Monday, March 30, 2020

Precious Time

We all know that time is precious because it's finite.

But most of us have an uneasy relationship with time.  We feel like it's rushing past us, like we don't have enough of it.  We constantly complain that we're too busy, and we feel stressed about time.

Some of that is our own fault.  We may have one or both of these bad habits:

  • We fear missing out on an important opportunity, or a valuable experience, so we say yes to every request for our time.  We jam-pack our schedules, and our children's schedules.  We let being hyper-busy measure our self-worth, instead of focusing on giving our best talents and energy to a few activities we deem essential.  We forget that when everything is labeled "important," nothing is.
  • Often, because our use of time is so unfocused and so driven by FOMO and our need to feel important and worthwhile, we get fatigued and lose motivation.  Then we allow ourselves to wallow in time, to waste it with frivolous activities like shopping, overuse of social media, or TV/video binge-watching.  We wind up throwing away a bunch of time in which we accomplish nothing meaningful, not even true rest or recreation.  We skip sleep when we binge on these time-wasters, and we're not recharging our energy by moving our bodies, being creative, enjoying nature, or having meaningful interactions with another person.

The truth of the matter is that we have plenty of time in which to do amazing things.

You've heard of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, right?  He died at age 35.  Amelia Earhart and Martin Luther King, Jr. each lived to be 39.  Anne Frank died when she was only 16.  Blogger Leo Babauta has rightly said, "It's not about how much time we have, but how we use it, how we experience it."

5 Ways to Improve Our Experience of Time

1.  Appreciate it.
Every day that we have is a gift.  Instead of complaining about how little time we have, we could shift our attitude toward appreciation for the time we have.  Could this shift change how you feel every day?

2.  Use it intentionally.
If every day is a gift, should we waste it?  Or should we use it with intention?

We have time, but we need to prioritize it, because it's not infinite.  We need to use our time according to what's important to us.  That can include earning money, taking care of loved ones, taking care of ourselves, or something else that's meaningful.

The way we spend our time makes our real priorities clear.  Are you satisfied with the way you spend your time?  Do mindless, time-wasting habits deserve to be part of your days?

3.  Create space.
We may feel that we want to prioritize something, but lament our lack of time.  We need to make the time.  If we can't, maybe we need to admit that the item isn't really a priority after all.  If it is a clear priority, create space to care for it.

4.  Don't get too familiar.
We all have the feeling that time is passing faster and faster.  Maybe this is because we stop noticing things when they get too familiar.  It's like driving home from work, and not really seeing what you pass along the way.  It's all so familiar that you can operate on auto-pilot.

That's how we experience most of our time -- on auto-pilot.  Yet at this moment, as we are all thrust into the unfamiliar situation of social distancing brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, we have an opportunity to reframe our relationship with time and with our typical too-busy-to-notice way of life.

It's possible to pay more attention, to try to experience things as if we haven't done it all before.  Attention is the secret that keeps days from blurring into one another. 

5.  Imagine you have only one year.
If you imagined you were going to die soon, your priorities might shift, and you would definitely use the time remaining to you more carefully.  I'll bet needless shopping, mindless scrolling, and Netflix binges would drop out of your schedule.  I imagine you'd choose your activities for their value to you and their positive impact on others.  You'd greet each morning with energy and intention.

You have this opportunity right now.  Decide to take advantage of it.

Photo by Ahmad Ossayli on Unsplash

Friday, March 27, 2020

Cope With Loneliness and Stress (Part 2)

Perhaps you're feeling melancholy and isolated at home during the current unprecedented situation.  Your anxiety levels may be up as you worry about world medical events, the economic fallout of Covid-19, or even shortages of fresh food and toilet paper.

We do need to remember that for the vast majority of people who get sick, hospitalization won't be necessary.  They can self-quarantine as if they have a bad cold, and they're going to be okay.

We don't know how long it will be until things return to normal, so it's important to create a "new normal" in your schedule at home.  Psychologist Dr. Robin Henderson believes it's best not to think too far ahead.  "I like to think of things in two-week chunks," she says.  "What's my life going to look like for the next two weeks, and how am I going to manage that?"

So let's continue to look at strategies for coping with stress and loneliness that don't require medications or shopping.

Important note:  If feelings of sadness and depression persist over a long period or deepen to the point where they are seriously impairing your life, talk to a doctor as soon as possible.  Occasional melancholy may be part of normal human experience, but prolonged periods of depression indicate a serious condition that deserves proper review and treatment by a medical professional.

5 More Coping Strategies

6.  Eat a healthy diet.
Sometimes feeling sad can nudge us toward unhealthy foods, which will actually sustain a low mood.  But a 2019 meta-analysis of data from 16 studies showed that adopting a diet of nutrient-dense meals high in fiber, fruits, and vegetables, while cutting back on refined foods and sugars, improved symptoms of depression.

Even if fresh fruits and vegetables are currently difficult to find in your local market, frozen foods are just as healthy and beneficial.  Look for all kinds of berries, cherries, peaches, carrots, broccoli, spinach, green beans, onions, bell peppers, and winter squash.  In the canned foods aisle, consider tomatoes, pumpkin, sauerkraut, and all kinds of beans.  Buy oatmeal, brown rice, lentils, and raw nuts.

Stick with this habit long enough that a day doesn't seem normal without an apple (or some other fruit) for a snack and veggies at every meal.  Eventually, you won't even have to think about it, and your body and your mood will improve for the long term.

7.  Limit screen time.
There is ample evidence that more screen time depresses our mood, and reducing screen time lifts our mood.  This is especially true for children and teenagers.

I find that my mood and energy level spirals downward if I spend more time in front of a screen without creating anything.  In other words, if I'm actively writing, it doesn't negatively affect my mood.  But too much social media, television, web browsing, or shopping without a purpose makes me feel wasted.

Use these strategies to take control of screen use:

  • Practice hobbies that don't involve screen time.
  • Intentionally limit non-work screen time.
  • Do things with other people face-to-face (I realize this is more difficult right now).
  • Turn off notifications on your phone and computer (except from family members who need to be able to contact you).
  • Make sure to take a break from news coverage of the pandemic, including stories on social media.

8.  Meditate or pray.
Many medical studies have found that meditation reduces stress, anxiety, and depression, while providing many other positive benefits.

Make this very simple.  Sit in a comfortable chair, close your eyes, and focus on nothing but your breath.  Breathe in.  Breathe out.  Your mind will wander and that's okay -- when you notice that it has, bring it back to your breath.  Do this for one minute at first, gradually increasing the time.

You could also pray what is known as the Jesus Prayer:  "Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."  The benefits to this are subtle but real, but you must stick with it and give them time to grow.

9.  Laugh.
The Bible tells us "A merry heart does good like a medicine" (Proverbs 17:22), and now medical studies have proved it.

The problem is, you can't just sit around and laugh.  It helps to have things in your life that stimulate laughter, such as:

  • Your kids or grandkids -- just be silly and lighthearted with them.
  • Comedic films.
  • Comic strips or jokes.  I especially like Gary Larson's The Far Side, and Baby Blues by Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott.

10.  Read.
It turns out that getting lost in a book is a great way to lift your mood.  Reading reduces stress, slows cognitive decline, increases empathy, and satisfies our need for human connection because it can mimic what we feel during real social interactions.  Reading transforms you.

Some tips to improve your reading experience:

  • Remove distractions.  Go to the bathroom, get a drink of water, turn off notifications, find a comfortable chair with good light.
  • Give yourself time.  Don't just read for five minutes and then stop -- give yourself plenty of time to become engrossed.  An hour is good.
  • Make reading a shared experience.  You can join a book club, but I've found reading aloud to my kids to be the most wonderful opportunity to create shared memories and closeness.

P.S.  If you missed Part 1 of "Cope With Loneliness and Stress," find it here.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Cope With Loneliness and Stress (Part 1)

Are you feeling isolated and lonely at home during this Covid-19 pandemic?  Are you struggling with worry and sadness?

Many of us occasionally fall into periods of melancholy.  For some, it may be winter weather that brings it on (for me, it's the relentless heat and glare of summer).  When ordinary habits and routines are disrupted, it's easy to feel a sense of futility.  That can make you (or your children) less productive, less cooperative, more grumpy, and more prone to unhealthy snacking, impulse buying, and the influence of advertising.

It is possible to shake off these moods without resorting to pharmaceuticals.  Every one of the following suggestions is backed up with medical and psychological research, and none of them cost any money to try.

Important note:  If feelings of sadness and depression persist over a long period or deepen to the point where they are seriously impairing your life, talk to a doctor as soon as possible.  Occasional melancholy may be part of normal human experience, but prolonged periods of depression indicate a serious condition that deserves proper review and treatment by a medical professional.

5 Coping Strategies

1.  Get adequate sleep.
Lack of sleep can seriously affect your mood.  Even one sleepless night can make you irritable and vulnerable to stress; chronic sleep deprivation can increase anxiety, depression, and metabolic disruption.

Set the stage for a better night's sleep by turning off all devices, including your phone, at least one hour before bedtime.  Multiple studies show that LED lights in screens disturb production of the sleep hormone melatonin.  Darkness is essential to sleep, as it signals the brain that it is time to rest, so use blackout shades or a sleep mask if necessary.  Transition to a great night's sleep with one or more of these activities:

  • Take a warm bath or shower.
  • Pray or meditate.
  • Write in a gratitude journal.
  • Do some gentle yoga or stretching.
  • Read a printed book.
  • Get pressing tasks off your mind by making a to-do list for tomorrow.
  • Listen to relaxing music.

2.  Don't sleep too much.
Too much sleep can leave you feeling lethargic.  When you finally do get up, you may feel that you've wasted the best part of the day, which depletes your energy and purposefulness even further.

In general, if you're sleeping over nine hours per night on a consistent basis, you may be getting too much sleep.  Underlying medical conditions aside, how can you insure that you hit the 7 to 9 hour recommended level?

  • Set a very loud alarm at the nine hour mark, and put it across the room so you can't just hit the snooze button.
  • Make a date for the following morning.  If you aren't going in to work, make sure you plan a morning activity:  walk the dog, cook breakfast rather than letting the kids fix cold cereal, pre-arrange a phone call with your mother or an elderly neighbor you want to check on.

3.  Go outside.
There are numerous mood-lifting benefits of being outside, and various studies have linked exposure to sunlight with increased production of serotonin and endorphins, brain chemicals that correlate with satisfaction, calmness, and high spirits.

Make an appointment with yourself to spend 30 minutes outside each day.  You can work in your garden, blow bubbles with your child on the patio or a balcony, or simply sit and read on a park bench.

4.  Raise your heart rate.
A little bit of strenuous exercise releases serotonin, and may also help people who are prone to anxiety become less so.

You don't have to be in great shape, and you don't necessarily need to visit the gym.  Just find something you enjoy doing with enough intensity that you sweat a little and breathe heavily.  That might be a brisk walk, a quick bike ride, a session with your backyard trampoline or driveway basketball hoop, or a silly dance party with your kids.

5.  Talk to people.
Social isolation can make anyone feel disconnected and sad.  Spend time every day talking to people who are friendly, supportive, and positive.  Call a friend for a chat.  Invite your (healthy) sibling to come to your house for coffee or a meal.  When you do encounter strangers at the grocery store or gas station, greet them and wish them well.

Now is an especially good time to avoid those who are cruel, critical, and negative.  If your child is talking or texting with friends, determine that those connections are amiable and encouraging, not gossipy or bullying.

Look for "Cope With Loneliness and Stress (Part 2)" on Friday.

Photo by Ryan Park on Unsplash


Monday, March 23, 2020

In the White Space

As most of us shelter in place and practice social distancing, one of our most stunning lifestyle changes is a calendar full of white space.

Like many of you, almost all of my away-from-home activities have been suspended or canceled altogether.  Unlike a typical break or vacation, I can't just meet a friend for coffee, go out to see a movie or a play with my husband, or take my grandson to the California State Railroad Museum, one of his favorite places.  I'm sure many of you will miss visiting the gym, the library, your church, or your favorite restaurant.

In design, white space is not merely empty -- it has a purpose.  White space holds all other elements in balance, enabling them to stand out and be appreciated.  White space is calming; it lets us breathe.

I don't want to downplay the economic impact of closed businesses, or the sense of isolation that can result from canceled events and services.  But during this unprecedented time, we have a chance to enjoy a Sabbath rest from our over-busy schedules, and even though it is mandated rather than chosen, we can embrace it and benefit from it.

4 Positive Results of a Sabbath

1.  It can strengthen ties.
When we choose to take time off work, we could spend all or part of that day with family and friends.  We could take time to listen and play with one another, and add depth to our relationships.

But more often, time away from work is filled with other commitments, housework, shopping, sports practices, classmates' birthday parties, or that big game on TV we don't want to miss.

During this Covid-19 event, however, most of those other activities are unavailable.  If we don't allow ourselves to fill the time with online shopping and overuse of technology, we actually have an opportunity to spend quality time with our families.  We can visit with friends over the phone.  We can encourage our children to play with each other, something they may not have done since school and after-school activities began to dominate their lives.

2.  It can uncover resourcefulness.
I created a delicious soup last night with a can of chickpeas, a can of tomatoes, a can of vegetable broth, an onion, a carrot, brown rice, and a bunch of spices.  All of this was stuff I had on hand -- no frustrating grocery store visit required.  Empty store shelves are disconcerting, but before you panic (or shop online), check your pantry and get creative.

Are you a parent spending lots of time at home with your children?  Break out those board games, the paper, crayons, scissors, and glue.  Use Lego and Matchbox cars to create a city.  Challenge your kids to write a play (costumes can come from the dress-up box or your closet).  Glove up, and take a walk around your neighborhood to pick up litter, or take a bike ride if weather permits.  Let them help you cook or garden.  Try a decluttering challenge.  And read aloud.

If we decide that limitations present an opportunity to be inventive, rather than a reason to be fearful, we'll find our imaginations kicking into high gear.

3.  It can increase gratitude.
Personally, I don't care to listen to the repetitive fear-mongering that generally passes for news.  I can stay informed with a quick look at the California Department of Public Health website (your locality may have something similar), and then get on with my day.

Now is the time to focus on all we have to be thankful for.  While my 90-something parents-in-law are quarantined in their home, they are well, they have some good neighbors they can call for help if necessary, and my husband and I can be in touch via phone or video chat.  I can't visit the library, but I can still borrow e-books through the library website.  And we've recently had a few days of rain, after a bone-dry February.

These may seem mundane reasons to be grateful, but they're exactly what we tend to overlook when we get too busy, or when we focus on the worries (legitimate and otherwise) and inconveniences of this time.  The fact is that pessimism and complaining get easier with practice, so it's worth making a conscious effort to develop gratitude.  Even trying to think of things you appreciate forces you to focus on the positive aspects of your life.

4.  It can reaffirm your values.
Blogger Emily McDermott reminds us that when our routines are disrupted and we're faced with uncertainty, it's easy to reach for what comforts us.

Can't go to the gym?  Maybe you're tempted to skip getting any exercise at all.  Fresh fruits absent from the grocery store?  Maybe you're drawn to that bag of potato chips, rather than opting for frozen fruits or vegetables instead.  Lots of time on your hands?  Maybe you're binge-watching Netflix or YouTube rather than finding a project that engages your mind and talents.

I've been sleeping more than I need to, and spending more time in my pajamas when I'm awake.  It might be comforting today, but these are not good habits for the long term.

During involuntary downtime, we can search for escape, or we can affirm what's important to us.  Reach out to a friend for support and accountability, search for your healthiest options, set an intention, and stay true to your long-term goals.

Photo by Philipp Berndt on Unsplash

Friday, March 20, 2020


Great news!  My latest book, UNCLUTTERED: Make Space and Time for the Life of Your Dreams, is now available for pre-order in the Kindle edition on Amazon.  I will also be publishing a beautiful paperback edition, available April 4th.

Photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash

Spring Clean

I've been thinking that this time of enforced self isolation might be the perfect opportunity to do some home improvement.

And besides, the days are longer, the birds are busy, the first buds and leaves have appeared.  Everything is energized and ready to begin, and I've noticed a heavy, tired, even slightly grubby atmosphere in my house.  I'm ready to spring clean!

Perhaps your mother or grandmother immersed herself in a time-consuming, energy-depleting, rafters-to-baseboards scrubdown.  Maybe you were forced to help.  And maybe the thought of all of that labor is enough to make you want to run the vacuum cleaner through the middle of each room, hire someone to clean the windows, and call the job done.

Unlike our ancestors, the majority of us don't heat our homes with open fires or light our rooms with candles or kerosene lamps.  We aren't forced to use either an icy privy at the back of the yard or a stinky chamber pot stored under the bed.  We have washing machines, dishwashers, and other mechanical servants to help with the housework.  As long as we don't completely ignore cleaning and let roaches or mildew invade, our homes may never reach the level of dirt and disorder that a Victorian homeowner had to contend with by the end of winter.

But we may share another problem with those Victorians that makes cleaning house a burdensome job.

Susan Strasser, professor of history at the University of Delaware, and author of Never Done: A History of American Housework, reminds us that Victorian interior design embraced a "more is more" aesthetic.  Intricately patterned wallpapers, heavy draperies, thick carpets, ornate furniture, tapestries, collections of porcelain, exotic souvenirs, hunting trophies and more filled the typical home.  "It made spring cleaning much more difficult than it would've been in a home without tchotchkes," writes Strasser.

Now, you can clean and reorganize everything like your grandmother and great-grandmother did, or you can use this opportunity to accomplish several things by decluttering first:

  • Learn about yourself.  Cleaning may require you to handle your possessions, but it doesn't require you to evaluate them, especially if you just shuffle some of them into closets or the spare room.  In contrast, actually removing items from your home forces you to decide what is truly important to you. 
  • Control your urge to shop.  Do you really need to greet the season with new spring decor?  Maybe paring down will provide the fresh look you crave.
  • Benefit others.  The possessions you rarely use sit and gather dust.  Before you make another trip to the container store, consider donating your excess.
  • Inspire gratitude.  Cleaning and organizing do improve your mood, but they rarely lead to a new outlook on life.  You may still feel your house is too small and your income too little.  But clutter is evidence that you have more than you need.  When you start to remove excess possessions, you realize how prosperous you actually are.

Make room for the things you treasure and the things that are really useful to you by decluttering the rest.  Let your home be a haven that supports you, not a burden that steals your time, money, and energy. 

8 Steps to Declutter and Spring Clean

1.  Remove the trash.
It might surprise you how much of the stuff cluttering your home is simply rubbish:  Old magazines, junk mail, and receipts.  Outdated school papers.  Cords and keys to who-knows-what.  Broken toys.  Chipped dishes.  Ragged towels.  Off-smelling condiments, off-color beauty products, and half-used craft supplies from three years ago.

Getting rid of this stuff requires no hard decisions.  Recycle what you can, toss the trash, and dispose of chemicals (such as old paint and dead batteries) responsibly.

2.  Donate duplicates.
You know what you actually use and what you're keeping "just in case:"  The second set of luggage.  The third set of dishes.  All the extra mugs and kitchen utensils.  The laptop, tablet, TV, or phone you replaced.  The old couch Dad gave you when you were first married that still crowds the back bedroom.

You have enough for your needs.  Someone else can use these extras if you give them up.

3.  Release the unwanted.
This category includes gifts you don't like and never use:  That vase.  That painting.  Grandma's Hummel figurines.  Anything that came from an ex.

It also includes purchases you regret:  That green jacket.  Those jeans that just don't fit.  The pressure cooker you're actually a little afraid of.  The treadmill that simply makes you feel guilty.

If you don't need the money, don't waste the time and energy selling these things.  Donate instead.

4.  Clean most-touched surfaces and all of the corners.
Spray an all-purpose cleaner (such as Method) on a cotton cloth.  Wipe:

  • door knobs and drawer pulls
  • appliance fronts and handles
  • light switches
  • staircase railings
  • telephones, tablets, and computer keyboards
  • remotes and game controllers

Starting at the ceiling, use a long-handled duster or a broom with a rag over the bristles and get all the dust and cobwebs from the corners and edges of your rooms.  Don't forget ceiling fans and picture frames (and decide if you want to declutter any pictures).

5.  Wash and fluff soft goods.
This is the perfect time to wash items that haven't been laundered in a while.

  • Fluff throw pillows and lap blankets in the dryer on high heat, or remove covers, wash on gentle, and line dry.  Are these items really useful, or do they simply clutter the couch?  Vacuum upholstered furniture before replacing what you want to keep.
  • Wash and dry bathroom rugs and cloth shower curtains according to manufacturers' instructions.
  • Fluff bed pillows in the dryer on high, or launder according to instructions.  Wash blankets, quilts, and duvet covers before storing, and replace with lighter-weight bedding.

6.  Clear flat surfaces.
Remove lamps, plants, candles, photos, figurines, and all other knickknacks.  Dust and polish the furniture, and return only one or two items to each table, desk, or chest of drawers.  Choose your favorites, and donate the rest.

7.  Clear the floor.
Anything on the floor except for rugs and furniture should be put away.  School bags, purses, coats and other clothing, shoes, sports gear -- if it's used regularly, it should have a home.  If there are cases of soda or diapers or something else that have been shoved into corners, find a better place to store them (discard unused items to make a home, if necessary).  Now you can sweep, mop, spot clean the carpet, vacuum, and clean the baseboards.

8.  Clean the windows.
Window washing and spring cleaning seem to go together, but this can be a big job.  It doesn't have to be all or nothing -- if you only get to windows in the kitchen and living room, you're still making your home brighter.

Clear off window sills and wipe them with a damp cloth.  Decide if you prefer to keep them uncluttered.  You might also decide to remove heavy draperies and leave only the window shade, a valance, or some lightweight sheers.  Use your all-purpose cleaning spray and a squeegee on the glass.

It's time to celebrate!  Your home is cleaner, brighter, and more spacious.  Don't you feel energized and ready for spring?  Treat yourself to some fresh flowers, relax with a cool drink, and enjoy your home.

Be well!

Photo by Kavita Joshi Rai on Unsplash

Monday, March 16, 2020

Discover Your True Needs

Leo Babauta, who blogs at Zen Habits, has described a cycle we all go through:

Stage One -- Inspiration.
Something you read or hear about sparks an interest.

Stage Two -- Addition.
As you learn more about this new activity, and find new inspiration and ideas, you start to buy stuff.

Stage Three -- Contemplation.
At some point, you pause to consider and ask:  Is this really important to me?  If it is, what's the most essential part of it?  Can I pare down?

Stage Four -- Paring Down.
This is when you start to let go of things.  You figure out what's essential to what you have been doing and learning, and if you don't quit the entire activity (which can happen), you might keep just a few key things.  For example, if you start playing chess, you might buy a couple of fancy sets, a game clock, a bunch of books and apps, and start visiting several websites.  But in the paring down phase, you might decide that chess isn't important enough to keep in your life, or if it is, you only need your favorite set, two really useful books, and one website or app.  The rest you let go.

If you're a minimalist, you include the last two stages.

But if you're like most people, you keep repeating Stage One and Stage Two, which leads to an ever-growing amount of clutter.

As you might guess, I think the last two stages are very important.  But the first two are also important, because they're about learning, growth, and creativity.  Curiosity and exploration are essential human drives, and we shouldn't suppress them.

But here's what I've observed:

  • The Inspiration phase is exciting, but sometimes it's just an impulse generated by a photo, article, or conversation.  When it leads to the Addition phase, it's possible to spend a lot of time, money, and energy on something that's ultimately unimportant.  That doesn't mean we shouldn't try new things, just that we should slow down a bit and see if our interest has staying power.  We may find we don't have the commitment to really master the new skill, or that the payoff won't be exactly what we dreamed.
  • The Inspiration phase causes us to think we really want, even need, something.  We think the only way to meet our need is with the Addition phase.  But we might be wrong about that.
  • It's easy to go overboard in the Addition phase.  After all, you're excited!  I've wasted a lot of money in the past.  But it's possible to learn from that.
  • You can start the Contemplation phase early, even before the Addition phase.  Pause to think about your motivation for pursuing this activity.  Is it just a fantasy or is it truly meaningful?  Is the reality going to be anything like your fantasy?  Is there something more valuable you could be pursuing?  What does your interest in this area say about your true needs?  What is essential?
  • The Paring Down phase is liberating.  You may feel some regret for spending so much money and time, but it's not a waste to learn or create.  So be thankful and let go.

Babauta says that going through the entire cycle a couple of times teaches you a lot about yourself, and how to let go of things you don't really need.

Eventually you figure out that most of the things you crave are a substitute for your true needs.

The things you desire seem attractive, but only a few satisfy something deep within you.  You experience freedom and relief when you let go of stuff that isn't crucial.  For example:

  • Opera.  I really enjoyed learning about my voice, using, controlling, and developing it.  But the competitive aspect of professional singing, and the thousands of hours you need to practice to get anywhere close to mastery, were demands I didn't want to meet.  Ultimately, I wasn't fulfilled by opera.  My true need was for beautiful music and for increasing my appreciation of it, which I can do for free listening to a classical radio station.
  • Travel.  I traveled quite a bit when I was young.  I enjoyed some wonderful trips, and thought I'd always want to travel.  But it's so expensive, and I noticed I rarely visited Yosemite, only five hours away, even though it's a destination for people from all over the world.  I rarely went to San Francisco, only a two-hour drive.  I discovered that visiting the non-touristy, hidden gems of northern California gave me the same enjoyment as more exotic travel had done.  My true need was for exploration, and I can do that without going broke or burning jet fuel.
  • A home library.  Sometimes I've gone overboard in buying books.  I love books, to be honest.  I love the anticipation of a great story or amazing insights.  My true need was for learning and variety, but I didn't need to own every book in order to get that.  I still buy some books, but I use the library far more than I used to.

In the end, going through the cycle gave me the experience to realize what I really needed, and helped me learn to let go of the things I thought were needs.

Photo by Vlad Sargu on Unsplash

Friday, March 13, 2020

The Beauty of Boundaries

Some boundaries are so clear we have to obey them, like the "Do not enter" sign on a one-way street, or the bar that comes down just before a train goes through a crossing.  Other boundaries are more subtle, such as the amount of space we leave between ourselves and the person in front of us in line, or the fact that you may shake the hand of a new acquaintance, but you would never hug him.

Boundaries help us.  They keep us safe, preserve our personal space, enable us to cooperate with others, and keep most of our interactions polite.  And boundaries can do even more, if we will take the time and effort to erect and preserve them.

Minimalists often create boundaries which help them enjoy more space in their homes or preserve time and energy to do what is most important.  Boundaries are especially useful when replacing an unhealthy habit with a better one.

Since habits are facilitated by familiarity and the path of least resistance, we need to introduce some friction in order to learn a new habit.  As James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, explains, "For many of us, a little bit of friction can be the difference between sticking with a good habit or sliding into a bad one."

Artificial boundaries and arbitrary deadlines are two ways to add friction.  For example:

  • Courtney Carver's Project 333 involves choosing a limited number of clothing items, boxing up the rest (creating an artificial boundary), and then setting a date to open the box again (an arbitrary deadline).
  • In Digital Minimalism, author Cal Newport recommends a 30-day digital declutter process (arbitrary deadline) where you take a break from "optional technologies," and then slowly reintroduce them mindfully (setting an artificial boundary).

We may not feel any urgency to do something about our clutter until we are up against a boundary such as a physical limitation or an urgent deadline.

A frequent excuse not to declutter is "If I have the space, what's the big deal?"  I live in a country where the average home size has doubled since I was born in 1960, while the number of people in the average family has declined by almost 25%.  So the only time we may actually feel pressed to do something about clutter is if there's a fixed deadline, such as moving.  Otherwise, we can convince ourselves to hold on to things "just in case" because we have the room to store them.

This explains the popularity of downsizing among people whose children have grown up and moved out.  Now that the kids are self-supporting, parents have more time and money than they've enjoyed for a while.  And by moving into a smaller home, they may save even more money while reducing the time and energy they need to spend on home maintenance.  This brings a huge sense of liberation and relief, and opens the door for new goals and experiences.

Minimalism can help you achieve that same freedom, even if you were born in the 1980s.  You don't have to wait until your "golden years" to downsize!

Even if you have a huge walk-in closet, why not limit certain types of clothing to a definite amount of space?  You could "allow" only 6, or 8, or 10 pants (trouser) hangers, for example, or one shoe caddy that can hold 12 pairs of shoes.  Why is it that we can allocate one drawer for socks, or one drawer for night clothes, but other types of clothing can explode in our closets just because there's room?  Set a boundary, curate your wardrobe, simplify getting dressed, and enjoy every piece of clothing you own and the uncrowded space in which you store it.

Blogger Emily McDermott reminds us that "If you're not ready to get rid of certain items or behaviors in your life, it's ok to take a 'break' rather than 'break up.'"  When we think we can't possibly do without something, taking a temporary break can help us understand what we gain by removing it from our lives, rather than fret about what we are losing.  Whether that means taking a digital sabbatical, boxing up clothes, toys, books, or dusty kitchenware, or cutting out dessert or alcohol for the next 30 days, we have a chance to get clear about what is really valuable and essential.  And since we're only "taking a break," we can mindfully and intentionally reintroduce those things if we choose.

Living at full capacity is exhausting, and it makes us less effective.  When a phone or computer gets close to its limits, it may start acting strangely.  Apps may close without notice, crashes are more frequent, the battery drains more quickly.  We are the same.  When we're overloaded and overwhelmed, our energy is drained.  We have less patience and flexibility.  We're so bogged down by what we've accumulated in the past that we have no heart for what comes next.

When we decide what we can do without (temporarily or permanently), something amazing happens.  Where before we could barely keep up, now we have the capacity to focus, to pay attention.  We can use our precious resources of time and energy in ways that bring us the greatest fulfillment.

The answer to lightening your physical and mental load isn't more square footage, a "smart" gadget, or a better organizing system.  It's found when you look closely at what takes up your space, time, and energy and offload what you no longer need.

Boundaries -- physical limits, or a certain amount of white space on your calendar -- can help you make room for the life you want.

Photo by Magda V on Unsplash

Monday, March 9, 2020

Would You Rather...

Have you ever played "Would You Rather..."?  It's a conversation game where participants must choose between two scenarios and explain why.

If you apply this game to your relationships, your stuff, and your home, you can start to see what you value and what really makes you happy.

For example:

  • Would you rather have your curio cabinets, shelves, and collectibles that fill an entire room, or enjoy a smaller home that costs $300 less every month?
  • Would you rather have a garage full of packed boxes, or room to park your car out of the weather?
  • Would you rather have your father's first edition Stephen King novels, or a close relationship with your sibling?

You may not realize it, but these represent the types of choices you are making as you declutter, downsize, or death clean.  It's important to ask yourself the questions so you can imagine the results before making a decision you regret.

So often, we fear that decluttering will lead to regret.  We focus on what we're giving up, and worry we'll discard something we might need or want later.

But sometimes keeping stuff causes loss.

Keeping stuff we don't need can mean a loss of space, time, money, freedom, energy... even of relationships.  ("I had no idea that fight over Dad's books would create such bad feeling between us.  I wish I'd known I was choosing those books over my brother!)

Every day, we make decisions about how we will prioritize the elements of our lives:  the stuff we own, our relationships with family and friends, our jobs, our leisure activities, our health, even our spirituality.  Too often, we are unaware that our choices and actions are defining who we are, and that they communicate much more about us than any words we say.  We thoughtlessly accumulate more and more, or get busier and busier, or go deeper into debt, or eat junky food, all without realizing that we are crafting a message about our true values and beliefs.

Minimalism can help you take an honest look at what really matters to you.  When you peel away the things and activities that you don't need or want, you're left with a clear view of what you really care about.  Then you can decide if you're happy with that view, whether you want to cultivate it or make some changes.  You'll figure out who you really want to be.

Photo by Daniel Fazio on Unsplash

Friday, March 6, 2020

30 Minimalist Habits - Part 2

Dear Kelly, Lisa, Trece, Judith, Betty, Bruce, Chris, Donna, and everyone:

Thank you so much for your interest in my new FREE resource, 30 Minimalist Habits.  Please request it using the Contact Form at the bottom of this page.  I need your email address in order to send it.  When you use the contact form, your privacy will be preserved, but I can actually reply to you and send the PDF.  Many have already requested 30 Minimalist Habits using the Contact Form, and I would love to send it out to all the rest of you also!

Best wishes,

Photo by Alyssa Stevenson on Unsplash


Here's a way of thinking about purchases that might help you avoid bringing wasteful clutter into your home:  Is the item you want to purchase going to be an asset, or is it going to be a drain?

An asset enhances your life and is more than worth the cost and effort of acquisition, storage, and upkeep.

A purchase that becomes an asset allows you to have more time and energy for the important things in your life.  It provides efficiency, or a measurable return on your investment.  An asset provides more time, money, happiness, or energy than was taken to obtain it.

Ask these questions:

  • Does it help create more time?
  • Does it help generate income or help save money?
  • Does it align with your values and what you want out of life?
  • Does it bring joy, happiness, and fulfillment into your life?

Examples of asset purchases:

  • Better cookware, knives, or an appliance you will regularly use to more easily create healthy, home cooked meals, saving tons of money over restaurant meals.
  • A high quality suit that fits, flatters, and gives you confidence for a job interview, and that you will regularly wear on the job.  A new hair style or a professional manicure might accomplish the same thing.
  • Hobby tools or equipment that you will use to spend more time doing something you enjoy while creating beautiful and useful items for yourself, as gifts, or even for sale.
  • A bicycle that allows you to get back and forth to work and run errands, thus saving the cost of buying and maintaining a car while allowing you to get regular exercise.
  • A car that's well within your budget, is reliable and gets great gas mileage, is inexpensive to insure, and that you plan to drive for many years.
  • A book that inspires and motivates you to take positive steps in your life, or that helps you relax, laugh, imagine, or learn.

In contrast, a drain becomes clutter; it won't enhance your life.

A purchase that becomes a drain requires more time, money, or energy than it returns.  A drain requires the energy it took to earn the money to purchase it in the first place, and it continues to take energy to maintain or organize, or to earn more money to purchase upgrades or replacement parts.  An item is also a drain if it winds up gathering dust or sitting unused in the back of a closet or other storage area.

Ask these questions:

  • Does it require spending more money or time to maintain?
  • Does it take up space that you need to pay money for (such as a larger house or a storage unit)?
  • Does it help you get closer or further away from your life goals?
  • Does it have a future as a well-used, valuable possession?
  • Does it create freedom and flexibility or a burden in your life?

Examples of drain purchases:

  • A house that you buy because you're sick of renting, in an area you don't plan to live in for more than a couple of years, and that you are going to want to immediately begin to remodel and upgrade.
  • Fancy china or glassware that you think will impress your in-laws when they come for the holidays, that can't go in the dishwasher and so will never be used except for "special occasions."
  • A china hutch in which to store the fancy dinnerware so that it's on display, impressive but not useful.  Now you have an unnecessary piece of furniture to dust, with glass doors to clean, that will be a pain to move.
  • A decor item that follows the latest trend but doesn't reflect your personal style.  It caught your eye in the big box store, but is destined to become something to ignore unless you dust it or move it out of the way to use the table it's sitting on.
  • Fast fashion that may be in style but doesn't flatter your coloring and body type, that is a pain to wash or that requires dry cleaning, and that will be shoved to the back of your closet within a few weeks or months.
  • Hobby tools or equipment that you think will inspire you or make you look like an "expert" at the hobby, but that will sit unused because you only have a fantasy about being good at that activity; for example, an expensive new sewing machine when you're only just learning, or a new set of pro-endorsed golf clubs when you only play once a month.
  • A car that you have to lease because it's really more than you can afford, that doesn't get good gas mileage even though you have a 50-mile commute, and that is expensive to insure and maintain.
  • A book that is going to sit in a pile or help fill a shelf, instead of being read.

Asking these questions will help you distinguish the assets from the drains, and will help keep clutter from entering your life.  One bad or excessive purchase might not undermine your values and goals, but a habit of bad purchases will trap you in clutter and debt.  Consistent good choices will support the life you want.

Photo by Meric Dagli on Unsplash

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

30 Minimalist Habits

Please check out the new FREE resource I've created for you!  30 Minimalist Habits will inspire you to simplify your schedule, your home, your diet, and your priorities while encouraging you to make more room and time for relationships, creativity, fun, gratitude, and peace.

To receive 30 Minimalist Habits, request it using the Contact Form at the bottom of this page.

Photo by Arthur Trefzger

Monday, March 2, 2020

Decluttering Quick-Start Guide, Part 4

Overly complex routines can make us feel swamped with too many choices or mired in drudgery.  Tasks like laundry, grocery shopping, yard work, and meal preparation must be done, but we can find ways to streamline the work, or turn it into an opportunity to improve our health, relationships, and well-being.

4 Ways to Simplify Daily Routines

1.  Wear a uniform.
Former President Obama has his gray or navy suits, Steve Jobs had his Levis and black turtleneck.  Designer Giorgio Armani sticks with an all-navy outfit of tee shirt, drawstring pants, and cashmere sweater, while art director Matilda Kahl chooses black trousers and a white silk shirt.  Having a uniform makes decisions about what to wear super easy, and once you settle on your own iconic look you always feel confident and put together.

Check your closet for styles and colors you gravitate toward, since these may form the basis of your uniform.  For me, it's black or dark wash straight-leg jeans, minimally patterned jewel-tone tops, and my favorite necklace.  What's your signature style?

2.  Keep up with laundry.
Dirty laundry is always being created.  Are there ways to minimize it?

  • Do a load of laundry two or three times a week (or every day if you have several young children).  Don't leave yourself a mountain to do on the weekend.
  • If your clothes aren't noticeably soiled after one use, hang them up to wear again.  You'll have less laundry, and your clothes will last longer with less exposure to detergent and high temperatures.
  • Remove clothes from the dryer as soon as the cycle is complete, or even while they're still slightly damp.  Bring hangers to the laundry room and hang clothes immediately.  You'll use less energy, cause less wear on the clothes, and reduce the need for ironing.
  • Save the time it takes to fold a set of sheets by putting them right back on the bed after washing.  For variety, switch to a different set when seasons change.  (Of course, you do need extra sets of bedding for baby cribs or toilet-training children.)
  • You really don't need more than two or three sets of towels per family member, and towels that dry clean bodies can be hung to dry and reused for several days before laundering.
  • Prevent huge piles of socks and underwear!  Designate a large mesh lingerie bag for each household member (sew or tie a different color ribbon on each), and have them put their dirty socks and underwear in their own bags.  Throw the bags in the washer and dryer, then return the clean items to each person to sort and fold on their own.  And no more orphan socks!

3.  Eat one simple food.
Eat something today that hasn't been manufactured and marketed, such as:

  • oatmeal with cinnamon and raisins
  • a perfectly cooked egg on a slice of whole grain toast
  • a plate of dark leafy greens dressed with homemade vinaigrette
  • chicken baked with lemon, garlic, rosemary, and extra virgin olive oil
  • a plain baked potato topped with freshly ground black pepper and a spoonful of cottage cheese or salsa fresca
  • lentils simmered with onions, carrots, celery, diced tomatoes, and a bay leaf
  • mushrooms sauteed with garlic and red pepper flakes, served over whole wheat pasta
  • a piece of beautifully ripe fruit
  • a handful of raw almonds

Simplify meal planning and grocery shopping, and nourish yourself with real, whole, simple food.  If you do this every day, you'll be rewarded with better health and a trimmer body.

4.  Do some work.
Physical work, that is, without labor-saving devices.  It may not sound minimal to take more time and effort to accomplish tasks, but what will you do instead?  Watch TV?  Shop?  Why not use the muscles God gave you, and use the time to socialize with a friend or family member, to listen to music or an audio book, or to be quiet and meditative.

  • Chop vegetables, knead bread, hand wash dishes.  (Declutter the food processor, the stand mixer, and the bread maker.)
  • Sew on a button or repair a hem.  (Declutter clothes that are ripped or stained beyond repair.)
  • Use a push mower, clippers, a broom, and a rake.  (Declutter all those loud, polluting yard devices.)
  • Ride your bike to work; walk the dog.  (Declutter the unused treadmill, and perhaps your car.)

Photo by Alexandra Gorn on Unsplash