Want to Feel Younger? Learn Something New

I don’t think it is any surprise that most boomers are looking for ways to feel younger these days.  Most of us tend to focus on physical health as a means to stay active and mobile.  While that is important, it is not the whole picture.  A healthy, active body is great but you won’t get the same benefit from it if you are menbraintally feeling older than your years.  Like the muscles in the body, the same holds true for the brain.  If you don’t use it, you lose it.

As we grow up, we take learning for granted.  We go to school, we learn new things about our world everyday.  It is just part of growing up and it helps to strengthen all the neural pathways of the brain.  Constant education keeps the brain firing on all cylinders.  As we reach adulthood, some of us continue to learn by attending a college or university.  Some of us enter a vocational program to continue education.  Some of us  chose the school of life and the lessons it has to impart.  Whatever we chose, it is all new, challenging, and keeps our mental acuity  strong and clear.  We keep learning.

However, as we settle into our lives, something odd happens.  Over time the educational opportunities handed to us begin to diminish.  We become comfortable in our jobs and in our relationships.  At some point learning new skills doesn’t seem that exciting or important.  We reach a certain level of success or perhaps just try to keep heads above water.  There isn’t any time or interest to learn new things.  We are content to move along with the status quo, deciding that challenging ourselves is best left to those just starting the climb.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

One of the reasons some otherwise healthy boomers begin to feel a mental fog is related the fact that they stop forging new neural pathways.  Once our behaviors enter a repetitive pattern, the brain does not have to work as hard as when faced with new information.  It doesn’t have as much to analyze and doesn’t have to store as much information.  Basically, all the heavy lifting has already been done so the brain can take a vacation.  If not challenged,  the areas of the brain dealing with higher function can lose clarity and reaction time.  The result can be the mental fog that so many people seem to be battling these days.  It is this fog that contributes to feeling older than your years.

I’m not suggesting that  everyone should run out and enroll in the local community college.  There are lots of ways to learn new things.  Sometimes it can be as simple as researching something on the internet.  You don’t even have to leave the house (or even get off the couch thanks to tablets) to learn about a subject that interests you.  If you don’t like to read,  try an audiobook.  With today’s technology, there are countless ways to gain information.

Perhaps you aren’t interested in learning about new subjects.  No problem there. Try picking up a new skill.  Maybe you have always wanted to learn to play the piano.  Well, there’s an app for that.  A friend of mine loves to learn new styles of painting–watercolor, Japanese brushstrokes–whatever.  She is always up for the challenge, and she just celebrated her seventieth birthday yesterday.

We are lucky enough to live in a time when online learning is exploding.  Universities offer online extension classes to hone business skills or open new career possibilities.  Of course, most of these are pricey, but some offer classes for free, simply for people who have a hunger for knowledge.   These are known as Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs.  It is an opportunity to take higher eduction courses without the stress of passing tests or enrolling in a college or university.  It is learning for learning’s sake in its purest form.

Some people say that they learn new things while reading for pleasure.  That is true–we can always gain new ideas and enjoyment from fiction.  I have been reading fiction for years and usually feel like I have picked up something new or at least thought about something in a different way after finishing a novel.  However, a recent study by Stanford neurobiologists shows a definite shift in brain activity patterns when reading for pleasure versus reading for critical reasons.  Casual reading activates pleasure centers.  Critical reading causes increased activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for executive functions.  This is the area of the brain that helps you divide attention, use your working memory and generally controls your brainpower.  It is also plays a key role in decision-making.

This is just one study in a growing body of research that indicates continued education–using critical thought processes to learn new information or skills–keeps the brain active and youthful.  Like a muscle, the more you train the cognitive portions of the brain, the stronger they become.   The stronger the cognitive function, the quicker the brain reacts.   In essence,  stronger cognitive behavior increases mental power and clarity.   And those are qualities that are associated with youth.

So the next time your mind is feeling a little sluggish and cloudy, try learning something new.  Find something that interests you and learn everything you can about it.

Train your mind the same way you train your body.  You will be surprised at how much younger you will feel.

Are you a life-long learner?  When was the last time you picked up a new skill or hobby?  I’d love to hear about it. 

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Remove Drama to Reduce Stress and Increase Energy

“Because we celebrating no more drama in our lives”

 Mary J Blige, Family Affair

I have a confession.  I love drama.

I suppose that isn’t surprising since I have a bachelor’s degree in drama and spent years in various stage productions.  There is nothing quite like the thrill of developing a character and getting caught up in all the story lines as they unfold around you.  It’s a great feeling to be a part of it and part of a group of people creating an imaginary world where problems arise and play out as directed.

It’s a great feeling unless it happens at work.

actorA friend of mine was talking about the dynamics in his office recently.  He works in an office with a small staff, all in relatively close quarters.  These people have worked together for years and know each other pretty well.  Unfortunately from time to time there are some personality issues and these issues tend blossom into fireworks in relatively short periods of time.  It even seems like some of the staff enjoys the drama and feeds the fire to keep people on edge and uncomfortable.

This isn’t an unusual situation.  I have worked in both large and small offices and regardless of size there always seemed to be some sort of Tony Award worthy production going on.  Some people call it office politics but it really comes down to drama.  People who feel threatened tend to create situations to discredit the person who is threatening them.   Then they try to enlist other members of the community.  They create entire story lines that have no basis in reality.  The result is an unhealthy working environment, higher levels of stress, and decreased productivity and job satisfaction.

Drama takes up a lot of time and energy.  Not only in the workplace but in personal arena as well.  Oftentimes people create their own drama in order to avoid dealing with issues that challenge them or make them uncomfortable.  After all, if you are have a major problem demanding your attention or you allow someone else to upset you then you don’t really have the time or energy to focus on what is important to you.  And the truth of the matter is that most drama is our own creation.  It ebbs and flows, and in the long run it only matters if we allow it to.

At one point in my corporate career I was hired to fix a  large dysfunctional accounting department.  I was relatively new to management at that point, but it quickly became clear to me that there were so many factions in this group that is was like being in a corporate version of “Survivor”.   No one was working with a common purpose in mind, nor was anyone working in conjunction with their core values.  So much energy was wasted in the daily soap opera that was office life it was no wonder that the bills weren’t being paid on time.  It wasn’t until they could identify what was important to them about their jobs (not just a paycheck) that they could focus on getting the job done and feeling good about it.  It was not a popular management theory at the time, but it got results.  And I got an efficient department that was actually an enjoyable place to work so it was a double win for me.

Drama is a great indication that someone is not connected to their purpose or working in conjunction with their own values.  This holds true in both personal and professional life.  Coach and author Brendon Burchard states that “people on a path of purpose don’t have time for drama.”   I’ve been part of management teams who lived for drama and also part of teams that got things done.   When I was part of Team Drama I was stressed and exhausted at the end of each day–and not from the work.  It wasn’t until I was able to separate myself from the distractions and focus instead on what I found meaningful about my job that I felt I was successful in my job.  Working with Team Value was exciting and exhilarating.  Recognizing common goals and working in conjunction with complimentary core values made the projects easier to accomplish, the time fly by, and enough energy left at the end of the day to enjoy a personal life.

So I still love drama.  Now I just love watching it, not being in it.  These days I know when drama starts to creep back into my life I am losing sight of my chosen purpose.  I would rather use my energy to create a life filled with things that matter to me than waste that energy caught up in someone else’s story or distracting myself from my own.

After all, this life is not a dress rehearsal.  We don’t get a lot of do-overs, so we should do our best to make this performance count.

Do you let drama sap your energy or do you think the best place for drama is on the big or small screen, but not your living room?  I’d love to know what you think.  


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 Time-Out for the Mind

monkeyHow many times have you been in a meeting at work and suddenly realized  you have no idea what has just been said?  Or you have a deadline looming but every time you sit down to finish up the project  something else suddenly seems more important?   It happens time and time again.  As soon as we try to concentrate on one particular issue, our mind is flooded with a thousand other things we could or should be doing.   It’s as if  our mind is purposely trying to sabotage us and distract us from what we need to do.

The bad news is that it’s true–our minds continually try to distract us.  The good news is that we can control that.  To some degree  we learn to control our thought processes as we age.  It is a natural progression.  But like any skill set, concentration can be improved and strengthened with use and training.  After all, an olympic runner may naturally be pretty fast and beat the other local runners, but she isn’t going to make it to the top of podium without major practice and training.

What are some of the benefits of enhanced concentration?  One of the most popular benefits is improved work performance.  When you can focus on one topic and give it your full and undivided attention, the resulting product will undoubtedly be of a higher quality, completed in less time.

Another benefit of concentration is peace of mind.   If we can train our minds to remain on the situation in the present moment,  there is less chance to let our minds wander to the future and the “what if” possible scenarios.   These scenarios are the basis for a lot manufactured stress in today’s world.  We spend too much time thinking about what may happen, or what could happen.   These thoughts tend to generate anxiety  about situations that may not even occur.

Improving concentration and focus in the present moment is a great way reduce stress, but many people are at a loss when asked just how to do that.  Some feel they have no problem concentrating.  Here is an exercise to see just how distracted your mind may be.   Set a timer for three or five minutes.  Without a given subject in mind, begin to write down whatever comes into your head.  Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, or grammar.  Don’t even think about what you are writing, just let it flow as a stream of consciousness.  When the timer goes off, take a look at what you’ve written.  Chances are that you will see a variety of subjects, and many thoughts or ideas which are only half-finished before switching to another topic.  It is a fascinating exercise to see how quickly the mind can jump from subject to subject.

In mindfulness circles, this behavior is often referred to as monkey-mind.  Swinging from one idea to another, the mind is like a monkey in the trees swinging from vine to vine.  This is the monkey that worries about the future and keeps us up at night.  Even when we are enjoying ourselves, that monkey is swinging around and trying to distract us.  I also like to think of it as the squirrel syndrome.  Picture  a cartoon dog who stops mid-sentence because he is more interested in the squirrel or  shiny object that just saw rushed by.   Not only is it hard to concentrate or enjoy any activities at hand,  quite frankly chasing those squirrels can be downright exhausting.

So when the mind is misbehaving and running amuck, treat it like the preschooler that it is and give it a time out.  For just a few minutes, stop what you are doing and concentrate on nothing.  Now, most people will find when they try to clear their minds, it only allows space for more thoughts to rush in, so finding a starting point is good.   Instead of nothing, concentrate on your breath.  Breathe in, count for three counts and out for five counts.  Think about how it feels as you breath in and out through your nose.   Here’s a tip–you will probably think about other things as you do this.  That’s perfectly normal.  Just acknowledge the thought and move on.  Let  it go out as easily as it came in.  Like the writing exercise, try this for three to five minutes.

The good thing is that you can do this anywhere (except possibly behind the wheel).  Steal a few minutes at work and give yourself a mini-vacation.  Try it while taking a bath and create a spa-like experience.   Like any exercise, the more you do it, the better you will become at it.  You will be able to focus for longer periods of time.  You may start to see improved concentration in areas you didn’t expect.  Anxiety levels may decrease.  Enjoyment of the present moment may increase.

Just like a monkey or a toddler, training  the mind to behave is never easy.  However,  you can train your mind to focus  on one item at a time (or nothing at all).   When you do that, you eliminate trips into the past or the future and thus reduce feelings of regret or anxiety.   Aside from boosting self-confidence from mastering a new skill, you can’t help but improve your quality of life.  And that, I think, is definitely worth the effort.

So when the monkey is swinging in the trees,  give your mind a time out.  Put it in a corner and let it rest.  You’ll be glad you did.