Start the day with intention and finish it with reflection

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed that I needed more intentionality in my day. I was basically reacting to whatever came across my path all day long, and that’s not how I usually do things. Baby crying? Take care of him. Feeling hungry? Eat something. Toys lying scattered on the floor? Tidy up. Package delivered? Open it. Feeling tired? Sleep.

Now, I’m over-simplifying things. I had certain things scheduled such as going to the gym three times a week (ah, the good times when the gym was open…) and going for a walk with William in the stroller every afternoon. But mostly my days felt like a random sequence of events.

There’s technically nothing wrong with having a day full of random events except that it made me feel like I didn’t have a purpose and wasn’t doing anything meaningful with my time.

I felt this very clearly when William was taking a nap and I finally had an hour or so to myself. What should I do? There were so many things I wanted to do! I’d start one thing, only to remember something else and then something else. I was running around like a headless chicken, half-finishing a couple of things, only to hear my baby crying and drop everything to attend to him.

That’s when I instituted the Daily Morning Practice and the Daily Evening Practice. As you might imagine, I don’t have tons of time for these, so they’re short and sweet. I’ve kept to them every day since! These practices are so powerful and at the same time so easy, and they are exactly what I need.

Start the day with My Top 5

Every morning, while having breakfast, I take out my little notebook (it has a llama/alpaca and a sloth on the cover! It’s awesome!). I start by writing the date. That’s important in itself because sometimes I remember there was something planned for today or perhaps I recall it’s someone’s birthday. Then, I check my calendar and my tasks for today. Jacob and I often do this together because we need to coordinate things.

The notebook in which I do my morning and evening practice.

Then, I write down my Top 5. These are the main five things I’d like to do today, and they’re usually very, very simple. These days, I always include “exercise” (during this staycation, I’ve been exercising for about 30 minutes every day), “walk” (I take our baby for a walk every day–we both benefit from the fresh air and sunshine), and “take care of William.” This last one can be fifty tasks on its own and it will happen for sure every day, but I like to include it anyway. I was falling into the trap of taking for granted all the stuff I do for William, and then I was wondering why I’m not very productive on top of that. I had to remind myself that taking care of him is a big job, and the fact that I’m accomplishing it every day is already productive. That’s why I include it in my Top 5 every day.

The other 2 tasks vary day-to-day: they may be something like “write a blog post,” “do the financial review,” or “tidy up the bedroom.” I make sure they’re not impossibly big tasks; it’s really important to keep these manageable. At the same time, it’s nice to be slightly ambitious because it makes me feel energetic and inspired about the day.

Set an intention

I also set an intention for the day. It’s something that I want to remember throughout the day and let it guide my thoughts and behavior.

These days, my intention often is to “be kind.” It’s super simple, but it encompasses so much. If I’m feeling frustrated, remember that I don’t need to take it out on someone else (usually Jacob, my husband, since he’s around all the time). If someone is being not-so-nice to me, give them the benefit of the doubt: maybe they’re having a hard time. If my baby is crying, that’s not a reason to get annoyed; he (probably) genuinely needs me.

Complete the day with reflection…

At the end of the day, I open up my notebook again and look at my Top 5. I check off the things I’ve completed and maybe add an extra task or two that I’ve managed to do. This shows me how much I’ve accomplished in that day even if it doesn’t feel that way (if the day was chaotic, went differently from expected, etc.).

Then, I write down a take-away message. These are one or two sentences about something I’ve learned that day or a conclusion I’ve come to. Sometimes it’s linked to the intention I set in the morning, and other times it’s completely separate.

These take-away messages can be profound (e.g., “changing my perspective changes everything”) or practical (e.g., “sleeping one hour more in the morning does wonders for my energy”).

Here is a sample entry from my notebook.

…and gratitude

I also write down five things I’m grateful for that day. I know that five sounds like a lot, but once I start thinking about things to be grateful for, many come to mind. It’s a wonderful way to reflect on and complete the day.

By taking a few minutes for these practices every day, I feel that I’m much more focused and intentional while going about my day. I still respond to the circumstances that come about, but I keep in mind what’s important and what I’d like to do that day. In the end, I don’t think it makes me much more productive, but it makes all the difference in my attitude. At the end of the day, I don’t need to be more productive to be happy; rather, I need to be content with what I’ve accomplished and be happy with what I already have.

Habits that can help you get through these exceptional times

At 10:47 am, you wake up. Your first thought is, “I’m late for work!” and then you realize you’re not going to work. You’re working from home, which is a very flexible idea. A wave of relief washes over your body. You enjoy your bed, lazily scrolling through social media. Some time later, you get up, eat something, check the news, and get scared because of the spread of COVID-19. It feels like things got even worse overnight; that’s the feeling you get every morning.

To distract yourself from the unpleasant feeling of anxiety, you look at some funny quarantine-themed memes and maybe even some cat videos (honestly, I love both of these!). By that time, it’s already noon, so you do some work. You feel like you’re falling behind with your work, but at the same time, there isn’t any real urgency, so you slowly chug along.

At the end of the day (or maybe even throughout the day), you check the news and feel anxious again. You finish the day with a vague feeling of anxiety that stems from the state of the world and the lack of real progress in your work.

And, I’d also argue, that anxiety is compounded by the fact that you haven’t felt anchored during your day: there is no structure to give you a feeling of stability and calm in the midst of the storm. In such exceptional times when our usual habits are disrupted, some stability in our lives is even more important to calm our minds. Here are the basic habits that can help.

Get regular sleep

Set a bedtime for yourself and stick to it. If you go to bed by 11 pm every night, your body will get used to that bedtime, and you will also naturally wake up around the same time the next day. Soon you will feel rested, which will do wonders for your health, mood, and energy.

Eat good food

If you have access to good food in your local supermarket, make use of it. Eating food that works well with your body makes you feel better, gives your energy, and improves your health. If you’re into cooking, you can use the extra time at home to make delicious meals. I’m challenging myself to cook one new recipe per week! Let’s see how it goes.

You don’t have to be into cooking to eat well, though. You can buy ready-made meals from the supermarket or order from local restaurants that are open for take-away and delivery. Do whatever works for you to eat food that makes you feel good and enjoy it.

Stay hydrated

You need to drink enough water, period. You know it’s true. I’d add that in order to stay hydrated, you need to get enough electrolytes as well. Check your sodium, potassium, and magnesium intake and adjust if necessary.

Tip: If you notice that when you drink a lot of water, you pee it all out, you probably need to add electrolytes. Start by adding half a teaspoon of sea salt or Himalayan salt to a glass of water and see if that helps.

Move your body

Go for a walk. Go for a run or a bike ride. Do some stretches. Work out at home. Dance in your living room. Do some gardening. Even though gyms are closed, we can still move our bodies.

A picture of us out for a walk on a sunny afternoon.

Be social

In these times of isolation, finding ways to feel socially connected is more important than ever. There are several things I’m doing to stay connected to people at this time:

  • Family meals. We have at least one meal together as a family a day. This is easier now that we’re all at home, but, since we have a young baby, we can still end up eating at random times and not sitting together, so we have to intentionally avoid that.
  • Call someone. I make a point of calling someone every day. It may be a call to a family member (especially to my grandmas since they are staying alone in their apartments all day long) or a video call with a friend. Since we’re all at home now, it’s easy to catch up with friends even if they’re in different time zones from us.
  • Go for a walk with a friend. I’ve recently had the idea of going for walks with friends who live nearby. We walk together, keeping our 1.5-meter distance, and chat while we get our bodies moving and, in my case, my 4-month-old son naps in the stroller I’m pushing. It’s a win-win-win.
  • Join your colleagues in a virtual coffee room. I have to admit that I have yet to do this because I feel overwhelmed by the idea of socializing with multiple colleagues while also taking care of my baby. But for people with more regular circumstances, it sounds like a great idea to have some (non-)work-related banter virtually.

Have some me-time

As things get crazy and unusual, especially if you have kids at home, try to have some me-time during the day. Some people find this in the early morning before everyone else wakes up. Others find it in the middle of the day if they go for a walk, read a book, or watch a video.

My me-time is currently in the evenings after we’ve had dinner and we’ve put little William to sleep. I’m not usually an evening person, but I now thoroughly enjoy the golden hours from 7:30 to 9:30 pm when I can read, write, watch stuff, or just relax with my husband.

If I don’t have me-time for several days in a row, I start to feel overwhelmed by even the smallest things. But if I’ve had some time to myself, I am better able to face whatever comes my way (such as a hungry baby at 3 am or an overly full diaper).

Find gratitude

I know, I know, gratitude is all the rage these days. But it’s true: grateful people are happy people. I personally like to write down five things I’m grateful for every night before bed, and they need to be specific things from that day. This means that throughout the day I’m looking for these little nuggets of joy to be grateful for. This changes the lens of my perception, so I can notice the positive things instead of focusing on the negatives. (This doesn’t mean that we don’t notice negative things–of course we do! We don’t avoid the bad; rather, we actively search for the good.)

How about you? What habits are helping you to stay afloat? Share by commenting below.

Tidy up with purpose and not out of compulsion

We often tidy up because we are fed up with the way things are and we need to make a change. But we’d better approach our home and belongings with a sense of purpose.

A few weeks ago, on a Tuesday evening, I placed my dinner on the table and set up my tablet to watch an episode or two on Netflix. I had a new series suggestion, Tidying up with Marie Kondo. “Oh, no, no, no,” I thought to myself. “I can’t watch this, or I’ll turn into the tidying monster again.”

The perfectionist at home

When I lived by myself, everything had a specific place, and things were, almost always, in their exact place. I had a shelf for all my spices, and they were all arranged in rows, with the labels facing precisely forward. When friends came to visit, they marveled at my tidy, organized closets, cupboards, and shelves. They also thought I was a little crazy.

But more importantly, when something wasn’t in its right place, it made me stressed. I couldn’t let it go, and it gave me an unpleasant, gnawing feeling, like it was pulling me to fix it. And, inevitably, fix it I did. Every evening, I was organizing my clothes or cleaning the kitchen counters.

I was operating from the flawed belief that once everything is tidied up perfectly, I will finally be content and at ease. But that never actually happened. When I was done cleaning or organizing for the day, I tried not to look around for fear that I’d see something which had to be “fixed.” Because I was compulsively reacting to things that bothered me, I had to immediately eliminate the thing making me uneasy. There was no space to step back and let it go.

My spices were way more organized than this.
Image credits: Pixabay (CC0 license)

Exposure therapy

When my husband (then boyfriend) moved in with me, I experienced mild shock for a few months. I knew I couldn’t ask him to live by my unreasonable standards because I realized they weren’t helpful. But the fact that things were not in the way I liked them really bothered me.

I now understand that I was basically going through exposure therapy. I was being faced with the things that caused me stress, and little by little, their strength over me subsided. I didn’t have to fix things right away because even if things were not perfect, that was okay. Nowadays we have a reasonably tidy home, unbearably messy according to my previous standards but reasonably organized according to my current ones.

I still sometimes get annoyed by a messy pile of boxes or clothes, but I no longer react to the compulsive pull to fix it immediately. Instead, I can say, “Hey, I don’t like that pile over there, can you please take care of it?” and sooner or later, he’ll do it. Or, if it’s something I need to take care of it, I’ll set aside time on my calendar when I can tackle the issue.

The intentional approach to tidying & organizing

The goal is not to feed the compulsory need to tidy up immediately. Instead, the idea is to reflect purposefully on what we’d like and how we can make that happen.

I appreciate that about Marie Kondo’s method: she encourages people to think about what they want to keep and what they don’t, how they want to make use of their space and how they want their home to feel. It’s not about being super strict and keeping everything perfect all the time; rather, it’s about treating our home and our possessions with intention.

In the end, I am watching Tidying up with Marie Kondo. It has inspired me to clean out/organize a couple of areas of our home, but the effect has been very different from before. Instead of turning into the “fixing monster,” I’m much gentler to our home and to myself. My guiding goal is to make the space more pleasant, cozy, and usable instead of needing to eliminate and make it good enough, as though it wasn’t good enough already. And, most of all, I am grateful for such a wonderful home.

What do you think about tidying up? Do you have a tidying monster within, or are you quite content with how things are? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

My efforts were recognized even though I didn’t expect it

Yesterday, I won the PhD Award of the Donders Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging (DCCN) for 2018. The prize recognizes someone who has contributed to the DCCN to make it a more vibrant, pleasant, and inspiring place. I was surprised and very, very happy.

Me after receiving the award and a beautiful bouquet of tulips. Yay!

Two days ago, on Wednesday, I received an email from Tildie Stijns, the secret organizational force behind the DCCN: “Are you coming to the DCCN centre meeting tomorrow?”

I was confused. Why did she care if I’d be at the centre meeting? I responded that I couldn’t go because I had a writing course at that time.

“But you must go! It’s important.” said Tildie. Well, if Tildie says something, you do it. So I went to the centre meeting on Thursday.

Receiving the award

My friends Lieke and Patricia were convinced that I’d get the DCCN PhD award. I didn’t dare believe it because I’d be disappointed if it turned out that wasn’t the case. They spent the whole lunch break making fun of how cautious I was.

At the centre meeting, I realized I was getting the award when Peter Hagoort said, “The person we’re giving the award to this year has done a number of things, among which organizing a time management course.” There is no other way, I thought, it’s me!

From then on I was just happy. It felt so good to receive the award, and my friends and colleagues congratulated me afterwards, clearly happy for me. Coincidentally, my supervisors, Eelke Spaak and Floris de Lange, were sitting next to me during the meeting and also expressed their congratulations. I was beaming the whole time, my face warm and flushed.

Appreciated and surprised

The truth is that I was genuinely surprised that I received the award. What had I done to be of service to the centre? Peter Hagoort mentioned the Organization Bootcamp (which is starting today! more on that soon), contributing to Donders Wonders and leading it during the summer, and performing a monologue about ethics in science (you can read it here).

But I had done all those things simply because I thought it would be cool to do them. I hadn’t done them thinking, “Hmm, this would be good to do, so I can get the DCCN PhD award.” I guess that’s exactly the point.

I hadn’t expected people to appreciate the things I did. It wasn’t necessary; I did what I did because I enjoyed it. And then it was even sweeter when the recognition came, and I really appreciated it.

Thanks to many people

When I told my mom about the award in the evening, she said, “Wow, this Donders place is such a great place to work. They even pay attention to these things.”

And she’s right. I’d like to thank many people: the DCCN directorate for giving me the award, the award committee for picking me, and the colleagues who nominated me for, well, nominating me. And my friends and family for being by my side and sharing my nervousness as well as my joy. The Donders is such a great place to work (and live 😉 )!

Excitement

I’m off now, today’s a big day… I barely slept last night because the first session of the bootcamp is taking place in the afternoon, and I still need to practice my talk (never believe me if I say I always stick to my schedule!).

Then in the evening, we have the Donders Karaoke!!! Oh, I can’t wait! I was warming up my vocal cords in the shower this morning, so hopefully the neighbors enjoyed the performance. As the lady living below me once said, “I really enjoy your singing. Are you a soprano?” Oh, the embarrassment in that moment… 😀

And in the weekend, I’ll plan how to enjoy my prize! The award is a fancy dinner in a restaurant of my choice, so I’ll be checking out all the cool restaurants in the area. Woohoo!