What lockdown has taught me about simplicity

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When I first embalked upon my simplicity journey around 4 years ago, I described how this wasn’t only about being able to let of excess ‘stuff.’ Back then, becoming minimalist was also about letting go of a sense of obligation, of constant busy-ness, and stress.

Our time in lockdown has taken me back to that time of living more simply and letting go. We’re now on Day 75 here in the UK. As lockdown restrictions begin to ease (for good or ill – no pun intended), I feel it’s worth reflecting on what this time has taught me so far.

Lockdown lessons

First of all, let me say if you’re a key worker or frontline care giver/medic/clinician, then I cannot begin to imagine what this time has meant for you. No doubt, you’re still in the thick of it. One of my neighbours (a consultant obstetrician gynecologist) told us a bit about the PPE he had to wear to perform his role; that in itself was remarkable).

Likewise, if you have lost someone to Covid-19, then I’m truly sorry for your loss. This post isn’t going to be for you. So, feel free to click on by.

Rather, this post is for those of us who’ve simply being told to sit on the sofa and stay put. It’s for those of us who are – and continue to be – keyboard warriors. It’s for those of us who have been at home, some of us with family members or even with a cobbled-together ‘Covid family,’ as friends (or even colleagues) have gone into lockdown together to wait for the storm to pass. It’s for those of us who’ve had the privilege of being able to work from home while spring has unfurled its fresh, green leaves and birdsong was all we could hear when traffic levels dropped to levels not seen since 1955.

Letting go

Now we’ve go that over with, here’s what I think.

Let’s not ‘go back to normal’. Let’s move forward towards a new way of being that sits more comfortably with who we want to become. But how do we do this?

Here’s where I return to letting go any sense of obligation. Let go of the things that don’t serve you or bring you joy. It’s your life, so when the world around you starts to pick up speed again, remember that you get to choose what stays and what goes.

I’m not trying to suggest that you’re not bound by work objectives or by responsibilites that sit rightfully with you as a colleague, partner, parent or good pal. Whatever we do, we should still desire to do the right thing. But if spending time at home has caused you to reflect a little and to take stock, consider these questions:

  • Who do I want to spend my time with?
  • What’s really important to me?
  • What really matters?
  • What am I passionate about?
  • What do I love doing and which makes me feel alive?
  • What would I do, if I knew I couldn’t fail?

What (or who) will you allow to ebb away?

I spent a couple of hours last week with a friend (2m apart, as per government guidelines, sitting in the sunshine alongside the riverbank close to her home). She described the relief she had felt at not having to see people she didn’t want to see, or go to places that she preferred to avoid.

In an interview with Reece Witherspoon, writer and activist Glennon Doyle says that the lives we lead ‘must be the truest, most beautiful lives we can imagine. Don’t settle!’ So, what would your truest, most beautiful life look like, if you could re-craft it from the start? The questions, above, might just help you consider this.

The ‘To Do’ List

One of the things I seem to have let go of naturally is my personal ‘to do’ list. My work action plan is typically well-structured, but I’d previously brought some of that hyper-organisation into life at home. What I’ve been able to do in lockdown is go with the flow. Weather’s good? Go and potter in the garden! Feel like sorting out a few papers? Do that.

Somehow, letting go of the never-ending task list is a release. Jobs still get done. And it doesn’t actually matter if they don’t….

On occasion, this has also meant letting go of things that I have always righteously claimed as my own, such as meal preparation. Knowing that there is plenty of food in the house to produce simple, nutritious dishes has enabled me to let go of being Head Chef.  Making a meal need not always be my job. On Sunday, after 5 hours in the garden, I came back into the house to find our 18-year-old had found a recipe via BBC Good Food, assembled all the ingredients (adding a few that she fancied) and hey presto! we had lunch.

The ‘do‘ List

Being in lockdown has given me some new-found (or rediscovered) joys; little moments that you can enjoy in your day. Check them out:

  • Nichola Joss’ facial massage on Instagram (weekday evening at 20:00 BST) and mornings, too
  • Online book clubs (authors going live include the fabulous Marian Keyes on Facebook (Mondays, 17:00 BST  next one 15 June)
  • Online yoga – I attend my own teacher’s online class (Living Your Yoga) but check out others including DoYogaWithMe.com

So, do what you want to do. Live life on your own terms. And let go of anything that doesn’t allow you to be your best self. And don’t forget the lessons that lockdown taught us.


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What we’re eating in lockdown

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I’ve been on annual leave this week. So, instead of working remotely from my little study, ‘holidaying’ at home has been my experience. Here in the UK, the government’s daily mantra is Stay at Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives. So, staying at home we are.

On the whole, the nation is respectful of the reasons why we’re being asked to do this and fiercely proud of our NHS and grateful for all our key workers. Just now, the UK has been told we must remain in lockdown for at least 3 more weeks. But I must add that this is no hardship in this particular corner of the world. In the past few days, it feels as though we’ve been watching spring gently unfurl, as ripe clematis buds burst into flower and leaves on the silver birch and sycamore trees begin to reveal themselves a little more with each passing day.

Food is now at the forefront of people’s minds

A recent post on our town’s local Facebook group caught my eye:

Current family weekly budget in lockdown 💵

Petrol – £0
Meals out – £0
Useless purchases – £0
Groceries – £2467.90

It certainly feels like we’re spending more on food, although a check of my April Dual Account Budget Spreadsheet suggests we’re on top of our budget, which is pretty good considering there is no eating outside of the home whatsoever.

Apart from the obvious changes to daily life (we are told that traffic levels are at their lowest since 1955), a regular topic of conversation is food.

How to obtain essential provisions, what we’re eating, where to find key ingredients and top tips for getting an online delivery slot are key features of our neighbourhood WhatsApp group chat.

A new favourite podcast of mine, Table Manners, has also considered how we’re feeding ourselves in lockdown. Check out Episode 10, with the fabulous Emily Maitlis or go back in time to 2018 to the episode with my favourite cookery writer, Nigella Lawson.

Au revoir to online shopping

One big shift we’ve made is the transition from regular online shopping to sourcing food from a variety of new places.

Our local farm shop is providing a fabulous service: place your order online, then wait for them to call you so that you can make payment. Drive up, then they’ll come and place your food straight into the boot of the car. Simple! And rather good. Today, we’ve enjoyed locally-produced salad leaves, milk from a dairy just up the road and a rather splendid chunk of chocolatey rocky road (shopper’s perk).

We even managed to buy a bag of plain flour, a grocery item that has been in short supply, as families have begun baking together during the pandemic.

Yesterday, my daughter and I spent a pleasurable hour in the kitchen making chocolate chip cookies from Sally’s Baking Addition.  These have the most wonderful chewy texture, are utterly delicious and worth the extra devotion required to achieve such perfection. Thank you, Sally! (UK friends, we used baking powder instead of ‘baking soda’ and light muscovado sugar for the brown sugar).

There’s certainly something very soothing about the quiet discipline of weighing, sieving, mixing and shaping ingredients into the ultimate comfort food. I must also mention the simple, humble but oh-so-delicous flapjack.

Cook

One source of pre-cooked frozen food is Cook. While the neighbouring butcher and deli store in Leamingon Spa had people queuing round the block (at a socially acceptable distance), we were able to place our order to cook online, then arrive on the specified day to collect our order with no waiting time at all. Plus, Cook‘s meals for two feed three of us happily – and very tasty they are too. Our family’s all-time favourite is Cook‘s meatballs in tomato sauce, but the chicken pie (on the menu tomorrow) may yet beat it into first place.

Making an honest crust

Our local artisan bakery, Crustum, has also solved the problem of how to manage during lockdown. Customers can now pre-order and arrive at a specific time to collect their bread, which is only ever available 3 days per week. I’ve just placed an order for Saturday, so can enjoy a legitimate trip out on my bicycle, whilst satisfying my current craving for some of Crustum’s famous chelsea buns.

My mother, who lives 90 miles away in Yorkshire, has also described how food suppliers local to her have become inventive, offering home deliveries rather than their usual weekly presence at the market.

I wonder how we’ll shop and eat post-pandemic? It was certainly heartening to see a BBC report that, in France, essential stores include those selling bread, cheese, groceries and chocolate. At times such as this, des Chocolatiers are indeed providing an essential service.

Looking inwards

So, we’re certainly keeping an eye on the outside world, whilst our focus has necessarily been more inward-looking, as food is cooked and eaten, cupboards get a sort out and old paintwork is refreshed. It’s been really lovely to get on top of jobs that would otherwise be crammed into busy weekends.

And, in spite of having maintained a minimalist home for 4 years now, there have still been some items we’ve assigned to the ‘goods out’ pile, ready for when some kind of normality returns. Living with less still gives me a thrill.

Get uncluttered

Whilst writing, have you noticed that Joshua and the team at Uncluttered are offering the spring online course for just $59? Use my discount code of FF25 and you’ll also get a further 25% off, so there’s no better time to join if you want to declutter during lockdown. The discount ends on 22 April, so do take a look if you’re curious about what Uncluttered can do for you.

So, stay safe, friends. And let me know what you’re eating in lockdown. I hope it includes something comforting.


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Staying at home

Most of the personal emails I’ve been getting during the current Covid-19 lockdown have fallen into 3 categories:

  1. Helping our customers….(insert company X’s statement of reassurance, safety and ‘necessary measures’)
  2. Coronavirus: (insert latest news here)
  3. The marketing campaigns capitalising on the ‘at home’ situation: “Wondering how to make the most of your space?” (from a very well-known UK high street department store)

I wanted to make my message a little simpler:

Hello…
How are you?
How are you getting on in your corner of the world?
And perhaps you will permit me to share a little of my experience so far?

Kenilworth and Covid-19

Our little Warwickshire town has strengthened further its community spirit by setting up a Facebook group to offer support and information (which store has loo rolls??!) and bring volunteers together. So far, at the time of writing, there are 600+ volunteers who have offered to be ‘street champions’ (guardian angels for their own neighbourhoods), shoppers, or helpers who can fetch, carry, deliver and support others.

One amazing lady asked local pubs and restaurants to let her have leftover ingredients at the point when they had to close their doors to the public. She created multiple dishes, then had them delivered to the elderly. I think we will see similar quiet but stoical acts of kindness, as the weeks progress.

Of course, the town came out onto doorsteps and balconies earlier this week, as the nation joined in a ‘Clap for Carers’.

Remote working

I’ve now been a ‘remote worker’ for a week and a day. Of course, this makes for an interesting experience when, suddenly, your only contact with colleagues is via MS Teams. Using Teams has opened up a whole new communciation channel to manage alongside emails (of which I counted one every 2 minutes yesterday). This arrangement also means that you’re sitting on your bottom 08:30 onwards. That said, remaining on the couch is what we have to do to save lives. If we can’t do that very simple thing, then we genuinely need our heads looking at.

I think we now realise how serious a situation we face , when many of us now know someone who is suspected of having the virus or has heard of someone else with symptoms. And neither royal blood nor high status in society makes you immune.

The downs and ups

My lovely sister is a physiotherapist by profession. Her normal job is to support the rehabilitation of those with neurological issues. It was sobering to learn yesterday that she was heading to the hospital to get patients home (as quickly as possible) and that she was also embarking upon respiratory training.

I had to say, I had a little cry when she told me what she was doing.

On the upside, there have been some very funny moments. I contributed to these by wearing a sombrero in many of my virtual meetings this week. Our choir also attempted a ‘rehearsal’ via Zoom, but we had to mute everyone, as it sounded really terrible. We kept our Director ‘un-muted’ and sang along to ourselves, before ‘un-muting’ everyone for a bit of a laugh at the end. It was fun and entertaining (for all the wrong reasons).

We are also recording a video of the choir singing Jason Mraz’s Unlonely. Today, I had a go at listenining to the backing track whilst recording me singing the soprano part. I can only hope that the final combined performance is better than my own feeble efforts!

Worry only about what you can control

Listening to a podcast today, I was reminded that there’s a danger in these unsettled times to ruminate over what could or what might happen, or fear the very worst. Being afraid might lead to us becoming unusually sharp with others, or feeling particularly stressed.

As Brené Brown has said this week, “This pandemic is a massive experiment in collective vulnerability. We can be our worst selves when we’re afraid, or our very best, bravest selves”.

I hope and pray that we use our time at home as positively as we can to help us stay brave and be resilient. It’s springtime here in the UK, so our gardens are starting to wake up following the wettest February on record. We have plenty to eat, somewhere safe and comfortable to be and every way to entertain ourselves indoors or in the garden.

So, do let me know how you are. I hope you’re doing OK. Be brave. Be your best self. Keep washing those hands. Stay at home to remain safe and keep others safe. And if ever there was a time be intentional, that time is now.


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Project 333: ‘How a little wardrobe challenge changed a whole life’

Imagine my surprise and delight when I had the chance to read a newly-arrived copy of Courtney Carver’s new book, Project 333. In case you’ve not yet seen it (the book’s official publication date was 3/3 (of course!), I thought you might appreciate a review. So, here it is!

If you’re familiar with Courtney Carver, then this is the book that followers of bemorewithless.com might have expected her to have written first. In fact, Soulful Simplicity came before which included a section on the project. Still, Project 333 (along with Carver’s popular Tiny Wardrobe Tour) is arguably the most well-known aspect of her work to date. With its humble beginnings back in 2010, Carver set herself a challenge that was to be the catalyst to other – more far-reaching – changes in her life.

Project 333 – the basics

The idea of this minimalist fashion challenge is that you set aside the rest of your wardrobe for a 3-month period during which you dress with the remaining 33 items or less (hence the name). When the 3 months are up, you’ll swap out some of those items and bring back others.

Most items you’ll wear will count towards the 33, including jewellery, shoes, accessories and bags. But workout gear, underwear and pyjamas (for example) don’t count.

Not another ‘how to’ book

Although Carver does talk about the idea of a ‘capsule wardrobe’, Project 333 isn’t merely another ‘how to’ book. Indeed, the approach is not at all prescriptive. Whilst there are lots of useful tips and some interesting case studies, the idea is that, by following the challenge, we remember to connect with ourselves; listen to our hearts; and ask the person who knows us best (ourselves).

Carver also demonstrates how the ‘three thirty-three’ concept can used as a way in to dealing with more signifcant and profound life questions. Nicely crafted into a series of themed chapters, the book describes, ‘…..how a little wardrobe challenge changed a whole life.’ That’s quite an audacious claim but if you know Carver’s work, you’ll know what an impact #project333 has made on her, those around her and the 1000s of people who’ve followed in her footsteps.

Life lessons, big or small

Project 333 works on a number of levels, so take from it from whatever you need. Want to sort out a messy wardrobe? Here are some tips you can use. Or maybe you need to tackle just a small part of your life first, which can then act as the catalyst for more far-reaching changes. You can get this here, too.

What Carver is clear about is this: taking part in the project won’t protect you from whatever the world throws at you, but its benefits have a lovely way of spilling over into ‘real life’.

Clothes are boring

This morning, I listened to Dame Kristen Scott Thomas on Susannah Constantine’s new podcast, My Wardrobe Malfunction. If you listen to this – or any of these conversations – they are far less about the clothes and much more about lives lived well. The outfits, garments and fashion moments, if they feature at all, are far from centre stage.  They are merely the conduit to a more interesting conversation.

I do like clothes (and I’m not averse to a real bargain), but I have stopped yearning for them. This has given me such freedom, saving hours of time and hard-earned money, as I have given up the quest to find the simplest of things: something to wear. This is Carver’s point. A shopping ‘fast’ (a bit like intermittent fasting) does you a world of good. It clears the head and leaves you feeling lighter, calmer and more in control.

Things to consider

Paring down your wardrobe does mean you get to ask yourself some great questions.

For example, if you could start from scratch with your closet, what would you buy? Or, if you’re stuck in a cycle of ‘consume, donate, consume, donate…’ how much better for your wallet and the environment would it be if you simply stopped? Or, what if I challenged the voice in my head that said, “I could never…..”.

Often, we hear of people trying to fill an emotional vacuum with the temporary high of shopping. But, as Carver writes, “When things are broken but bearable, it feels easier, at first, to stay at ‘bearable’ rather than to address the problems.”

Try lightening your load

Courtney Carver’s quest for more had resulted in stress, depression, debt and strained relationships. It certainly didn’t answer the simplest of questions, “What shall I wear today?” As she writes, “I’d been shopping for years and I still had nothing to wear.”

So, instead of adding more and trying something new, try shopping from your own wardrobe; living a little more intentionally; and lightening your load. Who knows, a little step in this direction could inspire you towards a full-on spring clean or encourage you to get uncluttered once and for all!

Project 333 is published by tarcherperigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House


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3 things you need to do this weekend

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How did you spend last weekend? Perhaps you spent time on chores, catching up from the week, or maybe you enjoyed a hectic round of social events?

In her podcast, Before Breakfast, Laura Vanderkam discusses ways to maximise a short weekend (aimed especially at those who perhaps work on a Saturday or Sunday). She advocates prioritising 3 things that will help make the most of your time off, no matter how long you get:

  • Something social
  • Something spiritual
  • Something physical

For me, last weekend fulfilled all of those ideas.

Something social

Last weekend was somewhat extended for me, as it began with a light meal and a catch-up old friends on the Thursday evening.

My ‘Gin and Books’ group followed on Friday, with a spirited discussion on Joanna Nadin’s The Queen of Bloody Everything. Some of us really loved it; others weren’t so keen. So, maybe it’s a ‘marmite’ book. Either way, the gin was lovely; I sampled Strawberry Gin with an Elderflower Tonic.

The following day, I was was scheduled to do my fortnightly Pets as Therapy visit with Ollie, our (almost) 6 year old cockapoo. This combined both the social with the ‘spiritual’ as my heart sings when I see the enjoyment of the residents in the nursing home I visit visibly perk up when they see us.

It’s rare to have 3 social events in quick succession; I wonder why they all arrive at once?

Something spiritual

If you’ve ever been a singer in a group (or even enjoyed singing in church), you’ll know about those spine-tingling moments when you experience a musical moment of perfection.

Anything that’s good for the soul will give you a tick in the box when it comes to ‘something spiritual’. For me, that was baking a lemon drizzle cake on Saturday morning in honour of our daughter’s return from a few days away. Simple pleasures, such as enjoying a lovely cup of tea in the garden or a quiet soak in the bath, can really be uplifting.

Something physical

Our ‘something physical’ last week was a long walk – straight from our house – down to the Millennium Trail, which follows the path round Kenilworth Castle. This morning’s walk followed part of that route, but it’s raining heavily, which is odd since we experienced baking temperatures on Thursday!

We know that getting out in nature is good for us (more on this here), so we try to do this, even if it’s chucking it down!

I love the idea that these 3 simple suggestions can help us make the most of the time we have off. So, what will you be doing this weekend? I’m certainly going to remember to try to incorporate a bit of each: something social; something spiritual; and something physical.


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Declaring email bankruptcy

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There’s something distinctly unfunny about writing a whole blog post on managing emails, only to make a monumental error and lose the whole post. That just happened to me!

So, this feels a bit like having to re-do a piece of homework, but I hope that – on reading this post – you’ll feel it was worthwhile topic of conversation.

Simplifying your inbox

So much of our working lives revolve around composing, reviewing, reading, forwarding, saving, filing, retrieving – or even recalling – those little electronic postcards we call email.

Like me, if you have already been successful in simplifying other aspects of your life, applying some organisational principles to electronic mail is another step towards minimalism.

Emails falling like raindrops

On Bank Holiday Monday (Memorial Day to my lovely US readers), I spent some time that morning sitting at my breakfast bar, catching up on work emails.

Whilst it could be argued that I shouldn’t be doing this, the reality was that I’d had a very full diary during the preceding week, so there were quite a few emails that needed even just a little attention. This quiet couple of hours, with a lovely cup of coffee at my side, meant that I could regain a sense of overall control and feel positive about resuming work the following day knowing that I was on top of things.

Is email ‘real’ work?

If you listen to Laura Vanderkam’s Before Breakfast podcast, you may have heard the episode in which Laura suggests allotting specific time slots during the day for handling email correspondence.

This is a good idea, as you can then close your mailbox when undertaking other focused activities and avoid the lure of dealing with a quick message as soon as it arrives. In my case, I have switched off notifications and I try to make sure I’ve retrieved anything I need from my mailbox, before embarking on a non-email task.

Interruptions are sometimes welcome, but the reality is that they are such a distraction that we can take some time to recover and re-focus on the task in hand.

That said, email isn’t just ‘noise’. In my organisation, it is “real work” so we can’t ignore it.

Managing the inbox

I’ve written about this before, but when I’m having a proper sprint through my inbox, I’ll intentionally sort received items by Subject. This way, if there’s been a conversation on a particular topic, I can delete all but the very latest message and see the whole trail in one email.

I’m now also much more inclined to press ‘delete’ on as many messages as possible and don’t need to file anything that’s just a casual ‘thank you’ or acknowledgement.

Surely, there are other ways to communicate?

I work in Higher Education, so some of my colleagues with teaching-focussed roles find that handling email becomes even more of a challenge for them, as they aren’t seated at a desk all of the time. Recently, we’ve been discussing how we can improve internal communications to this group of staff, so that they perhaps receive a digest of items on a regular basis, rather than a drip-drip-drip of regular emails.

For my own part, wherever possible, I pick up the phone to speak to someone, rather than sending yet another message.

What do you do in your workplace?

What about personal emails?

I use gmail for personal mail, but I want to avoid it becoming ‘grrr-mail’. I want to read ‘good-mail’!

So, I have deliberately and very intentionally unsubscribed from practically all the marketing emails that I used to receive. This way, the only mail that comes through my virtual letterbox is genuinely useful, informative or necessary.

Listening to one of my favourite podcasts recently, I was struck by a suggestion that a great happiness hack would be to ‘declare bankruptcy’ on a mailbox that had simply got out of hand. Surely, this is the ultimate digital declutter?!  I find the financial analogy amusing but could we (dare we) go that far?

Have you ever done that? However tempting that may be, I don’t think I’d delete an account (or walk away from it), unless I’d really wound it down properly.

P.S.

Of course, the irony of this is not lost on me; I know this post is likely to be coming to you via your own inbox (and I’m glad you’re there!). So drop me a line via email (ha ha!) or reply to this post by clicking on ‘reply’ below. I’d love to hear from you.


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Digital Minimalism: Staying Mindful in the Digital Age

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This is a guest post from freelance writer, Johanna Cider, who is based in beautiful New Zealand. 

Digital Minimalism: Staying Mindful in the Digital Age

In a world where everybody is glued to digital screens, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to live in the moment. We spend so much time on our devices that we become disconnected from our real-life surroundings. As a result, our state of mind can become fragmented, and we lose focus on things that matter.

So, how do we stay mindful in the digital age? It’s certainly not impossible. All you have to do is make a few simple adjustments to how you live your life. Follow these tips to build a mindful state of mind.

Turn Off Your Digital Devices

Taking a digital detox is the first step in living a mindful life. If you’re constantly attached to your phone, how can you expect to live in the moment? When you’re not working, turn off your computer and put your phone away. Challenge yourself to be in the moment more. Be grateful for the people and the world around you. Listen more to what people have to say instead of letting your mind wander. Invest more time engaging with people face to face, instead of talking on the internet. With no digital distractions, you’ll end up noticing all the little things that really matter.

Connect with Nature

Spending time in nature is healthy for your mind, body and soul. Nature has no distractions. Being in such a calm and peaceful environment helps to encourage a state of mindfulness. In the natural world, there’s nothing to focus on but your senses and your thoughts.

If you want to live a mindful life, you need to prioritise how you spend your time. Instead of spending your free time browsing social media, venture into the outdoors. Go to a quiet beach, take a hike in the woods, or just hang out in your garden. Pay attention to what you can see, touch, smell and hear. Use this quiet time as an opportunity for self-reflection.

Make Exercise a Priority

Exercise is one of the best ways to relax your mind. Intentional physical activity can reduce stress, boost your mood and improve your sleep patterns. Incorporating exercise into your daily routine will help inspire mindfulness in your life. Over time, you’ll feel greater awareness of your body and mind. Just make sure to stay consistent with your routine, and to track your process.

Try a New Hobby

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There are many fun activities that promote mindfulness. Creative outlets like painting or journaling can be healing for the soul. These relaxing hobbies can help put your mind at ease.  If you’d prefer to get active, try an outdoor pursuit like fishing.  Fishing offers opportunities for self-reflection and mindfulness. As you wait to catch a fish, there’s nothing to do but stand still in nature. This gives you time to think, reflect and take in all your senses.

Practice Mindful Breathing

Mindful breathing trains your body and brain to relax. It’s an important technique to have in your daily life, especially during periods of stress. The practice of mindful breathing isn’t difficult. It’s all about giving full attention to your breath and taking back control.

To start, spend some time each day focusing on your breathing patterns. Ideally, this should be done in a quiet place with no distractions. The moment your mind goes somewhere else, bring it back to the present. Focus on connecting to your breath instead of thinking about anything else.

If you practice mindful breathing on a daily basis, it will soon become a natural part of your life. You’ll learn how to calm yourself down, take control of your emotions and be in the present.

About Johanna:

With a career that requires long hours of research and editing in front of a screen, freelance writer Johanna understands that smelling the roses – literally and figuratively – takes time! Bill Watterson, the creator of one of Jo’s favourite comics, Calvin and Hobbes, wisely said: “We’re so busy watching out for what’s just ahead of us that we don’t take time to enjoy where we are.” Find more of her published work on Musings of Johanna.


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Wellbeing week and the menopause

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Following my last post, which started a bit of a ‘wellbeing’ theme, I recently attended a seminar on Menopause, Stress & Nutrition.

This session was part of a series of events for Wellbeing Week at the university where I work; it proved to be extremely popular. There were around 100 women in the room and – to his great credit – a single male who had come along to find out how he could support female staff in his team who might be experiencing the menopause.

What is menopause?

We all think we know what it is, but menopause (literally the cessation of menstruation) only lasts a single day. That is, it’s the day of your very last period. What we understand by menopause may fall more squarely into the peri-menopause, the phase leading up to the menopause itself.

Why don’t we talk about it?

I still think menopause is a little-understood – even taboo – phase of life. In the workplace, we generally fail to acknowledge it, but it may affect things like concentration, memory, mood and confidence. Other symptoms may include mood swings (including rage!), the interruption of sleep, weight gain and something the presenter of our session called ‘brain fog’ (e.g. losing keys, forgetting people’s names) (I already did that!!!).

So, whether you’re a manager, team leader, colleague, line report, co-worker, business partner, husband, child or friend, you’ll know  – or be close to – someone who’s right in the thick of it.

Triggers

I didn’t know this, but stress is a key trigger for menopause symptoms. Whether it’s your lifestyle, food, exposure to toxins or exercise that you might consider improving, these things all contribute to stress. So, we were told to choose just one thing that we might want to change and track our habits around that particular issue.

Diet

This is the part where we hear what we already know, but just had to have it from an external source.

The good

“Love your liver,” said our guest speaker, which meant including lots of good things in our diet such as hot water and lemon in the mornings; lots of greens (broccoli, kale, spinach) and foods such as salmon and avocado. In particular, foods containing phytoestrogens are said to be particularly helpful (I note with some enthusiasm that oats – my favourite grain- and coffee (!) are on the list).

The not-so-good

However, any food containing more than 10% sugar is a no-no and caffeine – which takes 72 hours to leave your system – may be a trigger. Alcohol may not be best idea, either, as it raises our core body temperature. Humph!

If that all sounds a bit too ‘goody two shoes,’ there is a positive in all of this: Prosecco is best, as it’s lower in sugar. Who knew?!

Exercise

Running

As I wrote in my last post, I’m in the midst of working through the Couch 2 5K programme. I can’t say I’m finding it terribly enjoyable, but it does tick the box when it comes to exercise. If you have any ideas how to make it more fun, please do tell me. I ran for my first full 25 minutes yesterday, but I am not yet experiencing ‘runner’s elation’.

The dog seems to find the jogging quite good fun, although it’s quite tricky to run when you have a dog lead in one hand, ABBA in your ears and the lovely Jo Wiley encouraging you – via her narration on the BBC app – to “keep going”.

Stretching

Earlier today, I also tried out a new class called Barre. Using a ballet barre, this class is the perfect complement to running, as it incorporates stretches and ballet movements. I enjoyed it! Let’s see if I’m still enthusiastic about this the day after tomorrow (I always find that it’s not the next day it gets you; it’s the day after that).

Of course, both running and stretching require some focus on the breath. That’s fabulous when it comes to the menopause; focussing on lengthening the out-breath at key times can be just what we need, so practising controlling the breath can be a quietly powerful tool.

Sleep

A lot of what we heard in this week’s seminar chimed with what I wrote about in my last post. Getting outside during the day – or even being close to a window – is a very good idea. Likewise, softer lighting in the evening and a darkened bedroom are also what we need to promote good sleep.

Clutter and the menopause

So, what about clutter? As a minimalist, I already know that clutter can contribute to anxiety, so maintaining a minimalist space can be incredibly helpful when it comes to supporting our wellbeing.

On Friday, after a particularly trying week, I decided to take some time at the end of my working day to reduce some no-longer-needed paperwork and straighten up my desk. When I return to the office tomorrow, it’ll be shiny as a new pin, which will set me up for a more positive week ahead.

The M Word

So, if (like me) you’re a woman of a certain age, get out there and use the M word at least once over the next 24 hours. It’s not about singling us out for special treatment, but it’s about mutual support, awareness raising and understanding. And that can go a long way towards engendering a more positive environment for everyone, be that at home or work.


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Why I’m cracking my circadian code

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It’s been a while since I have done any blogging, but I have a very self-indulgent reason: I have been reading.

What a joy it has been to immerse myself in some very good books. These have included Nicci French’s Blue Monday (cleverly written but disturbing) and Susan Beale’s debut novel, The Good Guy. The former is co-written by a husband and wife partnership, which makes it even more compelling (just how do they do it?).

New Year, New You?

Meanwhile, out of the corner of my eye, I’ve been aware of the prevalence of the time-honoured ‘New Year, New You’ theme throughout the month. While I normally carry on as usual throughout January (largely ignoring these messages), my interest was sparked when I heard Liz Earle interview Max Lowery on her popular wellness podcast.

Lowery advocates the idea of eating only 2 meals per day during an 8 hour period,  resulting in a daily intermittent fast. You’ll no doubt heard of approaches like the 5:2 diet, but this method means that 16 hours in any 24 hour period are without food.

The timing of this episode was fortuitous, as it chimed with the ideas of Satchin Panda whose book I am currently reading: The Circadian Code: Lose weight, supercharge your energy and sleep well every night. 

Circadian rhythms

Satchin Panda is an academic whose work he has distilled into a really accessible book. Focusing not only on diet, Panda explores ways to optimise our health through the alignment of our activities with our daily ‘biological clock’ or circadian rhythm.

In the early part of the book, Panda explores how the timings within our schedule are particularly important for our overall well-being. For example, it had never before occurred to me that getting up at a different time at the weekend would effectively create what Panda calls ‘social jet lag.’

Panda suggests that, by altering our schedule by going to bed and getting up later at the weekend, we are all de facto ‘shift workers.’ Instead, he advocates going to bed and getting up at the same time 7 days per week. This avoids the foggy brain and fuzzy head of a weekend morning, which we might previously have experienced.

A little experiment

This has prompted me to do a bit of experimentation. From early January, I’ve been going to bed and getting up at exactly the same time every day. Yes, even on a Sunday. For sure, I take things a little more slowly at the weekend and might even pop back into bed to drink my morning tea. But I am consistently getting up at 06:15 (which means lights out around 22:15 or 22:30).

A friend of mine has a son who has recently returned from the West coast of America. Many days after any genuine jet lag should have subsided, he continues to suggest this as the reason for him not getting out of bed in the morning. On closer examination, the ‘problem’ is easily diagnosed: social jet lag. He is partying late into the night.

Light

Sleep, of course, is intrinsically linked with light. Or rather, the absence of it. This means that we’re more likely to have disturbed sleep if we persist in using electronic devices during the evening when we should be enjoying the soft, warm glow of side lamps.

Panda explains that the blue light from electronic devices triggers a protein within the eye, which tricks the brain to wake up. Since the brain does not expect the stimulation of light at night, the use of bright light disrupts our circadian rhythm.

So, if we want to benefit from a deep, full restorative sleep, we’d do well to revert to an old-fashioned paperback at bed time. That’s handy for me, since my Reading Group (aka wine club) books are always physical books. So, I’m definitely going to carry on with this good habit. I’m not talking about the wine.. and cake.

2 meals per day

The ideas expressed during the Liz Earle podcast (eating just two meals per day) align closely with Satchin Panda’s time restricted eating (TRE).

Panda explains how the science around restricting daily eating to a 12-hour period brings impressive results. Even better, reducing the window to as few as 8 hours can be even more beneficial. The reason is because most of the body’s fat burning happens 6-8 hours after finishing your last meal. It also increases exponentially after a full 12 hours of fasting.

So, if you want to lose some weight, reducing the ‘window’ during which you consume all of your daily calories can reap real rewards (even if you don’t change what you eat).

Again, in the interest of science, I’ve been observing my own behaviours around food. I normally eat a light breakfast before I go to work; a snack mid-morning; a light lunch (normally leftovers); then another small meal when I get home. I might also have my daily fix of natural yoghurt and a couple of squares of dark chocolate after dinner.

I’m basically taking on food from morning through to night. That can’t be doing me any good.

So, I’m going to experiment a little and see if skipping that evening meal will result in better sleep and a greater appreciation of the food I am eating. If you think about what that 8 hour window means in practice, it means breakfast (for me) at around 07:00 then my final bite of the day no later than 15:00. That’s quite a change for me.

A time for everything

It follows that, since all the cells of the body have their own ‘circadian rhythm’, there’s a time for doing certain things during each day. If you eat from the moment you wake through to that last snack of the evening, your body will be in constant ‘digestion mode’.

By creating a gap between the last bite of the day and the time we prepare to sleep, the body can have disposed of its food-related responsibilities before it goes into rest, repair and rejuvenation mode. Equally, our bodies aren’t designed to exist in a well-lit environment throughout our entire period of wakefulness; when then sun goes down, so should our overhead lights.

If we are more intentional about our activities, we may enjoy myriad unexpected benefits.

So, I’ll read on and explore what other lifestyle choices I can make that might positively align with my natural circadian rhythm. I’m currently on Week 5 of Couch to 5K, so knowing the best time to run (for example) might spur me on and keep me running well – and with some enjoyment – throughout the programme.

But what about you? Are you aware of your own ‘circadian code’? Have you ever experimented with TRE (time restricted eating) and do you dim those lights during the evening? Do let me know by replying below.


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Life lessons from 2018 and a brief glimpse forward

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2018 was a quite a mixed year for our little family. Like us, I expect you’ll have experienced the ups and downs of everyday life during the last 12 months.

Taking a look back at the year as a whole, I realise that a bit of perspective on what we experience makes all the difference in the world. Here’s how our year panned out, with some of the life lessons we learned along the way.

Warm conversations during a chilly winter

Once the holidays were well and truly over, the first part of 2018 saw me settling into a regular routine of visiting our local nursing home as a volunteer with Pets as Therapy. Our little dog, Ollie (a 5 year old cockapoo), brightens the day of the residents every time we visit and I enjoy the conversations with the lovely people I meet there. Although a small number of the residents have indeed died during the year, my overriding sense is what a privilege it has been to enjoy their company; blessings all round!

Life lesson #1:

Giving (time) to others brings as much reward to you as it does to them (especially when there’s a furry friend in tow!).

East meets West

In February, we welcomed our second pair of international ‘homestay’ students, who stayed with us for the whole month. From Ritsumeikan University in Japan, the latter part of the students’ visit coincided with the ‘Beast from the East’ – a bitterly cold spell of weather that resulted in the girls’ return journey being postponed for a few days.

It was enriching to spend time with these young undergraduates and we realised that, in spite of some interesting cultural differences, we had far more in common than we might originally have thought.

Life lesson #2:

Opening your home to others can enable you to develop some wonderful, unexpected friendships, whilst enjoying a unique and mutually beneficial intercultural experience.

Spring forward

Just as the students returned to Japan, I started a new job. Having had a very modest salary increase with my new role, as well as going car free, we were now able to make some serious inroads into paying off debt. During the previous autumn, we had discovered an unexpected personal tax liability of several thousand pounds. So, 2018 became the year when we became ‘gazelle intense’ over our finances. That made a real difference as the year progressed.

Here, I have to acknowledge the approach of Dave Ramsey about whom I’ve written often. During 2018, I also discovered Pete Matthew’s Meaningful Money podcast and have enjoyed his first book: The Meaningful Money Handbook. Pete’s just established a Facebook community, too, so check that out if getting on top of your finances is part of your 2019 goals.

Life lesson #3:

Actually, there’s more than one life lesson in this particular segment:

  1. You don’t need a car as much as you think you do.
  2. You do need an Emergency Fund for when life slaps you in the face. Save £1000 if you’re paying off debt, then build a fully-funded Emergency Fund of 3-6 months of expenses once you’re debt free.
  3. You can learn a lot from listening to podcasts that provide sensible, consistent and free advice. Find the ones that speak to your situation and become an avid listener.

Long, hot summer

Summer saw our daughter, Amy, join her school friends on a four week visit to Costa Rica with Camps International. After two years of fundraising, she had a truly amazing experience, which involved a huge variety of activities. These ranged from building a septic tank to scuba diving in the Pacific Ocean!

Life lesson #4:

Step out of your comfort zone once in a while; you will have the time of your life.

During Amy’s first week away, we spent a few days on the Norfolk coast. Remember, this was one of the hottest years on record, but we ended up in the only cool corner of England that week. It was so chilly, we had to invest in new jackets. My mother reminded me that we had holidayed on the East coast in the intense summer of 1976 when the temperatures at the seaside had also plunged. So, if you ever need a cool spell during a heatwave, just follow me!

Life lesson #5:

Expect the unexpected (particularly with English weather) and never leave the house without a coat!

Sunsets and farewells

Sadly, things back at home took a turn for the worse when my mother-in-law died during the second week of Amy’s trip. My father-in-law had died only 15 months before, so this was an especially sorrowful time for everyone. My mother-in-law had been a gregarious, larger-than-life character, so it was especially sad to see her becoming more and more frail towards the end of her life.

We postponed the funeral until Amy’s return, then began the long process of decluttering the family home to prepare it for sale. This was a lengthy job and pretty hard work. However, a lovely and unexpected benefit throughout this whole process was the growing bond I have enjoyed with my lovely sisters-in-law.

Life lesson #6:

Through every sad situation, there will always be a ray of sunshine (I promise).

After this experience, I asked my own mother to do something that I’d heard of during Gretchen Rubin’s Happier podcast: Make a Facts of Life document. This is where you set out some basic information about your life: details of accounts, policies and other information that your loved ones should need ‘in case something happens’. This is how we in the UK euphemistically describe illness or death. Happily, my mum had already done this, so it was much easier to have that conversation with her than I thought.

August also brought GCSE results for Amy. The big deal with these qualifications was whether or she’d passed her maths (she had!!).

Life lesson #7:

Prepare for the worst, but hope for the best (things can and do work out).

Transition into autumn

Autumn saw yet more changes, as Amy embarked upon A levels and enjoyed another school trip. This time, she visited Marle Hall in Wales where she took part in a number of outward bound activities including coasteering. As far as I can tell, this involved moving along a rockface, then jumping in the sea periodically. That is not for me (especially in October!).

As a couple, we completed the intense period of paying off our debt. It’s wonderful to be going into 2019 knowing that this is behind us.

And back to winter

Around 3 weeks ago, our little pup became unwell. On careful investigation, the vet found a ‘foreign object’ in Ollie’s stomach. This turned out to be a whole and perfectly intact peach stone in his small intestine. A good deal of worrying, one surgery and over £1500 later, Ollie is now on the mend but has what looks like a little zip in his tummy as a ‘souvenir.’ Thank goodness for Emergency Funds and pet insurance.

Life lesson #8:

Take advice as soon as something happens that worries you (and – again – get that Emergency Fund in place!).

Today, as I write, my own mother (she who had sensibly created her ‘Facts of Life Document’) has just had surgery to remove a tumour from her stomach! We await to hear if more treatment will be needed, although we are hopeful that this won’t be the case. It’s strange that there should be yet another bump in the road during a time when we are reflecting on the year gone by and looking forward to what lies ahead in 2019. No more foreign objects in tummies, please!

Word of the Year 2019

Rather than make New Year’s Resolutions, we have decided to set out some goals for 2019. We may even adopt a personal ‘word’ for the year.

If I look back at 2018, I realise that taking the long view – and having a bit of distance to give perspective on your experiences – is a very good thing.  The life lessons we learned along the way in the last 12 months will stand us in good stead, as we embark upon another year.

As Courtney Carver once said, “Don’t write about it when you’re in it.” So, I didn’t blog about all the twists and turns of 2018. There have been a great many ‘ups’, as well as a number of ‘downs,’ but we live and learn and move forward.

What has 2018 been like for you? What life lessons has 2018 taught you? What does 2019 hold? And will you make New Year’s Resolutions or even adopt a Word of the Year? Do let me know by replying below.

Wishing you very Happy New Year 2019.


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