Flags.

This post is for anyone out there who is constantly brain-wrestling, trying to find ways to get the most productivity out of “good mental health days” and minimize the damage of “bad mental health days.”  No system works for everyone, but I’ve finally found one that seems to be working pretty well for me, so I’d like to share it in case it helps anyone else who (like me) has failed at pretty much any other attempt at time management.

Being a tactile person, I’ve always liked day planners, journals, notebooks, etc. more than digital forms of organization (though Google Calendar & its reminders have saved my butt on countless occasions).  The problem with digital means (for my particular cognitive architecture) is that remembering to check them is an entirely mental process.  There isn’t a physical object that viscerally feels wrong if it’s missing or in the wrong place.  (People who habitually carry purses know what I’m talking about here; no matter how distracted you are, leaving the house without them feels wrong on a gut level.)  A journal or day planner becomes something I’m used to having sitting at my right hand when I’m at the computer or next to my bed at night.  Its physical presence, the space it takes up, reminds me to use it in the way that the mere existence of a digital calendar or to-do list doesn’t.

So I thought a bullet journal would be just the thing!  Flexible, and the system allows me not to waste pages if I should happen to drop off the map for a week or twelve.  But I quickly discovered that the standard way of doing bullet journals doesn’t solve my primary problem.  My primary problem isn’t managing oodles of weekly and monthly deadlines or long term goals; I’ve long since pared down my life to realistically match my capabilities.  My problem was with those pesky dailies.

My survival and mental health revolves around a staggering number of minuscule regular tasks that I cannot seem to mentally “automate.”  And there is almost no system out there that lends itself very well to daily, endlessly repetitive to-do lists.  This lack makes sense, as most people aren’t in a situation where they have to check off “brush teeth” or “shower” every day.  They just do it.  I used Habitica for a while; it’s an absolutely wonderful and motivating app, but a) not physical and b) it shares the problem of every daily to do list out there for me.  As I come to realize more and more things I have forgotten to do daily without help, the list becomes a long mind-numbing column of text that’s difficult to properly prioritize and which leaves me feeling guilty on the days that not all of it gets checked off.  Because some days I just can’t.

I looked up countless bullet journal hacks and finally found my salvation: Post-It flags.  Which I was using for novel edits anyway!  So I had them lying around.

Each of these flags has a permanent “home” on a two-page spread in my journal.  They stay put there when not in use.  Each day I turn to the next available blank page in my journal, write the date down, and then, instead of an interminable to-do list under it, I write:

Daily:
Gold:
Yellow:

That’s it.  The Daily (orange) flags are those things that MUST get done every day, even if I have a migraine, even if I’m a sobbing mess for whatever reason.  These are the things that give me the capacity to do other things.  The things that, if skipped for even one day, could make my mental or physical health worse.  (For example, if I don’t wash my face at least once a day, I basically start to grow scales, which doesn’t do much for my mood.)  I try to make sure there are fewer than ten orange flags, and that they’re very basic things, because these are every day things, come hell or high water.  If the number starts to approach ten, I reevaluate.  Will missing one day be a big deal?  If I can get by doing whatever the thing is 4-5 times a week instead of 7, I’ll downgrade it to a gold flag.

Gold flags are the things I benefit from doing daily, but it’s not a big deal if I skip a day (or even a week, in extreme conditions).  These are things I can always “catch up” later if need be, or postpone, but that do incur a cost if I neglect them for too long.  Language study, for example, or piano practice, or other things that need continual attention in order to advance.  This category also includes responsibilities such as dealing with SFWA mail–ideally done daily but unlikely to destroy worlds if left for a day or three (when you work with deceased authors’ estates, there is rarely anything so urgent it can’t wait for a couple of days, which is why I felt confident taking the position in the first place).

Then there are the yellow flags, which are things I can get away with doing once or twice a week or less, but that I should check in with every so often.  Reviewing the political situation and needed action, for example, or reaching out to a friend in a focused way, or taking a survey of our finances.

Here’s how the system works on a day to day basis:

Whenever I’m focused enough to Do a Thing, I flip to the flags’ “home page” and pick an orange one to do.  When it’s done, I move it to today’s page.  When I run out of orange ones that can be done at that time of day, the next time I feel up to Doing a Thing I grab a gold one, do it, move it over.  As the day moves on, I gradually empty the flag “home” page, prioritizing by flag color what I choose to tackle next, and start cluttering up today’s.  I don’t get to go to bed if there are any orange flags left on the home page, but anything else is done as spoons materialize.  Then at night I move the flags back to their “home” spots, check the “Daily” box if I got all the orange ones, and then write down how many gold and yellow ones got accomplished.  (The numbers matter because eventually I’m going to incorporate a reward system; I just haven’t gotten the spoons to do it yet.)

The reason this has saved my sanity is a) the flexibility it affords me to do more or fewer tasks on a given day without catastrophically dropping any balls, and b) the fact that, aside from the one-time effort of designing the flags, it can be done with almost no thought whatsoever.  If I start to feel unfocused or indecisive I just open the book, note the darkest-colored flags left on the home page, do one of those basically at random.  Because I designed the system when I was clear about my priorities, I don’t have to be clear about them when I use it.

As long as I use this system, my life seems to progress forward in a somewhat orderly fashion.  I’ve fine-tuned some things such as putting approximately “morning” tasks on the left hand page and “evening” tasks on the right hand page of the “flag home,” but for the most part I don’t over-complicate it.  I just try to move as many flags as I can stand to do each day, and the rest takes care of itself.

Best of all, on a bad day I just get to move all the flags back home before bed, same as a good day.  No empty checkboxes glaring at me in perpetuity.  The next day is a new start, a new chance to clean out that home page even more thoroughly.  The numbers remain as a record, if I want to go back and look at my rising and falling productivity levels, but I’m not wasting pages and pages of paper on daily lists of things that may or may not be realistic to expect myself to do.

It’s possible this will make no sense to anyone, but I thought I’d share just in case it sparks an “aha” moment for anyone whose brain works similarly to mine.  Post-It flags can be incorporated into a physical to-do system in any number of ways, so it might be worth experimenting even if the exact thing I’m doing doesn’t apply to you.

Happy brain-wrangling!

Hi, I’m Gay & Still Sorta Married. Here’s the Deal.

As of today, my husband and I are officially and openly “separated,” marital-status wise (not location-wise; we still coexist happily).  This may be news to many of you, but it has been our status quo for quite a while.

Matt and I are very close friends.  Family, really.  I’ve known him for more than half my life, and there is no one I trust more, no one I’d rather live with, no one who knows me better.  We met when we were eighteen, married when we were twenty-eight.  Now we’re forty-one, and we’ve both pretty much finally (belatedly, and with each other’s help) figured out who we are and what we want.

Among other things, we’ve figured out that I’m gay*.  There are various factors in my mental health and assorted societal pressures that muddied those waters for a long time, but the healthier I’ve become, the clearer it has become.  For a while it was sort of a moot point, as neither my husband nor I had the emotional bandwidth to even consider pursuing a romantic relationship with anyone.  We were (and are) genuinely happy together, even with what some would consider a large piece missing from our relationship.  Sometimes an intimate friendship/partnership is fulfilling enough for both parties in a marriage.  It has been for me, for a long time.  But I have always believed that once Matt had enough time off from caring for me and the children to pursue it, he would make a splendid romantic partner for someone who could return those feelings.  I am now stable enough to give him that opportunity.

By a stroke of fate or fortune, our home happens to be structured in such a way that two families could live here, each in its own space.  So even if Matt should marry again, there is no compelling reason for me to change my address.  My plan is to continue living here and contributing to the family until our daughters are grown, unless a more typical “non-custodial parent” visiting schedule starts to make more sense to the kids later on.  I will remain a part of the family regardless.  There is no animosity in this “breakup.”  In fact, from our point of view, it isn’t a breakup at all.  We still watch TV together every night, laugh at each other’s jokes, pile on the couch with the girls to cuddle.  This is only a drastic change to those on the outside of it.

To those for whom this apparent parting causes sorrow: I am truly sorry.  If your view of my marriage as “traditional” was important to your view of the world, to your evaluation of love and relationships in general, this must come as a terrible disappointment.  It is our fear of those reactions from friends and family, honestly, that have delayed our transition this long.  We were originally planning to announce to family last Thanksgiving, but… then November happened.  Too many people I loved were already reeling.

Now that those we care about have had some time to adjust to other paradigm shifts, it’s time for us to live our lives more openly.  I want Matt to be able to pursue romance without looking as though he’s dishonoring me, and for us to use whatever terms for our relationship make the most sense (at the moment “co-parent” seems the most accurate).  We are not each other’s romantic happily-ever-after, but nor were we a mistake.  We were two broken people who found and mended each other.  We would not be where we are, as happy as we are, if we had not lived together these thirteen years and made two extraordinary children.

Matt will always have the distinction of being my oldest, truest friend.  We will be here for each other through sickness and health and into old age – that part of our vows I will always honor, and anyone new who comes into our family will understand that.

If you have any other questions I am, as always, an open book.

 

*If you’re into detailed labels, let’s go with “biromantic gray-asexual lesbian.”

An update, part 2.

Since it’s been a month, I want to follow up on some of the things I posted in my update of August 1st, since some of them were open, hanging questions.

  1. I am back on social media.  Mostly Twitter, some Facebook.  The fact that I’m able to endure the onslaught of current events etc. is a very good sign.
  2. I have found a therapist.  It took me seven tries, but after only two sessions I can say that #7 is easily the best therapist I’ve ever worked with (best for me, anyway).  She’s also just an extraordinary human: worked in her parents’ store in Vietnam at age 9, wanted to be a brain surgeon but found her hands weren’t steady enough so got a PhD in clinical psychology instead.  She’s brilliant, empathetic, knows BPD inside and out, and I look forward to every session.
  3. I’m still having some trouble with social interaction.  The most stubbornly clinging symptom from this relapse is an utter certainty of others’ justified annoyance/hostility/dislike/contempt.  Going into an interaction feeling as though I default to the role of antagonist makes it hard to interact normally.  My therapist and I are getting to work on that.
  4. Learning the reason for my new and alarming flavor of headache (cataracts causing eye focusing problems) has been a godsend.  I seem to be back to my usual, more manageable migraines now that I’ve limited my surface-street driving.
  5. Still up in the air: when I’ll get cataract surgery.  It will definitely not be before the World Fantasy Convention though, which means I won’t be able to go.  Trying to find my way around an unfamiliar hotel is a guaranteed way to end up bedridden (see #4).
  6. I’m writing again!  Sort of.  Gathering notes, thinking thoughts, reading research books, getting excited for the next project.  Having both my girls in school has been helpful.
  7. I’m also back to some of the hobbies I’ve long neglected: learning languages, piano, reading.

I think the picture is overall looking much rosier, so I just wanted to let anyone know who’s been worried.  Thanks for checking in!