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Tag: productivity

The secret of writing: Little and often

Goal setting through a picture of wine bottlesLittle and often – that’s the secret of writing

  1. Start before you are ready
  2. Never break the chain – write every day – write something – good or bad
  3. Stop – work for half-an-hour to an hour and never more than one-and-a-half hours and stop

7 fold increase in productivity

Boise, who studied academics intensively, was able to show that these three rule accounted for the 7 fold difference in productivity between top flight and ordinary academics.

It’s a massive difference, isn’t it.

Highly productive writers

It seems that highly productive writers sit down and write, every day, usually before the house gets up and before they can be distracted.

The free write, structure, edit or do whatever they are able to do at that point but they write and they never miss a day.  That way they maintain a habit, maintain their confidence, develop fluency.

Above all, they don’t lose track. They don’t waste time figuring out where they were.

Amazingly of all, productive writers write for short periods.  Apparently the pattern is to work in 15 minute bursts with mini-breaks, quite often for as little as half-an-hour and very rarely for more than an hour. Boise calls periods longer than one-and-a-half hours bingeing.

Getting back to writing

I know all this is true..  I’ve been distracted by another project and I’ve woken up each day with a head full of other concerns.

And I’ve lost track of the concerns that led me to blog.

Then it becomes harder to blog.

Then the mechanics, like quickly finding a picture in Flickr take longer.

Yes, professional writing needs to be habitual.  It has to be given some kind of priority.

When your life changes, deliberately change the slot of time for writing?

Maybe when our life changes, we have to sit down and ask ourselves quite openly, “Where is the time for writing?”

Because most of us write because we “have to”. Without it, we feel that life loses its meaning.   And then it is even harder to get back into.

Little and often

That’s the key.

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What to watch as we wait for the double-dip recession

Thunder Dolphin Roller Coaster by Freakazoid via FlickrDouble dip recession

The economy has stop plummeting.  I don’t even have to read the figures.  I know because pundits are worrying about a double-dip.

Will something something catastrophic happen that flips the economy down another slide?

People are worried about the amount of money the European governments are taking out of the economy.
People are worried about developers defaulting on commercial buildings.
People are worried about house prices flat lining.
Where will jobs and business opportunities come from?  Economies and jobs grow in a good year at 3%.  And jobs follow businesses?  How long will the recession take to clear?
More, to the point, where will growth happen?   Which sectors should energetic young men and women watch and prepare to join?

Will the double dip recession happen?

Not everyone thinks a double dip recession will happen.  Prieur du Plessis of Seeking Alpha is one and here is his excellent summary.

But in the summary is the very reason why a double dip recession might happen.

Companies are making money hand over fist. And hanging on to it.  Consumers are spending less.  Demand somewhere is dropping.

How did companies make the money?  And why aren’t they reinvesting it in productive activity?

du Plessis believes capital is like a dam.  Fill up the dam with money and it will find a productive activity to invest in.

Maybe.  I’ll watch.

What am I watching as we wait for a double dip recession?

While we wait to see if the weasel goes pop, I am watching the capital stacked up in western companies.

It’s supposed to signal productive activity.   Where will future productivity lie?

That is the question.

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Get done 2x as much (or more) by doing less. Some facts.

Professors, productive?

Laughing by a4gpa via Flickr

I am sure none of us thought we could learn anything about productivity from our lecturers and professors at uni.  I can almost hear you falling off your chair laughing at the idea.

Surprises in classical research on the productivity of professors

All good research surprises.  Boice’s work on the productivity of “New Faculty” packs the surprises.

What you didn’t know about academic life

First, some basics.  Academic life is amazingly brutal and competitive.  Young academics are supposed to write academic articles and get them published.  The whole process takes forever and it is hard to know how well you are doing.  But if you don’t succeed in publishing a handful of articles every year, you will lose your job, be quite unable to get another one, and have to start another career at the bottom of the ladder.

In short, you have to do difficult work, you have to “sell” it in a long process that takes years, and you are gambling everything. How would you feel?  What would you do?

Trying too hard

The typical young academic panics.  They promise themselves that they will work very, very hard.  Day 1:  the alarm goes off at 5am.  Maybe they get up; maybe they don’t.  If they do, they stumble to their desk and stare at their work.  Their confidence plummets and they don’t do a lot.

Never mind.  They promise themselves they will catch up at the weekend.  They refuse to go out and on Saturday evening, they sit down at their desk, and stare at their work . . .

Oh, you know what happens next. You’ve been there.  This goes on-and-on until a deadline forces them to get going and then they pull several all-nighters, make the deadline just in time, and blame the typos and shoddy writing on running out of time.

Guess what?  This is a “hiding to nowhere”.  And the problem is not lack of discipline.  The problem is trying to do too much.  This is binge-working based on a romantic notion of work.

Get over it!  Work is work.  Did you hear that? Work is work.  You aren’t brilliant. You aren’t capable of massive amounts of work.

Very successful people work playfully.  Little-and-often

You are capable of doing your work and loving it.

Boice studied academics, young and old, often watching them when they work.  Productive academics look lazy.  (They do, don’t they?)  They move around in a relaxed fashion often because they have a little secret.

They do get up early, but so they can spend an hour or so writing every day while the house is still quiet.

They don’t jump to writing the finished article all at once though.

They get up. They sit down.

If they feel unmoved to work, they free-write.  They will probably tear up what they have written tomorrow, but they get the creative juices going.

Tomorrow they come and carry on.

By working every day, they don’t have to remember where they got up to and they just carry on, adding stuff, deleting stuff, structuring and editing.

Slowly and painlessly, the work clocks up without any binge-working or panic.

With that casual hour done, they can afford to be relaxed with people, to do admin work, to be friendly to students, to read, to do lab work, to discuss ideas.

What can other-workers learn from professors?

Other work is no different.

Agile is simply the same process.  We work on one project at a time. We define what needs to be done and we concentrate on it.  Other priorities are shut out until it is done.  But despite the rugby-terminology of scrum and sprint, we don’t rush.  Burn-down is for tasks.  Burn-out takes us nowhere.

If working little-and-often is so right, why don’t we all do it?

Where we fail is that we don’t have the guts to work little-and-often.  The secret is a good mentor who can act as a pace-maker.  But we don’t always have a good mentor.  So we need to get into the habit early of working a little on our main project every morning.

Here is a set of slides I put together for first-year students with some of his observations. I link to Boice’s book is below. I do recommend it. It is a stunning piece of research about productivity with real insights on how to join that small group of people who achieved 700% of what we achieve.  After that it is up-to-you.

Try it this way  perhaps.  If you haven’t made progress during the week, on Saturday evening, don’t cancel your plans.  But before you go out, free write for 20 minutes. That’s all.  Just write what is in your head for 20 minutes.  Then go out.   And get Boice’s book.  I promise you that you will be surprised, relieved and unburdened.

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Time for some evidence-based management in UK

Global Warming  Ice Cream Van queue at Studland by Watt_Dabney via FlickrGet a lot more done by focusing intensely on a goal

One of the stunning results of psychological research of the second half of the 20th century is that goals and feedback raise performance dramatically.

Depending on our starting point, we can raise our performance between 10% and several hundred percent by focusing on a fixed target and getting timely feedback about how close we are to our goal.

Target & box-ticking culture in the UK

In Britain, goals and feedback have been adopted widely and are known here as targets and box-ticking.   Some people intuitively grasp there is something wrong with the system.  Others believe that we are somehow able to control doctors, nurses, teachers and police officers and GET MORE DONE.

What is wrong with targets & box-ticking?

You have to look no further than the work of British psychologist, John Seddon, to understand what has gone wrong.

Why do goals and feedback dramatically increase our performance?

A goal gives us a fixed point to aim at and an environment where we learn what makes a difference.  Feedback about our progress to our goals, preferably built into the task itself, helps us work out what works and what doesn’t.

Why do targets and box-ticking dramatically fail to raise our performance?

Targets (and box ticking) are not a system of goals and feedback. They are a plain old fashioned assembly line in which we perform simple movements at a set pace.

An assembly line was innovative in 1910 but it was overtaken by Toyota in the 50’s when they realised they could work much more effectively by throwing out the set pace “do it like this” methods and charging each person with investigating for themselves what works and what doesn’t.

University students routinely play the the “beer game” (and its descendants) to learn an important fact about assembly lines.  Fixed ways of doing things don’t fit the natural variety of life.  Too often what we do does not fit what is required.  Fixed ways of doing things generates errors.  Fixing errors is expensive.  Before long, we have a mess and our budgets are way out of control.

Would I try to drive from London to Edinburgh at a fixed speed?

Let’s take a simple example.  If I decide to drive from London to Edinburgh at a fixed speed, I quickly run into frustration I am much better off responding to variations in traffic conditions as I go.

Having a person plan my trip from an office in Cardiff, for example, might look good on paper but it doesn’t work.  It is far better to give me good maps, a sat nav, and breaking news about traffic conditions.

I can take a break earlier than intended to escape a tail back, for example. I can take a detour along back roads and drive further faster.   And other days, my trip will go smoothly along the full length of the M1, and I will arrive early.

That’s life. And it is cheaper, more enjoyable, and much more efficient that excessive planning.

Turning our GP’s and kindergartens in to assembly lines is so 1910

The attempt to turn every feature of Britain from GP’s offices to the kindergarten into an assembly line is very simply 100 years out of date.  It is time to supply the person doing the job with the information they need to do it.  They still need training, yes. They will value coaching; of course.  They could use data to explore their own effectiveness.

The job of a manager is to provide the information they need in a timely way.  The job of management is to provide data that tells us about coordination.  Where is the tail back?  Where is traffic heavy and about to cause another tail back?  Managers have (or should have) the overview that the person on the job, or driving the single car, does not have, and cannot have because they are busy driving.

Managers are responsible for the outcome of our collective decisions.  They are responsible for tail backs.  They cannot make decisions for each of us though.  They cannot.  It is not practical. And it does not work because the only way to tell us all what to do, is to tell us all to do the same thing.  And then our collective behaviour is not sufficiently flexible and adaptive and we get the very tailback that we were trying to avoid.

The way to avoid tailbacks is to keep each of us making our own decisions on the basis of relevant up-to-date information.

It’s harsh to say it, but if a manager does not understand that standardisation causes chaos, they should never have been appointed.  This is MGMT101.  It is taught in first year in university.  We learn it in the boy scouts.  We learn it when we organize a sleep-over.

A GP, for example, needs information on the state of health of their entire patient group.  Then they can allocate resources sensibly. Discretion to spend half-an-hour with a patient might lead to a well thought health programme that resolves dozens of problems.  Equally a frequent user might be distracted from unnecessary visits by non-medical interventions, such as family meeting.

A GP is highly motivated to work flexibly precisely because it helps them eliminate the queues.  No system thought out elsewhere will achieve that.  Instead, it creates dissatisfied patients who are not getting their issues dealt with and who then return to the system for more attention.

A goal of keeping these 2000 patients in good health is very different from a target of seeing 30 or so patients a day.  Feedback about the health of 2000 patients is very different from filling in forms about whom one has seen.

If GPS’s get everything done and every one healthy and go home early, is that wrong?  Emergency calls can still be routed to them at home.

It really is time to demand some “evidence based management”. If a government department wants targets, then let it set up properly conducted trials to compare their method with methods recommended by psychologists.  Not just Seddon. All psychologists.  It is time.

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Little-and-often: The secret of beating writer’s block, procrastination, etc etc and so on

Sleeping, resting or procrastinating before a big task

Have you ever noticed that minute you have to sit down to do a big task, such as write a paper, or get up to do a big task, like hoover the house, you want to go to sleep?  You dither, you fuss, you try to talk yourself out of it.  And you waste hours getting cross with yourself but doing nothing?

Procrastination is sane

Well you are in good company.  Sane company.  Your body is resisting being enveloped in one distracting task.  It knows better.  It knows everything else goes to wrack and ruin while you attend to this one big thing.  At best, it wants a good rest before your start.

Work little-and-often

So how do you get round your dilly-dallying?  Fussing and cursing certainly doesn’t help.  It just wastes time.

The secret is in little-and-often.  Yup, little-and-often.

Folks, 15 minutes is a long time for our alert, sociable, curious human brains.  Go much beyond 15 minutes, and you body will protest (in advance).  You might need an enveloping time slot of an hour to do that 15 minutes of work.  In reality, you are only going to do 5 or 10 minutes, but you will need a buffer zone to remember what you were doing, get out your tools, do the work, and put it away.

What work can be done little-and-often?

How can you do this, you cry?

Successful people work little-and-often.  That is why they are successful.

Successful professors, by which I mean professors who publish 7x as much as the run-of-the-mill professor publishing at 1x, get up earlyish each day and put aside 1 to 1.5 hours to write something, anything.

They get up. They go to their desk.  They look at what they were doing yesterday.  And they do a bit more.  And the next day rinse-and-repeat.

And they don’t break the chain.  They work little-and-often daily.  Because when they take a break, they’ve added the additional task of trying to remember what they were doing.   And then the task gets too big.

They write daily.  Adding something.  If they have two productive slots of 15 minutes in 1.5 hours.  Great!  But they just get something done.

When they have a real break, like a long vacation, they start again.  They get up. They go to their desk.  And they start work.  The first few days might be spent in remembering.  But they don’t get stressed.  That is the beginning point.  Because they have good work habits, they know the work will get done.

But what should I work on little-and-often first thing in the morning?

The trick though, is knowing our priorities.  What is the big task that we will attend to regularly and get finished as a landmark of achievement?

Professors have a simple (though remarkably bruising) work life.  They publish. They teach.  They do community/university service.  But they are only promoted for what is written and published.

So their priorities are clear.  The first and essential task everyday is to write – with a conference in journal in mind.  Then they go to campus and teach and “do” research for the next paper – tasks that are so much easier because they are sociable.   Their “day-job” is relaxed ,setting up a feed for the real job, that cocooned writing time first thing every morning.

Can we copy the little-and-often work routine of successful professors?

When we are procrastinating, we can be sure that we’ve left a task get too big for a series of 15 minute slots.  Or, we have left it too late and we have to do it in one fell swoop.  If nothing else, this is what university life teaches you.  Work little and often.  And begin.  Begin before you are ready.

To get into a comfortable working rhythm, we need to

  • Establish priorities (ONE, and two, three – no more)
  • Do what we are judged on first, before the house gets noisy.
  • Then do the feeder tasks during the day.

The solution is not reducing procrastination.  The solution is knowing our career priorities.  What are we judged on?  If we are judged on published papers, then we need to go one step back – where do they come from – we write them.  So writing is the main task.

How do we write?  Well, while we are writing one article, we are preparing for the next.  But without interfering with the main task.  Which is done in small time slots, little and often, beginning immediately.  The writing is the main task that must be protected.

The trick is understanding our priorities.  But that is hard.  A good mentor might spell out what we need to do.  Until w have those 3 priorities clear in our mind, then we will  be stressed and uncomfortable.

If we are in a readjustment phase,  and not clear about our priorities, we might have to weather the discomfort for while, but we shouldn’t let that stop us moving towards that clarity.  That is the hallmark of success and a comfortable, achieving life.  Clear priorities.

What will I work on daily, little-and-often?

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Have three things to do. No more. It’s hard.

Three goals, only

At any one time in my life I have three goals. Only.  For example, when I ran a large entry level course in New Zealand, my goals were

  • the course
  • settling in New Zealand
  • my family in Zimbabwe

Whatever I did had to fit into one of those three boxes.

Settling on three goals is hard

Since I have moved to the UK, I have struggled to settle down to three goals.  I need three catch-phrases that I can remember and that will persist for a few years at least.

As an academic, the three goals are easy: research/writing, teaching, community service.

Jim Collins has three goals: creativity & writing (50% plus), teaching (30%), other (20% or less).  He has three stop watches in his pocket and he switches them on and off all day long.  I could never be that compulsive but I like three goals and I like the way he commits half his time to one of them.

Then he has the “big jump” or mission.  To leave a lasting body of work.  Just in case you don’t know, Collins is know working on narratives of companies as “anti-heroes” – the story of failure.

What are your three goals?

Can you settle on three goals and state your “big jump” in a phrase?

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17 ways to increase the productivity of new professors

The wandering university teacher

Displaced from my own country, I have been “on the road” now for 7 years.  In that time, I have taught at five different universities and colleges with quite different characters.  They have varied from the old to the new.  Students have come from all over the world.  And the staff ‘gave a damn’, or ‘didn’t’.

What my experiences have taught me is that there is a steep learning curve adjusting to the culture of a school.  ‘Old’ universities allowed for this by having long settling in periods.  People did not have a full teaching load at the outset and their responsibilities in other areas were reduced too.  There was often elaborate support outside the college with subsidized housing, sports facilities, etc.

17 ways to get a new lecturer up-to-speed quickly

In these days when colleges churn their staff and try to make every penny out of them that they can, it makes sense to manage the learning curve of their lecturers and professors.  This is what I have learned from my moves.

  1. Allocate some time to learn the culture of your school.   Arrange for people to observe various classes and pick up what works and what doesn’t.  I had the opportunity to do that at one school and something as simple as walking away from the podium into the audience, where the light was better, seemed to make students with happier.  I suspect students are sensitive to lecturer’s facial expressions and they need to see our faces.
  2. Have communication channels and time available for lecturers to hear and react to students reactions to classes.   Whatever method you choose, don’t divert student reactions to junior tutors or managers, neither of whom can pass feedback  on effectively.  When they receive feedback, positive or negative, their job should be to facilitate a meeting and direct communication.  In the days of the intranet, chatter channels where the lecturer is also a member, work quite well.
  3. Have people in the building who speak the students’ first language and are sufficiently comfortable with other cultures to explain differences in expectations without provoking defensiveness.
  4. Be honest about the level of your school.  As a general rule of thumb, over-ambition kills a teaching initiative. We cannot do more than the skills of students allow.  We cannot do more than the equipment and libraries support.  The dumbing-down happens not when we get students to take the next step in their learning curve.  The dumbing-down happens when we define a highfaluting curriculum and have to pretend students are doing tasks that are way-over-their-heads.  This seems to be a fault of weaker schools who are trying to pretend they are something they are not.
  5. Identify the teaching unit.  I taught a 2 hour class in one school and contended with 20 emails a day on its administration.  On the whole it is better to let one person start and finish something.  If one person cannot manage course from beginning to end, break it up into two courses!  What you spend on lecturer costs, you will surely save on admin and managing misunderstandings.
  6. Keep the degree structure simple.   The more students are swirling around registering and deregistering, the more admin you have to do and the harder it is to relate to them as people.  When you have complicated systems, the school begins to be run by the admin staff and lecturers increasingly stop being teachers.

And also consider the absolute basics

When I arrive to take up a new appointment, these are the minimum and not very demanding facilities that I need to be effective.

  1. A clean desk and 10 hour rated chair, a bookshelf, a new internet-enabled computer, and a lockable filing cabinet in an office that I can work in quietly, tutor students and leave my personal possessions and half-written exam papers quite safely.
  2. A file with the regulations that pertain to the course.
  3. A clear map of the computer servers and any information that I might need.
  4. A visit from IT to set up any passwords that I might need.
  5. Students enrolled and present no later than 10% into the course.
  6. A list of any other resources I have (budget, printing press, photocopiers, etc.)
  7. Library access and an opportunity to tour the library.
  8. Any previously prescribed textbooks and material.
  9. A written brief on the culture of the school.  If it is not written down, then do not be surprised when we trip over it!
  10. If there is a course manual, have the material presented in one place.  What I don’t want to see an idiosyncratic syllabus with a “goals” for students, then a “text”, then questions and model answers, then another set of goals for the lecturer, then another set of suggestions for class.  This is nonsense.  The text is the model answer and the questions answered by the text are the questions.  One manual should do the trick.
  11. Examinations should have the same assessment process as the in-term assessment.  If the students will write essays in the exam, then the continuous assessment should be essays, etc.  The examination should reflect the skill we are assessing and that is what students should be practicing during the term and that is what the classes and textbook should model.  If students cannot make the step-up to the assessment within a month of the course beginning, then perhaps the course should be redesigned.  The following two months should be for a repeat cycle with fresh content but the same skill.  The last month should be for revision.

Paradoxically, in the olden days when people moved in and hung about for decades, these facilities might have been in place.  Now that ‘managers’ have speeded-up the churn, they can’t always keep up with the business model that they have put in place.

My list of 17 as a gift to you.

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    Productivity 2.0 vs Productivity 1.0

    HRM in the long recovery

    People are starting to look for ideas on how to manage HRM during the (long) recovery.  Here is my best hunch.   Once we have gone past keeping the firm positive, which I’ve written about quite extensively, then we have to go back to some basic strategic HRM.  You know, the ‘hard’ stuff.  What we make around here.  Who buys it.  Who makes it.  The numbers.

    Here are 4 questions to set you on the road to asking about HRM strategy.

    Productivity 2.0 vs Productivity 1.0

    Does the company work assembly-line style? Is its central idea that the world will deliver a steady stream of repetitive work that you will do exactly as you did yesterday?

    OR does the company work with a variety of demands, working with the customers to streamline what they want?

    Does the company rely on a few people to think up work processes which are designed and then handed over to staff to execute, no matter what feedback is received from the market?

    OR does the company center the work around feedback from the market?

    Of course, once you have answered these questions, you do need to figure out what to do next.  But if you are clear about these questions, you are well on the way to cutting out 80% of the muddle that we see in HR.

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    For those dogged moments when we just have to get things done

    As Once the Winged Energy of Delight

    As once the winged energy of delight
    carried you over childhood’s dark abysses,
    now beyond your own life build the great
    arch of unimagined bridges.

    Wonders happen if we can succeed
    in passing through the harshest danger;
    but only in a bright and purely granted
    achievement can we realize the wonder.

    To work with Things in the indescribable
    relationship is not too hard for us;
    the pattern grows more intricate and subtle,
    and being swept along is not enough.

    Take your practiced powers and stretch them out
    until they span the chasm between two
    contradictions…For the god
    wants to know himself in you.

    Rainer Maria Rilke

    For the god wants to know himself in you

    As we approach the end of the year, many of us will be trying desperately to clear our desks so that we can take a few days off to be with our families.

    Many of our tasks will be tedious.   And our “to do” lists will be long.

    This is the time to take each task “as it is”, one at a time, to do it with pleasure, not thinking about the other tasks, disregarding our fatigue for a moment, and to see the link between our task and our deepest dreams, not in a tortured way, but with the delight of a child.

    We need to do the task with a caress and a verve “For the god wants to know himself in you.”

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    Tight planning or joyful priotizing for 2010?

    Do you plan your time carefully?

    When I was a young psychologist, I advised people to schedule their time. My boss, an organized goal-oriented man, disagreed. He said that as long as you are doing something important, then it doesn’t matter what you do.

    Before we went to meetings with clients, he would go through the our goal and sub-goals, which he would put in a meeting planner. Clients were well aware that he had a check list because they could see him looking at it and ticking things off.

    He also ran the office with tight deadlines. He would phone in that he was coming to pick up his overnight work and he expected someone to be at street level to hand it to him through the car window.

    His work was returned in the morning and with a ‘rinse and repeat’ the next night, all our work was turned around in three days.

    But he didn’t do schedules.

    What is the alternative to schedules?

    I read a long post today from someone who scheduled his time for a whole year – very precisely.

    I think working out how much time we have available is helpful so that we can work backwards to sensible work practices.

    • We can find a daily, weekly, and monthly rhythm that is enjoyable and effective.
    • We can discover what is important

    Yes, we have a year, a month, a week, a day or an hour to spend. What will we do with it? We have a year, a month, a week, a day or an hour to spend. What would be the most enjoyable and satisfying thing to have accomplished in the next hour?

    We need a system to make to find our priorities

    Long “todo” lists and massive schedules are oppressive. I find people who have “calendars” simply fill them up and then claim they are very busy.

    I don’t want to be busy. It only makes me impatient with others.

    My 2010 priorities

    I simply ask whether what I am going to do in the next hour enjoyable, satisfying and meaningful?

    I simply ask how my day will be enjoyable, satisfying and meaningful.

    Right now, I am asking why this week (or weekend) will be enjoyable, satisfying and meaningful

    How will the remainder of this month be cherished and celebrated?

    As I take my blank calendar for 2010, where are the moments in 2010 that will be enjoyable, satisfying and deeply meaningful!

    And I will leave time, plenty of time, for events to surprise me and make the year better than I could ever dream.

    In the words of poet, David Whyte:

    “What you can plan is too small for you to live. What you can live wholeheartedly will make plans enough for the vitality hidden in your sleep?”