Sunday, January 24, 2021

Priorities

The kale in our garden is somehow still standing, despite days and nights well below freezing. This week I was able to harvest enough to fill our big red mixing bowl, which is the approximate measure I use for making potato kale soup.

(The recipe, roughly: Three pounds of potato, peeled and diced, cooked in five cups of vegetable broth. Dice the kale and add it in at the end of the boil, just enough to blanch. Blend about 2/3rds of this mixture with a cup of yogurt, then pour the puree back in the pot and stir. Salt to taste.)

Much like the ungodly amount of sweet potatoes we harvested this year, the kale has turned out to be something of a boon during a time when our priorities have changed. We used to build meal plans around what we felt like eating that week. Now we build them around what will keep us out of the store for the longest stretch possible. Since potatoes keep well in the basement, and the kale in the garden keeps growing, soup has really shot up the list.

This is also the third week of January, which means it's the third week of working toward my new writing goals. In years past I've focused on word counts because it's such a handy (and obvious) metric. And I did set some word count goals for the novel-in-progress, because I think they can help drive the persistent effort necessary for long-form projects. Sometimes the only way through the swamp of the second act is to keep track of evidence that shows you're advancing, even if only by inches.

Photographer Ted Orland, with a big white beard and wearing a blue shirt
Ted Orland

But this year I'm trying out a new metric. I've thought a lot about Ted Orland's advice, and about what it means to create effective habits while producing enough bad work to get to the good. One of the things I realized was that focusing on word count can begin to feel like a sprint—the hurried scribbling squeezed into your day in order to hit that target.

Using time as the metric allows for a different approach. For one thing, it feels like you've got a little more room. If the goal is to sit in your chair for two hours instead of hitting a word count then you can start to relax, swing your arms around, and let your mind wander. You can write a meandering blog about kale and Ted Orland and just see where it goes. It's more like a leisurely walk than a sprint, which means you can pause more often, look more closely, and indulge strange detours.

It also forces a realignment of your schedule. In my case, I set a goal of ten hours per week. On a regular schedule that means a minimum of one hour daily, and two hours at least three times a week. That's not an impossible goal by any means, but it does require a little more planning. It means my writing is not something I can squeeze in haphazardly on lunch breaks, or do at the end of the day as a final chore to cross off of my list.

I've always thought I prioritized writing, but the last three weeks have made me question that. Are priorities things you fit inside a schedule that already exists? Or are they the things you build your schedule around? Twenty-four days into January, I'm beginning to see it's the latter.

People Watching

On Wednesday, I went out to meet up with a friend and do some writing. We met at the Athenaeum, a historic building in Indianapolis designed...