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Monday, September 3, 2012

Monday Morning Check In: What’s in Your Toolkit?

It was a new beginning last week. It was a new beginning of the school year, of the school semester, of the new symphony season, of the new quartet season. There were a lot of things I needed to do in advance of the new season start, and I wrote last week about some ways to beat the stress that comes with that territory. This week, I write about the things that might be in your toolkit when it comes to making a fresh start. This toolkit would apply to parents, teachers, and students. The things in my toolkit are completely essential to my getting through the day. Without any one of these things, I suffer the effects of stress. Here are the things in my toolkit:


Companies send out calendars, and I amass many. I hang them up everywhere that I can see them: the kitchen, the bathroom, my studio, my office. These are wall calendars that show the month at a glance. I find that I forget to turn them over to a new month. However, these wall calendars are not my working calendars. I just like to see the month at a glance now and then so I can gain a sense of time as it passes.

For my working calendars, I use two: my iPhone calendar and the Smithsonian appointment book calendar that I receive annually as a Christmas gift from my father. I use my iPhone calendar all the time and carry it with me everywhere. I store everything on it, as it gets saved up in the Cloud. Anything stored on Google calendar, such as the Artisan Quartet events, are automatically put on my iPhone calendar too. As a nice bonus, the Cloud also syncs all my other Apple devices (iPad and MacBook).

I use the Smithsonian appointment book for weekly planning. The book shows one week at a time, and I sit down on a Sunday and write out the week’s appointments. I do not write individual student lessons. I prefer to pencil in blocks of time in various locations. This gives me an immediate visual sense of when I have time to do other important things, like my training runs, my writing, errands, or home chores. It also gives me a sense of how busy the week will be and where I will need to conserve my energy. This calendar stays home at all times and open to the particular week. My husband can see at a glance where I am at any given moment. I also jot brief notes about any important things I need to accomplish during the week and any habits I may be trying to establish.

Daily List

I write out a short daily list of things that I need to do each day. My list format provides for 8 things, but I try to keep myself to around 6 things. This comes from the Mary Kay Ashe suggestion about the Six Most Important Things. Over the years, I have come to agree with Mary Kay that six is about the right number. When I stray too far over six things in a day, I feel tired. My next day does not go as well because I have overused my energy the day before.

I put every place that I need to go on this daily list. There are days when I have written: university, studio, symphony, grocery store, gym, practice, and then I realize that I have come to the end of the list. When was I going to get to those other things I needed to do? There was a time when I was concerned about how my plan to list all the places I needed to be as well as the things I needed to do would fill up the list and leave little or no room for me to add the other things I needed to do. I have learned that I need to cut back on some things in these cases, that having to be in places takes about the same amount of energy as having to do things. Now I count these as equal items.

I may not look at my daily list during the day, but I know it is there. The act of writing down my list at the beginning of my day is enough to stick it in my head the rest of the day. If I need to remind myself of something, I will take it out and read it. The best value I get from my daily list is that I waste less time on unproductive things. Instead of chatting in the hallway about nothing important, I will recall that I had planned to practice, make a phone call, visit the music library, answer an email, or do some writing.

Along with the daily list, I sometimes fill in an hourly worksheet as well to help me carve out time for some projects that I might not otherwise be able to find time for. Periodically, I find that it is helpful to fill out an hourly worksheet to keep me aware of how much time I might be wasting on unproductive activities, like watching television.

Handbook or Practice Journal

I wrote a series of articles about how to use a practice journal, log, or record. Here are the links:

Currently I am using the practice record, which is one sheet of paper. One page covers four weeks. I make up handbooks with these record sheets for my students.

Morning Pages (aka

I have written several times before about the value I get from doing morning pages. I enjoy the quiet moments in the morning while I drink my coffee and “drain” my brain of whatever is swimming around up there. Sometimes I rant about something. I may work through something that concerns me. I might come up with a schedule or an article outline or sketch. The morning pages are whatever I need them to be at the moment I write them. I have used a composition book for this purpose for many years, but recently I have been using the website This is a free site. I find that it takes me about 13-18 minutes to use the website, since I type so fast. If I complete handwritten pages, it takes me 23-28 minutes. For now I will stick to the website. I carry a thin Moleskine notebook in my purse to capture any thoughts during the day.

Swish & Swipe Tools

I borrowed this expression from the website. The flylady has some great ideas for keeping our homes free of clutter and dirt. The purpose of the site is to help us get rid of CHAOS or the “can’t have anyone over syndrome.” I am not terrific at following all the steps, but I do a basic weekly cleaning when I have the time, and I rely on my “swish & swipe” tools in between cleaning sessions.

Yes, my swish and swipe tools are a roll of paper towels and a bottle of Windex or other glass or ammonia cleaner. This stuff works on just about everything. I have a bottle of cleaner and a roll of paper towels in every room. When I find a minute or two, I pull out my tools and wipe down a counter, shine up a microwave or dishwasher, wipe down doorknobs or light switches, swipe at a refrigerator counter, or clean a toilet or sink. Life sparkles much brighter. This really does brighten up one’s outlook. Try it! Clean that kitchen sink before bed and notice how nice you feel in the morning when you see it.

Dry Erase Marker

This is my favorite tool. I pack one in every suitcase when I travel. Did you know that dry erase markers work on glass and mirrors? Sometimes they work on certain laminated surfaces (test this in an inconspicuous area first to see if you can erase the marking). I have a small dry erase board in my bathroom, but I also use my mirror, which I do when I travel. I make a list of the events that need to happen in the morning or whenever I need to get ready to go somewhere. I make the list in reverse order:
  • Appointment
  • Leave
  • Shower and dress
  • Breakfast & dogs out
  • Feed farm animals
  • Alarm & dogs out

Every night before retiring, I enter the times that I must start these tasks in order to be able to leave for my appointment in time. I wish I could just enter a blanket time to start the process, such as setting my alarm 3 hours before leaving, but I find that I need the bullet point list in order to manage my activities and time better.

Running Shoes

I list my running shoes because they represent an important part of my life. I am not a fast runner, nor am I to be found in the front (or midsection) of a race. I carry a pair of running shoes in my car at all times, along with the other necessary running clothes items, in case I find myself passing by the gym or the hike and bike trail on the way home.

My running shoes represent an important segment of my life. Mostly they remind me of the need to exercise on a consistent basis. Additionally, my shoes remind me of the valuable lessons I have learned while training for race events: perseverance, discipline, stick-to-it-tiveness, goal-setting, positive outlook, advance planning, training, problem-solving, focus and concentration. I encourage my students to engage in running activities, and I know of several students who have followed my advice. Two students became ultrarunners, which is something that will change their lives forever. Another student became a marathoner, and she achieved this before her senior recital so that she learned very valuable lessons that prepared her for the recital event.


I needed something to carry things. I have relied on tote bags for years. I still use them for many things, such as gym clothes and studio supplies. Still, I thought that I needed to start carrying something around that exuded more class than a tote bag that bore a logo, even though the logos were respectable (State Bar of Texas, Armadillo Suzuki Institute, TSUSSI-TX State University Suzuki String Institute, Hummingbird Hill Doxies, Artisan Quartet).

Last month I bought something for this purpose to celebrate my birthday (August 7). I bought a Day One briefcase purse, and I love it! It has a cushioned pocket for my laptop and iPad, and it has other inner pockets to hold supplies. It is large enough for all sorts of over-sized music, and it is stylish enough and sturdy enough to handle what I need to carry around. I no longer look like a tatterdemalion. I used it on my trip, and my new gift to myself worked great! It amazes me how something like this – a tiny addition to my tools – adds to my sense of class.

So there you have it. I thought about listing my computer because I cannot function without my computer. But, things have progressed in technology such that I can move from place to place without carrying a laptop with me all the time. I have my laptop for home and I have an iMac at the university. I have my iPhone and iPad and a wireless keyboard, which weigh next to nothing, for all the in between times. I make all of this work with a Dropbox account. I sync anything that might be needed in more than one place up to my Dropbox account. In this way I have items available for work no matter where I am. I can continue writing articles or my book projects in any location as long as I have access to the Internet.

This week, consider what you include in your toolkit and what items you might need to add. Write a comment about your favorite toolkit item and why.

Happy Week!

P.S.: I finished the August Camp NaNoWriMo as a winner. I wrote over 50,000 words on my writing project -- How to Raise a Parent.

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