How we take care of meal preparation and cooking (including our Food Planner)

At our home, we cook almost all our meals, including, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and only cook 3 times a week. How do we do that?

It all starts with planning

The first step is to plan out our upcoming week (we do this during our Weekly Review). We look at our calendars and see when/if we’ll be eating out during the upcoming week. On average, each of us eats out once a week. The rest of the meals we will prepare at home.

Then, we open up the food planner. It’s a spreadsheet that lists what each of us is going to eat when in the week and also what we need to do each day in terms of meal preparation. You can access my sample food planner spreadsheet here, and this is what it looks like:

This is a sample food planner for a week. The columns are days of the week, and the rows are my meals, Jacob’s meals, and the cooking or defrosting tasks per day. 2d, 3d, or 4d denotes how many days a thing should last us, which determines the dose we make.

Meal preparation

We have three cook-up sessions: Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday evenings. The Sunday session is the biggest, so it lasts for about 2 hours. The Tuesday one is the shortest, and it takes about 1 hour, while the Thursday one is medium, lasting about 1.5 hours.

On Sunday evening, we cook:

  • Breakfasts Monday-Thursday (we freeze the Wednesday and Thursday ones);
  • Lunches Monday-Tuesday;
  • Dinners Sunday-Monday;
  • Prep some veggies (such as cauliflower rice) to cook later in the week.

On Tuesday evening, we make:

  • Lunches Wednesday-Thursday;
  • Dinners Tuesday-Wednesday.

On Thursday evening, we make:

  • Breakfasts Friday-Sunday;
  • Lunches Friday-Sunday;
  • Dinners Thursday-Friday/Saturday.

We usually eat out on Friday or Saturday evening, so we don’t prep for that meal.

How we do our cooking

On Sundays, we cook together. When we’re both in the kitchen, it’s fun because we talk about all kinds of things. We usually prepare variations of the same (favorite) meals, so we know what we’re doing with little discussion. But when we decide to try a new recipe, we need to coordinate a bit more and discuss the different steps.

An important consideration is not to get in each other’s way. For this reason, we have two chopping stations (luckily, we have a big kitchen counter) with two chopping boards (one for each of us) and multiple knives.

The way we have divided responsibilities, Jacob chops most vegetables and takes care of things cooking on the stove or in the oven. That’s a lot of work, but, luckily, he’s faster (and dare I say more skilled?) than I am in the kitchen, so he handles it well.

I grate vegetables in the food processor (carrots and apples for a salad and cauliflower for cauliflower rice). I prepare the salad dressings and other mixtures (e.g., egg mixture for frittata). I also make dessert (e.g., chop up apples to bake in the oven with cinnamon or make sweets from dates).

We can’t always cook together, though. Jacob has irregular working hours, so on Tuesdays and Thursdays he cooks during the day and works in the evenings, while I cook in the evenings after work. We know beforehand what each of us needs to make that day, so we do it in our own time.

This is what our fridge looks like on a typical Sunday evening when all the food has been prepared.

Storing prepared food

I should also mention storing food. It’s important to store food in a way allows it to stay good and also so you can see what’s in different containers.

We recently bought lots of glass containers, which have the benefit of being transparent, so we can see at a glance what’s in there, and they also don’t leak health-damaging ingredients into our food in the way that plastic containers do. Glass containers are an investment, but I highly recommend them, especially if you like to heat up your food in those containers (for instance, your lunch at work; it’s really not a good idea to heat up food in plastic containers in the microwave because the plastic leaks into your food and messes with your hormonal health, even if the containers are BPA-free). Once we prepare the food, we store it into these containers and put it in the fridge or freezer.

We prepare our lunches in this way, so they’re easy to grab in the morning. I also put our salad dressing in little glass containers, so we take those and pour the dressing over our salad at work instead of doing it beforehand and then eating soggy salad.

Food prep in a nutshell

I can imagine that elaborate food preparation may sound intimidating if you’ve never done it before, but it only takes a couple of iterations to get the hang of it. We spend almost no time on the actual food planning anymore (5-10 minutes a week depending on whether it’s an irregular week) because we have a routine we like.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, there are lots of food prep platforms that can help. I’m aware of a couple: Paleo Leap Meal Plan and Nom Nom Paleo Meal Plan. These tools can save you lots of time, effort, and trial-and-error while you’re still getting used to meal planning, but they are paid. So you need to think what makes the most sense for you to do.

Our food preparation has a couple of stages:

  • Plan meals and associated tasks in our Food Planner;
  • Decide and schedule when each person can cook and what they need to do;
  • Do cooking and meal prep;
  • Store food in fridge or freezer;
  • Enjoy!

It feels amazing to me to cook three times a week but have food ready for every single meal of the week (it only needs to be warmed up). It’s delicious because we eat food we love, but it also saves so much time!

Would you like to try our Food Planner? Let me know if you have any questions or comments. Do you have a different way of handling your cooking, or perhaps you don’t meal prep at all? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Photo from Marisha Manahova

The missing piece for our household’s functioning–Power Hour!

Last week, I wrote about how our household functions well because of the Weekly Review. That really does work well, but there was something else that wasn’t going quite right…

The problem: Non-urgent, nagging tasks

I noticed that some things were falling through the cracks. You know how sometimes an important but non-urgent letter arrives, and you think, “Ah yes, I’ll deal with this,” and in the end you don’t? This was basically what was happening to us.

It happened to Jacob with sending stuff back a couple of times. He ordered a couple of shirts online, tried them on, didn’t like them, and meant to return them. He left them on the dining table, so he could see them easily and thus remember to send them back. But returning them didn’t feel urgent.

I reminded him several times to start the return procedure, but he told me to, “Relax, pumpkin.” Okay, I relaxed. When he decided to return them, he realized that they should have been returned within 15 days, and today was day 16. Too bad. Now we were stuck with unwanted shirts.

I tried to identify the problem. What had gone wrong in this situation? Well, this task didn’t have a time when it could be done. The assumption was that when Jacob had time, he’d get to it. But things that don’t seem urgent or important often don’t get done in a timely manner.

The solution: Power Hour!

And then it hit me: We need to make time to do these things! All kinds of random errands and seemingly unimportant or non-urgent things need a time when they can get done. So I blocked an hour per week on both of our calendars when we can do this. Gretchen Rubin calls this Power Hour, which is a strikingly fitting name.

This is how Power Hour works: throughout the week, we put stuff that needs to be tackled in our Inboxes (a container for each of us), and during Power Hour, we take the stuff out and do what needs to be done. It works surprisingly well because an hour doesn’t feel like a lot of time to dedicate to nagging tasks, but it’s enough to keep things going and not get bogged down by forgotten tasks (or shirts that don’t fit).

This is one of those really practical ideas that seems simple but makes a big difference. At least for us it’s been very helpful. You certainly don’t need to implement this as a couple; one person can benefit from Power Hour just as much.

Would you like to try Power Hour? How do you tackle nagging, non-urgent tasks? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Photo by Rodolfo Clix from Pexels

The Home Weekly Review: Why our household is functioning well

In our home, we manage to get quite a lot of stuff done without too much stress, and we also get to relax and do fun stuff together. How do we do this? The key is the Weekly Review.

There are a couple of things we need to keep track of in our household. Both Jacob and I have work obligations that we need to communicate to each other, irregular working hours, and additional projects that need extra coordination. On the home front, we do substantial meal preparation since we cook all our food (each of us eats out about once per week), and we also exercise 3-4 times per week. Not to mention that we’re getting ready for a baby, which (who knew?) means that we’ve had to do more shopping than we’ve done in years.

How we started

Soon after Jacob and I started dating, we needed to coordinate schedules. We’d usually spend the weekends together, and on Sunday evening, when he was dropping me off, we’d talk about when we’d see each other next. Needless to say, this wasn’t the best time to have that conversation because both of us were trying to remember our schedules for next week off the tops of our heads. This led to lots of back-and-forth texting in the beginning of the week and too much logistics for a fresh couple.

One Sunday afternoon, I suggested a simple idea to him:

“Hey, how about we sit down and look at our calendars now to figure out what we’re doing next week?”

It was super quick and easy. We spent maybe 15 minutes comparing our schedules and figuring out when would be a good time to meet up. We kept this up for months until we moved in together. At that point, there were many more things to discuss, so I proposed adding some structure to the Weekly Review. I adapted it from my own weekly review which I do for work, and it was surprisingly effective.

We still do the Weekly Review every Sunday. We usually do it in the afternoon (before our meal prep), and it takes 30-60 minutes depending on how many things we need to discuss. Here’s what our Weekly Review looks like.

What we include in our Weekly Review

  1. What did we do this week?
  2. What went well?
  3. What didn’t go so well?
  4. Did things fit our priorities?
  5. What will we do next week?
  6. Food plan
  7. Financial overview

We sit next to each other with our laptops, and we go over the past week according to our calendars. There are several reasons why this exercise is useful:

  • It reminds you of everything you’ve done that week;
  • You may remember that you need to follow up on something or finish something up, so you can create a reminder or task to reflect that;
  • You can assess what went well during the week, so you may choose to attend an event you liked again, hang out with people you enjoyed, or continue to apply a time management strategy you tried out;
  • You can also assess what didn’t go so well. Maybe you thought you’d be finished with a task in an hour but in fact it took three; maybe you tried to pack in too many tasks in too short a time and felt stressed or overwhelmed; maybe you didn’t spend enough time on something you find important (such as putting together baby furniture…) or you worked hard but didn’t make time to see your friends.

The past week

I assess my week in this way, and then Jacob assesses his. We try to figure out what we’re happy with from the past week and what we can improve. We can also, of course, make suggestions about the other person’s things or share if something the other person did didn’t work for us.

We also ask ourselves whether what we did in the past week fit our priorities. You can have a very productive and perfectly organized week, but if what you did didn’t make you happy or if you missed something and couldn’t fit it into your life, you need to think about making a change. It’s okay if not each week fits our priorities, but we need to watch out for many weeks in a row feeling unsatisfying or draining. This could add up and lead to burn out, unhappiness, or health problems, so it’s much better to catch it early.

The upcoming week

Then, we move on to the next week. Again, we look at our calendars and discuss what we’re going to do. We discuss any logistical issues or things we may need to coordinate (who needs the car when; when we’re going to see which friends; when we’re going to assemble some baby furniture… do you see a pattern here?).

Then, we also check our tasks and projects (Wunderlist lists and Trello boards) and think about when we may do what. This we can often do individually, but we can also ask the other person in case we need some input. Often, we catch time conflicts in this way and manage to resolve them because there’s enough time (instead of it happening the night before).

We also leave some time as ‘couple time.’ We used to make the mistake where we completely booked ourselves with stuff, up till the end of the evening. It’s easy to do when I wanted to finish a little bit of work after dinner or when Jacob was studying for an extra qualification. In the end, we chose to reserve some time for those things but also leave some time for quality time together. A little bit of time like this a couple of times a week allows us to feel connected even when we’re doing a lot and juggling many other responsibilities at the same time.

Other stuff

Then, we look at our food plan for the upcoming week. I usually make the food plan because I care about eating delicious and non-boring food which is also healthy and makes me feel good. Jacob likes his food to be healthy, but he doesn’t care much for variety; he could eat the exact same weekly menu all year round, but I can’t do that. Thus, I look up cool recipes and add them to our weekly menu to spice things up. This also gets us ready for our meal prep session which follows after the Weekly Review.

Finally, we do a financial overview. We track our spending and use You Need a Budget, an app that helps us reflect on our spending and set budgets and financial goals for ourselves. We check this as part of our Weekly Review to see how we’re doing on different budgets, where we need to stop spending, where we can spend more, or what categories we need to transfer more money to. This also makes us more aware of our spending and how we might like to change that to reflect our priorities better.

Until next week!

And that’s it for the Weekly Review! It has both purely administrative and logistical uses such as time management and planning, and it also facilitates reflecting on our priorities. We both really appreciate the Weekly Review for what it does for our household; seriously, Jacob never wants to skip it because it contributes to a much smoother work- and life-flow. And for me that’s great because what could be more fun on a Sunday afternoon that the Weekly Review?! Really, nothing!

Are you tempted to try the Weekly Review? Do you do something similar in your own way? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Photo by Janina Pieterse

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.

How my husband and I decided to have a baby

We asked ourselves so many questions: “Are we ready to have kids? When is the right time to have a baby?” And perhaps the most difficult of all: “How do we know when we’re ready?”

“Kids are wonderful, but they also completely change your life.” At least that’s what I’ve heard–I have no experience myself, but that’s what people say. If having kids really is such a big life change, how do we decide when the right time is?

As you may have noticed, I like planning. Ironically, having kids is one of the most difficult things to plan in life. Does this mean we shouldn’t plan for it? I don’t think so. We can still create a draft plan and then adapt from there as life happens. One of the most important benefits of creating a plan is that it forces you to clarify to yourself what you want and why.

Early conversations

For Jacob (my husband) and me, talking about kids early on was very helpful. In the beginning of our relationship, we both mentioned that we’d like to have children one day, which was good to know.

A year later, we revisited the topic and decided we didn’t want to wait too long. It was 2017 at the time, so we said we’d probably start trying in 2019. That seemed a long while away, so we were relaxed.

Needless to say, I created three different timetables to visualize how starting at different times may develop over time. If we started trying in January 2019, assuming no complications or issues arose, we could be pregnant by July 2019. That meant the baby would be born by March 2020, and after that I’d take maternity leave (probably around 6 months). Afterwards, I’d resume my PhD by September 2020 and complete it (hopefully!) by the end of 2021. I created a table with the different time periods and also put them on a blank calendar with a yearly overview.

Then I did the same for two other starting dates. If we started trying six months later, everything would get shifted by half a year. In this case, especially if things didn’t happen too quickly, I was coming quite close to the end of my PhD, and being unemployed and pregnant seemed scary to me. And if we started trying once I was close to the end of my PhD, things would get shifted by about a year and a half. While that seemed less stressful (also because it was further away in time), it felt like too long from the present moment.

Is it really time?!

Towards the summer of 2018, we started thinking about it seriously. “Are we really going to start trying for a baby in 6 months?! That’s so soon!” Having a baby had always seemed like a huge deal to me, so it felt like the Earth should stop turning or something. But life was continuing around us at its usual speed: I was in the third year of my PhD, Jacob had started his own chiropractic practice, and we had scheduled our wedding for June 2019. Was it really the right time to have a baby?

At first, I told Jacob, “I think we should wait. I don’t think this is a good time for us to have a child.” He appeared a bit disappointed but conceded that we should start trying only when I was ready.

But then I remembered something a college professor of mine said to me one day: “It’s never the perfect time to have a baby. Don’t wait for the perfect time because it will never come.”

Remembering this stopped me in my tracks. What was I waiting for? We had a roof over our heads (a wonderful apartment, in fact), we were bringing in a decent income, we loved each other, and both of us were emotionally ready to have children. What more did I need?

Would it be better if we waited until after I finished my PhD? Maybe, but then I’d be looking for other jobs, so that would be stressful too. (Also, you can never know how long it will take to complete a PhD, so that’s a risky thing to bet on.) Would it be better if we waited until Jacob had been working at his practice for longer? Maybe, but we weren’t sure if that mattered so much.

Would it be a problem if I were pregnant at our wedding? (Spoiler alert: that was indeed the case.) I thought about this one long and hard. One of the main arguments against being pregnant at your wedding is that you can’t drink alcohol, but that didn’t bother me because I don’t drink alcohol anyway. My biggest issue was whether my wedding dress would look good. I can write much more about how I resolved this, but in the end I think it worked out well. And, finally, I was concerned that people would think we got married only because I was pregnant and not because we truly loved each other. Well, I had to let that go and accept that people would think whatever they want anyway.

Let’s go ahead…

In the end, we decided that the beginning of 2019 was as good a time as any to start trying for a baby. It wasn’t ideal, but it didn’t seem like we were going to find a more perfect moment. So we started, and here I am now, writing this blog post, and our tiny son is kicking excitedly in my belly. Yes, I’m writing about you, little one.

What do you think, how would you know (or how did you know) when you are ready to have kids? 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.