Explore your surroundings

We can get so used to the same routine day after day, that we do not realize how narrow our world view becomes. Today, an unexpected find has lit my otherwise ordinary work day. It reminded me of surprises waiting for us just out of sight, and of how quickly our perception of reality can change.

I have been feeling somewhat painted into a corner, since the office in which I work is situated along a busy road, in the middle of an industrial park. Lots of trucks spewing exhaust, an abundance of cars, warehouses, and a small gas station are the main features of my surroundings. Needless to say, that does neither foster a sense of well-being, nor inspire creativity. The options for a healthy lunch, excluding food brought from home, are non-existent. In fact, without driving for 5-10 minutes, there are no lunch options at all, save the fare a little convenience store at the gas station has to offer. And very few things they carry I would classify as food.

Aside from non-existent lunch options, with so much industrial infrastructure around, going for a walk means either wondering around concrete-sealed warehouse yards or walking along a busy road with 70 km/h traffic, much of it being heavy-laden trucks, with dust clouds rising as vehicles pass, and no sidewalk. At least so I thought until today.

After working here for two years, a colleague of mine had just discovered a hidden gem in this industrial wasteland and has shared his find. We walked for about 5 minutes before the view of a beautiful quarry filled with water opened up. The noise of cars was muffled and tall evergreens bordered the quarry. The place was deserted, except for two people sitting on the sand near the water, carrying on a quiet conversation.

quarry 600

I looked at the quiet water reflecting the blue sky with a few clouds, the soft ripples at the shallow edges of the pool, white fluttering of wings as a flock of birds bathed at the far end. I listened to the gentle whisperings of wind in the trees and the splashing of fish near the shore. I took off my shoes and walked in the cool shallow water, on the soft sand, on the smooth river stones. Mere minutes away from the bustle and dust, this quiet oasis has refreshed me. A partly cleared narrow path through the evergreens promised new discoveries, and we decided to leave its hidden surprises for another time.

quarry water 600

When I got back to the office, it didn’t feel like an island in the middle of an industrial desert anymore. Such a subtle spatial awareness that a beautiful, quiet sanctuary is but minutes away had suddenly changed the way I perceived my reality.

There will be more trips to the quarry, maybe with a lunch, to sit down and enjoy the space for a time. There shall be more walks and, perhaps, walking meetings, to get out of an office setting and get into a more creative state. Walking barefoot in cool, refreshing water during a break is a great opportunity to switch gears, breathe, and pause to appreciate the present moment.

Have you explored the space around your work and your home? Where does your road take you?

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Get ready for work the day before

We all know how fast the tension rises and the moods sour when we are racing against the clock in the morning, in order to make it to work on time. Children add an entire level of complexity to getting out of the house. Dealing with the same frustrations week after week, I have come up with a few strategies to make the mornings less stressful.

getting-ready-for-work

The night before, think about the next day, while you are not running madly around trying to get things done by a deadline. A good time is when kids are playing after supper, or during your commute, or as the supper is cooking – take a few minutes to visualize what the next day looks like and what you would need.

Do as much as you can the night before:

1. Get lunches ready and packed the day before. I find it saves time and frustration in the morning, if I wash out the lunch containers and assemble lunches as I’m making supper or cleaning up after it. During that time, I’m already getting things out of the fridge and I have a knife and a cutting board out. It’s a matter of a few extra motions in the evening, in a more relaxed atmosphere, which is way less stressful than trying to think through a fog of your just-out-of-bed brain, while being distracted by the leisurely-(not)-waking-up children. You are likely to make better nutritional choices too if you have a few moments to think them through.

2. For some people shower is what wakes them up in the morning. I prefer taking a longer, leisurely shower (a whole 5 minutes sometimes!) in the evening, while my partner bathes the kids. Consider that option if you don’t feel the necessity of a water ritual in the morning.

3. Check weather forecast the night before and get the clothing ready for yourself and the kids. Is it likely to rain? Track down your umbrellas, raincoats, and rain boots. Is it warm? Hats and light clothing would be needed. Is it going to be freezing outside? Line up coats, hats, scarves, gloves, snow pants, boots — whatever each family member needs. Will the weather change throughout the day? Get a few layers ready for yourself to adjust to the difference between the office and the outdoors, and for the kids to be comfortable during their stay inside, as well as at a park or playground, if that is a part of their day. The more items of clothing are needed, the more time and frustration you will save in the morning, multiplied by the size of your family.

4. If, by chance, you find that the item of clothing that you absolutely need is dirty, there is time to run a load of laundry. Start it in the evening, and make sure the clothes are in the dryer before you go to bed.

5. Pack everyone’s bags. Find your wallet and keys (it’s best to have a designated spot for those). Charge electronics overnight – cell phone, camera, whatever else you would need the next day. Help your children find and pack their school books or toys. My son has a tendency to run around the house just as we are leaving in the morning, looking for something to bring for show-and-tell. With intermittent success, I’m impressing upon him the wisdom of doing it the night before.

6. Check your calendar for appointments and visualize your day. Did you run out of tea at the office and were going to bring some in? Unless you imagine yourself coming to work, putting the kettle on, and opening the tea tin, only to find it empty, you will likely forget to bring more. Do you need anything for your appointments? Printed out documents, perhaps, or your medical history, or insurance information? Evening is the best time to collect everything you need for the next day.

When you have several errands to run each day, as well as work meetings, deadlines, potentially-wasted commute time, and the need to remember all the items to bring for the children to make their day go smoothly as well, a few minutes of planning the night before can save you time. They can also help avoid frustration over forgotten necessities, poor nutritional choices, and meltdowns. To continue with the calm, productive attitude at work, create a zen workspace that would foster your creativity and problem solving faculties.

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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.

smilingWomanInTheRain

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.

tackleThatProject

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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Know when to take a break

When you find that your emotional state is not conducive to interacting with people, step back and take care of yourself. Give yourself time to regroup, recover from whatever emotional turmoil or physical strain you are experiencing, and come back with a fresh outlook and a productive attitude.

takeABreak

We are brought up to perform and deliver, to achieve and act responsibly. However, when your own resources are depleted (like it frequently happens during postpartum or at an emotionally- or physically-demanding job), you need to cut down on your obligations and allow yourself time to rest and resolve your inner conflicts.

It often happens that a mother is so focused on taking care of her children that she neglects her own needs for nutritious diet, restful sleep, and relaxation. An article on postnatal depletion I have recently read mentions a mother of five who was so extremely depleted that she had landed in a hospital with pneumonia, only to rip out her IV the next day to rush back to her family, ignoring her own need to recover.

This is an extreme example, but it happens all around us, with mothers juggling family and work responsibilities, with people pushing down their grief, anger, exhaustion, and pretending that nothing out of the ordinary is happening, while struggling to perform their work duties and fulfil their obligations to others. We are brought up not to show vulnerability, so instead these people often become abrupt and rude, or weepy and easily upset, teetering on the edge of tears, unable to control their emotions or stay civil in their responses. Needless to say, their productivity suffers, and if they work with people, their ability to feel compassion and be understanding melts away, leaving sharp edges that slash anyone who approaches. At the extreme, this can lead to causing pain or inflicting injury on self or other people.

As a community, we need to support each other through these times, being mindful and understanding of how difficult it is to climb out of this depleted and highly emotional state. This is not the time to load the person with additional responsibilities or expect high performance. Reprimands are not helpful. Expressing understanding, alleviating the stress, sharing responsibility, and working on the solution together is a better way forward.

As an individual experiencing depletion, you need to put yourself first. Drastically reduce whatever responsibilities and work obligations you have, as much as possible. Take stress leave or vacation. Let the people around you know that you need time to regroup and recover. Gather around you all the support you can — family and friends who can bring you meals, watch your children, spend time with you if you like, or allow you the space and time to rest. Go away to a resort where you can connect with nature, reduce your pace, and spend time resting away from your everyday surroundings that carry with them the stress of obligations.

In earlier societies, there were rituals for various life situations. We kept a few, such as weddings and funerals, but have forgotten many other ceremonies, such as a Blessingway, that support people going through times of transition. The tradition of Mother’s Blessing is being resurrected in small birthing circles, but other transitions are rarely honoured. Consider holding a ceremony to support your loved ones through divorce, bereavement, coming to terms with a serious illness in the family, or with another challenging emotional transformation. Show them that they have people who care, who love and support them, who can help them navigate this tough time with compassion and understanding.

Remember that you cannot take good care of anyone else unless you take good care of yourself first. Your loved ones want to see you healthy and happy, not sacrificing your sanity and well-being to your sense of duty. Be well and take care.

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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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Creating a zen workspace

To facilitate creativity and productivity, our workspace has to provide all necessities for performing the work, as well as a few extras that help us focus, keep distractions away, and alleviate stress. Whether you are changing jobs, moving offices, or rearranging your home workspace, here are some helpful tips.

zenWorkspace

Control the noise and light pollution as much as possible. Your environment has a significant impact on how effectively your brain works: introduce too much sensory input, and the brain will work hard at trying to push it to the background, in order to concentrate on the work at hand. This same energy could be spent directly on the work. Too much noise and light pollution drain our energy, making us tired sooner and reducing our ability to work efficiently and enjoy the process. Control your atmosphere.

Limit external interruptions as much as you can. Depending on your work, you might have to be interrupted to a greater or a lesser degree. An administrative assistant or a receptionist who has to take phone calls or answer email and in-person inquiries throughout the day will be more interrupted than a software engineer. If you need to make phone calls, do it in blocks of time, so that for the rest of the day you can focus on other work. If you need to communicate with others about something you are working on, compile a list of questions and have a discussion about all of them at once, as opposed to interrupting each other throughout the day. Ask your colleagues to do the same. Set up a reasonable system within your environmental constraints.

Limit self-induced interruptions. Don’t have Facebook or news sites open and informing you of every single new comment or news story — you’ll never get any work done. Instead, if you want a break, check the updates once or twice a day, during breaks or lunch, to unwind and reset your mind. Don’t let it become a two-hour mindless surfing session — it’s a sure way to emerge on the other side emotionally drained, overwhelmed with information, and distressed with the sinking feeling that you just wasted hours of your life on nothing useful.

If you work at a desk job, address the dangers of prolonged sitting. Bring a yoga ball to sit on or a yoga mat to periodically stretch. Find a way to take walk every now and then — getting up at least once an hour for 5-10 minutes is important, as all kinds of health deterioration is associated with prolonged sitting. Go for a brisk walk around the block or just step outside for a few deep breaths, use the washroom, get some water or tea, do a few stretches.

If you work outside the home, the washrooms are often stocked with antibacterial soap with hot pink dyes and fragrances. Bring a natural soap without antibacterial chemicals — you’ll be washing your hands often throughout the day, and your hands will thank you for taking good care of them.

Introduce something green to your workplace: a plant or a flower in a glass of water. If you work in a place with natural sunlight, you have lots of options. If your workplace is dim, as in a basement or a windowless office, some plants can still thrive there — devil’s ivy did quite well in my previous dark office space.

If you work at a computer, raise your monitor (or multiple monitors) to eye level. You can get monitor stands or just prop them on piles of books. Your head, neck, eyes, and back will have less stress if you are looking straight ahead instead of craning your neck down.

Wear comfortable footwear with no heel (and I mean completely flat, not even an inch) — look into Vibrams or other minimal footwear. Or ditch the shoes altogether — if you are sitting at a desk, no one sees your feet anyway. You won’t be shortening your calf muscles, which will in turn alleviate issues with your hips, back, and pelvic floor. Katy Bowman has lots of good information on why heels gotta go.

Bring a scarf, shawl, pashmina, blanket, or sweater to have another layer of temperature control. Many offices are cold in winter (at least in Canada), and freezing in summer, since people dress for outside +30°C and the air conditioners bring the temperature down 10 degrees or more, with drafts (especially where people share the building with computers that need to be kept cool). When your body has to work at keeping itself warm, your brain is not dedicating as much capacity to your work as it could in a comfortable temperature.

Bring healthy snacks to stash at your workplace: dried fruit, seeds and nuts, home-made energy bars, dark chocolate. It’s too easy to get lost in work and realize too late that you are famished and there’s no time to go out and get anything healthy (or your office is in the middle of nowhere and the only fair around is junk from a gas station). If you don’t have healthy snacks ready, you can easily fall into a trap of grabbing the sugar-laden ones from a convenience store nearby. Snack in moderation — even though these things are better for you, there is no need to overindulge. Keep these for emergency times only.

Bring healthy lunch and fresh snacks every day (and when you fail to plan, you will have your stashed ones to fall back onto): dinner leftovers and fresh fruit and veggies are the best. Bring cutlery if none is provided by your office, wash it after lunch and keep it at your desk. There are few things more frustrating than opening your home-made lunch and realizing you’ve forgotten the utensils.

Bring a water bottle with clean water — not all offices have clean tap water or a good water filter. In many places, bottled water is of worse quality than tap water, so save your money and don’t buy bottled water unless you are somewhere tap water is not safe for drinking.

Bring a mug you can keep at your desk and a few different teas you enjoy. It’s great to have a refreshing cup of green tea during a hot summer day, or a cup of hot black tea on a cold winter morning. Your mug will make the place feel more like home and can serve as a focus point when you need to shake off frustration and reset to a productive mindset.

Bring a box of tissues — it’s very handy to have for any spills, to use as a napkin, a wrapper, or a handkerchief.

Bring headphones if your work requires concentration. Headphones can serve as a reminder to people around you that you are “in the zone” and might not want to be interrupted. They will think twice before asking you a question directly, often opting out for email or instant messaging as a more gentle way to get your attention. In fact, some software companies make it a part of their code of conduct, to reduce interruption and increase productivity.

These are a few tips that I have found helpful. What are you favourite ways to make your workplace welcoming and make you want to spend time there?

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Resolutions? Try something new!

January is the month for the New Year resolutions. This year, resolve to try something new, often.

We get so bogged down in routine that on a rare occasion we surface for air (during holidays or a vacation), we often realize how monotone our life is. We work, we take care of children, we cook, clean, run errands, and manage to get out for an evening once in a blue moon. In all these chores and commitments, we often lose the sense of being alive. I absolutely love the following picture, not sure who to credit for it:

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This time of year when you think on what is important to you, ask yourself whether you have become caught up in the drudgery of existence. Have you lost the sense of wonder you had as a child? How adventurous are you in your day-to-day life?

There is a great song in the Russian version of The Three Musketeers called Pourquoi pas? (Why not?). When someone suggests a seemingly-outlandish activity, don’t ask yourself “Why would I do it?”, ask “Why not?”  Why not try something new? The longer we are entrenched in our routines, the more reluctant we become to step away from the familiar and into an experience that might lead us in an unknown and exciting direction.

I can hear someone say, “What if the activity is risky? Say, someone is inviting me to jump off a plane or do something else that is far out of my comfort zone.” Realize that everything in life has risks — stepping outside is risky, getting behind the wheel of a car is risky. Nothing is risk-free. What we need to consider is the trade-offs and the level of risk we are comfortable with. For some people, jumping off a plane is hardly more adventurous than the bungee jump they did last week. For others, having a spicy Thai dish for dinner is too far outside of their comfort zone. Yet for others, taking a vacation abroad is new, unknown, and fraught with risks. Think of the possible consequences of your choice, weigh the probabilities, and make your decision accordingly. You don’t have to place your life in significant danger to have fun.

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Start small – try making a new dish for dinner or a new craft project with the kids. Try a new way home, a new yoga routine, a new dance. Never ice-skated? Try it this winter — even if you don’t end up doing flawless pirouettes on the ice, you might enjoy the exhilaration, and your kids will love the family experience. Come play at a drum circle, try a jigsaw puzzle, pick up a new musical instrument, or try painting. Try a new position in sex, pick up a new hobby, discover a new band, make an effort to meet someone new or get to know one of your acquaintances better. As a baby setting out on their first wobbly-legged exciting and frightening three-step journey, let go of the well-known stable reality and experiment. You always have a safe base with its comforting routine to return to.

Challenge your identity. If you think of yourself as a housewife, you will behave differently than if you think of yourself as a career woman or a stay-at-home-mom, a goddess or a fitness guru. Try things that lie outside of “your main role” and see how your perception of yourself changes. Even if you don’t end up particularly enjoying the experience, you will learn more about your world and about yourself.

In addition to trying out a new activity, consider the tasks you complete day after day. Can you find new and better ways to accomplish what you need while having fun, or ways to optimize your actions leaving more time for you to do what you would rather be doing? Break the mould and seek a new approach. After all, you can always go back if there is no way to improve on your current process. If you are struggling with changing specific habits, you might discover it’s easier to change the undesirable patterns in your life by introducing small changes.

Part of the New Year’s resolutions is making changes in your routine — to spend more time with the people who matter, to take care of your body, to complete planned household projects. Don’t throw away the routine, just resolve to try something new, say, once a week. Seemingly a little change, it will give you over 50 opportunities over the next year to discover new possibilities. How many new things have you learned this past year? Life is short — spice it up with new experiences.

Pourquoi pas?

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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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Shift your pattern by changing one thing

If you feel you are stuck in a routine you do not enjoy, try altering it in small ways. Before you know it, small changes might carry you into a more enjoyable reality.

We are so entrenched in our routines, often doing the same thing day after day or following the same steps (not always the most effective) in order to complete a particular task. We are firing the same neurons and reinforcing the same neural pathways. Yet we can gain much from altering some of our habits, removing or changing steps, or dropping certain habits altogether.

The patterns into which we fall take many shapes, as each of us has different indulgences, dislikes, and experiences. Some people cannot fathom starting their day without a cup of coffee, others have a sugary snack every time they need an energy boost. Some frequently order unhealthy take-out, others stay up late even when they know they need to be up early, yet others use shopping as therapy. Some turn to pharmaceuticals, street drugs, or alcohol every time they need to alter their state. Some drop their things in random places when they walk through the door, resulting in frantic search for keys or wallet as they are running late the next day. We all know our less-than-optimal habits.

Yet it is at times so hard to break out of our routines. It is daunting to do things differently – change brings with it the unknowns. What if this doesn’t work? What if there are unexpected consequences? What if this takes longer? What if I don’t have everything I need, since this is a new way of doing things? Change is hard. That’s why societies keep trudging along for years under poor leadership, reluctant to attempt changing the known evil/inefficiency for an unknown hazy possibility of a better reality.

Unfamiliar is uncomfortable, often due to our perception of its difficulty and ease of sticking to what we know. Yet the only way for us to learn better ways of doing things, to expand our skill set, and to grow intellectually and emotionally is to change our patterns and try new approaches.

Try starting small and change one thing about your day:

  • drive a different route to explore your surroundings;
  • move furniture around to change your spacial perception;
  • try a new cuisine to expand your palate;
  • go to bed early to change your morning outlook;
  • dress differently to explore a different aesthetic and observe how other people’s perception of you changes;
  • step onto a yoga mat and be present, even for 5 minutes, to see how that alters how you feel in your body;
  • listen to a new song to alter your mood (try an upbeat one if you tend to listen to quiet pensive melodies, or vice-versa);
  • exchange your coffee for a tea or your sugary snack for scrambled eggs and see how your energy levels are;
  • don’t check your email or social networks before you go to bed and see if your sleep is more restful.

If you tend to explode at your children’s noisy pursuits, try taking a deep breath before you let a scream out. You might find that you don’t need to respond in an irritated manner. Perhaps you might even feel that approaching the situation with curiosity instead of anger would help you find out what’s so fascinating about jumping on the bed while holding onto a curtain and singing “London bridge is falling down” in a piercing falsetto.

Change of established routines is recommended as prevention and mitigation for people with multiple sclerosis and dementia: driving a different route, learning words in a new language, doing puzzles, solving riddles, memorizing new things. All of these activities build new neural pathways, keeping the brain active. Looking at your reality from a different vantage point is also a way to alleviate depression and can help when feeling anxious.

What you will often discover is that once you change one small part of your pattern, it becomes easier to do it in another area. This means that in a situation where change is necessary, you will be less stressed, more willing to try new things, and more inspired to find alternative solutions to a problem that might seem unsolvable at first glance. You can feel liberated from artificial constraints that guide your daily routines and shape a better reality.

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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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How I make my photography greeting cards

What better way to get in touch with someone than by a handmade greeting card? Many a friend of mine has appreciated these cards with their vibrant colours and beautiful flowers or nature scenes. The bright white paper, the original photographs, the hand-drawn vignettes on the back in colours complementary to the photos, and the intricate border framing the picture – all make these cards a pleasure to receive. They are perfect for sending notes, invitations, get well wishes, congratulations, or just to brighten someone’s day. If you would like to make some on your own, read on.

Flower crown cards, etsy, front sweet william, md

You will need:

1. Printed 4 x 6 photographs (or pictures cut out of old calendars, magazines, posters).
2. White 8.5 x 11 (letter size) card stock (vignettes will be most vibrant on white).
3. Glue tape runner (plus some refills if you are making many cards).
4. Decorative border scissors.
5. Thin-tip multi-coloured markers (I have been using the same Staedtler triplus fineliner set for over 4 years now, and they still produce great colour).
6. Ruler (at least 6 inches (15 cm) long, or whatever the longer side of your card is).

You can make cards from photos of other sizes, but in this article I’ll stick to the process I use: I make two cards from a single card stock sheet.

The photos can be whatever you like. I like taking pictures of the places I find beautiful when traveling or exploring the trails (a great way to make your walks with a baby more engaging). I also love growing my subjects myself, by planting flowers in my garden and photographing them in bloom. Arboretums, friends’ or community gardens, city parks, rivers and lakes, city architecture, – there are so many opportunities for postcard-style photos! Frame each photo well, make sure the lighting is good (afternoon is a great time to take photos outside), print them at any photo kiosk, and you are ready to make cards.

Sunset Arch, April 22, 2011, medium

Sunset on the Ottawa River

An efficiency tip: if you are making cards for a specific occasion or have a deadline, I suggest to apply the trip over your to-dos tip, and utilize the space you would really like to use for something else in a couple of days. In my case, I clear out my puzzle desk to set out all of the items I need to make postcards. This ensures that I will try my best to complete them in a timely manner, as I will be unable to use the desk for anything else (like a puzzle) while the cards are being made. I also usually batch the activities up: I glue all the photos, then cut the borders, then sort them, and then draw vignettes. This way I can focus on one type of activity and get better at it with each card, instead of constantly switching tools and creating more opportunity for mistakes. Specialization is the key for large batches of cards.

Glue the photos, two per sheet of card stock, using the glue tape runner. I find that it makes for a cleaner adhesive than a dripping glue, and the photos do not bulge up if you accidentally use a bit more than needed. It is also less messy. When gluing, do not worry too much about how straight the photos are on the sheet: as long as there is plenty of white space around each to cut out the border, it’s all good.

Take the scissors, and cut around each photo, leaving about half a centimetre or so of white curved border. Take a look at the illustration to see what I mean: it’s much easier to show than to describe in words. At the end of this step, you will have a stack of beautiful cards. You can stop here or proceed onto making the back of the cards framed and decorated, to accentuate the message.

Postcards, md

I take a couple of minutes here to sort the cards. I usually match the vignette colours to the photo on the front of the card. This means that in order to minimize the need to constantly switch markers, it is easier to do all the cards with similarly-coloured vignettes first, and then move onto the next set of colours. So, first I sort the cards into broad colour categories: reds and oranges, pinks and purples, blues and greens (water landscapes often fall into this category), and so on. (Sometimes I do that as I cut the borders, by creating separate piles for different colours.) Then I sort each colour stack into horizontal and vertical cards based on the photo. I usually put a design in the left top and bottom right corner on the back of the card, so it is easier to sort the cards first, instead of checking whether each one is the right way up before drawing.

Decorate the back of the card. Here is the other part where your creativity can shine: you can make the vignettes as simple or as elaborate as you like. If you are unsure about drawing directly in marker, take a sheet of paper and practice your vignette first. Once you are satisfied with it, you can try it on the back of the card either in pencil first, or be bold and go for the marker.

Spring fames cards, etsy, back, medium

Once the vignettes are done, I usually complete them with the frame of straight lines to outline the message, provide padding, and give the back of the card a finished look. This is where the ruler comes in handy.

I find making these cards relaxing. Once my kids are older, I’m sure it will make for an interesting craft idea for them as well. Finding the subjects to photograph makes for an engaging activity by itself. Drawing vignettes provides a creative outlet, and the entire process makes for a calming, centering hobby. Try making a card for a friend. We so rarely reach to each other in tangible physical ways in this digital world, that such a gesture can mean a lot. And don’t you love opening your mailbox to find a one-of-a-kind colourful greeting from a friend?

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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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17 things to do while waiting in hospital isolation with a child

cheoHeartsThose of us who have been confined to a children’s hospital isolation room with a sick child know that the time flows differently there than in the outside world. Some hours fly by in seemingly-endless exams and procedures when you have to be present every moment, help keep your child comfortable, interact with the hospital team; and you cannot sit down and focus on anything else. Other times you are counting minutes as your child sleeps, worried and full of anticipation and hope that they would feel better when they wake up, or full of frustration at setbacks or lack of progress. The atmosphere overall is not conducive to doing anything productive, yet you need to keep yourself occupied to stay sane and be available for your child when they need you. So below are a few suggestions on what you can do while confined in a room with a child who is resting and does not need you at that moment.

Overall suggestions:

1. Use the web and phone to stay in touch with people. Anxiety and loneliness can make things seem a lot worse than what reality is, and even when reality is bleak, an encouraging word is helpful. Talk through the events with other mothers who have been in a similar situation – you might gain insight into hospital protocols and rules, medical procedures, possible ways to make your child more comfortable, and an idea of what to expect. It also just feels good to hear that others have been where you are. It seems like a counter-productive suggestion (after all, talking to people takes away from productive things you might be doing during that time), but without a sanity check your thoughts and feelings might be so scattered that you won’t be able to focus on anything else.

2. Arrange for people to come visit. When there is an interruption in the routine of procedures which you can look forward to, the day does not seem as long and the night as lonely. Ask your visitors to bring a meal if possible. Hospital food is often highly processed and not fresh. Since your sleep routine is already disrupted and you are getting exposed to cleaning chemicals and infections abundant in a hospital, the last thing you need is to get sick from eating poorly. Sites like MealTrain.com can facilitate the creation of a meal train – an arrangement where people sign up to bring you a meal on a specific day. After having hospital food for a day and then subsisting on beef jerky for a couple of meals, a soup for lunch and a homemade cooked meal for dinner made a big difference for me.

3. Write down everything you can: child’s feeding times and diaper weight, oxygen level changes, test results, medicine administration times, and times of any other procedures. You’d be surprised how many mistakes are made and things overlooked, and many times you will be asked to confirm nurse’s records or doctor’s diagnoses. Write down the names of the doctors and nurses in case you want to file a complaint or send a thank you note after the discharge.

4. Have a video chat session with family members or friends. We have an older child at home, and with the seasonal visitation ban for anyone under 14, he has not been able to come visit for the entire week. I’ve managed to see him for a couple of hours one day, but that was not nearly enough. The video chat helped us stay in touch, and the baby enjoyed seeing familiar faces and her brother’s antics.

What to do when you have a few minutes:

1. Take care of yourself: brush your hair, trim nails, moisturize lips and hands (the hospitals often have very dry and cold air), brush your teeth, put together a snack. If you are breastfeeding and are engorged – consider pumping. In some hospitals the nurse can bring you a pump into the room together with bottles, caps, and labels, and you can ask them to put your milk into the freezer or fridge. In others you might have to go into a separate room to pump.

2. Get the room ready for when the child wakes: tidy up (not all nurses are diligent about discarding used packaging and tools), set out your child’s clothing, toy, book, diaper, snack, blanket, or whatever else they will need.

3. Take a mental break: look out the window if there is one, meditate, make a cup of tea, re-focus your attention. Once I know I’ll be stuck in the hospital for more than a day, one of the first things I ask for is a kettle, since having a cup of hot tea is the best way for me to get centered.

4. Take a physical break: do some sitting stretcheswrist or neck exercises (these are the ones I find useful). Carrying a child puts a strain on the wrists and arms, and bending over to breastfeed or play can stress the back and neck, so it is good to get some relief when you have a moment.

5. Give into the magic of coconut oil. I have used it to moisturize a split lip: it cracked in the dry air of the hospital and with diligent application of coconut oil it has healed within 24 hours. I have used it to help heal the site of the IV injection on the baby’s hand. You can also do oil pulling if you think no one will need you to talk in the next 20 minutes or so. Both calendula cream and coconut oil were helpful in easing the baby’s discomfort from rubbing her nose and eyes (the oxygen tubes were very irritating to her): I alternated applying them to her face.

6. While there is daylight, try reading – preferably something uplifting or peaceful, to take your mind from worry. A book with short chapters might be best since you can be interrupted at any moment, and it is hard to come back into the middle of a complex thought being expressed over multiple pages.

7. Find a way to smile. When my partner and I were in the hospital isolation with our older child two years ago, we were tired, sad, and despirited, as our son was fighting to breathe and get better. So one day when he slept, we decided to find a site with funny visual memes and browse through them together. It made us take a deep breath, smile, and took a bit of tension out, so that when our son was up, we were able to share our boosted positive energy with him.

8. Go through your outstanding emails (this can take as little or as much time as you have, just chip at it) and do some inbox clean-up. I use the combination of my email inbox and calendar as my to-do list. So there are always messages sitting in my inbox waiting to be read, watched, responded to, or actioned. Some videos might be problematic to stream over the hospital network (the connection has not been very reliable in my experience), but articles can be read, online research or purchasing done, and correspondence answered.

9. Rearrange your schedule. You have likely landed in the hospital unexpectedly. That means there probably are appointments in the next couple of weeks you might need to reschedule, or possibly some deadlines to renegotiate. A few phone calls are easy to make during the day, and you can reorganize your schedule for the near future.

10. Purchase supplies online. You might need medical supplies to keep caring for your child at home. This is a good time to take stock of what is needed and order it online – that way you will have everything you need once you are home. For instance, we had to get a nasal aspirator and additional filters for it, to help suction the baby’s nose. I also needed band-aids for myself, as a deep finger cut I’ve been trying to heal has been aggravated by all the dry air at the hospital, and the way I found to assist its healing was putting calendula cream on it under a band-aid, so it did not get smudged or dry off.

11. Do some of your online work (assuming you have any), if you feel you can focus sufficiently. Updating social media profiles, designing a newsletter, editing product or service listings, answering client emails, writing site content, doing online marketing or coding can all be done in short bursts.

12. Brainstorm. When you are in a non-routine situation, unexpected ideas often come to mind. Write them down. They could be related to work or business, home, family, outstanding task reminders, steps to resolve existing issues, or things you’d like to do for pleasure in the near future. It is good to take yourself out of the current situation even for a few minutes and imagine a different reality where your child is well again, and thinking up a few activities you could do together.

13. Breathe deeply. Remind yourself that this too shall pass, and trust that things will look brighter on the other side. If you are reading this at the hospital, my wishes of health and quick recovery for your little one.

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Challenged to focus on the bright side

I must say, this past weekend has truly been testing my ability to stay positive and look for the best in life. There I was Friday, singing to my baby as I went about my errands, and planning a bbq with a couple of friends on Saturday. Saturday morning, I woke up with an extremely sore throat, my voice gone, and a snow storm outside.

Now, normally I’m not a wimp – sore throats come and go and my voice should come back in a few days. However, this time the pain was from hell. Unable to sleep due to coughing that would leave my throat more raw, triggering more coughing, waking up the kids who they would have to be cuddled and fed back to sleep. I couldn’t swallow even tea without pain, let alone trying to have some food. I would howl, only a mere thought of using my vocal chords almost reduced me to tears.

Beautiful start to a weekend, wouldn’t you say? It would be easy to stay in bed (or at least attempt to do so with two kids around), but I am easily bored, and, equally important, stubborn. And so I went about my day in as productive and positive a way as I could. My concession was to slow down and take things one at a time. I took a shower and then made my family breakfast of boiled eggs, avocado, cucumber, and pork pate, followed by some black tea with lemon, ginger, and cloves. I have then called and rescheduled the bbq, which could not happen in the snow storm in any case.

I had decided to give doTerra oils a try, and some have arrived this past week, so I thought this would be a good testing ground to see if I can speed up the recovery using the oils. I’ve tried diffusing a few different blends and oils throughout the day, gargling with some, putting some on my neck and feet, all while consulting with the groups online to determine a protocol to follow. An immediate relief came only from gargling with oregano and lemon, but as oregano is not recommended while breastfeeding, I have not repeated that one. Everything else alleviated the pain very marginally, making my tongue feel like it has been scraped in the process. I think I will stick to external applications, except for lemon and lime oils, for now. I also made sure to have garlic with every meal, including breakfast, took elderberry syrup, made myself a salad with fresh onions, took echinacea, probiotics, vitamin C, and tripled my vitamin D.

I would say, the day went in as normal and productive manner as it would were I not sick. I even managed to provide a healthy lunch to my partner and son (thanks to advance planning resulting in sweet potato soup residing in the freezer) and to go get groceries in the evening, after the snow has stopped (thanks to advance planning once more that had me put together a list of recipes and ingredients I needed for the week a day before). I have also managed to review all the treasuries I’m curating on Etsy (of which by now there are over 70) and update the ones missing sold or removed items. I did not set myself a goal to update all of them, but I’ve chipped at it throughout the day and ended up finishing the task.

The marinated chicken breast purchased for the bbq the day before, grilled in the oven and supplemented with a stir-fry of cauliflower, broccoli, cherry tomatoes, bell peppers, and cranberries, became dinner. That took all of 15 minutes hands-on time, including serving and cleanup.

The night was rough with coughing and baby cluster-feeding, and Sunday morning brought no relief for the throat. I had to opt out of a Consumers Supporting Midwifery Care meeting on Sunday night, as without voice I would not have been of much use. However, I did manage to gather my thoughts and provide some input via email.

More experimentation with the oils, another healthy breakfast, and another healthy lunch (thanks to the gingered zucchini and beet yam soups in the freezer), breastfeeding and playing with the kids, and generally taking the day slowly, gave me the energy I needed to address the weekly cooking session. Chopping ingredients when I had a free moment and using the slow cooker and the oven to simplify the preparation allowed me to end the day with a dinner of baked salmon, fresh veggies, and cocoa-toasted cauliflower from Well Fed (which was absolutely delicious!). We also now have almost all of our weekly meals ready: piña colada chicken, roasted spaghetti squash, Italian pork roast, Taj Mahal chicken, grilled skewers that didn’t make it to bbq, and a few chopped veggies and greens. Given the energy, I’ll be making the crispy chicken livers with crisp-sweet collards (from Well Fed 2) tonight, as they have to be consumed right after preparation.

It’s Monday and I’m still in pain. However, looking back on the weekend, everything that had to be accomplished, has been. Thanks to my partner, my son got to a skating rink on Saturday and to a toy store to get crayons on Sunday, so he’s been entertained even though I was under the weather. We did some colouring and building with wooden blocks. Kids got food, sleep, baths, and playtime; my partner got food, rest, and watched hockey on Saturday night; and I have done the planned cooking, learned about essential oils, completed the Etsy treasury maintenance, finished a 1000-piece puzzle, packaged a couple of Etsy orders, photographed the new potion vial pendants for Etsy, cuddled with kids, and got as much rest as I could despite the cough. Since I had some quiet time when the kids were asleep, I’ve also listened to more Wheel of Time – The Fires of Heaven, while doing the puzzle and cooking. I’d say I would rather remember all the accomplished things than focus on this hell of a pain that’s still piercing my head. Wouldn’t you?

 

What strategies do you have for sore throat? What do you do to motivate yourself when you are not feeling well?
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