Weird Ways to Manage Anxiety

Anxiety has been my companion through most of my adult life. Most people wouldn’t know this about me because I am so totally chill about everything, yo. (I made a joke about my NaNoWriMo co-ML and I that his job was talking and my job was planning and panicking—it’s an even division of labor.) Seriously, I do a fair job of managing my stress and anxiety, and mostly it’s through normal means, like taking a walk, taking a nap, or watching a funny movie. But I also manage it through some unusual means, and so I’m here to break down: The Top Three Weird Ways I Manage My Anxiety.


1. Memorization/Recitation

I am an avid fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’ve seen all the episodes, read a ridiculous number of books and comic books, tracked down interviews and read behind the scenes books. I know quotes, actor names, random factoids, and the name of every episode.

Let me clarify, I know the name of every episode in order. Forward and backward. With episode numbers.

There are 144 episodes of Buffy and when I’m feeling stressed out, I head over to Sporcle to play my favorite Buffy episode quiz. The quiz is simple—you write the episode title and it fills in on the list. And even though I know all the episodes, sometimes I’m a little rusty, or I remember them out of order, so I play the game over and over until I have the order correct forward, and then backward, and then under 10 minutes, etc. (I stop when I feel less anxious, but this can go on for bits at a time for days, depending on what’s causing the anxiety.)

When I’ve got Buffy down, I move on to Angel (110 episodes), and then Stargate SG-1­ (a whopping 214 episodes).

In some ways it’s a time waster, but when the anxiety is high, the repetition can help calm me down and the memorization lets me focus on something that isn’t whatever’s causing the anxiety.


2. Cleaning/Reorganizing/Book Touching

I usually have a smallish (read as: large) pile of paperwork sitting on the corner of my desk and a handful of other things sitting out of place around my space. Picking up those areas is a great way to deal with my anxiety because while I might not be able to get a grasp on other things, I know where these things go! (Some of it is the recycling, I admit.) Even if I don’t make it through the stack, diminishing it at all gives me a sense of purpose and success when anxiety is otherwise blocking my productivity.

Reorganizing my bookshelf is another way I deal with anxiety, but since my bookshelf is already organized, this is often a way of tricking myself into feeling productive. I might shift curios around or find a new bookend, but usually there’s very little to do. What I mostly end up doing is touching the spines of books, reading titles, taking in the colors, and occasionally picking the next book I want to read or identifying a book to give away (that last one is actually productive). Even if I’m not distracting myself by the task of reorganizing, losing myself in my book collection for a few minutes usually helps reduce my anxiety because I’m focused on something else.


3. Faceplanting in a Cat

When I’m stressed, I find my cat and I shove my face in his fur. Or sometimes, he finds me and forces me to cuddle (often by lying on me and shoving his fur in my face—at least we’re in agreement about what’s comforting). This also usually leads to him purring, and there’s little that soothes anxiety as efficiently as a cat purr.

 

Three weird methods, but they all work for me. The reason they work is that all of these activities take me away from whatever is causing the anxiety and allow me to focus on something else—and something I enjoy. Because even when I’m reciting the names of Buffy episodes, I’m thinking about a show that is funny and means a lot to me. So, yeah, even though it’s a little weird, I’m happy to do it if it means that afterward I can function. Do you have any weird coping mechanisms or things that you do before settling into work?

Power Outages

A couple weeks ago a transformer blew at my house, sending me out of the house unexpectedly and in a hurry. (In a hurry from the heat, even in December Florida houses can get hot fairly quickly.) It could have happened at a worse time—my laptop was fully charged and I was showered and dressed—but having changes forced upon my plans is never a good time. Except for when those changes force me out of a rut and push me forward.

On this particular day, I was avoiding certain tasks and generally struggling to even start my to-do list. Having the power off at the house meant I couldn’t bury myself in another Netflix binge. It meant that even reading a book would be uncomfortable in the heat. Being forced out of the house actually made me more productive because I couldn’t avoid my work in the same ways I normally would at home.

Not to mention this whole situation gave me an idea for a blog post in which I could talk about the ways we can trick ourselves into motivation and focus. Which is a topic I’m heavily considering these days.

2017 was a tough year. For me personally it saw the death of two friends and life-threatening health issues for three family members. Not to mention the general anxiety and distraction that was 2017. Staying focused on work with these real life issues going on was difficult, if not impossible some days. My normal drive and ability to motivate was challenged time and again. Other creatives talked about this problem throughout the year (John Scalzi’s post on the topic was quite memorable), but the problem really caught up with me in October. I tried to adapt my routines and dig deeper, tried new ways to motivate myself and keep focus, but the problem seemed to get worse, not better. I don’t have any answers yet, but I think rolling with the changes is part of the puzzle of productivity. I think embracing change—purposefully doing something different—can have long-term results. Or it can at least temporarily shift my focus long enough to edit a chapter or draft a new scene.

Finding motivation in the midst of personal chaos is a struggle, and the trashfire that was 2017 only made it more difficult. But I’m glad I ended the year with a literal power outage that forced me to confront some of the ways I was going about pushing myself. Even though I don’t have answers, I feel like I at least have some perspective. I’m looking forward to embracing 2018 and finding new ways to be productive.

Productivity Apps

I’m on a constant mission to find tricks to improve my productivity. The number of productivity apps out there is staggering, and after a long time of searching and testing, I found three apps that helped me move from writing every now and then to writing every day, and even helped me finish and revise my first novel.

Rescue Time

Rescue Time downloads to your computer and tracks how you spend your computer time, including logging which websites you visit and how much time you spend on them (for one browser, for all others it just tells which application you were using).

It takes all of this information and aggregates a productivity score, as well as the number of hours you spent doing different categorized activities.

Below is a snapshot from this last month. I hovered over “Design & Composition” so you can see my top activities under Design & Composition were Scrivener, NaNoWriMo.org and Google Documents.

You can use Rescue Time with its default settings, or customize websites and activities for what you would call “productive” or “distracting.” You can also add or edit categories to fit your tasks. For example, while I was in the MFA Program, I added an “MFA” distinction under “Reference & Learning,” so I could get productive credit for things like working on online classes.

Use: After you get it set up, it tracks your productivity passively. You may need to tweak it as you use it, but even the default settings are pretty good for starting to get a grip on your life. Use it to find out where you’ve been spending your time so you can make better choices about how you spend your time.

Ease: I’ll be honest, it took me awhile to really get the hang of Rescue Time to tweak it to my “productive” tasks and then understand the data. The passive tracking makes it easy to collect data, and then I could analyze it at my own pace.

Benefit: Rescue Time emails a weekly summary of activity. Seeing “Design & Composition” as my top activity lets me know when I’m putting my writing first. Rescue Time also helped point out what was most distracting for me and helped me take steps to avoid and mitigate those distractions.

Paid: There is a paid option to Rescue Time that gives you more bang. It has a built-in block out timer, alerts, offline tracking, and—this is the one I like the best—it can track which document you’re working in, not just that you’re in MS Word.

Productivity Challenge Timer

Sometimes the best way to be productive is to set aside productive time. Productivity Challenge Timer is a phone app that allows you to set a timer and get to work! The timer can be for as few as 10 minutes or as many as 120 minutes (you can also add 5 minutes if you need to keep working).

Finishing work sessions earns ranks and achievements, so there’s a little gamification involved with the Challenge Timer, if that’s your thing. Be warned: if you don’t work you’ll lose ranks (I have lost so many). If losing ranks stresses you out, that’s a feature you can turn off.

In the free version you can set up 4 projects and then track the amount of time you spend doing each thing. I set mine to track Writing, Reading, Editing, and Business.

Use: Being able to decide how long I’ll work each time makes this app extremely useful. It also helped me learn that working for 10 minutes is better than not working at all. (And that several 10-minute sessions start to add up!) Use it to help you focus on the activity you’re working on at the moment. The timer means focus!

Ease: Getting started is easy, just create a project and hit the button to start. The stats took a little time to understand, but they can easily be ignored until you’re ready to tackle them.

Benefit: Productivity Challenge Timer is good for focusing when you want to work and rewarding yourself with a break. It’s easier to focus if you know a break is coming up, or if you know you only have 2 more minutes, etc.

If you like stats, this also can help you determine when your most productive hours are. The app tracks when you work along with how long you work, so you can discover, for example, that you work more often in the evening. For some of you that might be obvious, but you’ll now have the evidence to show your family and friends when they try to encroach on your writing time. 😉

Paid: There is a paid option for Productivity Challenge Timer that gives you an “unlimited” number of Projects (99), access to Continuous Work Mode, and some additional achievements.

Habit Hub

Habit Hub is a habit tracker that works off the same strategy as “Don’t Break the Chain.” Each day you perform the task is another day in your streak. You can set a target for a streak and Habit Hub will track you each day.

Not only do you determine the habits you want to track, you can also decide how often you want to perform the habit. For example, you can set Habit Hub to track you for Monday through Friday or Tuesdays and Thursdays or any other combination of days. You can also choose to perform the habit on a set number of days per week (instead of on specific days).

Best yet, Habit Hub allows you to set reminders. Mine reminds me at 1:30pm every day to write. The app also sends a reminder at the end of the day (9:00pm for me) to remind me to check in for all of my habits. Having these two automated reminders is a surefire way to get my butt in the chair for writing at least once per day.

Use: Use Habit Hub as a reminder to build habits and as motivation to continue the plan you make for yourself.

Ease: Clicking one button to log your completed habit is as easy as it gets (we’ll gloss over logging that you didn’t complete a habit). In addition to logging in that you accomplished your goal, you can decide if you need to skip it for the day. Skipping is a great feature because it allows you to say that you had extenuating circumstances that prevented you from performing the task, but it doesn’t break the chain.

Benefit: In addition to tracking the number of days you have in a streak, Habit Hub creates graphs to show your “Habit Strength” (the percentage of times you’ve completed the habit), your progress, your ratio of completed habits, and it even helps you see on which days of the week you’ve completed the task most often. Being able to see these things can help you determine patterns such as, “I never write on Sundays,” and then you can adjust your expectations to allow for a writing break every Sunday. It’s not always about working harder, it’s about working smarter.

     

Paid: The paid version allows you to track unlimited habits (the free version only tracks 5), and you can add rewards and have more specific tracking (such as a habit you complete x-number of times a day). You can also have additional targets, setting yourself up for streaks of 10 days, 30 days, 60 days, 100 days, so that you can build up to a full 365-day streak! (The free version gives you 3 targets, which you can edit and delete if you need to make additional targets.)

Habit Hub is the only app I’m recommending that is currently Android only. You can find similar habit trackers in the Apple App Store. Search for “habit tracker” or “don’t break the chain.”

Using These Apps In Conjunction

Here’s how I used these apps to deliver a shot of productivity to my writing life.

Rescue Time helped me identify which websites and tasks were my time suckers. Rescue Time also made me accountable to how I used my time because it was logging everything I was doing (and judging me). That knowledge encouraged me to work more and play less.

Once I added Habit Hub, I had a daily reminder to write. Even if I was too busy to respond to the 1:30pm reminder, the 9:00pm reminder usually got me to the computer. On a few occasions I had been too busy during the day, but would check my phone before bed, and there it was, a reminder that I hadn’t written. At this point your reminder has to marry your stubbornness. Do you let yourself off the hook because you’re tired? Or do you haul yourself to the computer, blink at the glowing screen, and write something?

Personally, I hauled myself to the computer, aimed for 50–100 words and then clicked to say I wrote for the day. Because putting in 50 words is something.

Productivity Challenge Timer was the last app I added. Even with Rescue Time judging me, I still had a habit of drifting off during the middle of a “writing session” to check Tumblr or Twitter, or window shop on Etsy. After all, Rescue Time would keep track of how much I was actually writing, so it didn’t matter if I broke my stride.

Nope! Productivity Challenge Timer was the perfect bum glue. Once I set the timer for 15 minutes of Writing that meant I couldn’t do any activity that wasn’t related to Writing. I found my focus was strongest for 15- or 20-minute work sessions, but I usually needed at least a short break at 20 minutes. The gamification of Productivity Challenge Timer also helped encourage me to plan more writing sessions, and thus write more words.

Obviously you may have different results, and you may find a different combination of productivity tools more useful. The important thing is to find something that works for you. Don’t be afraid of trying a new app and experimenting to find out what works best for you.

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The Changeable Plan

Almost every week I meet my friend for dinner and we go to either Barnes & Noble or the library. We spend an hour walking through the books, reading titles, touching covers, and expanding our to-read lists. In addition to an ever-increasing to-read list, I also have an ever-increasing library. And of those books there are a good many that I haven’t read. This year I decided my reading theme would be Read Your Damn Books. I made a whole plan for how many books I wanted to read, how many of them should be books I already own, how many audio books, how many graphic novels, etc. And then I proceeded to the library website and I ordered a bunch of books for home delivery because I apparently like usurping my own plans.

But aren’t all plans really just guidelines? I mean, when I made the original book list, I knew I would swap out books if I wasn’t particularly feeling a title, and that I would make new discoveries over the year. My primary goals were to read thirty books and to spend about half of my 2017 reading time consuming books from my home library. I also wanted to read at least five books borrowed from my local library and to listen to at least two audio books.

I had no idea that I’d get so invested in audio books. I’ve been listening to them while I take walks and so I’ve so far been through seven audio books. (Can I count one as “reading my damn book” since I already owned it?) My guideline of a plan obviously involves some spontaneous revision since I now have to decide how upping my audio book intake affects the number of physical books I read. Do I still need for half of my 2017 books to come from my bookshelf? Can I revise that number to just twelve? (Or ten seeing as how we’re over halfway through the year and I’ve read a whooping total of six books I own.)

I also had to scrap and revamp part of my plan. I had planned to start researching for a time travel story in the latter half of 2017, but in starting to draft my pirate novel, I realized I need to do more pirate research. So it’s back to the high seas, air, and steampunk for me. All the time travel books have been relegated to 2018—at least I already have the start of next year’s guidelines.

The main thing about plans is that they have to be flexible. Rigid plans often prevent productivity. If I said I had to stick to reading my physical books and ignored that I was enjoying listening to audio books on walks I might not have finished as many books as I have, or I might have stopped walking so I could add that time to my book reading time. Sticking to my original plan would have ignored my natural inclinations and that frustration would have easily made me stagnant.

Strangely this reminds me of writing my last novel. I had an outline laid out—an excellent guideline, indeed—but I got caught in the middle, trying to force the main character to read books when she just wanted to listen to audio books (at least in this analogy). Once I let her listen to audio books, things started coming much easier. I had to refigure my plan and change a few expectations, but finishing the first draft became much easier when I stopped fighting against my plan, just like how reading over thirty books in 2017 will be much easier if I let myself continue listening to audio books. Going with the flow isn’t so easy if you’re a planner, but learning to find my own rhythm and accept that as a new plan is key to staying productive.