Procrastination and productivity

As much as I like to make things, there have been some things that I’ve been putting off doing recently.  Although I’ve been getting everything done that’s needed for work, I’ve been putting off what feel like more non-essential things, even though these are often the tasks that are important to building a more resilient and sustainable life.  By and large these are relatively small things, but I put them off all the same.  I think I often convince myself that whatever I want to do will take a long time or be otherwise inconvenient, and so I let things sit.

In most cases, however, this is far from the truth.  To combat my procrastination I’ve been trying to do things that I would normally put off just as a matter of routine.  This means they get done quickly – usually the same day, if not as soon as I think of them – and often I find they don’t take anywhere near as long as I think they will.  In turn, this makes it more likely that I’ll keep up with the things that I want to or need to do.  It’s been a bit surprising to me how easy it is to fit in these smaller tasks.

This past week, I changed a flat tire on my bicycle, made sauerkraut, started ginger beer and sourdough starters, soaked beans for sprouting, and put together a sugar scrub and face masque for my sensitive and currently very unhappy skin.  The thing that took the longest was easily the sauerkraut, but even with the chopping and pounding down it took only around a half hour, perhaps a bit more with cleanup (cabbage everywhere).  Everything else took well under 15 minutes.

My recent schedule hasn’t left much time for anything other than work, but as things slow down and settle in a bit, it’s good to know that I can fit in some of the activities that I’ve been holding off on.  It’s important to me to know that I’m being at least a bit productive in ways that don’t involve work, and it’s felt really, really good to be able to accomplish some of these tasks in the free time that I have.

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Sewing machine repair

I started today by biking to the thrift store for a return.  I was thinking that I’d get it out of the way so I wouldn’t have to go and be tempted during No Spend September.  In reality, going today just meant that I just moved the temptation up a day.  But it might be a good thing that I did since I made my last pre-challenge purchase with my store credit: a Janome sewing machine for $5.

In answer to the questions that will almost certainly be asked by my mother, yes I already had a sewing machine and no I didn’t technically need another one.  So why did I buy it?  The price certainly factored in, as did the fact that it’s a brand known for quality.  But, more than that, I’d like to do more sewing and it has features that my machine doesn’t.  It was a tiny bit of a gamble because the store doesn’t have an electrical testing station.  But I got it home and it seemed to do everything well except for one problem – the stitch length dial was stuck between 1 and 3 (it should go from 0 to 4) and when turned it didn’t actually change the stitch length.

Having recently spent $110 on a tuneup and repairs to my grandmother’s sewing machine and heading into a spending challenge, I wasn’t willing to put more money into a second machine when I already had a serviceable one.  But I wondered whether it might be worth trying to fix the new one myself.  If that didn’t work, I could always take it in for repairs when my budget was a bit more flexible.  So I turned to Google, deliverer of helpful instructions, and started reading.  One thing that seemed like a common fix for machines having the same issues was applying heat.  Apparently, over time, machine oil combines with dust and lint and gets sticky, causing jams.  Heating the oil, these sites suggested, could loosen things enough to get them moving again.

I was a bit skeptical.  It seemed way too easy.  But I took off the side panel, got my hair dryer, and gave it a go.  After two minutes, I could turn the dial using a lot of strength.  After four minutes, it turned easily and actually varied the stitch lengths.  I was utterly delighted.

I know this isn’t much of a repair in the grand scheme of things (perhaps more of a “repair”), but I’m so pleased that I was able to get something that wasn’t functioning all that well back into reasonable working order.  The more small actions I complete to repair things and extend their life, the more confident I become in taking on bigger and more complicated tasks.  I doubt I’m ever going to be a mechanical genius or a DIY guru, but it feels good to be able to take care of little fixes as needed and saves a good bit of money and bother.

 

Resolutions, habits, and goals, oh my

Although the new year is really just a completely arbitrary date, I often find myself wanting to set goals as a reminder to myself of the things that I think are important that I want to work towards.  Having a solid sense of what I want to accomplish still helps me to move forward, and also makes it all the easier to get back to the important things when I lapse or fall of the wagon.  I’m aiming a bit big here, but for the most part, these tend to be also things that I’m already working towards.  This usually means that my goals for the year aren’t really a huge stretch, really just a bit of a formalization of the things that I think are good to focus on.  I also see these things much more as goals to work on and habits to be developed, rather than strict resolutions.  To me, this feels like a gentler approach, which is nice because I don’t really feel inclined to beat myself up over fitting in only one yoga session in a week rather than two.

A lot of my goals are focused on different measures of health – it seems to be the theme for my plans for the year.  After a year of feeling off balance and unhealthy in a number of different ways, I’d like to start nudging things back on track a bit more.  This includes physical and mental health, but also bolstering my financial health, improving my position at work, and an ever-increasing focus on self-reliance.  My hope is that all of these points will feed into each other and help to support a life that’s healthier generally.

Health

  • Meditation – 15 minutes twice per day
  • Cardio – 30 minutes five times per week
  • Strength training – 30 minutes five times per week
  • Yoga – 45 minutes twice per week
  • Water – eight glasses a day
  • Veggies – five servings a day
  • Fruit – two servings a day

Financial

  • Have 20 no-spend days per month
  • Save $3000 towards my emergency fund
  • Save $3000 towards a house or land down payment
  • Save $3000 towards retirement
  • Save $1000 for self-reliance related purchases
  • Open a discount brokerage account
  • Switch health insurance to a better plan

Work

  • Submit two papers for publication
  • Present at one conference
  • Read one new article per week
  • Read one new book per month
  • Write 30 minutes per day

Personal

  • Donate to the food bank once per month
  • Have lunch with a friend once per month
  • Have tea with a friend once per week
  • Try two new recipes per month
  • Have one date night per month
  • Read 12 novels
  • Declutter one thing per day

Self-reliance

  • Do the Riot for Austerity again
  • Grow (and use) one jar of sprouts per week
  • Grow another container garden
  • Bake bread once per week
  • Ferment three different things
  • Learn to make yogurt
  • Can five different things
  • Knit a wearable article of clothing
  • Read at least one book each on peak oil, seed saving, breadmaking, fermentation, food systems, permaculture, and urban agriculture
  • Buy one self-reliance related item that I’ve been holding off on (pressure canner, dehydrator, grain mill, water filter, or garden tools)

Outfitting a village

I’m generally against rampant consumerism, but these days I find myself thinking about buying things a good deal more than I usually do.  Apart from periods where I put myself on no spend challenges, I do tend to accumulate stuff.  I bring in books, canning jars, kitchen gadgets, yarn, clothing, tools, bedding, and quite a few other things that have proven to be useful as I try to live a bit more sustainably.  However, I also have a wish list as long as my arm that includes a variety of far more expensive items that are not so easily found secondhand: garden tools, clothes drying rack, pressure canner, grain mill, dehydrator, water filter, camp stove, and sun oven.

Lately, I’ve been feeling that I should use the resources that I have to go ahead and make these kind of purchases. The biggest one on my list is still some land – this is feeling like an increasingly pressing concern, but I’m not yet sure where or how given that my job status is somewhat up in the air and we’re not exactly settled.  But for now, I also feel as though I should purchase some of the tools that will hopefully help to make life a bit more sustainable and a bit more secure both here in our little apartment and hopefully in the future when we have our own place.

The real driving thought, though, is that I don’t just want this for me.  I see what I’m doing as acquiring resources at least for my family, if not for a village (as it were).  My parents don’t really share many of my fears about where the world is headed, and my mother actively seeks to get rid of as much as possible.  My husband is more understanding of my concerns, although doesn’t necessarily share them to the same degree.  Many of my friends share similar concerns, but very few are actively making changes in their own lives.  So when I buy reference books, canning jars, garden tools, or a pressure canner, I feel like I’m doing it not just for me, but for them as well.  Knowing that they aren’t taking any steps on their own makes me feel that one of the most important things I can do is plan to help take care of them as best I can.

To be clear, I don’t think stuff is going to save us, and its certainly not going to do so on its own.  I think we need community and knowledge far more than we need more things, but tools can help a lot, and good quality tools can be shared and used to do a lot of good for quite a few people.  While there are certainly times when I just want to save every bit of money I possibly can, it seems to me that if I have the resources to buy tools that may prove to be helpful to a range of people it might just be worth spending a bit of money after all and taking up some of the space in my apartment to store them.

I also see these purchases as a way to hopefully become more self-reliant and to save a bit of money.  A well-made clothes drying rack may be $100, but will save me $2.50 a load, plus the environmental costs.  A pressure canner may approach $400, but if I can buy and can food when it’s inexpensive and have easy meals ready to go, that saves a lot of money on food and possibly even some time at dinner time.  Good gardening tools aren’t that cheap, but they open up more opportunities for feeding ourselves and cutting down on grocery bills.  And, the more money I save, the more there will be left to purchase more tools, or just to help others.  While I want to do as much as possible for myself, I also want to be sure that I can take care of those I care about the most and help to foster the community and resilience that I suspect will become even more important in the future.

What should I do with my life?

A few days ago, Eric at Root Simple wrote a post called How to Answer the Question, “What Should I Do With My Life?” talking about looking at our bookshelves to figure out what it is that we really want to do.  A few other blogs seem to have picked it up as well, so I decided to have a look at my own shelves to see what they say about my current values and priorities.

Most of my book purchases over the last few years have been focused on greater self reliance and, in particular, food.  Even my academic books – once focused largely on technology and assorted digital things – have made way for more books critiquing consumerism and looking at modern food issues in our society (there are actually some rather compelling links between the two, which is what I’m currently working on).

Books 2Apart from my academic life, I’ve also bought a large number of books that are focused on food in a few different ways.  Some of them deal with the social and cultural implications of food and the issues with our current food system.  I’m interested in everything from critical perspectives on what’s not working through to books about the history of food.  On top of this, I’ve also acquired quite a lot of books on producing, cooking, and preserving food – everything from seed saving and gardening to cooking dinner from scratch and making jam.  Beyond food, I also have a selection of books on skills including knitting, crochet, sewing, weaving, bush craft, basket making, natural dyeing, soap making, root cellaring, house construction, bee keeping, livestock care and feeding, and herbalism.

Books 3As for the rest of them, I have a bookcase devoted to fiction and another with sections devoted to a range of topics: folklore, naturalism, graphic novels, communication and cultural theory, children’s literature, poetry, music, fitness, history, anthropology, finances, and social issues.  I suppose it’s also worth noting that I have a fairly large selection of books on things like happiness, mindfulness meditation, and compassion.  These are fairly recent additions to the shelf, and I think they illustrate my desire for a life that is not only more resilient, but hopefully also happier and more mindful.

Books 1Here’s a selection of a few of my current favourites:

  • The Urban Homestead
  • Living Seasonally
  • Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
  • Forgotten Skills of Cooking
  • The River Cottage Cookbook
  • The Art of Simple Food
  • Tassajara Bread Book
  • Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day
  • The Art of Fermentation
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved
  • Square Foot Gardening
  • The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible
  • Four-Season Harvest
  • The Year Round Vegetable Gardener
  • The One Straw Revolution
  • Shop Class as Soulcraft
  • Your Money or Your Life
  • Less if More: The Art of Voluntary Poverty
  • Living More With Less
  • Mindfulness in Plain English
  • The Places that Scare You

I’ve always had varied interests, which are pretty well represented here.  But the large selection of books that are focused on skills makes it pretty clear to me that I’m looking to do more with my life than just think.  I want to be active and productive and find ways to be more self-reliant.  With that in mind, I’m going to get up from looking at my books and actually get down to making something this afternoon – I’m thinking some whole wheat bread might be in order, and perhaps a bit of knitting.

Fantasy and reality

These days, a lot of my fantasies come down to living a more productive, sustainable life at home.  I dream of a small house on a few acres of land, with large gardens and a chicken coop in the back.  Inside, there’s a fireplace and comfortable couches with lots of blankets on which to read, write, knit, and play the guitar.  There’s a spinning wheel and sewing machine in the corner – sometimes I even wonder about a weaving loom.  In the kitchen, homegrown herbs are hanging from the ceiling, bread is rising on the stove, pickles are fermenting on the shelf, homemade jams and jellies are lined up in the pantry, and gingerbeer and sourdough starters are sitting on the counter next to glass jars of home grown sprouts. While I certainly don’t think I can do everything, I picture making some of our clothing, entertaining ourselves through music and storytelling, and producing as much of what we eat as possible. What I think this really comes down to is that, in my head, I imagine a life that’s based on a really tangible, material kind of productivity.  I envision a home that’s filled with work that is at least somewhat pleasant and feels worthwhile because it meets real needs in a concrete way.

The reality, however, doesn’t quite work like this, at least not right now.  Although I work largely from home, I need to be on campus at least three days a week.  On days when I’m not there, I’m usually prepping for class, grading papers, applying for jobs, or researching and writing articles.  That’s not a complaint – I think my work is interesting and there are lots of things that I enjoy about it.  It does keep me busy enough that I’m often exhausted at the end of the day, though.  Knitting, sewing, writing, and playing guitar are often off the table at this point, and reading seems to be the activity that’s most manageable when i need rest.  The garden has fallen to the wayside more times than I’d like to admit.  And there are nights when it’s challenging enough just to make dinner, let alone keep the kitchen clean, bake bread, tend starters, rinse sprouts, and all of the other things that would need doing to keep up the level of productivity and homemade food that I envision.

I’ve reached a point where I’ve come to terms with at least some of the discrepancies between the fantasy and the reality.  I’ve had a good hard look at what’s possible right now, and I keep reevaluating as I go and my situation changes.  Practically speaking, there’s only so much I can do.  Keeping my job is pretty important since it pays the bills, so I need to work around its demands. Whatever else I do has to fit around this keystone, and sometimes the need to work is simply going to have to take priority over things I’d rather be doing.  There are, after all, only so many hours in the day and so many things that can be done out of a 750 square foot apartment with a bit of grass outside.

This is largely where the “if not here” idea came from (although it was also heavily influenced by Sharon Astyk’s “adapting in place”).  I could put off trying to do everything I want until I have the time and the land and the house and the kitchen and the garden and everything else that exists in my fantasy life.  However, I deeply believe that these are things that are worth doing now, even if things aren’t as ideal as they are in my head.  But even more importantly, they’re things that I can still do now, just maybe not to the degree that I’d like.  I may not make bread every day, but I can probably manage once a week.  I may not make everything we wear, but I can slowly work on a cowl, some gloves, or a pair of socks.  I may not produce everything we eat, but I can cook most of our meals and rinse the odd batch of sprouts or feed a sourdough starter when I have a few minutes here and there.  I may not be a fantastic guitar player, but I can practice a favourite song every now and again.

When I was working on my dissertation, I was often reminded that “the perfect is the enemy of the good”.  I think this idea applied equally well here.  I can’t do everything I want now, but I can do some of it, and that’s still a pretty powerful thing.  There’s no need to wait until I’m in the ideal situation.  I can make this situation more ideal by doing the things that I want to be doing to the best of my ability right now.  And, as each step gets easier and faster, it becomes possible to add in something new every so often.  I probably won’t ever get to the point where I can take care of all of our needs, and I believe that being completely sustainable is, at best, very difficult.  But for now, I can do what I can in the situation we’re in and work towards graducally building the life that I want, whether that’s on some land in the country or here in my little apartment.

Independence days

I’ve been writing a lot this week, and while it feels good to be writing critically about consumerism, it’s also felt good to stop working for some more practical and tangible things around here.

Plant something: planted kale starts in my existing containers; transplanted some volunteer tomato seedlings; planted more lettuce seeds; sprouted a few different kinds of beans

Harvest something: mint for tea; chives, oregano, and basil for dinners; lettuce for salads

Preserve something: no preserving this week, but I’m trying to plan out a few things that I’d like to preserve, and getting the kitchen in shape for when that happens

Waste not: trash picked a wooden chair and a bucket to add to my container garden; fed veggie scraps to the worms; reorganizing the kitchen to help prevent food waste; pulled out some close to expiring food to use

Want not: cutting back on spending this month so I can add to my savings account and contribute a bit more to some projects I have in mind; stocked up on Dr. Bronner’s soap when it was on sale at the local health food store; accepted a few freebie books from a friend

Eat the food: making meals out of as many farmers’ market ingredients as I can – kholrabi, carrot, and broccoli salad, potato and radish top soup, roasted veggies with pasta, Chinese broccoli on rice, chevre and tomato sandwiches

Build community food systems: shopping at the market and chatting with farmers about food issues; looking into joining the local transition/post-peak oil group

Skill up: more knitting and baking; learning how to work with sourdough and make ginger beer; reading up on herbal medicine

Beyond the independence days things, I’m still biking and walking a lot and trying to make sure I get – and stay – in good shape.  I’ve been thinking a lot more than usual about food and healthy eating, and I’m looking forward to shaping up the kitchen so that it’s easier to work in and I’m using food in the best ways that I can.  Along the same lines, I’m also still working on the apartment, and trying to make sense of what should stay and what should go, what we need, and how we can best use the space since there are just so many things that we do here.  I’m convinced there’s room enough for all the things I want to do, I just have to figure out the best ways to make things work.