Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Why To Do Lists Don't Always Work

I think that everyone who reads my postings even occasionally is aware that I quite literally live my life by making or having a list for everything. (Well, not quite everything, but almost.)

I have received a number of e-mails, from readers and students who have attended my seminars, telling me that To Do lists don't seem to work for them. Things fall into the same old routine, even when the list is prominently displayed on the front of the refrigerator. So, what's up with that?

My first and obvious answer is that before you sit down and write your list, be honest about your commitment to it and give each task a deadline.

Many times, an individual will experience a really good feeling of accomplishment when the carefully drafted To Do list is finished and hanging in its place. It's a new beginning, and the first step has been taken. This feeling of already having taking action, for the not-so-eager beaver, can last for as much as a month. After a while, you no longer even see the list as a "special reminder," and it becomes a part of the way the refrigerator looks. Things fall back into the old "oh I forgot!" groove.

This is also true for notes pinned to a board or stuck to the computer if action is not taken in a timely fashion. Even the Mona Lisa would stop taking your breath away if she was hung on the refrigerator door for that same period of time. The brain adjusts and eventually stops noticing things.

To make an effective To Do list, each task must be assigned a time frame, which you must enter into your daily calendar as you would an appointment with your doctor.  It needs to be a priority.  And if you list not only what you need to do, but when and where you will actually do it, you are much more likely to cross it off that To Do list once and for all.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Why It Is So Hard To Accept Another Point Of View

Jenny was raised in a loving home, and like most children, firmly believed that everything her parents said was true, and that the way they lived was the right way to live. Great value was given to cleanliness and keeping things in their place, and Jenny was highly praised for every task she learned to accomplish.

When Jenny went to college there was some relaxing of Mom's housekeeping standards because she shared her room with two other girls. Her personal belongings were kept neat and orderly, the only way she knew how. It came naturally without forethought - it was part of her unconscious identity.

Tom also grew up in a home full of love with a brother and sister close to his own age. His father taught Zoology at the local college, and enthusiastically introduced his children to the wonders of “all things great and small.” Growing up, there were a multitude of pets, representing various species, under foot at all times. Mom was a 6th grade art teacher who encouraged her children to use one wall in their room to express themselves artistically. Tom was not all that interested in art, so he tacked up various posters instead. Housekeeping was of the “one of these days” variety, and Tom literally never saw the need for it anywhere. It wasn't part of his identity.

As you may have guessed, Tom and Jenny met in college, fell in love, had tons of fun with all their friends, and moved into their own apartment right after graduation.

The radical difference in the way they were raised, and what they would therefore value, had not become very apparent till now. Jenny believed that Tom's indifference to clothing was due to intellectual preoccupation, and that he really didn't look that much different from their friends. The mess in his room she had blamed on the other two occupants.

Jenny took to their new apartment like a duck to water. She would make it a real home, where family and friends would feel welcome. (And yes, be a little impressed, too.) Decorating was so much fun, and when she talked to Tom about the things she thought they should get, his answer predictably was always, "Whatever you want, babe."

In the beginning, Tom's general messiness - clothes, socks, dirty dishes everywhere - annoyed her only a little. She loved him, he was just a little absent-minded, he hadn't adjusted from dorm life yet, that's all. Her repeated requests for some changes, though always agreed to, never came to fruition. Then came the talks with tears, and Tom since loved his Jenny he promised most earnestly to do better. In fact, he was clueless as to what the big deal was.

Jenny, on the other hand, firmly believed that cleanliness and order showed good character. Once, when her mother arrived just as she was coming home from work, she felt a twinge in her stomach as she turned the key. Tom had worked from home that afternoon and was on his way to the gym. Taking in the mess he had made with one sweep of her eyes, Mom's only words were, "Oh, Jenny!" It hurt so much to know what her mother must think of her now.

Jenny and Tom's love eroded further, when he surprised her with two stray kittens and a week later brought home a ragged little puppy that he had purchased in the Super-Market parking lot. Tom fed and played with the animals and gave them all of his free time, but, as expected, cleaning up after them fell to Jenny.

They broke up when the talks turned into shouting matches. Jenny thought that Tom was just a selfish lazy slob, and Tom thought Jenny was a bossy bitch who had to have all things her way.

They were both wrong, of course. With some maturity and reflection, and understanding why they saw things so differently, they might have come to see that they hadn't taken adversarial positions to annoy each other, but that each of them were good people with vastly different upbringings. With an open mind, they might have come to realize the gifts they could have brought to each other.

Jenny had learned to love those kittens and the puppy Tom brought home. They had laughed together many times over their antics, and she loved to see the tenderness in Toms face when he played with them. Relaxing on the housekeeping might have grown easier with a little more time. Jenny might also have had a different reaction to her mother's criticism, having realized that there was so much more to her than the mess around her.

Tom may have come see that friends and family felt more comfortable and relaxed when the couch and chairs weren't covered with whatever he had left there. He may have noticed how nice it was, when getting ready for work, to find his clothes right in front of him, hanging wrinkle free in the closet instead of the usual hunt for something decent to wear, somewhere in the house. Oh, and no small thing for the absent-minded, is being able to find one's keys, wallet and phone all in the same place each and every morning.

My point in telling their story is to give a clear picture of how strongly our upbringing shapes who we are, and our point of view on how things MUST be done.

As mature adults, it is very helpful to understand that another's opinion or methods is a great part of their personal identity, and outright criticism and hostility only creates more anger. It is very threatening to have one's identity questioned.

It will help you tremendously to keep this in mind, not only with partners but with co-workers as well.  Listen to what they have to offer that is different from your own ideas. If they too have adopted an open-minded attitude, as you have now, the sky is the limit on future success! Replacing an old idea with a new and better one opens the mind for growth, and for becoming so much more than who you were when you left home! So, listen. How else do we learn?

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

When Sooner Is Better Than Later

Frances has been divorced for several years. Ex-husband Ralph had been somewhat of  a bully and Frances still felt intimidated and nervous when communicating with him regarding an investment they still owned in common. As had been his habit in the past, Ralph continued to manage it quite independently of her opinion and wishes.

Eventually,  Frances made plans to change her life completely, shedding the painful past and living a meaningful life according to her own heart and standards. She planned to buy a house in the little town that once was home and find a way to make a difference there. She needed the money from the investment with Ralph.

The thought of having to tell him that she wanted her share literally stopped her in her tracks. She mentally reviewed all the scenarios on how this may play out, and in her mind one was worse than the other. She became more and more upset, and the idea began to fill her with dread. All joy went out of her vision for the future. Instead of making that phone call and, in a business-like manner, claim what was hers, she reverted to identifying with the wife of the past to whom all things were granted according to Ralph's whim.

Reliving all the hurts and insults of her marriage did much to undo the healing she had achieved since the divorce, and her mind got stuck in the past. Not in the habit of aski, she realized that talking to Ralph could not possibly feel worse than what she had been doing to herself. Almost emotionless, she made her request and "if that's how you want it, fine” was his only reply.

Think of all the prolonged anxiety and stress we undergo, when we let our imaginations decide how someone else may respond to a request or an unpleasant event that must be shared. Say what you have to say as soon as you can, before you start second- guessing the answer. Prolonging the inevitable can make you very unhappy, and it can hurt others as well.

Henry was grandfather, and best friend, to his only son's growing boys. Retired and loving all things outdoors, he took the boys camping and fishing and taught them about the local wildlife and the names of all the things that grew around them. He would sometimes quiz them about what they had seen that day, and the winner would get a dollar. Henry also taught them how to make a great kite, and in the fall flying kites and picnics became regular family affairs.

Henry was a long-time widower, had worked hard his whole life and had owned his own little auto repair shop. His greatest sense of achievement came from being able to send his son to college - the first one in the family to go. Jim in turn repaid his father well when he made him the proudest man in town - the day he became the principal in the local high school.

When Henry retired and sold his little shop, he told everyone that he would invest that money and send all four of his son’s boys to college as well. The idea of still being able to care for his family at this time of his life filled him with purpose and pride.

Our recent debacle with the stock market all but broke Henry. Gone was the dream of sending all four boys to college - he felt defeated and depressed. He declined all invitations from his son, made vague excuses to the boys when they called and kept the door locked when they rang the bell. Jim suspected the cause for his behavior and thought his dad might just need some time. The boys, however, were another story.  The daily absence of Grandpa confused and upset them very much.

Finally, an old friend of Henry's (my neighbor, who told me this story) challenged his behavior. "How can I face them, and tell them there isn't enough money left for all of them? What will they think of me then?” he asked with tears in his eyes.

“By God, Henry, you give your family little credit if you think they love you for the money. What do those boys know and think about college anyway? And if I know anything about Jim, and I do, he's preparing for his sons’ education, just like his father did for him. If it's your pride, Henry, you’re paying a mighty price for it!"

Henry returned to the fold, as they say - but again, sooner would have been better.

So, don't agonize over imagined outcomes when you have something to say or ask for. The truth really does set you free.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Keeping A Check On Finances Makes For Happier Relationships

It is a fact that financial difficulties and incompatibility in money matters are one of the leading causes for divorce, and the breakup of many families.  Even for those of us who are single, it's an acute cause of stress.

At this particular time of the year, many of us are smarting because it's time to pay the piper for our holiday spending. In addition, we are receiving the inevitable notices of increases in fees for everything from electricity to insurances and homeowners taxes.   It's a great time to grab the bull by the horns and get serious about your budget.

There is help available for this on the internet, and the office supply stores sell many different versions of budgeting books you can buy.  If you want to be thrifty like my mom, design your own sheets and make a year’s worth of copies to keep in a folder.

Total the amounts you paid out for last year’s bills in every category (including annual or bi-annual bills, such as the various insurances, taxes, co-payments to doctors and dentists, estimated car repairs, etc.), divide them by twelve, and the resulting sum will be the amount you have to save each month in order to have the funds available when those items come due.

It is a good idea to deposit that money in a savings account. As you save each month the sum will grow and leaving it in the checking account may tempt you to believe that you have more spendable income then you really do.

I think it may be a good idea to repeat my advice from a previous post on traversing the slippery slope of frequent credit card use, for those who may have missed that column.

Many people use their credit cards for almost all financial transaction because they don't like to carry a checkbook (my husband) or they like receiving those bonus points periodically, for a free shopping trip (like me).

Whatever the reason, you may also be among those who hold their breath, or even wait a few days, before opening the bill with the final tally.

If you have ever heard yourself exclaim any of the following...

Holy s--t! There must be some mistake here.

How did this get away from me again?

How can I keep this from Bill (or Elaine)?

...then you know that overcharging is easy and causes some serious stress. And if you have had enough of it, here is an excellent motivational tool to finally put an end to it:

On a simple notepad, write down the amount of every charge on the same day that you make it. Keep a running subtotal for the entire month. (Make sure you subtotal each new charge, that is the main point here!) Now, whenever you go out the door to go shopping you will know exactly how much you have left to spend on necessities (groceries and gas), and after the final total you will know what's left for the little splurges we all like to treat ourselves to.

Do not trust yourself to keep your totals in your head without writing it down! Memory is a tricky thing, and easily influenced by a strong desire for some tempting purchase. It is easy to fool yourself into thinking you have got more money to spend than you do

So, to stop the stress, write it down, check it and keep it honest!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Don't Fight It, Adjust To The Season

Now that the holidays are over, most of us are experiencing a kind of a slump. All of the partying, feasting and plain hard work has us feeling deflated both emotionally and physically. Some will feel disappointed for putting on a few unwanted pounds, and others will rue outspending their Christmas budget.

Feeling blue is a natural result of all these circumstances. In addition, we are looking at grey skies, and facing cold temperatures and unpredictable weather condition for at least another couple of months. We envy those who live in warmer climates, and those who can get away from it all.

At work, the boss gives his “inspirational” speech about grabbing the new year by the horns, bringing more energy and enthusiasm and more fresh ideas. You are just not feeling it, and you don't feel happy in general.

Maybe you have become more irritable with family members and co-workers and just can't shake the funk. Before you start making drastic changes in your life, or blaming others for your state of mind, consider this:

Loss of energizing sunlight has a substantial negative affect on our sense of well being. Consider that much of the animal word adjusts to this by hibernating, eating stored food and moving very little. Our forefathers followed their example fairly closely. They also stored up food and wood to keep themselves warm, and indoor activities were low key: reading, writing letters, playing music, mending clothes etc. Candles were expensive then, so bedtime came early and with plenty of homemade covers.

Compare that to our lives today. It is true that heating and lighting are plentiful now and we don't have to store a winter supply of food anymore, but the demands on our physical and cognitive energies are the same now as they are in June. We also have to get to our jobs everyday, no matter how difficult that becomes: Shuffling snow, scraping ice, getting into an ice-cold car, dangerous road conditions and parking even more limited due to drifts and snow pileups. Some of us have to wait in the streets for public transportation, unprotected from whatever blows, and then attack our workload with energy and enthusiasm!

Of course we feel low and cranky. Our immune system is being drained and we experience more illnesses than in the rest of the year.

Lets help ourselves as much as possible to make life more pleasant till spring. The winter sun is harsh and gives no comfort, but full spectrum light from lamps is proven to help many who suffer from seasonal light depravation. Light up the rooms you frequent most. Make the kind of meals grandma made and brought you comfort. Don't be careless about wearing proper clothing! Go to bed one hour earlier than you usually do - it does wonders for you the next day - and take weekend naps when you can.

To combat boredom, have comfy get-togethers with friends to watch a good movie. Everyone brings a small warm dish to split work and expense. Have game nights, play charades – you can even have poetry night were everybody reads their favorite poem and talks about their reason why it is so. You can have a karaoke night with themes: all Beatles or country, or whatever will be fun.

Remember to make your entertainments shorter to get more rest, and cheaper to catch up from holiday budget busters. Keep warm.  This too shall pass.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Just One More Resolution for 2012: Relax

Is one of your New Year’s resolutions to calm down, because your physician has strongly advised it, or because you hate how burned out you feel and life isn’t as rewarding as it used to be?

To that end, meditation, exercise and stroking your cat are some of the most popular recommendations by professionals and gurus alike. And you may have tried some of these activities in the past (assuming you aren’t allergic to cats). Meditation might have left you feeling confused and convinced that you must be doing something wrong. You were not looking for a “path” and it wasn't a good fit. Running in the morning was making you feel healthier, but your mind was already at work, preparing the many arguments you were likely to have that day, so it wasn’t exactly a relaxing experience.

So here you are. You need to learn how to calm yourself, but your life is too busy and hectic to take time out for experimentations that you are not particularly drawn to. Is that about it? Well, read on - I'm bringing help.

I do believe that meditation and exercise are wonderful and proven ways to bring about mental well-being and improve health in general. I also know that the majority of people  who give these a first try, walk away sooner than later. Meditation takes dedication and expert guidance, and there is no quick pay off. For the person who cannot stop his or her stressful thoughts while exercising, another solution is needed. Sadly for many who believe they have failed at something that obviously has changed the lives for others, self-judgment will be harsh.

Some individuals even believe that taking any time out for oneself is selfish somehow, and that something important is sure to suffer for it.

So, how do all of us, with so little time, desperate to get away from a mind in overdrive, and body muscles tight enough for “flight or fight” at any minute, get to a place were we can both rest and recharge?

Everyone near my age (thirty something) grew up plugged into earphones stuck in a Walkman. It was the greatest thing - no complaints about volume, and no arguments about what constituted “good music.” The world that “didn't get it” was simply tuned out.

Of course we have updated the equipment with iPods and MP3 players, but you can still use them to tune out and relax anywhere and anytime you can take a break.

This method works so well, because you decide what will truly take you away for a while. You choose the type of music you love, or you can listen to someone read to you from your favorite book. You could listen to the sounds of nature, the chants of monks or even a guided relaxation meditation.

I recommend a cold washcloth over the eyes (or a wet hankie if you are at work) and elevated feet, if possible. Your mind becomes passive during this “tune out” because it is listening.   And the body, no longer getting stressful signals from the brain, relaxes as well -  and that feels so very good.

Finding more peace and relaxation is like trying to lose 50 lbs. Small but steady increments, and keeping the ground you’ve gained, will keep you on the You path.

Try it, it works!!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

For The Year 2012

Although you may not live it consciously, you are the “captain of the ship” you call your life. Not the sea - just the vessel. We do not control which challenges will try us, but we do control how we tackle them. To do this effectively requires having the right tools at the right time.

Insight to your "suchness," and acceptance of who you are right now will give you those tools and smooth the way forward. Otherwise, you live your life like a ping pong ball being bounced around by circumstances -  fearful and apparently helpless. Life lives you instead of the other way around.

The enemy of introspection is the belief in perfection (with everyone having their own idea of what that may be.) Looking inside with a more accepting and realistic eye, we find what is not yet "perfect,” but instead of treating it as something embarrassing, we welcome it as a way to make our lives happier and better.

Being perfect, or even becoming perfect, is a silly game our egos play with us. It is impossible to win, so let's refuse to play! What's wrong with walking the path of learning anyway? Living in denial of our perceived weakness and stumbling blocks causes an emotional disconnect with others, a deep loneliness, and an ever-present fear of being found out.

Small things we discover can have such great results, when we stop playing the perfection game. For example, when my mom retired and moved far away from her lifelong social circle to leave near me and her grandchildren, she bought a neglected 100+ year old house and a large wilderness of a backyard. Her plan was to make everything "perfect," a jewel to be admired. All of her energy (she has a considerable amount) and time were spent on a never-ending job. That, plus a few hours dedicated to quilting to break things up, pretty much summed up most of her life.  
Mom was becoming a homebody, and made no attempts to meet new people and make friends. Having no need to feel pretty, she wore her paint-splattered clothes almost daily.  And her hair, once the object of fussy attention, now did what ever it wanted to. Spur of the moment invitations for a family outing or an unplanned party when friends dropped by were always answered with, "No thanks, I'd have to do my hair -  I'm just not up to all that fuss.”

My mom was becoming a “schlep” (her word, not mine). In addition, she was becoming lonely, although she fervently denied that for the first couple of years. She blamed her lack of enthusiasm for anything new on just being tired from all the work. She insisted she was happy in her new life, just as it was. Of course, I knew better and (as any good daughter would) shared my thoughts with her, frequently.

A few weeks ago, while we were having coffee and talking about all the things that usually happen to New Year’s resolutions, she shared hers with me and I could not have been happier. “You know,” she said, “I have been thinking about why I feel so glum all the time. I have become lazy about my appearance. I have a need to feel pretty when I go out. Call it shallow, but that's who I am. I am lonely and it's my fault. I am well on my way to being an old coot if nothing changes. As you may have noticed I set my hair this morning, I am wearing lipstick and there is no paint on my pants! As of today, and for the new year, I will set my hair first thing every morning, I will come when you invite me and I also want to go to the weekly lectures at the library. It's a new start."

Such a small thing, and such a big turnaround. (If you, too, are someone who declines invitations because you are in a rut - like not having something ready to wear when the phone rings - have an outfit ready to wear only for such an occasion. Eventually, people will stop asking assuming it will be a “no.” Be ready when opportunity knocks. As a rule, we are social animals, and we need those connections to live a balanced life.)

The thing is, only you know - with introspection and without laying blame on others - what it is that keeps you from living life the way you want to.  And just maybe that life is different than the one you sort of drifted into.

So, for 2012, let's get to know ourselves a little better still, with the intent of becoming freer and happier. Forget about being perfect, see yourself with honesty and kindness, identify the obstacle and make a plan.

Happy New Year!