Pare Down, Chill Out, Live Well.

2015 has been my year of paring down and chilling out. Somehow, over the course of the year my life has gone from stressful and disorganised to pretty darn awesome.

Everyone has their own version of awesome - mine is to work from home, in a beautiful place, to do work that stimulates me and supports me well. I like to travel occasionally, spend time with people I love, eat healthy food I enjoy and avoid doing things I don’t want to do.

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When I first seriously started to address the problems with my life, de-stressing was far higher on my agenda than decluttering. The past 18 months had been pretty rough.  My mother had died, my business income was fluctuating wildly, I was getting work done on my house and I wasn’t in peak physical health.

 That put me quite high on the Holmes & Rahe stress scale - the one that compares the stress of events like Christmas with real tragedies like death. 

On the Mindtools website they say:

“Stress is a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that "demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize.”

I guess they mean - it all feels too much to deal with. And that’s how I felt - I’d definitely reached my limit.

Go here to take the stress test [BTW you don’t need to give them personal details to get your score]

The irony of stress overload is that fastest, most dramatic solutions are also stressful - moving, starting a new job. Doing anything new, even happy things like marriage or vacations requires you to use a load of additional mental and emotional resources and it’s that extra effort that can stress your system.

It’s when you have those big stressors that you really notice all the little sources of stress and disorganisation that make daily living harder than it needs to be. Every little clunky thing or irritating delay bugs you.

So in the past 12 months I’ve focused on controlling the things I can.

Goodbye Hidden Sugar

I’d already begun to do that in late 2014.  A TV show in September about the effects of sugar [and the amounts hidden in our food] - had given me a wake-up call about my family history of diabetes.  I didn’t have a sugar addiction to get over but I did have high blood sugar levels so I decided I needed to stop kidding myself that it was nothing. 

I purged my pantry of anything with more than 5% sugar - things like ketchup, cereal, pickles, Asian sauces . . . That was all I did at first.  But by January I’d lost a couple of kilos [about 5lbs] and a test revealed a 12% reduction in my blood sugar levels which took me back into the normal range. Side bonus: I was liking fruit and vegetables more. Unforeseen benefit: I’d become much more able to judge when I was hungry and when I was full. I think that’s something to do with insulin. 

There’s been more weight loss without struggle in 2015 - I’ve dropped a dress size -  and I hope to drop another next year. Just slowly.

The Magic of Tidying Up

Diet under control, but my dresser drawers were in crisis. I wear so much black that really the only way I could tell my t-shirts and leggings apart was by their texture. I also had a kind of ‘near enough is good enough’ attitude to folding my clothes. And a chair by the bed laden with indeterminate clothing items, clean and not so clean.

So Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up* is the opposite of me. 

In the first paragraph of the preface to her book she boldly states:

“In this book I have summed up how to put your space in order in a way that will change your life forever.”

In the second paragraph she adds, 

“If you adopt this strategy you’ll never revert to clutter again.”

I was in!  I bought the book, devoured it, then obsessively watched every video I could find to see her methods in action and master her peculiar [to me] way of folding clothes.

Here’s a short taste of her approach,  and here’s a video of a presentation she did at Google you might like to look at later if you’re very interested .

In the longer video she shows us a BEFORE shot - a completely cluttered bedroom that reminds me of my teenage years with its clever use of the floor and bed for storage. Then the AFTER shot - completely organised. She says [she’s Japanese and her English is quite elementary] 

“My client never goes back to the mess. Because they have been transformed to the organised person”

I followed her purge method - which is:

  1. Assemble one category of possessions [e.g. clothes] in one place where you can see it all
  2. Briefly hold or touch every item and identify whether it brings you joy or not. Discard those that don’t [and thank them for their service]
  3. Now group and organise them [e.g. fold clothes, put papers in folders]
  4. And put back the ones you’re keeping.

So how does this change your life? And what’s with thanking the items? 

Project LifeCoach’s Chris Chien identifies a key difference between the ‘Konmarie’ method and other ways of organising. It takes an emotional rather than a rational approach [engaging deeper older parts of your brain] and it strengthens your decision-making ability with its intensive approach and its insistence on a binary Hell Yeah or No approach to each item.  

The holding and sensing and thanking are part of that - and they are rooted in Japanese Shinto beliefs that all things animate or inanimate have a spirit or essence. Chris Chien also believes Kondo’s insistence on finishing a task and giving it a final polish is a very helpful skill to internalise.

That rings true with me. The things I organised with Marie Kondo’s help remain organised. And the things I didn’t [business papers and the ‘random storage’ area of my home] don’t. I’m so proud of my beautiful bookcase- which honestly holds less than 30% of the books I once owned.  

February was the beginning of a major paring down which encompassed clothes, books, CDs, DVDs, kitchen items, sheets and towels and knick knacks. And I still regularly discard items that have served their purpose - thanking them and sending them off to the goodwill store or the recycling bin.

So I guess she’s right - it changed my life because it reinforced my organising skills - and led directly to the next big breakthrough in my year of paring down and chilling out.

Essentialism and How to Say No.

In early April I bought Essentialism: the disciplined pursuit of less by Greg McKeown*. Here’s what attracted me to it: - the pitch in the About This Book section asks:

Have you ever found yourself stretched too thin at home or at work?
Have you ever felt both over-worked and under-utilised?

Do you every feel busy, but not productive?
Do you ever feel like you’re constantly in motion, but never getting anywhere?
If you answered yes to any of these, the way out is becoming an Essentialist.”

Did that sound like me? Yes it did.

Probably the best way to give you a quick overview of the book is to focus on the questions and sub-topics that guide each section of the book. They are:

Part One: Essence - What is the core mindset of an essentialist?

  • Sub Topics: Choose - Discern [the unimportance of practically everything] - Trade-Off

Part Two: Explore - How can we discern the trivial many from the vital few?

  • Sub Topics: Escape - Look - Play - Sleep - Select [the power of extreme criteria]

Part Three: Eliminate - How can we cut out the trivial many?

  • Sub Topics: Clarify - Dare [the power of a graceful “No”] - Uncommit - Edit - Limit

Part Four: Execute - How can we make doing the vital few things almost effortless?

  • Sub Topics: Buffer - Subtract - Progress - Flow - Focus - Be [the essentialist life]

[Each sub-topic has its own tag line but I only included a few to give you the flavour of it]

Sure there are weaknesses in this book. It focuses more on the idea than the practice so it’s not as practical as Marie Kondo’s book. And as it’s written by a wealthy and highly educated man, with himself as Exhibit A, it’s a bit blind to the social differences between women and men and between the 1% and the 99%.

But as a way of giving someone like me permission to remove a lot of lesser needs and goals in order to focus on what really matters, it was life-changing. The crucial element was learning to say "No" - which I've said a lot in the last few months - especially to work projects that would take me away from my main purpose.

 Three things that I thought I’d never ever get on top of: my weight, my level of tidyness and organisation and crucially, my ability to prioritise work and life and avoid ‘busy work’ have grown enormously. 

If you haven't read these books I really recommend you learn more about them  - and if you're interested in discussing sugar or other  dietary issues, send me an email!