And a gold star for you!

A few years ago, I decided that I needed to help myself to simplify my life. I called that year My Year of Saying NO, and I even wrote a book about it. 

I am very good at saying ‘yes’ when people ask me to do things. I find it very uncomfortable to say ‘no’. I’m sure a lot of us do. So to help me make this new habit, I used a reward chart.  The actual chart was a very cute picture of a princess making her way along heart-shaped stepping stones to a castle. I hung the chart above my desk where I could see it every day. I bought some shiny gold star stickers and each time I had one of those difficult ‘no’ conversations, I stuck a gold star on the chart. When I got to the end of the chart I rewarded myself with a few days away.

It was a big reward, but it was a big lesson for me to learn.

My research tells me that reward charts work very well for children aged 3–8 years, and I don’t see why they won’t work for us adults aged 30–80 years as well. (And older, and younger of course.) In fact, if you google ‘reward charts for adults’ you get some really excited articles written by beautiful people who have discovered that they are ‘allowed’ to use stickers just as much as the kids are!

Using a chart like this is fun, and it helps encourage us in the activities we want to perform. So, just in case you are interested, I thought I’d write a post giving a little direction so that you can have fun with stickers too!

How do reward charts work?

1) Decide on the activity you are measuring. It is important that these gold stars are linked to an activity that you are doing, not a result. That is, you get a gold star for eating mindfully, not for losing a kilogram. You need to be able to do the activity and then reward yourself. So pick an activity, and write it down on your chart.

Activity ideas: Drinking six glasses of water in a day, working out, cooking a real meal, spending nine hours in bed at night (without your phone), practising a musical instrument for half an hour, walking for half an hour, meditating or sitting in silence with God for 10 minutes, writing 300 words in your novel, ringing your mother. Basically, anything you’d like to do more of.

 Don’t overcomplicate it. Don’t try to achieve too many things at once. Just pick one, write it down and go with it for a while.

Another important part of this step is to write down why you are wanting to achieve this thing. Why do you want to go to the gym? To feel more energetic and to sleep better, maybe. Why do you want to practise the piano? So you can play that special song for your friend and really bless her. Write the reason for the activity – this really helps you keep going when the going is tough.

2) Decide on the reward you will receive at the end and write it down. Promise yourself a reward that is something meaningful, that is worth working for. 

Reward ideas: a bike ride, a movie night, a new book, a new toy, a pedicure, an afternoon off to read a book, an overnight at a B&B, a special meal out at a five-star restaurant.

Your reward could be related to the activity. For example, if you are giving yourself a star for every time you go to the gym, the reward after 20 sessions could be some new gym clothes. If you and a friend or partner are working on your goals together, your reward could be a weekend away for the two of you. 

It is important that you write the reward down. And it is important that you actually give yourself the reward once you reach your goal. The gold stars on the way are really great motivators, but I think that reaching the goal is also worthy of a celebration. We really want to celebrate success here!

3) Make that star chart, buy the shiny stickers (they don’t have to be stars, they can be any stickers you like) and go ahead and start measuring.

The star chart shouldn’t be too long. When people make these behavioural charts for their children, I see (and this is not backed by any kind of scientific study) that the resulting good behaviour lasts for about two or three weeks. 

It’s the same with us adults. We are using some extrinsic motivation here to hopefully build the intrinsic motivation that will turn this activity into a habit. But if we have to wait 100 days before we get any kind of reward, we are going to lose focus and even the sticking of a gold star to a chart will become a chore. So maybe make it three or four week’s worth, but no more. (Again, this is not backed by scientific studies, you do you.)

One last thing. When I was doing research for this post I found a new use of reward charts that I hadn’t seen before. They were charts for things like gratitude, and for noting when you feel positive. 

I love this idea. You can feel like you are miserable all the time, but if you stick a sticker on a chart whenever you are grateful for something, or whenever you notice that you’re feeling positive, then you  will be able to look at your calendar and clearly see a record of good things. And I think that will, in itself, add joy to your life. Beautiful.

Do you use a star chart or some kind of reward or tracking system? What do you do? How well does it work?

If you’d like to hear me chatting about this, my podcast A Quiet Life is available on Spotify, Apple podcasts and all other good podcatchers or you can find it at my website.

How to achieve your GOAL

Last time I wrote about doing jobs and activities where you enjoy the process and not just the outcome.

Celebrate small successes
Photo by Ylanite Koppens from Pexels

It made me think about the types of goals that we can have in our lives.  How it’s better to focus in our goals on process rather than outcome. On systems rather than milestones.

We all know the weight loss goal: lose 10 kg. It’s a goal I’ve had for quite some time now. It was an especially depressing goal when my weight was going up. I’d be focusing on ‘lose 10 kg’ and each time I weighed myself my weight increased by another 500 g. It became totally depressing. The goal was big and imposing and impossible to do all at once.

Now, I haven’t lost the dream of losing those 10 kg. I know I’d like to be 10 kg lighter. But the process, the thing I’m actively working on, is to go to the gym six days a week and work out on the cross trainer for half an hour at the highest level of pump that I can give it. And to cook at least six meals at home per week so that we eat less takeaway food. 

This means I can tick that off each week, and see how I’m going, even when the weight doesn’t seem to be budging due to other factors.

Another area where I apply this type of goal setting in my life is in my writing. At the beginning of this year I was really struggling to get going on the rewrite of my novel. The goal was to take the last couple of chapters and turn them into another 50,000 words or so. Tricky. Imposing. Impossible to do all at once. And therefore, very difficult to start.

Instead, I changed the goal to one of writing 300 words a day. This takes me about 15 minutes. It’s not a huge goal, it’s not a 2-m high-jump (sorry, still on the Olympic examples here) it’s more like a 15-cm step up. I can do it. And once I get started, I can often keep going. I can happily write 500 or 1000 words. But I don’t have to. I just try to hit that tiny goal each day.

So many of our goals or the things we are striving for are dependent on factors that are out of our control. There is so much in life we can’t control – the weather, the emotional state of others, the level of expertise of the other job applicants. It’s easy to worry about those things so much that we don’t get started on the things we can do something about – our own job application and making it the best that it can be, our own emotional and mental wellbeing, and the wearing of a raincoat.

I was reading a book by Michael Mosley this week where he used the word ‘goal’ as an acronym. Now it’s not the best and most memorable acronym out there but I think the approach it outlines is good.

Get

Opportunities

Approach

Look for successes

G is for get. What do you want to get? What are you aiming for? This is the overarching goal, the 10 kg or finished novel or new job. This gives you a direction to head in. And I think this is important.

O is for opportunities. What opportunities or resources are out there to help you succeed? Do you need to join a writer’s group? Or read some articles on resume presentation? Or join a gym?

A is for approach. This is your plan. What are steps are you going to take to reach your goal? This is the 300 words a day. This is exercise six times a week. This is the process. Remember, you need to love the process, and it needs to be achievable for you. There is no point coming up with an approach that you don’t think you can do. A lot of writers insist that waking up at 430am to get words on the page is the only reasonable approach. I know that approach is not for me and if I tried it I would get no writing done. What approach are you going to use?

L is for ‘look for successes’. You need little milestones along the way. You need to cheer yourself on. In terms of weight loss, I might not be able to cheer the 10 kg yet, but I can cheer myself on for the increased fitness I’m seeing at the gym. For writing I can rejoice in every 1000 words, every chapter finished, every new creative idea that springs up. 

Mosley says ‘notice and celebrate small milestones’ and I agree, that celebration of small milestones along the way is so important. If we wait for the big milestone we might find that 1) we never get there or 2) we get there but it feels a bit empty. But if we celebrate along the way we have a life filled with celebration and I think that’s a wonderful joyful way to live.

What method of goals or systems do you use?

Do you have a special way of celebrating small successes?

Did you know that as well as this blog I have a podcast? You may have friends for whom you think this information is great but they prefer to listen rather than read. They can find my podcast at A Quiet Life on any pod catcher or they can go to ruthamos.com.au/podcast/ and listen there.

Feel free to share this blog with anyone you think would enjoy it. I’d love to get the word out as far as possible. People can sign up to read it at ruthamos.com.au or on WordPress. 

Enjoy the process

A tennis ball

We’ve been watching the Olympics a lot lately, getting our fix of all the different kinds of sport. So I thought I’d start this blog with a sports example.

Here’s a story about Novak Djokovic:

“[Tennis champion] Novak Djokovic said in an interview with the Financial Times that “I can carry on playing at this level because I like hitting the tennis ball.” The interviewer replied in surprise: “Are there really players who don’t like hitting the ball?” Djokovic answered, “Oh yes. There are people out there who don’t have the right motivation. You don’t need to talk to them. I can see it.”

(From James Clear’s newsletter).

Moz, in his role as a teacher, talks to a lot of kids who are thinking about what they should do with their lives. And it’s not just kids, I think that some adults are really wondering if what they do is ‘all there is’ and whether they could change to do something else. They might be unhappy in their job situation, or maybe they’ve been laid off or something like, I don’t know, a global pandemic has happened and has changed their life or the way they are thinking about their life and they’re looking for what they want to do next.

My life has been a journey to find the process that I enjoy. 

I started my working life as a check-out chick, then a bank teller. I was unhappy in both of those situations, basically because I was an introvert operating with a flat people-battery all the time. These jobs weren’t right for me, but I have a friend, Judy, who worked in a supermarket for 30 years and really enjoyed it. I interviewed her in my podcast.

I left the bank to have children, and worked as a family day carer and a stay at home mum, again, using up my social energy to the utmost. But again, my friend Kerry just loves family day care and that’s where she knows she belongs.

To help with the resulting depression, I decided to go to university. And I loved it. Just loved it. I thought I’d be happy working at a university for the rest of my life. And I was happy for a good 15 years. But that time came to an end too. I have another podcast interview with Matt who serves God and the university and finds it fruitful and rewarding.

When I was thinking about leaving the university, I thought long and hard about what I wanted to do with myself. Like Djokovic, I wanted to do something where I enjoyed the process, and not just the outcome.

One thing I love to do is write. I know that some authors like ‘having written’ but I like the process of writing as well. I like to sit down at my computer, just like I’m doing now, and pounding out words. This makes the job of author an ideal job for me. 

I also like to read, and I read very quickly. I have a good grasp of the English language, and now that I’ve worked as a scientist, I have a good grasp of science too. And this enables me to work as an academic editor. Believe it or not, I like the fiddly process of working with words to make them sound beautiful. I like bringing order out of chaotic journal articles. I like the process.

When Moz talks with the kids at school about what they want for their future careers, they are often thinking of the outcome. ‘I want to make lots of money’ or ‘I want to be famous’. This is really short-term thinking, happily-ever-after thinking. Thinking that when you get to a particular point, you’re going to be happy from then on because everything will be perfect. I get trapped in this kind of thinking all the time. But I’m learning to change. I think it’s much better to think of the types of things you enjoy, and how those can be used to solve a problem or to give value to others.

Do you enjoy being inside or outside?

Do you like to bring order or make a creative mess?

Are you the ‘sit quietly and read and write’ type like me, or do you like to be active?

Do you fill your battery by being with others or by being alone?

The more you understand these things about yourself, the more you can look for a job or activity where you can give value to others and also be fulfilled yourself.

I really love to encourage people to find these things that suit them and do them to the best of their ability. It took me 40+ years to find out what suited me. I had several false starts. But I couldn’t be happier now.

My sister also has walked this path. She knew she wanted to be a musician, but what sort of musician? She tried classical and jazz performance, she tried music teaching, she tried working in administration (another of her gifts), and then she found film composition. That is her happy place, working in film in all sorts of ways. Composing, orchestrating, going and doing all the recording in the studios. One film she worked on recently (supporting the composer), Minari, was nominated for an Oscar. 

Once again, it took her a while to find her thing, but now she’s found it she’s unstoppable.

Nothing we do is wasted. I’m grateful for all my experiences on the way through. They have built me into what I am today. But I’m more than grateful for the ability now to work in a way that I love on projects that I enjoy.

I can’t encourage you enough to find activities where you enjoy the process. Not just the pay cheque, but the work you need to do to get the cheque. Enjoy hitting the ball. Whether it’s for money or just for love. It’s life changing.

Fun! (And how I forget to have it)

A woman dancing to music from her phone
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Last year, I read a book called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. It was more than a book, it was more like a self-paced course to help blocked creatives become creative again. I didn’t know that before I started, I just read it because it had been suggested by so many people in podcasts and blogs. It was a worthwhile experience.

It’s full of activities and prompts to help you dig into your own creativity and to find joy and to make time to explore and make and do. 

One of the activities, fairly early on, was to write a list of 20 things that you enjoy doing.

Now, I wasn’t in the best of places at the end of last year. I don’t really think anybody was. I was not in crisis yet, but I was well on the way. 

I found it really hard to write a list of 20 things I enjoyed doing. 

And maybe a week or so after I wrote the list I thought, ‘Hang on. I enjoy dancing. Dancing is a big part of who I am. Why isn’t dancing on that list?’ 

I had lost touch with myself. I had lost touch with the part of myself that had fun.

Playing and having fun is a big part of being human. It’s an important part of mental health. 

And it’s a very easy thing to squeeze out of our lives.

I am a Type A personality. I admit it. I love lists. I love structure. I love to Get Things Done. But I can get so involved in looking at the jobs that need doing and crossing them off that I forget to enjoy life on the way through.

I like things to have purpose. And that’s good. But some things should be done for no purpose. Just for the joy of it. Not to monetise, not to add to your body of work, not to be part of your business. But just for fun.

My father-in-law has started a new project. He’s fulfilling a life-long ambition to make a model train set. In their back room he has a table on wheels and on that table is a train track that goes around and around, and he’s sculpted some hills and some rivers, and used 3D printing to make houses and train stations and people and so on. Last weekend, to celebrate his 70th birthday, all the boys in the family went to his place and worked on the train set. They wired in lights, used Arduino technology to make them come on in interesting ways. They worked on the train whistle. 

Now, I looked at the train set and my whole self went, ‘But why?’ What is the point of this? You can’t even make a story out of it. It just goes around and around.

But that is the point. That is the whole point. This project is play. It’s deep play and it’s great.

Moz is teaching himself to play piano. I enjoy listening to him play through worship songs, or some Elton John or Annie Lennox. He plays just for the fun of it. He doesn’t want to be part of a worship team or a band that plays gigs every week. He just enjoys playing. I love that. I need to put more of that in my life. I think all of us need to have these fun things in our lives.

I’m not good at play. Mostly I just look at all the things that need to be done, and try to do them. Try to get the whole list crossed off before the week ticks over and I have to do it all again.

Or if I do enjoy something, like writing, then I write whole novels and sell them and try to make a living doing that. 

I’m trying to change though. Now I put on funky music and dance in the kitchen, just for fun. I have an adult colouring book to work my way through and I’m trying not to stress too much when I colour outside the lines. I play card games with people and try not to mind when I lose. I mess around on the bass guitar, not for any reason, just to enjoy the music. I meet with friends for coffee and laughter and fun conversation.

Fun reminds me that I don’t have to ‘do’ all the time, that it’s OK sometimes just to ‘be’. That I am valuable for who I am, not just what I produce.

It’s so easy to lose this part of ourselves, but life with out light and laughter is no life at all. In all our organising and bringing order to our lives, let’s not forget to leave room for a little bit of fun every now and then. Make time to do the things you enjoy, just for the sake of enjoyment.

What do you enjoy doing? What do you do to bring fun into your life?

Decision Fatigue

A pair of feet stand at five arrows all pointing in different directions
There are so many choices

I don’t know if it’s because I’m officially a ‘highly sensitive person’ (according to the book Quiet by Susan Cain) or that I’m an introvert, or what, but I seem to need a lot less stimulation than other people. I know that if I let it go too far, then I risk depression, but generally I am a happy person when my life is filled with routine and order and when I don’t have to deal with many changes.

One of the places where this shows up is at breakfast time.

You see, I eat the same breakfast nearly every morning. I soak oats in milk overnight, I add some stewed pears and some Greek yogurt and I’m good. It’s delicious, nutritious, and filling. 

Moz, on the other hand, could not bear the thought of eating the same thing every single day. He doesn’t much mind what he eats as long as there’s some variety. Some mornings toast, sometimes an omelet, sometimes cereal, sometimes fruit and yogurt. Variety.

The thing is, I try to limit the decisions in my life as much as possible, because in my line of work I need to make decisions every day. Many decisions. 

If I’m writing a novel, I need to decide what the characters are doing. How they feel. What arguments they have. What the threat is. And so on. And at the moment I am making decisions about a whole world. What does it look like? What’s the currency? What kind of activities are available?

If I’m editing, I need to decide on the right word, the right turn of phrase, the exact place to put a comma. 

And because I work for myself, and my time is my own, I have to decide what to do with it.

I don’t need to be bothered with deciding which breakfast cereal to eat in addition to all the other decisions I make.

I asked google how many decisions the average person makes in a day and the answers ranged from 70 to 35,000. I guess if you look at the very detailed and subconscious choices you make, e.g. whether to start walking with your left foot or your right, the answer could come to 35,000 (one choice every two waking seconds of the day). But in terms of the choices that contribute to decision fatigue, I’m going to go with Sheena lyengar’s research that estimates that we make about 70 decisions daily. 

Our ability to make decisions decreases with the number of decisions we make. And once we run out of oomph we are inclined to make mistakes, like procrastination, or impulse buying. You know this if you’ve ever gone to the grocery store at the end of a long day. 

One way to limit decision fatigue is by limiting decisions. Here’s a few ways you can do that easily in your daily life:

  • You can limit the clothes that you wear. Steve Jobs apparently wore the same clothes every day (not the exact same clothes, we assume, but different sets of the same colour and style of clothing) so that he didn’t have to think what to wear.
  • I’m not as extreme as Steve Jobs, but I try to wear shirts and trousers or jeans that are grey, black or navy and then add a colourful jumper or scarf. And (don’t tell anyone) I often wear the same outfit twice in a row. I have specific outfits for when I’m leading church or giving a talk. I know that they look good, so I don’t mess with them. I don’t try to choose what to wear every time. I just put the suit on, and get the thing done.
  • You already know that I limit choice in what I eat. I haven’t gone all the way to a weekly meal plan yet, but some people swear by them as ways to help with the choices when shopping and when cooking the evening meal. For a while we invested in one of those meal plans where a box of groceries and a couple of recipes get delivered to your house each week. That got us through some tough times and meant we ate a lot less takeaway food. We only had to decide each week between the two delivered recipes (though even that choice was too hard sometimes).
  • One of the stories in Sandra Felton’s The Messies Manual is about a woman who struggled to choose what to eat at a restaurant. She made it easier for herself by deciding to limit her choice each time. One time she would have a fish dish, the next, poultry, the next red meat. That way, she didn’t have to choose from the list of every dish on the menu, but only two or three dishes.
  • You can limit decisions by having a schedule or routine. You might not be able to schedule your whole day like I can, but you can have a morning routine that you just do automatically. And you may be able to schedule things like exercise or grocery shopping.

I’ll show you what I mean by this by explaining how I schedule my gym visits. At the moment I am trying to get to the gym to do 30 minutes of vigorous exercise six days a week. But if I didn’t schedule it, I’m sure I wouldn’t feel ‘in the mood’ most days and I wouldn’t get it done. It would be a decision I would struggle with. 

So I go with a routine:

  • On Mondays my exercise is a lunchtime thing. I head to the gym at around 1pm.
  • Tuesdays I go on my way back home from my writing group, Creative Space. I put my gym clothes in the car so I don’t have to go home to get changed. If I did go home I would struggle to get back out the door to go to the gym.
  • Wednesdays I go first thing: breakfast, put on gym clothes, exercise.
  • Thursdays I go and write my novel at a cafe first thing, then gym on the way home, clothes packed as on Tuesdays.
  • On Fridays the gym comes after my coffee visit with my Mum. That visit generally falls at about lunch time so I pack a muesli bar as well so that I can’t talk myself out of going if I’m hungry.
  • Saturdays and Sundays are a bit more fluid, but I will try to go first thing on a Saturday and I go after church on Sundays, especially if I’m leading.

I still don’t make it to the gym every single day, but you can see how I’m making it easy for myself by scheduling, linking the gym with other activities, and packing what I need so that I get rid of excuses. This is a schedule for an ideal week, and no week is ideal. But if I didn’t have this picture of what I’m aiming for then I think I’d be hitting nothing most days and not exercising at all. Without the schedule, each day I would have to decide, ‘do I want to go to the gym?’ And the chances of the answer to that being ‘yes’ are much smaller if I’m deciding afresh every time.

If you’re struggling with decision fatigue, or finding it hard to make the myriad choices that are required to get through the day, then I encourage a little bit of planning. See if you can cut down the choices you have to make by meal planning or just deciding to limit your breakfast to one type of food. And work on a schedule for the activities where you need willpower. 

Why other areas can you see that you can pre-decide? Do you have a special way of dealing with those ‘extra willpower needed’ activities? Do you like a daily schedule or are you a more spontaneous person?

How and why to sleep well

I’m not an ‘early bird’ or a ‘night owl’. I’m more some kind of ‘permanently exhausted pigeon’.

From https://www.gemmacorrell.com/

No, that’s not quite the truth, it’s just a quote from Gemma Correll’s brilliant comic that I like. I’m more of an early bird these days. But I do seem to need more sleep than your average bear.

Sleep is so very important. I’ve been reading the book Rest by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang and I’ve learned a bit about what sleep can do for you:

  • It helps your body to grow
  • It helps your body to fight infection
  • It helps your body to repair wounds and scratches
  • It is a time when myelin is generated (a substance that helps your body to send nerve signals and is damaged in MS)
  • It is a time when your brain washes out toxins
  • It is a time when brain injuries are repaired

Lack of sleep is associated with increased risk of ulcers, heart disease, breast cancer, diabetes, dementia, and cognitive decline.

Sleep is a time when your brain solidifies its memories. Visual, emotional and procedural memories are solidified during rapid eye movement sleep, and verbal memories during slow wave sleep.

And while we sleep, our subconscious mind works on problems from the day, which can lead to moments of insight. We can wake up and find that our problems are solved!

When we are busy or trying to be productive, it can be tempting to cut into our sleep time. To think of sleep as unproductive, wasted time.

‘No sleep is going to be lost time’ says Pang. And when I look at the list of things that sleep helps with, I have to agree.

Sleep occurs in cycles that are 90 – 110 minutes long. If you get woken in the middle of a sleep cycle you feel groggy and horrible. But waking at the end of a cycle makes you feel more refreshed.

You can plan for this by looking at the time you wake up and counting back in 90 minute blocks to find the best time for you to go to bed. For example, if you need to wake up at 6 am then going to bed at 10.30 pm will get you five full cycles (if my maths is correct) and 7.5 hours sleep. 

I need more like 9 hours sleep myself, but my husband Moz is fully loaded at 7.5 hours. A while back, he would do his best to head to bed at 10.30 pm in an attempt to get all his cycles in before the alarm went off in the morning.

There was a problem with this calculation though. The thing was that in order to get all the sleep he needed, he had to drop off to sleep as soon as his head hit the pillow. He came to bed needing to fall asleep straight away. And that kind of stress is not very sleep-inducing.

Now, he’s fixed that by heading to bed a little earlier. He’ll be reading in bed at around 9.30 or 10 pm and turning the light off shortly thereafter. That means that often his sleep cycles finish early in the morning. He often wakes quite relaxed and refreshed at 5am. But that’s ok. He just gets up and goes to his study (leaving me still peacefully snoring) and plays on the computer or peruses the internet until it’s time to get going for the day. The activities he used to do at night he now does earlier in the morning. And he’s a lot less stressed, but he’s still getting the sleep that he needs.

There are even smart watches that keep track of your sleep cycles. You can tell them the time that you need to be awake and they will use a vibrating alarm to wake you at a time near to that where you are in a good place in your sleep cycle and less likely to be groggy. No more waking out of deep sleep to the insistent buzzing of an alarm.

Even naps are helpful. Did you know that Winston Churchill took afternoon naps all the way through World War II? Even a five minute nap apparently helps your memory work better. A 30 minute nap helps renew your depleted energy (I took one of those right before writing this) and a longer nap can cut your day in two so that you can work longer into the evening. 

I know that some people who nap for longer wake up feeling disoriented and groggy, so I prefer a nice 30 minute nap. Enough to restore energy, but not too deep into the sleep cycle.

I want to finish with a few tips for getting yourself a good night’s sleep. 

Turn off your screens an hour or so before going to bed. The blue light from screens keeps you awake and the dopamine hits from social media or the adrenaline from playing games or watching TV dramas are not going to help with the calming down either. A book is a great alternative.

Keep your screens and your work out of the bedroom. Use the bedroom for sleeping. Keep your work life elsewhere in the house so you’re not drawn to worrying about it at night.

If worrying about things keeps you awake, choose a time of day when you will worry, either a few hours before bed, or first thing in the morning. Dedicate that time to worrying and write down your worries. Then give them to God (I put them in a shoebox that is God’s inbox). When worries wake you at night, you can tell yourself that you will worry about that in your ‘worry time’ and go back to sleep. (It sounds strange, but it works for me.)

Make sure you do some exercise, again, earlier in the day and not immediately before you’re going to jump into bed and turn your light out. And make sure you don’t drink caffeine late in the day either. Most people stop drinking caffeinated drinks after lunch so that the caffeine has a bit of a chance to leave their systems.

A warm, milky drink before bed and a cool room should be a good combination that will lead to a peaceful and restful night’s sleep.

I am still working on my sleep habits. But I know it’s worth working on and getting right. Sleep is not wasted time, it is incredibly important for both mental and physical health. I hope you can prioritise your sleep and be energised and ready to face each new day.

PS here are a few websites you might also find helpful 🙂

https://www.healthline.com/health/sleep/sleep-calculator#not-enough-sleep

https://startsleeping.org/sleep-calculator/

https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/sleep-hygiene#general-suggestions

My Life Changing Moment

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

I used to be a messy, disorganised, cluttered person. I didn’t enjoy it, but I didn’t know how to be anything else. I didn’t know why I was how I was. I didn’t know how to change.

I remember vividly one morning looking at the house and how disgusted I was by it. I couldn’t face the dishes in the kitchen from the night before. I couldn’t face the breakfast dishes that had joined them. I couldn’t face the toys the kids had left all over the floor, or the clothes that were waiting to be washed, and taken off the line, and folded out of the basket. I couldn’t face any of it. It was disgusting. 

I want to make clear here that I was disgusted by my house for myself, not because of what anyone else would think. I did not like living like this.

The mess made me feel angry and confused and weary. The piles everywhere messed with my brain. I was tired from trying to remember where everything was. I was weary from the never-ending cycle of attempting to clean it up, then feeling so tired that I let it get messy again.

That morning, I couldn’t face any of it. I ran away. I crossed the street and had a coffee with my friend and let our kids play together. I knew I was just procrastinating, but that’s what I decided to do. 

And that’s the morning that Moz did something that I had wanted him to do for a while. He brought a mate from work over to have a cuppa. They were doing some electrical wiring in the vicinity so they dropped in to say hello and to have a drink. 

I wasn’t there. They didn’t get to see me or have a nice conversation. What they got to see was my super-messy disgusting house. And Moz never tried that again.

I felt terrible. I really did. But I didn’t know how to change.

Then one night I listened to Focus on the Family on Ultra106.5. That night a lady called Sandra Felton introduced her book, ‘The Messies Manual’. She talked about the underlying reasons we live with mess, with a cluttered house, the reasons we procrastinate. She spoke to something deep inside me. I bought her book and I have never looked back. I now have several copies of her book that I lend out to friends who share with me their problems with keeping a tidy house. 

I know that Felton is not the only one giving this kind of advice. There are so many books, blogs, podcasts and courses helping those of us who need organisational help. But I want to publicly thank her for what she did in my life. I am so grateful for the clean house and the clear head and, yes, the headspace for my writing that I don’t think I’d have without her advice.

Sandra Felton shares so much wisdom, but today I will just share the major idea that helped me the most: Her decluttering method.

Sandra calls this the Mt Vernon Method. You start somewhere, say inside the front door at the hall table. You have three boxes: a box for the things you will give away, one for things to throw away, and one for things that belong somewhere else. As you look at every surface, and open every draw and every cupboard, you look at each item and put it in one of those three boxes. And you put back in the drawer the things that belong in the drawer and those things only. And no keeping things ‘just in case’. (She does say that you can have an extra box for those things you can’t decide about. When that box is full, you store it for a predetermined amount of time and then look through it and make the decisions then.)

This is a marathon, not a sprint. As you can, you attack the next space in the house. When you have to stop for the day, you stop. But you just keep going, until over time you declutter your whole house.

I had kept far too much stuff in our house. We had moved four times in a year, I hated the packing so I had left a lot of our goods packed up in boxes just in case we needed them again. I was also keeping every little bit of rubbish, sorry, I mean craft supplies that I thought could possibly be useful for children’s activities. Toilet rolls, cereal boxes, scraps of wool and so on. I was keeping a lot of memorabilia too, like all the letters my grade 10 boyfriend had written to me. It was all taking up space in a tiny house, spilling out onto benches and the floor. Taking up cupboard space so that things we actually needed could not have been put away even if we had wanted to.

I was hanging onto stuff to give me security. But stuff can’t do that. All it did was take away my peace. I needed to throw stuff out. I went through and ‘Mt Vernon-ed’ my house and suddenly our hall cupboard could be used for hanging up our coats, all our food could fit into our pantry, and all our clothes could be put away in our chests of drawers.

In my house now, I even have several drawers that are empty. Not all the drawers and shelves have to be full, you know. You don’t have to keep stuff just for the sake of it.

I am now in love with clear surfaces, with clean lines in a house. With ‘a place for everything, and everything in its place’. As I got organised and cleaned up I found that I enjoyed the experience. That I wanted more and more organisation. Not just of my stuff, but also of my time and my thoughts. 

There are other methods that might work better for you. Marie Kondo famously tells people to pull everything out (for example, make a pile of every piece of clothing you own) then only hang on to those things that ‘spark joy’. Dana, from A Slob Comes Clean, prefers a bit-by-bit process that starts with getting rid of the ‘trash’; the rubbish that is just sitting there in whichever room you are deciding to clean first. I think that’s a great starting point too.

It doesn’t matter much which method you use. If you find that you can never get on top of the cleaning in your house, maybe consider that you might have just a bit too much stuff, and get rid of some. For me it was the starting point of a new way of life.

Hearing Sandra Felton speak on the radio was the start of the Quiet Life journey and I’m so grateful to her and to God for sending her along at just the right time.

If you would like to hear me say a bit more about this, you can find my podcast at ruthamos.com.au and you can sign up there to receive this blog in newsletter form too, straight to your inbox.

How do you declutter your house? Have you come across any organisational tools that you’ve found particularly helpful? I’d love to hear about them.

Brain Buckets

Five Coloured Buckets in Rainbow Isolated on White Background.

When we talked about the big brain dump list, we talked about how our brains cannot hold all the things we would like them to hold. How if we are keeping everything in our heads, there is a big chance that some of the things will fall out.

And, when it comes down to it, do you want to use your brain for keeping track of things? Or do you want to use it for thinking?

I often thought, when I had small children, that some of the reason for the ‘baby brain’ – the clouded mind, the inability to think – was that I was keeping track of everything using only my brain. I had trouble thinking through a complicated idea, but if someone asked me where the socks with the pink stripe were, or what had happened to my son’s sunhat, or whether there was milk in the fridge, I could answer those questions straight away.

But I don’t want to use my brain’s powers for keeping track of the dirty laundry and remembering that we need to buy milk and that Moz is on the roster at church on Sunday. That is not a good use of my brain. I want to use my brain to write novels and blog posts, to edit complicated scientific papers, and to daydream.

So what to do?

It’s quite simple, really. Use tools to keep track of things and use my brain for thinking.

But the trick is to use the proper tools. There’s no use writing the grocery list on the back of an envelope, and the roster on the church newsletter. Then your brain has to keep track of where the envelope and the church newsletter is, and also it spends time wondering whether that particular scrap of paper has been thrown out by mistake when it has a VERY IMPORTANT thing written in the corner that you MUST NOT forget. 

And tying a knot in your handkerchief, no matter how bad your sinuses are, is also not very effective. 

So the tools we use must be effective, efficient, and limited.

Decide what you are going to use and use those tools at all times. Don’t get caught in the trap of using too many tools and then having to look between them all the time to find the thing. Choose some tools and go with them.

Here’s how I am doing it right now.

Groceries are written on a pad on the fridge. When I use something up, I write it on the pad. I have also trained the members of my household to do this, and they do it most of the time. If they don’t, I don’t take any responsibility for it. If it’s not written on the grocery pad, then they will need to go get it themselves.

My general list of things to do is on the Actions app (from Moleskine) on my phone. So no matter where I am, if I start to think, ‘I should put the rubbish out’ or ‘go to the bank’ or ‘fold the washing’ I put that on my phone. If it’s important and time limited I can add an alarm to remind me. But because I know that the jobs are there on the phone, I usually just look at what needs to be done. The app I use can set certain days to do certain tasks and can also make some tasks repeating tasks. It’s all very handy.

I write out my work to-do list on my paper diary on my work desk. That helps me to limit the list of things I’m trying to do in a work day. And it helps me to plan the day too.  

But those two lists are not my brain dump list, of course. For the brain dump I use Evernote. And I also use Evernote for any thoughts about projects – like book ideas, blog post ideas, or even larger household projects. And Evernote is great because you can put websites in it too. I also keep my ‘books to read’ list in Evernote. The only issue with Evernote is that it can become a ‘write-only’ piece of software. You can put heaps in it that you never look at again. So be wary of only adding information that you will want to look at later.

Another thing I keep in Evernote is a packing list. When we go anywhere to stay the night I can easily pack for the occasion because everything I usually pack is written in the list. So I feel confident that I’m not going to forget my chargers or my decaf coffee, they are on my list and they will be remembered.

I have a small notebook that I keep by my bed. I use that for those pesky thoughts that come just as you get comfortable. ‘You must remember to ring your mother tomorrow’ for example. I write it down in the notebook and then transfer it to my phone the next day. (No, my phone does not live next to my bed and I hope it never will.)

I also have a small notebook in my handbag, but I tend to use my phone instead these days rather than pen and paper.

And finally, I use google calendar for keeping track of my appointments. I love that I can add things on my phone or on my computer. And if I want Moz to know about them I can put them in the calendar we share so that we both know. It’s kept on the cloud so I’m not going to lose the dates even if my phone or computer dies.

Those are the things I use to remember things, to keep track of things, and to store my thoughts so that my brain is clearer and I can use it for thinking. 

So remember, keep it simple and limit the number of brain buckets, but make sure you write it down.

My novels can be found at rjamos.com and you can drop me a line @ RuthAmosAuthor on Facebook, @aquietlifeblog on Twitter, or email me at ruth@ruthamos.com.au

A Daily List

Previously on this blog I talked about ‘The Everything List’ – the big brain-dump list of everything, the list that you use to clear your brain and to keep track of all the different jobs that you need to do. That is a really important list to use to get life organised, but it is not a list that you can work off on a daily basis.

If you just use the one big list, you run into a couple of problems pretty quickly:

1) You can jump from thing to thing on the list, never quite finishing anything and never getting focused work done, and

2) You end up feeling like you never achieve anything because the list never gets any smaller. 

This means you never feel productive, never get that nice feeling of being finished, never feel satisfied that you’ve done a good day’s work, and that leads to procrastination.

There is a solution: use a daily list.

The list for the day should be small. It should contain only the number of things that you can realistically achieve in that day. At first, that might be hard to judge, but as you go on you’ll start to see how much you can do and limit your list to those things.

For example, it took me a while, but I realised that editing 5,000 words takes me about two hours. I used to hope that I could squeeze it into an hour or so, and add more to the day. But now I know that if I get a 5,000 word editing job, I need two hours to do it. And so I set that time aside. I don’t try to do more than I can in the number of hours I have.

To keep the list small, it’s helpful to write it in a small place. You could use a Post-it note or an index card. I use a paper diary that has a week to a page, so each day has a small section of about 2 cm by 5 cm. The diary has the hours of the day on it too, so if I need to block out two or three hours for a job or activity I can do that and limit the amount that I can add to the rest of the day. Just having the limited space to write the list on keeps me aware that my time is limited too.

With this small space to write your daily list, you then turn to your master list. Look down that list and figure out what you are going to attempt to do today. What does today hold? As your eyes run down the master list, some things will catch your attention, maybe because they are urgent, or maybe because you have a desire to do them today. Both these attitudes are good – in fact, it’s a good idea to have a mix of things you have to do and things you want to do on your list if you can possibly achieve that. And don’t forget all the regular things too – checking email, washing clothes, all those repeating tasks. You need to set aside time to do those too. 

But only as much as you can fit into a day.

And what if a new job appears through the day? Because you’re almost guaranteed that something’s going to show up. You’ll have a request pop into your email in-box. You’ll get a phone call. Someone will knock on your door. 

Well, the thing is, your day is full. The new job either goes on the master list, or it goes on tomorrow’s list. But you don’t just try to squeeze it into today. Today is booked already. You have a complete list today.

If the job is extremely urgent, then you can bump one of today’s jobs onto tomorrow. But I don’t recommend that. If at all possible, tell the asker that your day is full today, but you can do the job tomorrow. You’ll be surprised at how often they will accept your explanation and put off the deadline.

Wouldn’t it be nice if time was unlimited? If you could squeeze more and more in to a day? But it’s not the case. Time and energy are limited commodities and we need to act as if they are. We need to take control of our day and use our time to serve us and to enable us to do the work that we have chosen to do.

Annie Dillard said, ‘How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.’ 

Let’s use our daily lists to make sure that how we spend our days gives us the opportunity to give to the world the gift that only we can give.

Do you have another way to organise your day? Do you use pen and paper, or an app on your phone? How do you make sure you don’t try to squeeze too much into a day?

Focus

Our culture seems to be a little addicted to overwork. I mean, working hard, putting effort in, getting heaps done. That’s all good, isn’t it? That’s valuable. That makes us feel like productive members of society.

We can tell ourselves that we are working and that it’s all goodness and duty, but maybe sometimes we are working long hours to avoid our families, or our feelings, or ourselves.

And just because we are putting long hours in, doesn’t necessarily mean we are getting heaps done.

Moz remembers a time when he was doing a night shift. He and his boss worked until around 3am when they realised that their productivity and efficiency had gone right down. They chose to take a nap for a couple of hours and then get back on with it. They finished up at around 7am.

If they had worked through, they probably would have still finished at around 7am. The nap gave them the boost of energy they needed to work efficiently for the rest of the night.

In a similar way, the other week my pastor took a mental health day. He works six days a week and after a while he got a bit tired. (Fair enough!) By taking a mental health day he could come back to work refreshed and get more done, more efficiently. 

But I hope you notice that there’s a word that keeps coming up in this discussion, and that’s ‘efficient’.

A business in the UK (Voucher Cloud) surveyed 1989 workers and asked them how many hours they would actually work in an 8-hour day. The answer averaged out at just under 3 hours a day. What did they do for the rest of the work day? They read the news, chatted, made snacks and hot drinks, made phone calls, and even applied for new jobs! 

By working efficiently and effectively, you can get more done in less time and free up time to do what you love.

There are several tricks that you can use to get this efficiency and sense of focus.

Firstly, it is a good idea to figure out what you are working on right now. Make a list, prioritise, and then focus on the job that is the top of the list. If you’re jumping from job to job, you’re not going to make a dent in any of the tasks you need to achieve. Find one task, focus on that one, and get it done.

You can trick your brain into getting into work quickly by using separate spaces for different activities.

If your brain knows that this is a ‘work space’ then it will get into work mode much more easily. 

Caleb (my son) worked this out during the COVID year when he had to do his university studies from home. He had a desk and a desktop computer where he could have listened to lectures and worked on his assignments. The problem was, that desk was where he played his computer games. So when he tried to work at that desk, his brain told him that it was a gaming space. He did much better when he worked on his university assignments at the dining table, and relaxed by playing computer games at his desk.

As I do all my work from home, I need to do the same thing. I have a desk, an office space that I use for editing work and administration. When I want to write my novel or work on something creative I often move to the dining table, or even take my laptop to a café so that I can be in a different frame of mind. To relax, I head up to the lounge room. But I try not to do any work sitting on the couch. That is my relaxation space.

Another way to keep focus is to get rid of interruptions or distractions.

I used to keep Facebook and Twitter open on my desk top so that I could look at it for a ‘break’ through my work day. But I realised just how much I was being derailed by that, so now I usually peruse the socials on my phone in my relaxation place, rather than on my computer in my admin place.

And when I really REALLY need to focus I bring in another technique. This is the Pomodoro technique. Named after a tomato-shaped kitchen timer. Remember those?

I set the timer on my phone for 25 minutes. During that time I am completely focused. I do nothing else. No phone calls, no socials, no email. The job is the thing. I do the job. Then, the timer goes off and I give myself a five minute break. I walk around. I stretch. Then it’s back for another 25 minute work session and so on until I get the job done.

Studies show that it takes 5-10 minutes to refocus after an interruption. That is why it is so important to keep your phone on silent and your socials closed, and even to turn your email off while you focus on a task. 

Speaking of email, the best way that I have heard to deal with that constant interrupter is to only check your email three times a day and to deal with it as you check it. Schedule it in, like a meeting. That way it doesn’t derail your other good and focused work.

I don’t have a problem with good productive work. But I do have a problem if it takes over your whole life and leaves you no time for anything else. And one way that I see that happening is if you half-work when you should be focusing. It means your work drags out, doesn’t get done, comes home in the evening, takes over your weekend.

Instead, try setting a timer and really focusing on your work. That way, when you get it done you can really relax, have some fun, be creative, play, with no guilt at all.

What do you use to help you focus?