Our method for organizing our home (including worksheet)

My husband and I got serious about organizing our home this time! Okay, I got serious, meaning I printed out worksheets and stuff. Jacob just went along with it, poor soul…

Applying Organizing from the Inside Out

As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I read Julie Morgenstern’s Organizing from the Inside Out and decided to apply her system to our home. She proposes three stages to the organizing process:

  1. Analyze: You (and anybody sharing the space) discuss the current state of your physical environment and what you’d like to get out of it;
  2. Strategize: You come up with a strategy for how you will use different areas of your home or office and then decide where things will be stored in each area; you also estimate how much time you will need for organizing each section of your home;
  3. Attack: You go through your stuff, decide what to keep, what to give away, and what to throw away; you organize the things you decide to keep; you also continue maintaining the system in the future.

I made a worksheet to fill out and follow when doing this in our own home. You can find the worksheet here, but I highly recommend reading the book before diving in. Julie Morgenstern includes so many practical tips that the system can be useful to anyone, including people with very different preferences and challenges.

Analyze

Jacob and I liked the ‘Analyze’ portion. We answered the five questions (see worksheet above), which was useful because each of us had a different take on things. The most useful questions for us were, “What’s working?” and, “What’s not working?” I need to note that we were already fairly organized, so we didn’t need to sit down and think about our motivation and problems from scratch; we already knew why we like to be organized, and we just needed some tweaks. But it’s always good to revisit the motivation and the bigger goals in order to be on the same page.

Strategize

Then, we moved on to the ‘Strategize’ portion. We found that we didn’t need to list all the areas in our house by activity, supplies, and storage units, as is suggested in the book. Most of our areas and storage units work well, so we just mentioned those. We focused on the areas that aren’t working well and how we’d like to change them. We explored our current habits, what’s not working, and how we can improve the situation.

For example, we have an issue with our ‘Home Information Center,” i.e., the place where stuff (mail, deliveries, etc.) comes in and where stuff needs to wait until it’s dealt with or stored. We have dedicated inboxes where we’re supposed to put the stuff that comes in, but the trouble is that we never look at those inboxes, so we also don’t put stuff in there. Instead, we just put mail and packages and stuff from other people on the dining table and on the counter, but things pile up quickly. We try to use the thing itself as a visual cue to remind us to deal with it, but the counter gets cluttered so quickly that it becomes impossible to remember what we were supposed to do with what.

As a solution, we decided to create dedicated inboxes as well as outboxes (one of each for Jacob and one of each for me) and place them on the counter (instead of on the shelf where the inboxes are now, making them more difficult to reach). We’re also going to establish a habit of going through the inboxes and outboxes at regular intervals, so stuff doesn’t get forgotten in there.

This is one example, but we tackled and problem solved for several such problematic areas in our home. I wrote down the solutions we had identified and any additional items we might need to buy to make these solutions possible.

I have to say we didn’t map out the space or rearrange the furniture as suggested in the book. We weren’t looking to make any of these changes, so for us that didn’t seem necessary.

We also didn’t estimate how long each organizing activity would take us. We’ve set aside a couple of blocks of time each week for organizing, so we’ll keep going until we’re done. Also, I like to set a Pomodoro timer to go off every 25 minutes when we’re organizing/decluttering: it forces us to take a little break, and it also reminds us of the time that has already passed.

Attack

Then, we went ahead, took the plunge, and started organizing things. We began with the living room as that’s our most clutter-attracting part of the house.

1. Sort

First, we took out our stuff from shelves, containers, etc. and looked at it. We started with the visible stuff: the stuff on the dining table and the counter or the stuff that didn’t have a place. That gave me an immediate feeling of progress because these are the things I’ve been wanting to be gone.

2. Purge

Next, we decided what we’d like to keep and what we’d like to discard (either give away or throw away). There were also some things we moved to storage in the basement.

3. Assign a home

For the things we wanted to keep, we assigned a home. We took convenience into account: how convenient is it to use this box on this shelf? How often do we use this and how important is it that it has such a prominent location in our living room? What would make this document collection easier to peruse?

4. Containerize

Next, we identified which things should go into which containers. I’m not huge into containers; I know some people put everything in a separate container, but that seems like an overkill to me. Also, when you get more stuff of a certain type, then you have to get a new container… it’s a bit too much for me to have super specific containers for everything.

But we definitely use containers for some types of things, and we added a couple of boxes to group similar items and make them easier to reach and use.

5. Equalize

We discussed what would be the best way for us to maintain our living room in the shape it was now and agreed on a weekly time to go through our stuff and get up to speed, if necessary. I can say much more on this topic, but I’ll keep it short for now.

And this was it for our living room! We have a system that suits our habits better now, so I’m hopeful that it will stick. Next up: the kitchen…

How do you organize your home? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Image from Michael Basial (CC BY-NC 2.0)

How to organize your home for functionality, not for perfection

Every autumn, I get a yearning to organize my home and make it super tidy. Wouldn’t it be nice if everything was in its perfect place and looked just right?

However, this type of compulsion to tidy up can leave me overwhelmed and exhausted, as I wrote about in this blog post, so I resist it. I try to engage with it only as long as it’s helpful instead of when it’s making me annoyed or impatient.

I’ve read a couple of organizing books recently, and I’m currently reading Julie Morgenstern’s organizational classic Organizing from the Inside Out. While reading the first few chapters, I completely fell in love with the idea of a perfectly organized home. How pleasant and peaceful it would be to have a completely tidy room! But then I thought better of it. Is it really?

I noticed an interesting distinction: Julie Morgenstern talks about organization in terms of functionality and efficiency, while I think mostly about aesthetics. She emphasizes that you should observe your own habits and tendencies and build your environment in a way that supports you. For instance, if, after coming home, you like to dump your mail on the dining table, take that as a given. Perhaps place a box for incoming mail right there on the dining table or very close to it and create a routine where you go through that inbox every evening after dinner. It’s much easier to maintain a system, she argues, if it’s adapted to your needs rather than if you have to adapt to your system.

Adapt your organizational system to your habits

This has been a major light bulb moment for me. I don’t usually care much about functionality or efficiency. As long as things have a place, I’ll put them there, even if it’s a little inconvenient. But Jacob, my husband, really likes things being convenient, and I can see why.

So, right now we’re in the process of moving things around in our kitchen. In the past, we assigned spots for pots, pans, and plates based on where they fit. While this is also clearly important, sometimes the arrangement is not super convenient. We don’t keep our spices, for example, close to where we cook, and it’s not particularly nice to have to move spices back and forth across the kitchen multiple times. This means we end up leaving the most commonly used spices out on the counter, which annoys me.

As a solution, we’ve now moved our spices to a shelf right above the cooking area, which is super convenient. We used to keep our teas there, but teas don’t need to be close to the cooking area, so why keep them there? Hopefully, we’ll now put away our spices rather than leaving them on the counter.

This is a small example, but it has important consequences if applied on a larger scale. If things are convenient to use and easy to put away, then our organizational system has a much higher chance of surviving. Then, we can have a tidy home without the maintenance feeling tedious or burdensome.

Perspective shift

For me, this has a bigger consequence as well. Being tidy, to me, represents having things in perfect order. If one thing is in the wrong place, this means I’ve failed, which makes me so uncomfortable that I need to move this thing immediately.

In contrast, if the emphasis is on functionality, the whole perspective shifts. When things are reasonably tidy, great, the organizational system is working well. When things start getting messy, it means our habits have shifted a bit, and the current system doesn’t accommodate them as well as it could. We can identify the problem and make a few small changes, so the system starts working well for us again.

Note that the emphasis here is not on perfection. It’s on having a reasonably well-functioning organizational system. Also, it’s perfectly fine and part of the deal that we need to constantly keep adapting our system, so it can be in tune with our current habits and demands.

Do you have an organization system that works well for you? Or, on the contrary, one that doesn’t work well? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

How I reached an optimal level of tidiness

Photo: Me in my early teens, thriving on a messy room. Apparently, that’s possible too.

I love an organized house. If it were up to me, my home would be super tidy, and everything would have an exact place. It feels so peaceful to look at a perfectly organized room.

In fact, when I lived by myself, that’s how it was. I had a specific way of organizing the pillows on the couch or of putting the tea cups in the kitchen cupboards. When some friends came to visit, they found it extremely amusing that all my spices were arranged in rows, with the labels all facing forward. I didn’t get why this was so amusing; how could you possibly arrange your spices differently?!

The challenge

Things changes when Jacob and I moved in together. While he’s not extremely messy, he’s more towards the middle of the spectrum, while I’m at, well, one end of it. He was going to move into my place, but he owned quite a lot of stuff, so we very deliberately went through all his stuff, chose what to keep and what to give away or throw away. This was much better than just moving all his stuff.

For the sake of fairness, I went through my stuff and removed unnecessary items as well. After all, I wanted to make space for him to move in with me, and I didn’t mind getting rid of stuff I wasn’t using.

But when we actually started living together, I found it difficult not to have everything my way. He was good about being clean and more tidy than before, but things were still not how they had been when I lived by myself.

However, I realized that my standards were not realistic for other people and, honestly, they were too much even for me sometimes. I liked it when things were tidy, but it was exhausting to keep them like that all the time. It was irrational to expect another person to keep to my standards for no better reason than that I just liked things that way.

My own exposure therapy

So for the first one or two months of living together, I basically did a form of exposure therapy. I saw my spices arranged differently, not in rows, with some labels not facing forward (what a tragedy!). I had the urge to re-arrange them, but I resisted. I saw letters, keys, and wallets on the dining table and didn’t put them away. I saw my toothbrush and the toothpaste placed in a different spot on the sink and resisted the urge to move them back. (Nope, that one still gets me! There’s a just a specific spot where my toothbrush and toothpaste go!)

It wasn’t exactly easy to give myself this exposure to things not being in the way I’d place them. I realized what the problem was: I thought that whenever he left something in the “wrong” place, it meant he didn’t care. He was disregarding my preferences and, thus, my feelings. I told him about this, and he was rather surprised. He said the two things had nothing in common in his mind, and over time I came to believe him.

Knowing that this was important for me, he tried harder to be tidy. For instance, he began putting the car keys in the key bowl, so I could find them easily as well. Nowadays, if sometimes I accidentally leave the car keys on the table instead of in the key bowl, he calls out, “Where are the car keys? Why are they not in the key bowl?!” I apologize and promptly put them in the key bowl next time. Who would have thought this day would come!

The optimal level of tidiness

Unwillingly, I have to report that I’ve also become happier since things in our house became less strictly organized. It took a lot of pressure off of me! I didn’t have to always have everything in perfect order. If I didn’t feel like tidying up right this moment, I could leave it for later. This never felt possible before! In the past, the out-of-place objects had some sort of power over me, compelling me to put them in place.

Now, I can choose whether I want to put things away or not. I also don’t have to make the space perfectly organized, but it’s alright if it’s “good enough.” This “good enough” is still a work in progress, but it’s much less strict than before.

And, most importantly, I know that we can communicate about our living space. If at some point our surroundings get too messy and start annoying me, I can simply say to him, “Hey, things are getting a bit messy, do you mind if we tidy up a bit?” He understands what I mean, and we simply put things away.

And now that we’re about to have a baby, my tolerance for messiness needs to go way up! As I read in one book, “When your toddler is feeding himself, don’t try to run around, keeping the floor clean. Let it go! Your kitchen floor will be clean again once he goes off to college.” Oh, dear. That’s a long time to have a messy floor.

What is your optimal level of tidiness (or messiness)? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Photo credits: my mom.

How I overcame scientific creative block

This week was a big week for me. I had set aside time to think about and work on my new project. It’s going to be the last big project of my PhD, so I want it to be awesome! It will answer amazing research questions, it will be super interesting, and it won’t have any problems in the design. It will be legen-(wait for it)-dary!

Aiming too high

Right. This also puts a lot of pressure on me to come up with an amazing research design that is novel and impactful. I’d like to answer a big question, one of the cool questions that led me to pursue a PhD in cognitive neuroscience, because working on such a topic is truly inspiring.

But there’s also a reason why many of the big questions are still unresolved: they’re difficult to solve. We don’t yet know how (and if) the brain gives rise to consciousness because, well, it’s a pretty difficult thing to figure out. Similarly, there are some complex phenomena happening in visual cortex, so expecting to understand them with a single project (or a single PhD) is completely unrealistic.

Feeling daunted by the contribution I wanted to make and the realization that it wasn’t going to happen, I felt paralyzed. I could do this experiment or that experiment, but what did it matter? In the end, even with the results of my experiment, how much more would we know about the fascinating topic I wanted to research?

On Monday, I spent an hour staring at the design I had drafted some time ago. It was cool and interesting, but I also had some question marks. Would some aspects of the experiment work? Was there a better way to do this? If so, what would that better way be? I couldn’t think of anything.

I started looking up papers for ideas. But since I didn’t exactly know what I was looking for, I was reading paragraphs vaguely related to my question and was not really getting anything out of them. I was still stuck.

Remember why and identify the problem

After feeling blocked like this, I had to change something. I remembered a favorite paper of mine about the topic I’d like to address in my next study. I got up from my chair and pulled it out of a folder. I flipped through the pages, re-read the parts I had highlighted, and looked at the notes I had scribbled in the margins.

It was like a breath of fresh air. This is why I am doing this work; this is why I love this topic. These are the questions that excite me, and now I have the opportunity to tackle one of them. How cool is that?

Suddenly, my mind was sharper. I looked at the design for my new project again. I identified the specific research questions I’d like to tackle and the pros and cons of the current design. I wrote down the problems I had to solve in order for my experiment to work, and from that moment on things got easier.

Sometimes the most difficult (and important) part of our job is to identify the problem. “What is the actual problem here? What is stopping me from progressing? What do I need to do to move on?”

Do what needs to be done: Set a timer

Since now I had a list of things I wanted to do, I knew how to go about it. I set up a Pomodoro Timer (I’ve also written about it here and here) and started with the first item on the list. Having the problem (or question) clear in my mind, I could focus on looking for solutions instead of getting lost or side tracked.

Using a timer really helped when doing this type of work. It was hard work, so email, Slack, WhatsApp and even my weather app were way more inviting than reading through a bunch of papers and thinking hard, trying to find an elusive solution.

That’s why I made sure I set a 25-minute timer. When I saw the time ticking away (especially when it dropped below 20 minutes), I thought, “Oh man, I have almost no time left! Let me start doing this stuff!” It’s surprising how much we can do in 20 minutes if we really focus.

When the allotted time was up, I made sure to get up and walk around, do a couple of stretches, or go to the bathroom. If I had skipped this and just keep working, the timer would have become meaningless. I had to enforce that when the time was up, I’d stop working; otherwise, I would never have taken the timer seriously and would not have felt the pressure to start working in the first place.

Image by Marco Verch (CC BY 2.0)

Talk to other people (duh…)

After a day or two of this type of focused work, I identified some solutions and ideas that could improve my design. Yay! But it always helps to talk to someone else about the ideas and see if they think the solutions are as brilliant as they seem to me.

The next day, I met up with Eelke, my post-doc supervisor (shouts to the coolest daily supervisor, woohoo!). I thought it would be enough to meet up for a coffee/tea instead of a full meeting. I imagined the conversation would go something like this:

Me: “Hey Eelke, I thought about a couple of potential problems with our new design. I identified these possible solutions.”

Eelke: “Those are great! Awesome.”

Right. The two-minute exchange I had imagined turned into a half-hour meeting because (surprise!) Eelke had some more (dare I say better?) ideas. We discussed a few more things and really developed the project further.

After the meeting, I went back to Google Scholar and looked into a few more things. I messaged several colleagues who might have relevant info for me, and their responses also helped. After this, I felt like we really had a solid design that I was confident about. (Let’s not forget, though, that next week I have a meeting with Floris, my PI and main supervisor, so I’m sure he will have some good ideas too. Even more improvements coming my way!)

I often think that I need to find all the solutions myself, but I forget that other people can help immensely. There is great benefit to working in a team, and I’d be wise to remember that.

Write it down before you forget

Finally, I wrote down all the solutions and ideas. Since I had them all floating around in my mind, it would be easy to assume that they would be there the next day, week, or month. But in fact, we often forget stuff, and it would be really frustrating if I had to go and look up all the information again.

I didn’t want to lose any of the great ideas I had gathered, so I wrote them down in a text document. Also, I made sure to describe them extensively enough to remember what I’d meant even a while later. A long time ago, I’d had an insightful meeting with Floris, and apparently we’d discussed something about orientation, because I’d written down in my notes, “Try orientation!!!” When I looked back at this a few days later, I recalled that it had been a great idea, but what the heck had I meant with “try orientation”?! To prevent this from happening, I wrote down my ideas and described them well.

What felt like a massive creative block at the beginning of the week now seems to have been resolved. The main steps that allowed me to do this were:

  1. Remember why (Why am I doing this? Why is this interesting?)
  2. Identify the problem (What do I actually need to do here? What is stopping me from progressing?)
  3. Talk to people (Discuss my ideas with others and see what they think.)
  4. Write it down (Write down the solutions and describe them well.)

How do you overcome creative blocks? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Featured image: Photo by bruce mars from Pexels

How my daily routine changed with pregnancy

I don’t know if you know this about me, but I love routines. I looooove them. I love thinking about my routine, I love doing the things on my routine, and I love reading about other people’s routines (for instance, in articles like these). In fact, I have a folder on my computer (conveniently placed in the ‘Organization’ folder) called ‘Routine.’ This is a snapshop of some of the files in it:

What can I say? The routine is ever-changing.

Routine when pregnant… What?!

But then I got pregnant. Suddenly, I was more tired than usual, and I was nauseous during most parts of the day. Getting up at 6:30 simply didn’t work because I couldn’t keep my eyes open at work, and, what’s more, I felt more nauseous when I’d slept less. This was very frustrating because I’m usually a morning person (as I mentioned here), so I tried to make my usual routine work for me. This didn’t last very long–maybe 2 weeks max–because it made me exhausted and grumpy.

So I gradually made some changes. I started getting up around 7-7:30, and that felt much better. I was really nauseous in the morning, so I often lay down on the couch after breakfast–something I’d never do in the past because the morning was the time to go, go, go. However, even 5 minutes of lying down made me less nauseous and a little more refreshed, which felt immensely better.

I also often got nauseous at work, and it helped me to go for a brief (10-15 minute) walk. There was something about the fresh air and the movement that cleared my head. In fact, I was very rarely nauseous while walking.

However, sometimes I was just too tired to move around, so the office couch was my salvation. I’d lie down for 10-15 minutes and feel so much better afterwards! My office mates didn’t know I was pregnant back then, so they must have thought I was the laziest PhD student ever! The good thing was that this little horizontal break gave me energy, so I could keep working afterwards.

When the fog lifted

Fortunately, the nausea lifted around the end of the first trimester. Suddenly, I had my energy back! It felt amazing. Interestingly, I still need more sleep than before. While before pregnancy I felt great with 7-8 hours of sleep per night, now I consistently need 8-9 hours. If the alarm wakes me up with less than 8 hours of sleep, I am super disoriented, and I stay tired for the rest of the day.

Before getting pregnant, I used to wake up early, do my difficult and focused work early in the morning, do some admin or easier work in the afternoon, and exercise in the late afternoon. This worked well because I had lots of mental clarity in the mornings and more physical energy in the afternoon.

Funny enough, I don’t feel like much of a morning person these days. Some days I go to work early in the morning, expecting to have a few productive ‘golden hours.’ Instead, I feel groggy for the entire morning and only feel my energy pick up around ~11. I’m still surprised by this change and can’t quite understand it. Apparently, pregnancy leads to major changes in the body. Who knew!

The new routine!

Armed with these new experiences, I set out to make a new routine for myself (yay!). I get up a little later now (at 7:00 or 7:30) and eat breakfast (I’m super hungry when I wake up). Then, I exercise or do yoga and shower afterwards. I find that having some physical activity in the morning gets me going and improves my focus. While in the past I’d get tired in the afternoons if I worked out in the mornings, this is not the case anymore. Perhaps it helps that my workouts and not as intense as before, so they wake me up rather than tire me out. In this way, by the time I feel energized and awake in the late morning, I can start working.

I am also able to focus quite well in the afternoon. After lunch, I make myself a delicious green tea and do my thing. (I avoid the after-lunch dip by eating a meal of vegetables, protein, and healthy fats; carbs make me sleepy, so I reserve them for dinner.) I enjoy the long stretch of time that I have available for my work between lunch and dinner. Sometime around 16:00 or 17:00, I go for a walk, which has a nice refreshing effect.

When I finish work, I go home, have dinner, and chill. Since the days are long here in the Netherlands and there’s sunlight until late in the day (around 22:00), I often may not notice that I’m tired. To avoid this, I set a bedtime alarm (of course I do! Are you even surprised?) for 21:00. At that time, I start winding down and read in bed for a bit with the curtains drawn to place myself in a dark environment. Amazingly, I’m usually asleep by 22:30 and get enough rest to wake up the next day at 7:00. You might think that with so much sleep I’d wake up before the alarm the next day, but nope! I’m usually surprised to hear the alarm go off. What, is it really time to wake up already?

For now this routine works, but who knows how long it will last for? I’m not even going to add it to my ‘Routine’ folder because I suspect it will be adapted very soon when the next change comes along. I’m becoming so flexible with my planning, what is happening to me?!

How does your routine change with time? Do you have a routine, or do you prefer to ‘go with the flow’? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Why I can be annoying on vacations

To be honest, I can sometimes be annoying on vacations. Most people like to let loose and relax when they’re on holiday. I also like to relax, but I can do that best if I have a tentative schedule.

Schedule on vacation

I like to know what we’re going to do: when we will wake up, where we will eat breakfast, what we will do afterwards, for how long, etc. Having that type of clarity allows me to relax and also to anticipate the joy of the upcoming day with excitement. As Gretchen Rubin says, looking forward to a pleasant experience is a great way to get happiness from it.

Of course, it’s fine if things change. It’s just that I like having an idea of how things might go. It also means that I get to discuss what I’d like to do and when with the other people, and they get to share what they want to do as well. So we can all, hopefully, be happy.

Wake up!

I also like to wake up early on vacation. I prefer not to have an alarm clock, but I still wake up relatively early–usually between 7 and 8 am. That’s why I like skiing and hiking holidays: everybody implicitly agrees that you need to get up somewhat early, be active during the day, and relax in the afternoon and evening.

I can trace this back to when I was a child. One summer when I was probably 7 or 8 years old, we went to the seaside with my parents’ friends. After dinner, the adults went out to party, but I was tired and went to sleep. In the morning, I woke up earlier than my parents, so I’d just go downstairs to the cafe and order pancakes. I’d eat my pancakes and read a book until my parents woke up and came to join me an hour or two later.

How funny it must have been for the waiters at the cafe: early in the morning, a kid eating pancakes and reading a book with a serious expression on her face. And when her parents show up, probably yawning, she scolds them, “What took you so long?”

“Come on, let’s go, what are you waiting for?”
And yes, this is actually me.

Time to relax

But I also get grumpy if a vacation is too packed. I like to be active, but I also like to relax. That’s why I don’t go on organized tours: they pack the schedule so full of stuff to do that there’s no time to relax anymore. How is that a vacation?

For the same reason, I don’t like doing hikes that are too long. When I was younger, we did hikes that were 10 or 12 hours long. That’s not my thing. I like to be active for a couple of hours, and then I like to chill. For me, that’s the best combination.

Last week at our honeymoon, Jacob and I made sure to combine being active and relaxing. On one of the days, he wanted to do a longer hike, which would have meant we missed our afternoon relaxing time in the spa area. I retaliated! I knew it was just one day, but I still wanted my relaxing time. In the end, we found a compromise, so all was good.

Be warned!

Sometimes, some people may think I’m a bit annoying to go on vacation with. (Okay, maybe it happens often, and it’s most people.) Apparently, not everyone wants to have a plan for the next day, to wake up early and be active, or to relax each day. To me, these things seem perfectly reasonable for a good vacation, so all I need to do is find people who share my preferences. But if you were considering going on vacation with me, be warned! 😉

What are your peculiar vacation traits? What annoys you that other people do when you’re on vacation together? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

What I did to truly relax on my honeymoon

Last week, Jacob and I went on our honeymoon. It was an amazing trip, truly a dream come true. A few months before we got married, we started thinking about where we’d like to go, and I had this vision of a cottage in the Austrian Alps. I pictured a cozy, wooden house with flowers on the balcony, cuddled up in a valley between two mountains. Green grass in the valley, white snow on the mountains, and blue sky above.

This is what we saw when we stepped outside of our cottage.

And this was exactly what we got. Everything was wonderful, and we managed to enjoy it thoroughly. But how did we do that?

Sometimes when we go on vacation, we have trouble letting go and relaxing. We keep thinking about work, about unfinished business in the office or at home, or about something that is stressing us out. This time, we could have also slipped into that trap. I could have thought, “Will I have enough time to finish editing my paper? When will I start my new experiment? I have so much work to do!” Jacob could have worried about how his practice is doing or about the content he needs to write for his website. There are always plenty of things to worry about.

This is what we did to get our peace of mind.

Disconnect

I didn’t check my work email or Slack. Not even once. Woohoo! I knew that if I checked them, I’d be sucked in, and I’d feel as though I urgently had to respond to a request or a question. Fortunately, my job has very few urgent things in general, so even when I did check my email the following Monday, there was absolutely nothing urgent. How nice!

Now, Jacob’s situation is different. He works with patients, and he needs to be somewhat accessible in case someone needs a timely response, so he couldn’t not open email. What he did was that he only checked his phone (email, messages, etc.) twice a day: once in the morning and once in the evening. If somebody required an immediate response, he answered briefly, giving them the information they needed but also letting them know that he would provide a thorough response as soon as he got back.

We even took a break off of social media. That was quite nice because being more disconnected from the world in general made us more connected to the present experience, to the wilderness, and to each other. We even told each other stories from our lives that had never come up before! Who knew there were any stories left untold! (Let’s check again in 20 years…)

This was one of our favorite paths, winding among the trees.

Find other engaging things to do

I know for myself that if I’m doing nothing all day, my mind wanders to some unpleasant things, and then I start worrying. If my mind is left to its own devices, it would probably drift back to what it’s used to thinking about: work and questions about the future. To avoid that, I need to give my mind something engaging to think about.

Since we were in the mountains, we went hiking every day. There were many routes we could take and many places we could visit. So, each evening we checked the weather for the following day, the available routes, the open lodges/huts, the difficulty and length of the routes, etc. We also took into account how tired we were from the day’s hike and decided on which route to do. It was a lot of fun, and we did many cool routes.

In the morning, we’d get up, have a delicious breakfast (my absolutely favorite meal of the day!!!), and head out for the day’s hike. It was exciting to do a new route each day and reach a different hut.

Also, once we arrived and wanted to have lunch, we had to figure out what the Austrian names for the different dishes actually meant. On the first few days, we had some surprising food experiences (such as ham-and-cheese salad which is not a salad at all!), but that also kept things interesting. In the end, we found some truly delicious soups, such as frittata soup and bacon-noodle soup. And, naturally, we had lots and lots of sauerkraut.

I also did quite a bit of reading. In the afternoons after we came back from hiking, we went to the spa area to relax properly. My favorite part was the relax zone, a quiet area with big, tall windows, letting the sunlight in and allowing a gorgeous view of the snowy mountains. There were these wooden swing lounging chairs (that’s my best attempt at an explanation) where you could lie, enjoy the sun and the view, and read. Also, I was reading a very exciting novel, so I didn’t want to leave at all. That was my favorite part of the day.

The gorgeous view from a peak that was very steep and slippery but so worth it!

Dive in

I think this is the key to why I managed to relax and let go on this holiday: I took steps to (1) disconnect from my everyday world and (2) actively engage with the world around me at that moment. And it worked! So much so that we didn’t want to leave… One more honeymoon, maybe? Hmm.

How do you relax when you’re on vacation? Or do you find it difficult to stop thinking about your regular life? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

How being ill surprisingly boosted my productivity

How I managed to do my work while also resting and recovering.

I don’t get ill often, which is also why when I do get ill, I feel like I don’t know what to do. A couple of weeks ago, I caught a cold, and it wasn’t pretty. While I was sneezing and coughing and my body didn’t want to get out of bed, my mind was still going.

“We need to do that analysis,” my mind would say. Or, “I really wanted to finish writing that paper!” Or, my favorite, “But we have that meeting, how could I possibly miss it?!”

But, perhaps most importantly, I felt it was unfair to expose other people to my germs. That feeling of responsibility kept me away from work and at home. I think that was a good thing because my husband, who came into extensive contact with my germs, got ill with the same symptoms 3 days later.

(Of course, in his case it was much worse because he had the mancold. At the worst point of the coughing and fatigue, he announced that he was on his death bed. After a “fever” of 37.8 degrees Celsius, he was convinced he had pneumonia. I shook my head and made him ginger tea. One of the best things about marriage is that you can be ill together.)

Fortunately for me, I can easily do my work from my laptop at home, so I just stayed put for 5 days. I slept as much as I could (didn’t use an alarm to wake up and took a nap during the day), drank tea, ate good food, and stayed warm.

I went for short walks at first and, as I felt a bit better, the walks got slightly longer. I didn’t strength train for a whole week, which was very difficult to accept but highly necessary.

To be honest, my work went surprisingly well during that time. Staying at home forced me to focus on the important tasks and disregard distractions. One evening, I was so tired that I went to bed at 9 pm and woke up at 4 am, fresh and energized. I seized the opportunity and worked on my paper for several hours straight. I managed to edit the manuscript until I was satisfied with it, and I sent it to my supervisor. Then, with a feeling of great achievement, I went back to sleep.

I also had a lot of quiet time for reading papers, which informed my ideas for a new project. I needed to think about how to design my next experiment, which is a huge step and a very important one. I wanted to come up with a sound experimental design because otherwise my whole experiment would be flawed. By the end of my home stay, I had a cool idea for my new experiment, which I am now refining and will hopefully implement soon.

In the end, I was surprised by how productive this period of illness was for me. The physical sickness constrained me to staying at home, which in turn made me focus on the big, difficult tasks I would have tried to postpone had I been in the office by going to meetings, talks, other people’s projects, etc.

It was also very helpful that I actually gave myself time to recover. When I needed to sleep, I slept. When I was exhausted and needed to do something chill like reading a paper, I did that. I really gave myself the time to rest and didn’t push myself to go to the office when I was feeling ill.

After all, this cold didn’t turn out to be too bad work-wise. But I’m glad it’s over, and I hope I won’t be constrained to working from home again soon. Being in the office and seeing people (and talking to them) is so much more fun!

What do you do when you’re ill? How do you cope? Do you go to work, do you work from home, or do you drop everything and lie in bed? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Photo by Lisa Fotios from Pexels

How to never forget a to-do again

On some days, our minds are super busy, and we have many thoughts and to-do’s floating around.

“I should buy some lemons.”

“Oh, I should also call my dentist.”

“Also, I should make a reservation for dinner.”

These thoughts all feel important because they are things we want to or have to do. “I shouldn’t forget to make a reservation!” Each thought comes with a sense of urgency, so we can’t afford to forget it.

This roller coaster is quite exhausting. What’s more, it keeps our mind occupied, so there’s less capacity for interesting, creative, or productive thoughts.

The Inbox

A great solution comes from the Getting Things Done method by David Allen (you can read my blog post about it here). This solution is to keep an Inbox where you dump all such thoughts. The Inbox can be a notebook, a text document, or an app on your phone. It doesn’t matter what it actually is as long as:

  • It reliably keeps your info (e.g., it’s not an app with bugs that loses certain entries, and it’s not a bunch of post-it notes that can easily get lost around the house);
  • It is easy for you to browse, so you can see what you’ve written down (e.g., it’s not a huge, messy notebook where your to-do’s get lost, and it’s not an app that’s organized in a way you don’t understand, making it difficult to find your entries);
  • It is always on hand for you (i.e., it’s not helpful if you left your notebook at work, and then at home you don’t have a place to write down the to-do’s that come to mind.

For me, it is convenient to use an app for this. I use Wunderlist or Trello, depending on what the to-do is about. I have both apps on my phone and on all my devices, so it’s easy to jot something down. (See this blog post for an extensive description of the tools I use.)

The surprising power of writing things down

One participant in my bootcamp course on organization and time management, Angela, said the Inbox method was immensely helpful for her. She used to try to remember everything she needed to do, inevitably ending up overwhelmed and forgetting something.

“Since I’ve started writing down all my tasks, I feel like I’ve freed up so much mental space,” Angela shared. “A lot of the anxiety is gone because I know that if I need to do something, I won’t forget it–it’s on my list!”

Angela’s enthusiasm about this discovery caught me by surprise. It’s such a simple thing to do that I’d forgotten its power. I must have been doing this for almost 10 years already, since I read David Allen’s book Getting Things Done for the first time.

I remembered the relief and decreased anxiety I had experienced back then when I discovered this simple way of dealing with the ever-present thoughts about endless to-do’s. It really is so simple: Write it down. Get it out of your head. The simplest things often are the most powerful.

Have you tried this? How do you deal with endless thoughts about to-do’s? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Featured image by Tirachard Kumtanom from Pexels

Try this to avoid getting distracted by your phone

At the bootcamp course on organization and time management I gave recently, one person, Sam, shared that he wanted to get distracted by his phone less often. We all nodded in agreement.

Most of us recognize this, right? You’re sitting at your desk, working hard, finally in the flow, and suddenly your phone buzzes. Immediately, you need to know what that was. Did you receive a message? An email? Or is it a notification from some app? And just like that, you’re out of the flow.

Separation anxiety from your phone

Sam admitted to being a bit of an extreme case. If his phone buzzed and he didn’t check it immediately, he became very anxious. The thought itself made him so uncomfortable that he shuffled in his chair as he said this.

I asked, “What would happen if you left your phone on silent in another room for the morning?”

“Oh, no, no, no,” he said defensively and brought his phone to his chest. Naturally, his phone had been lying on the desk in front of him during the entire meeting.

But Sam was acutely aware of how much his attachment to his phone was interfering with his work. He said that he was completing significantly less work when he was being interrupted and that he often took rather long breaks as a result of phone interruptions.

“How about if you left your phone with a colleague for 15 minutes? Could you do that?” I asked.

“Yeah, sure. I could even do an hour,” replied Sam, suddenly brave.

“That’s very good, but let’s start with 30 minutes then,” I suggested. “Set your phone on silent and give it to your colleague. In 30 minutes, you can have it back, and you can check all your messages and notifications.”

This was doable for Sam, but for more severe cases I’d start with as short a period as 5 minutes without a phone. Some people experience severe separation anxiety when they don’t have access to their phone, so we need to start small. The key is to start with a manageable exposure to the unpleasant situation (e.g., 5 minutes without access to your phone) and, once that goes well, gradually build it up to longer periods.

My system for dealing with my phone

I am also prone to being distracted by my phone, so I follow a system:

  1. Put my phone on silent. (If you want important numbers like your family members to be able to call you, you can set this up in Do Not Disturb mode.)
  2. Place my phone on a high shelf where it’s out of reach from where I sit at my desk.
  3. Set a timer for 45 minutes.
  4. Start working.
  5. Once the timer goes off, get up. (If I need to finish something, I can keep working for 5 more minutes max, for a total of 50 minutes, and then I get up.)
  6. Check my phone and respond to messages. (I don’t check social media at this time because I find that completely distracts me from my work.)
  7. Go to the bathroom or take a walk down the hall.
  8. Repeat.

That’s what works for me to avoid being distracted by my phone but to also remain responsive to messages.

How about you? How do you deal with your phone? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Featured image by rawpixel.com from Pexels