Try Less Clutter For More Freedom

There is an old saying that has been running through my mind lately.  Clean your closet, Clear your mind.

If you are like most people, you probably have a lot of stuff in your closet that you don’t use.  Things that might not fit, might be out of style, or things you don’t really like any longer but haven’t gotten around to giving away.  The result is a  crowded closet  where finding certain items or just getting dressed can take more energy than it should.  Chances are the closet is not the only part of the house that is full of extra stuff.

Girl by her wardrobeAs a society we are trained to believe that we need stuff.  Stuff will make us feel good.  Stuff will make us successful.  Having a lot of stuff will make our lives easier.  It will show the world how important we are.  When we start on our journey  most of us don’t have much stuff.   Part of the game is to acquire things as we go.  And for a while it is fun.  But as we continue along our path, there comes a point when we realize that we don’t really have stuff.  The stuff has us.  For a lot of us that is not really a good feeling.

The simple truth is that having a lot of stuff requires a lot of energy.  Once we have acquired things we have to take care of them.  It takes time–and money.  As we accumulate more possessions, life seems to get more complicated.   Our homes become cluttered, cupboards full of seldom used items and garages full of things we should throw out but haven’t gotten around to.  Just thinking about trying to clean out a closet or worse, the garage can be overwhelming.   Our lives begin to resemble our homes, cluttered and complicated, leaving little time to enjoy the things we have.

About a year ago I decided to try an experiment.  When I wanted to buy something I had to ask myself if I really needed it or just wanted it.  And if I just wanted it, would I use it once I bought it?   This wasn’t an easy process.  At first I felt like I was going through withdrawal or denying myself. However, after a while it became almost liberating.  I found I didn’t need most of the stuff I thought I did and not having it didn’t bother me at all.

There is a lot to be said for the minimalist movement that seems to be sweeping the country these days.  Basically, if we live simply we have more time to enjoy life.  Less stuff equals more freedom to enjoy what is important to us.   Uncluttered surroundings provide a better environment for an uncluttered mind.  However, getting to that point is no easy feat.

That is why you might try cleaning your closet as a starting point.  Aside from physically having a more organized and useful space, you might gain a new perspective on life as well.  Having more space and easily being able to find what you are looking for is a great feeling. It can  make you appreciate and enjoy what you already have rather than wasting energy striving for things that will not serve you in the long run.  It is also a  great way to start the new year.

What do you do to simplify and de-clutter your life?  Do you find that having less stuff gives you more time to enjoy life?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.






Stress Out or Not–Your Choice

Waiting in LineToday is a beautiful day in the Napa valley.   The sun is out, the rain is over, the air is clean, and we are breaking 70 degrees.  I am in short sleeves for the first time in weeks.  It really is a perfect Northern California January day.   Even during cold spells, which we have had a lot of lately, I always consider myself lucky to live here.  So I was quite surprised to hear people make themselves miserable today.  Perhaps I should explain.

During lunch I ran an errand up to my HMO pharmacy to pick up a couple of prescriptions.  Nothing major, just a regular thing for me.  I had re-ordered them online, and had gotten a call that they were ready so it seemed like a good idea to pick them up.  When I got there, after waiting in line to get to the counter, I found out that only one of the prescriptions had been filled.  No particular reason–it just didn’t get done.  The woman helping me was apologetic and asked if I would like to wait if they could rush it.  Although it was inconvenient, it was just one of those things so I took a seat to wait for my name–again.

I was sitting near the entrance to the pharmacy, so I couldn’t help but hear people as they queued up behind my chair.   As I sat, I was amazed at the reaction as people entered the pharmacy on a Friday afternoon.  The line was actually not too long, maybe ten people at a time.  But as each person came to pick up their prescription it seemed as though they were surprised that anyone else needed to do the same thing that they did.  I heard more than one expletive, and several conversations about how poorly the pharmacy was run.  As these people talked,  they seemed to feed on the negative energy, making the wait balloon into one of worst things that could possibly be happening in their lives.   The rising stress levels in the line were almost palpable.

Now, I have to say that people are not usually at their best when in a pharmacy.  They are probably there because they are ill and less than their best.  However, in today’s world standing in line to buy anything is not really a surprise.  And getting angry about having to do it is neither productive nor healthy.  I couldn’t help but think that this was a classic example of choice and picking your battles.

When we are faced with situations that are unpleasant we have to make a decision.  Can we do something about it, or is the situation out of our control?  And if it is out of our control, how do we choose to react to it?  These are fundamental questions but our world moves at warp speed these days and we don’t always have time to think about them.  The result is a lot of frustration and unnecessary stress.

In this example, the situation is out of our control but we do have a choice in our reaction.  We can wait or we can come back later.  Both are probably inconvenient, but getting angry about the inconvenience will only make us feel worse.  Perhaps a better way of dealing with the situation is to make a choice and take responsibility for it.   Wait or come back–our choice.  Getting angry and blaming the pharmacy, or worse the person behind the counter, will not change anything.  It will only raise blood pressure and most likely put a damper on the rest of the afternoon.   And that doesn’t seem like the best choice to me.

I’m not naive.  I know people are busy, and most are over-scheduled.  But letting situations over which you have no control upset you will do nothing but stress you out unnecessarily.  I know this because  I used to be the first to stress out if I had to wait for something.  I was busy, tired, and certainly didn’t have time to stand around and wait–I had a schedule to keep.  That was several years ago in my corporate life.

Flash forward to now.  I’m still busy (although I sleep better these days so I’m not really tired much), and don’t really have time to wait around for something.  I still have a schedule.  But I have a different perspective now. Indignation caused by inconvenience does no one any good.  I know that I can’t control everything and I take responsibility for my reactions.  By doing so, I still get my prescriptions, although it took a bit longer than expected.  The world did not end because I had to wait.  I also get a beautiful sunny afternoon, smiling conversations with people behind the counter,  and the ability to let the inconvenience go and get on with my day.  Because of it I have a lot more energy, a lot less stress, and a lot more enjoyment of my day.

Seems like the better choice to me.

How do you deal with inconvenience?  Do you let it stress you out or does your reaction let you enjoy your day?   

Are You As Important As Your Work?

Businessman Stretching at WorkThere is no denying that work is a vital part of our lives.  We work to support ourselves and our families, establish a desired lifestyle, and plan for a future.  We spend forty hours a week (at least) on the job, and in today’s economy some of us need more than one job just to make ends meet.  For most of us, work is our main priority and our main focus.  Not only do our occupations support us, many of us use them to define a sense of self.  We strive to do our best at work for the rewards that are important to us.  Some are monetary, some involve status and prestige,  some come from the joy of following our passion.  We give a lot to our jobs, and hopefully they give a lot to us in return.

Unfortunately, there is a growing number of people who put their work above themselves.  It is usually a slow process, starting first with email after work.  Then it is staying an hour or so after closing, or coming in an hour before everyone else.  Lunch hours become a time to catch up on voicemail while scarfing a sandwich, or worse, a burger from that joint on the corner.   There just isn’t time for a healthy meal with all the management deadlines coupled with staff reductions.  Sometimes it is just a desire to move ahead that narrows our focus to occupational tunnel vision.  After all, there will be time to relax after that promotion, or product launch, or once the ad campaign is up and running.

Of course, there is a problem with that whole scenario.  As work starts to take over every waking second we tend to lose ourselves.  As the job takes more and more time and energy, there is less and less to devote to our personal health and well-being.  We  don’t get enough sleep,  we don’t eat properly, and exercise goes out the window.  There is little time to pursue leisure or spiritual activities. Self improvement or personal development goals fall by the wayside.  Stress levels can’t help but skyrocket, and we eventually compromise our own ability to perform well on the job.

More and more employers today are beginning to realize the overall health of their company  is tied to the overall health and well-being of their employees.  There are even provisions in the new health care laws in the United States for wellness programs in the workplace.  However, sometimes I think the hardest thing to do is convince the Type-A overachiever of the importance of  personal health and well-being as it relates to job performance.   After all, when you have been putting your job first for years, it is no easy feat to start focusing on yourself as the primary concern.

What are a few ways to treat yourself with the same respect you show to your work?  One of the most basic but most important things you can do is to reframe the way you view the relationship between your health and your job. You cannot separate the two; they are intertwined.  If you are in poor health, there is no way you can perform to desired standards.  Realize that focusing on your own health is not selfish–it is vital to success in life, both personally and professionally.

Make time to exercise.   Take a walk at lunch, or take the stairs.  Park in the farthest stall from the building, or get off one subway stop before you usually do.  There are lots of ways to incorporate movement into your day.  It doesn’t have to involve changing clothes or going to a gym.  Even taking a couple of minutes a few times a day to stretch is a great way to tone your body and reduce stress.

Take a lunch–literally.  Bringing your own lunch gives you control of what you eat, and helps reduce the chances of hitting the vending machines or eating nothing at all.  I know people who fall into both categories,  and both camps have trouble functioning in the afternoon.   And when you take a lunch–take it away from your desk.  Eating at the desk does nothing to promote a sense of downtime.  By leaving your work area and removing distractions such as phone and email, you will be able to recharge more easily for the rest of the day.

Establish boundaries.  Just as you do not bring your personal life to work, do not bring your work life to your home.  Leave email at work.  Since that may not be possible in today’s economy, set a time that you will stop reading and responding to it.  Let coworkers know what that cutoff time is, and not to expect a response until the next day  if they haven’t heard by the cutoff.

Make time for  family and friends.  Maintaining a support network takes effort, but it is one the best tools for dealing with stress.

For mental conditioning, spend ten minutes a day in silence.  Use the time for meditation, prayer, or reflection–but be quiet.  Turn down the noise in your head and around you, turn inward for a few minutes, and be still.  You’ll be amazed at how much more energy and concentration comes out the other side.

Work is important, no question.  But if doing your best at work is really important to you, than it is crucial that you give your own health equal time.  Even if you love your work and can’t imagine a life without it,  you won’t receive the full benefit if you are not contributing at full capacity.   Take your health as seriously as you take your job.  Both are important, but if you neglect the former, at some point you may lose the latter.   And that, in a nutshell, is why you as a person are more important than your work.

So how about you?  I would love to hear how you focus on your health and keep the demands of your work in perspective.  




Optimistic By Nature

sunriseI would love to say that I am an optimistic person by nature.  I would love to say that–but I would be lying.   Unlike some of my friends who always seem to see the bright side,  I would usually plan for the worst case scenarios.  Optimism is not something that comes easy to me, but over the years I have discovered that optimism is a key factor in achieving happiness.

Optimism  plays an important role in determining how resilient we are when facing stressful situations.  Without an optimistic perspective, it can be very difficult and at times almost impossible to navigate some of life’s challenges and bounce back quickly .  The good news is that while we may not all be born optimists, we can train ourselves to be more optimistic.

There are good reasons to cultivate optimism if it isn’t one of your premier strengths.  The first one is simple–no one likes to be around a pessimistic person.  If someone is constantly expecting the worst, their attitude will begin to affect those around them. No one likes to be around a Gloomy Gus, so pessimism has an adverse affect on support networks, both personally and professionally.  Also, when someone is optimistic they tend to be more flexible and creative in their thinking.

This flexibility comes in very handy when coping with stress.  Mental flexibility helps people look at stressful situations from various perspectives.   It helps them reframe a situation in a positive manner.  Flexible people can explore multiple solutions to a problem, and they can also find a positive meaning in difficult events.  These techniques sound relatively simple, but they can be very difficult, especially during stressful times.

So how can you develop an optimistic outlook?  Just like getting to Carnegie Hall, it takes practice.  Here are some steps you can take when something bad happens.

  • Remember that difficulties won’t last forever.  The only thing that is constant is change.  Sometimes it is almost impossible to believe that problems won’t last forever, but they won’t.  Eventually the good times will come back.
  • Keep a problem in perspective–don’t let it spread into other aspects of your life.
  • Explore ways and resources available to solve the problem.  Take responsibility for your actions and don’t expect a problem to solve itself.
  • Be grateful for your support network and those around you who appreciate your struggle.

On the other hand, these are some things to do when something good happens (because good things do happen).

  • Accept responsibility for whatever part you played in the event.  As the old adage says–take credit where credit is due.
  • Feel gratitude  for what happened, whether it came by design or just good luck.
  • Think of ways to expand on the positive event.

These are a few ways to increase optimism, but are certainly not the only ones.  There are a lot of factors that determine how optimistic a person is.  Some are genetic and some are developmental, but it is possible to increase a positive outlook.  A few years ago, I decided to explore ways to increase my happiness and overall satisfaction with my life.  Stress seemed to be taking over, and I had trouble finding enjoyment in even the simple things.  It certainly wasn’t the way I wanted to live. In a nutshell, I just wanted to be happier.

After practicing these steps during both good and bad times I can now proudly say I am a realistic optimist (and much happier).  Building optimism and a positive outlook helped me to neutralize stress and find enjoyment in daily life.  I am not saying that optimism eliminates stress–that would be foolish.  But keeping an optimistic outlook helps to deal with bad times and minimize their consequences while enhancing the good times.  Maintaining an optimistic attitude may not always be easy, especially if it doesn’t come naturally, but it is certainly worth the effort.

Suggested Reading:  Resilience, The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, Steven M. Southwick, M.D. and Dennis S.Charney, M.D., 2012


A Christmas Wish

OWe have entered the countdown for the Christmas holiday.  Shopping for last-minute gifts, coughing up the overnight delivery charges, getting the house ready for guests.  The list goes on and on.  By the time Christmas gets here, we are exhausted and have no energy left to savor the joys of the holiday.

There is no doubt that the holidays are a stressful time.   There is usually too much to do and not enough time in a regular day, so adding holiday expectations into the mix can really throw some people over the edge.  For them, the holidays are not a time to celebrate and reflect with family and friends.  The holidays become just another series of check-marks on a to-do list.

So for them, and for all of us, here is my Christmas wish.  I wish everyone the joy of simply slowing down and savoring the moment.  There really aren’t a lot of opportunities where society pretty much stops for a day, so we should take advantage of that when we can.   We spend almost every other day of the year racing in high-speed, so hitting the brakes may not be easy, but it is certainly worth it.

Take the time to enjoy the holidays.   If you are a Type A personality, this can be difficult since we tend to try to control things and make them perfect.  Here is a suggestion that might make things easier.  Don’t judge.   It takes too much energy.  Santa can decide what is naughty or nice–all we have to do is enjoy what is.

We all have ideas of what the perfect Christmas is, but that vision is just that–an idea.  Don’t worry if the dinner isn’t perfect, or the gifts aren’t wrapped like a Martha Stewart holiday ad.   Trying to live up to self-imposed ideals  creates unnecessary stress and robs us of the joy of simply sharing the moment with others.

If we let go of the way things should be, we may find that the way things really are is better than we could have imagined.  It’s not always an easy thing to do, but is worth the effort.

So give it a try.  Slow down and live in the moment.  We can all rev up  to speed again on the 26th.

But if we slow down, we may just find that the moments we are actually present for become the memories we cherish the most.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to All.

Check out my new group coaching program beginning  January 15, 2013.   Transform your life  From Surviving to Thriving in Six Weeks or Less!   Participation is limited so don’t be disappointed.   Reserve your space today.

Are You Doing What You Love?

happypigeonsHere is a stress-test scenario for you.  Are you doing what you love to do?  Whether at work or at home, are you engaged in activities that bring you joy and fulfillment?  Simple questions, really.  Unfortunately, when I ask these questions many people respond with a negative answer.  Most people say they are doing what they have to do to make a living, pay the mortgage and the bills, and work toward retirement.  Or they have to make dinner because the kids have to eat and if they don’t do it everyone starves.   Very few people say they are following their dream and that they find satisfaction and happiness in their daily activities.

Doing something that you do not want to do is one of the major ways to increase stress in your daily life.  It can lead to feelings of frustration and helplessness, especially if the act is continually repeated.  A good example is going to a job you hate everyday  because you need to pay the bills.  If you do it long enough, you may not even notice that your stress symptoms are off the charts.  After a while, we just accept it as a part of life.

So here is one way to fix that and lower the stress levels.  If you are doing something you do not want to do–don’t do it.  Seriously, it is that simple.   Think of the old joke about the man who goes to the doctor  because it hurts when he raises his arm.  The doctor’s answer is also simple–if it hurts, don’t do it.

Of course, there is a catch.  It may be a simple fix, but no one said that simple was easy.   I am not advocating that you walk away from your job and responsibilities because you don’t like going to office.  What I am suggesting is that you have a choice.   You may choose to  do something or not, but you need to be clear on why you are doing it if you want to lower stress and increase happiness.   In most cases, we do things we don’t like to do because we are not clear on what is motivating our actions.

Very often we do things because we think we should.  We chase the high paying job because we should–it proves we are successful.  We marry and have children because it is what we are supposed to do–everyone else does it.   We need to go to work everyday to pay for the car, the house, and all the stuff we have acquired.  We use that stuff to define ourselves and we need to maintain the definition.

Ultimately, motivation for our actions falls into three  categories:  want to, have to, or should.   Not surprisingly, stress levels increase across each category.    Doing something because we love it involves almost no stress at all.  We do it because it is in alignment with our core values, it feels right, and it is inspiring and fulfilling.  At the opposite end of the spectrum is doing something because we feel we should.  It usually has something to do with self-image, but is not in alignment with values, and doesn’t sit right with us when we do it.   Acting out of “should” can only increase stress levels correspondingly.  In the middle is doing things because we have to.  This is a means to an end or necessary to achieve something.   Feeling that we have to do something increases pressure and stress. The good news is that we have the choice to find other means to that end we are looking for.  We can always do something else to get where we want to go.

Once we define motivation and realize that we have a choice in all our actions, it becomes easier to change those actions–if we want to.

Another option is changing perspective.  Perhaps the job isn’t perfect  but we go because we love our family and want to provide for them.   Working then becomes a positive action with a positive outcome.  Some of the stress is automatically lessened when we view the situation in that light. The job may not be perfect, but it is better.   Again, the viewpoint is our choice.

One final thought on this simple fix:  not doing what you don’t want to do is not easy.  Especially if society and your inner critic is telling you that you should be doing exactly that.  However, it is worth the effort.   Remember, choices have consequences. If you can align your actions with your core values and draw motivation from there,  it doesn’t matter what others say.   Doing what you love can only increase your happiness and reduce stress.

And that is a pretty delicious way to live.

Check out my new group coaching program beginning  January 15, 2013.   Transform your life  From Surviving to Thriving in Six Weeks or Less!   Participation is limited so don’t be disappointed.   Reserve your space today.

Yoga as Part of a Wellness Program

If you are thinking about starting a wellness program in  2013,  chances are pretty good that you are considering some sort of exercise as a part of that program.   Once you make that decision, the next step is deciding which type of exercise is right for you.  What will you enjoy doing so it doesn’t seem so much like work?  If you don’t enjoy the exercise you do, it will be pretty hard to keep the effort up in the long run.

yogaclassI have to admit that I’ve had an exercise program for years.  Since I was never very athletic as a child, I was never comfortable in team sport situations.  In fact, I avoided physical activity as much as possible.  It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I discovered the benefits of cardio, and from then I was hooked.  Now I practice a daily cardio workout along with weekly strength training.  Although I felt I was covering all the bases, I still felt a piece was missing from my program.

About two years ago I rediscovered yoga.  I had toyed with it as a child when I would see the programs on PBS (no longer a part of the lineup!), but never stuck with it.  Let’s face it, it can be really hard to keep any momentum going when you are the only one practicing in your living room, especially when you are nine years old.   So I let it slide until a particularly stressful time in my corporate life.

We all know that exercise is a great stress buster, but my program didn’t seem to be doing much good to keep me calm.  I had heard about the benefits of yoga, so I decided to revisit the possibilities.  Now, I have to say that I was a little skeptical.  My idea of a good workout involves an increased heart rate and a lot of sweat.  How hard could a yoga class be?   After one class I had my answer, and yoga has been a part of my wellness program ever since.

There are many reasons to practice yoga.  One of the first to come to mind is flexibility.  As we age, it is vital that we maintain a supple body.  Obviously yoga involves a variety of stretching postures that can target all parts of the body.   Greater flexibility also means greater mobility and balance–two more things most of us hope to maintain as we age.

Practicing yoga improves endurance.  It may not look like much (okay certain poses-or asanas–look pretty impressive), but staying in warrior pose for any length of time can really push up the heart rate.  I have long since given up the idea that I shouldn’t sweat in a yoga class.  After ten minutes on the mat I am  reaching for my towel so I can personally attest to the fact that yoga is one heck of a work out.

There are a couple of other reasons you may want to explore yoga as an exercise and wellness choice.  Perhaps one of the most important is the calming effect yoga has on the mind.  The practice is designed to help the mind find stillness–blocking out extraneous thoughts and focusing on the postures along with what the body and breath are doing.  Many people find it to be the ultimate mindfulness exercise.  At its core, yoga is about the integration of mind, body, and spirit.  Once you are in the flow of a practice, you can actually concentrate on what the body needs. The worries of the day fade away and you are truly in the moment.  It is a deeply peaceful yet exhilarating  feeling.

Another reason to consider a yoga class is the sense of community it provides.  As I mentioned earlier, I am in no way comfortable with team sports.  Originally I was apprehensive about actually going to a class.  It’s hard not to compare yourself to others in class, or so I thought.  But in fact, I found that just the opposite was true.  The yoga community is a very supportive and caring network.  No matter how competitive you may be,  comparison during class is just not part of the picture.  The focus is on what your body can do in the moment–not how you did a posture yesterday,how you will do it tomorrow,  or feel it should be done today.  And certainly not what the person on the next mat is doing.  A yoga class is one of the few places where you are accepted for who you are–without judgement.   That doesn’t happen very often in this society.

Of course, the yoga studio you chose will have a lot to do with the experience you have.  I find that I enjoy local studios rather than  classes in a franchise or health club.  Local studios usually have smaller classes, and there is more personal attention during class.  With smaller groups  a stronger bond develops over time, which strengthens the yogic support network.   For instance, when I am in Napa I attend Ubuntu Yoga, a small organic studio in downtown Napa.  The staff and the fellow yogis provide a sense of community and support that is so vital to overall wellness.

It may sound odd, but the type of exercise a person choses is a very personal thing.  Yoga provides both physical and mental benefits that are so necessary to function well in today’s fast-paced world.   There is really nothing like the sense of tranquility that comes after a practice, and that tranquility spills over into my daily life.  My partner sometimes even wonders what happened to the high-strung stress puppy he met sixteen years ago.

So if you are thinking about improving your health and wellness in 2013, consider yoga as a part of your wellness program. You may find that your time on the mat is one of  the highlights of your week.  And enjoyment will play a big part in establishing and maintaining a consistent and healthy  long-term exercise program.

Check out my new group coaching program beginning  January 15, 2013.   Transform your life  From Surviving to Thriving in Six Weeks or Less!   Participation is limited so don’t be disappointed.   Reserve your space today.