Monday, June 29, 2020

First Things

A simple life is not seeing how little we can get by with, but how efficiently we can put first things first.

Victoria Moran 

I'm so pleased to introduce my new book Resilient: How Minimalism Helps You Cope With the Challenges of Life, available now on Amazon.  I cannot explain the problems that arose publishing this book under its original title (Everything to Gain), because for the life of me, I can't understand them myself!  I'm chalking it up to the disruptions of COVID-19, and to the apparently reduced staff at Kindle Direct Publishing.  Resilient (with a gorgeous cover photo by my husband Jon) is currently available in the Kindle edition and will soon (I HOPE!) be available in paperback as well.

Because of the issues surrounding publication, I was actually able to add more material and to reshape what I had originally planned for this book, and I'm even happier with the final result.

All of us are uncertain about the future, but minimalism can help us deal with whatever might come next.

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 let ourselves get frazzled and distracted by too much stuff and busyness, we're left with less energy to cope, let alone find peace in adversity.  But if we choose to live with less clutter, busyness, debt, and stress, something amazing happens.  While 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 all of the excess.

When you know your priorities, it's easier to discard the things that don't support them, whether that's clutter in your closets, bloat in your budget, or commitments on your calendar.

When you know what really matters to you, and make those things the focus of your life, you're not bogged down with minutiae.  You've gained the capacity to be resilient – to learn, adapt, and resourcefully deal with problems and setbacks.

That's true freedom.

Consider:  What are your "first things"?  Do your daily choices reflect them?  

Photo © Jon Trefzger

Friday, June 26, 2020

We Need Nature

I have to admit I was not much of a nature kid growing up.  I rode my bike and skated on the sidewalk and climbed trees and played tag, but I was not intrepid or athletic, I didn't enjoy getting dirty, and I had no one to guide me toward an interest in the natural world.  My family didn't do much camping, as my mother didn't care for it, and my dad was busy working two jobs, and grew up in the West Indies, so didn't know much about the flora and fauna, or even the stars, of the San Francisco Bay Area.  I liked trees and fog and flowers, but didn't know much about them.

My husband, however, grew up on nine acres of woods and pasture in rural Placer County, California.  He and his three brothers roamed the woods, raised cattle for 4H, and backpacked all over the Sierras with their dad, a professional geologist and avid amateur astronomer.

So Jon has taught middle school science for over 30 years, and has an informed interest in geology, astronomy, botany, birding, and several other areas.  Most of my knowledge of the natural world has come from him, and as I've learned and observed more, I've increased my appreciation.

One thing I love to do in nature, especially when away from crowds of people or sounds of vehicles, is to walk or sit in silence, simply looking, listening, smelling, and feeling the woods or mountains or ocean or wherever I am.  I don't need or want any man-made input or entertainment.  Nature itself is compelling enough.

A growing body of scientific research indicates that time spent in nature relieves anxiety and depression, helps prevent or reduce obesity, boosts the immune system, improves social bonding and reduces violent behavior, inspires creativity, and strengthens the ideals of conservation.  That's an amazing list of benefits that we should all want to enjoy.

We need to beware living in a world that is becoming increasingly mechanized.

Machines don't need anything green, but we do.  In an urban setting, parks, gardens, and other green spaces aren't just nice amenities, they aren't luxuries, they are necessities.  Rooftop gardens, window planters, and street trees are essential for sanity and humanity in cities.  More organic, multi-crop farms bordered by hedges and streams and wooded areas are essential.  And preserving the wild spaces we have left is also essential.

It is minimalist to have an interest in conservation, to spend quiet time outdoors, and to teach your children to be curious about and nurturing toward our planet – not just the spectacular wonders on so many people's bucket lists, but the small corners of green everywhere around us.  We don't have to travel far to spend time in nature.

When reminiscing about childhood memories, people seldom mention the best day they spent watching TV or playing a video game.  What they do recall, if they're lucky enough to have had such experiences with their families, are camping trips, hikes, hours spent playing in a tree house, the time it snowed on the beach in Mendocino (true story), rafting down a river, catching fireflies, or watching a meteor shower from Grandpa's pasture.  Give your children memories like this, and make them for yourself.  Take regular doses of "Vitamin N."

Photo by Christopher Jolly on Unsplash

Monday, June 22, 2020

Cultivate Self-Worth

During the coronavirus pandemic, social media use has increased significantly, according to new data from a Nielsen study.  While social distancing, we are immersing ourselves in social media as a safe way to connect with others.

And this is fine, if we control our need for external validation.

When I check and recheck the metrics on my blog to see how many page views and subscribers I have, that can be a search for information, or it can be an unhealthy need for external validation.  When I start to doubt my abilities as a writer, or to doubt the value of my message, based on how broad my readership is or on how many people choose to comment, I start losing my sense of motivation and direction.

And it's okay to be excited when one of my articles is published on No Sidebar, but I shouldn't let that rush of serotonin become something I need in order to keep writing every day.  If I'm starting to find self-worth in the opinions of people I've never met and an editorial agenda over which I have no control, I'm going to flounder.

Susie Moore, author of Stop Checking Your Likes: Shake Off the Need for Approval and Live an Incredible Life, writes "Likes have become the current measurement of external approval.  Of fitting in.  Of how good we are allowed to feel."

We acknowledge this every time we add a thumbs up or a little red heart to something a friend has posted on Facebook or Instagram.  I even feel a certain obligation to respond, because I want to let my friends know I'm paying attention and that I think their posts are moving, accurate, important, thought-provoking, funny, valuable. 

That they are valuable.

External approval, whether in the form of social media likes, compliments, or other positive feedback, boosts the levels of feel good chemicals in our brains.  Serotonin, for example, is increased by events that stir up feelings of self-worth and connectedness.

And we need those feelings of value and belonging.  But when social media likes become the measure of how accepted and welcome I feel, then a post that receives fewer or negative responses is going to make me feel ignored and unwanted.  I will soon have no sense of my own worth unless someone else gives it to me.  And that's dangerous.

5 Ways to Overcome the Need for External Approval

1.  Remember your uniqueness.
There is no one like you.  You are here for a reason, and have something to offer the world that others cannot.  But you can't do that by pretending to be someone you're not or by wishing you were someone different.

Take time to ponder your interests, and talk to a friend or mentor who can help you identify your talents and strengths.  Develop a clear sense of purpose and you'll be less likely to seek external validation.

2.  Consider reducing your presence on social media.
Social media is wonderful for staying in touch with friends and loved ones.  But it's possible to do that with email, phone calls, even good old snail mail.

When social media is twisted into a venue for comparison and competition, it quickly becomes toxic.  When you spend hours creating Pinterest boards and longing for the perfect wardrobe, home, or vacation, you're squandering the time and energy you need to craft your own life.

Examine the way you use social media, and make sure it's really a positive means of connection rather than something that increases envy or dissatisfaction.  Remove yourself if you need to.

3.  Trust your gut.
Look around at your home and your life choices.  Are the decisions you've made your own or based on someone else's influence?  Are you chasing career goals and home ownership because that's how you were raised, or are you following your own values, even if they lead to different outcomes?  Are your social media posts designed to draw approval from others, or are they a true expression of yourself?

Take time to get in touch with your inner self through prayer, meditation, or journaling.  The next time you make a decision, let it come from the real you.  Let being true to yourself be your measure of success and of how you feel about an action.

4.  Learn to live with criticism.
Journalist Julia Ubbenga reminds us "Avoiding suffering at all costs stifles our ability to take risks – and ultimately to grow.  Accept that suffering and criticism are parts of life and allow them to happen.  Realize that, although they're not fun, they always pass and you'll still be okay."

Hard moments can teach us about ourselves.  Sometimes we learn that we were wrong, that we need to change and ask forgiveness.  Other times we'll be confirmed in our convictions, and ultimately emerge stronger and more self-confident.  The people we most revere, like Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela have stood firm even when they were rejected.

5.  Boost serotonin in other ways.
When you notice that you're seeking approval, increase your brain's feel good chemicals.

  • Take a walk in the sun.
  • Do some yoga or ride your bike.
  • Get a massage.
  • Find at least three things to be thankful for.
  • Look at photos of past happy events.
  • Help someone else.

With social media use on the rise, it's the perfect time to overcome your need for external approval.  Realize that you are valuable, just as you are.

Photo by Aziz Acharki on Unsplash

Friday, June 19, 2020

You Are Essential

As a singer, choir director, and music educator, my career role in society has always been deemed non-essential.  With the current emphasis on STEM-based education* and the centrality of organized sports, the arts are always vulnerable to budget cuts, even at the university level.

However, the arts require focus and discipline.  They have been proven to develop critical thinking and creative problem-solving, important skills for anyone who wants to become innovative, adaptive, and resilient.  And arts such as drama, dance, opera, and performance in choirs, bands, and orchestras require a cooperative mindset, the ability to collaborate and bring out the best in each individual in order to meet a common goal.

I'd say those qualities are essential to our future on this planet.

Perhaps we don't intend to label and characterize jobs and people as "essential" or "non-essential," but we have done so in our response to COVID-19.  And it makes sense – some businesses and jobs are life-and-death vital, and some are not.

I deeply appreciate all of the health care workers, first responders, grocery clerks, delivery personnel, janitors, sanitation engineers, bus drivers, and others who have worked so hard to provide critical services during the past few months.  We could not survive without them.

But I also appreciate my hairdresser, my massage therapist, and the friendly servers at my favorite breakfast place who were all labeled non-essential and were thus unable to work.  I miss the cast and crew of Broadway Sacramento, the pastor at my church, and my town's librarians.

My husband, a 6th grade teacher, missed his students this spring, and reports that Zoom meetings and online lessons could never take the place of day-to-day contact in the classroom.  Yet he appreciates parents who stepped up to supervise and facilitate their kids' distance learning.

We are all essential to someone.

Parents are essential to their children, and those kids are essential to parents, grandparents, teachers, and the world.  All workers are essential to the people they support, whether that means other vendors who supply them, or the families who rely on their income.  My dad used to say that when you smiled at someone you were making the world better.  That's pretty darn essential too.

You are essential to me.  Thank you for reading.

*STEM is the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.

Photo by Samuel Sianipar on Unsplash

Monday, June 15, 2020

What Do You Really Want?

I didn't know what I wanted out of life, so I'd buy a new phone or pair of shoes.
Courtney Carver 

Do you shop when you need to feel better?  When you've had a hard day at work, when a loved one has disappointed you, when you're bored or tired?  Shopping seems like a pick-me-up, and a new shirt or pair of earrings might make you feel better, at least for a few minutes.  But when that new thing isn't new anymore, or when the credit card bill arrives, or when you stand in front of your packed closet trying to decide what to wear, you might not feel so good then.

And sometimes we just feel dissatisfied, we may not even know why.  We just know we want a change, and that restlessness pushes us toward the mall or the online store, toward travel, even toward a new job or a new partner.

There may be real reasons why you need to feel better, but taking a weekend trip you can't afford, buying a new electronic gadget, or going out with your friends to a bar might not be the best way to help yourself.  There are better methods of self-care when you don't feel well, or when you're sad, frustrated, or feeling lost.  You don't need to ignore those emotions, or make light of them.  Just find better ways to address them.

It's amazing how much a walk through the woods or a park, a nap, some good music, even a cup of tea can do for your outlook.  Some yoga, a good laugh, a scented bath, or doing something kind for someone else can also turn your feelings around.

Marketers want us to believe that what they're offering can make our lives better.  Happiness is just a purchase away!  And you might go that route for a while – I certainly did, for far too long.  But eventually you recognize that more stuff just leaves you feeling bloated and burdened.  When you do get around to clearing some of it out, you notice at once that you feel lighter and more free.

Feng shui practitioners tell us that possessions we don't use, that merely fill our closets and drawers and under the bed, create stagnant energy in our lives.  This is logical, whether you believe in feng shui or not.  When our homes and lives are full of clutter, we have no room for change.  I think we really do stunt our emotional and spiritual growth, and stymie our creativity and openness to new possibilities.  We actually make ourselves lethargic and dull.

If you're feeling stuck in your life, with no clear idea of what you want to learn or do next, with a sense that you're in a rut and there's nothing to look forward to, please don't try to shop yourself out of the feeling.  The next purchase won't fix your life, or fulfill something that you're lacking.

Be still for a moment; listen to your heart.  Take care of yourself: eat a juicy piece of fruit, dance to your favorite tune, call a friend.  Remove some of the excess stuff in your home or on your calendar.  When you give yourself space and time to breathe, you may just remember who you are and what really matters to you.

15 No-Shop Self-Care Tips to Restore Your Sense of Self

  1. Take a walk in the woods or through a park.
  2. Take a nap.
  3. Listen to some soothing or energizing music.
  4. Relax with a cup of coffee or tea.
  5. Do some yoga or stretching.
  6. Write in a journal.
  7. Find something that makes you laugh.
  8. Soak in a bath scented with lavender or eucalyptus.
  9. Cuddle with someone you love.
  10. Eat a piece of fresh, juicy fruit.
  11. Dance to your favorite tunes.
  12. Get lost in a good book.
  13. Call a supportive friend.
  14. Help someone else.
  15. Do some decluttering.

Photo by Fey Marin on Unsplash

Friday, June 12, 2020

MINIMALIST TOOL KIT: The Secret of Contentment

Contentment is impossible when you continually hunger for more.  Advertising, social media comparisons, and awareness of the Joneses keep you longing for whatever the next purchase promises to provide.  Even a bucket list of desired experiences can keep you from fully savoring the current event, since it's only one in a long line.

Contentment only comes when you realize the blessings you already possess, and when you appreciate the opportunities and experiences you've already enjoyed.

Contentment allows you to be fully present for your life, ready to find value in the here and now.

Ambition can push us toward achievement, but unbridled desire eventually makes us unhappy.  It's a hunger that is never satisfied.  Achievements ultimately don't provide contentment, because the next hill is always there to be conquered.

Wise people from all eras and cultures have warned us about this.

  • Chinese sage Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, said "Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are.  When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you."
  • The Greek philosopher Socrates taught that "He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have."
  • Jesus of Nazareth said, "Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions."
  • Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians, warns us "For just one second, look at your life and see how perfect it is.  Stop looking for the next secret door that is going to lead you to your real life.  Stop waiting.  This is it: there's nothing else.  It's here, and you'd better decide to enjoy it or you're going to be miserable wherever you go, for the rest of your life, forever."
  • Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, has said, "At some point, you gotta let go, and sit still, and allow contentment to come to you."

10 Ways to Find Contentment

1.  Be thankful for health, food, and shelter.

2.  Learn to enjoy things without owning them: books in the library, art in the museum, the playground in the park, the scenic highway.

3.  Appreciate the change of seasons, sunrise and sunset, the phases of the moon, the heat and the frost.

4.  Learn to like fields and trees, long walks, and the beauties of nature that are within your reach (even dandelions in your lawn, or the doves nesting in your eaves).

5.  Be thankful for work,and relish the satisfaction of doing a job as well as it can be done.

6.  Learn to do for yourself.  Make something, grow something, and learn to fix things.

7.  Appreciate the people you love who love you too.  Learn to like people, even those who are different from you.

8.  Celebrate the fact that you have enough by sharing with those who are in need.

9.  Learn to savor special treats, and to keep them special by keeping them rare.  Enjoy perfect peaches in season, one wear-it-forever piece of jewelry, that long-awaited trip, or those just-right jeans.

10.  Keep your wants simple, and refuse to be controlled by the likes and dislikes of others.

Photo by Frederik Sikkema on Unsplash

Monday, June 8, 2020

It's Not Shopping We Miss

A recent Twitter survey asked "What do you most look forward to doing when shelter-in-place guidelines are lifted?"

Does it surprise you to know that almost no one answered "Go shopping"?

The most common answers were "Hang out with friends," "Visit family members," "Take my family out for dinner," "Go to a concert," "Go to the library," "Use our city parks," and "Hit the gym."

Amazingly, we seem to have learned that shopping for new stuff isn't something we've been missing during the COVID-19 quarantine.  Sure, we've bought food, and cleaning supplies, and toilet paper.  Maybe we've downloaded some movies or books, or ordered some hobby supplies online so we could spend our free time creating something.

But when it comes to quality of life, it turns out that shopping for clothes, furniture, electronics, and cars is not essential.  Accumulating more physical stuff doesn't really matter all that much.

What we're really longing for is personal connection, social activities, and enriching experiences.

Retail sales are down, yet life goes on.  And it will get even better when we can hug our friends again, attend gatherings, or travel and meet new people.

Of course, this doesn't mean we will never go shopping again.  The pursuit of minimalism doesn't require us to stop spending money, it simply encourages us to spend thoughtfully.

The occasional purchase of something just because I like it, even if I don't strictly need it, isn't bad or wrong.  But as a minimalist, I know that there are things far more rewarding than material possessions.

I look forward to cuddling a friend's baby due in August.  I look forward to taking my grandchildren to the playground and the public swimming pool.  I look forward to getting a massage and a haircut.  Maybe you look forward to going to church or visiting your mother in assisted living.  You might miss relaxing with your friends at the neighborhood bar, but you don't miss the mall.

So maybe spending three months at home has brought you face to face with how many possessions you already own.  And maybe it's given you a desire to live with less.  Why not take on a Declutter Dare?  You can freshen your home, increase your freedom, and turn your focus toward what really adds value to your life.

Photo by Dollar Gill on Unsplash

Friday, June 5, 2020

Why Less is More

My voice teacher (I trained to be an opera singer) loved to say it:  Less is more.  That always annoyed me, until I finally figured out at least some of what she meant.

I have always had a powerful voice, but when I internalized some of that power – when I sang less – I had more focus, more breath, more resonance, more color in my voice.  When I stopped pushing, my voice was more free, more agile, I had more control and more dynamic range.  I could still be powerful, but I could also use the power of an intense pianissimo.

How does this work in other areas of life?

  • If I own less, each item I own needs to be more useful, more suitable to my needs and wants.
  • If I own a 33-item wardrobe, each piece needs to coordinate with several other pieces.  Each item needs to be of high quality.  Each item needs to fit and flatter.  There isn't room for something that isn't well made, doesn't go with anything else, or doesn't make me feel good when I'm wearing it.
  • If I own less of everything, each item needs to add more value to my life.  There's no place for a chair no one sits in because it's uncomfortable (even if it was an expensive purchase), no room for a chunky block of knives if all I ever use is the ultra-versatile chef's knife, no need for stuff that clutters every surface when what's really important to me is the beautifully framed photo of my children.  In fact, that lovely photo is more noticeable because it sits alone on a side table.
  • If my schedule is less cluttered, I have more energy for the things I choose to do.  I can give each activity more attention.  I have more free time, which both requires and enables me to be more creative.  I have more space in my life for spontaneity.  Most importantly, I have more time for people.  Less social obligation, more deep relationships!  It's a wonderful paradox.

It's possible to go on and on.  How about less processed and junky food, more health, energy, and general well-being?  Less TV, more conversation, long walks, and sleep?  Not to mention less exposure to advertising, more contentment and more savings.

Having less leaves room for more of what matters.

Minimalism is the intentional promotion of the things we most value and the remove of anything that distracts us from it.
Joshua Becker 

Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash


Wednesday, June 3, 2020

95 Ways to Simplify Your Life - Black Belt Simplicity

I realize that these final suggestions are not for everyone, but if you've considered or implemented the previous ideas, you might be ready to go a bit deeper.

Part 7 – Black Belt Simplicity

88.  Live smaller.
A smaller home generally costs less, uses less energy, and takes less effort to clean and maintain.  How much space do you really need?

89.  Try a Buy Nothing experiment.
Be an anti-consumer!  For 30 days, 90 days, or even a year, buy nothing except necessities:  food, toiletries, cleaning/maintenance supplies, medications, replacements for things that break or tear.  If you must buy a gift for someone, make it consumable (flowers, food, or concert tickets, for example), donate to their favorite charity, or pass along something of value that you own (such as jewelry or a book).

90.  Drive less.
If you can walk, bike, or take public transit, you can leave the car at home.  Can you go car-free one day a week?  Do you really need a second (or third) vehicle?

91.  Travel closer to home.
Nothing that we do pumps carbon dioxide into the atmosphere faster than air travel.  Perhaps you should ditch your bucket list and travel by rail or auto closer to home (say within 250 miles).  Aren't there amazing places in your own state or country that you've never visited?

92.  Go meatless.
Methane emissions from cattle and other livestock are a threat to global climate, and these animals and their feed also require enormous amounts of water and land.  One easy way to help the environment, improve your health, and save money is to eat more plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and whole grains.  Why not avoid meat and dairy for one or more days a week, or for one meal a day?

93.  Eat the same foods every day.
For a period of time (or forever), limit your food choices.  Stick to oatmeal or eggs for breakfast, a big green salad or a bowl of vegetable soup for lunch (or PB&J on whole grain bread), a piece of fruit for a snack, and beans, rice, and veggies for dinner.  Drink only water, coffee, and tea.  See if you don't feel lighter, clearer, and more healthy.

94.  Don't shop unless you have to.
Shopping isn't a hobby or a source of entertainment.  Don't browse stores, catalogs, or websites looking for something to want or "need."

95.  Redefine success.
We don't have to measure success with material accumulation.  Consider raising a happy family, excelling at your job, or acts of kindness your status symbols.

"Success has nothing to do with what you gain in life or accomplish for yourself.  It's what you do for others."
Danny Thomas

Photo by Alondra Olivas on Unsplash

Monday, June 1, 2020

95 Ways to Simplify Your Life - Mindset

A change in mindset can bring about a desire to simplify, but simplifying can in turn change your mindset.  These changes will bring more serenity and satisfaction every day.

Part 6 – Mindset

76.  Be present.
Don't pine for the past or fret about the future.  Today is all you have.  Be here now.

77.  Be open.
We live in an era of polarization, because we so often believe there's only one way to look at an issue.  Be willing to consider ideas and viewpoints that differ from your own.

78.  Be true to yourself.
Keep an open mind, but don't be afraid to listen to your own intuition and moral compass.  Don't feel obligated to live according to others' expectations.

79.  Offer grace.
You don't know the details of others' circumstances, and you have no idea how well you'd react to their situations.  Try to see the good in other people; don't be too quick to condemn.

80.  Offer forgiveness.
A grudge is a heavy burden.  You don't have to condone bad behavior, but you can move on from it, and free your thoughts and energy for something more worthwhile.

81.  Forget perfection.
It doesn't exist!  Do good work, but ease up on your unrealistic expectations.  Reduce rigidity, stress, and disappointment, and increase flexibility, acceptance, and appreciation.

82.  Choose your battles.
There are thousands of little things that aren't as earth-shattering as we think they are.  Let them go.

83.  Ignore the Joneses.
Advertisers want us to believe that if we only had this or that our lives would improve.  Happiness is just one purchase away!  But the goal keeps moving, and comparing and competing will only keep us anxious and dissatisfied.

84.  Be grateful.
Compared to billions in the world, you are wealthy and privileged.  Be thankful for what you have, instead of worrying about what you don't.

85.  Be generous.
Being able to give is a sure sign that you have enough for your needs, and then some.

86.  No one is looking at you – really!
People are too wrapped up in their own lives to pay much attention to what you wear, own, or look like.  You're not a superstar, so stop worrying what "everyone" will think about you.

87.  Enjoy without owning.
Admire the objects in a shop window, the art in a gallery, or the roses in a garden.  Appreciate public libraries, public parks, and public celebrations.  You can get a lot of pleasure from things without the responsibilities of ownership.

"It is the heart that makes a man rich.  He is rich according to what he is, not according to what he has."
Henry Ward Beecher

The final installment is coming....

Photo by Chang Duong on Unsplash