Monday, September 30, 2019

Unplug


Photo by Zach Betten on Unsplash


I love the internet.  I wouldn't have this blog without it.  We wouldn't connect via Facebook, Instagram, or email without the internet.  The internet makes extensive research easier and opens up tons of news and entertainment options.

But we need to get away from the internet sometimes.  It's open 24/7/365, and we're not.  We can't be.  It's too much.  We need to take breaks from our phones and computers so we can enjoy real life.

And when we get back to our phones and computers, they need to be tools we control, not addictions that control us.

Courtney Carver, author of Soulful Simplicity, has made it a goal to unplug one day a week.  That's 52 days a year (almost a month).  52 days a year "to trade what's online for what's right in front of us."


4 Steps to an Internet Intermission

1.  Schedule it.
Pick a 24-hour block that works well for you.  It might be a certain day (like Sunday), or it might straddle two days (like Friday after work until Saturday evening).

2.  Prepare for it.
Tell friends and family when you'll be offline.  If you usually take notes on your phone, keep a small notebook or some Post-Its handy.  If your phone is your alarm clock, consider using a regular alarm clock.

3.  Rethink excuses.
If you're thinking "Not possible" or "Easier said than done," keep thinking.  Challenge yourself.  Maybe 24 hours seems like a long time, but you won't know unless you try.  Examine your feelings about the break.  Were there certain times you particularly missed the internet?  Why was that?  Did you get bored?  Did you pay more attention to the people around you?  Did you use your senses more, or have more creative ideas?  Whatever your experience, think about it and then make a decision about what works best for you.

4.  Plan shorter breaks.
Even if you decide 24 hours is really too long, you can still practice regular, shorter internet breaks.  Commit to no internet before a certain time each morning or after a certain time in the evening.  Alternatively, give yourself an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening to be on the internet, and take the rest of the day off.  Make unplugging work for you.

Exchange Wifi for fresh air, news for laughter, Google for observing, and texts for hugs and hand-holding.

On regular days, days you're online, consider how you're using this wonderful tool.  Is it helping you learn more, get more done, and meet the needs of friends and clients?  Or is it a time suck that induces gossip, comparisons, discontent, and other bad feelings?  Does the way you use it make it a blessing or a curse?

On social media, consider "friending" only those who are actually your friends.  Use it as a means to connect with them, not as a way to reach a certain number that makes you feel popular or to achieve a certain rating.  While you're at it, limit groups and people you follow to what truly adds value to your life.

Think carefully about how you will use your devices to aid in decluttering.  We're often urged to digitize photos, music, movies, books, even receipts and important papers like insurance documents to reduce clutter.  But even digital space can be cluttered if you can't find a file or an app because of other stuff that obscures it.

Just as you never want to waste time searching for your keys, the scissors, or your favorite earrings among piles of clutter and excess, neither do you want to waste time searching for digital content you need.  Be sure to delete what you no longer use, and sort everything else into folders with descriptive titles.  Make it a habit to organize new acquisitions.

Just because you can remove shelves full of books, movies, or CDs by using a digital device doesn't mean you should continue to acquire everything that catches your eye.  Impulse purchasing is still a budget-buster, even if the purchase doesn't take physical space.  And controlling that impulse is a key to becoming intentional about your life.

Minimalism is about removing things that crowd out what's really important to you, not just about making those things smaller or more portable.

Just as owning ten of anything doesn't make you ten times happier, having fewer possessions, physical or digital, doesn't make you less happy.  Regina Wong, author of Make Space: A Minimalist's Guide to the Good and the Extraordinary, says that "having less, but having the right stuff, can deliver more fulfillment."

Less -- but better.  It's a good mantra for everything, including all things digital.





Friday, September 27, 2019

Travel Light


Photo by Dawid Zawila on Unsplash


When we travel, we have the perfect opportunity to try a different lifestyle.

Packing for travel is a bit like decluttering.  You have to consider carefully which clothes you'll need, which toiletries and accessories.  Maybe you make a list.  As you pack, you might think of a few additional items it would be nice to have, just in case.  But you're still limiting your choices -- you're only going to take a fraction of your possessions, after all.

As you roll your suitcase out the door, are you full of excitement and anticipation, or are you worried that you've forgotten something important?  Hopefully, you let that sense of freedom take over and realize that you'll probably do just fine with what you have.  You know you packed the really important stuff, because those things were on your list.

When you arrive at your destination, you're greeted by a clean, uncluttered hotel room with its freshly made bed.  You have no desire to turn on the TV for distraction, like you might do at home, because the outside world beckons.  You unpack quickly, but you're no longer worrying about the things you brought with you.  As you step out the door, you feel light on your feet, interested to see what lies around the corner, and already paying attention to the details of your new location.  You don't have the usual chores or work responsibilities weighing you down, so you have plenty of time to explore.

When we carry only the essentials, we practice minimalism.

What does what you pack say about you?  My suitcase used to say, "I'm insecure and fearful I won't have enough, so I've stuffed in as much as possible."  Sometimes it said, "I'm desperate to impress the people I'm going to see."  Today, I think it says, "I'm simple, comfortable, and confident."  That's because I've learned to pack lightly.

When you travel with more than you really need, you weigh yourself down.  You're slower, less flexible, and you have more to think about and manage.  But when you live for a week with a small suitcase of belongings, you're reminded of how little you actually require.  You also get a clear sense of which clothes fit well, flatter your body and your coloring, and are comfortable and easy-care, since that's probably what has seen the most use.

On your next trip, pack the clothes and other items you think you need, and then remove half of them.  Leave the "just in case" items at home.  Notice how light you feel when walking through the airport, unpacking at the hotel, and exploring your surroundings without worrying about all of your stuff.

When we're free of our normal obligations and distractions, we experience time affluence.

Time affluence is the feeling that you have enough time for the activities that you care about.  There are studies showing that people who commit to maintaining some unscheduled time tend to be happier overall than those who don't, probably because being over-scheduled makes us feel anxious, overworked, and out of control.

Americans seem to be suspicious of unscheduled time.  Maybe it's the influence of the Protestant work ethic, but even on vacation we get so worried that we're going to miss something, we rush from here to there, making ourselves nervous and impatient.  We're so focused on our itinerary that we may wind up missing the experience of being in a new place -- not the tourist destination that we're determined to cross off our bucket list, but the actual place.  The streets, the houses, the shops, the sky, the scents, the sounds, and most of all, the people.

Consider scheduling just one must-see destination per day, and don't rush through anything.  Leave time for serendipity so you can explore off the beaten path.  It's true, you might not visit every single thing that's available (that's probably impossible anyway).  But what you do experience will be deeper, more detailed and memorable.  And you'll come home feeling like you really got away.







Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Single-Task


Photo by Josh Newton on Unsplash


Many of us have (or had) jobs that require juggling two or three tasks at a time while continuing to be available to bosses or clients.  Or we meet the needs of two or three young children while managing household tasks and honoring volunteer commitments.

It can be crazy.  Rushed and overwhelmed, you repeatedly lose focus and have to backtrack, trying to remember where you left off.  You can't give your attention to one thing at a time, so everything takes longer, and any minor holdup can become a major meltdown.

Before you know it, the day is over and you feel like you did nothing well.  Perhaps you commute, switching your attention between driving, making phone calls, and trying to get through that audio book everyone's talking about.

You're in a hurry, and mentally review your to-do list:  pick up your kid at school, get her to dance class, run to the post office and the grocery store, pick her up again, drive home fast to let the dog out before he has an accident you'll have to clean up, and either cook something for dinner or decide which takeout food everyone wants.  Answer some texts and emails, get your kid into bed, run over logistics with your spouse, and fall onto the couch with your cell phone and the TV remote.  Maybe you can relax before you fall asleep.

Time, the finite minutes of your life, slips away.  Once it passes, it's gone forever.

We are all given the same 24 hours.  We're told we can accomplish more if we just learn to multi-task more efficiently.  But if our attention is diffused, we actually accomplish less while feeling more frazzled.

When you decide to multi-task, you're actually inviting interruption and distraction.  What we call multi-tasking is really our brains frantically switching back and forth.

Many people think they're skilled at multi-tasking, but the brain doesn't actually work that way.  Our brains have to choose which information to process.  For example, if you listen to speech, your visual cortex becomes less active, and vice versa.  When you talk on the phone to your mother and work on your computer at the same time, you literally hear less of what Mom is saying.

Researchers at Stanford University found that multi-tasking is less productive than doing one thing at a time.  Multi-tasking takes more energy, so even simple tasks take longer than they should.  People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of information cannot pay attention, organize their thoughts, filter out irrelevancies, recall important information, or even switch between tasks as smoothly.

So no, you can't actually have a conversation while scrolling through social media.

Even more disturbing, a study at the University of London showed that multi-taskers experience IQ score declines similar to someone who has smoked marijuana or stayed up all night.  Their scores resembled those of an eight-year-old child.

In fact, multi-tasking may cause or indicate brain damage.  Research completed at the University of Sussex found that high multi-taskers (in this case, people who spend a lot of time texting while watching TV or answering email while talking on the phone) had less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region responsible for empathy and emotional control.

Tell me how people with less empathy and emotional control make good co-workers, marriage partners, parents, or neighbors!



4 Ways to Find Clarity

1.  Cut the buzz.
Many of us live and work with the constant background noise of radio, TV, or traffic.  Especially when the sounds are those of people talking, such as with news, ads, or co-workers, there is a constant drag on our brain's ability to focus.  Question your need for constant stimulation, and consider removing these noises if you can, since research shows that most people are more productive when working in silence.  If you feel you must have accompaniment, choose purely instrumental music.

2.  Determine to single-task.
Bouncing between tasks may seem to relieve boredom, but it drains our cognitive abilities.  Stick with one item until completion if you can.  If attention starts to wane, you can switch to a new task, but take a moment to leave yourself a note about where you were with the first one.  Then give the new task your full attention, again for as long as you can.  As you practice single-tasking, you'll stretch your attention span, develop sharper focus, and access greater creativity.

3.  Identify your elephants.
Most people have a long to-do list and choose to do the easiest things first so they can have the satisfaction of crossing something off the list.  The difficult tasks are pushed later to when the brain is already tired.

Cognitive neuroscientist Sandra Chapman suggests focusing on your two "elephants" when writing your to-do list.  These are the most important things you need to accomplish on that day, the ones to which you want to give your best efforts and attention.  If time allows, you can move on to other tasks.

4.  Close your door.
In the "old days," people did this when they really needed to concentrate.  You need to figuratively close your door on electronic distractions if you want to be productive and creative, and you cannot continually respond to texts or emails if you want to nurture relationships.  Remove text alerts from your phone, and put it in your bag or another room.  Close browser tabs and remove email alerts from your computer.  Check texts, voice mail, and email only at specific times during the day.



When we try to multi-task, we're less productive, more stressed, and ultimately less happy.  Choose to give your attention to things that really matter.  Focus on your priorities and let the rest go, without guilt or FOMO.

It's ironic that we get more done when we slow down.





Monday, September 23, 2019

Rethink Leisure


Photo by Leo Rivas on Unsplash


Lately, news headlines have been proclaiming that "Sitting is the New Smoking."  In the sense that they're both linked to a lot of health threats, then yes, sitting and smoking do have a lot in common.

Here's where they aren't alike:  Smoking is much less widespread.  A growing number of cities, states, and countries have enacted laws that ban smoking in all work and public places, including restaurants and bars.  The Centers for Disease control reports that the number of smokers in the US has fallen to a record low.

But sitting is far more acceptable.  In fact, we all do more of it than ever.  Most of us have jobs that require little or no physical exertion.  We might do a little standing, lifting, and walking around, but mostly we sit.

When we go home, we sit some more, watching hours and hours of TV, streaming services, or You Tube, and scrolling on Facebook, Instagram, and other social media.

The thing that Americans do most often with their free time is not cooking or hiking or pursuing a hobby.  Americans sit and watch screens.  I have the same bad habit.

All this sitting contributes to poor health and fitness.  As we spend more time sitting, we're more likely to experience:

  • Obesity.  Research has found that adults who spend more time sitting have a higher body mass index and waist size.  Not only are we not using that time to move more and burn more calories, but we tend to eat when we're sitting.  And when we're idly watching TV, we're more likely to eat junk food than any healthier alternatives.
  • Disease.  Studies show that for each additional hour spent watching TV, we have a 26% higher chance of developing metabolic syndrome, which can lead to diabetes and heart disease.  Researchers also found a link between hours spent sitting and several types of cancer.
  • Early death.  Other studies have found that people who sit for more hours every day have a higher risk of dying than those who spend fewer hours seated.  Even if those people who sat longer were physically active during other times of the day, they had a higher risk of dying.

Did you catch that last part?  Even if you exercise every day, sitting around too much is harmful to your health.  Spending time at the gym doesn't erase the effects of a mostly sedentary life.

Isn't it odd that we deem the term "sitting room" as quaint?  Today we have living rooms, right?  Or do we?  While we refer to the space in our homes where we spend most of our leisure time as the "living room," the truth is that it has become a sitting-down room.

The way I use my living room might be keeping me from looking and feeling my best.

We definitely don't want to be typical Americans in this area, do we?  How can we turn our living rooms, family rooms, dens, man caves, and she sheds from places where we sit to places where we relax healthfully?


5 Ways to Keep Your Living Room from Making You Sick

1.  Spend less time in the room.
Decide that one night a week will involve a family outing.  Visit a neighborhood park, go on a bike ride, go bowling or to the roller rink, go to the gym, or simply take a long evening walk.

2.  Control snacking.
Eating after dinner is especially bad if you want to control your weight.  It's much better to eat a healthy, filling meal than it is to snack later.  And many of us eat when we're bored, or because it's a habit to nosh on fatty chips, cookies, or candy when focused on a screen.  If you think you're hungry, drink some water or tea, since we sometimes mistake thirst for hunger.  If you need more, try one of these options:
  • an apple, an orange, or a handful of grapes
  • celery with a little nut butter
  • carrot sticks with some hummus
  • a serving of low-fat cottage cheese or plain Greek yogurt with berries
  • one stick of string cheese
  • a hard boiled egg
  • a handful of raw or dry roasted nuts
  • air-popped popcorn

3.  Buy some old workout videos.
Vow that for every hour you're in front of a screen, you'll spend 15 minutes working out.  You don't even need the video if you walk around the block once every hour, and do jumping jacks, squat kicks, leg raises, push ups, or even some house cleaning or decluttering during every commercial break.

4.  Plan a "no electronics" night.
One night a week, leave the TV, computer, phones, and tablets off.  Use your living room to play charades, Simon Says (funny when adults play too!), Twister, or balloon volleyball.  Build a blanket fort.  Or expand your living space by playing tag in and around the house.  Let your body and brain take a break from electronic stimulation.

5.  Do more jobs without labor-saving devices.
Research shows that as we spend more time in front of screens, we spend less time actively doing household chores.  So get rid of the Roomba and push a vacuum cleaner.  Donate the bread machine and bring back kneading.  Hand wash your dishes and your car.  Sell your riding mower and buy a human-powered push mower.  Instead of a leaf blower, use a rake.  Instead of hiring the neighbor kid to shovel snow or pull weeds, do it yourself (and involve the whole family).


Make sure your leisure time is actually doing you good!





Friday, September 20, 2019

Quality, not Quantity


Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash


We took our 3-year-old grandson to the park a few days ago.  He had one toy truck with him -- a very sturdy plastic dump truck.  That little truck was his constant companion for two hours, and when his mama put him in the car seat to go home, he was still cradling it.

He has many toy cars and trucks of all sizes at home, and several at our house too.  But when there's only one to play with, that one is cherished.  It almost takes on a personality as he tells stories about what that toy can do.  Go to the beach, play in the sand, play in the bathtub, hold water, dump rocks, roll down the slide to be caught at the bottom....  It's Super Truck!

I have one pair of fit-over sunglasses given to me by my son.  They're oversized, designed to be worn over my prescription bifocals, and I love them because I can see near or far while I'm wearing them.  They have wide arms which incorporate a small area of tinted lens, so even my peripheral vision is protected from UV glare.  They're lightweight and scratch resistant, and I take very good care of them even though they aren't that expensive to replace.

Just because they aren't expensive doesn't mean I should treat them like junk.

In fact, if I treat them like a quality item, they'll last for a long time, and I'll enjoy tons of use from just one pair.  Just like my grandson's dump truck.  Or our antique dresser.  Or my leather wallet.  Or my versatile kitchen utility knife.  Or our one reliable, gas-efficient car.

Our consumer society constantly badgers us to replace or upgrade our possessions.  The average American buys a new car every few years and considers furniture to be a short-term style statement rather than a long-term investment.

As for sunglasses, clothes, accessories, kitchenware, phones, and more -- those seem to be considered completely expendable, bought with the idea that you'll lose them quickly, or tire of them and want something different when you're bored or the season changes.

But if we treat things like they're valuable, we'll appreciate them more and extend their usable life.  We'll be more satisfied with what we own.  We'll shop less and throw less away.

We waste so much because we're not expected to care for our belongings.  From fast food and fast fashion to continually upgraded devices, we consume more and more and toss things away for something new because none of what we buy has any value.  We have no reason to care for something that is only of the moment and never meant to last.

Minimalism doesn't mean we become reckless with our possessions.  As we declutter, we don't wastefully and thoughtlessly throw everything away.  That's not minimalism -- that's irresponsibility.

Minimalism has the opposite effect.  It requires us to be increasingly thoughtful about the things we own.  And if something is worth owning, it's worth buying a quality item that will serve its purpose for a long time.

When we own quality items and take good care of them, we don't replace them so often.  We make them last.  Choosing quality and taking care reduces waste, clutter, and dissatisfaction.  It's the cure for consumerism, and a big win for our wallets and the environment.

How well are you caring for the things you own?






Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Preserve Public Works



Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash


Some of our greatest treasures are things we don't own... 

... and never can:  The beauties of nature, music, and art.  The comfort of good relationships.  The incredible riches of good health and an active mind.

Think of the value in public works:  Libraries, public parks, the Golden Gate Bridge, highways and road maintenance crews, law enforcement, fire protection, water treatment and garbage removal, public schools and colleges, government-supported scientific and medical research, health departments.

These good things can be available to everyone.  Yes, they're supported by property taxes, gasoline taxes, and sales taxes, but those are paid by everyone proportionally.  The rich pay more because they buy and travel more, and their property is more valuable.  The poor pay less for all the same reasons.  But everybody contributes, so that everybody can benefit.

About public schools, US president John Adams wrote, "The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it."  Public schools not only provide access to education, but opportunities for all children.  While they are not perfect, in an all private-school world the wealthy would almost always fare better than everyone else.  There's also evidence that schools would be more segregated, not just by race, but by special needs.  Public schools, already providing excellent services to many children, could be even more successful if everyone recognized their stake in the outcome.

Public parks have been called "our open air living rooms."  They are a vital part of everyday life, especially in cities.  Playgrounds, picnic spaces, sports facilities, and hiking trails are invaluable resources, but so are mature trees and shrubs, which clean the air and refresh our spirits.  Public gardens and memorials are rejuvenating and instructive.  And then there are all the beautiful state and national parks, from beaches to ancient redwood groves to Yosemite's granite domes and waterfalls, the Grand Canyon, and, oldest of all, Yellowstone.  We share these wonderful parks with visitors from all over the world.

Public spaces are literal common ground.  They strengthen our sense of community and let us gather together face to face.  When all interaction shifts to impersonal forums like talk radio or web sites, we splinter into smaller, more insulated groups.

Democracy loses its meaning if citizens don't have any shared spaces or services.

In a culture that continues to become more and more commercialized, where money and property are being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands (think, for example, of how much of all media is now controlled by Disney), public spaces and services that are available to all citizens have become an even greater asset.

Defunding public libraries, parks, museums, and transportation services might save local governments some money, but at what cost to the quality of life for the people and the community?

Libraries, for example, have shown that they are highly adaptable, changing to reflect new technology and community needs.  Libraries offer not only print books, e-books, music, movies, and games that can be freely borrowed, but provide computers and internet access, story times and summer reading clubs for children, adult literacy, ESL, and citizenship classes, and resources for job seekers and entrepreneurs.  Some provide maker spaces and meeting spaces, even concert spaces that can be used free of charge.  Libraries are safe, welcoming places where community members can meet, learn, and socialize.  That they charge no entrance or user fees is the beauty, and the challenge, of the public library.

Privatizing everything means commercializing it.

We don't want public libraries to be replaced by Amazon bookstores (as advocated by an opinion piece published in Forbes magazine).  We don't want public schools to be replaced by for-profit training centers.  We don't want public parks to be replaced by Six Flags or McDonald's play areas, or all gardens to be walled off like private golf courses.  We don't want to rely on bottled water because city water treatment plants have been shuttered.  We don't want to hire security because there are no more police.  We don't want our children to be forced into debt because community colleges and state universities have disappeared.  And we definitely don't want irreplaceable natural wonders to be lost to exploitation and "development."

Because of public works, we don't sacrifice quality of life if we own less and share more.  Minimalists celebrate public works.

We may "buy" these treasures when we pay taxes, but they don't become our personal property.  And because we join with everyone else in paying for them, we create so much more than we ever could on our own.  Rugged individualism is all very well, but life is richer when we share.







Monday, September 16, 2019

One In, One Out


Photo by Teddy Kwok on Flickr


In decluttering, you identify the belongings you use the most and like the best, the items of the highest quality.  You release things you don't like or use, and all of those multiples you've accumulated.  Next, you find a home for each of the possessions you've chosen to keep.

Using containers such as boxes, bins, drawers, shelves, and closets, you put everything away.  Your items will no longer pile up or drift around homeless; each has a place to belong.  As you gain a clear idea of how much each container will hold, you are able to place limits on what you keep:  how many shirts will hang in your closet, how many pairs of socks will go in their designated drawer, how many books will fit on your shelves, how many bins of holiday decorations will fit in the cupboard in the garage.

By respecting the physical limits of your space, the things you own can stay organized and uncluttered.


But minimalism isn't a choice you make once.  It's a choice you make every day.  Every day, you choose to maintain the limits you've established.  You refuse junk mail, freebies, and "bargains."  You propose gift-free holidays.  You stop spending leisure time at the store or browsing online, and you start spending it at the park or the library, having coffee with a friend, crafting, journaling, exercising, or volunteering.

Of course you continue to shop, but you buy for need rather than want, for function rather than novelty.  And when you bring something new into your home, you make a like-for-like trade:  a book for a book, a sweater for a sweater, a couch for a couch.

When a new one comes in, an old one must go out.

When you come home from back-to-school shopping, your kids should get rid of as many clothes as they add to their closets.  When you bring in new shoes, an old pair must go.  When you buy new towels, or cookware, or lamps, or phones, they must replace what's already there.

This trade-off maintains balance in your home so that it never again becomes overstuffed.

Not only do you need to practice the one in, one out technique until it becomes a natural part of the way your family operates, but you must also practice thinking before you buy.  Being mindful of what you're buying needs to be an element of every shopping trip you take.


5 Questions to Ask Before a Purchase

  1. Does it satisfy a need?  Make sure it's a true need, not a momentary sense of boredom, sadness, worry, or "Ooooh, that's cute!"  This doesn't mean that every purchase must be drab or utilitarian.  Those cute red sandals might be perfect if they're of high quality, fit well, go with more than one outfit, and are replacing something else.
  2. Does it offer value?  The thing you're about to buy should appear well-made and able to perform the function you need from it.  If a low price is its only enticement, don't buy it. 
  3. Does it provide versatility?  When possible, avoid buying specialty or single-task items.  Favor items that can be useful in several ways, like stemless tumblers instead of multiple types of drinking glasses, or a simply-styled dress that can be modified with jewelry, a scarf, a belt, or a jacket.
  4. Is it the result of a careful decision?  Impulse buying almost always generates clutter.  Notice what you see and want to buy, and tell yourself that if you still want it in seven days you can come back and buy it guilt-free.  Do you even remember it a week later?  Or does your sudden "need" dissipate during that time?
  5. Does it work right now?  New jeans must fit you today.  Don't buy them telling yourself you'll lose some weight and they will be perfect.  Don't buy shoes you hope will stretch out enough to become comfortable.  They won't.

This kind of restraint may not come naturally -- it's a rare and wonderful thing in this age of excess!  But it's worth practicing, not just because it keeps us free of clutter, debt, and stress, but because it conserves our planet's resources, creates less waste, and lets us (and our children) learn to value creativity, generosity, and relationships over stuff.





Friday, September 13, 2019

Non-Conform


Photo by Rupert Britton on Unsplash


As a teenager, I often argued with my mother, usually ending with a comment like, "You just don't get me, Mom.  I have to be myself!"  Which is funny in retrospect, because I was always desperately trying to conform to what my peers were doing.

Even as adults, we continue to try to fit in.  Look at a typical group of friends, and you'll often see similar hair styles and colors, similar clothes, similar manicures, similar phone cases, even similar gestures and vocal inflections.

If we're the one person in a group that doesn't conform, we tend to think that the others are "normal" and we aren't.  We think there may be something wrong with us if we're too different from everyone else, and we worry that others will ignore or reject us if we aren't like them.  That can feel scary.

But being "normal" is overrated.  Sometimes we forget we don't have to do what everyone else is doing.  Being unique, finding our own passions, remaining true to ourselves -- that's the way to find happiness.

Minimalists aren't "normal."

We don't conform to our society, which pressures us to buy more, do more, hurry more, and work more.  Our culture expects us to be mere consumers, but we know that fulfillment actually comes from being creative, kind, and useful.  We know that when we're too busy chasing trivial things, we sacrifice our opportunity to find the things that really matter.



5 Ways to Non-Conform

1.  Control the message.  

The calls for conformity enter through our eyes and ears and take root in our minds if we don't choose to limit their impact.  We can watch less television, flip through fewer ads, and scroll through less social media.  We can idolize fewer celebrities.  As we begin to reduce the noise from outside, we're able to tune in to our own priorities, thoughts, and feelings.

2.  Say no.

Agreeing to do things you don't want to do, and that you don't have time for, in order to please someone else and keep from missing out is "normal."  It also creates stress and resentment, and keeps you from doing things you actually want to do.  Next time your heart says no, don't let your mouth say yes.  You don't need an elaborate excuse or apology.  Simply say, "No thanks!"

3.  Don't keep it.

It's "normal" to keep everything because it was expensive, or because someone gave it to you, or because you might need it someday.  Or maybe the kids will want it!

Minimalists clear out non-essentials to make room for the things that add value to our lives.  By getting rid of the stuff that doesn't matter, we're left with only what we use and love.

  • If you're keeping something "just in case," realize that you're living with fear.  Dig out some of that things that are buried in the back of your closet or in boxes in the garage, and admit that "just in case" means "never."  When you free yourself of these items, you'll let go of some insecurity as well.
  • If you're keeping something because it was expensive, realize that you're feeling guilt.  You spent a lot of money on something that wound up not meaning very much to you.  But continuing to clean, store, maintain, and insure this item costs money, time, and attention.  Let it go.  You've paid enough.
  • If you're keeping something because it was a gift, you don't have to.  It has already served its purpose as a token from your loved one.  And she probably didn't intend to burden you with something you don't like or can't use.  Going forward, if you prefer not to receive physical gifts, have conversations with your near and dear about a different way of giving.  Suggest getting together for a meal or a shared experience, or donating to a charity you both care about.
  • If you're keeping something because your kids might want it, they don't.  Just ask them!  They don't want your clothes or most of your furniture or china or knickknacks, so go ahead and donate or sell them if you aren't using them.  And if your adult children want their childhood memorabilia, give them a pickup deadline.  It's not your responsibility to store it for them.

4.  Stop competing and comparing.

This is the "normal" way of our world, and it's destructive.  If you're caught in this, ask yourself why you're so busy trying to impress everyone else that you're ignoring what makes you happy.  If you're living at an unsustainable pace, ask yourself if abusing your body, brain, heart, and soul is worth it.  If time spent on social media leaves you feeling jealous or lacking, switch off your device.

5.  Think differently.

Most people don't change.  They may complain about a situation, but they rarely change anything.  But as the saying goes, "Reality doesn't change until we do."

Minimalism will lead you down a path that most people don't choose.  They think it means lack and scarcity and deprivation.  They question the choices of someone who might only live with one car or only six pairs of shoes, who keeps a flip phone instead of a smart phone, or who doesn't say yes to every available activity.  It takes some determination and out-of-the-box thinking to be a non-conformist.

But minimalism is a tool that can help us find happiness by steering us in the direction of what we truly value.  Minimalism lets us fill our lives with what is most important to us while forcing us to let go of what adds clutter and stress and steals our time, money, and attention.  Living a minimalist life, a life of essentials, can help us find lasting rewards.







Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Memories, Not Mementos





Does that box of souvenirs really have sentimental value, or are you just caught in inertia or guilt?

When we have boxes full of stuff we never actually look at, it seems silly to claim we keep those things because of the wonderful memories they evoke.  If that's the case, why aren't all of those things on display in our homes?  Perhaps we need to consider whether the items truly mean as much as we think they do.




3 Reasons We Hang On

  1. We feel guilt or obligation.  Your husband's grandfather, or your beloved Aunt Edith, gave it to you.  It was important to her, so you feel you have to keep it, even though it's not your style and you have no use for it.  Trust me, Aunt Edith didn't intend to burden you or keep you trapped by guilt (and if she did, you have even less reason to honor her wishes).  Even if it was a gift, you have permission to let it go.  This is your home, and you have the right to make room for whatever matters most to you.
  2. We fear we'll lose memories if we lose the items.  You're not looking at or using items stashed in the back of a closet or in a box in the attic, so they're not actually available to jog any memories.  Realize that the memory and emotion you value resides in your mind and heart -- it doesn't exist in the item.  If you're concerned that you'll forget, take a picture of the item before decluttering it.
  3. The items represent a past accomplishment or phase of our lives.  If you have a box of newspaper clippings of your high school sports career, pick out the best ones and frame them for display, or make a scrapbook, and let the rest go.  If you're too embarrassed to make a big deal of your teenage athletic accomplishments, maybe that's a sign the stuff isn't worth saving.

In fact, anything on a "glory wall" of memorabilia that's more than a decade old needs to be reconsidered, so that your display isn't sending the message that your best days are behind you.  You don't want stagnation, you want movement and possibility.  So take it all down and choose your favorites, replacing only half, or a quarter, or even just one representative item.  Make space for new events and accomplishments.

Your past is important.  The people you've known, the places you've been, the things you've learned have made you who you are today.  But who you are has nothing to do with possessions and everything to do with relationships and experiences.  Those are a part of you and won't disappear even if your house and all its contents burns to the ground.  So you can be thankful for, yet move on from, past versions of yourself.  Who are you now?

One carefully chosen keepsake is able to get the attention it deserves.

Buy a beautiful frame to display your favorite wedding photo, and sell or donate your gown (you certainly don't want to guilt your daughter into using it someday).  You might not want your father's easel or all of his paintings, but you could keep and hang the one you like best.  Sell your mother-in-law's doll collection if you don't care for it, but keep one of her Waterford vases if you'll appreciate and use it.

As you decide what to keep and what to release, you'll find that you enjoy your possessions more because each is unique.  Your chosen items represent your taste and values, rather than being a stale memorial to your past or to other people.  And your memories are visible, so you'll savor them more often.






Monday, September 9, 2019

Love Limits


Photo by Marivi Pazos on Unsplash


His hair is sweaty and his face looks hot, but he doesn't slow down.

Up, across, down, run back, up, across, and down again.  The sweat slips down his cheek, but his eyes are alight with eagerness and fun.

He's my three-year-old grandson, and if I didn't call him over for a sip of lemonade now and again, he'd climb and slide and run around the play structure until he dropped from exhaustion.  He has no idea of limits.

He may take only one bite of his grilled cheese, but could eat "yummy wallypops" all day if I'd give them to him.  He needs a bit of firmness at bath time or clean-up toys time or bedtime, or he'd never be clean or rested until fatigue took over.  He needs to be slowed down and reminded to wash his hands, or he'd just run out of the bathroom to play some more.  He can be quiet, but rarely chooses that state.  He needs the discipline of limits so he can stay healthy, comfortable, and socially acceptable!

Most of us grew up with parents or grandparents who loved us enough to set limits.  Those limits protected and guided us, and even when we chafed at them, they were doing us good.

Eventually, we started to make our own decisions, and we began to test the limits.  Whether we broke curfew, did a bit too much partying, or something else entirely, part of becoming an adult involved pushing on and breaking some of the boundaries we'd been taught to respect.

It was an education in decision-making and self-reliance.  And most of us learned that some limits are necessary.  Now we live within the law, we don't drink and drive, we pay our bills, we mind our manners and try to get along with people.  We accept the limits that keep our society stable.

But there are other limits our society encourages us to ignore.

Our society labels us "consumers," and we're expected to buy.  Buy to celebrate, buy to console.  Buy to have what your friends have, or to be the first of your friends to own it.  Buy to make your life easier, or more exciting, or to express yourself, or to realize your dreams.  Buy because that thing you have is so last year, even though last year you were told it was the most wonderful, advanced thing in the world.

Even if you have no money, buy.  It's on sale -- buy two!  Take this low interest loan, or get this credit card, or sign a contract and get the first month completely free!

Our society also labels us "busy."  Busyness is a badge of honor.  You're important, indispensable, and you don't want to miss out on anything.  You're in the know, you retweet the hottest memes.  Your kids are the brightest and the best and you push relentlessly.  That Harvard acceptance letter or full-ride athletic scholarship is the route to happiness and respect.  Go big or go home!

So we ignore limits.

Our big houses are stuffed to the gills.  We buy everything we want, but are easily convinced we need more.  We have debt -- a lot of it.  With our packed schedules, we're always running late, we're impatient, and we're constantly multi-tasking, which means we never fully pay attention to anything.  We're sleep-deprived, anxious, and perpetually snacking.

When we collapse at the end of the day, we let Door Dash deliver food, binge watch TV, and scroll through social media.  We don't listen, we don't converse.  We don't really taste or smell.  If we feel disconnected or lonely as a result, we stuff our feelings and buy something, or we get a prescription.

We have to stop blowing through the limits of our time, space, money, and energy.

We need to stop abusing our bodies and our spirits.  We need to make room for creativity and kindness.

The reality is that it's impossible to have or do everything, and by pursuing the impossible we're throwing away what's really important.

Minimalism doesn't set limits, but it recognizes them.

Minimalism doesn't require you to have only 100 possessions, own a ten-item wardrobe, or live in a 300-square-foot tiny house.  Minimalism helps you live with less clutter, less debt, less busyness, and less stress so you have room for what really matters to you.  It helps you savor and enjoy the people, activities, and things that bring value to your life, while removing everything else.  Minimalism can help you limit yourself in ways that bring joy, well-being, contentment, and freedom.





Friday, September 6, 2019

Kindness


Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash


Doing good makes you feel good.

Studies show that when we are kind to others we become happier, but self-indulgence doesn't increase our feelings of well-being.  Researchers found that the more generous and helpful people were, the more purposeful their lives felt.  Knowing they were useful and needed made them happy.

This finding demonstrates the opposite of what advertisers want us to believe.  As long as your basic needs are met, acquiring more won't make you happier.  Your life won't improve if you buy the next hot item or luxury upgrade.  But removing the excess and the busyness so you can pursue your life purpose has major benefits, for you and for others.

What does it mean to be kind?  It's more than being "nice."  Kindness means you've tried to understand another person, and you treat them the way you'd want to be treated.  It's the Golden Rule:  "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

Kindness may come easily when we're in a good mood and things are going well for us.  It's harder when we're tired, or stressed, or disappointed, or when the person in front of us isn't behaving well.  But that's when being kind can have the most powerful impact.

  • When your child throws a tantrum, or wakes you up at 2:00 a.m., be kind.
  • When your partner is short-tempered after a stressful day, be kind.
  • When your neighbor fails to pick up after his dog, state your case, but be kind.
  • When your co-worker disagrees with you, share your opinion and reasons, but be kind.

These situations aren't pleasant, and kindness can be a difficult challenge.  But you can choose to lighten the encounter, rather than making things worse.  And it might open the door for better communication and a happier resolution.


20 Ways to Show Kindness

  1. Smile and make eye contact.  Try leaving your phone in your bag so you can pay attention to the people around you.
  2. Give a sincere compliment.  Of course you can compliment someone's hair style or outfit, but it might mean more if you can praise their idea, creation, accomplishment, talent, or personality.
  3. Yield.  Hold the door, let someone go ahead of you in line, and don't be a pushy motorist.
  4. Greet your neighbor.  If you don't know him, introduce yourself.
  5. Pick up trash as you walk around your neighborhood or through the park.
  6. Plant a tree.  A tree provides beauty, shade, clean air, habitat for wildlife, improved soil and water conservation, and maybe even food.  Planting one is a gift to future generations.
  7. Write a note of encouragement or appreciation.
  8. Do a chore that rightfully belongs to your child, spouse, or co-worker.  Don't say anything about it, just let them discover it done.
  9. Give flowers or a special treat to your mother, your spouse, or another person dear to you, "just because."
  10. Invite a friend, neighbor, or a new acquaintance for a meal, for coffee, or to a community event such as a concert or art show.
  11. Make a date.  Arrange to spend some uninterrupted time with your partner, child, or other loved one, doing something that they like to do.  Even if you don't care much for watching a football game, playing with wooden trains, or going to a quilt show, try to understand their interest, and enjoy the time you share with them.
  12. Donate.  There are many opportunities, such as sponsoring a child in need, providing healthy staples to a local food pantry, or giving gently-used clothing and toys to a domestic violence shelter.
  13. Give blood.  You'll help several people, and maybe even save a life.
  14. Volunteer.  Pick a cause you care about, such as a homeless ministry, a senior center, a literacy program, an environmental group, a youth club, or an animal shelter, and give a few hours of your time and energy.
  15. Purchase ethically.  Don't buy clothing brands that use sweatshops; avoid food and cosmetics from companies that mistreat animals.
  16. Listen as someone tells you about their plans or their problems.  Give them your full attention without interrupting or criticizing.  Ask questions, but don't try to tell them what you think they should do unless they ask your opinion.
  17. Be inclusive.  Read or listen to alternate viewpoints.  Try to understand another point of view, even if you disagree with it.
  18. Keep your speech positive.  Don't indulge in gossip, but try to introduce a new subject.  Don't respond in kind to someone's unpleasant words, but try to reply calmly.  Ditch negative remarks and put your energy into fixing the problem.  
  19. Give up perfectionism.  It's unreachable.  Don't be impossible to please.  Be gracious about human error and shortcomings -- including your own.
  20. Forgive.  Carrying a grudge is hard and unpleasant work.  Try to see the incident from the other person's point of view, and acknowledge your own part in the situation.  Even if you believe most of the fault lies elsewhere, be the one to make the first move when you are calm enough to do so.  Forgiveness doesn't mean you're condoning bad behavior, simply that you're choosing to move on with a lighter emotional load.

One more thing about kindness:  it seems to be catching.  One person being kind can make others in a group more kind, which lifts everyone's spirits.  It's a wonderful feedback loop.

So behave like the person you want to be.  It really is the secret to happiness.





Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Journal Your Gratitude


Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash



I can stand in the middle of certain stores and pick up plenty of items that might "spark joy."  I'll bet you can too.  But there's a ripple effect to retail therapy.  When I look for joy in belongings, I always need the thrill of something new.  Contentment is short-lived, because the next acquisition beckons.  Then I need more space to store stuff, more time to take care of stuff, and more stuff to keep me interested once I've tired of the "old stuff."

If you've ever turned to shopping as a source of comfort and pleasure, I'd like to suggest a powerful replacement.

The practice of gratitude actually changes your brain in multiple positive ways.

Current research shows that gratitude increases serotonin levels, improving sleep, mood, and metabolism.  Even more interesting, an attitude of thankfulness stimulates the production of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that's activated when something good unexpectedly happens.  While acquiring a new pair of cute shoes can release a burst of dopamine, so can sitting down with a gratitude journal.

Dr. Alex Korb, author of The Upward Spiral, has discovered that even searching for things to be thankful for is beneficial.  He writes:
Trying to think of things you are grateful for forces you to focus on the positive aspects of your life.  This simple act increases serotonin production in the anterior cingulate cortex.  
His research looks at how this reverses symptoms of depression.

Unlike buying something new, the daily (or even weekly) practice of gratitude will lead to long-lasting satisfaction.  When you focus on what you're grateful for, you essentially crowd out your more negative thoughts.  And since the brain constantly looks for things that prove what you already believe (it's called confirmation bias), by regularly scanning your life for what's good, your mind will start finding even more good things for you to appreciate.

Most of us have a lot to be happy about, even if we don't think so.  And if we spend more time focusing on those good things -- cultivating gratitude -- we will feel happier.  So gratefulness leads to happiness.  It's an essential part of a quality life.

Unfortunately, many of us have the habit of focusing on our problems and woes.  We spend a lot of time criticizing ourselves and finding fault with others.  And just like gratitude, complaining and pessimism get easier with practice.  So developing appreciation takes conscious effort.  This is where a journal can be so beneficial.

Actually writing down what you're grateful for forces you to slow down, be more mindful, and really pay attention to the goodness in your life.

According to Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough, psychologists at the University of California, Davis, research shows that those who keep gratitude journals are not only more optimistic, but also experience more energy, enthusiasm, and emotional connection to others, while seeing more progress toward important personal goals.  That's exciting!

So how do you journal your gratitude?

It's pretty easy to write a general list of items you're thankful for:  nice weather, your spouse or a friend, your reliable car, a delicious omelet for breakfast.  But if you take the time to get more specific, you'll create a stronger emotional response and a more powerful impact.

For example, I could list "I'm grateful for my husband Jon."  And that's true, but it's very general and doesn't really inspire good feelings.  But if I write

I'm grateful for Jon because he encourages my writing, slows his pace so he can walk beside me, and makes me laugh.  I'm grateful because we always have so much to talk about, and really enjoy spending time together, even after 35 years of marriage.  

Now I've written something that gets to the heart of why I'm grateful for Jon, and it inspires me.

Eventually, just listing things you appreciate might become repetitious.  Your kids, good health, seeing a good movie or a gorgeous sunset, a new pair of jeans that really fit....  Things like that are going to go on a gratitude list again and again.  In one sense, that's great, because having continued good health and enjoying lots of beautiful sunsets is wonderful, and you should be grateful for those things.  But in another sense it can start to feel uninspired, like you're just going through the motions, and you might be tempted to set aside your journaling practice.

But if you get more specific, and pay attention to the details that evoke good feelings or memories, you'll gain more benefit as you write.  Each time you mention that you appreciate nice weather, for example, your gratitude has probably been inspired for a different reason.  Describe it.  Later, if you reread parts of your journal, you'll experience those feelings again.

I'm grateful for this windy fall day.  The clouds are moving quickly, with occasional gleams of sunlight piercing through.  I love the sound of wind in the trees and the freshness of the air.  I'm thankful for the scent of approaching rain because we really need it!

Sometimes you might want to choose a focus for your gratitude.  Consider:

  • current or past relationships that have helped you
  • wonderful experiences that you've had
  • opportunities that have come or are coming your way
  • things in the natural world that you love
  • foods, items of clothing, movies, music, books, or other things you appreciate

Journaling your gratitude first thing in the morning will help you start your day with optimism and energy.  It's been described as "a hit of caffeine for the soul."  Making the practice part of your bedtime routine lets you reflect on good things that happened during the day, increasing your sense of calm and well-being and thus improving your sleep.  Choose either time (or both).  Just start today!





Monday, September 2, 2019

Identity -- It's Not What You Own

We all need love, acceptance, community, and a sense of accomplishment.  These factors contribute to our mental health and self esteem.


Photo by Omar Lopez on Unsplash


Psychologists such as Abraham Maslow have demonstrated that once our basic physical needs are met, we embark on a path to self-improvement.  Whether that leads us to seek out new experiences, new skills, new possessions, or a new look, we always want something more and different.

This drive has a positive side.  Invention and innovation have always come from the urge to be and do more and better.  Dissatisfaction with the status quo has created tools, machines, art, music, democracy, and movements for human rights and social justice.

But it doesn't always lead to happiness.

Unfortunately, the desire to "be all you can be" also fuels discontent.  I know you've felt it, when everything you've already done or acquired feels like old news.

We're always trying to enhance our looks, our wardrobes, our jobs, our homes, or our relationships, but once the initial happiness of acquisition wears off, we start looking for the next new thing.  That dopamine high is short lived!  We compare and compete with others, and keep searching for things or experiences to compensate for our perceived inadequacies.  We may try to gain significance through

  • designer clothes
  • the latest phone or smart gadget
  • liposuction and Botox
  • a luxury car
  • a remodeled kitchen
  • a diploma from an elite college
  • a promotion and a prestigious title
  • exotic travel

We may get everything we thought we wanted, everything we genuinely desired at some point.  But those items eventually become background noise, things we don't really notice or appreciate any more, part of what we have to clean, store, insure, repair, upgrade, work at, or continue to pay for.  Then we need something new to bring back the excitement.

If we equate our belongings and experiences with our value as persons, we enter a never-ending quest for acceptance and respect.  We must continually prove our worth.  We try to satisfy our very real emotional and psychological needs with the temporary high of acquisition.

Advertisers prey on these needs, of course.  But the real problem may be that it's much easier to buy something than it is to accomplish something.  It's much easier to look successful than to expend the time, energy, attention, and commitment it takes to leave the world a better place.

It's so easy to confuse material possessions with real achievement.

And that can leave us feeling hollow and unsatisfied.

So how can we break free?

  1. Identify your true need.  Your pursuit of the next purchase, experience, or program for self-improvement is about an internal need.  What is that need, really?  Are you buying a new car to prove you are worthy of respect?  Do you need a designer handbag to feel a part of the group?  Figure out your intangible emotional need.
  2. Determine a way to actually meet that need.  If a pair of shoes is giving you self esteem, that's a problem.  I'm not judging you, because I've been in the same situation.  What is a true solution to your need?  If you lack self-worth, maybe you need therapy, or a life coach, or an activity that bolsters your confidence and makes you feel needed.  Buying something won't do that.
  3. Separate your identity from your stuff.  If we believe our possessions or experiences indicate our value, we become slaves to those things.  And if times change, whether by job loss, age, or some other factor, and we have to give up those things, a piece of our self-worth and identity will go with them.
  4. Focus on what really matters.  The desire to thrive is a noble one, and it shouldn't be wasted in seeking a fancier house or a bigger wardrobe.  Remain ambitious, but choose goals that are worthy of you.  Strive to create, to contribute, to be healthy, wise, courageous, playful, and compassionate.

We don't have to be caught in an eternal loop of desire and discontent, mere consumers who are constantly enticed into buying something new.  We don't have to be so busy trying to impress everyone else that we ignore our true needs.  Minimalism can help us find lasting satisfaction.

We can reduce the clutter in our homes and schedules, gaining peace and confidence.  By keeping only what we value, we actually gain a clearer understanding of ourselves, and simplify our lives at the same time.

We find our true identity when we own and do less.