Intentional Living: A Sample Morning Routine

Firstly, a mere word on routines. Routines are founded on habits, and part of habit creation requires that one just bites the bullet and trains the self to have muscle memory. I was not born with great habits, nor am I always good about them. Habits continually shift, depending on your needs of the season. In my case, it’s due to an ever-changing philosophy. My list undergoes a remodeling quite frequently. I find that I work best when my habits have triggers – events that remind me to do something. Additionally, I have found that the reward system does not work well on me. I don’t care for rewards too much, so they are not good motivators. The best motivator for me lies in the doing. An afternoon in idleness makes me glum, so routines help me stray from that negative territory. Pursuit of happiness, et al. Of course, your routine formation and motivations may be different. This difference will change the way your routines are made, or even which ones you end up adopting. When I list my routines here, it is not the end-all by any means. Consider it just a sharing of what I do.

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For me, my morning routine looks like this:

Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays

  • 6am – Trigger: Theo the cat meowing –> Habit: Get up to feed the cat.
  • 6:01am – Trigger: Turn on the kettle on the stove –> Habit: Don’t go back to bed, lest you forget the kettle.
  • 6:05 am – Trigger: Kettle has hot water –> Habit: Make a pour over to take back to bed.
  • 6:10 am – 6:20 am – Trigger: Coffee in hand –> Habit: Sip on coffee and stare out the bedside window as the world wakes. Daydream, plan the day, reminisce on the past, what have ye.
  • 6:20am – Trigger: Coffee is awakening the senses  –> Habit: Read a book or write.
  • 7 am – Trigger: Mike starts his shower –> Habit: Get up and start putting last night’s dishes away and preparing breakfast
  • 7:20 am – Trigger: Mike gets out of the shower –> Habit: Eat breakfast together, pack lunches
  • 8:00 am – Trigger: Mike leaves for work –> Habit: Yoga session
  • 8:45 am – Trigger: Yoga is over –> Habit: Wash the morning dishes, sweep the floors, clean the house
  • 9:00am – Trigger: Dirty from cleaning and yoga –> Habit: Get ready for work.

Leave for the dental office at 9:00am.

Tuesdays and Thursdays

  • 6am – Trigger: Theo the cat meowing –> Habit: Get up to feed the cat.
  • 6:01 am – Trigger: Pull out the mixer –> Habit: Mix bread
  • 6:15am – Trigger: Bread mixed –> Habit: Make Coffee
  • 6:30am – Trigger: Need to add salt to dough –> Habit: Read afterwards or write
  • 7am – Trigger: Need to turn dough –> Habit: Start making breakfast
  • 7:30am – Trigger: Need to turn dough –> Habit: Eat breakfast and prep lunches
  • 8am – Trigger: Need to turn dough –> Habit: Yoga session
  • 8:30 am – Trigger: Need to turn dough –> Habit: write, write, write
  • 9am – Trigger: Need to turn dough –> Habit: More blog work
  • 9:30am – Trigger: Need to turn dough –> Finish computer work.
  • 10am – Trigger: Shape dough –> Habit: Start the rest of the day

The reward is  singular and the same: A productive morning by the time the day actually starts.

If you are having difficulty with changing habits, sometimes it is best to rely on others to make us accountable. Why not try creating a habit with a group? Lastly, in order to create a habit, one must have belief – in the cause, as well as the ability to change.

Care to share your morning routines?

Need help making one? May I suggest the following resources: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg and The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp.

 

Intentional Living: A Separate Peace Space

Growing up, I thought working from home would be a dream. However, I craved it not unaware of its demons, too. When I was fifteen years old, my father who had always worked in a small cubicle as a sales engineer began working from home. Some benefits of this change included nixing the daily commute, always having a pitcher of brewed coffee at arm’s reach, having access to isolation or silence when needed, avoiding work drama, and having a flexible schedule that made him available when we kids needed him. Ironically, its shortcomings also include having a fridge full of food at arm’s reach, having family drama, and always needing to be available once the kids got home from school. I watched him struggle between sitting down to get a block of work done and getting up to complete a list of chores before my mom got home. I saw him cringe every time the dog barked as one of us strolled through the door while he was taking a conference call. He prepped breakfast and lunches in the morning between emails, spilled coffee around his work laptop, and took breaks a few too many times walking the dog and turning on the TV.

So here I am, fifteen years later, double the age I was then (GULP!), following in my father’s footsteps. When I’m not at my dental office taking care of teeth, I am working from home as a writer for this blog and other blogs, and an at-home baker for a bakery that I dreamt up out of nothing. Sometimes, my writing gets interrupted by a mid-morning snack, while other times I feel the need to complete household chores in between bread turns. I am going through similar difficulties with creating a healthy work environment at home as my father before me.

Of course, the situation looks much different for a person without kids. I can find silence easier, have more isolation, am without the family drama, and have a flexible schedule. It helps that one of my days off lands on a weekday while the other members of our household are out of the home, giving me full reign over my own space. Yet it still takes a certain level of discipline to resist the calling of a sink full of dirty dishes, the running of a vaccuum, or the organizing of an entire home … a discipline which is not as strong as I would like for it to be. It requires a delicate balance for switching on and switching off. For the sake of productivity, it is important (for me) to follow a set number of guidelines that create a division between my work environment and my home environment, the most important of which I suggest here. A separate space, for a separate peace.

Create A Designated Work Zone

The best part about going to work is the fact that the environment you enter is strictly professional. You dress professionally, act professionally, and speak professionally. At home, however, you are dressed in your sweats, you act as if no one is watching, and you mutter curses under your breath. When your work zone consists of a bed or a couch rather than a designated desk, the productivity greatly decreases lest you feel too comfortable in the sheets or fall asleep amongst the pillows. And just as we isolate ourselves to a place of work when we commute, it is equally important to isolate our work to a designated space when we don’t. The physical boundaries between work and home are imperative. My father struggled because his work desk was at our dining table, where us kids always gathered to eat, do homework, and watch TV. He set his laptop in the middle of our home to be more involved with family life, not realizing how much it disrupted professional life. I am lucky in that the distractions are much less when I type from the edge of a dining table. A table itself is my designated space. Whether it be at the edge of the dining table, at my husband’s unoccupied gaming desk, or on the table on our patio, the designation itself lies in the physical object. When it comes to baking, it is even easier since I must work within the confines of my kitchen.

Keep a Tidy Space

The habits that make up a creative space certainly includes tidyness. Keeping a tidy space helps with clearing the mind. The less the mind has to process, the less it is distracted, and the more open it is to insight, imagination, and order – all ingredients to productive creativity. This is part of the reason why I keep bare walls in my home. Since it is also my work space, I need it to be conducive to work. The same goes for when I bake. I need to first put away everything in the kitchen that does not involve baking. I cannot bake for the bakery and cook my own meals at the same time. Once dishes are used for the bakery, I have to wash them right away, which is unlike my methods when I cook for myself. Tidyness is a bigger key to a successful at-home work environments than most people think.

Be Near the Light

When I listed my three favorite places to write, I listed the three areas in our home closest to natural light. It has been said that light positively affects our mood and productivity due to our intrinsic, age-long connection with its presence and however apocryphal that may be, I would agree that when it comes to creative work, this is especially true and applicable to me. When it’s dark and gloomy, my mind tends to cloud over too. I lose the heat that makes my joints want to move. When there’s light, I feel motivated and inspired. So I set myself up for success each time. I choose work spaces that feed my creative soul. I position myself wherever there is the most sun, pull back the blinds, pull aside the windows, and shun the dark. And then, I begin.

Respect Timelines

This is by far the best advice when it comes to setting a boundary between work and play. It is also the most difficult boundary to achieve. A certain level of resilience is required in order to successfully switch on and off between tasks. I’m the first to admit that I fail sometimes. It’s so easy to think of something to write about and to ignore the time set aside for reading a book before bed in order to chase that thought. It is easy to all of a sudden accept a bakery order because you are at home anyway, technically available to bake, even if it means sacrificing your personal time. I’ve cancelled staycation plans, plans to watch a movie at home with my husband, coffee dates with colleagues, all because something came up “at work”. But working at home means that you DO have the final say. You ARE in control. Until you ignore all timelines, and then you are not. Something that I have learned but have still yet to master. My suggestion? Be intentional with your timeline rules. Be strict and treat yourself as both an employee and a boss by holding yourself accountable. Learn how to say no. Learn how to switch off. It takes great will power to create mental barriers, but create them we must, or else we may fail to create at all.

How about you guys? I would love to hear of ways in which you create a boundary between work and play. Feel free to comment below!

Intentional Living: How Minimalism Creates Happiness

I believe that many people live their lives in search of happiness. I also believe that the search for happiness is a misguided path. The way I see it, our souls are actually in search of something else. It isn’t happiness that we seek, but rather, noveltyHappiness just happens to be a by-product of a novel experience.

It is unfortunate that many companies target consumers who think that the search for happiness is what we live for. Companies sell the idea that purchasing new products will bring buyers happiness, as if somehow happiness can be found in an article of clothing, or a brand new car. We are deluged into thinking that, indeed, happiness does lie in new things because the invitation of a new thing into our homes is a novel experience, and so, for a moment, we are happy. We are confusing the two. We must stop to realize or remember that the joy we felt when trying on a new outfit at the store was quite short-lived. And the thrill we felt when driving a new car died with its first scratch. When we pause to think of these truths, it becomes easy to know that our things do not actually keep us happy. But knowing this is not enough. It is arguably more important to understand why.

When we buy something new, it is a novel experience. But once something we wanted suddenly becomes ours, it shifts our perspective. Our minds adjust and the thing that was once new immediately becomes old. For example, we forget about that new tank top we bought at the beginning of summer, and we get too lazy to wash our cars. We start to suddenly covet OTHER things. The mind is a fickle thing.

Understanding that our brains adapt to the current state (and in a rather quick manner) means that we are aware of the ways in which we can control our ability to be happy. Having more makes ourselves used to the stimuli of novelty, which decreases our perception of happiness with each additional thing. Much in the same way, having less actually returns us to a level of excitability with the smallest of stimuli. It lowers the bar that triggers our ability to have joy. In lowering this bar, we can become happy, more.

Fugio Sasaki, author of Goodbye, Things is one of the most celebrated minimalists in Japan. He has decluttered almost all of his things, living with very little. He is a great exemplar of reducing down to the bare necessities. For example, when it comes to towels, he now uses a single hand towel for drying his hands, his body, his dishes, and more. By getting rid of the fluffy towels that many homes house, he has reset his bar to just the one hand towel. His comments how quickly he adjusted to this tiny towel being the norm. Note that the mind does not perceive this towel as subpar. Our ability to adjust for variance is a gift, in that way. But, when Fugio does use a nicer towel to wipe his hands with (say, at a restaurant or at a friend’s house), that experience leads to a spark of joy. A momentary feeling of happiness. A perception of luxury, one that a person who regularly uses such towels will not experience. Therefore, by ridding ourselves of the excesses in life, by becoming minimalist, we are giving ourselves more opportunities to have novelty in our lives.

It is human for things to never feel enough, and that’s okay. In order to make life enough, we need to work at being more aware. And minimalism is the practice that attunes us to that higher awareness. Having less is a practice. It doesn’t come natural … not to me, anyway. It’s an intentionality that gives us the opportunity to live in a certain space. And that space allows for more opportunities to be happy.

 

A Guide to Staycations

For two and a half years since we’ve said the words “I do”, we’ve spent every holiday getting away to see the world. This Labor Day, we’ve decided to slow it down from the traveling and relish in the beauty of our home. We had just returned from three back-to-back travel destinations (Seattle, Juneau, and Santa Rosa) and I was feeling a bit like I was missing out on the joys of being home. Perhaps that’s a sign of aging? We thought it’d be great to try and re-create vacation vibes in our own city… and our own living room. While everyone is fighting for limited space on highways tonight, higher hotel and flight prices over the weekend, and surely every last little bit of summer sun, maybe you could turn your home into a vacay oasis too, without opening your wallets or car doors (too often).

We always took off whenever we had a bit of freedom from work, which was in essence every holiday that has ever been granted, because we felt that time was precious and tough to come by. So when it finally did, we seized the opportunity. But that’s exactly it! Time IS tough to come by, even in the comforts of our own home. Actually, ESPECIALLY in the comforts of my own home, where I do multiple jobs as a home baker and home writer after long shifts at the dental office. And now that we are homeowners, I have finally come to feel that there can be more time spent valuing this sanctuary, in a city that we so love.

Yet staycations are a tricky thing. The trick lies in re-creating the feeling that you are actually on vacation. There are a few things we feel when we are away – relaxed as we are freed from our daily responsibilities, excited as we explore to see something new, and warm as we connect with others whether that be friends and family that we are traveling with, newly met locals, or fellow wanderers. Sometimes, traveling is a way for us to simply escape from our norm. Whatever it is that you seek when you travel, you must also seek in a staycation. Your mind must be in its own wonderland and you must be focused on establishing that feeling of “elsewhere”, lest you return to work after the long weekend feeling like you’ve wasted your staycation cleaning up around the house.

To focus on creating a REAL staycation, you have to clearly know in your mind what you want to achieve. What is this staycation meant to be?

This is for all those times you had to spend balancing work and life, getting home after a long day only to complete a list full of chores. This is for the days you wished you could wake up late, and lounge in bed all morning long like a teenager on a Saturday, contemplating which would draw you out of bed first – the beating rays from a high sun or the smell of bacon and eggs. This is a time for sitting down and reading an entire book from beginning to end, undisturbed. This is for staring out of a window instead of at a screen, for playing with your cat and not giving up when he wins. This is for having breakfast in bed, and possibly never leaving the bed at all.

Here, a few guidelines for creating the perfect staycation.

Break Routine

The secret to feeling like you’re on vacation when you’re actually where you were yesterday is to distance yourself from as many daily occurrences as possible. Avoid doing the laundry, sweeping the floors, organizing your shelves, if only for one weekend. If anyone could understand how hard this first step is, it would be me. But it is essential to creating success. A way in which we’ve prepped for this at Casa Debtist is by doing all the laundry on the weekdays prior. Now we have a full closet, freshly steamed. We’ve cleaned our home as well, so our floors are looking polished, our bathroom sparkling. The sheets are newly washed, without any cat hair (for now) and the bed will be made when our staycation starts. I’ve finished my organizing in the kitchen, a project that I was hoping to tackle for some time, and the counters are finally bare, the appliances wiped down, and the dishware beautifully displayed behind closed cabinet doors, just the way I like them. Last week, we purchased enough groceries to last us through the holiday weekend, plus a bottle of wine, our attempt at feigning luxury for under $10. Usually, the cat wakes us up at 6am on the dot every morning and we get up and go about our day, but perhaps we’ll crawl back into bed and banish the sun for a few more hours. If you typically prefer showers, maybe soak in a bath with a bath bomb? Color the tub pink! I don’t normally have scented things around the house, but for this weekend I’ve situated PF candles of in each room, for lighting during the most mundane tasks of showering, lying in bed, and reading a book. In essence, we are trying to act as if we are waking up to a buffet breakfast on the resort of an island or awaiting a foot massage at a spa. In fact, I would be first to admit that part of the allure of travel time is the beautiful AirBNB homes that we get to live in, which goes hand-in-hand with the façade that we were living some other life. So I guess staycationing requires also that nostalgic façade, but in the comforts of our own home.

Avoid Screens

This is a rule that was important to establish in our home. Mike is a frequent Redditor and avid gamer (especially after the release of World of Warcraft this past Monday) and I am a workaholic who types words onto a digital page all day long. But when we travel, we don’t have access to computers. My minimalist self abhors at the idea of lugging around a heavy laptop, so I never do. Which means, more times off screens and looking at each other in the eye. This weekend, we’ve decided on a zero-computer policy. I’ve got a few blog posts with publish dates on queue, and the rest can wait. Which gets doing other things, or better yet, nothing at all.

Connect with People

Traveling has always been about connecting with people. At first, we were trying to connect with locals and other expats, probing their minds for other world views. Lately though, we’ve been traveling with friends and family, and relishing in the moments that can steal from the everyday, moments that we once shared more frequently when we were young. This weekend, we wanted to re-create the Santa Rosa trip we had only two weeks ago. On Saturday, our friends are invited to our abode for a gathering of sorts. We plan to go out to dinner as a group, then come home and drink leisurely with a game of beer pong as a few Switches are streaming multi-player games on our projector screen. In essence, re-creating our college days when none of us had jobs, we were all poor still figuring things out, and life was at its prime. On Sunday, we have a gathering at an Aunt’s beach house with Mike’s whole side of the family. Lounging on their patios overlooking the ocean, eating veggies and dip and having dinner outdoors under twinkling lights as the sun sets over glasses of wine.  Lastly, Monday is dedicated to Mike and I, discovering new coffee shops and restaurants, lounging in bed and in the sand, and watching movies in the theatres regardless of whether there’s a movie worth spending our free movie tickets on.

Act Like A Tourist In Your Own City

Aside from getting away from the daily grind and connecting with people, the final perk of traveling is having excitement in discovering something new. Mike and I live in a city but due to our frugality and my love for cooking meals, we recommend the same three restaurants when friends come over to eat. This weekend, we’ve decided to get to know our neighborhood more. We wish to try a new coffee shop, dine at a new restaurant (with friends), and act like a tourist in our own town. There are so many spaces to discover yet and we want to learn everything we can about our surrounding area. Plus, part of our plan to avoid daily habits is to cook as minimally as possible, for less clean up! So, making the city our symbolic kitchen and living room will help with that.

If you’ve actually read through this whole post, I’d wager that you haven’t made plans for the holiday yet. Or perhaps you’re considering bailing on those plans. If so, I hope this helps with creating an alternative to travel. And if you ARE getting away, maybe this will inspire you to stay next time. Maybe your home (and your wallet) will thank you for it. Either way, we wish you a happy holiday.

Intentional Living: Half Year Resolutions

Part of mindful living is a constant evaluation of where we are currently. Without the guilt. Without the need to be elsewhere. But with an intention to hone in on the parts that don’t feel aligned. There are sometimes when I think, “No that’s not right. It does not FEEL right. Maybe it’s time for change.” Other times, I simply wonder, “What if…?” So then we try something new and we learn something new. And the process continues.

It’s July and I thought maybe I’d jot down a few. I’ve had more time this past month to allow myself observation. Just a note-taking of sorts. I don’t actually make a point to have half-year resolutions. It just so happens that I want to change a bulk number of things, and it’s still July. So call it what you will.

Mid-year habit shifts. Considered for the rest of 2019.

  • Dinners on the patio for the rest of summer. A few days ago, I lamented to my husband how quickly the summer has passed us by. Barring our trip to Alaska, there have been no beach trips, pool-side reads, sandy-books, or bonfire pits. What a shame. So, in an effort to enjoy the left-over-summer on a daily basis, we’ve made a new rule to have dinners on the patio for the rest of it. More opportunity to breathe air, be outside, soak in some Vitamin D, and sweat in tanks and tees.
  • Rise early each morning to write. I have already written about how to make early mornings productive, but I have not yet dedicated them to one activity. To try, I wanted to dedicate my early mornings to writing. Early mornings are when my mind is most clear, my obligations are the least, and my distractions are limited to the cat kneading the sheets.
  • No screen time 1 hour before bed. Studies that show that bright screens can affect our ability to sleep (and sleep well) have inspired me to say, no more. In line with the previous point, I used to do a lot of my writing at night. This forces me to do it some other time, hence the mornings when it’s better anyway. I predict this will be helpful, too, with the avoidance of Insta-scrolling and web-surfing. Instead…
  • Read before bed each night. I’ve replaced screen time with book time. I’m a routines person, and sometimes creating a routine is part of simple living, Decision fatigue IS a real thing, after all. The routine in the evenings are this. When it’s time to charge the phone and close the laptop, I turn on the kettle to make myself some tea. If my husband is sitting on the computer facing our bed, I situate myself on the couch. Vice versa, if he’s dabbling with a piano or guitar on the couch, I curl up on the bed. Either way, I’ve got a cup of tea cooling to room temp as I read a book. I never drink my tea right away. I have a cat’s tongue and prefer room temperature for most drinks. I just let the aromatic smells waft my way, as I read a book. After about twenty minutes, I’ll hold the mug and sip the tea, never chug. You know what I mean? The ritual takes about forty five minutes, by which time I fill a glass of water to set by the nightstand and hop into bed for an early night’s sleep.
  • Keep all surfaces clear. I have an awful tendency to act like a tornado. I blame my multi-tasking habit. A day off could start with a clean slate, and by the time Mr. Debtist comes home from work, the entire 12 foot dining table is covered with stuff, the kitchen sink is full of dishes, and the cat is probably meowing for food. But I truly believe that a house is a reflection of a person’s mind. I find that the days when I do very few are the days when the house is most clean, which coincide with when I feel most calm. So a simple gesture to take on is to keep all surfaces clear. An action to remind me to slow down, to re-assess, and to take the time to have a calm environment in which I thrive most.
  • Limit Instagram to 15 minutes per day. I am really bad with self-control when it comes to Instagram. It’s an addictive platform for me that’s intertwined with a well-formed habit. However, after reading this book on the power of habits, I realize why that is so and what I need to do to change it. In order to break a habit, one needs to identify the pleasure trigger that keeps one coming back. For Instagram, it’s that dose of public approval. It’s true that I am highly motivated by a people-pleasing streak, ever since I was a child. It made me a teacher’s pet, an aunt’s favorite, compatible with classmates, et cetera. It’s a curse being a yes-woman. But in recognizing that, I know exactly what to change. I give the excuse that I need Instagram to grow the blog or my bakery, neither of which is likely true. What I need to do is limit Instagram to 15 minutes per day, the fifteen minute opportunity for me to share something about either venture, and to redirect my public approval to somewhere more productive (and dare I say, REAL?). Perhaps more interaction with people willing to buy my bread. Perhaps more public approval from scheduled interviews, blog features, and answering questions from financial independence seekers. Maybe it’s finding a finance community in my actual community. Putting an actual face to a person, listening to a live voice. Going back to reality, woah there goes gravity.
  • Walk to work every day. After two years of intentional living, I can FINALLY say that I have created a life where I do not need to commute for work. For any of my work. I have never been more proud of this and a blog post about it is to come shortly. The resolution is to walk to work every day for the rest of 2019. Get rid of the need for a car. I switched my dental office from one that’s 25 miles, 40 minutes away to one that is 0.6 miles, 10-minute-walk away. I quit Rye Goods which was a 16 mile, 15 minute commute and committed to the humble start of my own bakery in my own kitchen. My dog sitting venture requires dog owners to drop off their dogs at our house, which eliminates the need to travel to other people’s homes. And off course, this writing thing that I do comes from the end of our dining table or on our leather hand-me-down couch. I’ve wanted to eliminate my commute since I first heard about it on ChooseFI, and it took a while to make all the right adjustments, but I’ve finally accomplished it. Meanwhile, the average commute for a Californian remains to be 1 hour a day, to and from work. The average commute for the nation remains at 32 miles a day, to and from work. Not only do commutes make people less happy, they also make people less healthy. Static posture decreases the cardiac healthy of a person significantly. Meanwhile, I get to be outdoors, breathing fresh air, walking a brisk walk to and from work every day, as my car sits in the garage, not gaining mileage, needing less up-keep… and didn’t I say this was going to be a separate post?
  • Do fifteen push-ups a day. I yoga each day but I cannot get myself to have a better exercise routine. I don’t like to run, I don’t want to pay for a gym membership, and while swimming is my forte, we have no pool around. My excuses are endless. But adding a simple routine of fifteen push-ups a day is a first step. Planning to add more to this, later.
  • Spent time doing nothing. I’m really bad at doing nothing. See point number five. Yet I know that in times of nothingness are where we get the most thinking done. The most organizing of our heads. The most calming of our thudding hearts. So I wish to spend some time doing nothing, every day.
  • Get outdoors. The previous point about walking to work every day will help with this. But still, there is so much of the world we have yet to see. I mean, let’s revisit the lamentation on point 1. I’d like to get outdoors more, and the surrounding downtown does not count.
  • Add in more self-care routines. I have been very bad about self-care but have recently been shown its importance (thank you age for bringing this to my attention). So on top of my already changed facial routine, I have created a list of more mindful things like rubbing lotion on my feet every night before bed, slipping on these earrings my sister-in-law got for me on my thirtieth birthday, wearing sunscreen on my face before facing the sun, making tea in the evening, steaming my clothing… It’s a revelation how much more beautiful life gets with these simple acts.
  • Eat simple, wholesome meals. We cook, every night. But sometimes, when we learn new recipes, we look up complicated ones with one-time uses for bizarre ingredients. Recently, though, we’ve come to appreciate concocting things in 30 minutes or less, using pantry staples stored in mason jars. This book has helped tremendously.
  • Less hobbies, less obligations. This one is a toughie. I suffer from the paradox of choice, not in things, but in identity. I always have. Some would attribute it to my astrology, others to my creative tendency. But I prefer to be a jack of all trades, never honing in on one. I dabble, and don’t allow time for me to excel. It’s a character trait (not flaw). However, after 6 months of chasing whirlwinds, my decision became less hobbies, less obligations. I’m still being pulled towards wanting more, but I think that’s part of knowing yourself and who you’re meant to be. I have to force myself to hold back and take baby steps, even when leaning forward makes me feel like I’m about to fall.

What are some things you’ve noticed lately in your life? Questions I asked myself to get here, for those hoping to get a starting place:

What makes me frustrated?
What do I think are necessities?
When am I most tired? Or excited? Or joyful?
When was the last time I read a book in one sitting?
How does my stomach feel right now?
Which muscles ache? Why is that the case?
When do I feel overwhelm?
How is my relationship with my phone?
How is my relationship with REAL people?
What do I think are most important in my life?
What is hard for me to give up? Why?

Feel free to share with the community what habit shifts you’ve got on your mind.

 

Aspirational Clutter

Seeing as how I manage a blog about how to live with less, you would think that I am very good at de-cluttering my life. Alas alack, there are many forms of clutter and while I do really well with ridding our home from physical clutter and my mind of mental clutter, one type of clutter plagues my heart. I suffer from an intolerable case of aspirational clutter, and it is this clutter that I would argue has impaired my life the most.

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Aspirational clutter invades every aspect of my life, and sufferers will know just how paralyzing it can be. In the physical realm, aspirational clutter includes all the things you purchased that you never use but you hold on to for the “one day I will”s. For example, a surfboard purchased in the hopes of learning how to surf despite being a night owl. Or the outfits that aren’t really your style but maybe when you lose weight or become more comfortable in your skin, or whatever the excuse might be, you might throw it on then. Or in extreme cases, it’s the house located in a posh neighborhood that can’t really be afforded but that can be used to pretend like you are a status above reality. And though the mortgage is killing you and you can barely make the rent after each paycheck, you still funnel even more money into home improvements and invite whoever may grant you their time to show them what you have been able to “buy”. It could be the ski poles purchased by those who hate the cold, or coffee gadgets purchased by tea lovers, it could be the tickets to an opera purchased by opera haters who want to seem “edu-ma-cated”, you see what I mean? Escaping aspirational clutter requires a solid sense of who you really are and an ability to not give two cents about where you think other people want you to be. A practice in the de-cluttering process is actually very helpful with addressing aspirational clutter in the physical sense, and I have honed in on this part over the course of two years and really know what things define me.

In the mental realm, aspirational clutter is the thing that prevents the monkey mind from calming done. As the monkey swings from tree to tree, the human brain swings from to-do list to to-do list. Even meditating is part of the to-do list, and those who suffer from this type of aspirational clutter think about checking off “meditating” in the middle of meditation so that they can move on to the next thing. Aspirational clutter in the mental realm is the barrier between you and the present. Most sufferers live their lives in the future. There is no way to address this type of mental clutter but to train the brain into quieting itself and retreating into the recesses of nothingness. For me, I was able to escape with years of yoga and sitting in solace, which I was luckily always comfortable enough to do. Once in solace, the brain doesn’t just stop, as insomniacs will tell you. Frankly, sometimes, that’s when it wants to speed up most. Sometimes people think that the secret to commanding your brain to behave is to concentrate on the task, but I have found that letting it go is what works best. And giving it time. In the same way you let a child run wild versus trying to control them by telling them to sit still in a corner. Telling them to sit will result in a very twitchy child, but letting them go rampant gets rid of the jitters. Eventually, the energy will be spent and there’s nothing left for them to do but to lay down and rest. Same as the brain. Unfortunately, most people do not give their meditating enough time and space to get to that point.

But after suffering and overcoming both of these, I have found that there is still plenty of work to do. Because the thing I have not yet escaped from is the aspirational clutter that plagues my heart. It’s the one that causes me to dream up multiple lives for myself. It’s the one that pulls me to become a dentist, a dog-sitter, a writer, a baker, a photographer, a teacher, a world traveler, and who knows what else. At the root of it all is essentially a wish to be someone I’m currently not. It’s a suffering that is centered around a mild dissatisfaction with what I’ve accomplished thus far. That’s what aspirational clutter is, a wish to have more than what you do, be somewhere else rather than where you are, or be someone else that you are not.

In my case, it isn’t that I dislike dentistry. But the student debt has affected me so greatly that I have unrest with what dentistry has had to offer versus what it has cost. We all know that I think the trade-off was askew. It is this imbalance that has me searching for something else. I am pursuing jobs and professions that do not require me to return to school. Maybe I’m trying to prove that you can have a meaningful life, job, and purpose without needing formal education. I want to show people that you can start a business, become a writer, or a baker, without needing a business degree, an english course, or culinary school. I think that with the advent of technology, so many things can be self-taught and I would like to rid people of their dependence on formal education systems. But maybe more than this, I want to prove it to myself, because I am so upset at who I am and how I had gotten here.

I remember that time period after New Zealand really well. It was mid January, and I did not want to come back here. I did not want to look at my loans again or go back to work. We just backpacked through farmlands and slept in ramshackled houses surrounded by nature every day. I did not want to go back to being a piece of city living. I came back feeling very depressed. I got sick, for multiple weeks. The weather was damp and gloomy and grey. I kept looking out my window and seeing only flooded streets and homeless people, a contrast to the summer days and green valleys and hills that we had just left behind. Mike was still in a rut at his previous company, and he, too, was feeling a bit depressed at the current state of affairs. I remember reaching out to Sara from Rye Goods when I applied for the job. I said, “I am searching for something to complete my life, but I don’t know what.” When she offered me the gig, I threw myself into it.

So far, I have been doing swell. I’ve managed to continue working four to five days as a dentist, I’ve managed to create this space to write and landed two podcast recordings and a few interviews and features, I’ve established a dog-sitting gig on Rover.com, I’ve worked as an early-morning-baker for Rye Goods and I have opened my own bakery at Aero Bakery. This past week, I was asked to be the sole baker for me and Mike’s favorite coffee shop (which is the biggest honor EVER!) located across the street from where we live. They would rely on my bread and pastries entirely for their shop, but would require freshly baked good 7 days a week. Essentially, it would require of me a daily midnight shift. You would think I would be stoked, and I AM! But I also recognize this as the turning point, the point where I realize that I am greatly suffering from my aspirations themselves.

This opportunity is a wonderful opportunity. I would have the ability to really get my bakery going. Aero Bakery will be introduced to the local community. I will be able to support the work of local farmers trying to preserve heritage grains more fully. I have an opportunity to work together with a rotating coffee menu to create a matching seasonal baked goods menu. I would have a consistent source of support for the bakery. The production schedule would be forseeable, unlike when I accepted individual orders. My “job” as a baker will conveniently be at home without the need for a commute. My deliveries would change from multiple locations to just one across my street. I would fulfill my dream to be a baker, on my own terms, in my own house.

But I am tired. I quit Rye Goods in June because the midnight shifts were getting to be too much. I stopped Aero Bakery in June so that I could continue with Rye Goods and give myself a birthday break. During this time, I caught a glimpse of what life was before we got back from our trip to New Zealand. Before I became unsettled with the life I was leading and pursued baking. I had time to write, and read, and reflect. All of the things that gave me a very happy, calm, and peaceful life. Ever since I started my journey as a baker, I have been so busy that I never really noticed how much I gave up in terms of space and time. I was tired all the time, although the coffee masked it well. I lost ten pounds, although I never had any social time so that someone could point it out. My house became disorganized, and I started to rely more on conveniences. I lost a lot of the intentionality that I had established over the last two years.

Aspirational clutter can really hurt you. Down one path, it could spread your life too thin, make you run around like crazy, go through the hoops and even if you get out unscathed, it usually doesn’t give you enough time to stop, smell the roses, enjoy the journey. It allows you to live a life well-lived, but zaps your life of much of its essence. Alternatively, the opposite can be equally as intolerable. If you let an opportunity go, it could make your heart yearn for what could have been. It can make you wonder, “What if I had just gone for it?”. It could make you go stir-crazy. It could make you sad with the choice you’ve made for yourself, and resentful at all the factors that caused you to give it up.

I was attracted to my husband because he is the opposite from me. Unlike most people, he doesn’t suffer from any form of clutter. When I first met him, it made me worried. He didn’t seem to have any aspirations at all, which in our society tends to be viewed as a bad thing. Over time, I have seen and fallen in love with this lifestyle. His lack of aspiration stems from a whole-hearted contentment with his current life. His gratitude for what he already has been given is extremely grounding. I think it’s what allows him to be very happy and at peace at all times. It’s how I started to get into slow living in the first place, and recognize that a life full of aspiration could be detrimental, too. This is part of the reason why I married him. I needed this grounding, a daily reminder that we are enough as it is, and happiness lies in accepting that.

In fact, there was a study performed aimed at understanding why it is that younger people tend to pursue more things, have more social obligations, and do more in general, whereas older people tend to do less, socialize with a small group of close friends and family, and are content with simple daily tasks. They wondered if it was aging that prevented the older people to do more, or if it was wisdom. They wanted to know how these choices affect quality of life. Over 200 people from different age groups were followed for many years, and every five years, each one was contacted 35 times over the course of a two-week period to report their mood at that very moment. What the study showed was that the elderly had a higher level of happiness and contentment with their life. Could it be less stress? More meaningful relationships? Or is it an overall gratitude that keeps them from searching for more and makes life content?

So now I’m at a cross roads. My personality makes me want to chase a baker’s life. See where it leads me. But in my mind, and perhaps somewhere very deep in my heart, I also know that letting it go would be the choice that would give my life most peace. Am I so jaded with the student debt that I am running away from the profession I chose? I know that I could live an equally meaningful life focusing on dentistry alone, and then focusing on myself when I have moments at home. I have time to write and reflect, and this blog will continue to grow. I would be able to touch more young people and educate them about student loans and what not to do, and perhaps prevent more new grads from suffering the same thing that I am now. I could start over and work on getting back to where we were before I came back from New Zealand. It could be simple again. I could let the bakery go, bake only for myself and my family and have that be enough. If I was a good de-cluterrer, this is what I would do.

Or I could be a fiery little thing, take all that energy and funnel it into all the things. Break down barriers and make my home also my work place. Demolish the space and time I have so carefully created. Possibly crash and burn, take myself along with it, but potentially leave a mark. Be an example of living life to the very fullest. But will it ever be enough? I know the answer to that, but will I be strong enough to listen? Brave enough to say that this isn’t sustainable, that I’m only selfishly human? Humble enough to not need the bakery in order to know that I’m good at baking? Kind enough to forgive myself for choosing otherwise?

This is what aspirational clutter does. This is what I suffer from the most.

 

Intentional Living: Predawn Priorities

Early mornings, and I mean REALLY early mornings, are not to the naked eye beautiful things. At first, getting out of bed is a painful process, with the body a heavy weight, the cement floors feeling dreadfully cold as your bare feet softly swing down from the side of the bed in search of slippers. You try to gather the strength to stand, the courage to start the day, the energy to fight the gravitational pull back onto the mattress and under the sheets where it’s still warm from your body heat. You may look back and see that the cat has quickly reclaimed your spot, curling up in the still-depressed parts of the bed, where the smell of your skin give him a sense of comfort as he dozes off into his reveries. Even for the early worm, the darkness can slow down the stirring of the mind and the movement of the joints. But early mornings, to the soul, are dreadfully precious things. Not easily seen, there are benefits to starting the day BEFORE the day, if you know what I mean.

Some of the greatest of minds used the early morning as a haven. Georgia O’Keeffe was reported waking up to the sound of her dogs barking, making some tea, and taking a morning stroll. Henry David Thoreau made a habit of rising in time to hear the first birdsong. For these people, early mornings were opportunities to live slowly. To peruse and ponder, to ruminate over coffee cake and romanticize. There are others, too, who use early mornings to pursue passions. Sylvia Plath woke at 5am to write before caring for her young children, and Frank Lloyd Wright developed architectural designs from 4 to 7am before a day of business work ensued. For all of them, the predawn hours were the most golden of hours.

Early mornings are sanctuaries that need protecting. These are spaces that should be reserved specifically for the soul’s well-being. It is not for getting ahead at work, or for zombying over a social media feed. Ignore the menial tasks, the dishes that need to be washed from the night before, the emails that need opening, the laundry and the grocery lists. All of these are distractions. All of that can wait. They will get done because there is always time for such things. The mornings should be reserved with what feeds you, what gives you life. A passion project you’re working on, a new language you’re trying to learn, a moment of meditation, a morning of idleness, peace, and quiet. Even if you do nothing at all, whatever it takes to revitalize.

For me, it’s a medley of things. On some mornings, I wake up as the bars outside my window facing the main streets of downtown are closing up shop and night owls meander their ways home. I wake up at the last moment possible and slip on my baker uniform (a pair of jeans and a black tee), grab the water bottle and phone sitting on the dining table from the night before, slip on my Birkenstocks and look for the car keys on the hook. I slip into my car and head to the bakery, where I join another bleary-eyed baker, equally as passionate about the craft, equally as crazy to sign up for these midnight shifts, both of us working sixty to seventy hour weeks with baking as a ‘hobby-turned-hustle’. Four hours later, I arrive home, feed the cat, and put the hot water in the coffee pot as I hear Mikey rustling out of bed, about to start his day. These are mornings meant for passionate things.

Other mornings when I do not have a baker’s shift, I wake at exactly 6am to our sweet cat mercilessly meowing for food. I drink from the cup of water by my bedside before getting up to feed the cat as Mikey heads off to shower. It is here that I spend the first thirty minutes awake writing in a journal, or pulling up this blog. Sometimes I’ll pick up a book from the night stand and read where I’ve left off. Other times, I’ll yoga when Mike and I have to carpool. After his shower, he hops back into bed and reads to himself. At around 7am, we both stop what we’re doing and head to the kitchen. We prep breakfast and lunch pails. Occasionally, one of us will make coffee. We sit down at the table and talk, or stare out the window. Our roommate comes up to do the same, and leaves before we’re even done eating. I put the dishes in the sink as he does a few morning exercises. He brushes his teeth, I clear the dishwasher from last night. He says goodbye, and Theo peeks downstairs until he is out the door. Only then will I start on chores or look at my phone. It is now 8am, the screen says, and I have an hour and a half to get some tasks out of the way before I myself start my day.

The suggestion for dedicated early mornings actually came from Mike. I’ve always been an early bird, but he likes the snooze button. Earlier this year, he came across a study that says that our learning is best the few moments before sleep and the few moments after. He suggested we both wake up when Theo signals us it’s time, and instead of slipping back under the covers, we learn something new. Being a creative person, I took that to apply to my own desires, and I broadened the term ‘learn’ to mean something more than gaining knowledge. I wanted to learn about myself through writing, I wanted to learn about the world through reading, I wanted to learn about gratitude and forgiveness through yoga, and I wanted to learn about sacrifice and love through baking.

But how to rise every day when it seems so difficult to do? I think firstly, you need a ‘why’, a reason that is strong enough to make you do what you least want to do. Secondly, you need a routine. Perhaps you need to set out the Chemex the night before, maybe you prepare the tea into bags. For baker mornings, I have my bottle of water filled to the brim sitting next to my small clutch on the dining table, and my clothes laid out in the bathroom to facilitate the dressing. For the other days, I have a cat to feed, and that love is motivation enough to get me out of bed (the incessant meowing helps too). Sometimes, it’s worthwhile to have a favorite sweater at the foot of the bed, something to slip on as you slink to the desk and open up a journal. Other times, I leave my book on the night stand, within easy reach. Whatever routine you choose, it’s a ritual that you must cherish.

Regardless of how it looks like to you, these predawn hours are for creating spaces of intention. Deliberate in everything we do, no matter how big or small. Even if it means waking up a few minutes early to sip (rather than gulp) your coffee. Even if it means opening a book before the alarm goes off for the kiddos. Or taking the dogs out on a walk to get away from the house itself. Maybe you can brave a surf, put on your baker hat, run a couple miles, work in the garden, or sit still staring out at the streets below. All of this opens you up for a more intimate life. And some days, you will feel that mid-afternoon lull. And that’s okay. These are all signs of lives well-lived, and days well-spent. Who doesn’t want to live in these golden hours?

Above: A photograph of a hike we did at Mt. Cook in New Zealand. There were so many days we left our beds before the sunrise, so many drives in the darkness as we tried to reach isolated destinations. This particular hike was one that we decided to embark on after a day of rain prevented us from seeing it the day before. We had only a few hours before we had to check out of the AirBNB, and when we got here, the trails were still empty and the people camping at the foot of the mountains were only starting to step out of their tents looking for coffee. The mist was still lingering as the sun started to shine onto the glacial snow. We had the trails almost entirely to ourselves. These are the moments I speak of. 

Intentional Living: Switching the Lens

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My birthday is a gift in that it falls in the middle of the year. I use it to re-assess not so much what I have accomplished, but rather, where to steer life’s trajectory. With this framework, we look on the bright side of things while avoiding the guilt of not being where we thought we were meant to be. We are always where we’re meant to be. We just need the occasional shift in perspective, is all.

Retrospection is one of those practices that can be likened to a double-edged sword. In one respect, we need to be wary of the tendency to live in the past, the mulling of our histories which prevents us from living out the joys of today. When the retrospecting is on something not entirely good, it can put us in quite a rut. A reminder hence that sometimes, the best course of action is to live and let go. On the other side of the coin, however, is a warning against racing haphazardly onwards without direction. As freeing as that may feel, perhaps a moment’s pause would be beneficial, and also, necessary. As always, striking balance is just the stuff. Myself, I lean towards retrospection partnered with a ridiculous will for chasing what I want, so in that way, I suppose I find balance. Retrospection to me doesn’t require so much the mulling, but more so a switching of the lens.

In this re-assessment, I make a list of actionable steps. Minor tweaking of daily life practices, with deeper intentionality behind each one. For example, a desire to physically switch my camera lens from the standard one to a fixed 50 mm lens for the rest of the year. Reason being…? Reason being that the 50 mm lens forces me to switch my camera to a manual setting, thus avoiding the automatic point-and-shoot capturing of daily life. In this single action, I am inserting a forced habit of creativity. I make photographing a bit more difficult. I slow the process. I make the framing more intentional. I have to take the time to focus the lens on what I want to see. A method of mindfulness.

This and others. Here, a short list.

  • Switching the camera lens and turning the manual switch on (to instill mindfulness in creativity).
  • Spending the first thirty minutes of being awake writing, reading, or creating (for better mental health).
  • Applying moisturizer and sunscreen daily (as an act of self-care)
  • Plugging the cell-phone in once I enter the home (and leaving it there).
  • Keeping the lights turned off as far into the evening as possible (and substituting candles in its wake).
  • Read more (mindfully).
  • Sleep 8 hours every night, uninterrupted (like I used to).
  • Keeping clear surfaces around the house (for more clarity).
  • Switching to decaf … or no caff … during the week (now that I’ve cut the midnight shifts).
  • Carrying around a notebook (in the hopes of jotting down more introspections such as these).

How about you guys? Birthdays not required, what are some ways you hope to change trajectories for the rest of 2019?