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.
As 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.
Today 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?
I 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
Welcome to 2013 and the first full work week of the new year! I have to admit that I love the holidays, but I am always glad when they are over. It seems that I am not alone in that thought. Whenever I talk to someone around this time of year they seem to feel the same way. It is great to have the downtime and the time with family or friends, but it is also nice to get back into the normal routines of daily life. After all, that is where we are the most comfortable and feel the most secure. And depending on what you consider a routine or what you chose to focus on, it can also be the most exciting and challenging place to be.
Now that most of us are back at work, I’m going to guess that the buzz of the new year has pretty much faded into memory. When I worked on the corporate playground, it only took about two hours for the relaxation and glow of vacation time to wear off, leaving me wondering if I had really had any downtime. It seems to be true for many people. And as the next deadline looms, the joy of the holiday fades, as do the resolutions we promised ourselves were going to make stick this year.
It’s not really an unusual scenario. We get caught up in the moment and make resolutions to change things we don’t particularly like about ourselves. We share them at the holiday parties to show we are in the spirit of the occasion. The problem is that most of us don’t really prepare for making those changes. They may be important–and we may make progress for a week or so–but then real life comes back into the picture and those changes that were so important seem to lose priority little by little. Pretty soon it is February and we decide to try again next year with the same set of resolutions. It may not be true for everyone, but I know I spent many years vowing to lose the same twenty pounds every December 31st.
Instead of resolutions, why not try a theme for 2013? Resolutions focus on things we want to change. Losing weight, getting out of debt, getting in shape–whatever the change may be it usually has a negative bias. These are things we don’t like about ourselves and our situation, and we criticize ourselves for them. By focusing on the negative we unintentionally reinforce it. And it takes a lot more energy to change a negative situation than to create a positive situation.
Choosing a theme for 2013 allows you to focus on positive changes you would like to make in the coming year. Instead of losing weight, chose a theme of health. Instead of getting out of debt, chose a theme of abundance. Yes, weight loss plays a part in the theme, but it is not the focus. Instead, decide what a healthy life means to you and what you can do to create that lifestyle. Picture yourself throughout the year making what you feel to be healthy choices for meals, exercise, and overall wellbeing. When you approach changes from a positive bias, it is much easier to make those decisions to move forward and create your vision. Focusing only on losing weight forces you to think about what you have to give up. When you focus on a theme of healthy living for 2013, you can focus on all the positive things you will gain, such as increased energy and better mobility.
I think we can all agree that positive reinforcement is a better option than negative reinforcement, so why not give it a shot when planning 2013. Don’t focus on what you need to change–instead, laser in on what you would like to create. Take some time a paint a picture of what your life will look like when you integrate your new theme. What are the major shifts in focus, and where might you feel changes that you didn’t expect? Because you are creating it, how your theme affects your life is up to you. It can be as wide-reaching or as specific as you choose. But it will always involve changes invoked from a positive bias, and that is a very good thing.
So why not choose a personal theme this year and see what happens. It may be just what you need to create your best year ever.
There are a few spots left for my new bootcamp 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 and make this your best year ever.
Here 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.
Let’s face it–change is hard. It doesn’t matter if it is a change for the better, such as committing to a healthier eating plan, or coping with change caused by external sources, such as a layoff. Adjusting to change is just not something we humans tend to do well. And initiating or maintaining change, especially self-change, can be even more difficult. It doesn’t matter if we understand the changes could be beneficial. Creating new habits and patterns is just not something that comes easily to most of us.
So what can we do if we are considering a positive change? The first way to attempt a change is to make an external change. A great example is deciding to go on a diet. We alter our eating habits, thinking that this will help us lose weight and feel healthier. And it works–for a while. But the change doesn’t last. We slowly revert to our old habits, and the weight returns. Why is it so hard to maintain healthy changes? Because so often we change the behavior, but do not make a corresponding change in how we view our world. We just don’t change our perspective.
One of the best ways to create lasting change in our lives is to change our perspective. When we can change the way we see ourselves and the world around us, changing behavior becomes much less difficult. Changing eating habits is a great strategy for weight loss, but deciding that a healthy lifestyle is more reflective of who you really are gives you a much greater chance of lasting success at achieving your goal. If you believe that you are a healthy person, it will be easier to make healthy changes that complement that perception.
One of the best ways to change our perspective is to realize that we are responsible for our own reality. Of course there are external factors that shape our world, but we are responsible for how we react to those factors. When we make that connection, a very subtle but important shift happens within. We are no longer victims of circumstance. We become the creators of the type of life we want to live. Our perception of our own worth and power changes in a very positive way. And that is a very powerful tool.
Have you ever noticed that things you worry about tend to happen? When we worry we fixate on the negative, and expending all that energy on negative thoughts tends to create a negative environment. It is true that we see what we want to see. If we shift our perception to focus on more positive aspects of our realities, we can create a more positive environment for growth and change. Glass half full or glass half empty–you decide.
Here’s a little coaching exercise to help change your perspective and make your world a more positive place. Complaining is a very negative habit, and it takes a lot of energy away from creating a positive lifestyle. So here’s the deal. Try not to complain about anything for one week. This doesn’t mean that if you receive the wrong order from Amazon you shouldn’t send it back, but don’t rant on about how awful and ineffectual the company is. Just return it and move on. Most importantly, don’t complain about the traffic, or the weather, or anything. Don’t expend that energy. It’s not easy, but you can really change your perception of yourself and your world when you become mindful of how much energy is focused on negative issues.
When you stop complaining, you can’t help but begin to see the world in a more positive light. And that more positive light is a great tool to help change your overall perspective as well.
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If you are like me, and a lot of other people as well, you probably rely on your to-do list to keep your life sane and orderly. Using the list to keep track of projects and daily issues is a way to stay in control of everything on your plate. And it feels great to cross an item off the list after it has been accomplished.
That is the up-side of a to-do list. The downside of maintaining that list is that it can begin to look eerily similar day after day, and week after week. The same items go on the list, the same items get crossed off, some of them never seem to get touched. Suddenly a month goes by, and then a year. At some point that to-do list changes from a tool for measuring progress and becomes a roadmap of routine.
Routine is not altogether a bad thing. Certain repetitive routines help us get through mundane tasks with minimal mental energy. Brushing your teeth, for example, takes no thought on your part, and is a necessary part of the day. It is a routine, and because it takes very little thought, it doesn’t tax your mental energy. Daily exercise habits and healthy eating patterns are other examples of good routines.
The danger of routine occurs when we no longer think about what we are doing throughout the day. Most of us have certain actions that expected of us on a daily basis. We perform the same functions at work, pick up the kids after school, get dinner on the table, find some way to relax for a while (hopefully) in the evening, then get ready to do it all again tomorrow. Whatever fills our days, chances are there is a lot of repetition required just to keep all the wheels turning. It’s not surprising that one day starts to look like the next, and slowly we lose energy and creativity. It is as if checking off the same items week after week is enough to give us a sense of satisfaction. After all, we are accomplishing something, right?
The other problem with to-do lists is that most are focused on short-term goals. Nothing wrong with that, of course. But when we fill our days with easily attainable goals, or items that seem important but in the long run are actually trivial, we crowd out any time for focusing on long-term goals and dreams. In a perverse sort of way, we can feel more satisfaction in cleaning up after dinner than spending an hour brainstorming ways to start a new project. It is more immediate and tangible, something to crossed off the list, at least for the night. It is almost impossible to successfully bring about long-term change or growth when we condition ourselves to only accept the satisfaction of short-term goals.
One way to break out the daily grind is to become aware of it. Try to recognize when you are running on autopilot. Routines are not always a bad thing, but they always become a better thing when they are done mindfully. Is there a different way to do something? Can it be done better or more efficiently? Does it have to be done at all? Sometimes we continue to do things because we are comfortable with them, but they no longer serve us and we just don’t notice it. If you awaken your mind to your actions, chances are that you will become more conscious of aspects in your life you tend to overlook or no longer need to hang onto.
Another way to overcome mind numbing effects of to-lists and routines is to carve out some time each week to focus on a long-term goal. Maybe it is a half an hour a day, or possibly just an hour a week. But if you live by a list, make sure that block of time is on the list. Design a plan to accomplish the goal, and determine what steps need are needed to get you there. Establish interim benchmarks to mark your progress so you can celebrate along the way. Also be ready to make alterations to the plan as you go along. After all, very few things in life happen exactly as we expect them to.
By making a conscious effort to find time to focus on a long-term goal rather than simply filling the days checking off short-term goals, you may find something interesting happens. So many people are frustrated at the end of the day because they aren’t sure where all the time went. Suddenly the day is over and they don’t feel as if they accomplished much, even though they did hit all the required routines. If you allow yourself to consciously address a dream or a goal that is going to take much longer than just an afternoon, a week, a month–or maybe even a year–to become a reality, you will give yourself the gift of long-term satisfaction. And that satisfaction is much deeper and richer than the type that comes from crossing the same item off the to-do list time and time again. It is the type of satisfaction that can give real meaning and joy to your life.
And that, in my opinion, is certainly something worth adding to your to-do list.