Exhausted? Have a smoothie!

With our fast-paced life, many of us tend to skip or delay meals, resulting in feeling depleted and exhausted. Often, it also makes us reach for less-than-optimal snack and meal options. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding (which often also comes coupled with shortage of sleep) especially need to be getting a well-balanced nutritional intake daily.

Fortunately, there is an easy addition to daily meals that provides additional nutrient-rich foods your body needs: smoothies.

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People get overwhelmed when considering making a smoothie, but the truth is – once you get the routine down, it’s easy:

Include some healthy fat. I love avocadoes for the texture, taste, and nutrition. Coconut oil is another option – just consider that it will crystalize if you are using some frozen ingredients alongside it.

Add greens: spinach, arugula, kale, beet greens, collards, chard, or whatever else you have around. I just step outside into the garden and pluck a few leaves.

Include berries for antioxidants – anything you have around is good – frozen/fresh raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, cherries, currants, etc.

– You can add an apple, pear or banana to sweeten the smoothie if you like. Don’t put too much in though, fructose is still a sugar and not great in large quantities.

Use water for a plain smoothie or coconut/almond milk for a more creamy consistency.

– Blend and enjoy.

You can experiment by varying the ingredients. Add ground flax seeds, pumpkin, chia or hemp seeds for a protein boost. Make a creamy smoothie by using coconut or almond milk with cocoa, some greens, and seeds. Avocado pairs nicely with pineapple for a tropical variation.

Some practical tips I’ve arrived at:

Prepare the smoothie the night before – combine all the ingredients except for water (and perhaps chia seeds as they will thicken overnight) and put the blender jar into the fridge. In the morning, just grab the jar, add water and seeds, and blend.

Rinse/soak the blender jar, lid, and spatula right after you pour the smoothie out. That way you can wash it easily later.

Use up kids’ lunch leftovers. My kids get a variety of fruit and vegetables for lunch and sometimes not all of it gets finished. I throw the leftovers into the next day’s smoothie in the evening, when I’m making their next day’s lunches. Any fruit, berries, carrots, cucumbers can be saved from being thrown out by making them a part of a delicious smoothie.

– If you are making a smoothie for one person, you might end up with more than you can pour out into a tall glass. No worries, stick the blender jar with the rest into the fridge, and keep refilling your glass. I find that the smoothie does not survive longer than a few hours in the fridge, so when I’m working from home, I just seep it throughout the morning.

It’s a morning ritual for us now: I blend a smoothie in the morning, my youngest child fetches the straws for everyone, I pour it into glasses for the kids and my partner and into a wide-mouth stainless steel water bottle for me, to drink on the way to work, and we all enjoy a smoothie as part of our breakfast.

Smoothies are a great way to ensure we get enough nutrients and keep up our energy throughout the day.

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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.

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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.

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When I got back to the office, it didn’t feel like an island in the middle of an industrial dessert 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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Appreciate your partner

In a whirlwind of work, errands, chores, and taking care of the children, without regular loving cultivation, adult relationships tend to sink into a colourless routine. Don’t let them drown!

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It is so easy to go with the flow — get everyone ready for work and school in the morning, drop the kids off, commute to work, spend the entire day tending to the needs of an external entity, commute back home, picking up the children on the way, have dinner, do chores, go into a bedtime routine, and start everything over the next day without having so much as an hour to yourself, let alone your relationship. In this monotonous cycle, if we are not mindful of our partner and their contribution to the family, loving feelings dwindle and resentment grows in their place.

People are creatures of habit. We take for granted what is and forget the multitude of possible alternatives. Remember why you got together with this person in the first place. Remember the butterflies in your stomach — the anticipation to see their face, hold their hand, look into their eyes. Could you have thought then that you would brush by that person every morning without as much as a “Good morning” and go to sleep upset and resentful, without even hugging them?

This is a two-way street. Remind your partner how much you love him or her. Think of them during the day. How can you bring a ray of sunlight into their life? Is it as easy as coming home with a smile and love in your eyes? Is it a good-morning kiss to wake them up, instead of a bark “Get up!” and a frustrated reprimand of how late it is? Is it as difficult as biting back a derogatory word or gesture? Can you bring them a flower, a book, a drawing?

Can you think ahead, in the middle of your typical day, of how you would like to spend time with your partner and then take steps to make it happen? Take a day off, arrange childcare if needed, and make it special. In the middle of a monotonous string of days that all look the same, wouldn’t you love to be surprised by your partner coming up to you and offering a walk, a hug, a special time to share? Don’t wait for it to magically materialize — make it happen.

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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.

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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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Take it easy

When a day is frustrating and you’ve had little rest, every tiny thing can throw you into despair. Things look gloomy, there is no light at the end of the tunnel, and all you want is some peace and time to regroup, which seems impossible with work, chores, and children competing for your attention. And then someone breaks a dish, or cuts you off in traffic, or destroys a project you’ve been working on. And you are on the brink of losing it, screaming your head off, or just giving up and walking away. Take a deep breath. Take a step back.

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We cannot control other people, and can only control our own environment to a certain extent. What we can control is how we perceive and react to things around us. There will be spills and broken dishes. There will be rabbits and other wildlife eating seedlings you spent many a night nurturing. Someone will cut you off in road rage. You’ll hear snipe, inconsiderate remarks towards you or your family when you are out and about.

Consider whether you want to bring that into your space. Choose when to stand up to it and counter the hurtful comments and when to ignore them. Reflect on why someone cuts you off and what their state of mind is at that time. They are clearly aggressive and unbalanced at that moment — realize that you do not wish to share that feeling, and shrug it off. Clean up the spills and the broken pottery, while realizing it’s a blessing no one was seriously injured. Smile at the critters eating your seedlings — at least, your plants are feeding someone. Perhaps, next planting season, you can come up with a way to keep wildlife from the plants with a mesh until the seedlings are well-established.

In the long term, aim to get more sleep and nourishment, control your environment to encourage a productive and creative atmosphere, and take some time for yourself, to rest and regroup. We often get unbalanced when there has been little time to process all the information that overwhelms us every day.

Let go of what you cannot control and make a difference where you can. You cannot do much about an aggressive driver or a broken dish. You can hug your child, pet someone furry, take a walk outside, thank your garden for bringing you its bounty, even if reduced by sharing with wildlife. Appreciate your reality, and let the small things go.

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Feeling stressed and tired? Go to the park!

How often have you come home feeling stressed and tired after a long day, with the only thought of plopping down on a couch and not moving for the rest of the evening? Traffic jams, errands, being bombarded with information, work demands, and interactions with the world around us often leave us feel drained, tired, and unmotivated. Add to it inability to fully rest if you have children that need your attention, and having a restful or a productive evening might seem impossible. My answer? Grab a snack or have a quick dinner, and head to a nearby park.

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Depending where you live, you might substitute another place with trees, fresh air, and a playground or another way for your children to amuse yourself. Near our new place, there are three parks with play structures, from simple to elaborate, and the kids love all of them. They stretch out stiff muscles after classrooms and car rides, and release the last remaining energy after dinner, so that when we start the bedtime routine, they are ready for a rest.

Being outside helps you reset your mind from the worries of the day, from work and chores. You can breathe deeply and connect with nature. There are studies that show that being in green spaces promotes health and longevity. I love walking barefoot on the grass, to connect with the ground and let my feet rest from footwear. You can stretch your own stiff muscles, and you’ll often find that the weight of worries on your shoulders melts away.

Once you’ve breathed deeply and relaxed, you may find you feel new energy coming on. Indulge yourself: use monkey bars and ladders on the playground, crawl through pipes and go down slides, play with your children, do some pull-ups or squats, run and jump, play in the sand. Play is rare in our adult lives, but it is very important for our overall health and well-being. It’s also a great way to get some of the much-needed movement into your often largely-sedentary day. Katy Bowman has a great short video on 30 things you can do at a playground.

If you find yourself if a more introspective mood, you can watch other families play and interact, observing different games people play with their children. You can chat with another family — meeting new people in your neighbourhood may mean a new friend for you or a new playmate for your children.

There are lots of games in which you can participate with your children, your partner, or other families: bring a frisbee, a ball, a jump rope, a bicycle, a hula hoop, or a badminton set. Cool off in a splash pad if there is one in the park — they are great in summertime. Take a turn on the swing — the changes in visual perception and the exhilaration of movement are great ways to shake off the day’s exhaustion.

Soon winter will set in with cozy evenings at home with hot tea, books, puzzles, and board games. Enjoy the warm sunny days while they are here!

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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.

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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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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.

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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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Appreciate your reality

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Recently someone has shown me the following video depicting nutritionally-empty mud cookies being made, sold, coveted and consumed by people in a society where food is extremely scarce. It reminded me of an old saying, “I cried because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet”. We in the West are revolving in a stressful reality we ourselves have created and are often feeling like we can’t ever reach the place we want to be. It helps to slow down and consider how lucky most of us are.

Here are some things you can be thankful about today. Perhaps not all of these apply to you personally, but most of us can be grateful for quite a lot.

Ability to see, hear, walk, and think — those of us who have had one or more of those abilities impeded, appreciate immensely the world of opportunities good vision, hearing, mobility, and reason give us to experience life. Enjoy beautiful music and images around you. Cherish being able to go for a walk in nature, surrounded by green leaves whispering in the wind.

Fresh drinking water — recently-threatened by climate issues and overzealous corporations, most of us take it for granted.

Fresh air to breathe — consider people who work in a coal mine or live near heavy industrial areas. If you are able to walk outside your door and take a deep breath of crisp fresh air, you are fortunate. If you can enjoy a sunset without a smoke halo, drink in the view.

Ample food — many people in Western societies have an abundance of food, so much so that we are wasting 40% of the food we have. Appreciate every morcel of fresh, delicious, nourishing real foods.

Roof over your head — we have removed ourselves from the harsh realities of the weather, be it freezing cold, suffocating heat, soaking rain, or bone-piercing wind. If you have a shelter, be thankful for it.

No censorship on literature — coming from Soviet Russia, I vividly recall the echo of Samizdat and the value of rare banned books. Appreciate the availability of printed information on many points of view.

Human rights, liberty, informed choice — although implementation is somewhat behind the theoretical tenets, we do have many liberties and rights that are not present in other societies.

Way to contribute to community — we have many ways to help each other with resources, time, skills, and compassion. Lending a hand at the time of need is a powerful stress reliever and can bring satisfaction and sense of meaning.

Leisure time — most of us are not working over 10 hours every day of the week and do not have chores that take up all of our time. We can choose to spend our leisure time on all kinds of intellectually and emotionally stimulating endeavors.

Loving partner, parent, friend — most of us have at least one person in our life who supports our ventures, helps us at times of difficulty, and shares our joys with us. If you are lucky to have such a person in your life, cherish that relationship and express your love and gratitude to them often.

Healthy, happy children — those of us who have dealt with difficult times in our children’s lives know how uplifting and joyous is the time when everyone in the family is contentedly playing, learning, and laughing. Do not take those times for granted. Speak softly love to your children.

A welcoming home — if you have a home you love and care for, appreciate that many people live in places that do not feel like home to them. Coming back after a tiring day at work, smile at entering your abode. There is a Russian saying: “At home, even the walls heal you.” A welcoming home recharges us and helps melt our stress away.

Fertile garden — if you have ever grown your own herbs, vegetables, fruit trees, or flower plants, you know how rewarding it is to watch the green life unfold and bloom, and witness the fruit grow and ripen. Cherish the bounty that comes from the land: not everyone is so lucky to have access to fertile land and water.

Step back and look at your life from an outside perspective of people who are not as fortunate to have what you have. Focus on the positive. Rejoice in the things you have, develop a gratitude ritual, and you will find that less significant things do not shake you up as much.

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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.

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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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The power of 15 minutes

Those of us who have been planning to organize the basement or clean the garage know how daunting the prospect of it is. We make it feel like a huge undertaking and keep putting it off, week after week. But you don’t have to dedicate 8-10 hours a day to a project to get it done. Instead, do a little every day and, before you know it, you will see significant progress.

Productive Zen Mama - The Power of 15 Minutes

Consider opportunity cost of what you are doing: what opportunities are you missing if you engage in a particular activity (such as surfing Facebook or watching TV)? Use that information not to instill guilt for choosing sub-optimally, but to motivate yourself to accomplish something of value to you.

Think of it this way: someone might come home and fall into their routine of watching TV for 3 hours. If you instead spend 15 minutes on your garden and 15 minutes exercising, leaving yourself 2.5 hours for other things, you are already ahead of the game. Add these efforts up throughout the week, and you will have a distinct result; whereas if you choose to just collapse on the couch upon getting home every day, you would be where you were a week ago, if not further away from your goal. Moreover, if you do dedicate a few minutes each to various endeavors, you’ll soon find that you’d rather do something productive than veg out, and you might also find that switching between different activities gives you more energy. You can then choose to spend this energy in other productive or relaxing ways.

Have you ever played The Sims? It’s so gratifying to arrange the furniture just so, to plan the garden, and to govern their lives. There is a sense of accomplishment as they keep their plants healthy, exercise regularly, and climb the skill ladder in sciences and arts by studying a bit every day. I used to love doing this. And then it hit me: if, instead of trying to achieve virtual goals by performing repetitive virtual tasks, I put my energy into achieving my own goals in real life, I might be more skilled in something that matters to me, in a few weeks. I never looked back, and playing Sims became meaningless: why simulate the same reality I can build in real life? I can get way more satisfaction from putting my mind and my hands to tangible projects.

Just as with The Sims, when you miss bill payments, exercise, study sessions, or maintenance tasks in real life, your skills deteriorate, belongings get repossessed, and neglected plants and fish die. Consistency is key. That doesn’t mean that your day must become a rigid routine of 15-minute tasks performed every day in the same sequence. It means that you can resolve to put a certain amount of time during the week into each project that currently excites you, find ways to make it fun and invite your family to join you when possible. With the growing sense of accomplishment, you wouldn’t want to go back to doing nothing. Instead, you’ll be excited to take the projects further and to start new ones in the future.

There are lots of things that can be done in 15 minutes to further your progress. Choose to learn new things, explore a new game with the kids, try a new yoga routine, go out for a walk on a new route, spend some time with yourself, read a chapter, sketch a picture, water flowers, declutter a drawer. Each activity brings a change in perspective and lets us rest from the day’s work and recharge while getting closer to our goals.

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Ride the uncertainty

waveTo be resilient in the face of changes, one must let go of the need to cling to familiar and give in to uncertainty of life. Just as with good sex or a good birth, feel the rhythm, follow it, listen to your senses, and ride that wave. Let go and you’ll be more in control and feel more pleasure from the process than if you try to resist the flow. You cannot control life circumstances. You can control how you respond to changes and integrate them into your life.

Those of us who have experienced birth know that you cannot control what your body does to birth the baby. You prepare and plan as much as you can, and when the baby is ready, you let your body take over and guide you. For me, birth has been the ultimate surrender — I have embraced the loss of uncertainty and have focused on riding the waves that brought me to the shores of motherhood. The two days I birthed my two children are the days I’ve felt the most alive in my entire life.

Not surprisingly, the willow tree, with its ability to bend with the wind, without breaking, often serves as an empowering image for weathering the storm of uncertainty and changes. Women often recite the following poem at Blessingways to share with the mama the need for flexibility during labour:

I am a willow tree,
Strong, yet fluid
graceful.
I can bend with the wind,
but my roots are tough,
indestructible.
Opening to birth my child
is flowing with the wind:
from a soft and gentle breeze
to a stormy gale
back to a soft and gentle breeze.
My body is strong, but flexible.
It is my friend, it knows how to open.
I am a friend to my body
eating well, walking, and loving myself.
I shall birth safely, freely, openly…
among my loved and trusted ones.
I am the willow, flexible
beautiful resilient
endowed with the power of surrender
to the wind rustling through my leaves,
my branches.
My roots reach deep into Mother Earth
Anchored in Her strength
I bring forth life
In joy!

(I do not know the author)

In Terry Pratchett’s Witches Abroad, one of the senior witches, Granny Weatherwax speaks about the importance of knowing exactly who and where you are. “She [granny] was also, by the standards of other people, lost. She would not see it like that. She knew where she was, it was just that everywhere else didn’t.” She enters the realm of Death and, surrounded by a multitude of mirror reflections of her, faces a question — which one is the real Granny Weatherwax. She pauses to ask “Is that a trick question?” and, looking down at herself, confidently states, “This one.”

If you know who you are with solid certainty, once you find your centre within the new reality, you can then build more supports to get established anew. You can find your comfort zone and enjoy the calm, keeping in mind the need for flexibility, come the new gale. A good balance of comfort and certainty on one hand, and flexibility and uncertainty on the other, is essential for an exciting journey that does not result in the mountain of stress crushing you, or in the loss of interest in life that has become a rigid routine.

As a personal example, my family is currently going through several major changes at once: we are moving (which, with two small children, is not for faint-hearted), switching jobs and office locations, nurturing a teething baby and a child with a cold, welcoming guests from out of town, and planning and planting a garden.

To weather this with minimal stress while remaining a strong family unit, we have focused on what we can control:

  • leaving plenty of time for packing and moving fragile items and books before the main furniture move;
  • setting a separate day to move the garden soil, permaculture towers, and shrubs that need replanting;
  • making sure to spend lots of time with the children to alleviate their stress and involve them in the move;
  • planning a menu, cooking and freezing meals in advance to ensure we do not fall back on poor food choices due to lack of cooking time or supplies.

For the unknown factors, we leave ourselves open to improvisation, pull in resources as needed, and make sure to breathe deeply when things don’t go as expected, to find solutions from a calm state of mind.

Take care of what you can control, bend like a willow with the wind, and embrace the uncertainty.

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Choose to leave negativity out of your life

dandelion

We cannot control what happens to us, but we can control how we react to it. Stress is often multiplied by internal dialogue, self-blame and vivid imagination, painting detailed pictures of what can go wrong.

Events are neutral — they happen. It is the way we perceive them and react to them that becomes our reality. If you are stuck in traffic on the way to work and are running late, it’s just that — you will be there later than anticipated. You could accept it as a given and resolve to leave the house earlier to avoid this situation in the future. Or, instead, you can sit in the car seething at the red lights and the drivers in front of you, all the while imagining how angry your boss is going to be, how you will certainly get fired, which will force you to sell your car and have to resort to begging on the street for a piece of bread.

Chances are, when you arrive, at most you shall receive a reprimand. More likely, no one is going to care what time you came in. Yet your brain will have you believe that you have lived the frightening reality of being left without a job. That will set the stage for the rest of your day.

These stressful responses to everyday situations accumulate and taint your ability to be calm, reasonable, productive, and happy. When you are faced with a less-than-optimal arrangement (and we all go through plenty of those on a regular basis), take a deep breath, identify what upsets you and choose to react to it in a constructive way. If you are stuck in traffic, you can listen to music, sing, think of pleasant plans in the near future, or plan your next errand. If you are stuck in the car with kids, you can play a word game, sing, recite short poems, look for red cars around you, count trees or houses, or find another way to use this time for bonding.

Control your exposure to other people’s negative thoughts and emotions — layered on top of your own, at a stressful time, they are likely to overwhelm your ability to effectively mitigate stress and can lead to sleep disturbances, interfere with effective functioning of your digestive and immune systems, slow down your mental responses and land you into more stress than before. Plainly put, you will get more sad and sick if people surrounding you are sad and sick. And when we are sick, we are no help to anyone until we take care of ourselves.

Choose not to attend events or meet with people that you know will trigger a strong stress response. This does not mean avoiding friends that are having a hard time. It means knowing when you can be a helpful listener and when you cannot. If you have overwhelming levels of stress in your life, you will only mirror your friend’s negative emotions by getting more frantic, upset, angry, or depressed yourself. All of that will get projected back at your friend, growing the negativity as a snowball that can engulf both of you.

You can still help by providing a meal, helping out with kids, or doing something that will be of assistance to your distressed friend, but will not involve a lot of interaction. In many situations, it is the chores and responsibilities that aggravate the stress and get in the way of recovery, so taking on some of those responsibilities is a good way to help. Other people can lend your friend a shoulder to cry on — it does take a village to help. On your part, while you are making a meal, doing laundry, washing dishes, or helping your friend with some other chore, your mind can detach from the immediacy of your own stressful reality.

For those of us with strong empathic nature, the intensity of any negative emotion is reflected and multiplied. We take on other people’s emotions and feel them as our own, so we collect even more negativity (and positivity as well) from around us and integrate it into our lives. We end up living our own stresses manifold.

To limit your exposure to negativity, control your atmosphere, including the music you listen to, the films you watch, the people with whom you interact, the news you watch, and the newspapers, magazines, and books you read. You know what triggers you — do not expose yourself to it unnecessarily. There are external stimuli aplenty to keep you on your toes.

If you feel that your negative emotions have reached overwhelming levels, step back, assess the situation and get some rest. Switch the activities in which you engage: garden, instead of watching TV; do a puzzle or play a board game, instead of reading a newspaper; go to a park with kids for some fresh air and free play, instead of browsing Facebook and soaking up other people’s frustrations. Remove irritants from your environment, be that light or noise pollution, frequent interruptions, or furniture getting in the way. Step outside, take a deep breath, get a massage, meditate, listen to some calming music, play an instrument, play with a pet — find something that takes your mind off the stress, and the solutions to your challenges might just come to you, once you are rested.

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Put things back where they belong

Make it a habit to put things back so you don’t have to think about it.

Many lists of rules for children or roommates include some variation of the rule “Put things back where they belong”. This is so basic that you might be thinking it not worth being mentioned. Think again. Lots of adults throw their dirty clothing on the floor wherever they happen to have taken them off and don’t bother bringing the dirty dishes from the dinner table to even the kitchen, let alone putting them into the sink or dishwasher or, *gasp*, washing them. We need to declutter our space not only because we get more stuff than we use, but also because, without putting things back to their designated place, even the useful objects tend to clutter up every available surface.

There are so many issues stemming from not putting things back in their place that it seems silly not to develop the habit of returning everything to its resting state when you are done. How many times have you run around your place swearing, looking for your keys, wallet, or phone when you are late for an appointment? How about frantically searching for a band-aid while trying to contain the blood gushing from your finger which you’ve impaled while trying to cut up some veggies on a small region of counter free of clutter? What about looking for wipes and realizing they are not where they should be when you have a very messy squirming baby in your arms?

None of these situations are enjoyable. We run late, make a bigger mess, and find obstacles in our way that would not be there if only we would designate an appropriate place for things we use on a regular basis and develop the habit of returning them there after use. When you look forward to spending the rare quiet 15 minutes to relax with a book while your baby is peacefully napping, it is really frustrating to realize you’ve wasted them searching for the book.

Don’t wait until you run out of supplies or ingredients — replenish them. Don’t allow the laundry to pile up on the floor — make a habit of putting it directly into the laundry basket. Wash dishes after every meal or at least once a day, so that you don’t wake up to a kitchen that looks like a battlefield. Avoid frustration trying to find things when they are needed and tripping over them constantly when they are not. Put things back where they belong, and teach your children to do the same or you’ll spend a lot of time picking up after them. Their future roommates and partners will thank you.

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Declutter your space

It is much easier to focus when multiple objects in your surroundings are not screaming for your attention. While I do not function well in minimalistic settings where all you can find in a living room is a sofa, a lamp, and a coffee table (I always feel like a tumbleweed will roll across this dreary, impersonal landscape at any time), I also get overwhelmed in a room where every inch of space is full of randomly-placed objects not connected to each other by form or function.

Productive Zen Mama - Declutter Your SpaceNow, you might say, what about the toys being strewn all over the floor at any point after children have been in a room for more than five minutes? Ah, the key here is a deep breath, a “c’est la vie” attitude, and perhaps a tall drink. We can only control our own environment, and that only to a certain extent. After all, if your mail gets delivered through a slot in your door, the only thing you can do is pick it up. However, what you do with it after (throw it onto another spot on the floor, onto your desk already heaping with papers, into the cat’s litter box or into the recycling bin) is completely up to you.

Due to the ever-growing number of projects I’m working on at any given time, my environment tends to bulge with books to read, projects to complete, puzzles to assemble, beading projects to explore, items to photograph, clothes to mend, laundry to sort, recipes to try, notes and plans to follow-up on, and pieces of paper with ideas to consider. Add to this toys’ tendency to migrate into every nook and cranny, laundry and empty glasses left around by busy family members, cat’s chewy toy, yoga mats, random electronics, essential oil bottles, USB keys… — this list can grow a lot longer.

The mental stress this creates is significant. Have you ever walked into a kitchen with dirty dishes piled high from the night before? Did it make you want to cook a healthy breakfast or to run screaming to the nearest coffee shop? How much mental effort would it take to disassemble this dirty pile so that you can see your kitchen counter and still be inspired to cook? Have you ever procrastinated studying for an exam or doing an important project by re-organizing your desk or cleaning your home instead? Gratification is easily achieved by doing a mentally-undemanding task such as cleaning, while the more difficult task of studying or working is perceived as a much harder one, when our mind is being distracted by multiple reminders (in the form of clutter) of other available actions.

Naturally, it would be great to avoid creating the clutter in the first place. In reality, however, we also need to periodically rearrange our workspace to clear out the clutter, change up our environment, and at the same time prioritize the most pressing tasks.

Decluttering tips:

  • Make it fun. Just like anything in life, if you perceive this activity as being pleasant, you’ll be much more willing to do it, it will fly by faster, and your satisfaction with the process and the result will be greater. Combine it with music, listening to a seminar or an audiobook, hanging out with a friend, or playing with a child.
  • Start from your immediate surroundings: your desk or a book case, kitchen or pantry, toy boxes or laundry bins, – whatever clutters the space you are using most often.
  • Consider re-arranging the furniture. You can always move it back where it was before, but you might discover a better-lit area, a space-saving configuration, or a more accessible setup.
  • Do a little bit at a time. It’s easy to feel burned out after spending an entire day decluttering. Sometimes, like during spring cleaning, you can be more productive in one longer session, especially if the entire family is helping out. In that case, the greater productivity comes from batching related jobs, while with decluttering you are usually dealing with a bunch of unrelated items that need sorting and re-organizing. Try clearing up one drawer or one shelf a day for quick gratification and sustainable progress.
  • Consider cataloging books, music CDs, software, games, and any collectables you have. Keep a record of where the items are located. It comes in handy when you want to find a particular CD among hundreds or determine whether you own a particular figurine. It is also useful if you have your possessions insured and have to make a claim. I have actually written a piece of software for myself to catalog my extensive library, another one to keep track of all the data and music CDs, and I’m documenting my puzzle collection on my blog. In the process of cataloging, you might discover gaps in your collection, logical groupings of items, duplicates, and items in need of repair.
  • Consider what can be sold, gifted, or donated. If you tend to keep things you are not using, evaluate whether it makes sense to let them go.
  • Use containers to divide and sort items in closets and drawers. Ikea and Pinterest can offer some great ideas on how to pack a large number of things into well-organized small spaces.
  • Use labels to indicate where things are. Often I end up putting an item somewhere clever, only to not be able to find it again when it’s needed. I use labels on herb and spice containers in the kitchen, on drawers of art and craft supplies, and on boxes of toys.
  • Don’t stress about it! Remember, it is not a hungry tiger chasing you, it’s just some items which you might or might not need that require your attention. It does not have to happen immediately or be done perfectly.
  • Remember about mental “declutter” — great ways to clear your mind are going for a walk, meditating, taking a relaxing bath, dancing, playing with a singing bowl, having a cup of tea, doing something with your hands such as beading, crocheting, or assembling a puzzle. Let your mind wander, take in the sights and sounds of the here and now, lose yourself in a relaxing and enjoyable activity, and you will come out with a greater mental clarity.

Watch how your attitudes change as a result of a less chaotic environment. I have had my workstation in the living room for several years, and have recently noticed that during the evening I would be trying to get some work done while the kids wanted to play and asked for my attention. As a result, I would be frustrated at not being able to finish even a simple task on the computer and would not be fully present for them. Additionally, during the work day, toys all over the floor (we use our living room as a large play area) would wear on my ability to concentrate on the task at hand. Simply clearing the toys away took only minutes (thanks to many boxes and shelves designated for the purpose) and worked wonders by letting me focus better.

Last month, I have ventured even further and have moved my system upstairs, into my studio. We had to re-wire the network across two floors and get creative with the placement of various peripherals, but the resulting productivity was well worth it. Now I have my workstation upstairs, on what used to be my puzzle desk, strongly associated with relaxation. I find that I can focus much better, get better lighting during the day, and can think much more clearly in a room which is full of imagery that fuels my creativity. It also allows me to manage my Etsy store inventory without running between two floors checking the items against the shop listings. My puzzles have migrated downstairs, where I can occasionally put in a few pieces as the kids are playing around me.

Re-organize and declutter your physical space to lower your stress, save time, and boost your productivity.

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Pay it forward

When you have some time and energy to spare for the world, think of who can use some help and reach out a helping hand.

Those of us who live in cities far from where we were born and where our extended family resides know the value of help in those times when our efforts and resources are just not enough. We are isolated — there is no village to help raise our children or care for us when we are in need, so there are many times when we might feel like there is no help and no hope. We are left to our own devices to try to get through whatever challenges we are facing. Whether it is caring for a newborn with high needs and getting barely any sleep, fighting a serious illness, lacking food or shelter for a time, being stranded in an unfamiliar city, getting laid off and unable to find a job, facing mental or physical challenges, or a combination thereof, — having someone help out at a rough time can bring hope and help us get back on level ground.

Productive Zen Mama - Pay It ForwardSo many of us are hesitant to ask for help, being raised to be “self-sufficient”. Abolish this idea. Give and accept freely. People want to help — let them share something with you, and give forth freely — you will discover that wonderful feeling of helping someone out.

There are many ways to reach out, from simple ones like opening a door for someone or sending a postcard letting someone know you are thinking about them, to more involved ways, like watching someone’s children so the parents can get some much-needed sleep or time to reconnect with each other. Pass on a book, clothing, kitchen gear. Say “thank-you” to someone who has made your day more pleasant, listen to someone’s challenges, help someone move, give someone a handmade gift — just to show appreciation for having them in your life.

Another great way to help is participating in a meal train. A meal train is an arrangement where people sign up to bring someone meals for a period of time, and it is wonderful during the times when you are overwhelmed, like immediate postpartum or taking care of someone with an illness. There are online tools to facilitate the meal train management, such as MealTrain.com. People can sign up for a specific date and leave a message such as “I’m bringing African chicken peanut stew, some rice to go with it, and muffins for breakfast.” This solution works wonders, allows everyone to see gaps where no one has subscribed and plan accordingly, and you can invite anyone with an email address.

I have participated in many postpartum meal trains, for both people I know well and complete strangers. I don’t need to know the family to realize it is a challenging and overwhelming time for them, and I don’t mind at all sharing a meal and a good wish with them. Additionally, there are many other options in society to help out with food, such as bringing meals to someone who is looking after a sick relative or a child with challenges, an elderly person, a lonely soul, or a neighbour. Reach out, help someone, and you’ll see how good it feels.

Helping others without expecting anything in return is a wonderful way to build and strengthen social connections and contribute to the world. It does wonders for your emotional well-being, lowers your stress level, helps recovery from depression, and there is even a link between volunteering and greater longevity!

It is not hard to find time to help someone out. For instance, when you cook, make a double amount of what you need, freeze the extra portions, and have a meal on-hand, ready to give to someone in need. If you feel like socializing, reach out to a friend who could use emotional support and make plans for lunch, drinks, a coffee date, or a potluck gathering. Offer to take a friend’s children to the park or to your place to play, while the parents take a much-needed break. Give a ride to someone without a vehicle. Freecycle things you no longer need. Volunteer to support an organization that strives to achieve the goals you believe in. Give someone a hug, be kind to a stranger, smile at a passer-by, cast a message of caring out into the universe, and life can take you in a surprisingly refreshing and rewarding direction.

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Do not do work twice

Reduce the time spent on maintenance tasks by avoiding doing the work twice.

We often tend to overestimate how much we can do in a few hours and underestimate how much we can do in, say, a week. This is because throughout the week there are opportunities to shave the time off things we tend to do regularly. One of the ways to do that is not doing the work more than once. Here are a few examples of what I mean:

Productive Zen Mama - Do not do work twiceIf you bring something home, put it away immediately.

Don’t drop the mail on the floor or table where it would accumulate — instead, spend a minute to recycle junk mail and divide the (usually very few) remaining envelopes into stacks for each family member. (And make a mental note to add a sign to your door requesting that no flyers make their way into your mailbox.)

Designate a place for your wallet, keys, cell phone, purse, gloves, sunglasses, lip balm — whatever you need every time you go out the door. A set of pockets (one for each family member) or a shelf near the door works well. That way you will not be looking for your keys all over the house when you are rushing out the door.

Keep a place to charge your devices – cell phone, music player, tablet, camera, etc. For devices that need frequent charging, it’s best to develop a habit of plugging them in at the same time every day (such as a cell phone or a music player), to avoid running out of power when you need it. Keep the tablet plugged in when you can, so that when you need to be mobile you can count on several hours of battery power remaining. For the camera, it’s best to charge it before any significant event where you’d like to take pictures, as well as right after such an event. Since I use mine quite regularly, I prefer setting a once-a-week reminder in my calendar to charge the camera.

I’ve been taught to remove street clothing as I enter my home and change into home clothes. It helps keep the street dust and dirt from spreading throughout your home, prevent spills and stains on work clothes (and you get plenty of both with the kids), and the joy of slipping into something more comfortable so that your skin can breathe — this is of immense importance to me now, in Canadian winter, when I’m engulfed in several layers of thick fabrics for even a brief venture outside. Sort your clothes as you take them off — straight to laundry if dirty or to a designated hanger or chair if it is to be reused. Don’t leave clothes lying around all over the floor so that kids end up painting it or the cat decides to sleep on it leaving half of his fir spread evenly over your work clothes. This will make it easier to keep up with laundry and to find clothes to wear the next time you go out. It will also take the guess work out of the cleanliness state of any given garment and lessen the number of mismatched socks.

When you bring home groceries, sort them right away:

  • non-perishable foods into the pantry so they don’t clutter up the fridge or the kitchen floor;
  • bulk items into appropriate containers so that you can easily find them and keep track of the quantities remaining;
  • frozen items into the freezer;
  • meat and dairy into the fridge.

Ideally, I like to do some food preparation right after I get groceries: I wash fruit, wash and chop veggies for snacking, put root vegetables into the oven to roast. It helps to have your meals planned for the week before you go grocery shopping, so that you know which ingredients you will need in the next couple of days.

Sort and wash dirty dishes right after the meal — either by hand or in a dishwasher, soak pots right away if needed. It’s extremely unpleasant to face a dirty, disordered kitchen when you want to cook dinner, or having it as the first sight of your day. All your desire for a healthy breakfast might evaporate and lead to a trip to the nearest coffee joint.

When you are done a project, clean up so that unnecessary items do not accumulate on work surfaces, making it harder to set a workspace for the next project. The more things accumulate in one space, the more insurmountable the task of clearing them out becomes, leading to a sense of dread and procrastination on other activities you could be enjoying.

Put things away to where they belong — there is no sense in having temporary storage locations, they’ll only irritate you and you will have to sort through them sooner or later. One of the keys to de-cluttering is to not create clutter in the first place. Generally, if something takes less than 2 minutes to do and you have all the supplies required for it — do it as soon as you discover it. The overhead of coming back to it and figuring out what needs to be done will take you at least another 2 minutes.

Make these quick tips into a habit and save your time for what you really enjoy doing.

Are there any strategies you use on a regular basis to streamline your day? Please share!

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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.

bamboo-bridge
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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