Choose what to remember

How often do we share an event with someone else, only to discover in a conversation later that our perceptions of it are significantly different? Where some see a traumatic experience or an insult, others find a lesson or a conversation that’s not worth remembering. You can take what you value from an experience or an interaction, leaving behind the negativity and emotional baggage of others.

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In social situations, we interact with many people who may be passionate, harsh, insincere, expressing intense emotions, raising difficult questions, or trying to stir up our negative feelings. Most interesting people are often very complex. Many activists, for instance, have strong, unforgiving standpoints and are very firm in sticking to their guns without a care that it might hurt or offend someone else. Some people are harsh yet brilliant, and while appreciating their commentary from an intellectual standpoint or valuing their contribution to a common cause, one needs to actively abstract away the other aspects of their personality, their non-constructive comments or personal remarks. Often, we can tell more about the state or character of the one asking a question or expressing an opinion than about the person whom that question or opinion is targeting.

Other people might flood you with a stream of consciousness, without filtering any of it out, expressing their perception of the world blended with assimilated perceptions of other people, all the while commenting on their own emotions and opinions. It takes energy and concentration to peel away the redundant and irrelevant layers to extract the gems of insight, if such are present. It is often educational to listen to such a flood of thoughts, however, as it closely follows the thinking process of the person expressing it. It is valuable to see how people form the opinions they hold and how their reactions are shaped by people and events around them.

Many of us have had a dream that was so vivid that it took a while to convince ourselves after awakening that we had not just lived through it in the real world. Our mind treats the experiences we have truly gone through and those we have imagined in detail as equally real, and the emotional response to either can be strong. As an empath, listening to someone’s emotional account of a situation, I tend to find myself slipping into their shoes and taking on their place in the narrative, along with their emotions and opinions. If I am not careful, after the encounter, the lingering emotions can shape my perception of reality in ways I do not intend. I have to consciously process the conversation and take away only what I find constructive.

As those of us who have gone through unmedicated labour and birth can attest, the challenges we go through during labour soon fade away, leaving behind the glorious oxytocin-induced feeling of birth being a wonderful, overwhelmingly-happy and empowering experience. Hormones help us there, ensuring our species does keep procreating. Our mind is selective in what to associate with birth and what to remember about it.

Similarly, we choose what to associate with and remember about people. My grandmother was quite ill for the last several years of her life. When I went overseas to see her, she lamented that I would remember her in this state, forever suffering. However, even before that, my mind has firmly associated her with the way she was in her early 60s when I was spending every weekend at her place. She has been shaped by captivity during the war, followed by harsh, cold years in the Russian North where she gave birth to her two children, then by settlement in a completely unfamiliar million-people city in the South-West, and the early tragic death of my grandfather just months after I was born. I will always remember her that way, because to me that is who she was — a strong, hard-working, wise woman, immensely loving, and fiercely devoted to her family and friends.

With any experience, real or imaginary, we choose how to interpret it, what to retain, and what to take to heart. We cannot always control what happens. Shape your reality by what you choose to remember.

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Tackle that project

When we have a large project on our mind, we often make it out to be more intimidating than it is. We think it is harder, more complicated, and will take a lot of time. We wait for that “right” day when we have 8 hours without interruption to even tackle the planning of it. As a result, the project gets postponed indefinitely. We end up procrastinating, instead of studying for an exam, executing a work project, completing a home improvement.

All you need is a short planning session and the right attitude. You’ll be surprised how soon you can cross it off your to-do list. This weekend, in 3 hours, we have tackled the garage organization — a project that some people are dreading for months.

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When we were preparing to move, many people have said that months or years after their own move they are still “living in boxes” or have many boxes still unopened. They prophesied that we shall not be settled for months. I refused to accept that as a given, and so far we have made great strides towards being comfortable and productive in our new home. My goal is to have all large projects completed before winter. It has now been 3 months, and this is what we have accomplished so far:

  • Our place has gone through a large renovations project (ripping out all carpets and replacing them with hardwood), which did include external contractors and required a lot of coordination and some material sourcing on our part.
  • We have unpacked all the boxes from the move, so we now know where everything is.
  • We have organized all the living spaces efficiently, including children’s clothes and an effective workspace.
  • We have washed all windows (inside and out), baseboards, floors, cabinets, and dusted all the walls and ceilings. I have washed more windows this summer than I have in the past 20 years.
  • We have had a full-house water filter, a drinking water filtration system, and a central vac installed.
  • We got the ducts cleaned (oh my, they had so much construction dust and debree!)
  • We have a lovely blooming and fruitful garden, including a permaculture herb spiral, which got planted in 2-3 weeks after we moved in.

Through all this, we have been spending lots of time working outside of home, playing with the kids, inside and outdoors, eating healthy meals (most of the time), entertaining guests, and hosting a housewarming.

Of course, there are other projects we would like to undertake in the future to make the place more suited to our needs, more aesthetically pleasing, more comfortable. This, naturally, will take more time and planning. But as long as we approach it without being overwhelmed, they will all be completed and not cause excessive stress.

Here is how we do it:

Step 1 – Plan execution steps and resources.

Identify the smaller tasks that comprise the project. In the case of small projects, this could be 2 or 3 tasks. In the case of larger projects with steps depending on completion of previous steps, it requires more careful planning. For each task, identify the time, the materials (if any) and the help it would take to do. The more you think the project through at this stage, the easier executing it will be. However, don’t get bogged down in details or trying to make a perfect decision. You might end up researching until you are blue in the face and unable to decide between alternatives that some praise and others condemn. Research enough to make a decision that makes sense to you.

For the garage organization project, we have planned the following steps:

  1. Move all the items that shall not stay in the garage to the basement. Most of the items we use day-to-day are already occupying their appropriate places in the house. The basement has been designated as the storage area for more delicate things that cannot survive the garage or those that will need to be more accessible in winter. This would only need us to identify these items and move them. Easily done with 2 people and about 15 minutes.
  2. Remaining items would occupy shelving units. We had two already completed and placed and two more waiting in the middle of the garage. Our biggest obstacle was a large pile of firewood, taking up space all along one garage wall, where the shelving units would need to reside. This step needed us to plan where the shelving units would go and decide what to do with the firewood. The discussion and decision took about 5 minutes.
  3. We knew that to organize the items piled on the floor, we would have to put up the shelving units along the wall, for which we would need to move the firewood out of the way. The firewood would then need to be stacked higher in the smaller space next to the shelves. The biggest undertaking appeared to be moving the firewood away from the wall and then stacking it back. This seemed so daunting that we were tempted to keep putting this off, our biggest challenge being that when we are both home, both our children are home as well. They rarely nap at the same time these days and having either of them in the garage while we clean, among various unsafe items, would not have been possible. Thus we needed an awesome nap time (unlikely) that would give us 2-3 uninterrupted hours, or someone to watch the children while we were working. We knew the time, we knew the execution plan, we needed child-minding help.

Step 2 – Acquire materials.

Source what you need to complete the project. This might include assembling existing items, renting, borrowing, or purchasing equipment and supplies, finding knowledgeable people to advise or help you. Breathe deeply, don’t get overwhelmed with lots of things that are needed. Tackle them one task at a time — plan what is needed for each step and find out where to get it. For our garage organizing project, we had to assemble the shelving units. The rest was just physical work to be done.

Don’t stress the small stuff – you can tweak the details as you go. For instance, we didn’t know what we shall place under the newly stacked firewood to prevent it from getting wet. The existing rails appeared too long to work with the shelves in place. Once we have removed all the firewood from its original place, we have discovered that we can reuse some of the shorter metal rails that were buried under the pile.

Step 3 – Think in terms of the time that is available to you.

We took up the first two steps (moving away items that obviously did not belong in the garage and deciding on the placement of the shelves and firewood) when we had 5-10 minutes of quiet time here and there. Don’t underestimate the power of short time intervals. Clearing away extraneous items before you get started on any project will help you focus better in the field of work that remains.

Step 4 – Seize the opportune moment.

My mother was coming to visit from out of town for a couple of weeks at the end of summer, and this was the opportunity for having 3 adults, one of whom could watch the children and the other two take care of the physical labour. We have spent the morning playing with the kids and taking them on a grocery shopping adventure, which resulted in two tired, happy children who gratefully went down for a nap after all the excitement.

My partner went to run a couple of errands, while my mother and I proceeded to clean the shelving units, move the firewood away from the wall, and sweep the floor. By the time he got back, the wall was clear and ready for everything to be organized. We proceeded to place the shelving units and to organize: more frequently used items were placed in locations closer to the inner door, and less frequently or seasonally used items (such as car maintenance and gardening supplies) were put on the newly-placed shelves.

Afterwards, we have re-stacked the firewood, and were in the last stages of clean-up when the children woke up, so my mother went in to play with them. My partner and I then spent about 20 minutes sorting through a few remaining boxes and deciding what goes into the house, what stays in the garage, and what needs to be laundered. It then took him another 10 minutes or so to shuffle things to where they needed to be, while I joined my mother in taking care of the kids.

Step 5 – Celebrate.

Make it into a social occasion and combine activities for added benefit. We ended up spending lots of time with the children during the day, and had a good workout session while socializing with my mother. In the morning, we marinated some shrimp and chicken, so, after the garage project, we had a lovely afternoon in the garden, making some kebabs, and collecting greens, herbs, and cucumbers for a salad, all of which was then gladly consumed by everyone.

As the above example clearly shows, it is difficult to do certain things without external help. If you, like us, don’t have family help readily available, you can either plan for when the family is visiting or find a way to get help. I have recently come across a brilliant arrangement mentioned by Katy Bowman in her Community podcast episode: rotating time with families helping each other around the house. The idea is that, say, four families (usually including children) agree to help each other. First weekend, everyone gets together at the first family’s house and helps them do whatever needs done: cleaning, cooking, organizing, planting a garden, renovating, etc. In the meantime, one of the adults (or two, if you want to make it more social) is watching the children. People can switch up, as long as everyone is contributing to completing whatever tasks need doing. Everyone brings a dish or two, so that the afternoon can end in a potluck, to celebrate the completion of the work. Next week, the four families repeat this in the second family’s home, doing whatever needs doing there. The next two weekends, the remaining two families get help. Work goes faster with more hands, you have a variety of skills at your disposal, people are socializing, children are playing together in a new house (which, as everyone knows, is way more fun than the same house day after day), and everything gets accomplished. I’d love to try this arrangement out.

I confess, I’m guilty of having 2-3 projects on the go at any given time. It is handy to overlap material sourcing stage of one with the planning stage of another, for instance, but it is much easier to focus on one project at a time, especially if you tend to get very stressed out or have limited time intervals due to other endeavors.

This post has become rather long, as I really wanted to illustrate each point well. Don’t be afraid to tackle larger projects. To get to an organized garage, all we needed to do was plan the steps and resources needed to complete them (time, materials, people), do whatever prep work we could in shorter time intervals available to us, execute the most complex step when all the resources were available, and celebrate the project completion.

Make it fun and don’t forget to celebrate. The success of one project will inspire you to tackle the next one. It’s not as hard as you imagine. You can do it!

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Break up your routine

We are creatures of habit. It is so easy to fall into repetitive familiar patterns and end up getting bored with your reality. So many of us get up, go through the motions of getting ready for the day, get the kids ready, follow the same work/eat/parent cycles, and end up turning to a familiar TV show or Facebook in the evening, to pass the time until sleep, only to start the same round of activities tomorrow. Needless to say, such a lifestyle does not spark creativity, make your days exciting, or have you looking forward to waking up in the morning.

Break Up Your Routine

Feeling locked into a routine? Break it up! The first step is the most difficult psychologically — we are inclined to fall into familiar patterns instead of venturing out into the unknown. Your routine will still be there tomorrow to lean on if you need it, so shake off its chains and take off on an adventure.

Here are some ideas:

Join a club: reading and discussing books, playing a sport, beading, crocheting, cooking, yoga, dance, exercise. You can learn a new skill and meet new people.

Try a new hobby: assemble a jigsaw puzzle, paint, dance, sing, play an instrument, draw, read, build models.

Undertake a project that interests you: you can try anything from robotics and technology to improving your house or garden. Anything that gets you excited about the process and the outcome is great.

Train for a marathon or another physical challenge: a friend of mine has just embarked on a 12-week course to restore her core strength and pelvic floor muscles postpartum, and she is finding that the entire family, including the dog, is enjoying the new activities. Take on a martial art, dare to try parcour, join a sports team, try belly dancing or zumba, or find a ping-pong partner — the possibilities to improve your physiology while having fun are numerous.

Expand your horizons: visit a gallery or a museum (great with kids), go to a concert or a play, attend a film screening. Look for independent films on a topic you are interested in, such as CHOICE! Film festival and you can connect with like-minded people and learn a lot.

Host a get-together: having people over can reset your energy. Arrange food (cook or do a potluck), drinks, and music, barbecue if the weather allows. Get-togethers are great to reconnect with people you haven’t seen in a while. Learn what they are into lately — you might find a new exciting activity to join or re-kindle your passion for a forgotten hobby. If you want to make it more engaging, host a theme party.

Meet with friends for lunch or a playdate, at a pub or a cafe, for a parenting meeting, with or without kids.

Go for a walkstep outside your door and take in nature, breathe deeply. Sometimes all that’s needed to break the routine is to lift your head up from a repetitive activity and take a fresh look at your surroundings.

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Vary the intensity

Vary the intensity of activities to maximize productivity and balance out work and rest.

Productive Zen Mama - Vary the IntensityJust as effective exercise alternates short bursts of intensity with periods of rest to achieve the best results, so does alternating quiet and intense, mental and physical, prescribed and free-form activities result in higher overall productivity and satisfaction with your reality. How often have you felt that after 4-6 hours of doing the same thing your mind and body are exhausted and yearning for being engaged in a different task? Your problem solving ability plummets, your irritation threshold becomes very small, and your entire being protests the monotony. When I was growing up, I was told: “Switch up the type of activity, and it will feel like rest”. I’m finding this very true as I have to juggle work, childcare, cooking, running a business, and completing various types of projects. When you’ve been programming for 8 hours, an hour of cooking or beading might feel like rest, and vice versa.

If you look at it on a daily scale, alternate cooking, work, taking a walk (to get lunch, to run an errand, to get fresh air, to distract the baby, to get up and move), doing home chores, gardening, tidying up, taking a shower, having a snack, doing a yoga or exercise routine, playing with kids, reading, and sleep. As an example, if you have the flexibility, grab a shower and have breakfast, do a couple of hours of work, followed by tidying up the kitchen and stretching or dancing for 10 minutes, followed by another hour of work, followed by a brisk walk outside, have something to eat, do more work, set dinner to cooking, followed by work, playing with kids, etc. You can tweak it as your time, schedule, appointments, and time with children allows, but let yourself stop doing whatever it is you are doing if you are mentally or physically tired of it. You are not producing optimal results at that stage, and your time is better spent elsewhere. While cooking, playing, or sleeping, you might come up with a solution to a problem that has baffled you when you were staring at it at your workplace.

There is, however, one exception to the switching up the activities: if you are in the state of flow (or “the zone”), you won’t want to stop. The flow happens when we are immersed in solving a problem or performing a task and everything comes naturally, the solution just flows through us and materializes. Poets refer to it as their Muse visiting. Do not interrupt the flow — you won’t want to anyway, likely you won’t even notice the time passing. If you have appointments, make sure you do set alarms that will (unfortunately) pull you out of the flow, otherwise you might miss them, being so engrossed in the task at hand. For most mothers with children at home, the flow is a very rare state, however, so clearing out the distractions and using up short intervals of time available are key.

Where varying the intensity becomes even more powerful, is a weekly scale. During a typical week, try to alternate periods of work, socializing, quiet rest and contemplation, play time with the kids, cooking and family dinners, time to garden, exercise, bathe, read, spend time with your partner, regroup and plan. All of these have different levels or mental and physical involvement, allowing you to vary the extent to which your body and mind are engaged.

I like doing the following mental exercise: imagine comfortably sitting cross-legged on a cushion, in the middle of circle of singing bowls, with sunlight streaming through the window beside you. Each bowl is a part of your life: work, relationship with your partner, relationships with your children, relationships with your parents and siblings, relationships with friends, your mind’s peace, your body and health, your business, and so on. If you have spent some time with your children recently, the note played by your “relationships with children” bowl is clearly ringing, filling your universe with joy. If you have not spent much time with your partner lately, the note from that bowl is barely audible. Listen to each bowl in turn and see which sounds are fading. Over the week, try playing each bowl so that it sings pure and strong in your universe, and so that together all the notes are sounding in beautiful harmony.

We all know that we need a day of quiet rest after a loud party filled with people, music, and interaction. We enjoy lazy weekends after a long week filled with work. And we often long for some adult time after spending many hours with children, only to realize when we  come home that we need to hold the baby right now! At any point during your day when you are not feeling fulfilled or productive, stop and think whether your time would be better spent elsewhere, and if you can — switch the intensity or type of activity, even if for fifteen minutes. You can come back refreshed and with better ideas on how to approach your initial task.

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Just keep moving

Move throughout the day between sitting, standing, walking, bending, squatting, lying down. It’s not about finding a perfect position — it is about changing positions frequently.

Productive Zen Mama - Just Keep MovingDuring the time of industrial revolution, many people worked at factories, standing for hours on end. People who worked those jobs would tell you — it’s no picnic. Getting a position where you would sit instead was considered prestigious, as you got to “rise above” the physical labour. However, these days sitting is the new smoking — more and more research is coming out about negative effects of prolonged sitting. As an answer to that, a standing desk has been introduced and some office workers who can afford it (or whose company can) have been enthusiastically switching to standing desks in an attempt to rip the benefits of not sitting.

Standing, however, is not a panacea. The human body has not been designed to stay in one position — be it sitting, standing, or lying down, — and there are consequences to this rigid adherence to a single way of holding your body throughout the day. People who are forced to stay in bed for a prolonged period of time, due to sickness or mobility issues, suffer from loss of muscle strength and bone density, fatigue and shallower breathing, increased risk of blood clots and pneumonia due to heart and lung muscles not working well, bed sores, mental health issues, as well as digestive and hormonal imbalance. Staying in one position throughout the day means that the load falls on the same muscles, developing or injuring some muscles and weakening the others. Doing this day after day can lead to chronic conditions.

The key is in varied constant movement. The true usefulness of a standing desk is that you should be able to change its height to sit and stand interchangeably. There are also walking desks, with a treadmill next to the desk, but once again, you don’t want to be walking for 8 hours a day without stop — the key is to switch up what it is you do. During humanity’s hunter-gatherer years, humans sprinted over short distances, stalked, tracked and crouched in the bushes hunting prey, they squatted and bent gathering berries and roots, collecting firewood, making fire. They sat on logs, hip- and back-carried their babies around, sat cross-legged to sharpen weapons and tell stories. They were not sitting in one position all day long. What we need to do is find ways to get as much movement into our days that are often filled with computer work, office jobs, driving and watching TV while sitting on the couch.

Easier said than done, right? Well, even those of us who work primarily at a computer, can move a bit, even without a standing desk. Here are some ideas:

Get up regularly — at least once an hour for 10 minutes or so. Get a cup of tea, a glass of water, or a snack. Use the washroom. Pop outside for a couple of minutes to get some fresh air and vitamin D. Do a few stretches or dance to a song.

You don’t have to stop working in order to change positions: you can take your phone calls or video conference calls standing up, you can tilt your screen up and read while standing, you can take a laptop outside and sit on the grass, or cross-legged on the floor indoors if the weather is not computer-friendly. You can even walk away from the computer with a pen and paper to ponder a particular challenge without interruption. I find that making notes for writing, thinking up use cases, or putting down logical steps to an algorithm is often easier on paper, away from electronic distractions and the urge to dive into writing or coding without prior planning.

Go for a short walk — lunch hour is great for this. In warm weather, you can grab your lunch and go for a picnic at a nearby park, back yard, or on the lawn.

Do a short yoga routine, dance, jump rope, spin a hula hoop. Even a fifteen-minute break doing something physically active will engage those muscles that stay dormant while you work. I found that after a walk or a physically-engaging break, I came back to mentally-intensive work with a fresh outlook and a more resourceful state.

Stretch your calves. Prolonged sitting shortens our calves which in turn affect the alignment of our entire body, making it harder and harder to break out of the sitting mold as it becomes more difficult to do other things that require flexibility. I highly recommend calf stretches by Katy Bowman (and her entire site, for that matter). You can do them while standing at your desk and reading an article.

Do exercises that engage different muscles while sitting at your desk, waiting in line, driving, watching your kids, and doing other things you are doing anyway. Once again, Katy Bowman has some great suggestions.

Look into possibilities to rest at home without using the couch. We have made a bold move to get rid of our old couch that was full of flame retardant chemicals and nearly-shredded by our cat, with the baby starting to pick up the shreds off the floor. We now have a few cushions and ottomans scattered around the living room, and are changing our resting positions frequently as we play with the kids on the floor, read, breastfeed, and watch films. We are not missing the couch. In fact, I have noticed that whereas before I might plop down on the couch to catch my breath, I now get down on the floor with the kids to play or take a couple minutes sitting cross-legged on a cushion to take a few deep breaths and regroup. It is much easier to find motivation to get up off a cushion and engage in something meaningful than to extract myself from a couch.

Swap your chair for a yoga ball. I do all my puzzles sitting on a yoga ball and I love it.

There is a illustration with a variety of chair-free positions from around the world catalogued by an anthropologist Gordon Hewes to give you some ideas. Give them a try. I have a poster with these positions on the wall of the living room, to supply ideas for sitting positions when playing with kids on the floor.

Learn about body alignment — how we hold our body throughout the day has a profound impact on all the muscles, joints, bones, and everything else. In an improperly-aligned car, parts that bear more strain than they should wear down. The same thing happens with a human body. If, say, you exercise for an hour a day, how you stand, sit, and move throughout the other 23 hours has a much greater impact on your posture and health than what you while you exercise. We are constantly shaping our body through every movement we make, so it is good to develop some habits around the optimal ways to sit, stand, and walk. This lessens the time and effort needed to deal with chronic conditions that result from body parts that carry the strain they should not. Katy Bowman has some great books out there, including Move Your DNA and Alignment Matters which I highly recommend. You can also learn a lot about alignment on her blog, katysays.com.

Human beings are meant to move. If you don’t use all of your muscles, those you do not use will weaken and eventually atrophy. My baby can put her feet behind her head. She can also lie her belly on the floor while sitting down with legs apart. I know some adults that are able to do that, so it’s not the aging itself that prevents the rest of us from doing so — it’s the lack of movement. So let’s move!

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Imagine the consequences

Before performing an action, imagine the process of doing so and the consequences stemming from it. Decide whether you truly want to proceed. It can be a powerful deterring or motivating tool.

An overwhelmingly familiar option of eating something you know you are going to regret is a perfect opportunity to apply this tactic. Say, you have decided to avoid a certain food (gluten, dairy, sweets, carbs, small animals, or that deliciously decadent piece of chocolate cake) for whatever reasons. Yet you have a very strong craving for it and are succumbing to the temptation. Before taking the plunge, imagine in detail having that food. The most satisfying first bite, the smell, the taste, the less satisfying fifth bite (by the law of diminishing returns), imagine licking the crumbs from your fingers and the feeling you will have right after.

Is it ecstasy or regret? Was the food as wonderfully delicious as your craving has led you to believe, or was it disappointingly unsatisfying? Often when we abstain from certain foods, we tend to imagine them to be way more delicious to us than they end up being. And now that you have “eaten” the food, how will you feel in half an hour? Bloated, disgusted at succumbing to the temptation, vowing to compensate for the deed by running around the block 15 times, or worse – popping pills to cover up the damage?

Many times, this exercise is enough to deter you from actually eating the food, and the craving becomes less strong. You might have to repeat it the next day, but often the imaginary consumption is enough to prevent the real one. If, however, after going through this exercise you are still drooling for that piece of cake, I say, go for it! But first decide to have no regrets.

You can flip this trick around to help motivate yourself to do something you dread doing. Hate cleaning the kitchen floor? Starting is the hardest part – use your mind to make it easier. Imagine what you would have to do to complete the action: fill up a bucket, find a mop, rub resistant spots, for a whole of, maybe, 10 minutes. Imagine the result: a spotless floor on which your baby can crawl without you cringing, at least until the first subsequent food preparation. The action would not seem so daunting any more (as you figured out the steps to complete it and the time it would require), and you’d be excited for the result. If an action is too big to fully plan, it’s a sign you need to split it into smaller tasks.

This applies to anything you want to motivate yourself to do: writing a report or an essay, sorting laundry, reading a textbook chapter, doing an exercise routine, or clearing out an overflowing drawer. See the result in your mind’s eye, and reaching it will seem much easier.

You will often find that after completing the action in your imagination, you do not have as strong a drive to go through with it in real life. This is a great tactic to use for either holding back from doing something, or motivating yourself to go ahead.

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Spend some time with yourself

With so many demands placed on us by other people, we often forget to allocate time for ourselves. Setting aside even fifteen minutes of alone time is vital, so you can take a break and regroup.

We all know well the never-ending string of things that need to be done: work, child care, errands, dishes, laundry, cooking, cleaning, – and before you know it, bedtime comes and we realize that we had no time for ourselves for the entire day. “Tomorrow”, we say, “I shall make time to relax”. Tomorrow comes, new duties and errands take precedence, and the cycle keeps on going. Break it and schedule some alone time – your errands can wait a few minutes, and you’ll enjoy them more and be more efficient at them afterwards.

When I say “alone time” I do not mean time to exercise or take a shower (although it is important to find time for those things). I also do not mean time to surf the web, answer email, or go grocery shopping without the kids. As much as that might feel refreshing, it is not quality alone time. I mean having a quiet few minutes to yourself to have a cup of tea in peace, to read a few pages of a book, to meditate, to get some fresh air, or to immerse yourself in a relaxing bath. For me a few minutes with an audiobook and a puzzle or a beading project are a great way to take a break from work and home obligations, so I can come back to fulfilling those with new strength.

Planning to have those breaks can also serve as “the light at the end of the tunnel”, since you will be anticipating the alone time. That time, by the way, does not have to be quiet: you can go the other way and put on an energetic tune, stretch, dance, play a musical instrument, or do anything else you would love to do by yourself. One important factor is being fully present in the moment and enjoying it. This is why surfing the web is not a good choice: we tend to get distracted and carried away by what we see, and before we know it, our limited alone time is over and we emerge no more rested or satisfied with the experience than before.

Choose an activity that is engaging and pleasurable, and dive right in – you will be more productive and less stressed afterwards.

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Control your atmosphere

Shape your surroundings by controlling sound levels, lighting, temperature, and other environmental factors, to help you be more productive, to reduce stress, and to motivate yourself.

If you have ever worked at an office with fluorescent lighting or no daylight, or lived in a building where floors are being varnished or walls painted, or walked by a noisy construction site, you know how extremely distracting and unproductive such environments are. Some of them are hazardous to your health, some are “merely” irritating, and there are many shades in-between. When you can effectively control these environmental factors, you can direct your energy better.

Control your mood and productivity with music. If you are most productive with an energetic melody playing in the background, put it on. If you need to destress or calm your rowdy toddler down, try putting on some zen music with nature sounds. Exercise is good to a good beat, and so is cleaning. Cooking for a party can go smoother if you play a selection of music in the same style as will be played at the gathering itself. Vacuuming with the baby in the sling or turning on the dishwasher produces the white noise helpful in lulling the baby to sleep. At other times, eliminating the noise can be what you need: noise pollution can be quite an irritant and get your stress levels up. Use the music and sound barriers as tools to enhance your mood and environment.

Control your alertness with lighting. Pull open the curtains to let the sunlight in and waken up your senses for an afternoon play session, cleaning, or doing creative work. Close the curtains when putting children to sleep to create a subdued quiet atmosphere. Dim the lights for a relaxing bath and try lighting a candle. If the flame is too bright, use a tea light holder that diffuses the light. Use a Himalayan salt lamp for a soft glow when resting. Have a bright directed light when reading a book or chopping up ingredients.

Control your comfort level with temperature and drinks. (This might sound weird, but stay with me here.) A few degrees difference in temperature can make us feel too sluggish or too frozen to want to do anything. Open a window to let some breeze in – it will help you feel energetic on a warm day. Keep the room on a cooler side when sleeping – you’ll likely sleep better and wake up easier. Cold and uncomfortable? Pour yourself a cup of hot tea (that’s where the drinks come in) and have a warm foot bath. If you put a drop of Eucaliptus oil into it, you’ll also breathe easier. Hot and foggy? Take a contrast shower, with alternating cold and warm water, finish with cold, and dry yourself vigorously. Have some cold water with a slice of lemon, lime, or cucumber. Substitute gluhwein for tea or beer for cold water if an occasion calls for it.

Have some fun and play with the possibilities. Diffuse some essential oils to clear out unpleasant smells and to either invigorate or calm yourself. Dry brush your body to wake your senses up. Do a quick yoga session to stretch tight areas. Remove clutter from your desk to avoid distractions. Breathe deeply. You can control many aspects of your environment: make it work for you.

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Split your project into tasks

Having a series of smaller tasks to do makes your project less daunting and allows you to complete something when only a short period of time is available. This gives a quick boost of satisfaction from the accomplishment which serves as encouragement to do another task.

The hardest part of any project is starting it. The second hardest part is continuing it to completion when the project stretches over an extended period of time or requires intervals of waiting between stages. To tackle the first part, I suggest to get everything you need prepared for the project before you start. Chopping and measuring all the ingredients before you cook makes for a smoother and more pleasant cooking session, and results in fewer forgotten steps and missing ingredients. Same goes for other projects. I also suggest to trip over your to-dos: use the space you will need for something else in the near future, which will constantly remind you of the project you have on-the-go.

To continue making progress on a longer project, split it up. For example, say you want to make printed paper invitations for a party, that you would distribute to your playgroup. You need to (a) come up with the wording; (b) decide on the recipients; (c) come up with the design; (d) assemble the design and wording; (e) print the invitations; (f) distribute the invitations. Each step by itself is well defined and not very difficult. Most of them are not time-consuming either. You can come up with the wording while taking a shower, or breastfeeding, or cooking, or at any other time when you have a few minutes to think. Jot it down and you have completed a task. Deciding on the recipients can be done in a similar manner. The search for the design could be as simple as opening up your software of choice and selecting the colours of the background, the text, and the font. Perhaps you decide to add an image in as well. Putting in the wording and tweaking the appearance will complete the most difficult task (especially for those of us who are perfectionists) since it requires the most creativity. Printing is trivial. And the last step is remembering to bring the invitations with you, which you can assist by putting a reminder in your calendar.

Once you complete the first small task, the ease of success will fuel you desire to take on the next task, to get more accomplished and finish the project sooner. Each task will bring you closer to the end, serving as motivation for the next task. It does not seem like much if all you have done on your project in a day is come up with some names and a few words, as we would in the example above. However, once you realize that it brings you two steps closer to completing the project and is about 30% of the entire work, it will feel a lot more relevant and rewarding.

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Switch activity types

When you do the same type of activity for hours on end, you will find yourself less mentally sharp, more tired, and often more frustrated. A key to accomplishing many things is to switch to different types of activities throughout the day.

Some tasks require you to interact with people: phone calls, meetings, conversations with co-workers, engagement with clients. Other tasks need your technical mind: writing proposals, documentation, code, doing research. Yet others need you to be physically involved, such as working out, cooking, or cleaning. Some need you to be creative, some pragmatic, some playful, and so on.

To keep your day going smoothly and efficiently, try sequencing tasks in such a way that different types of activities follow each other. For instance, make a few phone calls in the morning, to get those out of the way. Follow that with a few stretches, to let your mind rest and your body engage. Then take on a technical task such as research, followed by a creative one, followed by a play session with your child. These can be done in whatever order, as long as each task allows you to engage a different part of the brain and body, and let those used in the previous task take a break.

You might also notice that after a physically-engaging task, such as a few stretches, a workout, or a brisk walk, your senses will awaken, which is likely to give you a fresh perspective on a mentally-intensive or a creative task. Additionally, while you are physically engaged, you might be working out a logical problem in the back of your mind, which will make it easier to come to a resolution once you are back to actively working on that problem.

The key is that you do not need to be doing nothing in order to rest. Relax different parts of your body and mind at a time while engaging other parts, and you will be more productive and feel more rested.

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I am an efficiency fiend

This is to say that I am always looking for better ways to juggle a variety of unrelated projects, from creative to mundane, while handling incoming client requests, daily family responsibilities, and hourly new baby demands. And I strive to do this without losing my sanity, while keeping my children happy, leaving some time for myself, and smiling occasionally.

To give you an idea, I have completed grades 11 and 12 in one year after coming to Canada, earning a Governor General’s medal for the highest marks in the school, while learning English and holding a part-time dishwasher job at a restaurant. I have studied for my Bachelor’s in Computer Science while maintaining a household, working on personal and client web projects, and having a part-time job (first at Robin’s Donuts and then at a web-development company), going on to three co-op terms in Winnipeg and Ottawa with the government (Manitoba Education) and IBM. I have completed my Mistress of Computer Science degree in a year and a semester, while working a full-time software developer job. All this without stopping to explore life, engage with a new culture, host parties, read books, attend concerts and goth nights, drink my share of spirits, maintain long-term relationships, and cuddle pets (I did have a pleasure to learn about hedgehogs and Holland lop bunnies).

With the birth of my first, and now second, baby, I have taken the efficiency up a notch. I now maintain our home and cook our meals, breastfeed and play with the children, as well as work on personal and client web projects, volunteer for local birth and baby initiatives, read, do jigsaw puzzles, make jewellery, do yoga, and take care of a million more little things that come about with having a family. I also take up full-time work once my maternity leave is over, balancing family and work obligations while trying to stay sane and breathe deeply.

All this is not to bore you with details of my life, but to say – I’ve lived many a lifestyle with combinations of study, full- and part-time work, partner, household, children, personal and client projects. I’ve also lived in a very different culture from the one I have been raised to, with many psychological and practical adjustments this entails. And I maintain that it is possible to have a fulfilled organized life while doing what you have to do, and staying sane and happy throughout.

So in this Efficiency Dance section, I shall attempt to gather various tips and strategies that have helped me throughout the years. My arsenal is always growing and evolving to adjust for higher demands and changing life situations, and I hope many of these strategies will be helpful to you.

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