Update

As you may have noticed, Mix Tapes & Scribbles has been on a bit of a hiatus. I am in the process of building a new website dedicated to my professional (i.e. paid) writing career, as well as completing a novel manuscript before the arrival of our first child this Spring.

As a result, I have had to reduce the amount of writing I do for free, at least for now.  That doesn’t mean Mix Tapes & Scribbles will go offline — quite the contrary. Regardless of my current priorities or ability to add new content, I am committed to maintaining the site archive as is because I believe there is some valuable content here already which shouldn’t be lost to the world.

In the meantime, look for a site launch this Spring or thereabouts at www.jaclynpaul.com. This site will also include a link back to Mix Tapes & Scribbles.

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A couple weeks ago I asked my loyal (i.e. early-adopting) Mix Tapes & Scribbles Facebook fans an important question: how did you (or do you) push yourself past the fear of rejection so you can submit to publications and juried shows, audition for an amazing role, etc.?

Photo via BookMama on Flickr

One friend offered that a college professor made it a course requirement to turn in three acceptance or rejection letters for the semester. Another admitted that he has never overcome the fear of rejection — he “just cringes inside.”

Rejection can hurt, right? On the this year’s season premiere of Glee, a student erupts in anger after he’s turned down for a spot in the show choir. “Do you know how hard I worked for this?” he asks. Meanwhile, Rachel struggles with being a small fish in a big pond for the first time in her life. The audience doesn’t belong to her anymore, and the struggle for acceptance — to be good enough — makes her feel lost and unsteady.

Personally, I struggle to know when a piece is “done.” Sometimes I will show something informally and receive feedback about my “great start.” Great start? But I thought it was finished! Other times I will hide my work from the world, convinced it still needs work, when I should be submitting it.

When we release our art into the world, though, we are almost asking for rejection. We are putting our hard work on the chopping block. That can be scary, especially for those who don’t submit often. That’s why it’s so important to remember everyone gets rejected. A lot. Check out some of my favorites from One Hundred Famous Rejections:

Stephen King began his writing career with a nail on his wall where he’d stick rejections. At some point, he writes in his book On Writing, “the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and kept on writing.”

Or how about Chuck Palahniuk, one of my husband’s favorite authors:

Palahniuk first tried to publish his novel Invisible Monsters, but it was rejected by publishers due to the novel being too disturbing. Instead he concentrated on Fight Club, intending it to be more disturbing. Initially Fight Club was published as a seven-page short story in the compilation Pursuit of Happiness, but Palahniuk expanded it to novel length (in which the original short story became chapter six). [Palahniuk] found that after Fight Club did well, he was then able to publish Invisible Monsters later, in 1999.
A no can always turn into a yes.

My favorite, though, is Kathryn Stockett’s story:

“In the end, I received 60 rejections for The Help. But letter number 61 was the one that accepted me. After my five years of writing and three and a half years of rejection, an agent named Susan Ramer took pity on me. What if I had given up at 15? Or 40? Or even 60?”

Crazy, right? As you can see, it’s not about getting accepted the first time. It’s about believing in your heart that your work needs to be out in the world. Our favorite success stories were not necessarily borne of better art than ours — just greater perseverance. I have never had the same piece of work rejected 60 times. Most of us probably haven’t. But Kathryn Stockett did, and now she has a best-selling book and an Oscar-winning movie under her belt.

Another hidden benefit of submitting your work far and wide: an objective assessment of your progress. If you’re a writer, you should know that an editor won’t waste her time on feedback if she feels your piece has no hope. So if you’re receiving a lot of form rejections, it likely means your writing has a long way to go and perhaps you should consider enrolling in a class or joining a critique group. On the flip side, if you are getting short little notes with your rejections, you can take it as a welcome sign you’re on the right track! As an added bonus, you’ve also gotten some useful feedback from someone you can trust to be objective. Sure, showing your work to trusted friends is great, but most of the time you can’t really know if they are giving you the brutal truth you need to become the best artist you can be.

When you think about it, there is no reason not to get yourself out there as much as possible, every single month, without fear of rejection. It happens to everyone, and it helps you grow. Not only that, but a rejection doesn’t mean you aren’t brilliant. It means that what you brought to the table wasn’t what the jury or the director or the editor was looking for this time. You wouldn’t have picked Tim Burton to direct Titanic, right? But Sleepy Hollow, now that’s another story. So get yourself out there and get rejected! It’s the only way the acceptances will start rolling in.

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“Write it down or you’ll forget!”

How often do you apply this common exclamation to your creativity (hint: the correct answer is “all the time”)?

While it hasn’t always been creativity-focused, I’ve kept a notebook since my age was in the single digits. As I’ve gotten older, it has evolved and grown along with me.

My notebook was my prized possession for the duration of my teenage years. I documented everything. My heart was full of sweeping new emotions and I had just begun to develop an awareness of my political and ethical beliefs. My brain processed all this new information by writing it down, and so write I did.

Once I reached college, my art professors required a robust sketchbook. I struggled with an inferiority complex throughout art school, though, and never really let myself go with sketchbooks in the same way I did with my written notebooks. Words came so naturally. My visual brain felt stunted by comparison.

Upon graduating with my BFA, I swore to myself I’d finally follow my heart’s true desires. I had been a writer before anything else — before I had even been a kindergartner — and I was finally going to give writing its due. I’ve since started keeping notebooks again: hashing through thorny emotional situations, practicing stream of consciousness and creative non-fiction, and creating a playground for new fiction and poetry.

Looking back, though, my true revelation came in my final semesters of college when I realized I could write and sketch in my notebooks at the same time. When I started doing this, it was out of frustration at my sketches’ impotence. I wrote as a protest.

Little though I may have intended this at the time, my ideas were at their most free in those sketchbooks. Words wrapped around wireframes and storyboards and rough depictions of installations I saw at art shows. When I couldn’t draw something, I pasted in a photo of it. I fixed a leaf to the page with packing tape. I let my creative mind run wild through every medium.

Moments, ideas, and memories can be gone so quickly. Even if we think “I’ll never forget this,” it eventually fades — for most of us, sooner rather than later.

A journal — not in the angsty teenage sense, but a true artist’s journal — maps out your history, the precise path your brain follows year to year. It provides an ideal forum for you to generate new ideas.

So don’t limit your ideas by confining your journal or notebook to just one medium. Doodle in it. Paste in photographs and news clippings. Do a rubbing of a strange message you find carved into a rock. Write poetry even if you’re terrible at it.

Maybe you already keep a journal, or have kept one in the past. Maybe you’ve never really known how to get started. If you’re more the latter, check out this two-part series of articles on Write to Done. Part Two delves a little deeper into writing specifically, but there is good stuff there for all artists, not just writers.

How to Journal: 5 Tips for Capturing Your Best Ideas | Write to Done
How to Journal: 6 Tips to Boost Creativity and Polish Your Writing | Write to Done

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A few weeks ago I laid out my writing priorities. My life felt disrupted, I hadn’t been writing, and I hoped hashing out what was most important would help jumpstart something. Since I plan on doing more freelance and blog writing in the future, I decided I wanted to prioritize blogging over my other projects. Armed with a clear idea of where I was headed, here’s what happened:

I wrote more

Let’s face it: this summer hasn’t been 100% kind to me. July was swallowed up in some weird health stuff and, though I vaguely remember the month happening, I was in no condition to get any writing done. Even though I’m feeling better now, recovery from a serious interruption like that is slow. It has taken a while to get my head back in the right place. I still get tired enough that I can’t go to work, keep myself clothed and fed, and be amazingly prolific with my creative work.

Despite all that, I’ve still gotten more or less back on track with blogging. I credit this to having put my priorities in writing. When I have a little extra time or energy to devote to writing, I’m not spending it all sitting at my desk trying to figure out what to work on next. I’m asking myself, “have I finished a new blog post this week? No? Okay, that’s what we’re doing right now.” With that burden lifted, I’m free to write as much as I’m able.

My priority list has impacted my time on a larger scale, too. When I sit down at my computer, I only play games if I’ve gotten my other work done first. Making my priorities explicit means I’ve made a commitment to myself. If I don’t at least brainstorm some post ideas for the day before firing up World of Warcraft, I’m not honoring that commitment.

I had more ideas

Taking a cue from the social media fasting article I posted last week, I decided to sit down and generate new ideas every day. Now, mind you, aforementioned personal situation made that a pretty unrealistic expectation. However, I now have a file with over 40 solid ideas for future posts. Creating new ideas is a skill, and it’s one you only hone through practice. The more I sit down and commit to writing at least 10 ideas on the page, the easier new things come to me and the more connections I make.

I created a Mix Tapes & Scribbles Facebook page

As I had more ideas, I realized some of them would benefit from putting a question out to a group of people. I had considered creating a Mix Tapes & Scribbles Facebook page before, and that tipped the scale. I am certainly not the biggest Facebook fan out there, but if I can get enough people to like the page, I can start some great conversations. With that said, you should definitely become a fan.

I submitted to another blog

Not only did I focus more on my own blog, I trimmed up an essay I am particularly proud of and submitted it to a blog I like. Then I created a special file folder just for pending submissions and decided I should put something new in it as often as I can. Once I have a few blog posts in the can, I may decide to dust off one of the many half-finished short stories and essays on my hard drive.

I felt satisfied and productive again

For some, an extended period of rest is a welcome respite from life’s demands. I can’t stand it. I get restless and irritable and eventually I’m just overwhelmed by self-loathing. I was definitely ready to get back into the swing of things, but I didn’t yet have the energy to set my own direction every time I had a few moments to write. Setting clear priorities took away the hemming and hawing over what project I felt most strongly about and kept me working consistently on the same thing. Consistency bred more finished products, which in turn made me feel like I was getting somewhere in life again. What a relief!

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I’ve been meaning to talk about this great article I read recently, where Twitpic CTO Steven Corona claims he has just had “the most successful month of [his] life.” How? 30 days without social media.

Image via Lifehacker

I’ve written about social media fasts before, but never tried cutting it out entirely.

Corona’s essay gave me inspiration for several ongoing strategies, though. Like generating a massive amount of new ideas every day. Or cutting the habit of typing facebook.com into the first new browser tab I open. I’ve already used Facebook’s “close friends” feature to make sure I receive alerts from people I want to follow, and as a result I have stopped going to my news feed for updates unless I see an alert pop up first.

If you haven’t seen it, go read Corona’s post on Lifehacker. Your benefit from a social media fast will vary depending on your level of investment (or distraction), but if you are hungry for more productivity and creative energy I highly recommend it. Corona’s experience is no anomaly.

How 30 Days Without Social Media Changed My Life | via Lifehacker

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Ever find yourself without the time to do half the things on your list? Lacking time in the day to get to all the important stuff?

Join the club.

However, don’t say “I haven’t had time.” I recently read an article debunking “I don’t have time” as a lie to cover up the less glamorous truth: “I haven’t made it a priority.”

This can be a bitter pill for us to swallow. It’s hard to hold ourselves so accountable for our time. Lately, though, I have been trying to do just that with my writing projects.

If you have trouble focusing, you likely know the importance of prioritizing your projects — you just may not succeed in doing it very often. My husband is surrounded by unfinished projects, always starting something new. He can never quite bring himself to finish a project or slog through a rough patch before he dives into a more novel and exciting idea.

Sound familiar? Don’t let constant novelty-seeking cripple your ability to finish a project. Learn how to journal your ideas and keep them in your back pocket for later. More importantly, figure out which of your current projects is most important to you.

I recently facilitated a training on email management where my central thesis was: be mindful.

It’s not just for email. Apply this concept of mindfulness to all your creative work. Know what you are working on. Know why. If you are not working on your most important work, if you are wandering off into a new project that you have no plan for finishing, hold yourself accountable for not making your A-list projects a priority today.

I sat down recently and listed all the types of writing I do on a weekly or monthly basis. I ranked each item according to how important it was to me that it happen. Here’s what I came up with:

  1. Blog writing
    At some point in the not-so-distant future, I will be a freelance writer. The best thing I can do right now is write oodles of blog posts — for me, for others, to save for later. Also, the more ideas, the more drafts to choose from, the more opportunity to pick the cream of the crop.
  2. Novel manuscript
    I have invested more time into this manuscript than any other creative project, ever. Every time I let it collect dust for a month while I start a new short story or put together a creative non-fiction piece for the Urbanite, I have to gain that momentum back before I can start working in earnest again. Producing a final draft of this book is something I need to do. I owe it to myself and to everyone who has read for me.
  3. In-progress short stories, essays, and creative non-fiction
    That said, I have a couple of stories started with loads of potential. They deserve some attention before I start anything new.
  4. New short stories, essays, and creative non-fiction
    This should only be an option if I am on a writing retreat and have a ton of time and have worked diligently on points 1-3. For everyday life, new ideas need to be journaled and kept for later.

Over the next couple of weeks I’m interested to see how this works. Will I stick to my priorities?

Prioritizing can be tough, even counterintuitive at first. But remember, you can’t display unfinished work. You can’t submit it to a publisher. You need to keep momentum on works-in-progress.

Don’t be afraid to write your priorities down. Pin them to the wall or table where you work. Reference them daily. Be mindful and productive, not just prolific. If you struggle to act on your priorities, having a visual reminder will help.

I’ll be trying over the next few weeks not just to write nearly every day, but to write on my priorities. If you have any great strategies, feel free to share.

Photo via Christine ™ on Flickr.

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A few posts back I wrote about being afraid to take breaks.

Well, I recently experienced a health issue that took me out of commission for the last month or so. I’ve been frustrated over not writing, not playing music, not creating. Have you ever been forced to take a break? It can feel uncomfortable, the tug between wanting to stay on track and needing to rest mind and body.

In the past, I’ve gone off track sans medical considerations, and I feared cutting myself too much slack because I didn’t feel I had the self-control to return to my routine once I’d left it.

Some decisions, however, are made for us. Just like occasionally a recovering addict must be prescribed narcotic pain medication after a surgery, we must occasionally indulge what is usually a self-destructive habit.

Now that I’m feeling better, I’ve been wondering how to get back  into my creative routine. This afternoon I was asked to lead a writing workshop in October, and it turned out to be just what I needed. I came home and scribbled down several quotes and ideas. The thought of helping others and stepping outside my own stagnating projects was like a breath of fresh air. Hopefully this will make it easier to start up my morning writing sessions again. I am feeling better, and it’s time.

I hope your August is off to a creative start. Welcome to the last half of summer!

 

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“The expectation is no longer to simply ‘sit still and listen.’ It is to ‘take charge of your life.’ ”

This was the first passage I highlighted in ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life because it rings true for so many creative minds. Especially for those of us who pursued a studio art major in college, we usually found ways to circumvent the need to “sit still and listen” beyond our capacity. Circumventing “take charge of your life,” however, takes a different toll.

The highlighted passage above concludes: “Taking charge requires learning to organize.”

Unfortunately, learning to organize is something we’ve all tried before with limited success. We’ve embarked on our new course with the best of intentions, only to watch everything crumble and fade when the novelty wore off.

That’s okay. It happens.

In ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life, authors Judith Kolberg and Kathleen Nadeau acknowledge the tendency for new organizing systems to fall apart, giving insight into the ADHD tendencies that make sticking with a new system so difficult. However, instead of offering strategies to counteract those tendencies, Kolberg and Nadeau propose that we work with them.

If you’ve ever tried to fight your natural disinclination to organize, chances are you’ll find this idea very refreshing. Not only do Kolberg and Nadeau acknowledge that strategies running counter to your brain’s natural chemistry are unlikely to work long-term, they get at a deeper issue: rather than forcing ourselves to fit the mold we think we’re supposed to fill, we need to find a way to meet our unique psychological needs in ways that are not costly to ourselves and the people we love. Only at this level of self-awareness can we configure a system for organizing our lives that allows us to care properly for ourselves and others.

Practically speaking, Kolberg and Nadeau outline a fairly comprehensive strategy for using your ADHD tendencies to support your organizing and, where that’s not possible, sharing the load with friends and family so they can provide much-needed support. They rightly point out that even if your helper isn’t physically doing anything to help you, he or she will keep you on task just by providing a supportive and grounding presence in the room.

One of the most important tenets of this book is that you need to “make the race short, so that you’ll be able to cross the finish line without stopping.” This is not tantamount to admitting defeat. It is acknowledging a simple fact: you are a sprinter, not a distance runner. Structuring your life as a series of sprints, not a marathon, will facilitate many more successes and lower your anxiety level, which will in turn increase your executive functioning capacity.

The authors include lots of helpful tactile exercises, like this “how wide are your interests” concentric circle activity.

Kolberg and Nadeau also do a pretty complete job of identifying what elements of organizing feel uncomfortable. For example, my husband has a strong averse reaction to putting things in cabinet, drawers, or file cabinets. I used to try to make him use these things to store his belongings, but eventually I learned he actually loves putting things away in their “home” — he just doesn’t like not seeing them. After I helped him set up a few organizing systems using baskets, not drawers, he began putting his things away regularly. This is what Kolberg and Nadeau refer to as an “out of sight, out of mind” person.

ADHD adults face many organizing challenges, and understanding the uncomfortable or negative feelings around a certain task is often the key to creating a system that works. As you have probably learned, “when a plan doesn’t ‘feel right’ to you, it’s not likely to work.” The authors even offer several creativity-centered ideas illustrating how you can turn an overwhelming organizing task into a creative product, which I thought was great in terms of finding a way to make a system “feel” right for you.

I have two criticisms of this book. Firstly, the anecdotal stories seem to paint a pretty uniformly rosy picture. The mini-plotline became formulaic very quickly: ADHD adult’s life was a mess, ADHD adult got help and created a system that worked for them, and now ADHD adult is enjoying a high level of success. With all the acknowledgement of how easily organizing systems can fail for ADHD adults, I would have liked to have seen more anecdotal evidence of this. Even the best of systems can break down, and readers need to see that. They need to know this book, like any, is not a miracle cure, and “try, try again” is one of the most valuable skills an ADHD adult can learn.

Secondly, each chapter progresses in a sequence of strategies you can do with a.) yourself, b.) a friend or family member, and finally c.) a professional organizer. I think this sequence was supposed to demonstrate that no matter how many support systems or people you have available, there is always something you can do to make things better. However, in its execution this format puts the advanced strategies out of reach for many people. The authors even flat-out recommend on occasion that you not attempt a strategy without a professional organizer. I know not all artists — and not even all artists with ADHD — are poor and starving, but it is nonetheless safe to say most of us aren’t earning the kind of money that affords us the luxury of hiring a professional organizer.

At the same time, I very much appreciated the authors’ cursory treatment of stimulant medication. While medication is monumentally helpful — and I think necessary in the early stages of forming new ADHD-friendly systems and habits — I always remind people it is there to support good strategies, habits, and systems. I am medication-free right now and while maintaining order is hard work, it is doable if I work with and not against my brain chemistry. That philosophy is a central thesis throughout this book, and it’s one I really appreciate.

A final note: as you read Kolberg and Nadeau’s book, you’ll stumble upon little insights that aren’t strictly related to organizing, but that state truths in simple, yet new and enlightening language. For example:

“Those with ADD crave a sense of aliveness more intensely than others. Some ADDers are so intolerant of boredom that they start an argument or create a crisis to avoid understimulation. Stimulation-seeking behavior can be either your key to success or your undoing, depending upon how it is managed.”

If you’re an artist with ADHD, chances are that sounds very familiar. If you’ve had little success taking charge of your life, feel out of control, or just plain hate the idea of “organizing strategies,” this book is well worth a read.

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Okay, we’ve all had that project: the one that got away from us. It was great conversation fodder at receptions and parties. It was exciting and it made us feel legitimized, validated — like we were actually doing something.

Then, artist’s block rolled in with all the stealth of a summer thunderstorm but none of the spark. Being asked about the project at parties triggered a wave of guilt over our languishing work rather than a swell of pride at our Greatest Idea Yet.

Well, here’s surprising news: turns out artist’s block and procrastination may not be that bad. Guilt is what really kills our productivity.

A recent study on college students and procrastination found that procrastination itself wasn’t a good determining factor for success: it was guilt. Those students who showed a little compassion, forgave themselves, and moved on enjoyed far fewer negative effects and were less likely to procrastinate the next time around than their guilty counterparts.

It’s obvious that confidence helps inspire future success, but who knew beating yourself up over procrastination and loss of focus could be so bad for you?

So what to do when you get stuck? If you have an iPad, you may want to try this cute app called Unstuck.

Unstuck is supposed, to…well…the name says it all. The whole process is very tactile and begins by having you select three cards to express how you’re feeling about your stuck moment. Then it asks who is involved and whether you’re experiencing a personal or professional kind of issue.

 

 

Pretty soon, it has you talking in a more open-ended way about why you just plain aren’t getting anything done.

 

Then, you get to sort a deck of cards to further narrow down what kind of stuck moment is happening in your world.

 

Perhaps the coolest part comes at the end, where it tells you what kind of stuck person you’re being. Turns out I’m an Idle Achiever. Not only do you get to learn what kind of person you are and that you’re not alone in your struggle, Unstuck provides activities and suggestions to help you work through your block and get yourself back on track.

I’m not sure if it’s a coincidence or not, but I worked on editing my manuscript for the first time in months after using Unstuck.

The genius of this app is that it is visually engaging and very tactile, but it still gets you thinking about your project and it forces you to own up to the real reason you’re not working on it. Combining fun and accountability may just be a recipe for a cure!

Even if you don’t have a fancy gadget and a trendy-looking app, don’t forget to be nicer to yourself. It doesn’t take an app to tell you everyone experiences periods of low productivity. Next time you’re experiencing a bout of artist’s block, don’t beat yourself up. Instead, engage in some positive self-talk, forgive yourself with sincerity, and believe in your ability to get back on track and accomplish something meaningful.

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Have you ever been afraid to take a break? Stayed up all night on a creative project because you couldn’t pull yourself away? Because you felt compelled to devour every last second of inspiration, lest you lose focus and never recapture it?

The first time I took an ADHD medication, I spent the day cleaning up a room in my home that had been out of control (and out of use) for months. My clearest memory from that day, even stronger than my feeling of accomplishment at the end, is fear.

I had never worked so diligently on a task for so long. Having no referendum for this kind of experience, I was terrified that if I so much as stopped for lunch, I wouldn’t finish the project.

When I reviewed Unclutter Your Life in One Week, I warned ADHD readers of the dangers of creating a “blank slate” during an uncluttering process. If you empty an entire room into the hallway, you need to make a plan for putting everything away before your focus fades.

Once you learn about this foible, it’s easy to view breaks as your enemy, even if that fear is subconscious.

If I don’t stay up and paint now, when will I? I need to take all the inspiration I can get when it comes.

If I come back to this piece later, I’ll forget what I was even writing.

These are legitimate fears. However, as with anything, a balanced perspective is key. I read a recent article on Lifehacker that said taking breaks is actually “important to help you stay creative and productive without burning out.”

The key there, though, is to make sure breaks are mindful, not just distractions. The most important line in the whole article may be this one: “resist the urge to check your email or find out what your friends are saying on Twitter, and use the moment to refill your water bottle, grab a cup of coffee, get focused, and dive right in.”

I spent a recent weekend at our beach house, which has no internet connection and where 3G coverage is a bit spotty. Occasionally this feels like an inconvenience, but mostly it feels like the most productive kind of break. Only here would I think to go for an hourlong walk before sitting down to write. Only here is it not worth it to wait for my Facebook news feed to load. Most of my time is spent reading, walking, thinking, writing, or catching up on the news­ — mindful activities that ready me for what’s next.

So next time you’re about to switch tasks or you’re getting hungry or you need to sleep soon, don’t be afraid to take a break — a real break. Remember that your creative mind needs breaks to stay in peak operating condition. Ever wonder why you think of so many things in the shower? Starting today, train yourself to resist fidgety distractions like compulsive email-checking or reading your Facebook news feed, and instead be compassionate to yourself by providing nourishing breaks to get up, stretch your legs (and mind), and pour a new cup of coffee before digging back into that big project.

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