Life Hack: Fill in E-mail Recipients At the End

Ever sent an e-mail before it was finished and then had to send a second e-mail to apologize and admit your toddler had been sitting on your lap and hit the send button with their jam-laden finger? No?

Me neither…

A trick I’m employing more and more these days: fine-tuning the content of every e-mail before adding in the recipient(s).

In the past, my first step when composing an e-mail was to fill in the recipients. Because of the nature of my job, this can involve a complicated web of Cc (and even Bcc) contacts. But it made sense, right? I was a start-at-the-top-and-work-my-way-down sort of communicator because that’s how it’s always been done.

Frustratingly, though, I was regularly finding that by the time I got to the end of my message, the content had shifted enough from my original intention such that I needed to add or remove recipients. So then I’d have to circle back to the top and spend time agonizing over making sure I had the right people removed and the right people added in – all while making sure I didn’t accidentally hit “Send” too early.

Can I just say – it is so much easier to tackle this step after the e-mail is ready to go out the proverbial door?

Not speaking from experience here, but I’m sure there are horror stories of people preparing an e-mail rant about a colleague or tendering a resignation only to get an apology or promotion in their inbox; cue relief and a mad scramble to delete the damaging draft only to inadvertently hit send.


While I can’t help you with the content of your e-mails, I can suggest you start adding in the recipients after the content is completed as one way to avoid awkward digital interactions.

*Full credit goes to my husband for this hack – it’s something he’s been doing for a while, and since I’ve adopted the same practice it has almost certainly saved me from numerous awkward or unnecessary follow-ups.

Would this tip have come in handy for you in the past? Any other great e-mail hacks?

Header photo by Solen Feyissa on Unsplash

Parenting Hack: Flip a Coin

My kids fight…quite a lot about quite a lot of things. I think this is mostly normal and natural. My brother and I fought…quite a lot about quite a lot of things. Happily, we never fight now (granted he lives in Denmark, so there is significant friction of distance, but I’m glad to report that when we manage to overcome the laws of geography, we generally get along quite peaceably).

Deep down, the kids are very attached to each other – weekend sleepovers are a must or wailing ensues. They can show great compassion for one another and are especially defensive if they sense their sibling has been mistreated by a peer.

This is all lovely, but back to the fighting for a minute. Most of these squabbles occur over the tiniest of things. Like who gets the spoons out of the drawer for the soup. Or who gets to pray before our meal (there has to be something deeply ironic about fighting about who gets to express gratitude – sigh). Or who gets to crack their own pepper first. Or who gets to unpause the movie – this is a big one.

You get the picture.

Last week I could sense a fight before it even started: who would get the red, fluted bundt pan and who would get the silver, round bundt pan for our wreath-making activity.

So we flipped a coin. Abby won and got the coveted red, fluted bundt pan (but then, hilariously and predictably they both decided they wanted the silver pan, so she ended up getting “stuck” with the now undesirable red bundt pan, but at least everyone was civil about it because the coin had decided, not a dictatorial mother).

I forget about this hack a lot, but we’ve used it to decide who picks the movie, who gets to choose the first slice of cake, and who gets to sit in the currently preferred booster seat.

This may not be a solution when they’re older and fighting over who gets to borrow the car. But, then again, maybe it will be?

Have you ever flipped a coin to level the playing field with your children or to expedite other forms of decision-making?

Header photo by Jordan Rowland on Unsplash

Word(s) of the Year: Be Kind

Forgive me for being unfashionably late to the party – I realize the “word-of-the-year” idea has been trending for over a decade now. I did latch on to the concept once, with mediocre enthusiasm/success, when I picked the word “Simplify” back in 2015ish. We were a family of four living in a very small apartment that had to serve as our home office, living spaces, and a storage facility for some large work equipment. To say it felt cramped is like saying you might feel a bit damp in the middle of a tsunami.

But I think having that word prompt did have some impact: I wrote it on the outside of my planner that year and would get periodic nudges to say “no” to a commitment or to downsize a particular storage tote. In subsequent years I’ve more fully embraced many of the tenants of minimalism and, in general, aim to keep life as simple as possible (this is often easier said than done).

All that to say: I didn’t feel any external pressure to participate in this sort of thing (I’ve written before about all the “good” things I don’t have to do and this certainly falls into that category), but couldn’t help shake my idea once it lodged itself inside my weary-from-pandemic-life grey matter.


My word(s)/motto for 2022 is/are: Be Kind.


Well, first, why not? Growing up in Sunday School, the Golden Rule was one of the earliest lessons I remember hearing and it certainly bears repeating in our current global milieu. Somehow it can feel harder to live like Jesus as we get older, but those early lessons are no less important.

More specifically? Because I know I have a long way to go in this regard.

I recently got the chance to discuss an anxiety-producing social situation with a very patient and dear friend. I was afraid of how I was being perceived (perhaps justifiably so) in a complicated situation with many moving parts and considerations. At the end of an impassioned speech that left me questioning my motives and capacity for kindness, my friend (very kindly) told me that I was one of the kindest people she knew.

She does know a lot of people…but I’m not convinced.

Because I know myself.

Because I know the (usually unwarranted) glares I give my kids that could melt ice. And I want them to remember me smiling, not glaring.

Because I know the times I’ve modified my walking route to avoid talking to a specific person – someone that I know is looking for friendship.

Because in 2022 I want to be kinder:

  1. Kinder to the kids (with my words and my eyes). Enough said.
  2. Kinder to my spouse. He is my best friend in all the world, but I can be an absolutely terrible nag sometimes (maybe a lot of the time?!) and have a tendancy to “lecture.” I really want to get better about this negative habit.
  3. Kinder to my friends. I have the annoying habit of interrupting other people mid-sentence. I keep telling myself to reign it in, but seem to fail miserably. Hopefully a reminder to “Be kind” will prompt me in this direction.
  4. Kinder to strangers. (I need to smile more, though that can be tricky with everyone wearing masks; side note – when a lady behind me in line complimented me on my earrings a month ago, it MADE MY DAY. I feel so hidden when out in public which, as an introvert, I actually like to a certain extent, but that kindness from a friendly stranger who was standing 6 feet away felt so refreshing).
  5. Kinder to myself. I am going to glare and lecture and interrupt. A lot of the time I’ve been too rigid and have expected too much from myself. I’m hoping, in some areas of life at least, that by asking less from myself, I might – paradoxically enough – manage to do more? Do more things I enjoy, be more productive, explore creative passions…be kinder to those I love.

So that’s where I’m at – looking quasi-optimistically ahead to 2022 with a vision to be kind(er).

If you participate in the one-word annual theme, what did you pick this year? I really like Tobia’s choice of “Celebrate.” How whimsical and…celebratory!

Header photo by Dee @ Copper and Wild on Unsplash

I Checked My Phone 89 Times on 19 December. Or, Why We Might Need To Break Up With Our Phones

I have a love-hate relationship with my iPhone. On one hand, I appreciate having the world at my fingertips: a state-of-the-art camera, instant connection to the people I love (for both meaningful conversations and to facilitate the sharing of hilarious memes), a flashlight, timer, dictionary, and even an app (that I downloaded on an island in the middle of nowhere, I might add) to alert me to the fact that yes, in fact, my son had been playing in poison ivy for almost an hour. Cue facepalm.

But I hate that I turn to it for mindless entertainment. I hate that I turn to it to numb me from the stress and anxiety of parenting and a pandemic and renovations (even though, paradoxically enough, I often end up reading the news which does nothing to bolster my mood). I hate that I pick it up over and over and over again each day – to check the weather, look up lyrics to a song, or to Google “How many toilet paper rolls – jumbo size – would it take to circumnavigate the Earth.” You know, incredibly important tasks of that ilk.

I hate that I can be distracted when the kids are trying to interact with me – often under the guise of helping them (texting parents to arrange playdates, for example). I hate that I reach for it first thing in the morning and that I feel panicked if I head out to run errands and realize I’ve left it home on the counter.

I say all this and yet I think I actually have a lot of well-established boundaries with my phone. I don’t text while driving, don’t have any social media apps (which makes sense because I don’t have any social media accounts!), and generally keep my daily screen time below 2 hours (and most weeks this hovers around the 1 hour/day mark).

I’ve decluttered my home screen, leaving only a handful of apps, and I try to only check e-mail on my phone a few times a day. I deleted all my news apps years ago, so have to navigate to physical web addresses each time (which does help lessen my news consumption, but I still head to news sites more than would be advisable given the general tone of coverage).

But, but, but…

I can tell there is significant room for improvement. I know there are ways to decrease my screen time and, more importantly to me right now, improve how I feel when I walk away from time on my digital device.

I talk with my family a lot about things being net-negative or net-positive. I think, despite all the upsides, social media is a net-negative experience for almost all users (and I believe the mental health statistics from the last decade would back me up on this). Most technologies have positives and negatives, and it’s all about assessing the net result. For example, washing machines can break down clothing fibers far more quickly than hand-washing, but I can think of a dozen reasons why I’m not rushing to eBay to source a washboard and lye soap anytime soon. To me, a washing machine falls neatly into the net-positive category.

But right now, despite my best efforts and “good” habits, my phone feels like a net-negative. I think it has less to do with the amount of time (quantity) and more to do with the function of that time (quality).

I just finished reading How To Break Up With Your Phone by Catherine Price. Instead of trying to summarize everything she said, I’m just going to discuss some of the key takeaways I wrote down while reading the book (it’s short, readable, very practical, and I would highly recommend it to anyone that wants to revisit their relationship with smartphones) + some direct quotes.

Action items I’m implementing

  1. I’ve put a hair elastic around my phone as a tangible/sensory reminder to me to pay attention each time I pick up my phone. She calls this sort of thing “speed bumps” – little reminders that slow us down and either make time on our phones seem less efficient/attractive or, at the very least, leave us aware that we’ve reached for our phone again. [She also suggests changing the picture on the lock screen to something like “Notice” or a taking a picture of a piece of paper – bonus points if someone you love is holding it up – that reads: “Why did you pick me up?”I love my current picture (of the hubby and I on vacation) too much to do that, but I still thought it was a good idea.]
  2. Use the WWW prompt. Price suggests we ask ourselves the following questions when we’re reaching for our phone: What For (Why am I picking up the phone?Name a specific purpose – to order underwear on Amazon, to look up reviews on a new restaurant, to kill time?), Why Now (Is it practical – to take a picture of something; is it situational – am I on an awkward elevator ride; is it emotional – I want a distraction?), and What Else (What else could I be doing instead of turning to my phone?)?
  3. Pick a new charging spot. I’m a bit stymied by this one, but will report back when I find a better location than my bedside table which certainly doesn’t help me avoid the last-thing-at-night/first-thing-in-the-morning phone usage. For the last few days I’ve been leaving my phone on the dresser and not charging it until it gets low. A happy by-product of using my phone less – it doesn’t need to be charged every day and I can always plug it in first thing in the morning, which will make it less convenient to over-consume in the first place.
  4. Track total pickups. I think I have a pretty good handle on total time (I like this to be about an hour, and am generally within 20 minutes or so of this, but can definitely spike over 2 hours without much effort, especially if I’ve had a tough day). I think my bigger issue is how often I reach for my phone and how that short check-in with texts can morph into 30 minutes catastrophizing about COVID and climate change and politics on the BBC news website. In my defence of the screenshot below – some of the 89 pick-ups on December 18th are related to preparing all the verses for our Christmas gifts; the fact that the Bible app was responsible for at least 17 of those pickups has to count for something! Also, I don’t mind seeing a high Camera count because that is one of my favourite uses for the phone. The issue is I’ll open up my camera and then see a text and then enter a search string and…you know how the rest of this story goes, right?

QUotes that stood out

“Smartphones…nag us. They disturb us when we’re working. They demand our attention and reward us when we give it to them. Smartphones engage in disruptive behaviors that have traditionally been performed only by extremely annoying people.”

  • I bolded that last bit because…it literally made me laugh out loud.

“When we check our phones, we occasionally find something satisfying – a complimentary e-mail…an interesting piece of news. The resulting burst of dopamine makes us begin to associate the art of checking our phones with the receipt of a reward. Similarly, there are times when checking your phone out of anxiety really does leave you feeling soothed. 

Once that link has been established, it doesn’t matter if we’re rewarded only one time out of every fifty. Thanks to dopamine, our brains remember that one time. And instead of dissuading us, the fact that we can’t predict which of our fifty checks is going to be rewarding makes us check our phones even more. 

Want to know another device that uses intermittent rewards to drive compulsive behavior? Slot machines.

In fact, the similarities between the two devices are so powerful that Harris [who wrote an article titled: How Technology is Hijacking Your Mind] frequently compares smartphones to slot machines [considered to be one of the most addictive devices ever invented] we keep in our pockets.”

  • Okay, this hits close to home. I actually spent a year of my Master’s using classic Pavlovian conditioning – on honeybees, not humans or dogs, admittedly – and my all-time favourite clip from the office is the Altoid exchange between Dwight and Jim. In other words: I should recognize this pattern and know better.

[Referring to social media and “likes”]: “Put this all together, and it makes sense that spending a lot of time on social media could be associated with depression and lower self-esteem. What doesn’t make sense is that we are deliberately choosing to relive the worst parts of middle school.

  • This also made me laugh because…it’s so relatable. Middle school (and high school, too) are just so objectively tough and awkward when it comes to the judgement of a few, specific “popular” people we admire for their perceived status who don’t care about our emotional wellbeing. And now, as a society, we are so often willingly opening ourselves up to the same sort of critique!?

“…a New York Times analysis calculated that as of 2014, Facebook users were spending a collective 39,757 years’ worth of attention on the site, every single day. It’s attention that we didn’t spend on our families, or our friends, or ourselves. And just like time, once we’ve spent attention, we can never get it back. 

This is a really big deal, because our attention is the most valuable thing we have. We experience only what we pay attention to. We remember only what we pay attention to. When we decide what to pay attention to in the moment, we are making a broader decision about how we want to spend our lives.”

  • I am so easily distracted, not just by my phone but I think largely because of it; because I’ve wired myself to short bursts of attention, to supposed “multitasking” and to always feeling like I need to be doing…something. Can anyone else see parallels with Oliver Burkeman’s productivity trap discussion?

“…if you wanted to invent a device that could rewire our minds, if you wanted to create a society of people who were perpetually distracted, isolated, and overtired, if you wanted to weaken our memories and damage our capacity for focus and deep thought, if you wanted to reduce empathy, encourage self-absorption, and redraw the lines of social etiquette, you’d likely end up with a smartphone. “

  • Hmmm. She’s clearly not holding back any punches in this quote.

“Most of the things we do on our phones – reading the news, playing games – are stimulating activities. Imagine how difficult it would be to doze off if all of the people you follow on social media were in the room with you, the television was blaring in the background, and several friends were having a political debate. That’s essentially what you’re doing when you bring your phone into bed with you.”

  • I thought this was a great perspective/unique way of visualizing the problem. I have definitely caught myself going to my phone for one final “check-in” before bed and seeing a challenging work e-mail, depressing news story or frustrating text…and then not being able to get it off my mind.

“We learn to stay with the uneasiness, the tightening, the itch of [our cravings]. We train in sitting still with our desire to scratch. This is how we learn to stop the chain reaction of habitual patterns that otherwise will rule our lives.” Pema Chodron

  • I read about something similar in Russ Harris’ The Happiness Trap (also highly recommend) where he talks about surfing the urge. This could be related to overconsumption of food or getting angry at your kids or, in this case, the urge to pick up a smartphone. Being conscious of the urge (or itch) is part of the solution – once we’re aware of the triggers we can actually tune into the feedback our body is giving us (physical and mental clues) and simply try to ride it out.

“The point of breaking up with our phones isn’t to deprive ourselves of the benefits of modern technology. It’s to set boundaries so that we can enjoy the good parts of our phones while also protecting ourselves from the bad.”

  • How true! There is SO much good about phone technology and I appreciate the fact this book isn’t designed to be a giant guilt-trip.

The difference between technology and slavery is that slaves are fully aware that they are not free.” Nassim Nicholas Taleb

  • Again, it’s about awareness. And too often I pick the phone up out of habit, not with a true sense of purpose in mind (or, if my purpose is clear, I quickly forget it with notifications and pinging notifcations).

[Quote from a participant in the author’s focus group]: “Checking your phone is like picking your nose: there’s nothing wrong with it, but no one should have to watch you do it.” Alex

  • Made me laugh, while also being insightful.

“At first you’re likely to feel physically and emotionally twitchy, as if your brain is banging on a door that usually opens, and panicking when it realizes that it’s locked.”

  • Again, I liked this imagery. We get so used to reaching for our phone in a lineup or when we’re angry or overwhelmed or scared or bored or tired; also, it’s another reminder to sit still with the “itch.”

“It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who, in the midst of the crowd, keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

  • I am an introvert. I think I’ve come to realize the importance of this aspect of my personality more and more (likely compounded by the fact, for many months, there was very little chance for solitude with pandemic lockdowns and a young family at home). I like stillness and solitude and communion with God and spending time in nature, and need to be more proactive about seeking this out each and every day, even when I can’t necessarily carve out solo time.

Phew…that was a big, long post.

What are your thoughts about phones/screentime? Anything you’re looking to change in 2022 or any “hacks” you’ve successfully implemented to improve your interactions with your smartphone?

Header photo by Benjaminrobyn Jespersen on Unsplash

Casual Friday + On Birthday’s and Doing Things for the Last Time

  • I know it doesn’t need to be completed on any timeline but when the final months of the year start ticking by I get anxious to tackle our annual photobook. I’m now officially done up to October and it feels…great. Most years Blurb has a post-Christmas sale, which I always miss. I would LOVE to order this on New Years Eve (because I’m fun like that). We shall see.
  • We have some special plans to celebrate a birthday – #7 for a certain little boy in our household! On alternate years our kids get big (8-10ish friends) and small (1-3 friends) parties – this is the year for a “small” party. His request? To invite three neighbourhood friends for video games and cake and supper. So, basically like any other day minus the video games and cake! There is always a contingent of neighbourhood kids floating around our house…and it’s not infrequent someone stays for a meal.
  • The week involved domino structures. It was a fun activity – sort of. At least 75% of the time I accidently set off my domino arrangement prematurely which Levi found hilarious…and I found shockingly frustrating.
  • I did not get the downstairs artificial tree up yet. The last few years I’ve aimed to get it up in the family room before Levi’s birthday. I had the time, I just didn’t really feel ready to launch the Christmas decorations hoopla. Renos are finally in full swing (after about a month of delays; we’re just lucky our contractors came as I know many peope couldn’t get supplies or labour this year), and so I think I’m craving all the extra peace, quiet, and calm I can get. Update! The kids and I did this in an unexpected burst of holiday enthusiam. Plan it in and do it anyway, right? And a cheery, twinkly glow is our reward.
I bought this tree on clearance for $20 at Zellers just after getting married. It has cast a festive glow over our family every Christmas since. It’s a bit of a Charlie-Brown tree and every year it loses more and more of those flimsy, plastic needles…but I love it – especially laden with all the homemade ornaments from preschool days of yore.
  • Speaking of holiday enthusiasm – I just wrapped up my #SecretSantaMugSwap2021 gift and it’s ready for a trip across the country via Canada Post. A huge shout-out to San for organizing this very fun event.
  • This week we had homemade chicken noodle soup (delicious), walked to school in winter coats (brrr), read winter-themed picture books (cozy), sourced festive postage stamps for sending out our family photocards (whimsical), and bought pecan pies for Christmas dinner (yum). The holidays are coming, y’all.
Children picture books are one of my favourite things. Christmas is another of my favourite things. So I am elated when both interests collide. It is officially holiday book season in our house and I couldn’t be happier.
  • My oldest sister is currently en route to Ironman Cozumel. She will swim 3.8 km, she will bike 180 km, and then she will finish things off with a leisurely 42.2 km run. I, on the other hand, will try to make it up one hill without complaining. It really does blow my mind she can/will do this! I’m also very jealous of the warm weather – we had snow/flurries twice this week. #notreadyforwinter.

ON birthdays and LAST TIMEs

Coming home from the hospital.

This time of year holds a lot of memories for me. Seven years ago today I was scared. I was two days away from knowing the answer to a question that had haunted me for months. After a relatively normal pregnancy, we were shocked to learn at the mid-way point that our baby could be facing some serious health complications. The ensuing months were an exhausting haze of appointments and tears.

My whole body was literally shaking on our final drive to the hospital. I knew answers were coming soon and I wasn’t feeling ready. It was like a surreal dream – life was moving in slow motion while hurtling ahead at warp speed. It’s an experience unlike anything I’ve experienced before or since and I still have flashbacks to so many details from that 24-hour period; they come into sharpest relief as we near his birthday.

It’s been seven years since that morning when I found myself lying in the operating room praying the words of Philippians 4:4-7 over and over – even when my heart was full of fear – until I literally felt the peace of God which defied all understanding and human logic. And then the miracle and joy of life and health.

This time of year I also find myself reflecting on how fleeting life is. A vapour, the Bible says.

I spent time the other night looking at baby pictures; he looks impossibly small. It feels like forever ago and yesterday at the same time.

It can be a hard balance – living in the present while being mindful that life is short and we’re all a heartbeat away from a complete and utter transformation in our experience. And that, even in little things, there is always a last time.

As I had been musing on this very topic, Jenny mentioned a recent David Cain article titled The Last Time Always Happens Now where he writes “It turns out that ordinary days are full of experiences you expect will keep happening forever, and of course none of them will.” This same day I read Laura Vanderkam’s tragic reminder that life can change in an instant. And the central premise of the Oliver Burkeman book I recently finished – Four Thousand Weeks – is based around this idea.

Memento mori, indeed.

There was a last time I washed a baby bottle. There was a last time they sat in a stroller and high chair. There was a last time I stumbled through a middle-of-the-night-feeding and diaper change. There were last goodbyes at preschool and final nights in a pack-and-play. I don’t have the dates of any of these events recorded; I likely didn’t know it was the “last” time. Or, after years of strollers and diapers and bottles and preschool pickup, the end may have felt like a relief.

And it’s not that I miss diaper changes at 2 am, but I do miss what they represent. Those days are gone. There really is an end to all things.

Like when did our baby exchange plush coats with those universally heart-melting ears…

…for fashionable puffer coats with faux fur? In the blink of an eye.

Almost every time I pick him up, I wonder when I’ll do it for the last time. And there will be a “last” time. I wonder if I’ll recognize it as such? Somehow I doubt it, and that makes me sad.

I’ve talked about that odd sense of loss I can feel in the midst of joy (I tear up at this post) and the complicated wave of emotions I get watching them sleep at night. So I try to keep this notion of “last” times in mind, while treasuring (and capturing) the moments now, as I’m able, knowing that there is good stuff ahead, too.

Hopefully, someday, I’ll pick up their children* and the cycle will continue, as it does.

*And then I will hand my grandchildren back, head home and get a full night of sleep and allow my children to experience the wonder of middle-of-the-night wakings and diaper changes…

Why Learning the Mundane Details of Someone’s Life Fosters Attachment

My father-in-law visited recently. It has been a long separation – nearly two years – due to COVID. I try to keep everyone engaged through lengthy family updates and accompanying pictures. But after two years of Skype calls and e-mails, we all know it’s just not the same.

His visit included some fun adventures, but what he seemed to enjoy most of all was getting a sense of our daily routines.

He learned the route we take when we walk to school each morning. He saw the small shelf in the dining room where I store our current reading selections. He familiarized himself with our kitchen cupboards – learning where to find the cutlery and his favourite coffee mug. He knew where to find light switches in the dark and grew accustomed to how we load our dishwasher. He learned where we stored basketballs and soccer balls (and never had any trouble finding willing companions for a pick-up game).

He took pictures the morning he left for home – one of us all geared up for the walk to school, another of me reading to the kids while they ate breakfast. He took one of the guest room, his home for two weeks. He snapped another of the outside of our house before it gets a facelift. All unremarkable, mundane things. Yet knowing the intricacies of these small things feels big.

Knowing where someone stores their vegetable peeler might just make you feel more connected than having a long conversation over coffee.

It reminds me of Gretchen Rubin’s suggestion to take pictures of usual things:

Instead of taking photos of unusual sights, take a photo of the most usual sights. In the future, you’ll be a lot more interested in seeing a photo of your dorm-room closet or your laundromat than seeing a photo of the Louvre.

Gretchen Rubin

I’d love to have a photo of my closet from university days – I know it was tiny and didn’t even have a door, just a small curtain pulled across it (which, for the life of me, I frustratingly can’t remember the colour of…and this haunts me).

My father-in-law came to the bus stop each day. He learned the driveway where I wait, the names of the friends that would tumble out alongside his grandkids; he now knows, to the minute, when the bus arrives. He also joined us on our daily commute to school morning after morning. He said hello to the crossing guard and saw the giant concrete pillar my son likes to climb up every morning.

Sure, I describe a lot of things in my family update e-mails (they are shockingly thorough). But reading about the route to school and actually walking it are two very different things.

How (and Why) I Circulate Monthly Family Updates

As it pertains to correspondence, I’ve inherited the (long-winded) writing gene from my mother.

I grew up watching her prepare bi-weekly summaries for my grandmothers; written out by hand and sent dutifully – but joyfully – every two weeks like clockwork. I remember when we got a computer and she could alter the text for each grandmother without having to rewrite pages and pages from scratch – a gamechanger. This is also the same mother that, until recently, would send out individualized Christmas cards, each one containing a very long, handwritten update. She would spend huge chunks of time (over weeks, sometimes months) getting this done each holiday season. She has finally jumped on the stock-letter bandwagon, but not before personalized communication habits were drilled very firmly into my psyche.

I’m not saying I have any unique talent in this area and I’m not creating written masterpieces of any kind…but when it comes to reaching out to people via e-mail (and, as often as I can, the good old-fashioned postal service), I think I have an unusual penchant for my demographic.

When I moved to a new province as a teenager, I wrote letters to all the friends I’d had to leave behind. For years. Then, when I finished my undergrad degree, I faced the inevitability of moving away from several of my closest university friends. We had all scattered for further education but kept in almost constant communication via e-mail. Every week or so we would write each other with a laundry list of current happenings. We’d air complaints about a frustrating professor or assignment. We’d share details about the latest pick-up league one of us had joined. Eventually, these e-mails saw us discussing wedding details and later we described meeting our peanut-sized babies for the first time on a fuzzy ultrasound display.

Recounting the minutiae of day-to-day activities kept us engaged in each other’s lives and, when we did get a chance to meet in person, it felt like no time has passed.

After I’d gotten into the habit of doing this with friends, I extended the tradition to involve my parents and parents-in-law.

I had developed a growing disdain for phone calls; they were tedious and long and there was no record of the conversation for reference purposes (read: they didn’t feel productive, a rotten attitude I know). E-mails, on the other hand, could be relatively short, with maybe a picture or two added for good measure (so people could actually SEE the things I was describing). Better still, I could work at my own pace, on my own schedule.

Over time, this monthly habit grew.

From short, relatively sporadic e-mails, I organically settled into sending regular updates. We had one baby and then another (there is always something new to report with an infant in the house).

And then, surprisingly, through word of mouth the requests started pouring in from extended family and friends asking to get added to this e-mail chain.

Just last week I finally managed to carve out time to visit a friend I’ve not seen in months. As I started to launch into the details of a new work role, she told me there was no need to explain – she’d read all about it in the latest installment of monthly updates.

At the core, I write these updates so those closest to our family get a sense of what’s going on. I don’t use social media and we have family and friends scattered across the world. Sending a one-size-fits-all update is the best way to reach everyone.

I should also confess a more selfish impetus: I have never been able to stick to keeping a journal, yet I absolutely love the idea of having a keen sense of where my time has been going. I use a daytimer, but without much pomp and circumstance (and nary a strip of washi tape to be found), and I certainly don’t want to keep hard copies from past years.

So I write e-mails. Every month.

Here’s a bit more information on the nuts and bolts of my process, in case you’d ever like to follow suit.

What do you write about?

Just about everything. I write about big events (buying a house, going on a trip) and little events (a kid learning to tie their shoelaces, our new couch and how it got stuck coming down the stairs).

How do you remember everything that happens in a month?

I have two tricks:

  1. I start the e-mail as a draft and add to it over the month. This helps me keep track of events as they happen and it means that when I actually go to polish off the e-mail and send it I don’t have to invest much time wrapping things up since I’ve worked at it in 5-10 minute increments throughout the month.
  2. I use my photos as a guide. If I haven’t carved out much time to include detail in a draft e-mail, I’ll turn to my phone. Since I tend to take pictures of most memorable events (big and small), it’s a great way to jog my memory.

How long are these e-mails?

It can vary, but most months I churn out about 2,500 words!

In 2021, August has the highest word count, clocking in at a whopping 2,694 words; January was significantly lower (~1,700). Typically I top 2,000 words.

In short – they’re long.

How do you organize The e-mails?

  1. I start with a basic introduction. I might talk about general weather trends (because, really, what’s a good conversation without at least a brief mention of the weather) and an overall sense of current events (“We’re all settling into the routines of fall and notice the days slowly getting cooler as the sun says goodbye earlier and earlier in the evening. I’ve no complaints about the earlier bedtimes, though it always feels sad to say goodbye to warm-weather conditions. That said, now we can turn our attention to all the festive happenings that come our way in the late fall/early winter”). I’ll also call out special events in the coming month like birthdays or anniversaries, or I might congratulate someone on graduating from high school or on the start of a new job.
  2. Next I label and write about about key categories (here is what October is likely going to look like, in terms of an outline). I will often highlight a particular trip (e.g. Cape Sable Island would have had it’s very own heading) or discuss a specific holiday event.
  • Abby (I’ll discuss school, friends, extracurriculars, current interests…)
  • Levi (ditto above)
  • Elisabeth (work, extracurriculars…)
  • John (ditto above)
  • Thanksgiving (what we ate, where we went, who visited our home for the holiday…)
  • Halloween (what the kids wore, how much candy they got, what the neighbourhood decorations looked like, special events at school…)
  • Visit with Grampie (anecdotes and specific events…)
  • House Renovation Update (ditto above)

3. Then I start wrapping things up with a discussion of more general items – little events that have happened that don’t necessarily fall under one of the larger categories. Finally, I’ll sign off by giving everyone a quick look ahead: “November will be exciting with Levi’s birthday, which also means it’s time to put up the artificial tree in the basement – a sure sign of the onset of the Christmas season and all that entails!”

4. I used to send pictures attached to this main e-mail but, for various reasons, I now send pictures (usually 10 of our favourites from the month, which will correspond to things I’ve discussed in the update) in a separate e-mail.

What do you do with All these e-mails?

After I send them off, I simply copy and paste the text into a master file within Google Drive. Eventually these will all get collated into a book.

I’ve already printed off the first decade or so. I didn’t have some of my current systems in place and it was a bit of a nightmare – mostly because I had to search through old e-mail archives to track down the various updates and, over the years, I had been sending unique updates to different recipients. Streamlining it all into a single e-mail AND pushing all the text into a master file is a huge improvement.

In addition to e-mails, I also included the text from my annual Christmas letters that I circulate with our holiday cards. I also had monthly summaries that I wrote up for each of the kids over their first 18 months that I wanted to incorporate (these were never circulated to family, it was just something I did so the kids could look back at details of their schedule, clothing size, and any particularly ill-timed diaper blowouts at each stage of infant/toddler development).

The resulting book (pictured above) is about 300 pages long. I have a handful of pictures printed at the beginning of each section, but mostly it’s just a lot of words! I printed it using the same publisher I’ve been using for photobooks over the last few years, Blurb.

I love that I have all this information printed off; it’s a lot like a journal, but there is nothing too personal. I curate the e-mails to not includes specifics about parenting challenges or work debacles. They’re detailed enough to trigger my memory on some less-than-ideal events, but don’t necessarily implicate anyone else. Make sense?

When I send these e-mails (or tomes, as my brother sometimes calls them) out to family and friends, I don’t expect them to read every word. I know some of them do, but I’m not offended if they skim through details of Levi’s encounter with poison ivy, or the itinerary of our family trip around the Cabot Trail. These e-mails – and the wealth of details they include – are as much for me as for them.

It does take time and effort and it is another to-do on my list. But, having identified the role as memory-keeper as being one my key values, it makes sense to invest time into this activity.

Life is short. Four thousand weeks or so? And sometimes, remembering the good, the bad, and the ugly of it all can help preserve memories and enhance – if not also prolong – time.

This Thanksgiving: Good Things (And Good Things I Don’t Have to Do)

It’s Canadian Thanksgiving. We had all the trimmings over the weekend and today I’m going to enjoy chicken noodle soup and leftover pecan pie.

As we sat around the table yesterday highlighting things we were thankful for I felt…grateful. It may seem cliche to list health and family and our home but, really, can we ever be too thankful for these things? It’s so easy to take it all for granted; we assume our loved ones will be with us next year, assume we’ll still be living in the same home, assume we’ll still be enjoying the same level of health.

But, in reality, we’re all a single heartbeat away from a different life experience – from tragedy or disease; new jobs, a different home – and taking the time to reflect on all we have in the present can help, at least temporarily, to pin down that elusive perspective.

Chicken and stuffing and corn and parsnips/sweet potato and cranberry and gravy and punch; pecan pie and homemade cherry cheesecake for dessert. So thankful for delicious food. And name cards with prompts for gratitude.

It has been a relief to ease into the routines of fall and school. Cooler days, longer nights. Bedtimes are slowly nudging back to more reasonable timeframes. I’ve also assumed a new role – one that leaves me working nearly full-time hours. Surprise, surprise: working more hours makes time pass more quickly. I’ve had to increase my efficiency with certain tasks and will almost certainly have to eliminate others altogether.

I recently finished Oliver Burkeman’s book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. I love a good time management book, but this one is a little different. For one, Burkeman spends a significant portion of the book talking about death; he highlights the only time we’re not going to have a long laundry list of to-do’s is when we’re six-feet under. And then he actually argues against many of the time-saving techniques we life hackers enjoy so much. His central tenet: there is never going to be enough time to accomplish everything on our to-do lists. Accept this. Productivity, much of the time, simply leaves us open to accept more responsibilities.

I will never be able to get it all done. And yet, I think I’m often aiming for this fantasy state. I like to imagine that some morning I’ll wake up and be on top of everything. And then have it stay that way. Forever.

This just isn’t going to happen – I should know this by now. Children get fevers, check-engine lights come on, tensions flare. Inbox “zero” becomes full again. The trash I emptied on Friday will need to be emptied again. Taxes will need to be refiled. Such is life.

I also cannot do everything that interests me; there isn’t enough time for that either. I might be able to learn how to play the piano, but I’m probably never going to go through an astronaut training program and reach space (though one never knows when SpaceX might come calling).

Money, time – we face the reality of limited resources. And, ultimately, we’re all riding the sands of a draining hourglass. Four thousand weeks, give or take, by Burkeman’s estimate. This would put me just shy of my 77th birthday.

Which brings us back to good things. Despite what could be contrived as a negative tone (death, productivity is a hoax), Burkeman offers up a solution. Acceptance. Awareness. Perspective.

There is a lot of good in my life. I’m so fortunate to have a loving, supportive spouse; my children are healthy; my parents are alive. We live in a wonderful community surrounded by friends. We simply turn on the tap to access clean, running water. We have money to put food on the table. We worship freely.

But sometimes even good things can distract me from what I truly value in life and where I want to channel my energies. Learning the piano would be a great skill (I love music and I deeply regret my decision to quit childhood lessons) – but do I want to make the time right now? At this point, the answer is no.

And that’s okay.

With that in mind, this Thanksgiving, in addition to all the good things, I’m thinking of:

(good) things I don’t have to do

  • I don’t have to take my friend with a newborn a meal immediately after giving birth. I know I will, eventually, once the dust settles and everyone else has stopped with the official meal train. But I don’t have to this week, when we have company visiting and cross-country meets and a seemingly endless string of e-mails. I can’t do everything and while I could get an extra meal out the door, I’d be cranky and stretched thin to do so.
  • I don’t have to sign Abby up for choir. Yes it’s a great experience, but she doesn’t love it and, frankly, it’s a scheduling hassle. She will survive. There will be other opporuntities to sing.
  • I don’t have to cook from scratch. Boxed cookies will suffice. Mini-carrots are still a vegetable even if I don’t have to wield a peeler. And who are we kidding, I could never recreate our beloved (boughten) pecan pie. Why bother trying?
  • I don’t have to commit to a specific workout routine. I don’t have to run everyday or try the Pilates video my friend recommended.

Happy Thanksgiving. Cheers to all the wonderful blessings and here’s to making the most of our four thousand weeks. Not a single one is guaranteed, and I too often forget the miracle of each one.