Time, Productivity, and All the Things I’d Love to Do

Or, how I discovered the mindfulness of the infinite list.

This post is illustrated throughout with projects we made at our annual family and friends craft retreat a few weeks ago.  I’ll tie that in later in the post.

 

I'm kind of obsessed with the hand as a symbol of the ideas I hold dear.  This was my design in a reductive printing process we tried.

I’m kind of obsessed with the hand as a symbol of the ideals I hold dear. This was my design in a reductive printing process we tried.

 

I’ve struggled on and off my whole adult life with a problem that boils down to this: there will never be enough time in my lifetime to make everything I want to.  Much less will there be enough time to learn nearly enough new skills, or to read everything that’s so good, it might change my life.

 

Speaking of new skills, we got to try wood carving this year thanks to my dad.  I made this new and improved wood version of the giant plastic hair pins I use all the time.

Speaking of new skills, we got to try wood carving this year thanks to my dad. I made this new and improved wood version of the giant plastic hair pins I use all the time.

 

I used to have a fantasy that if I could cut out all time-wasting activities, I’d have time for everything I on my love-to-want-to-do list.  I really, really hate to break it to any of you who may be still thinking about this, but it won’t work.  I got rid of the low-lying fruit a long time ago: I haven’t had TV since college, and one of the few benefits of being one of the millions of Americans paying too much for bad internet is that our connection is way too slow to spend hours watching video, or even reading content-heavy pages online.  I fully support giving up time-sucks, but it’s sad and true that no matter how much you cut out, all the good stuff still won’t fit in.

So sad, right?  Although, I do agree, as elegantly put in this article from the NPR blog, that it would be so much sadder if humans hadn’t produced more beautiful ideas than I can take in in one lifetime throughout all of our history so far.

After I figured out that no matter what, there would still be more lovely projects to make and music to listen to and books to read on my list than I could ever get to, the idea simmered on the back burner of my brain, sometimes seeming as if I had things under control & was making good progress, and other times like my available time was a thing with wings, or fangs, chasing me, or flying away at warp speed.

 

I led a refashioning session for everyone to remake & mend as they saw fit.  I'm awful at taking any pictures while I'm teaching, but even the pile of scraps from this session was lovely.

I led a refashioning session for everyone to remake & mend as they saw fit. I’m awful at taking any pictures while I’m teaching, but even the pile of scraps from this session was lovely.

 

Then, just a few weeks ago, we had our annual craft retreat of family and friends, hosted at my house for the first time.  I had a classic moment of semi-panic as I suddenly saw through the eyes of these people who I wanted to think well of me, some people who had never seen my house before, and my yard looked like a redneck junkyard in-the-making … I consider myself a decent housekeeper, and I did make an effort to get some stuff out of the yard on our last trip home … but there was this moment, about two days before the first arrivals, when I looked around and realized I could clean the house non-stop, without sleeping, until everyone got there, and still be seeing deeper levels of dirt, areas I had missed.

That’s when I got it.  It’s not that the list is longer than I can ever hope to finish, it’s that the list is infinite.  There’s a freeing, meditative aspect of mindfulness to the infinite list.  Since it’s not just unlikely, but actually impossible, to do everything on an infinite list, any infinite list, a certain amount of letting go is perhaps an inevitable next step.

 

My aunt Barb Miller made this truly lovely pillow from a unwanted garment, using my grandmother Dottie Miller's handwoven fabric.

My aunt Barbara Miller made this lovely pillow from a unwanted garment, which used my grandmother Dottie Miller’s beautiful handwoven fabric.

 

I’m still looking around in this infinite-list paradigm, getting my bearings. A few consequences that seem important have occurred to me so far.  Priorities, for one.  Since I can spend an infinite amount of time cleaning the house, I have to choose to stop at some point, even though of course I want things to look nice.  As a guest, if I could arrive at either a house with sparkling windows, or one containing delicious homemade ice cream, I’m wouldn’t hesitate to pick the latter option.  Your choices might be different from mine, but we all get to choose which of the current available options is the most important to us.

 

She was so right about putting the label on the outside.

She was so right about putting the label on the outside.

 

Since my to-do list is infinite, it makes more sense than ever to block out time for the things I love, which would otherwise get immediately buried under the small mountain of tasks I “should” do every day.  Back around the time I gave up TV, I decided to pencil in an hour a day for myself to sew, and I was fairly astonished at how quickly I finished projects.  I have more to-dos now than I could have imagined in college, but I’ve also realized that if I work on only one thing all day, even something I like, my brain slowly turns to mush over the days and weeks.  Plus, the feeling of getting further behind on my personal goals really starts to drag me down.

I need a little “fun” creative time, and a chance to explore new ideas, to keep me happy.  I reinstated the practice of giving myself an hour a day to work on whatever I want, regardless of whether it’s likely to ever make me any money, a few years ago.  It’s a huge and immediate boost to my life satisfaction.  If you can’t spare a whole hour, even 15 minutes a day can give you enough time to make progress on anything you’d like to fit in (Mark Frauenfelder of Make magazine says so, and I’ve seen a lot of sewing bloggers trying it out in the last couple of years, particularly after this post appeared on The Coletterie).

Mark Frauenfelder

The infinite list only beefs up my justifications for scheduling my “free time”, since it makes clear that the time when I “don’t have anything else pressing to do” won’t ever come.  I must choose to make time for the things I love, rather than waiting for the time to appear.

 

My dear aunt Barb also made this wonderful spoon.

My dear aunt Barb also made this wonderful spoon.

 

Perhaps the most freeing thing about meditating on the infinite list so far, is that since there’s no pressure to finish the list, it’s easier to give myself permission to to pay attention to what’s happening in the here and now, and to take care of some things right away.  Or just to appreciate a lovely moment, rather than always focusing on the tasks already stacked up from yesterday.

Overall, I’m feeling pretty stoked about this mental shift from the incredibly long list to the infinite list.  I’m hoping that it will help me focus on the things that are most important, leave some room for spontaneity, and let go of some of the unreasonable expectations I tend to hold over my own head.  Sounds pretty good, right?  What about you, any thoughts to add from your own experience?

 

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Chopping Vegetables, or “Get a Big Knife”

 

 

 

Ok, blog people, let’s talk about something important: chopping vegetables.  Nope, I’m not kidding, in fact I think that being able to do this efficiently can make a real difference in how much work it is to cut up veggies, and therefore how many we cut up and eat.  I have not been to cooking school, so I learned most of my “knife skills” just by experience, and reading cookbooks.  But there are a few simple principles I use now that really make quite a bit of difference.

First of all, get a big sharp knife.  This does not have to break the bank.  When we were renting in Madison, we went to the thrift store, got the most solid-looking/feeling knife (from a rather large and alarming bin of them) went home and sharpened it, and it worked great.  If you use a tiny knife, you will have to cut each piece of each vegetable separately, and that will take forever, and you will be grumpy and think that vegetables are too much work.

Ok, second thing, and this really the key as far as I’m concerned, chop the vegetable into sections, which you can chop together into pieces the size that you want to end up with.  I’ll demonstrate on this squash: cut the ends off (any part you don’t want), and then cut it in half.

 

 

Then, cut the halves in half again, so that you have four sections of squash.  You can pull the knife in a curve as you cut if your veggie is curved.  If you want very small pieces at the end, cut into eight sections now, dividing each one one more time.

 

 

Now, line up the sections and chop all at once!  You can chop thin or thick pieces, whatever you’d like for your dish.  Notice that the tip of your big knife can stay touching the cutting board as you lift the thicker part near the handle and chop chop chop.

 

 

At this point I should perhaps point out that I am usually holding whatever I’m chopping (not the camera) with my non-dominant hand.  And that if you are left-handed, you’ll do exactly the same things, but your chopped squash pieces would appear on the left side of the frame above.  When you’re holding something that you’re chopping, lots of cookbooks advise you to keep your fingertips tucked under, I think on the theory that if your knuckles are sticking out the furthest, they are higher above the thing being chopped, and more likely to bump into the side of the knife than being accidentally shaved by the blade.  Most of the time, I forget to do this.  Use whatever works for you without chopping your fingers.

Also at this point, you may be thinking, “Ok, fine, but not all vegetables come in such a straight and manageable shape.”  Ah ha!  True, but use the same principles to break them up.  For example, I cut this crookneck squash into a (more or less) straight part, and a very curvy part.

 

 

Cut off the ends and divide into sections as before.  If one part is noticeably thicker, I’ll cut it into quarters, and leave the thinner section in halves, to get pieces of about the same size.  That way they will all cook in about the same amount of time.

 

 

There wasn’t an easy way to line up the curvy sections flat, so I stacked them on top of each other.  It’s all about chopping more pieces with one cut.

 

 

Another thing that’s not illustrated, but helps a lot, is having a big bowl (or two if they are not all going to the same dish) to collect your chopped veggies in.  Having a cutting board cluttered with things you’ve already chopped will force you to make smaller, less efficient movements.

 

 

Apply the same principles to a round eggplant: slice first, crosswise this time, then stack and cut into pieces the same size as the squash.

 

 

A few vegetables have their own variations on these ideas, like onions.  Any other ones you’d like to see covered?

What to do with all these lovely freshly chopped veggies?  All of the ones illustrated here went into ratatouille.

 

Try it, trust me, it’s faster, it’s so worth it.

When I say “faster,” I don’t mean “hurry” or “rush” (which in my case always leads to mistakes and/or injuries, usually and), I mean more efficient, less time spent doing the same task, even though you are doing it well.  Whenever I think about efficiency as applied to hobbies (like cooking is for me), I think of this quote, it’s from a weaving and sewing book that my grandmother gave me off her shelf when I liked it.  I love the way the authors write about craft:

 

In all human pursuits there seem to be fast, efficient ways of doing things and slower ways of doing things.  Some weavers hesitate to look for and adopt efficient methods in their craft because they think of themselves as amateurs.  In their heart-of-hearts they feel that it is not appropriate for them to become more proficient.  . . . Loving the craft of weaving and wanting to pursue it more efficiently are certainly not mutually exclusive.  There is every reason, in fact, for all weavers to try to become efficient.  The first benefit of increased proficiency is the production of a better fabric.  There are very few satisfactions that compare with that of a job well done!”

– Handwoven, Tailormade by Sharon D Alderman & Kathy Wertenberger

 

There’s a lesson here for all of us who make ourselves anything as a hobby.  I’d love to spread this attitude, and the resulting more and better sewing/cooking/weaving/whatever you make.  What do you think?  How to you view efficiency in your hobbies?