Several months ago, I wrote two posts based on a concept from the book “Consequential Strangers: The Power of People Who Don’t Seem to Matter. . . But Really Do,” by Melinda Blau and Karen L. Fingerman. (See “Consequential Strangers” — Parts 1 and 2.)
The general idea is that there are people we see every day or week or month, usually in a particular context, that are not close friends but are still more important to us than strangers. We know each other by name and sight and maybe chat now and then.
A list of consequential strangers could include a co-worker, a neighbor, someone you see often at the local coffee shop or someone you hire to mow your lawn, dry clean your clothes, etc. The book explored the idea that these people may play a more important role in our lives than we realize. They can add to our social and emotional well-being and help us feel more connected.
They can even be powerful sources of information, referrals, and different perspectives.
I wrote about some of my personal “consequential strangers,” including several people (and dogs) that I see on my daily walks in and around my neighborhood. One of these is a gentleman in his late 90’s who walks nearly every day. On some days we’d just see each other from across the street and wave. Other days we’d stop and have a conversation, which we both enjoyed.
He made such an impression on me that I dedicated a whole post to him. (See “Want to Improve Your Quality of Life Ten Years From Now? Take a Walk Today”)
But I didn’t really know to what degree I had apparently also been one of his consequential strangers whom he’d valued. It’s nice to see the other side of the concept, and know that you matter in someone else’s life, even if your contact is relatively casual.
I recently found out that he not only thought about me and considered me someone that mattered in his life in some small way, but that he cared enough about my well-being that he worried when I had changed my walking route on a whim and he hadn’t seen me for a few months.
I guess I’m enough of a creature of habit to make people worry when I do something different, especially for a prolonged period of time.
I had walked on that one street most days for years. Then suddenly, when the weather became unpredictable and my schedule busier, I started taking shorter, more frequent walks closer to where I live, rather than cross a busy street to walk on the long street that we’d both been frequenting.
Eventually, my revised route became my new habit, and I only ventured to my former favorite street for an occasional change.
After enough time went by without his seeing me, my elderly “consequential stranger” (though now I’ve upgraded him to friend) thought I must be out of town or something had happened. He first inquired of his neighbors, then had his daughter email me.
I had given him one of my business cards with my website and email on it, but he doesn’t do modern technology like the internet and smartphones.
It’s not that, even at 97 or 98, he isn’t sharp enough to learn something new. It’s just that he’d rather read and walk and talk to real people, and he’s savvy enough to know that the internet is full of “rabbit holes” that can stealthily eat large pieces of your day.
So, he asked his less tech-avoidant daughter to track me down. He went to all that trouble to find me because after seeing me several days a week, it seemed to him that I’d vanished. And apparently, he cared and was concerned.
I explained to his daughter what had happened and asked her to assure him I was fine. Since then I’ve gone back to my old route now and then, and we’ve crossed paths and spoken.
But it impressed me that he valued me enough to make all that effort to find me. It means a lot to hear that you matter to someone else. So after you’ve reviewed your list of “consequential strangers,” maybe you’ll be moved to tell one or two who stand out that your encounters with them enrich your life. It may make their day — or week.
On an average day, I take two short walks in my neighborhood. I do this for exercise, for a physical boost or a mental break or to work off stress. On especially sunny, joyfully beautiful days, I keep going out again because I just can’t keep myself away.
But I also walk on one or more of my usual short routes near my house whatever the weather, as long as it’s not pouring. I do it in cold, heat, sprinkles, wind, and several times of the day, including that gray, chilly time between sunset and dark. The worse the weather, the shorter the route — sometimes just around the block. But I do it.
And on these walks I see a lot of people. Other adults out alone; couples; packs of teenagers walking home from high school; families out with their kids, sometimes some of them on bikes; and frequently there are one or more dogs included in these groups.
I especially see a person and his or her dog out at those less than ideal times. When it’s starting to rain a little, or the wind kicks up so hard you hide your face, or when it’s almost dark. We all come out when it’s nice, but it’s the dogs and their people that are there in the not so nice times, every time.
Okay, get ready. You know it’s coming because I like to find some kind of moral in my stories. So here are two things I thought about when I realized that it’s usually the dog walkers that are as diehard as I am about walking pretty much every day, usually twice, almost no matter what.
- I walk myself, the way other people walk their dogs. I don’t make many excuses, because I know it’s essential. Hence, just like I’ve often thought that some of the ways I need to care for myself are like a parent caring for their child, I resolutely fit in my walks, because I need them. So I am, in a sense, my own dog.
The only difference is, I promise, I don’t — ahem– leave anything behind in the bushes.
But for me walking is almost as urgent, for different reasons, so I just do it.
- This made me think about what we give priority to. Most people will do things for their children, their spouse, and even their dog, that they might not make time to do for themselves.
So this is my call for all the self-neglecting out there to fit self-care, whatever that means for you, into your week, your day, and your life. (And in my opinion that should definitely include exercise if you want to live longer and feel better, physically and mentally.) Make it a routine you won’t miss unless there’s a rainstorm.
And if there is, pick another way to take care of yourself. If I can’t go outside, I bounce on my rebounder in my living room.
And by the way, having a pet can also be a kind of self-care. Some people even get a dog so they’ll have to exercise.
So, I am my own dog. Sounds like a good book title. Or part of a comedy routine. Or maybe a blog post. Those are probably lousy keywords for ranking on Google, as I’m learning in my content marketing course, but the poet in me can’t resist using phrases that sing to me.
Next time, I’ll write about something else I learned from my walks. Since this blog is called “Read. Think. Walk. Write,” that’s not exactly a surprise.
In the meantime, what do you do for yourself, no matter what? What will you start doing?
Sometimes you can be busy all day, but still not know what you actually accomplished, especially if you’re just reacting to external demands.
Whether your too-long to-do list is self-imposed or forced on you by others, you likely won’t reach the end of the list each day. But there is a way to make sure you’ve accomplished something that day that makes a real difference to you.
To ensure you’re moving forward in your goals, even when life fills up your to-do list with demands, it helps to focus on a few important things you want to accomplish each day, and be determined not to let anything else get in the way of those.
Pick 2-5 things to do today to move yourself forward on your goals, so you feel like you’ve done something worthwhile. These are called MIT’s. Your Most Important Tasks for the day.
Put them in a computer file. Or better yet, write them down on paper or an index card, so you can mark them off as you get them done.
Make those your priorities for that day, even though other things will need to be done too. Countless distractions and tasks will assert themselves and demand your time, but you can deal with those and still get your MIT’s done, so you have tangible evidence of what you accomplished that day, and you can feel good knowing you’ve done the things that make a difference for you.
You can add in more things after they’re done, and there will be other items on your list, but it’s best to keep your priority or MIT list small, so you can achieve it consistently. You will never get to everything on your whole list, but you’ll have prioritized not just what’s urgent or makes the most noise, but what is of value to you and will make your life better — today, tomorrow, and into the future.
Ed Gandia, a business-building coach for writers, summarized in his newsletter how he uses this approach. “…Once I have those goal-based tasks on paper, I add additional tasks I need to complete that day. But then I take things one step further: I highlight the 3 tasks that I MUST complete that day.
I call these my most important tasks (or MIT’s for short). They’re tasks that are essential to making progress in my business and personal life. (italics mine)
They’re not necessarily urgent tasks. But they’re always important. They’re things that I want to commit to completing that day, no matter what happens.
In other words, these are tasks that, once completed, will ensure that I have a productive and fulfilling day… even if I don’t complete anything else on my list.”
I like the idea of highlighting these three tasks, so they’ll stand out in the sea of our overwhelming to do lists. I usually circle the items instead. Do whatever works for you.
Gandia also strongly suggests doing these MIT’s first so they get done before other things get in the way. If you do, it will likely energize you to keep going. But most importantly, you’ve done what matters most to you.
I also like that he uses these MIT’s to accomplish goals in both his personal and professional life, so we don’t necessarily have to neglect one aspect of life for another.
If anyone has every seen my ongoing lists of goals and the steps for accomplishing them, they know my ambitions usually far exceed what I’m able to actually do in a given day. But if I do my 2-5 MIT’s for the day, I’ve done something worthwhile and tangible, moved forward with my goals, and made some progress on my list.
It helps to have a record of the small forward steps I’ve made on my longer term goals, so when my goals still seem far away, I can look at my list and see that I really am getting there, however slowly and incrementally.
And if I keep my focus on what’s most important, I’ll probably get some of the other things done too. I also might decide at the end of the week or month that some of those things that didn’t get highlighted aren’t really even necessary.
So for today one of my MIT’s was to publish this post, because my writing, my business, and my readers, are important to me. And unlike with some MIT’s that only we know about, I have a public record that I accomplished at least one of my goals for today!
So, what are your MIT’s for today? How will you feel when you’ve done them?
I’ll get back to the productivity technique summaries later but for now, it’s time to take a moment to enjoy spring, otherwise known in my part of the world as strawberry season.
There is a little stand I often pass by that, although it offers a limited selection of other fruits, vegetables, and sometimes flowers, is known simply as “the strawberry stand.” A fitting name, since strawberries of several varieties are its main attraction, it stands in front of extensive strawberry fields, and it is open only from March or April until the end of summer. Strawberry season.
Each year when I see the sign with the re-opening date, or I see the panel opened to reveal cartons of red fruit, I know that spring is here.
Though many locals in the know wait until the strawberries have been available for awhile before we buy our first pint, since the later ones tend to have better flavor and quality than the early ones, whenever we get around to tasting our first strawberry of the spring, it is a noteworthy, festive event.
Almost to the point of metonymy (a poetic expression using something associated with something else to represent it — such as the crown representing a monarch), strawberries around here mean spring.
And since spring is often associated with joy and new beginnings, the strawberry, a pure joy to look at, smell, and bite into, is a fitting symbol of this hopeful season.
Strangely, sometimes we get more enjoyment from something when it is a “guilty pleasure,” or a rare treat that is not particularly good for us. But I tend to revel in the fact that many of the things I enjoy, even consider a treat, are also exceptionally good for you.
Of course I knew that strawberries are a great source of vitamin C, and probably a whole range of vitamins, minerals, and phyto-nutrients. I even read once that the malic acid they contain make them good for whitening your teeth. More recently I read that they are actually beneficial in managing GERD and preventing esophageal disease.
A vitamin pill, a tooth polish, a medicine, and a symbol of spring, all in a small, sweet, seedy, bundle in a celebratory red hue. What more could you possibly ask for?
So let’s enjoy the start of spring by nourishing our bodies and our sense of fun and delight with some fresh grown strawberries, before we get back to keeping our goals on track with ‘tomato’ timers.
Do you have a project or task that you dread doing so much that you just keep putting it off? Are you waiting to feel motivated, or until you have enough self-discipline to make yourself do it?
Maybe you’re taking the wrong approach.
In the spirit of gathering ideas reader’s digest style, from online content, I’ll let the article I discovered this idea from do some of the talking.
Recent research on the psychology of productivity shows that will-power or self-control are not enough for sustained change, and trying to do too much at once can work against reaching your goals. According to this article, by Derek Doepker, “when you use this ultimate anti-procrastination hack, you’ll bypass any internal resistance and get yourself to take action, almost effortlessly.”
“Although urging yourself to just take action may sound like a good solution, it’s a little like telling a sad person to “just cheer up.” Instead, it’s better to work with your psychology instead of forcing yourself to work against it.
Here is the Anti-Procrastination Hack Formula: “Ask yourself, Can I just [insert micro-commitment here]? A micro-commitment is something so small and simple that you’ll readily say ‘yes’ to doing it even if you have very little will-power.”
The idea is to overcome your resistance by making the task small, finite, and easily achievable. Once you get started, you’ll probably do more than the minimum, because “momentum generates motivation.”
And Doepker says that by using this technique, you can overcome four major obstacles: fear, overwhelm, uncertainty, and perfectionism.
You break a large task or goal into something so easy to do you almost can’t help but go ahead and do it.
For example, instead of waiting until you have time to organize your whole home office, you ask yourself “can I just spend five minutes tidying my desk?” Or instead of committing to running a mile a day, you ask: “can I just jog around the block?”
Your success in these small commitments can help you chip away at a goal, build good habits, and start feeling like you can and want to do more.
I applied this technique when writing this post with limited time. So I tried, “can I just write 200 words?” Yes I can. And did. And then it turned into almost 400. See how that works?
I said this post would be about ‘tomatoes,’ and if you’re familiar with popular productivity methods, you may have guessed that I was alluding to the Pomodoro timer technique.
Pomodoro is the Italian word for tomato, and the technique was invented my Francesco Cirillo, who used a tomato-shaped household timer when he developed his technique. https://francescocirillo.com/pages/pomodoro-technique
The idea is simple. By breaking up complex or overwhelming tasks into uninterrupted, 25-minute work sessions, you can focus on the work without distraction, so you make the best use of your time.
You’re also less likely to be overwhelmed, because you only have to focus on the one work session ahead, knowing a break is coming soon. It also helps you assess how many 25-minute sessions, or ‘Pomodoros” it takes you to complete a certain task.
Although the technique is formed around 25-minute sessions, in practice you can use longer or shorter sessions, depending on the needs of the project, your attention span, and your life. You can use a kitchen timer, the timer on your phone, or one of several online tools.
You can learn more about how to use the Pomodoro method, and access a digital Pomodoro timer, at www.pomodorotechnique.com
Though it was developed for study and work purposes, you can use it for any task you need to face in small steps. If, like me, you dread everyday tasks like housework or paperwork, this method works great. You set the timer, get as much done as you can, then you’re done.
The method is often used in multiple sessions. You complete one session, take a short break, then start another. But you can also do just one at a time.
I find it amazing how much I can get done in even 15 minutes sometimes, and when you spend too much time on one work session, productivity goes down, and resistance increases.
Conversely, when time is limited you’re more likely to dive in and to get more done than you thought.
So if you haven’t tried it yet I suggest you give the Pomodoro technique a try, and see how much you can get done, painlessly.
Next time I’ll talk about another productivity method based on somewhat similar principles, called “can I just…?”
And thanks to everyone who supported my 5-day Words Matter Week Challenge last week. It was more work than I would want to do every week, but also a lot of fun.
Day 5: What word, said or unsaid, has or could change your life? How?
Some of the runners-up were: “options”, “possible”, “can”, “begin”, “don’t”.
When I was a young woman starting my life in the late ’80’s, I knew I wanted to be a writer, and didn’t really know what else I wanted to or could be, but people kept telling me I couldn’t make a living at it.
So I wish someone had shown me more options available to me (and that some of the options now available because of the internet had existed then), that they had shown me what was possible, that they had said “you ‘can’ do it. You can be yourself, do what you’re meant to do, and find a way to make it work.”
Now I would like to hear the word “begin” from a potential writing client. When can you begin? Let’s begin this collaboration.
And going back to the past, before I arrived at the word “reconsider”, I thought of “don’t.” There are times in my life when I wish that someone, along with showing me what was possible, would have said “don’t do it” when I was about to make a mistake mostly because I didn’t know what else I could do.
But then no one, and certainly no artist or young person, wants to be told what to do or not to do. What they could have said instead is “I suggest you ‘reconsider’ this. You might regret this decision, here are the reasons why, and here are the alternatives that might work better for you.”
So my word is “reconsider.”
What am I reconsidering now, three decades later? My lifelong unconscious beliefs that writing and business don’t mix; that I won’t ever be able to make a living doing one of the few things I’m good at; that I just don’t have what it takes, such as ability, know-how, energy, courage, competence or confidence.
Day 4: Writers craft words into memorable phrases, stories, poems, and plays. What writers make your heart sing? Why?
Just a few, pulled out of my immediate memory as if from a hat, for the sake of brevity.
Helene Hanff, author of 84 Charing Cross Road, because her memorable exchange of letters with a bookseller in London, from her apartment in New York, celebrate the power of words, of books, and of the human connection that both can make possible.
I will also give credit to many film script writers, because I often come across a line in a movie that I will listen to over and over until I can copy the quote correctly and save it for later inspiration.
William James, (in the form of a quotation I found on a tea box), offered these words that continue to renew my enthusiasm and hope when I feel like I’ll never achieve my goals: “Most people never run far enough on their first wind to find out they’ve got a second. Give your dreams all you’ve got and you’ll be amazed at the energy that comes out of you.”
The poet Dorianne Laux, who was one of my classmates at Mills College. I will sheepishly admit I didn’t think she was so special at the time we sat at the same table reading our work out loud, but now her poems are in books, and she has even co-written a book on writing poetry.
She showed me that real people really can write something other people, including me, want to read.
Alexander McCall Smith, a Scottish man who writes insightful, joyful novels about a woman in Botswana. These stories are clean and positive – no profanity, no racy plot lines – and yet they show that none of that is necessary to make a book fascinating and compelling.
They are fun and extremely readable, and provide portraits of real people living real life with grace, humor, and decency. And at the same time, they ponder big issues, and in each novel I find myself with new words to look up. A rare combination of decency, optimism, intelligence, and a reader friendly style.
And of course Charlotte Bronte, a poor, powerless governess with great mental powers, who wrote about a similar poor, powerless governess whose strength of character, sense of self, and unquenchable hope and affection, led her to conquer a series of circumstances that could have crushed someone much stronger than she appeared.
The psalmist David, who poured out his heart to God, whether in times of intense trial or those of joy and triumph. At times he showed great faith. At other times his actions were deeply flawed. But always he maintained his faith in God, his expansive love, and his desire to please him.
The songs, or poetry, that he wrote convey deep feeling, lasting faith, and the strength that originates beyond our flawed selves. They really do sing to us, as timeless poetry is able to do.
I think that of all that writers give us, these two gifts are among the greatest.
A view into a different place, time, perspective, and way of life.
The gift of feeling that we are not alone. Even if we find ourselves with no one of like mind around us, when we read the writer reaches a hand across to us and reminds us that someone else does think and feel and experience life the way we do.
Day 3: What person in your life helped you understand the importance of choosing words carefully? What would you say to them if you met them today?
I can’t think of one person in particular who taught me this in any direct way.
I had many great writing teachers, each of whom taught me something different, but all of them to value words and the meanings they express.
But there have been other kinds of teachers, in my personal life, who taught me things I didn’t necessarily want to know.
There have been one or two people who have, regrettably, taught me that your words can be distorted and used against you. Through them I learned how vital it is to be careful what you say, how you say it, and to whom you say it.
I would say to them that trust is an honor that should be earned, and words should be used to connect and clarify, not as weapons to be flung back at the one using them.
I have also known people who didn’t seem to understand the importance of just the right word, or of listening as a sign that you respect and value the person speaking.
As a writer, choosing the best words matters to me, but I also like to take a little extra time to really think about what I want to say when I’m speaking to someone.
Often I have had people react to this moment of thoughtfulness with either discomfort or impatience. They even try to guess at what I’m trying to say, as if I need their help.
And the further implications are that they know what I’ll say, that it isn’t surprising or special, and that my thoughts aren’t worth waiting a few extra seconds to hear expressed well.
Often they guessed wrong, and missed out on the chance to get to know me better and learn another perspective.
My answer to them: listen. You might learn something, even if it’s ‘only’ a new word, or some subtle aspect of who I am that you wouldn’t have known otherwise. Don’t assume I’m so uninteresting that it doesn’t matter if I finish my sentence the way I mean to.
Don’t rush me, or anyone, by filling in an easy, predictable response so it can be your turn to talk again.
On the positive side, there was one therapist, and friend, who confirmed my sense, even when I was a very young woman, that words had power, and could cause damage if not used carefully.
Because I was observant, felt deeply, had strong opinions, and could use words effectively, I had a kind of power that we both knew I needed to use carefully.
At the time I knew my words could cause pain or harm, and so I needed to use them with restraint, like a quiver of sharp arrows, most of which you choose to keep in their sheath.
Later I realized words can also heal, connect, bridge gaps, teach what is valuable, fill in what is missing. There is something strengthening and life affirming about this sense of power, especially in situations when we might otherwise feel powerless.
Though I have sometimes failed to keep harmful words to myself, I now try to use the power of words for good, by choosing them carefully; by making them positive, respectful and helpful; by not saying what serves no purpose except to sting; and also by not holding back a good word that should be expressed.
So I will say to this ‘teacher,’ as well as to my younger self: thank you for making me aware of this power, so I could gradually learn how to use it well.