Self Improvement

A Deep Down Decluttering …

I have done my fair share of decluttering. I have donated or disposed of books, bed linens, clothes, cooking utensils, artwork, and furniture and always enjoyed the end result — a cleaner apartment. Moreover, I find that having less stuff helps me think clearer, feel calmer, and live in a more organized and efficient fashion. And — surprise, surprise — I rarely miss the things I shed. Frankly, I often find myself wondering why I kept something as long as I did.

There is another level of decluttering that goes beyond clearing out your closets and cabinets. The clothes you wear, the books you read, the furniture you use are not the only devices that help you live and enjoy your daily life and move about in the world. A lot of your daily life is lived in your head and that space might need some clearing. Here are some constructs and collections which you might consider weeding.

Obligations. Are you the one always expected to host the holiday party? Babysit your friend’s kids? Give up your weekend to finish the department report on time? Obligations are a part of life, but so is wearing clothes and sometimes we need to weed our closets. Ask yourself: Do you need to be doing all that you are doing? Are you the only one who can do a certain chore? Would dropping this obligation negatively impact your life? Get you fired? End a friendship? Would that be so bad? There are chores we accept as our responsibility, duties duties we take on because we believe in a mission, extra tasks we actually enjoy doing. Grab these gigs and go at it with gusto. If, however, you are feeling overwhelmed by all that you are expected to do, determine what is making you feel put upon and go in decluttering mode. Do you really truly absolutely need to do this? If the answer is no, say no to it and let it go to someone else or go undone. (Note: It is surprising how many “obligations” can be ignored without changing the status quo.)

Standards. Standards can be beneficial, benchmarks to evaluate your quality of life. You can set standards on anything: the way you clean your house, the way you cook your food, the friends you keep, the jobs you take. Sometimes, however, the bar you have set for yourself needs to be adjusted — or even eliminated. Can you actually maintain your current lifestyle on your new salary? Does it truly matter what kind of car you drive? Do all your friends have to share your political views? Are your habits in line with your beliefs? Standards should help one live to the best of their ability but they must be reachable in order to be of any value. When circumstances change, our standards might need to change. While we should not abandon all our ideals, if you find yourself continually frustrated because you cannot meet your own standards, it may be time to remove that goalpost.

Regrets. During the last conversation with my mother, I asked her if she had any regrets. Of course she did, she told me, everyone does. If you have ever thought anything or done anything, you will have regrets — how you did something, what you could have done better, what you passed up. Regret is part of the fabric of human life. We are imperfect, often realize it too late, and remember that fact often. Most people regret things they did not do, although we all have those moments we replay in our minds where we did something we regret. Regrets may help or hinder us depending on how we use them. We may never again speak without thinking or we may never again miss a chance to speak up. We will take more risks or we might be more cautious. We will stop to help others or we might be a little less free with our charity. Regrets can keep us from missing opportunities but they should not keep us up at night. If you find yourself continually mulling over what you did or did not do, remember that no amount of regret will change the past. Acknowledge your regret, make amends or plans if possible, and then toss those regrets or at least put them where you cannot trip over them.

Habits. Obviously, getting rid of bad habits — smoking, gambling, drinking — will help you live better. But even if you don’t have addictions draining you, you probably have habits that hold you back and you don’t notice them until you look closely. Do you always hit the snooze button? Pay your bills late? Immediately accept any invitation? Check your phone constantly? Forget to bring lunch? Blame everything on everyone else? Take a good look at how you handle the mundane moments of your day. Do you have habits that hold you back, waste your time, cost you money? Some of them could be tossed out. (NOTE: I find this to be the hardest type of decluttering. When you decide to dispose of a habit, it tends to sneak back into your life like a stray cat you’ve been feeding. But just as Marie Kondo can help with decluttering up your home, there are others who can help you tidy up your habits.)

Dreams. We all have dreams — that adventure we are going to have, that goal we are going to reach, that life we are going to live. Dreams can get us out of bed on bad days. They can lighten our mood and help us focus. Dreams may give us purpose and a reason to persevere on a difficult path. But dreams can also waylay us. Why put any effort into your current job, relationships, living space, or life if you are going to be leaving town/running your own business/marrying your dream partner and heading off to Tahiti? Dreams can guide us but they can also trick us by giving us the view that our current life is insignificant and not worthy of any investment on our part. Do you have dreams that make you ignore your everyday life? And are your dreams still your dreams? Do you still want to bicycle across the U.S.? Do stand-up comedy? Adopt a child? If you do, please focus on these dreams and turn them into reality. If not, toss them and make room for new improved dreams — or perhaps just more space for all those plans for your current real life.

Self Improvement

Simple Advice For Improvements Major or Minor

Start where you are.

Use what you have.

Do what you can.

This sage bit of counsel comes from the late great Arthur Ashe, an athlete and businessman who was the first African American tennis player to be selected to the United States Davis Cup team and the only black man (so far) to win the singles title at Wimbledon. This advice seems so simple that one’s first response is to either a) nod your head and say, “Why, yes, of course …” or b) roll your eyes and say, “Well, duh, of course …” Either way, these guidelines are great when you are trying to improve any area of your life – finances, athletic pursuits, business, friendships – but while they may seem straightforward, they deserve analysis and forethought.

Start where you are. Are you certain you know where it is you are exactly? You may know your geographic whereabouts, your biological age, and your strengths and skills, but do you know where you are in the scheme of things? Do a realistic assessment. How is your health (mental, financial, physical), what are your days like, what are your responsibilities and restrictions? Is it feasible to start up a business when you’re about to be evicted? Can you handle a cross-country move while you undergo cancer treatment? How much time can you devote to a small business, a creative project, a volunteer endeavor right now? Never mind how you felt ten years ago or how your life might be in a few years from now or what your days might be like if you lived somewhere else – where are you in your life right now? Know your starting point.

Use what you have. Never mind what you might have had in the past or what you could get in the future – what do you have right now? Assess your resources – skills, funds, equipment, connections – and don’t forget to look in the corners. A lot of us have opportunities, advantages, outsiders willing to help, and various sources of assistance that we don’t utilize because we don’t see them. Do be careful, however, of overestimating your resources and be certain to look at what you are going to need for the entire process.

I set up a website which was going to showcase all the great black and white photos I took with disposable cameras. I had bought a couple of one-use black and white cameras, knew how to run a WordPress blog, and had secured the domain. I had ideas where to take photos and what to shoot. I was just about to start this project when the first roll of film came back from the developer. I then found out that processing black and white film is expensive (at least for my budget). I simply could not afford to have my photos developed on a regular basis. The site then sat empty for over a year before I developed a new idea for it. Had I thoroughly assessed what I had and what I needed, I would have realized that I was not in the position to carry out my plans.

Be careful. A great idea or promising future is grand but getting there requires you to work in the present – and you can only work with you’ve got.

Do what you can. Obviously, you cannot do what you cannot do. And while it is possible that you may be able to do quite a lot, it is probable that you won’t be able to do as much as you want to do, particularly at first. That said, even if you can only accomplish a bit, do not squander this capability/opportunity. People will often do nothing when they realize they can only do a little. “I won’t be able to exercise for a full hour today so I won’t exercise at all.” “What good is saving ten bucks a month?” “I wanted to go back to school but I could only take a night course once a week.” We often take the attitude of “Go big or go home” without realizing how much can be accomplished through the accumulation of small steps. Success is rarely overnight, it is the accumulation of small triumphs and improvements.

What’s more, doing something for improvement – even if it is a small step – brings about a mental change. You realize that you have control over your life and that there is always something you can do to improve your lot. Studies amongst the homeless have shown that people who bathe on a regular basis are more apt to find work, get housing, and get off the street quicker than those who do not keep themselves clean. A small step, but a step forward nonetheless.

It is unfortunate but true: It is not that we can only do a little bit, but that we do nothing with that little bit we can do.

Self Improvement

Problems? To Solve, Evolve.

I took a trip out into the desert right before Christmas and stayed in Thermal, California. There, in the middle of land that sees three inches of rain a year and where the temp is 120 degrees for weeks on end during the summer, is the Salton Sea.

If you were thirsty or tired, you might think it was a mirage, but it ain’t. It is a sea that developed over time and then was given a growth spurt by a flood from the Colorado River, filling up a basin way out in the middle of nowhere. While at the seaside, I visited the cactus garden by the entrance at the north end. There was a small pool in the garden with a sign telling about the pool’s strange inhabitant — the pupfish.

The pupfish is a small fish (one to two and a half inches long) that can take on big odds. An old species (they have been called living fossils), pupfish were around 10,000 years ago when glacial lakes started to dry up and become land. It is theorized that pupfish became separated from other fish species (who became amphibians or became extinct). Rather giving up and dying, the pupfish adapted to survive harsh conditions. This short guy lives in places you would never expect to find fish — shallow marshes, salty lakes, mud holes, desert aquifers. Pupfish can tolerate high salinity plus high heat — existing in waters that top 95 degrees in the summer, freeze in the winter, and have enough salt to brine your Thanksgiving turkey. You can find pupfish surviving and thriving in places as harsh as the Salton Sea and Devil’s Hole in Nevada — not where you would expect to find fish.

At the time of my visit to the Sea, I was recuperating from a lousy year. No major setbacks, but a stream of petty problems, minor disappointments, opportunities missed, cash shortages, unexpected expenses, betrayals, blow-ups, and the slogging-through-mud drudgery of picking up pieces thrown willy-nilly all over the place in the last couple of years. I found myself making adjustments (not always willingly) and coming to know myself better in the process (not always happily). I often felt like a fish out of water during 2018.

I persevered. I gave up old routines and started new ones. I cut back. I got by without things I previously felt I could never give up. I was in situations where I had no idea what to do next but I figured out some course of action and sallied (or stumbled) forth. I talked to God in my kitchen on a daily basis. I called creditors almost as often. I lost my routines and started new ones. I lost (or got rid of) friends so I got some new ones. I gave up certain goals and dreams and expectations and trudged forward. At times I felt I was gasping for air and stumbling through a murky dark world, but I survived.

And that is what the pupfish does — change itself to meet the new environment that is presenting itself. I had tried to keep myself in the same trappings (get a job similar to the one I had lost with a similar salary and similar benefits and the same routines so I could just swim through life unobstructed) but found my old environment receding from me and not showing any signs of coming back. I had to get creative or croak.

So my inspiration for 2019 is the pupfish. I will adapt. If need be, I will shrink a body part, build up another, get a new diet, get used to the heat, withstand the cold, grow a thicker skin, live a saltier existence. When faced with new (and even bizarre) conditions, I will not only survive, but thrive. Like the pupfish, I will adjust and alter myself in order to overcome adversity.

And as for feeling like a fish out of water? It occurred to me that were not for some aquatic creature crawling out of the sea on God’s sixth day and gasping for air, we humans would not be here.