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Presence

rearview of woman meditating at the beach

I don’t know about you, but my mind is constantly “on.” I’m thinking ahead to upcoming interactions, coming up with strategies to meet my goals/deadlines, ruminating on past conversations, trying not to care what others think of me or my social media posts, figuring out how to improve my relationships, running through book ideas, planning out my weekend, and on and on…

It’s exhausting being in my head. I’m sure I’m not alone, though I sincerely hope you’re in your head, not mine.

So, I recently started meditating (again) just to start my day with a calm instead of a rush. I’m still testing out whether I prefer guided meditation, with or without affirmations—usually without—or just a timer and silence. So far, it depends on the day.

But that’s not really what this post is about. It’s about what makes us feel happy.

A recent guided meditation I tried focused on the idea that we’re happiest when we’re present in the moment. Nothing new. That’s one of the key points of meditation, to focus on our body, our breath, our space, right now.

Can we even be happy when our minds are elsewhere on the timeline? (Rhetorical question.)

Luckily, you can be present without meditating, though meditation is great practice for learning how. Simply concentrate on what’s going on right now. Give this moment, the person talking, the task you’re working on, your full attention.

Some activities give you little choice but to focus (boxing, jousting, watching a newly mobile baby). Which is one of many reasons I enjoyed martial arts in the past, and returned to yoga a few years ago. Both require an awareness of my body and my breath to keep me from taking a header onto my mat.

Even while running—which shouldn’t be that mentally taxing—I find that I can’t hold a complex thought for long (like, don’t ask me to do math) because my focus is on my breathing, my form, sometimes the pain, and my surroundings.

Much like traditional meditation, these moving meditations are a much needed break from…well, myself.

You might find relief in knitting, painting, singing, coloring, or building a bookshelf. Or, you know, writing. Maybe that’s why having a creative outlet is so important. Though when that outlet becomes your job, can it still serve as a calming intermission? (Also rhetorical.)

Other things that tap into that “present” feeling for me are traveling, hiking, watching the ocean, or exploring a new-to-me part of town. Half of what makes a sightseeing vacation so much fun is that my thoughts are mostly captured by the new and interesting things around me, keeping me in the moment.

If a week on the beach or in a cabin is more your speed, that relaxing holiday might be one of the few times that you allow yourself to slow down and fully tune into your surroundings and your companions. Or a really good book.

Vacations offer a break not just from work and school and routine, but from our scattered attention—hello cell phones and email and social media—from our concern about what comes next and all that we need to accomplish. No wonder we can’t wait to take a break.

I’m not traveling as much as I’d like right now—and I can’t do it every day anyway—but I am stepping up the frequency of yoga and meditation (and always running). I’m honestly shocked how much better I feel during and after yoga. Even at the end of a short routine, my muscles and my mind are less tense.

Such mini “vacations” have become a brilliant respite from the whirlwind of my thoughts. I’m grateful to have found activities that give me the rare gift of presence.

How do you cultivate a sense of contentment or find a moment of peace in your life?

P.S. If you’re interested, yoga doesn’t have to be an expensive hobby. There are plenty of free online resources, videos from your library, and even monthly online subscription services that cost less than a single yoga class. In-person lessons are my favorite, but I attend a class once a week and use videos or my own made-up routines the rest of the time. If you’re just starting out, a rug is fine if you don’t have a mat. You also don’t need special leggings from fancy “athleisure” stores. Any workout wear or comfy clothes will work, especially in the privacy of your home. Heck, do it in your underwear if you want to! Just, maybe, close the curtains. 😉

Piling it on: expectations and stress

woman with to-do list

In my first job as a programmer, my company’s sales team consistently promised clients super-short turnaround times that we couldn’t meet without working serious overtime, sometimes as much as 16-hour days.

Talk about stress.

Had they given us another day or two for each project, I might not have been so glad to quit when we moved.

Same project, different timeline. The projects themselves weren’t inherently stressful. It was the company’s unrealistic expectations that made them so.

Sadly, now that I work for myself, it turns out I’m not much better than that old sales team at setting realistic expectations. I’m not even talking about big things, like publishing deadlines.

I’m talking about my daily to-do list. In my head there’s this fictional world where I can “handle” my email in 20 minutes, compose and publish a blog in under an hour, and consistently produce 3000 words a day.

Hahahahahahaha.

That’s called Fantasy Land.

When I plan out my day (poorly) and don’t meet my goals, I get stressed. Over the long term, repeated stress takes time off your life, weakens your immune system (so you feel like crap AND lose more productive time), and turns you into an irritating house companion.

So, the problem doesn’t necessarily lie in having too many things to do (though I also need to learn to trim my list), but in not allotting myself enough time in which to accomplish them.

A to-do list with 18 items that I’ve taken care to schedule realistically—with buffer time for things like potty breaks, food, and general miscalculation—might keep me busy, but at the end of the day I’ll be feeling pretty good.

Yet, a list with three items can bring me low if improperly handled.

I’d love to say I’ve slain this beast, but I’d be lying. It’s something I have to re-address every few months or so because I get lazy and start winging it, and then start stressing…

Here’s my current approach to managing my towering to-do list:

1. I’m taking note of how long repeated tasks actually take, and using that to set a more achievable schedule.

2. I’m prioritizing my list so the most important things get done first (Eat that Frog by Brian Tracy has great suggestions). Even if I don’t get to everything, I’ll at least get to the items that matter most.

3. I’m going to bed earlier so I can get up earlier. I’m a night owl, but I’m more productive if I start my day early and get the key tasks—like writing—done before the day “starts” for real.

I actually set several alarms on my phone to remind me to get ready for/go to bed. The key is not to ignore them. 😉

4. I (usually) create a daily schedule. I’ve been hinting at this throughout, but when I know I have a busy day ahead, I’ll plan it out the night before, down to the quarter hour. If I have an appointment or event, I work backwards from it.

I schedule everything that happens prior to the appointment—with a bit of buffer for derailment—and then follow it with a list of other things to get done that day (sometimes schedules, sometimes not).

So it might look like this:

0600 Wake

0630 Run and cool down

0800 Walk dog

0815 Eat breakfast

0845 Shower

0945 Leave for Physical Therapy

Write

Call Jane

Blog post

I’m training for a half marathon, so on running days I go early while it’s still cool outside. (BTW, exercise is great stress relief!) Every other day of the week I start with writing, so it’s the first thing I accomplish, and work out later.

When everything is scheduled for its own time, I can relax and focus, instead of worrying about whether I should be doing something else.

And, yes. Some days I totally fail. If I don’t go to bed early enough, none of this works, so that’s HUGE for me right now. My biggest struggle. But having a plan (and a specific reason to get up) makes it easier.

I have high expectations for myself overall, which I think is important, but I’m learning to keep them real in my day-to-day plan.

How about you? What stresses you out, and how are you handling it (or not)?

Snow: From beautiful to stressful

House in snowSnow is beautiful. It can also create stress.

I’m listening to an interesting book called Brain Rules by John Medina. One of the chapters deals with the effects of stress on the brain. Short version: it’s generally not good!

And while I was tromping through the white, fluffy stuff with my dog—we’ve had about a foot of new snowfall every Sunday like clockwork for the last three weekends—I realized that the snow has gone from something neat and fun, to a stressor. Why? Because one key cause of stress is the feeling that you have no control over the situation.

Bingo. That’s me.

neighborhood in snow

Our neighborhood is buried

After the first storm, we were fine. We cleared the snow into the yard, building a nice mound. After the second storm, we had to get more creative with our piles, but it still worked.

The third storm last weekend broke us. Our yard is so full of snow that we have no more room to clear the driveway. The piles are so tall that when I try to add new snow to them, it just rolls back down. The cities are using “snow farms” to collect snow that’s being cleared from the streets and parking lots, but I don’t have that option.

snow farm

A nearby snow farm, like a trash dump for snow

If we still lived in a house with a nice big yard like we had in Virginia, we’d be fine. But in Massachusetts we’re living in a quadriplex (kind of like a townhome) with a very small front yard that we share with our neighbor. We have about two feet of space between our driveway and that of the neighbor on the other side of us, so if we shovel to that side we’ll block their driveway.

My husband’s car is now stuck in the garage behind a mound of snow because I moved it from my side of the driveway to his while he was out of town. In my defense, he told me to. 😉 Not ideal at all, but I had to be able to leave the house.

house in snow

My office window is behind all that snow on the second floor

When we had the space to deal with it, the snow was fun. It’s pretty, and it’s been exciting to see so much pile up. But now that we’re quite literally out of room, I hear that another big storm is coming this weekend and I want to cry.

Helplessness. Stress!

But, hey, it’ll make for a memorable first winter in Boston, right? I’m already trying to look back and laugh. I will as soon as the tears stop.


(For more images from our life under snow, see my My first Nor'easter.)

Unmess to destress

This stresses me out!

This stresses me out!

What’s the opposite of a hoarder? I guess a minimalist? A minimalist is what I aspire to be in every aspect of my life.

For me, clutter of any sort adds stress to my life. The low level kind that weighs on you in the background. It’s not only irritating, but distracting. I find myself torn between dealing with the mess and getting my work done.

I’m constantly trying to clean out my closets, discard anything I haven’t used in over a year, and keep shelves, counters, and other flat surfaces from being overrun with junk. Of course, I get lazy, busy, and distracted, so my kitchen table currently sports a burned out light bulb that needs to be properly disposed of, various pieces of mail, and assorted cups and glasses.

Oh, and I’m not the only one who lives here, so I can’t just toss everything en masse, though I’m sometimes tempted.

Even my own writing desk is a bit of a mess right now, which surprises me because my desk at my day job was always spotless. (Evernote will help here as I use it to store images of articles and handouts that I don’t want to lose, and the little notes I’ve jotted down in the notebook next to my bed.)

But still, I’ve been on a quest to declutter, unmess, and destress my life. While a clean house is nice, a neat house is what really makes me happy. Not austere. I still want warmth, coziness, and comfort, but not disorder.

I’m sure this says something about my personality, and many of you will not be surprised. 😉

Kids’ closets and two-car garages aside, there are other forms of clutter that can be even harder to deal with. For example, electronic clutter. I had at least ten emails a day that I habitually deleted without reading. Sometimes 20-30. Then there were others that I read, but later wished I hadn’t let myself get sucked into.

So last week I went on an email cleaning binge, working back through my Trash folder and unsubscribing from every newsletter, marketing campaign, activity notification (Twitter and Facebook, anyone?), and blog subscription that I don’t want to spend my time on.

I can’t tell you the sense of control and relief that comes from purging like that. A clean Inbox is like a breath of fresh air. I can prioritize my emails without wading through a bunch of “other stuff”. And it frees up my brain to work on more important things, like writing and editing!

I even encourage you to unsubscribe from my blog or newsletter if it doesn’t add value to your week. Seriously. I won’t be (too) upset.

So, my next household project: the guest room closet, a.k.a. The Black Hole of But-We-Might-Need-This-Someday Items. Once I enter, I may never emerge. Wish me luck!

Have you attempted to declutter your life in any way? What was the result?

Image credit: By Luca Masters from Chocowinity, NC, USSA (Mess) CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Final fun?

I will never deny that finaling in the Golden Heart® and two other contests has been awesome. Never. However, it has added an unexpected level of stress and distraction to my life this past week.

The email from all of my new loops could be a full-time job in itself. And now I’m freaking out because I need to get my updated partial back to one of the contests by Friday. I also need to jump on this and get my queries out there while my final status is still hot, while preparing my full manuscript just in case I get a request.

But most stressful of all, someone reminded me that when I got to Nationals this summer, my picture will be flashed up on the big screen for at least a thousand authors, agents, and editors to see during the awards ceremony. Ack! Sufficiently frightened, I scrambled to get a photographer because said photo is due—you guessed it—Friday.

My photo session is tomorrow. Keep your fingers crossed that I manage not to open the cabinet door into my face before tomorrow morning.

But the final straw in my basket of stress was the dry cleaners. You know that pile of professional wear that has been sitting in my closet gathering mold for months? Oops, the tops I wanted to wear for my photo shoot were in there. I dropped off my stuff early yesterday and was assured it could be ready by this evening.

W-e-l-l. We had a nasty storm overnight and the power went out and the dry cleaning wasn’t done. She told me I could pick it up tomorrow at ten. One. Hour. Before. My. Shoot. Dubious and afraid to not have a backup plan, I skipped Kung Fu and went the to mall where I found something that is not really what I wanted, but close.

So if my new, not-so-cheap, professional photo sucks, I can blame it on the weather. But in the end, I have nothing to complain about. I just have to remember the reason I’m going through all this in the first place.

And the smile is back.