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.

 

 

 

 

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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

 


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.


The Dangers of the To-Do List

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.

 


Five Ways to Manage Stress

It is  no surprise that when asked to name the one thing they would most like to change in their workplace, employees almost always put stress levels at the top of the list.  What with downsizing, rightsizing, and endless budget cuts,  the mantra for so many companies these days is “do more with less”.   One of the phrases I often heard in management meetings during my corporate time was “suck it up and get over it.”   Unfortunately, this places an added burden on employees that remain after  layoffs which only increases individual stress levels.  With so much economic uncertainty, not only in the workplace but at home as well, it is no small wonder that most employees are looking for ways to minimize the effects of stress from their jobs.

The interesting thing is that everyone has a different idea of what stress is.  What bothers one person may not affect another at all.  Staff members at the Mayo Clinic define stress as a situation”when the demands placed upon a person exceed his or her capabilities.”   It is actually a good definition of stress since it place the responsibility on both the situation and the individual, not just the individual as do so many other definitions.   Reactions to stress are connected to a myriad of factors.  What bothers someone one day may not be an issue the next.   Lack of sleep, hunger,  the amount of exercise in a day–these are just a few things that  can play a part in a person’s reaction to stress.

The effects of stress are a problem not only for the employee, but the organization as well.   It is estimated that 75 to 90 percent of  all doctor visits are for stress-related conditions.  If stress levels are not addressed, chronic health conditions can develop such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity.  Frequent colds are not uncommon for people suffering from chronic stress.  This all plays into a person’s productivity at work, increasing absenteeism and decreasing productivity.   These chronic health conditions have a direct impact on the healthcare costs of an organization and thus the overall profitability of that organization is reduced.  Therefore it seems like it would be in everyone’s best interest to address the stress levels in the workplace and explore ways to minimize the harmful effects of those conditions.

One of the most important things we can do is to set healthy personal boundaries.   With all the technology  flooding the market, we can no longer leave the office at the office.   People are now expected to be available  24/7, especially when the boss seems to live and breathe for their blackberry or iPhone.   Instead of making life easier,  the information age has actually had the opposite effect.  We expect results more quickly and judge ourselves and others if there is a lag time in response to an email or voice mail, even during the weekend.  The new term for this is  cerebral burnout, and is a very real condition.

Personal boundaries are one way to combat the possibility of cerebral burnout.   In today’s world it may not be realistic to think that not responding to emails or texts after the traditional end of the workday is acceptable.  But you can set a boundary as to when you will stop responding.  Let colleagues know that you put your phone away at 8:00 pm and don’t look at again until you start work the next day.  Starting work may be at the breakfast table and not when you hit the office, but  at least your coworkers or bosses will have a clear idea of when they will hear from you.   Not only does this allow you to have downtime without guilt, but  you can also begin to ween yourself off electronic devices in the evenings which will have a positive impact on the quality of sleep. Better sleep patterns contributes to a stronger ability to combat stress, so this is really a two-for-one  win.

Another great way to combat stress is to begin a program of mental training.  Used by athletes to focus on performance, mental training is a type of meditation.  Before you start each day, give yourself five or ten minutes and turn your attention to your breathing.  Think only of your breath as you inhale and exhale.   This will calm the mind, and slow down all that information zinging back and forth in your brain.  When your brain is quieter, it becomes easier to focus during the day, and the result is greater productivity.  Greater productivity naturally means less stress.

My favorite stress release is exercise.  Thirty minutes of cardio on a daily basis will have an unbelievable impact on the ability to cope in stressful situations. Other types of exercise such as yoga or tai chi show equally impressive results.   The benefits of exercise include improved brain function, neuron growth, the release of beta-endorphins, and  lower muscle tension.  It can also increase weight loss, a fact that most people would look at as the number one health benefit.

Speaking of lowering muscle tension–regularly scheduled massages can play a huge role in stress management.  Although many people still consider massage to be a luxury, muscle tension is perhaps the number one symptom of stress.  In addition to being painful, it can even compromise organ function over time.  Regular massage counteracts the effects of stress by decreasing muscle tension and increasing lymphatic drainage.  This helps to remove toxins from the body and allows better functionality.  Aside from that, a massage just feels good.  One note of caution–do not order a deep tissue massage if you are going for your first experience.   Although it may sound great, your muscles may not appreciate that much manipulation.  Try a swedish massage or a Hawaiian Lomi Lomi massage for your first few treatments.

Make time to socialize–in person.   Social support is crucial in stressful situations, but not if the only support you receive is virtual. Face time ( and not on an iPhone) can help to put things in perspective and give the support you need to get through rough times.  It is so easy to let social connections slide when you are feeling overwhelmed, but that is precisely when real friendship matters the most.  So make it a point to get together with friends on a regular basis.  Schedule lunches, potlucks, or just a coffee date.  Better yet, make it a celebration and visit a spa with friends for an afternoon of bonding and massage.  Stress levels won’t stand a chance!

These are just five ways to combat stress.  When we think of stress, most of us focus on the workplace, but it is important to remember that stress can occur anywhere.  I know retirees with no financial worries who are more stressed-out than my executive friends.  It really is a matter of how you perceive situations and how your body reacts to them.  Of course, you can’t reduce stress levels without trying to increase levels of overall well being, but focusing on stress reduction is a good step in the right direction.

So what do you do to fight stress in the workplace or home front? I would love to hear the unique ways people have found to help them cope with our increasingly demanding world.

Are you ready to discover how the power of one-on-one coaching can help you focus on your health and reduce your own stress levels?  Click  here to schedule a complimentary strategic coaching session and see if wellness coaching is right for you.


Ready, Set, Stop

It has always been said that nothing good comes easy.  Especially in today’s turbo-charged world, that old maxim seems to resonate more than ever.  We are all moving at the speed of light, trying to balance work and home, personal and professional demands.  It can be overwhelming at the best of times.   There really isn’t a need to describe what the worst of times can feel like.

There is a way to combat this hectic pace we subject ourselves to, along with all the crazy demands we face at every turn.

Stop.

It sounds like the easiest answer  but I’m not suggesting that you just throw in the towel.  Rather, I suggest that you consciously take some time and be with yourself. Just sit quietly and breathe.  It doesn’t have to be a long time, maybe just five or ten minutes.  If you want to reduce stress and increase your overall well-being, it is one of the most important, and hardest, things you can do.

Mindfulness has been practiced for centuries.  It is nothing new.  But our culture has always been one of action.  We justify ourselves by what we accomplish, by what we can show to others.  There is no outward visible reward for being mindful.   It is only recently that the practice of mindfulness has been recognized as a valid way of expanding not only our self-awareness, but our awareness of the external world.

At its core, mindfulness is simply the practice of observation without judgement.   That is one of the reasons it is so difficult.  We are very good at judging things, especially ourselves.   Almost every action or emotion comes with a corresponding reaction.   When you stop and observe, rather than react, you give yourself the choice of how to act.  We all want our actions to reflect our core values, but when we react to an emotion, such as anger or fear, our actions do not always mirror our beliefs.   It seems like such a simple concept, yet it is one of the most difficult to master.

Some people equate mindfulness with meditation.  In meditation, we try to quiet the mind, and reduce or remove extraneous thoughts.  More to the point, we can recognize a thought as just that–a thought. There is no need to analyze it, react to it, or hold on to it.  Acknowledge it and let it go.  The ability to do this holds a tremendous amount of power.  Imagine being able to focus on a complex task during the day, and remain focused when distractions arise.  It is almost impossible not to feel a sense of inner calm when you aren’t pulled in a thousand directions at once.

There are some amazing benefits from taking the time to observe what is going on around and inside of you.  Stress levels drop, and perspective increases.   We can take the time to decide what the best of course of action would be, not just what our immediate reaction is.   This leads to more self-respect and self-confidence.  With confidence comes a sense of calm.  And one of the most important traits that follows mindfulness is compassion.   When we act mindfully, we have the time to see the consequences of our actions on others.  It allows us to treat others as we would like to be treated.

This is why it is crucial to take the time to stop and reflect on our actions rather than simply rushing on through our days.  Rushing may actually be the easier way to get through a day–little to no thought involved.  But if we stop long enough to act mindfully,  those overwhelming issues can feel more manageable.  Knowing that  you acted in a way that reflects who you are and what defines you makes your life much more fulfilling.

After all, success isn’t always about crossing a finish line first, with no thought of the consequences.  Sometimes success is knowing that you acted mindfully, in the best way possible, regardless of win, place, or show.

Are you ready to discover how the power of one-on-one coaching can help you break down self-imposed barriers and reach your Personal Best?  Click  here to schedule a complimentary strategic coaching session and see if wellness coaching is right for you.


Why Failure is an Option

“Everyone is a genius.  But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”  –A.Einstein

I recently read an article in Inc magazine that argued the three words in the English language that guarantee failure are “I will try”.  I know this is a widely held belief, especially in motivational circles.  The idea is that saying you will try, rather than stating you will do, gives an automatic option for failure.  It’s as if the phrase itself undermines a person’s resolve to achieve what they set out to accomplish.  If you take away the possibility of failure, or simply refuse to acknowledge its existence, you naturally ensure you will succeed, no matter what the odds.

This is a commonly held belief.  After all, one the greatest icons of our time shared the same wisdom in the Star Wars saga. “Do or do not, there is no try.”  Who can argue with Yoda?

I find this school of thought to be very black and white, and perhaps that is why it is so popular.  It is much easier to class something as one thing or another without exploring the nuance of possibility.  As I grow older I find that few things are simply black or white.  I think the possibility of success is much greater when you start to explore shades of grey.

There is a lot to be said for a positive mindset, and the strength of one’s own beliefs. In Think and Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill said “Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve.”  This school of thought has shaped generations with great results.  The problem is that when people make a decision to pursue a goal, they don’t often stop to consider the whole picture, or decide if it is even realistic outcome.  I can set a goal to become an opera singer, but I can also pretty much tell you that I will never set foot onstage at the Met.  Just not a realistic goal, even if I can believe it.

One of the jobs of a wellness coach is help clients define and achieve their goals.  We act as a support system and cheering section to keep people on track and celebrate accomplishments along the way.  We are also the ones who hold up the mirror.  Oftentimes people can become so focused on one thing that they don’t stop for a reality check.  To see if what they want to do is really realistic.  Perhaps they don’t research all the possible pitfalls or obstacles they will encounter.  That is one of the most important tools for success that so many people forget to consider.

I am a strong believer in preparation and persistence.  If I followed Yoda’s advice, I would have to view myself as a failure.  As an example, I used to smoke.  For years, I smoked at least a pack a day, sometimes up to two packs.  I can’t tell you how many times I decided to quit.  And maybe for a day, or even up to a week once, I was successful.  Finally, after many attempts over several years, I was able to claim that I was a non-smoker.  Have been now for over twenty-five years.

It took more than one try.  I had to allow myself to fail.  Each time I failed, I learned something.  Ultimately, those lessons helped me to succeed.  We learn more from our mistakes and our failures than our successes.  If you don’t allow yourself the luxury of failure, you make the path of personal growth and development much rockier.

I think the same can be said for any goal, be it personal or professional.  If you really want something, you need to decide if is realistic, and more importantly, do you really want it?   If you can tick those boxes, then plan for the obstacles and move forward.

Sometimes we decide we want to do something because we should.   We listen to other people, and let them decide what is best for us.  If those decisions are not in sync with what we truly want, what resonates in our core, then the chance success is less than probable.  In those cases, we can make the attempt, and keep everyone happy by at least saying that we tried.  There are times when a safety net is not such a bad thing after all.

So I have to disagree that people give themselves permission to fail when they say they will try.  Allowing yourself to try gives you permission to persist.  I’ve always felt that determination was a much more attractive trait than bravado.   And determination, with regular reality checks, is a much better way to get where you want to be.

Are you ready to see how the power of wellness coaching can help you break down self-imposed barriers and reach your Personal Best?  Click  here to schedule a complimentary strategic coaching session and see if wellness coaching is right for you.