Here’s a Thought: Leave a Buffer

I grew up with a father who believed if you weren’t 10 minutes early to an appointment, you were late.

When I headed out into the world I carried this belief with me. In the four years of my undergraduate degree, I was never late for a single 8:30 AM class (which I had almost every day). Usually, I was one of the first to arrive – 10 minutes early.

Then I had kids.

Suddenly there were naps to contend with and the inevitable last-minute diaper or outfit change. Also, with a never-ending list of to-do’s, I felt I couldn’t justify the luxury of wasting precious minutes by arriving somewhere ahead of time.

I am rarely late. But I am also rarely early. This wouldn’t be a problem if I didn’t constantly feel anxious that I will be late.

While I still feel pulled in 30 directions most days, I can admit this “under the wire” arrival has simply become a habit. I’m no longer contending with outfit changes or blow-outs. And, even worse, I often plan for it.

For example, I’ll schedule a playdate for 3:00, even though the afternoon school bus drop-off is at 2:50 and it’s a 10-minute drive…under perfect traffic conditions. With that planning, there is no way to avoid arriving on time – at best – or late (well, aside from driving over the speed limit, which of course I’d never do. Hem hem.)

So I’m trying to arrange more buffer into my life.

If the kids are scheduled to come out of quiet time at 2:30, I shouldn’t work on a challenging project until 2:29. Stopping at 2:20 to breath, read a book, or just light a candle and prepare for the onslaught of snack requests and sibling rivalries really helps.

Have a doctors appointment and it takes 30 minutes to get to the clinic? You should plan to leave leave more than 30 minutes before. Preferably more than 31 minutes before, too.

Have a Zoom meeting? Think about making sure to use the washroom, brush the spinach out of your teeth and have the meeting notes all ready so you can log on a few minutes before it’s scheduled to start. After all this time, there are inevitably technical glitches.

Things take longer than expected: kids forget bookbags, icy roads slow us down, computers freeze. Adding in a little buffer can go a long way.

Go ahead. Try it.

Casual Friday + Love of the Week

  1. It’s my birthday week. What a year this has been. Such an unusual time for our family, our country, our world. Some things have maintained a predictable rhythm, and then other things – like school, border and church closures – still feel so dystopian. Lots to reflect upon, so much to be thankful for and, yes, another year older, if not any the wiser for it…
  2. I’ve been working my way through a huge stack of library books and think I’ve reached the point where I need to back off from new reads and return to some of my favourites on the book shelf. Time to dust off The Lord of the Rings, Jane Eyre, and An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. Something about the pressure of retaining new information and making sure I stay on top of due dates all just feels like stress I don’t need to be juggling right now.
  3. Monday was a holiday in Canada; not statutory, but the kids had the day off from online learning which felt like a reason to celebrate. We made the most of it, traveling to a local hiking trail where we proceeded to walk exactly 0.5 km before stumbling upon a stream (in the loosest sense of the word; it was more like a generous trickle). Thus ended the hike. The kids spent nearly two hours making bridges out of rocks, sticks, and moss. It was glorious. We also made a life-size version of Chutes and Ladders in the driveway. I have been sore all week from that bending, and rain unexpectedly came earlier than the original forecast had predicted, but it was worth it for the two days of fun it provided (sneaking in Math skills and exercise along the way).

Love of the Week: Randomly enough – Twizzlers. Strawberry Twizzlers.

My father has always loved candy. Gummy bears, peppermints, jelly beans. You name it, he loves it. In high school I used to walk to a local corner store and buy penny candy; in university, Saturday evening movie nights with friends were always preceded by piecing together a bag of candy at Muddy’s Convenience (Top 3: Fuzzy Peaches, Sour Patch Watermelon, Swedish Berries).

Then I had a baby and somehow candy just didn’t feel like something a healthy adult, let alone a new mother, would prioritize in her diet. I genuinely lost interest in sugar-coated sugar. But, somehow, my childhood love of licorice never wavered. My Dad always liked black licorice the best, which I tolerated as a kid. But now that I’m grown, I go only for Strawberry Twizzlers. No knock-offs, no Nibs, no strings (yech).

Not only do I still love Twizzlers, I also have very prescribed habits around consuming them. I get Twizzlers twice a year. My husband knows to buy me a package for my birthday and at Christmas.

And then I eat the entire package – by myself – in less than 24 hours. I savour most other treats, but Twizzlers I eat in bulk and allow myself to feel zero guilt. Since I have planned on receiving and eating them only twice a year, and because I genuinely love eating them in large-ish quantities, I just go for it. It is my birthday after all. . .

Resetting (and Setting) the Room

While reading Atomic Habits by James Clear – a manifesto of sorts on how to make actionable progress on self-improvement goals – I was struck by his description of someone’s habit of “resetting the room.”

For example, when this friend finished watching television, he would place the remote back on the TV stand, arrange the pillows on the couch, and fold the blanket.

Clear expands on this idea:

“The purpose of resetting each room is not simply to clean up after the last action, but to prepare for the next action” [emphasis mine].

I love this description. Resetting goes beyond tidying and describes a deliberate set of decisions that set up future success.

My husband and I like to reset our living room at the end of the day. After the kids are settled in the bed we’ll fluff the pillows, move footstools back in place, push in the chairs around the dining room table. It’s a calming habit and one that brings much-needed serenity in the busy mornings (…until my 6-year-old sets up for online school at the table and the space becomes a jumble of glue sticks and worksheets).

When I’ve finished prepping for bed at the night, an extra minute spent in the bathroom means I can leave it in a state of readiness for the morning – my toothbrush in its place, the garbage can stowed neatly, a towel hung by the sink.

Perhaps the most famous reset is making your bed in the morning, but opportunities abound:

  • Before you leave the office: clear off your desk (or at least straighten existing piles of paper), push in your chair, remove coffee mugs and other food remnants
  • You arrive home from work: clear out any garbage that accumulated from the day, put your travel mug in the dishwasher, hang up your coat and laptop bag, and put your keys in their designated spot
  • You leave your hotel room for a day of sightseeing: put valuables in the safe, close suitcase lids, put dirty laundry in a designated travel cube
  • Your kids finish outside play for the day: stow bikes and scooters, bring in helmets, and straighten shoes in the entry way

I realize, in retrospect, that I grew up with this mentality. In particular I remember a daily “reset” performed by my mother every evening of my childhood. After we had cleared the table of supper dishes, she would immediately arrange clean placements, utensils, cups, and dishes on the table for the upcoming breakfast. The room was reset and ready for the next activity. In essence, my mom took the concept of resetting a space one step further – going from resetting (clearing the table and leaving a blank slate) to setting (preparing in advance).

And the bonus, intuitive bit. The less clutter and mess we have in our living spaces, the easier it is to reset a room. If chaos causes chaos, order tends toward…lesser chaos.

Go ahead. Try it.

Don’t Quote Me: Identify the Problem

Identify the problem.

Gretchen Rubin

Nearly a decade ago I read Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project for the first time. It remains one of my favourite books – from any genre – to date.

Her insights were both revelatory and relatable. On every page I found something that made me stop and ask: “Why have I never thought of things this way? It’s all…so obvious!”

Of everything she wrote in that book, the following comes to mind most frequently: “Identify the problem.”

She calls this one of her Twelve Commandments and it hangs out with statements like:

  • Act the way I want to feel
  • Let it go
  • Do what ought to be done
  • Enjoy the process

Anytime I’m struggling with a mental block, am feeling unusually irritated, or find some perpetual annoyance is impeding my productivity or happiness, it helps to stop and think: “What’s really going on here?”

Maybe I yelled at the kids for a minor issue that wouldn’t normally raise my ire. Identify the problem.

I can’t focus on an important work e-mail. Identify the problem.

Often the problem is very simple and unrelated. I’m cold. I’m tired. I’m feeling unappreciated.

If I’m cold – take a hot shower, put on an extra sweater, turn up the heat.

If I’m tired – take a nap, get a cup of coffee, go to bed early, delay that meeting that demands full concentration.

If I’m feeling under-appreciated, tell my loved ones, add items to my gratitude list, give myself a gold star by writing a “Ta-da” list in my daytimer.

Einstein said: “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” Often, we’re most of the way to a solution if we’ve accurately identified the problem. Or, in the words of John Dewey, “A problem well put is half-solved.”

I frequent a lovely local trail system with my family. It winds along gorgeous coastline and through wooded forests. It is expertly groomed and maintained, covered in a layer of fine crusher dust. Somehow – perhaps my cadence and foot strike or some unlucky combination of footwear and faulty genetics – I always end up with rocks in my shoes. Always. Usually, I tolerate the discomfort, sometimes for hours, without really paying attention to the fact the solution is simple. I have rocks in my shoes. That’s why my feet hurt. That’s why I’m wishing this walk were over.

So I bend over, shake the rocks out of shoes and keep on keeping on.

Next time you find yourself feeling unproductive or irritable – snapping at your kids, coworkers, or spouse – how about trying to identify the problem.

Go ahead. Try it.

A Minimalist Hack: Use the Same Toothpaste

I’m no grassroots minimalist. My family has a storage room full of boxes: camping supplies, Christmas decorations, a few Macaroni-and-clay creations from the preschool era. Marie Kondo could surely help us find lots to purge. But, we appreciate clean aesthetics and are always looking for ways to reduce friction with regard to how our home functions.

Take toothpaste.

When our daughter was young, I remember debating – for an inordinate amount of time – what toothpaste flavour to select for her maturing teeth. The pharmacy aisle was full of options. Would she prefer Berry Blast, Strawberry Swirl, or Bubble Gum Twist. Each brand – and there were many – had its own combination of tube characteristics (twist cap vs. flip; hard tube vs. soft). I hadn’t even gotten to the fluoride vs. no fluoride conundrum yet and was already completely overwhelmed. Should buying toothpaste for a 3-year old really be this hard?

Then one day, during a well-visit at the doctors office, my GP happened to bring up teeth-brushing. She mentioned, in an off-hand way: “Feel free to use a rice-sized amount of whatever toothpaste you’re using.”

Surely it wasn’t right to deprive my firstborn of whatever bold-coloured, highly-flavoured concoction the big conglomerates told me she should have? But, I grew up on good ol’ Crest…and I don’t think it held me back in life.

Since then, our entire family has used the same toothpaste (Colgate with Scope); my kids don’t even know they could be frothing at the mouth with Minion-themed Cotton Candy.

Not only does it make fewer decisions at the store, since we all use the toothpaste interchangeably, I only pack a single tube when we travel (we do the same with shampoo).

What supply could you share?

Here’s a Thought: Aim for Progress, Not Completion

I’ve already professed my love for lists. Sometimes, I even relish the assignment of new tasks simply because it allows me the satisfaction that comes from recording new items on my to-do list. Another one added…another one to cross off.

In fact, I’ve been known to add items to a list that are already completed. (Friends have confessed to the same behaviour, so I know I’m not alone).

Why? A sense of purpose. A sense of pride. A sense of achievement. “Look what I’ve accomplished” – gold star to me (and I sure do love gold stars).

Sometimes, though, I can get so wrapped up in focussing on the end goal, I lose sight of – or neglect entirely – the process to get there.

That’s why I’m trying to embrace the concept of progress, not completion.

Let’s take laundry. Oh laundry. The never-ending source of work for any parent. Sometimes I look at that jumble of blended cotton and want to cry. Getting it all put away before another load joins the teetering pile feels impossible. But here’s what I’ve found: making progress can be satisfying.

In one particularly tough season of a precarious work/life balance, I told myself I only had to put away three items of laundry each day. My kids create three pieces of laundry before they’re out of bed in the morning, so the math didn’t really add up. Some days, I’d manage a pair of socks (I counted that as a single item), a dishtowel and a T-shirt. But, most days, I felt up to more. I’d stick to three at a time, but 3 + 3+ 3 + 3 adds up to a full load of laundry…eventually.

Remember Desmond Tutu’s sage advice: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

Sometimes the first bite is the most discouraging and daunting. The elephant – be it laundry, an adoption process, the move to a new city, saving for a college education, or quitting a lifelong addiction to smoking – can seem too big to tackle, even in bite-sized pieces. But, in reality, that is exactly how we have to handle each problem. One dollar at a time, we fund that education. Skipping a single cigarette is the only way to quit smoking.

Step by step we make more and more progress. . .which, ultimately, leads to completion.

Go ahead. Try it.

Casual Friday + Love of the Week

  1. I had a straightforward, but time-consuming, procedure to help deal with my anemia this week. The upside: several hours of uninterrupted reading time. Sadly, neither book I brought along quite lived up to my expectations, but such is life. On the bright side, I was at the hospital over lunchtime and it did feel luxurious to have food (that I didn’t have any hand in preparing) delivered to me while I was sitting in a “recliner” covered with a heated blanket.
  2. Monday we headed to the beach. While we prefer the white-sand beaches of the Southern Shore of Nova Scotia, this was a closer alternative. The kids enjoyed hiking along the shoreline and we spotted a small squid in the water. Though no one had bathing suits on, Levi opted to take off his shoes for a stroll through the water. This of course morphed into practically submerging himself for a swim.
  3. It’s official: we will complete the rest of the school year online. Ugh and sigh. Thankfully, the vaccine rollout is further expanding, so there is hope of reopening on the not-so-distant horizon.
  4. I finished reading The Trolley Car family to the kids…again. This is the book that sparked my lifelong obsession with reading. There were books before, and there have been thousands since, but this book will forever hold a special place in my heart. My tattered copy, gifted to my sister the year I was born, is a delight to me each time I return to it. All these decades later to be reading this book to Abby and Levi, who love it nearly as much as I did/do is pure joy.

Love of the week: Several years ago, after a week spent vacationing with my sister’s family – who all had their own Yeti’s – I decided I wanted to invest in one for myself.

Originally intended to keep my favourite hot beverages hot, I found it to be too effective. Hours after filling my Yeti with tea or coffee, I would still burn my mouth.

I pivoted and made the switch to it being my at-home water cup and have never looked back. Aside from the colour (which I love; hooray for small aesthetic decisions), my favourite feature is the magnetized lid*. It is so convenient to drink from, holds a large quantity of water (I have the 20oz tumbler and fill it at least 4 times a day), and looks as good as the day I bought it (no stains or dents).

*It is NOT leak-proof, sadly, but that is its only flaw in my eyes.

You’re An Adult. You Can Give Yourself Permission.

Not long ago I stumbled across an essay written by a woman dealing with an esophageal burn. To promote healing and lessen the pain, she was asked to follow a soft-food diet.

With many staple foods no longer an option, she was forced to confront the slew of arbitrary rules she had assigned to her eating over the years. In time, through consultation with a dietician, she was able to switch her focus to finding foods that didn’t cause discomfort, which required disregarding many of those self-imposed restrictions. She writes:

“I had never eaten a pint of ice cream as a meal in my life; I was convinced this was some kind of food rubicon I would cross, and that afterwards, all my meals would become pints of ice cream.”

One day hungry, and stuck in traffic, she bought ice cream:

“I ate my fill of dulce de leche ice cream with a plastic spoon as it grew cool and viscous at the edges and felt like I’d won a prize. Literally nothing bad happened. Instead, two good things happened: I was no longer painfully hungry, and I’d had ice cream.”

While the article then turns to discussing the benefits of intuitive eating – an approach to food that involves consuming foods to satisfy hunger, without restriction or labeling foods as “good” or “bad” – I was struck by her final observation.

At the worst of my injury, friends would say enviously, Oh, at least you get to eat all this ice cream. But guess what: We all do, whenever we want.

Wait a minute? I can eat ice cream for supper? Say it isn’t so!

This reminds me of an article/podcast episode from Gretchen Rubin where she relays the experience of Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard. Ironically enough, this excerpt also involves an adult consuming ice cream in a way most would consider unusual (more specifically, unusual in the context of the unwritten “rules” of adult moderation). It also succinctly highlights that we adults have far more autonomy over basic decisions than we acknowledge or leverage.

As a side effect of mild anemia, I struggle with cold extremities; my hands and feet are perpetually frozen (ice blocks, my family calls them). I exercise regularly, bundle up, wear heated socks, use Magic Bags constantly, turn up the heat, wear slippers, and have invested in the best quality winter gear for Canadian living. But, at the end of many days, the only thing that can bring relief is a very hot shower. For years I would look forward to the evening so I could finally get warm, thinking longingly of just getting the kids to bed so I could get relief from the penetrating cold.

This year I had an epiphany. I could take two showers in a single day. I could take ten if I wanted to. There was no shower patrol limiting my access; no cutoff valve on the hot water tank that would cut me off after five minutes of gloriously scalding water.

While I don’t do it very often, on those particularly frigid days when I just cannot get warm – I take a second shower. And, literally, nothing bad has every happened.

Another example involves sleep. One evening my husband and I, usually very responsible about our bedtime, stayed up and binged the entire Waco mini-series on Netflix. It was close to 2 AM before we finished and I felt both horribly guilty and exhilarated. It felt like I had just broken some high-school-era curfew; when the morning rolled around and my elders learned about this, I’d be grounded for a month and lose access to the family car to boot. But, once again, nothing bad happened.

Truth is, I’m an adult. A perk – and curse – is the right to make a tremendous number of decisions. Most of the rules I project onto my life are completely my own construct.

I can eat ice cream for supper. I can have dessert before a meal. I can mix a load of light and dark laundry. I can say yes to that late-night conversation with a friend, even though it’s past my bedtime; I can skip my morning run even if I’ve got a 30-day exercise streak; I can decide not to give teacher gifts this year.

Mileage will vary on this; I suspect different personality types would find wildly different applications. And I’m not advocating for rampant embrace of unhealthy decisions. But I think we would do well to revisit the rules we’ve assigned and see if they are adequately serving our needs. Eating ice cream for supper doesn’t make me an unhealthy person…it just makes me a person who ate ice cream for supper.

I’m actually not a big fan of ice cream anyway…now Zesty Cheese Doritos are another story. But chances are, if I pick up a bag for supper tomorrow night, literally nothing bad will happen.