Clear priorities -> Flexibility

Nothing requires flexibility like an ill child. I may have a great plan laid out for my day, and yet if William gets ill, I immediately switch it all around.

This used to really bother me, and while I don’t love changing all my plans around, I don’t find it as disruptive anymore. First of all, I’ve become used to the fact that William gets ill once in a while. I can’t predict when it’s going to happen, but I can be sure that it will happen at some point. By now I know what I need to do in response to different symptoms and situations, and if I’m not sure what to do, I know where to find help.

So, in a sense, while I don’t know when he’ll get ill and what I’ll need to do exactly, I know we’ll be able to handle it and we’ll figure out what to do. This allows me not to worry in advance about his getting ill.

What happens to my schedule?

This is where it’s really important to talk about priorities and not a set schedule. Sure, a set schedule is useful under ideal circumstances, and I use it on many occasions. But when the day’s planning needs to be adapted, it’s not as simple as throwing out the schedule.

Instead, I look at what really needs to get done today, what would be nice to get done today, and what can wait until another day. Having identified my priorities ahead of time, I’m ready to move things around in order to fit in the most important things. I don’t waste time figuring out what needs to get done, only to worry that I might be forgetting something crucial.

An example from this week

This past week, William got ill on Tuesday evening and had to stay home on Wednesday when he’s usually in daycare. Jacob works with patients on Wednesday afternoon, meaning he’s not available then. Therefore, we split it up, so that Jacob took care of William in the morning and I worked during that time, while I took care of William in the afternoon and Jacob saw patients then.

Okay, so I had the morning (about three hours) of uninterrupted time. I looked over the tasks for the day (arranged in sequence as they’d usually happen throughout the day):

  • Prepare slides for presentation
  • Practice presentation
  • Email and admin
  • Exercise
  • Cook chicken
  • Cook cauliflower
  • Walk

The first two tasks were certainly the most demanding in terms of concentration, and they were time-sensitive (I was giving that presentation the following week). So I spent about 2.25 hours preparing my presentation and practicing it. If I’d had the whole day as I had planned, I’d have worked on it for longer, but given the situation, this was good. After that, I quickly changed into my sports clothes and exercised for 30 minutes. It wasn’t ideal because I would have preferred to exercise for 45-60 minutes, but it was better than nothing. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Then, I took over caring for William. We had lunch, and then I put him down for a nap. (To be honest, I took a brief nap with him.) Afterwards, I tackled email and admin tasks: they required some concentration, but they were much easier to do than preparing my presentation.

I got through most of the admin tasks when I heard William calling me. He usually naps for 1.5-2 hours, but this time it had only been 50 minutes. No surprises, when he’s ill, he tends to wake more. I went and cuddled him, trying to help him get back to sleep. This sometimes works and sometimes it doesn’t; today it didn’t work. William wanted to get up, so we got up. I left a couple of admin tasks for tomorrow–not my favorite thing to do, but it happens, oh well.

Now, the question became how to cook given that William only wanted to cuddle. I pulled up a chair for him in the kitchen with me and let him watch. I had an elaborate recipe planned for the chicken, but instead I went for a very simple one. We’ll still get to eat, and that’s what matters now. I also cooked the cauliflower mash, which fortunately is rather simple and one of William’s favorites to observe since it involves using the handheld mixer.

Next up on my list was going for a walk, which I usually combine with picking up William from daycare. Since I obviously wasn’t picking him up today, this was a difficult one. Also, he had a fever and it was quite cold outside, so I didn’t feel like taking him out in the stroller. I decided to skip the walk today; not everything can get done, and that’s okay. I already got some movement in in the form of exercise, so that’s good.

We had about an hour left before dinner, and William and I played together. He didn’t have a lot of energy, so we did quiet activities such as reading books (so many books about tractors), drawing (so many trains), and building puzzles (with both tractors and trains!). We don’t usually have a whole hour to play, so I enjoyed this. Extra William time!

After this, William and I had dinner and went through the bedtime routine, after which he fell asleep. He was in bed one hour earlier than usual–he was so tired from being ill. This meant I had an extra hour to myself! Jacob came home from work (tonight was a late evening for him), and we spent some time together. We went to bed a little bit early because who knows what the night ahead will bring! An ill child is certainly unpredictable, and we wanted to be ready to respond if necessary.

Flexibility with priorities

I was able to adapt my planning for the day because I knew clearly what my priorities were. I also knew where I could get some uninterrupted time (e.g., while Jacob was taking care of William), some semi-productive time (e.g., cooking with William next to me), and some time that had to be dedicated to him (e.g., extra cuddles, dinner, play).

Note that this day turned out pretty well given that we had an ill child at home. Sometimes, this isn’t possible if the child is very ill or if you don’t have another caretaker at home. That has been the case for us as well sometimes, and it just is what it is. Fortunately, it passes–everything is a phase, right? If you’re in that phase right now, I feel for you, and I’m sure I’ll be there at some point again.

Not every day can be made moderately productive, but the point is that we can have awareness of our priorities, opportunities, and possibilities, so we can make use of an opportunity when it comes our way.

My caffeine-free experiment

I’ve been caffeine-free for 28 days today. Crazy, I know.

How it started

Many people who know me are aware of the fact that I don’t drink coffee. I looove coffee, don’t get me wrong, but it makes me jittery and anxious. I realized this years ago, stopped drinking coffee, and immediately felt more at ease.

Now, I’ve been a fan of green tea for a long time. I was having one tea in the morning and one tea in the afternoon, and I loved the energy they gave me. It made me excited about the activity at hand, but also I easily became nervous if a mildly stressful event occurred. I noticed that green tea made me more excited, but it also made me more anxious.

For a long time, the trade off was worth it. I was working on my PhD thesis, analyzing data or writing papers, both tasks which require perseverance and concentration. My green tea helped me in that regard. (Note on black tea: I looooooove black tea, but since its effect is stronger, it quickly became too much for me, so I had to limit it.)

Things weren’t so great anymore

For years, I’d had about one headache per week, but I could easily get rid of it if I took a painkiller. (I really needed that painkiller because the headache was so strong that I couldn’t function anymore, and it wouldn’t go away even after a full night’s sleep.) I just thought, “Well, I guess I’m prone to headaches,” and left it at that.

Over time, my headaches became more frequent and more intense. During the last couple of months, I was having two or three headaches per week, and sometimes a painkiller (or even two) was not enough to ease the pain. I was becoming concerned. I’d heard that headaches may get worse with age, but I had hoped that wouldn’t be the case for me.

Also, as much as I didn’t want to admit it, I usually felt a light headache set in after I drank my tea. Sometimes it dissipated an hour or two later, but sometimes it lingered and intensified. I tried to ignore this fact as long as possible… until the side effects of the painkillers got too unpleasant (stomach pain and bloating) and the painkillers weren’t easing the headache anymore (which was super scary).

I’m not sure how this works exactly because caffeine is a pain reducer, so I’m not sure why I was getting headaches from drinking tea. One possibility is that the tea made me more tense, so I tensed my shoulders and neck, and that gave me tension headaches.

Beginning the caffeine-free experiment

The time had come. I really wanted to be pain-free, so it was worth it for me to try getting rid of my oh-so-favorite tea.

On one Saturday morning, on August 27, I simply did not drink tea. I drank water with electrolytes, and that was it. I missed my tea terribly. Same thing in the afternoon.

I have to say, I was a bit tired (my body was missing the effects of the caffeine), and I started getting a light headache before lunch. Then, I had lunch and took a little nap (10-15 minutes), and the headache was gone. I also developed a light headache towards bedtime, but sleeping alleviated it. (This was definitely not the case in the past! I’ve woken up multiple times because a headache was so bad I couldn’t sleep.) Clearly, I was experiencing withdrawal effects.

This continued for the next 5 days or so. I was more tired than usual, and I developed light headaches, but nothing like what I was used to. I didn’t need to take a single painkiller.

I was withdrawing from green tea, can you believe it! My teas were rather strong, to be honest, so perhaps it’s not that surprising. I made the transition period easier by sleeping enough (also taking a power nap in the afternoon) and drinking water with electrolytes. And just letting the time pass by.

The consequences

After those first five days, I felt I was quite adapted to being caffeine-free. My energy returned to its previous levels, and I felt perfectly fine without tea, something I considered impossible before.

Perhaps best of all, my headaches were gone. Gone!!! It’s been 28 days now, and I haven’t taken a single pain killer because I haven’t had to. I haven’t had a single headache! It’s truly unbelievable.

Also, an unexpected side effect is that I’m less anxious and more content. I realized that this low-level anxiety was making me more uneasy and critical. Once this critical voice subsided, I became more content. It’s a strange feeling, being content, I’m still getting used to it. In a way, it’s boring because it’s lower-energy. But at its core, it makes it easier to be at ease and just be.

What do I drink now?

To be honest, I am a bit annoyed that I can’t drink coffee or tea. I really, really like the taste of coffee and tea, so why can’t I drink them without getting headaches or becoming anxious, when most of the human population doesn’t seem to have any problems? It’s not fair!

And yet, it’s true that it’s not fair, but it’s useless to get stuck at that (as Dr Brooke says). Instead, I can focus on what works for me and enjoy my life.

I’ve discovered a new elixir of life: my cacao drink. I put a teaspoon of raw cacao powder in a cup of warm water, and I add several drops of a stevia-based sweetener. It’s absolutely delicious! (Let’s hope this one doesn’t end up having unpleasant side effects…)

How about caffeine-free coffee and tea? I’ve tried them both, but unfortunately both seem to give me light headaches, and the coffee makes me weirdly light-headed. I may try again in the future, but for now I won’t be drinking those.

Also, I’ve heard wonderful things about adaptogen mushroom elixirs (such as these), and I’d love to try them as well sometime. For now, I’m sticking to my cacao drink.

Finally, I drink lots of electrolyte water! Most of the time, I mix it myself by adding sodium chloride, potassium chloride, and magnesium malate in my water bottle. But once a day (usually in the afternoon), I drink an LMNT because they are so delicious and they make me feel amazing! (Watermelon is my favorite.)

Note: The links are purely for information purposes. I don’t make any money if you purchase anything via the links because they are not affiliate links 🙂

Image: Me showing off my favorite coffee/tea/cacao mug with a sheep!

Have you ever gone caffeine-free? If so, what was your experience?

My top three tools for when freaking out

Okay, so I’ve been freaking out a little bit lately.

My PhD defense is coming up in 4.5 weeks. It will be fine. No biggie.

And I started my business where I’d like to coach people on designing their lifestyle, setting priorities, and reaching their goals. Will it go well? No idea.

I’ve been looking forward to these events for years, but they’re scary nevertheless. I spent 8 years at the Donders (2 years for my master’s and 6 years for my PhD), so leaving the institute marks a big transition. Change is exciting and stressful, both at the same time.

My #1 tool

I’ve discovered that the best way to calm myself is by putting things in perspective. It works like a charm, but the key is to really see things in perspective, to really feel it.

I ask myself, “What is my #1 priority?”

Answer: “My family.”

Follow-up question: “Are we all okay right now? Are we all healthy? Is any of us in danger?”

Answer: “Actually, we’re all fine.”

Conclusion: “The most important thing is there. The rest will be fine.”

We’ve been in and out of hospitals during the last year, and we’ve lost several close friends and family members. Life puts things in perspective like nothing else.

This is the most powerful tool for me, but unfortunately, you can’t hack it. I’ve tried to use it in the past, and I just didn’t feel it. I thought, “Yeah, yeah, we’re fine, big deal. I’m still stressed!” But recently, something shifted. I guess it’s gratitude for things being just normal.

My #2 tool

This tool is super simple. It has to do with the present moment.

I’m standing in my kitchen, freaking out about my defense. I ask myself, “Right now, in this moment, am I okay?”

Answer: “Well, yeah, the defense is 4.5 weeks away, so I’m actually okay right now. I don’t have to defend my thesis right now.”

This works in most situations. Even when I’m on the podium during the defense, I can ask myself, “Am I okay right now?”

Most likely the answer will be: “Well, yeah, right now, I’m answering a question kind of alright, so I guess I’m okay.”

Most of the time, our fear is about the future, but in fact in this current moment, we are okay.

My #3 tool

This tool recognizes that there are different parts of me and that I have different, sometimes conflicting, feelings.

For instance, one part of me is scared, and another part of me is excited.

One part of me doubts whether I’ll make it (e.g., the defense, the business, being a good mom, etc.), and another part of me knows it will be fine somehow.

Both parts of me are there. Both things are true.

I find this super calming for some reason. The fear is not any more true than the excitement or the joy. Both are true. (Btw I got this idea from Dr. Becky Kennedy.)

What are your favorite tools for when you’re freaking out, stressed, or anxious? I’d love to hear!

How I Completed My PhD Thesis

I just received my books from the printer–my PhD thesis printed as a book! It’s truly an astounding moment. I can leaf through this book and know that I wrote every page of it… crazy.

It was certainly a journey of perseverance that got me here, and I’d like to share the main steps along my writing path.

My PhD thesis describes my empirical research in neuroscience, which includes reading papers, coming up with a research idea, creating the research design, getting feedback, carrying out the experiment (collecting data), analyzing the data (lots of analyzing…), getting feedback, writing a paper, presenting the results, and getting more feedback. (Do you see a pattern with all the feedback?)

What’s in a PhD thesis?

I started my PhD in October 2016, so I did research for five years before beginning to put together my PhD thesis, and fortunately I already had two published papers, which became chapters 2 and 3 of my book (you can find them here and here). I finished another experiment towards the end of 2021 and wrote that up to become chapter 4. (I’m glossing over this part a bit, but writing a chapter or a paper is a lot of work on its own. However, I’d like to focus on something else here…)

Then came the hard part: writing the introduction and discussion. The introduction became chapter 1 of my thesis, and in it I aimed to summarize the main theories in the field and explain how my research answers an important question. It’s a difficult part to write because it starts out very general and all-encompassing (e.g., what is visual perception), and yet it needs to become very specific (e.g., explaining how my experiments inform the field).

Break it down

I felt that writing the introduction was daunting. It felt like a big thing looming over my head. Could I do it? I decided to apply the approach I advocate to other people: break it down. Identify the small parts and focus on one at a time. A small part is much less daunting, and I felt like I could handle one small part to write.

I broke down the big introduction into paragraphs, and I tackled one paragraph at a time. In order to do this, I created a detailed outline, where one sentence indicated one paragraph. The text color was black, and as I completed a paragraph and moved on to the next, I changed the color of the completed paragraph to gray. Early in the writing process, my outline looked like this:

An excerpt from the outline of my introduction.

In the end when my introduction was complete, the whole outline was in gray. Ah, was that a gratifying sight! Then, I received feedback from my supervisor and edited the text, after which the introduction was DONE!

In the flow

It was time to write the discussion. This is the part where I bring my research findings together and integrate them with the rest of the field. Basically, I explain what my work has contributed to our knowledge and how it fits with the rest of the research. I approached this in the same way: I made a detailed outline where each sentence indicated a paragraph and tackled one paragraph at a time.

Wow, was this part fun! The reason we do research in the first place is because we want to expand our knowledge, we want to contribute to the understanding of the brain, in my case. And in the discussion, I had the opportunity to go wild and explain what we know now, what we don’t know yet, and speculate about what could be the ground truth… exciting!

The fact of the matter is, though, I had time pressure during this part. My husband’s father was very ill at that point, so we chose to visit Jacob’s family in South Africa. We booked our flights, and I had five days to write the last 2-3 pages of my discussion. This may not seem like a lot, but it involves lots of reading papers, thinking, and synthesizing information.

I experienced laser focus during those 5 days. I wrote my conclusion (the final part of the discussion) on Saturday morning (our flight left on Sunday). I wrote for 4 hours straight in the bedroom, occasionally uninterrupted by William who was curious about what was keeping mama so busy on the laptop. Finally, I was done! It’s crazy how circumstances can truly cause us to focus sometimes.


This was hardly the end of the process, however. There are lots (and I mean LOTS) of practicalities that need to be completed after finishing the writing part. I compiled a Trello board with all of them and checked them off one by one as I completed them (this is only an excerpt and by no means the entire list of tasks):

Some of the tasks I had to do after completing my PhD thesis.

There were lots of little tasks to keep track of, and I’m glad I used my favorite Trello boards, lists, and cards to keep track of everything. I am still doing this now as I am organizing the defense and the events around that. It’s exciting to be organizing my defense, but I could also easily get worried about forgetting some small but crucial step. Fortunately, this method allows me to stay calm as I take care of tasks, one by one.

It was a true joy to receive my books! Wow, what a process it’s been to get me here… Now I get to enjoy the end product and defend my thesis, of course!!! More on that coming soon!

Me, super happy, holding my book.