marked-down sports bras, I felt uncomfortable. I thought that announcing myself to be a writer would put me at ease, surface the good kind of vulnerability that comes with pushing one’s boundaries, awaken my creativity, but no.

It took me a few days and time spent thinking back on my  younger self’s preconceived notions of what it meant to be a writer to see how silly I had been in that moment in declaring myself a writer. Because you aren’t a writer, an artist, whatever, by having a certain lifestyle.

This calls for all caps: YOU’RE A WRITER IF YOU WRITE.

Claiming to be a writer, painter, photographer, artist-in-general without any of the work involved in these pursuits does nothing to refine your craft or use your creativity. Claiming to be a writer without actually writing is quite disingenuous.

You’re an artist if you create art. You’re a writer if you write.

And what have I not been doing much of? Writing. Am I a writer? I don’t know.

I’ve been distracted, busy, scared, unsure of what direction to put my efforts. And that’s fine. But is it in my best interests to skirt the edges of this type of artistic endeavor without diving in? Without actually writing something? To be making public proclamations that are currently not supported by the discipline and creativity I know I need to foster? No.

So I’ll be writing. I have some ideas. I have some research to do in terms of where/when to publish. I have a lot of work to do. And I have a lot of writing to do.

Because if I am going to actually, finally consider myself a writer, I’m going to write.