To-Do lists and timers

Maybe I’m late to this party, but a I’ve tried to get more done in my days, I’ve learned to really appreciate the value of a good to-do list and timers on my phone. In fact, they may be the thing I use my phone for most — after photos, perhaps.

Concentration is a mixed blessing

I like to think that I’ve been blessed with pretty good concentration. I can focus on something longer, I think, than most and actually enjoy blocking most of the world out.

When I’m supposed to be doing things in parallel, though, that’s not always a blessing. Food that was boiling on the stove may be burning by the time I remember to check it. A kid who was told “twenty more minutes of Minecraft” may easily get forty minutes if I’m distracted somewhere else. (Though, really, shouldn’t the kid monitor the time on his own?)

I’ve found that, for these situations, teaching myself to set a timer on my phone every time I think “I’ll check that in ten minutes” — and then teaching myself not to turn the phone off until I’m on the way to check — has really made me more effective.

Sticking to something

Similarly, when I realize action isn’t required of me for another week or so… well, a timer won’t work. For that, I’ve found an app that will give me notifications that can’t be brushed away without being marked done or ‘snoozed.’ (It’s called “Tasks: Astrid To-Do list clone“)

Again, it’s been a question of teaching myself to realize “this is something I’ll forget, I’d better add it to my to-do list,” but it’s meant that I get a lot more done… and on time.

Even more, things I want to do often — liking writing postcards once a month the family — can be entered as recurring tasks. Maybe other people just think “hey, I haven’t written a postcard in a while” or “I just did my monthly invoice, that’s a reminder I should write some postcards,” but that doesn’t seem to work for me.

My recurring reminders include fitness, and cleaning the balcony. (I feed birds on the balcony, and don’t want a certain wife I know to think it’s too poop-encrusted.) Every three days, I even get a to-do notification that I should check my calendar for the next three days, so that I don’t get any surprises.

Some things — mostly coding — I keep track of on paper. When it’s time for me to code, I get out the paper I was using to take notes and keep track of things to do and look where I left off. For everything else, though, there’s a timer or a to-do list.

Call me childish

I get that “I only get done what my phone tells me to do” seems a bit childish. Or, maybe, millennial. But, I’m focussed on getting more done with lest frustration and, for now, I’m happy to have found something that works for me.

What do you do? How do you maximize your time?

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Practicing practice

A memory of my dad

I think that the biggest thing that my dad gave me to take into adulthood is my memory of him constantly learning, constantly growing. The kids were often (involuntarily) part of his quest to learn new things. These ranged from reading about the Civil War and visiting battlefields (not my favorite vacation memory) to teaching himself amateur radio and morse code or getting qualified as a physics teacher only a few years before his retirement.

From my dad, I have the idea that I, as a human, am really never finished growing. It’s given me the courage to pick up new skills (such as coding, or piano) as an adult.

And, because I’ve loved it, it’s something I want to give my kids.

Not the kind of thing you can preach

We all know parents who believe in “do as I say, not as I do.” I’m not a big fan of that for several reasons (I’m 38, can you really expect more willpower from a 5-year-old?).

But, this is especially the kind of thing that I can’t preach to my kids. (Which is not to say that I don’t, I won’t be upset if they have “you just have to practice” echoing in their ears as adults.) But, it was watching my dad that brought me to that realization.

So, it seems logical that it’s something they have to see me doing.

And so, I’m practicing practicing

For a while, when I thought about this, I thought ‘well, I code, and the kids can see me learning that.’ But they can’t see me learning that. They just see Papa standing at the computer concentrating. I could be doing anything, as far as they’re concerned.

So, I resolved to get my good example game on.

I’ve started playing piano again. And, in fact, because I’m going to teach myself to practice a skill in the hope that my kids will know it automatically, I’m focusing more on drills and scales and the likes than I did the last time I played.

I draw. Art was always the domain of my little sister, but it’s a free hobby and something the kids can do with me.

I’m still plugging away at Latin. The kids are officially learning with me, but more so that we can talk about it and that they can know I’m working on it than as any kind of test prep. They’re learning individual nouns (arborpuella).

The idea is that these are activities I can do a little bit every day (or, most days) rather than standing at the computer not really accomplishing much because the kids are distracting me. They’re activities (maybe not Latin) where the kids can appreciate what is good and bad and realize that it took me a long time to learn a new song on the piano and hopefully understand that they can learn new skills through practice.

I can’t say it will work. But, on the other hand, I don’t think I’m responsible to make them into the kind of adult that I am. I think I’m responsible to be the best adult I can be, and to make sure they know the tools I used to get there.

Sharing to attract teachers

So, after reflecting on my strategy to introduce the EFL worksheet generator to the world, now seems like a decent time to reflect on how it’s going.

My blog for EFL teachers is slowly coming together. It turns out I have more to say that I realized, and the act of reflecting in a deliberate way has helped me feel more confident as a teacher. So, either way, that’s a win.

Recently, I pushed myself to write a post on how to use reading activities in EFL classrooms, because I have a lot of EFL reading worksheets that I can share. (I hadn’t planned for there to be so many links in this page. Is it good SEO? Bad?)

The idea is simple. I started at ISLCollective.com, a site for teachers to share worksheets they’ve made. There aren’t many reading worksheets for adults (which is why I made my own, but also a chance for me to stand out) so I figured I’d cross-post some there.

After adding a second page to the worksheets that begins with “Hello teachers! (Do not print this page)” I introduced myself and included links to the post on how I incorporate reading in the lesson, as well as to the website hosting them. And, after two days, they’ve been downloaded more than a hundred times and I’ve had my first click-throughs to my blog.

Sure, it’s only two, but it’s two more than I had.

Now, I rationalize I can post the beginning of another series of stories (I have two, at two different reading levels, at the moment). And, because there are a lot of things that are not available for download, as I make them for myself, I can post them as a way to attract more people.

After writing all this — there is a genuine benefit to thinking in writing — I realize that I should also be making resources to help new teachers organize and think about their lessons. (New teachers are the people I’m trying to attract.)

I just checked at ISLCollective and there are a total of seven downloads available as ‘teacher training material.’

I guess I know what I need to do.

The mythos of the ‘finisher’

I’ve said before that I like the title of ‘maker.’ More than teacher, I think that’s the title I’d like to go by. Teaching is a skill I have, one I can reliably trade for money, but it’s not who I am. Making is a skill I want to have, something I’d like to trade for money, someone I want to be.

My derivative creativity

And, in fact, I think I’m blessed with an ability to see past “what is there” to “what could be.” A lot of what I think of is derivative (in the sense that “the Tinder of apartments” would be a derivative app) but nonetheless creative. (Fun fact, I wrote that first and then googled it. Of course, the tinder of apartments is a thing.)

I don’t think derivative is bad. After all, schools began as “a house, but for learning.” If you realize that there’s something missing in the world, there’s nothing wrong with using the vocabulary of what is to describe it.

Finishing vs making

A friend of mine and I once started work on an awesome collaborative novel. Eventually, he bailed on the project, telling me “we’re better at starting projects than at doing them.” That comment has haunted me, because it was true.

I start a lot of things (see the Papa’s Work app idea — which remains a good idea) but there are so many things.

When I finally got my worksheet generator off the gound and running, I felt a rush of exhilation. My understanding of who I am changed. I made something. I was a maker.

That friend was wrong. (I doubt he remembers the comment, or could know how much it bugged me.)

But the goalposts had moved.

Yeah, I made a webapp and used it to prepare my lessons. But nobody used it, except me. You might think that should be enough, but if people tried it and said “Toby, it’s not for me” I’d get it: I had an idea that only I liked.

That wasn’t the situation. I’d made software that only I could use. (I learned that by sharing the link with colleagues and realizing they had no idea what they were supposed to do.)

Software that only I could use would be fine… Except that wasn’t how it was conceived. It wasn’t finished. I’d become a maker — I could have an idea and work on it long enough to actually produce something — but I wasn’t yet a finisher.

I aspire to be a finisher

So, I’ve decided to become a finisher. The worksheet generator will be finished. When it does, expect the celebration to be great.

Before that, the The Obstacle is the Way project will probably reach its conclusion. (That’s part of why you see so many posts on it here.) It’s a ridiculously simple project, but it’s a goal I’ve set for myself — and something that’s brought me benefit — and the new, finishing me is going to see it through to the end.

Don’t worry, when I think I’ve earned the title of ‘finisher,’ I’ll claim it here. You’ll know.

In pursuit of failure

“Fail forward” is a sort of mantra in the startup world. (Or, that’s how it seems, watching that world from the outside.) The idea, as I get it, is that you have to fail often and fail fast, as long as you learn from your failures and get up meaner and leaner for your next adventure.

That’s not what I’m talking about here.

I guess that what I mean could be called muscle failure. But I think it’s more than that.

Back it up a bit

I guess that today’s The Obstacle is the Way chapter on Building Your Inner Citadel got me thinking about something that haunts me periodically: my own troubled relationship with willpower. And, perhaps, my weird linking of willpower with manhood.

This will be a disjointed blog post.

The fact of the matter is, I don’t know if I’ve ever reached muscle failure. I mean, I’ve collapsed after a set of push-ups. But, as I stood back up, I’ve been haunted by the fact that I might have been able to do a few more push-ups, if I’d really tried. After all, push-ups seldom are connected to any real consequences.

Fun random aside:

One of my father’s favorite stories from the Army was in some training camp or other where he was the platoon leader, and there were only enough truck to transport two of the three platoons back to the barracks. One platoon was going to have to march.

The way the seargents on the scene decided to allocate the trucks was to have the platoon leaders compete doing push-ups. “I knew I didn’t have to win,” my father always says in this story, “I just couldn’t lose.”

According to the legend, he did over a hundred push-ups in this story. I’ve never done that many push-ups, and I often wonder if I would have the mental fortitude to really push myself, if I had to.

So, I wonder, is there a way I can engineer my own muscle failure. Can I set myself up to try hard at things and fail, knowing I’ll come away stronger and wiser? (Or with a reinforced Inner Citadel, whatever that means.)

I don’t know.

The Army Combat Fitness Test

Part of what’s got me thinking like this is the news that the U.S. Army is introducing a new physical fitness test. Up until I stopped doing sit-ups (word on the street has it they’re bad for your back) I’ve been silently measuring myself against the existing Army Physical Fitness Test. After all, my first encounter with the idea of ‘minimal fitness’ was with the Army, and it’s nice to know (or think) “I could check all those boxes. I am fit.”

The new test may or may not be an improvement over the old test. What it is, though, is a departure from the days when I could do the exercises at home and say “Yup, that was enough push-ups.” or “I smoked my old two-mile run time.”

Conclusion

I don’t know if there is a conclusion. The point is, I wonder about my ability to push myself until my body simply doesn’t have more to give. I get that I’ll probably never need to do that.

But I want to know that I can. And I don’t know how to teach myself that.

A headstand is also a burpee

This post could be titled “Burpee challenge, modified” and is inspired — like the whole burpee challenge thing, by a post on lifehacker. In this case, it was a post about getting a hundred burpees done.

How things are now

I still do burpees most days. Following my initial math, I worked up to sets of ten, by managing to get twenty done in two minutes.

The thing is, it’s not as fun as it once was, and I’m not seeing improvement. I get at least one burpee done (the old minimum) at least six days a week. And on one day, I managed seven sets of nine — in competition with my daughter who takes some liberties with form.

Still, I’m feeling more and more like I’m plateauing. The number of burpees I can do is not going up. I’m not getting more pull-ups done in a single set. And, adding burpees to my runs (the kill-two-birds-with-one-trip-outside strategy) means that I seldom run much more than a kilometer without a ‘break.’ (To be honest, the running feels like a break.)

How I want things to be

I don’t have a clear answer. I want to get back to feeling like I’m getting stronger, to being proud of my workouts, rather than just getting them out of the way.

I genuinely want to feel stronger.

A good fitness memory

Here’s a thing we did not long ago that made all of this seem a little more worthwhile: getting the kids outside (one of my biggest summer priorities) we found an oak tree that had a lot of branches that we could reach. Of course, we climbed it.

I haven’t spent much time in a tree in a while — though that is a long-term goal — and was surprised to see how effortless it seemed to about using my arms and shoulders to support a lot of my weight. I wasn’t doing insane rock-climbing stuff, and there was still a lot of weight on my legs.

None of those caveats, though, takes away from the feeling I had — not much more than two meters in the air — of being somehow stronger than I was used to being. And being strong enough to help my kids climb.

I loved that.

You can bet we’ve been back to that tree — and others, though that’s the one that seems to need my arms the most — often, as much for my benefit as for theirs.

So, here’s what I guess I want: to continue doing workouts that impress me (without injury, I might add!) and to have more of those moments of relative strength.

The way forward

I don’t know what the way forward is. Often, I make these posts after I’ve come up with an idea I want to try. Instead, I wanted to make a record of how things stand right now.

There is one change I’m making now, as I look at how to continue this fitness adventure. And, unfortunately, it revolves around an experience I had in which I felt less strong: headstands.

There was a time when my sister and I had a competition to see who could do the longest headstands. I could count to twelve and back down while standing pretty reliably on my head (not, I should add, my hands). It was one of those things that made me feel strong.

And then back hurt and I got into planks, and from planks into burpees.

Then, recently, my daughter has become interested in headstands, handstands, cartwheels, the like. And she asked me if I could still do a headstand (she’d seen them)… and it was hard. I got my legs in the air, but not with the confidence I’d had before.

So, I guess I’m going back to doing headstands. And that’s okay. I’ve just rationalized that I’ll try to substitute headstands for burpees on those days when I’ve realized I haven’t done enough burpees.

Maybe I’ll join my daughter in her handstand/cartwheel goals.

 

Can we translate from German?

There’s something I used to do in my classes. An early version of my vocabulary review was making up little strips of paper that had a sentence in German on it, using one of the words we’d covered in class.

The sentences were things like this (the underlined words are examples of the vocabulary):

  • The person on my left makes several questionable statements.
  • When I saw the person across from me today, I felt joy.

The result was not only that people got very good at vocabulary such as ‘on my left’ and ‘across from,’ but that it was often surprising (to me) which phrases were difficult for my students to translate.

(Fun aside: for other reasons, I’ve missed these activities and am working on adding them to the worksheet generator.)

Why translate from L1?

In spite of the fact that I was taught to do all English, all the time in the classroom, I realized that I wasn’t serving my students well. I began to understand students who said to me “I do fine in the lesson, but when I have to talk to a customer I draw a blank.”

My students were hitting walls when they hit a spot in a conversation where in spite of being able to say what they want to say in English, they are stuck at a fixed phrase. These are things like “in Anbetracht der Tatsache…” which translates to “considering the fact,” but, while we covered ‘to consider’ in class nobody thought to connect it to that particular phrase.

Maybe this whole thing is about how I failed my students.

The point I want to make, however, is not that I failed. It’s that translating from German gave them the skills to start working around these roadblocks. (And, in the example above, it was generally fun to accuse the person next to you of being questionable.)

How I do it now.

The question that became the title of this blog came in a lesson where we’d used an emailing worksheet I made (it will eventually be available with my other business worksheets) and had to translate a ‘typical’ business email from German into English.

The whole goal of the exercise (really, of all the emailing worksheets) is to try and identify as many of the phrases my students use often in their emails and to help them find English formulations for them.

Then, the next week (yesterday’s lesson, in this case), a student came in and asked “could we translate from German more? That was much harder than translating from English.”

And, I realized, I need to get more of that back in the lesson.

Some of my classes (more elementary classes) get worksheets that include translation from German as one of the ‘steps’ that vocabulary goes through. But, there’s a limit to how much work a group can get, so not everyone gets it.

When I get some time for coding again (I’m working hard to get there!) I want to make review translations one of the review options provided. I’d like to have the option of occasionally making that homework, or cutting the sentences up into strips to play the same game again.

Until then, I’m really glad in retrospect that I opted to use emails in German in my worksheets.