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!

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.

Don’t delay maintenance or maintenance will delay you

Schedule and take care of maintenance tasks as they arise. Don’t wait until you reach for the resource in question only to realize it is unavailable without additional time investment.

Typical issue for someone with a car where the back seat is fully taken up by child seats: in order to transport any piece of furniture, you need to disassemble what feels like half the car and remove the child seats. What happens then? Well, the furniture loading and unloading is followed by getting it to the place it shall occupy, and possibly additional cleaning and assembly. It is often heavy, the process of assembly is lengthy, and, by the time it’s done, rest is the only thing on your mind. Then children need your attention, the cat wants outside, it’s dinner time, and, before you know it, your mind is elsewhere.

What happens the next morning? Everyone is rushing to get ready for work or errands after night-time parenting, the time is at a premium, the passions are running high, you grab the kids, get to the car… and realize that the seats are not there. Now children have to be taken back home with one of the parents (if that’s even a possibility), seats have to be installed in a rush, end up crooked and need to be reinstalled, every belt and clasp gets in the way, the process takes twice as long and is way more frustrating than it needs to be, impatient children that just got to grab some toys and set to play at home have to be ushered out once more, and there you are, half an hour later, now definitely running late and having used up a lot of physical and emotional energy. Lesson learned? Get the car back to its normal state right after you are done using it in another way.

Car maintenance is a classical example: if you don’t fill up the gas or the washer liquid as they are getting low, you will find yourself running on empty or unable to drive in muddy weather because you cannot see anything out of a splattered windshield. The same, however, goes for any type of maintenance, no matter how small. Without sorting laundry on a regular basis, you will run out of cloth diapers when you have a squirming baby in your arms and will have to find diapers as the baby clings to you – and if you are unlucky, the phone and the doorbell will be ringing and the baby will pee, as you are trying to rummage through clothes. Postponing washing pots or cleaning up the kitchen after a cooking session will shorten the time you have for cooking next time, as you have to first clear out your workspace and make sure the pots and pans you need are clean. This, in turn, can result in hungry children expressing their frustration in destructive ways while you are desperately trying to get the dinner on the table. A good way to remember these tasks is to set them up so you trip over them.

Same goes for your body as well: for instance, not getting sufficient sleep on a regular basis will catch up with you, and you will collapse when your participation is needed most. And if you are not clearing out emotional baggage regularly, you might be stopped in your tracks as you realize you are being incapacitated by a situation that has become wrapped up in too much fear or apprehension.

Take time to schedule and perform maintenance in all of these areas as the need arises. Have your resources lined up ready to use, instead of being in perpetual state of semi-readiness. Avoid being drained by insignificant details that grow to be urgent because they were not addressed in time.

Abolish perfection

Let go of the absurd conviction that everything needs to be done perfectly. Do your best. That, by definition, is the best you CAN do.

So many of us have been brought up to be perfectionists. If something was not done up to someone’s standards, we got berated and denied the approval we were seeking. No wonder that so many budding artists have abandoned self-expression in one medium or another – after all, if the result is not perfect, it’s not worth trying, right? What we end up with, is not the world where there are few things in existence and all of them perfect. Instead, we are surrounded by the best other people could do, while judging the results of their labour as not good enough, meanwhile not daring to risk our perfectionist integrity in creating something of our own.

Forget perfectionism. There is no use trying to do something perfectly, since you will be disappointed every time. We are often our own worst critics. Instead embark on a project that excites you and enthusiastically do your best. Focus on enjoying the process, bring friends or children into it if the nature of the project allows for it, and have fun. Remember, you didn’t know how to do many things when you were a child. Not all of them required a teacher or a guide to help you reach proficiency. Children are great at trying things out if their imagination is not being constrained by prescribed activities. Awaken your inner child and experiment.

If you want to hone your skills, by all means, look at the result of your labour critically and see what could be done differently next time. Focus on constructive criticism, ask others’ opinions only if you want to build on their feedback. Think on those ideas, adjust your process, and, if you like, try again, but don’t fall into the trap of trying to make it perfect this time. It takes more than doing something once to become a master. Do your best, enjoy the process, and emerge with more experience. This applies to art, crafts, writing, programming, and many other projects.

Liberate yourself from the chains of having to be perfect all the time. Life is short. Pick up a project you like, do the best you can, enjoy the process, and if with time you can build up your expertise, all the more power to you.

Combine activities

Find creative ways to combine activities that can be performed concurrently, to have more time for what you enjoy most.

Besides combining baby entertainment with other activities (such as singing to your baby while sorting laundry), you can combine multiple activities to complete them in a shorter period of time.

We are doing solid food introduction these days, although for now breastmilk is a clear winner. The process involves lots of food exploration, measuring the distance to the floor and gravitational forces affecting utensils in free fall, evenly painting the nearby wall a lovely butternut squash colour, applying full-body banana treatment, and generally performing every feat imaginable to ensure that the minimal amount of sustenance ends up in the proximity of the mouth. This engaging activity is usually followed by a nice soak in the baby bath, playing with the favourite water-splashing toys and being very content.

This state of affairs presents opportunities for me. I have to remain in the bathroom and watch the baby so that she does not decide to take a dive or attempt climbing out of the bath, yet so many things can be done in parallel. How about soaking your feet in a basin of very warm water in preparation for a 5-minute pedicure while brushing your hair and singing to the baby? Substitute tooth brushing, dry body brushing, neck or wrist exercises, or any other maintenance procedure for hair brushing – you see the possibilities? Fifteen-twenty minutes later, I emerge with a clean happy baby, fresh pedicure, brushed hair and teeth, and a spring in my step.

There are many ways to take advantage of activity combinations. Try stretching your calf muscles while reading an online article. Or doing yoga while the baby is playing around you. Or oil pulling while doing dishes. Or hula-hooping while watching your kids playing around you outside. Or drawing while listening to something educational (that’s what I’m planning to do with the Evolution of Medicine Online Summit videos). Savasana combines really well with a facial mask and soaking in body lotion or letting nail polish dry. Put on a webinar to learn something new, an audiobook to escape, or some music to relax. Get an essential oil diffusing while you are resting in Savasana, nurturing your body, and listening to music, and you’ve got yourself a wonderfully productive and relaxing 10-15 minutes.

Don’t hesitate to experiment. If it’s difficult to imagine the possibilities in your mind, put them on paper. Write down all the various body nurturing, baby care, learning, and relaxing things you do throughout the week, and see if any of them are good candidates to be combined. Those usually involve different body parts (e.g., soaking feet, reading something on the screen, and drying hand nail polish), different sensory channels (e.g., wrist exercises for touch and music for listening), and can be performed in the same room. Then go wild and try them out.

Seize the power of short time intervals

There are multiple ways to occupy your baby for 10-15 minutes and many activities do not take longer to complete. Seize those short intervals to get daily chores out of the way.

One of the hardest things to get used to when you have a baby is constantly being interrupted, and, no matter what you are doing, having to drop that activity to tend to the baby’s needs. “Being in the zone” becomes so rare and treasured that we resent spending that uninterrupted time on chores. As I’m writing this, my baby is talking in her bed as she has woken up after about 15 minutes of sleep, 10 of which I was there with her, and my older child is arguing with me over what he wants to have for lunch that has already been prepared and set in front of him. Needless to say, I shall have to take a break before completing this, as writing is not an activity easily completed while tending to other things.

There are many chores that can, however, be done when you know a window of time is small or the level of interruption will be high.

  • You can sort and put away a bin of laundry. I sing to the baby while doing this, to keep her entertained. If my older child is home, I offer him to get involved, and although the process is not efficient by any means, it keeps him engaged, teaches him a skill, and gives us bonding time. Same strategy works for putting away dishes, loading a dishwasher, tidying up the toys, putting washed laundry into the dryer, watering plants, and many other quick household chores.
  • You can put together and eat a quick snack, with the baby either being on you in a carrier or playing alone. Mothers, especially those of us who are nursing, need frequent filling snacks to keep up the energy and milk production, and very often we keep postponing this until that magical moment when we can sit down to a quiet meal. Since that rarely happens if you are alone at home with the baby, seize the opportunity of a quiet moment to nourish yourself. This can be a great time to let the baby explore a new food in a high chair, with your supervision. If you have an older child, they can have a snack alongside you.
  • Take your supplements, do oil pulling, give the baby their supplements if any, – get those daily upkeep tasks that do not take much time out of the way.
  • You can grab a shower, dry brush your body, brush your hair or teeth, do nasal lavage, or perform any other body maintenance ritual while your baby plays with a bath toy. I use a “comfy chair” (Monty Python rocks) – a baby rocking chair – so she can safely stay in the bathroom while I’m in the shower. Both of my babies loved their rocker, and have invented ways to rock themselves vigorously to their overwhelming amusement. An older child can play in the tub while you are there, for an impromptu middle-of-the-day water activity.
  • You can do a short exercise or a stretching routine, balance on a yoga ball or a balance board, lift free weights or a weighted ball for a few minutes. If you have space, hula hooping or a jump rope are a great way to reset. Dancing to an energetic song or going through some movements of a belly dance are great ways to shake off muscle stiffness and get centered, before moving on with the day.
  • You can do some food preparation in a short period of time: roast vegetables, scramble some eggs, make buckwheat, quinoa, or rice, cut up veggies or fruit for a snack, brew some tea or coffee, pull food out of the freezer to defrost, refill a water filter, assemble and set a slow cooker dish for cooking. Instead of spending a larger chunk of time in the evening making dinner, a couple of the short intervals throughout the day is plenty of time to create the elements of a healthy meal that only need to be combined and perhaps reheated at the end of the day. Same goes for the next-day lunch preparation: if various ingredients are already chopped up, all it takes is to assemble them into containers and pack the lunch bags later.
  • You can get outside for 10 minutes with the baby, take in some fresh air, pull a few weeds or do some light gardening tasks, just sit or walk outside to get grounded and reset.
  • You can spend a few minutes doing a puzzle, reading a few pages of a book, or doing something else for relaxation. The key here is to have the puzzle set up, the book ready, or whatever activity you would like to do laid out, so you don’t spend the precious time on fetching the required items only to find yourself needing to respond to the baby’s needs before you had a chance to relax. Avoid checking email as a way to relax: email has a tendency to put one in reactive mode, wasting the time better used for relaxation. Random surfing or checking social networks are also not useful relaxation options, as it’s too easy to find yourself emerging on the other side with a sense of wasted time and mind overwhelmed by irrelevant information.
  • Drink a cup of tea, set an essential oil diffuser with a calming or energizing scent, play a quiet melody.

There are many more possibilities. Be creative – see what you can get out of the way in 10-15 minutes, and once the longer stretch of time is available, you can spend it on what you want rather than tend to a million of short chores.

Revel in the abundance that an hour or more of uninterrupted time gives you when the baby is asleep or entertained by someone else. Use the shorter time intervals available to you throughout the day to get daily chores out of the way so they do not encroach on that time.

Make it fun

If you have to perform menial or repetitive tasks, find a way to make them fun.

We all have daily chores or occasional challenge that we are reluctant to start. Sorting laundry, washing dishes, putting away toys, organizing and filing, chopping ingredients – these are all repetitive tasks that are necessary but not very exciting. And then there are more involved activities, such as exercising or cleaning, that also need motivation.

My solution is to connect the menial task that needs doing with another outcome which I would like to realize. For instance, as I sort laundry or chop vegetables, I sing to the baby. Not only I’m having fun doing it — she’s loving the different melodies and smiling broadly, giving me a sense of accomplishment in keeping her happy. And, who knows, when I have time to pick up the guitar again, it might help me remember the song lyrics.

My baby breastfeeds to sleep at least three times a day. I could be counting minutes and getting frustrated thinking of all the things I should be doing, as she refuses to let go of this exciting and stimulating waking world to get some much-needed rest. Instead I lose myself in an audiobook and let her play next to me until she snuggles up and drifts off to sleep. There is very little time to read paper books these days, yet I have finished all the fourteen volumes of The Wheel of Time series while doing chores, by simply listening to the audiobooks when my mind is free to wander.

Washing dishes and tidying up can also be paired up with an audiobook. Cleaning and exercising are always more fun with energetic music, and at times I find myself entertaining the baby as I waltz through the living room with cleaning implements. Fun for the whole family! Change your state by controlling your atmosphere.

Music, singing, and audiobooks are some of the great ways of bringing more fun to repetitive daily activities. Result: less stress, more involvement with the baby, and more accomplished.

Clear one drawer a day

Pick a shelf, a drawer, a cupboard, or a desk top. Sort through it, throw out what you do not need, group things in a logical manner. Step back, survey the fruits of your labour and take a deep breath. Now there is one less obstacle in your everyday life. Pick another one tomorrow.

I don’t mind cooking or doing dishes, yet I dislike cleaning. Growing up, my cousins and I used to clean my Grandma’s three-room apartment every three days: dusting, vacuuming, washing floors. This was the most boring, repetitive and thankless activity, when all I wanted to do was to sit in the fresh air on the balcony and lose myself in a good book. Thus cleaning is one of the things I am known to procrastinate.

Cleaning is easy when all you have is a sofa, a coffee table, a lamp, and a strategically placed tall floor vase to accentuate the tumble weeds flowing across the otherwise empty room, in a modern décor setting. When you have children, plants, pets, books, toys, and all the resulting mess covering horizontal surfaces in an abstract painting style, you can rarely find the floor, let alone clean it. Thus the first step to cleaning is tidying up. This I do not mind doing, yet once things are out of sight they are out of mind, and it’s our drawers and cupboards that harbour most surprising collections of items.

Don’t you hate it when it takes you an inordinate amount of time to find what you are looking for, and then you have to dislodge half the cupboard to actually extract the object? Then you are staring at all the wonderfully useful but completely disorganized things that blocked your way, and thinking: why on Earth are they not somewhere more logical? Well, I got tired shuffling around baby cups (my son has not used them for at least two years) to reach saucers in my kitchen cupboard (which we use a few times a week). And I remembered the wise adage of “clear one drawer a day”.

We often make such a mountain out of starting any endeavour, as we expect it to be long and arduous. Fifteen minutes later I was staring at my cleared cupboard (the whole three shelves! – I went all-out), and thinking: is this what I have been putting off for months, while wasting time and energy cursing at things toppling out every time I extracted a saucer? That was silly!

The baby decided the time for playing quietly was over, and so my cleaning deed for the day was done. If I had a chance to harness the high of the achievement, I would have cleared another cupboard. Today I have spent ten minutes reorganizing the neighbouring cupboard, and I now can easily find each item in it: things I need more frequently are closer, everything is grouped by use, and I have extra space. It feels like I can breathe easier in the kitchen, even with the cupboard doors closed. Curious how we create this energy-sucking clutter when it takes so little time to set things straight.

Don’t allow the clutter to accumulate. Spend 10-15 minutes a day to keep your physical and mental space free of obstacles.

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.

Do not expect children to act like adults

It is when we forget that children express their emotions without filters and as we place expectations on them to act in a mature way, that we get frustrated with the situation and disappointed in their behaviour. Have fewer expectations, and you will be less stressed and might even be pleasantly surprised.

Your crying baby does not know you are at a library, and an overtired child does not realize they need rest. Instead they express their feelings and frustrations to the full extent. On the plus side, once the negative stimuli are gone, they are as likely to be quietly playing or peacefully cooing.

More importantly, ignore other people’s expectations of your children. If a practitioner does not have any toys available for children and lacks a semblance of a change table, they likely have not worked with children for very long. They will, however, act surprised when faced with a restless child who does not want to sit still and be examined, and who will not allow the parent to have a meaningful conversation with the practitioner, since the child needs to be doing something meaningful as well. It is easy to get frustrated with your child at that point, but the fault is not theirs. It is the discrepancy between the reality of children’s view of the world and the environment provided for them.

I have been faced with an optometrist that told me that their previous client’s child “clearly has ADHD”, since, as she put it, “the kid was bouncing off the walls” during the appointment. Besides it being a completely unprofessional attitude to discuss your clients with anyone else, let alone judge their behaviour (what will she be saying about my child when we leave?), to me that showed her complete lack of understanding of child psychology. She expected a child placed in a semi-dark room, with a variety of fascinating machines, to sit still, not touch anything, and not try to leave the room for over half an hour, while she put drops in their eyes (which she failed to mention do sting), waited until the drops took hold, and then proceeded to require them to sit still in various positions and answer her (meaningless to a child) questions. It boggles my mind that such a practitioner would expect my sympathy and understanding of her “ordeal” dealing with the aforementioned “ADHD child”, or with any behavioural issues my child exhibits in her opinion. My much more natural response is to conclude that she has no experience working with children, and I will not be coming back, costing her business.

Put yourself in your child’s shoes. They don’t know you have appointments, commitments, anticipations of future events, apprehensions of the situations and people you face, and an entire system of rules on how to politely handle a variety of situations. They don’t know economical or political implications of not “behaving properly”. They know they are bored, tired, or hungry, and they will let you and anyone who is around know it. If I am bored out of my mind waiting for a doctor, at least I know why I am there and know the alternative of myself or my child not getting a diagnosis or treatment. The child does not know that and we should not expect them to. They have no motivation to be there, so if we want any sort of sanity in any situation, we need to provide them with the motivation or make the experience fun, and we should not expect them to behave like adults.

So if you want less stress in your life, lay off the expectations of perfect behaviour. Light knows, many adults fulfil that expectation infrequently. Look at any situation from your child’s perspective and ask yourself why they are acting as they are. Then either try to correct the reason for their state, or take a deep breath and try to minimize the impact by asking a bare minimum of your child, showing understanding, and suggesting how the current situation or the immediate future can be viewed as a fun activity.

Get outside and breathe deeply

One of the best ways to reset your mood and melt away stress is to get outside. Tend the garden, read a few pages, take a walk, play with your kids, or just open the door for a moment, look around, and take a deep breath.

I woke up with a sore throat and a very low energy level last Thursday, which was very untimely, since I had planned to work on my garden constructing the plant towers. Postponing it was not an option, since our landlord dropped in a note that our fences will be de-constructed on the coming Monday. The towers had to be completed by then, as otherwise our soil would be trampled. I needed wood for the towers, so once the baby was asleep, I stepped outside and found some branches sheered off a lilac bush that I could use. The sun was just starting to warm up the air, the birds were singing, and I got to breaking up the branches. Within ten minutes of this all-absorbing activity I felt better.

I have continued working in the garden throughout the day, constructing two plant towers, taking breaks to take care of the baby, document the tower construction, have lunch, and tend to beading orders. The day flew by, and instead of feeling exhausted and more sick, I felt recharged, light, and joyful.

The next day, my sore throat did not get much better, and the energy level was not terribly high, but, once again, as I stepped outside and paused to survey the garden, I felt like it was the best morning ever. Digging out the strawberries to clear space for the third tower, and replanting them into the existing towers, took a couple of hours (as I did have quite a few). My leg muscles were like iron from the day before, but in a few minutes I was so engrossed in the process, that when the baby woke up I could not believe how much I have accomplished.

It is almost magical how stepping outside of the house “box” and into even a tiniest patch of nature can change your perspective, bring more enthusiasm, and unlock hidden physical strength reserves. Try it! Leave your electronic devices at home and experience the nature around you. Go for a walk along the river or even just around the block. Be present in the experience and notice smells, sounds, and sights around you. Play outside with your kids – throw a ball around, search for pine cones, blow soap bubbles on the grass, pretend you are Optimus Prime, – whatever game you like. Have a break on the deck with a good book, or sip on a drink and observe the nature around you. Listen to the birds, watch squirrels hide peanuts in your flower beds. Lie on the grass and meditate on the clouds moving overhead. Incorporate your gratitude ritual into your time outside. Work in the garden: it is such a marvel shaping nature and watching things grow.

Whether you have one minute or the entire day, step outside. Take in the fresh smell of snow or the pattering of rain, the play of sunlight on leaves or chirping of the birds in the trees. And remember to breathe deeply. The day is full of possibilities.

Surround yourself with like-minded people

In addition to the alone time, we also need to allocate time to spend with like-minded people, to relax, be exposed to new ideas, and share our reality with those who understand.

For the longest time, books have been my most trusted companions – always there when I needed them, teaching me something new every day, and opening my eyes to different ideas and lifestyles. Then I hit puberty and realized that I needed to add unpredictability and adventure into my life, and so I became a lot more aware of the value interaction with other people brings. And although books will always be a huge source of inspiration and ideas for me, I have discovered that like-minded people are a great well of knowledge and comfort. Great ideas evolve from bouncing them off other people: you might talk to five people and get little useful feedback, but the sixth might have a wealth of knowledge on the subject and provide you invaluable input.

The closeness in values cannot be underestimated. I am not saying that we should not be open-minded to ideas that are coming from outside of our comfort zone. Not at all. Exploring new ideas is extremely valuable, and we will not learn if all we do is discuss the same things we already know. What is necessary, however, is that we share the core values with the people who surround us. I very unlikely would find much in common with someone who considers racism a valid platform, or believes that violence is a good solution to any problem, or thinks Caesarean section is the best way to manage any birth. I will much more likely learn something interesting from people who already share some of my values, such as, for instance, attachment parenting, gentle birth, love for Tolkien, goth aesthetic, Dungeons and Dragons, Russian bardic music, yoga, and so on. Once you find that you have similar core values, you can learn a lot from the person, even if you disagree on many points. The likelihood is that you’ll be able to discuss your points of disagreement in a respectful manner that can enlighten all the participating parties. You do not have to agree on everything, yet you can understand someone’s viewpoint if it is based on similar core values.

We do not want to invite negativity into our lives. No pregnant mama wants to hear other people’s horror birth stories, often exaggerated and rarely enlightening. Constant drama is draining, and so is perpetual questioning of your core values with the intention of changing your opinion even when it is well-researched. Like-minded people bring positive energy into our life, which is invaluable, especially in our more vulnerable moments. The love surrounding a budding mama during a Blessingway ceremony, support when you or your child is ill, meals and help during postpartum period, even a brief conversation with a friend when you are not having a good day, – and you don’t feel so alone while fighting to stay afloat during a life storm. And it feels great to be able to support your friends when they are having a tough time.

We tend to feel at home with like-minded people, instead of trying to live up to expectations, impress, or convert them to our way of thinking. Humans are social animals, and surrounding ourselves with people who resonate with us is a great way to reduce stress, bond, learn, relax, and laugh.

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.

Treat everything as a learning opportunity

Put aside emotion and frustration for a time, and analyze events and conversations to isolate things you can learn, so you can expand your horizons and create more positive experiences in the future.

Many a time, we keep replaying a negative conversation or situation in our mind, only to berate ourselves for behaving in a less optimal manner than we would like, or to get overwhelmed by circumstances and dig ourselves deeper into anxiety. It is not easy to get out of this mindset. A much healthier approach is to analyze the events as dispassionately as possible and attempt to identify the trends, causes, policies, and character traits of people involved. You can then file your findings away to perhaps help you rectify the situation, identify similar circumstances in the future, allow yourself to respond or act with more integrity, or avoid the situation altogether.

You can ask yourself a variety of questions to assist in this process. Say, you had a less-than-optimal exchange with a friend, leaving either one of you disgruntled. Was it bad timing? Was either of you frustrated by other circumstances in your life and the conversation came as “the last straw”? Is the person unfamiliar with your situation and making insensitive comments out of ignorance? Did you attack their choices and they became defensive? Are you unwilling to consider their point of view because it will imply you have made wrong choices? Try to remove your bias from the situation and approach it as a theoretical discussion. Where are the logical loopholes? Do you need to do some more research to be clearer in why you made the choices you had, so you can present your point of view better? Or to perhaps learn what sources there are for the other person’s views and whether they are valid and worth considering? Maybe it is better to let the topic go for the sake of preserving the friendship. Or maybe it is best to distance yourself from the friend for a time, to not let negative input interfere with your reality. I do not mean that it’s a good idea to break a relationship because of a single misunderstanding. But if someone consistently undermines your choices or brings negativity into your life, you might benefit limiting your exposure to that person.

As another example, you might find yourself in a situation where the circumstances “rule you” and you emerge with feelings of helplessness, being wronged in some manner, your rights being violated or wishes ignored. You can become an activist and passionately fight the system that has wronged you. Not everyone will feel it appropriate for the amount of time, resources, or effort required, or for possible repercussions. You can attempt to ignore the experience and shove it into the recesses of your mind, but that is not very healthy, as the emotions will likely resurface. In order to process the situation, it might be helpful to understand why things happened the way they did, what was caused by the existing political, economical, medical, or social realities, and come up with what you could have done differently, if anything. Perhaps you can learn more of your rights or find an alternative way of solving the issues that have brought you into the situation. Or maybe you can avoid the same situation altogether. Whatever the solution, a dispassionate analysis will assist you in separating the emotions from facts and seeing the causes and consequences within the flow of events.

Extremely negative situations and conversations aside, you can learn a lot from everyday experiences that seem mundane or boring. I have been to quite a few meetings or gatherings that by themselves were not especially useful or pleasurable. However, listening carefully, I’ve often been able to extract a fact, a name, a mention of something interesting into which I could look further, in order to learn more. And if nothing of interest is mentioned at all, you could strike a conversation with someone who looks interesting and see where it takes you. Perhaps the person has a hobby or an experience that you would like to learn about. There are so many different lifestyles and cultural traditions in the world, you never know what gem of an idea a conversation might uncover.

Set yourself a goal to learn something new every day, and if you have nothing else positive to recall about your day, reflect on what you have learned as a sign that a day had not been wasted.

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.

Daily gratitude ritual

Take a minute each night, when you are drifting to sleep, to think of all you have accomplished throughout the day, no matter the scale. Think also of all the things that made this day worth living.

Have you shared a hug with someone today? Have you smiled at the sunlight or a cool breeze, or a refreshing rain? Have you sent or received a thank-you note or re-connected with a friend? Have you read an informative article or a few pages of a good book? Have you met anyone interesting? Have you made a healthy dinner? Have you done something nourishing for your body? Have you kissed your child goodnight and hear a “good night, mama” in return as they snuggled to sleep? Have you made something with your hands? Have you made anyone else smile? Have you completed a task? Have you had a few minutes to rest or meditate? Have you taken a walk? Have you come up with an interesting idea? There are so many things in our life worth noting and being grateful for.

Apathy, restlessness, or worse often come from us feeling that nothing special or interesting is going on in our life. When we choose to focus on the positive and actively list the good things about our day, no matter how few, it helps us gain perspective and fuel our desire to get up and welcome life the next morning.

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.

Trip over your to-dos

Place prepared items for your projects in strategically irritating places, triggering your desire to get rid of those items. You will realize it will take about as much effort to complete the project as to relocate the items or to keep tripping over them.

I absolutely despise a messy desk. Therefore I always place anything that needs to be done with the aid of the computer onto my desk. Having the items where they do not belong and seeing them every minute I am at my desk, makes me take action quickly so I can clear the desk. Things that need packaging, Blessingway beads that need to be listed on Etsy, receipts for insurance claims, books to review, new books to be entered into my book catalogue before being placed on a shelf, – all those are placed onto my desk and usually gone to their appropriate places within a day or two at most.

In my studio, I only have two desks: one that holds beading supplies and has limited space for beading designs, and another one that almost always has a puzzle in progress. However, when something needs to be done within a day or two and I have just completed a puzzle, I use my puzzle desk to set up everything I need to complete the task. That way, I will get to it within a day or two, because it will be very frustrating for me not to be able to do a puzzle whenever I wish. (Yes, I’m a puzzle addict to that extent. Imagine not being able to touch a puzzle for a week!) Similarly, if I have some designs set out on my beading desk, I have to assemble the pieces before creating new designs, otherwise I will not have space for them. This ensures that I complete the necessary tasks quickly, before I move on to something more pleasurable.

On a smaller scale, I leave things on the stairs to remind me of outstanding tasks. My studio is on the top floor, kitchen and living room on the main floor, and laundry and pantry in the basement. This means that I can find myself in the studio needing something from the basement or the ground floor, and before starting on a project I would have to go down the stairs to bring things up. Instead, I anticipate where something would be needed next and leave it on the stairs going in that direction. That way when I do traverse the stairs, I grab whatever is lying there, reminding me that something needs to be done. And conveniently enough, it needs to be done on the floor to which I’m already going.

Make it easy and rewarding for yourself to do what you know needs doing by making it irritating to NOT do it.

Start multiple projects

To facilitate switching among different types of activities, prepare all the materials, equipment, and information required for several projects. That way, when you have a few minutes, you can start working on one of your projects, instead of procrastinating or attempting to gather up everything you would need, just to find yourself having run out of time.

This sounds like a counter-productive tip: after all, many people are notorious for starting several projects at once and rarely bringing any to completion. However, what I mean here is: gather up all the things you would need to complete a task, and set them aside. That way when time presents itself or the inspiration hits, you are not bothered with logistics, and can start working on the project right away. This also gives you an advantage of noticing if items required for a project are missing, ahead of time, and being able to acquire them before you start.

For instance, I always have a book ready and a puzzle laid out on the puzzle table, so that I can read a few pages or put in a few puzzle pieces for relaxation when I have time. My baby often gives me 15-minute time intervals to do anything, before she needs attention. This means that I have beads set out in designs ready to be assembled, photos for postcards I send as a gift with purchase, together with the card stock and markers to create the card vignettes, recipe books ready with a sheet of paper and pen to jot down ingredients for grocery shopping, dishes soaking to be washed, files open to be edited, and so on.

If the baby feels like riding in the sling, I can vacuum, water flowers, put away dishes, do whatever I have ready to go that requires movement and is not hazardous. If she feels like playing in the living room, I can write a blog post, list items on Etsy, do some code changes, stretch, or do yoga. If she wants to swing or play on the bed for a bit in my studio, I can take photos of items for Etsy, work on the packaging or jewellery designs, relax for a few minutes over a puzzle, dry brush, or soak my feet in a bath. And if she wants to cuddle and feed, I have an audiobook ready to go on my nano, which I might listen to as we lie down in bed and she slowly drifts to sleep.

If you take a few minutes to prepare the settings for working on several projects, you will find getting started on them a lot easier, and procrastination would not seem as attractive.

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.