Monday, March 12, 2012

8 Ways to Dump Junk

Dear Maria

Help! I have piles everywhere! I don’t know why I can’t fix this, but I have junk in these stacks all over the place. And that doesn’t include my . Help!

Dear Chris-

You sound overwhelmed and I know the feeling. There is nothing like all that unfinished business lying around to turn us into nervous wrecks. And if you are anything like me, the more piles, the more inertia. So, here are some simple tools to help you get out from under.

1. What’s going on in your head?

First of all, please know that all of those piles are unfinished business. A million little tasks that have not been completed. They become an ARMY of INADEQUACY for you. They represent all you want to avoid, everything that gets the best of you, the stuff in your life you just don’t want to deal with. So, no wonder you shove more in the pile and avert your eyes.

2. Divide and conquer

The old saying goes, “divide and conquer” your enemy. The bigger your junk pile, the stronger your enemy. If you start to look at that pile as an enemy you can’t let strengthen itself, you can shift your perspective enough to know that you need to pick at it and reduce its strength.

3. The Inevitable

Here is the cold hard truth about junk. It keeps coming. Just like you have to make your bed every morning, the junk will keep coming every day. Receipts, mail, tacks, rubber bands… okay, maybe not rubber bands. There is no such thing as being junk or paperwork free. It is just a part of life. You don’t have to make your bed every day, but it sure feels good when you do. You don’t have to keep the junk under control, but it feels good when you do.

Chris, to recap so far, junk is a part of life, we are stuck with it. But, when we let it grow it becomes strong, like an enemy gathers strength in numbers. If we view junk not as something we need to avoid, but as an enemy we can’t let grow, we alter our perspective or view of the issue, and we may just alter our response.

4. Quadrant clean

Quadrant cleaning means pick one area to start. I personally would start small. Pick one junk drawer, one pile and ONLY work that area until it is done. Taking on too much puts you back in the same spot, with a lot of loose ends. So start by picking one spot.

5. Location, location, location

I always say half the battle is having a location for your junk. The recycling bin, the receipts box, the shoe basket. You name it. A place for everything. So, to start, take your one “quadrant” and make sure everything in the pile has a location. Frequently, there is no assigned spot or you would have already put it there. For the things that don’t have a home, MAKE ONE. Seriously, get your location ready and put the stuff there.

6. All Systems Go

Some of the junk pile will be systems related. You have to …gulp… file things. Yuck. This takes a bit of time and if you don’t have the right system for filing you are going to be stuck with the pile again. So, find your system for paperwork and there you go.

7. Time allotment

Everything that matters takes time. Schedule time for your junk management. Seriously, I don’t do enough of this because it is my LEAST favorite. I would rather clean a bathroom than organize junk and paperwork. But it does take time, so I have stopped fooling myself and I give myself time to get it done.

8. Attach me not

We are emotional beings. We can’t help it. We see something familiar and our limbic system lights up, all excited with emotional memory. The problem? We can buy into saving every little thing. You know what I mean. We pick up a ticket stub and suddenly we are at that concert. Our memory brings us there, not just in thought, but in emotion. That is powerful. But we need to learn to let go, we can’t keep every single ticket stub. Precious memories can turn on us and become an army of thought that leaves us under a pile we can no longer face. So, consider letting go of some of those stubs. Believe it or not, you still have the memories. They are there for you, even without the junk to remind you.

Good luck Chris, hope all this helps!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Importance of Memory - Snow and Sledding and Such

I was emailing back and forth with someone I love very much this week. She is in late adulthood and told me something that brought tears to my eyes. She was telling me about the weather up north and then added, “I used to love playing in the .” I could feel her , her joy at the memory. And it made me wonder, what were my favorite memories of snow? I do live in Florida, by choice, right? But within seconds, memories were flooding. I remember my first winter in Chicago. I had been living in Florida for so long, snow was again magic for me. One night, we walked out from the high rise to go see a movie. The snow was blanketing the block. You know that block, full of shops, lit up in the darkness, with the old fashioned movie theatre in the middle. The snow fell on us in giant, floating flakes. I was madly in love. It was one of the best moments of my life.

Of course, then there was this kid in my neighborhood when I was little. I grew up about an hour and a half north of NYC. In the mid-Hudson valley. What does that mean? Mountains, hills, craggy rocks, and streams. Everywhere. As kids, we were always searching for a new hill we could hit in our neighborhood for sleigh riding. For some reason, we called it sleigh riding, not . So, we found this hill, nestled between a few people’s properties. Kind of like what you would call a greenway now. It was steep and of course, you could opt to go over this rock that jutted out of the hill (covered in snow and topped with a layer of ice), which would give you some air on the way down. At the bottom was, yes, a frozen stream. This means at the end of your ride you get a boost of momentum. Fantastic. However, there was also a chain link fence backing up to someone’s land. So, as you can guess, the goal was to get the best ride possible while stopping short of the fence. We would stand at the top of the hill watching each other go down. Here’s the thing. From the top, that chain link fence was just out of sight.

So, here comes this kid. And he’s a daredevil. You know the type. Takes a running start onto the sled every time. And yes, sometimes he would miss the sled and go down half on, legs flailing, or roll down the hill without it. Hysterical. So, you know when he actually got it right and went down ON the sled, we were all thinking about that chain link fence. He flies down, we see him hit the ice and hear that smooth sound as he glides out of sight. And then, a giant smack and rattle as he hits the fence. We all hold our breath in the silent aftermath. And then we hear it. His deep throated laughter. We laughed till we fell down in the snow. He did it over and over that day, even inspired some of us to “go for the fence.” There’s no moral here, no tale of class clowns or taking chances (the fence really didn’t feel good when you hit it, by the way… although it did make you laugh).

But I can tell you this; I am feeling pretty good as I write. Pretty happy. It’s amazing what a memory can do, it lights up our , our emotion center in the brain, and we can not only remember, but we feel the moment all over again. So, here is what I am thinking. Do you have a snow story? A happy memory? Something you would like to share? Post it in the comments section and share with all of us… for those of us who are entering the “dog days” of winter, when it starts to feel more miserable than magic, and also for all of us who live far from the snow and miss the crunch of it under our feet and the taste of it on our tongues.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Left Foot, Left Foot, Right Foot, Right… Dr. Seuss isn’t the only one with ideas to get on the right foot this New Year!

Here are some simple tools for beginning the New Year on the right foot


Dilemma: It’s January and you MEAN to get your 2012 planner. But you are sooo busy. In the meantime, you are writing in the rapidly disappearing margins of last year’s planner, scribbling notes and hoping for the best.

Solution: Get a . Yes, you can get mine. In fact, I highly recommend it! Or, you can get whatever works for you. Use the electronic version in your phone, or get one from your local office supply store. But get a planner. Not three. One will do.


Dilemma: You need to call the babysitter to book the weekend. Now, where is her number? Suddenly, you are wracking your brain, trying to remember the spelling of her last name as you grope through the phone book.

Solution: Get ALL your addresses and phone numbers in one place. In your planner, phone, wherever. Take a half hour or so and get everyone you need to get a hold of in arms reach.


Dilemma: Yet another social engagement lands in your lap. You don’t want to go. You just want a quiet night at home. Truth? You don’t even like those people!

Solution: Start pruning. Say “no” now and then to the people and things in your life that you don’t need, don’t want or aren’t good for you. I am guessing the party will go on without you. Life is short. Spend it doing what you love with who you love.


Dilemma: You feel a creepy film on your teeth and suddenly wonder, “When was the last time I was at the dentist?”

Solution: Take a little time in January and make all the appointments you need for at least the next 6 months. Doctor, dentist, specialists, even appointments for your car and home. Chimney sweep, anyone? Don’t get it all done in January, that is way to masochistic, but get the appointments on the books!


Dilemma: You run from activity to activity, non-stop. Each day is a breathless wonder of adrenaline. Yet, you often feel that ache in your shoulders or knot in your stomach. When you do stop, you drop, after, of course, downing some Advil for the pain.

Solution: Get in the habit of stopping to on a regular basis. Think of yourself as a snowball headed down the mountain. If you don’t stop before your momentum gets out of control, you will go so fast you won’t be able to enjoy the beautiful view, and, of course, you will crash at the bottom of the hill for sure.

Try any of these simple tips for a great start to the New Year!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Not THAT Kind of Yogi! 5 Easy Steps to Meditate your Troubles Away

Sometimes it is tough to get ourselves centered. You know what I am talking about; we start the day out behind the ball and find that we are chasing our tails all day long. Trust me; I lived a lot of years of my life like this. One of the best “things” that happened to me, was working in the Loop in Chicago. This is the busy business district. I could drive to work, get stuck on the Eisenhower, search for parking (lots of money) and then walk a couple of blocks to my building. Or, I could take the train. I had several offices while living in Chi-town. For a while I was really lucky, when the train had a stop right in the building I was working. Taking the train is an exercise in powerlessness. You are stuck, trapped, there is no way you can change lanes or take an alternate route to get where you want to go faster. It is taking the controls and handing them over to the conductor. And it is marvelous. Suddenly, delays are not your problem, you get to read, listen to music, or hang out with the regulars as you transition from work to home.

Why is this relevant to the yogi? When I think of the yogi, I think of a person, withered, sitting cross legged on the mountain top meditating. NOT ME! But you know what? All those years of taking the train gave me a built in “center time.” No matter if I caught the train in the last second before the doors closed – yeah, I was “that” girl for a while, or if I was organized and waiting patiently on the platform. One thing was certain, I was stuck doing nothing for a while once I stepped through those gliding doors. I was stuck getting centered. And it was great. Forced to slow down, stare out the window, mellow out, ponder. It was like having my own meditation moment. And it allowed me to be centered when I started my day and to unwind and re-center myself at the end of the day. Great.

Now, there are no trains in Jacksonville, where I teach college. So, I am stuck on the road. But I have learned taking 5 minutes before I start the day to do the following gives me the same sense of balance those train rides did.

1. Crawl back into bed – good start, right?
2. Keep the lights dimmed or off.
3. I light a couple of candles. Yes, I have remote controlled battery operated candles – this is due to my very sad penchant for accidentally burning things. Do not even ask about my fireplace mishaps.
4. Take a deep breath, hold it and blow it out. Repeat.
5. Try my very, very hardest to empty my mind… whatever, I have to try, right? One way to do this is to repeat a word or phrase. I like “All is well.” Pick one. It is hard to have racing thoughts when you are practicing repeating a word or phrase.

That’s it. Then I check the schedule, write out a few goals for the day, nothing too dramatic, and get on with it. Those few moments center me as well as those train rides used to, perhaps even more so because I am focused on emptying my mind. For me, I feel calmer and I obsess less on days when I meditate.

Researchers tell us that deep breathing triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, our mellow, rest and digest system. This lowers heart rate, improves digestion, and improves the immune system. According to Psychology Today, meditation has been found to reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress. This is because meditation alters brain function. It moves your brain activity from your right frontal cortex to the left, which is calmer. This is not just psycho-mumbo-jumbo. It is science.

So, take the yogi challenge and try it. 5 minutes a day. And see how much better your day goes.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Get Organized with a 200 Year Old Tool

We humans are good at something called “,” or taking individual units and putting them together. For instance, we can comfortably “chunk” 7-9 numbers together and remember them. If our phone numbers were 15 digits long, we would have a lot harder time remembering them. Think of your social security number... 9 digits. But how many of us know our credit card numbers? 16 digits, not including that security number on the back.
So, when we think of getting things done, “chunking” in small manageable groups works. Over chunking, on the other hand, overwhelms us. This is probably why we start to palpitate when “to do” lists fill a page. Our minds are not capable of putting that much information together. End result? For many of us, we feel and then experience inertia.

So, with the New Year nipping at our heels, I thought “chunking” change into threes could make a lot of sense. One of the simplest and most powerful is “a place for everything and everything in its place.” It seems that a minister and graduate of Yale, Charles Goodrich, can claim the first printed citation of this quote. Goodrich was also an author and member of the senate in Connecticut. Amazing, huh? One thing is for sure. “A place for everything” remains one of the most powerful organizing tools in the 200 hundred years since it was first recorded. (And, I suspect, a lot further back than that. Truth is truth, after all…)

A great place to start... Do you have a spot for your keys?

So, back to “chunking” and getting more organized. What if you picked three things in your world? If could be in your office, your home, your car. But look around at what is not working and FIND A DESIGNATED PLACE for THREE things.
I believe that finding a clear location is 80% of the battle. After that, it’s just a little bit of discipline to follow through and put that item in its spot. So, this week, consider looking for three trouble spots in your life, find a home for them, and practice getting those things into their home every day.

Oh, and here’s the thing. Once you find a place for three things, you can start over and find a place for three more things…. and so on and so on…
Let me know how it goes as you “chunk” this simple, time honored tool and bring in the New Year with a little less chaos, a little more simplicity.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Dear Maria - Should I Feel Guilty about my Boyfriend?

Dear Maria-

I can't help but feel that I am superficial because I don't like that my boyfriend has not been successful financially. He is in debt and barely making it. I don't respect his decisions anymore(he procrastinates ) and he always seems to have an excuse for why his business is failing. After 5 years together, I am tired of waiting for him to pull ahead. He makes excuses which sound good and I think "Am I unreasonable?, Why am I not more supportive?" Sometimes I pay for things that I just don't want to. It really makes me feel used. And then I feel like I am being superficial and unsupportive, but I am tired of carrying the weight AND keeping my life on hold while he gets it together. Maria, I am a single mom and he is in his 40's. I feel terrible, can you help? Kate

Dear Kate-

ARE you being superficial? What it really sounds like is that your warning lights are going off. Let's look at the facts. He is 40, has an unsuccessful business, is in debt, barely "making it," is a procrastinator and you feel used. Hmm. This is what I think is happening. Your pragmatic side is meeting up with some ghosts. You sound practical, realistic and analytical regarding your concerns. If you think of a traffic light, many of these concerns are "yellows." They might not be deal breakers, like a "red light," but they tell you to be cautious. Just like a yellow traffic light, they give you that little knot in your stomach, which is just your brain doing its job by sending you a warning.

And then along comes your all too familiar ghost. This voice in your head is most likely someone from your past, like a parent, for instance, who taught you that your instincts, intuition, even analytical thinking were unreliable, flawed, or just plain wrong. Because those thoughts are like ghosts, they are hard to understand and pin down. So, we simplify. "I am probably being superficial." "I am just paranoid."

Are you? Probably not. Most likely, your unease is just an indicator that something is wrong. Am I suggesting you run away from this guy? Nah. Well, at least not yet. But I am suggesting you STOP beating up your Pragmatic Self. That part of you is good for you, always gathering information and looking out for your welfare. When you stop beating yourself up for being observant you can go with the flow of what is coming next instead of fighting it.

Plus, if this guy is a dud, how will you ever know if all you do is question that smart brain of yours? When those thoughts come, see them for the ghosts that they are. Self-doubt messages given to you a long time ago. They are harmless IF you decide not to let them bother you. Instead, congratulate yourself on noticing things that don't feel right.

To answer your question, Kate, before you take on your boyfriend, I suggest you start with battling your ghosts. Refuse to let them cloud your good judgment. Kate, most of us have trouble with self doubt now and then. If you can understand it, you can get on top of it, so it doesn't dictate your life.

Oh, and in psychology, we have a term we call "secondary gains." These are perks we get from unhealthy behaviors. In your case, as long as you continue to battle your good judgment, you don't have to make any decisions you want to avoid. So, maybe those ghosts have a purpose. Avoiding the tough stuff.

But, Kate, you seem pretty bright and balanced to me. Work on sweeping away those ghosts of self doubt, even if you don't have any answers right now, get comfortable with your good sense, and send me a note on how it is going. Start trusting your judgment and keep me posted.


Remember to make the moment happen!


Thursday, December 8, 2011

Something Old, Something New..... Quick Tips for Making the Holidays Magical AND Economical!

Here are a handful of tools to make the holidays more magical … and economical than ever, all by practicing “something old and something new.”

Something old:

1. Make sure you do an old holiday tradition. Something you do every year that brings you great joy, or something you did as a child that you would like to bring back. A few years back, I invested in the boxed set of Rudolph, Frosty, etc. and now those happy childhood memories are my children's as well... and I get to take a playful trip down memory lane every Christmas.

2. Practice the fine art of re-gifting. No, I don’t mean that old toaster. I mean something of real value and meaning. An old piece of family jewelry, hey, your favorite fishing rod. For the people who are important to you, giving them something meaningful FROM you, something that is a part of you is very powerful. When I was moving from New York, I gave my dear friend, Laura, my favorite sweater that she had always coveted. Years later, while visiting her house, I noticed that sweater tucked in her closet. I couldn’t believe she had kept it all those years. But, it was a sacrifice of love and she knew it. It was a gift she never forgot. Another example? One year, I used a three ring binder, with protective sleeves, and filled it with family recipes, family stories and pictures and gave them to the older kids. The sleeves kept everything clean and they could have some great laughs while whipping up those old recipes and looking at the crazy pictures I had added in. Re-gifting FROM YOU is thoughtful, and don’t forget, cheap. And who doesn’t want to get two birds with one stone?

Something new:

1. Try doing something NEW this holiday season. What change can you make? What can you do different? The year we spent 4 hours on Christmas day flying across the country to an exciting destination was one of our best ever. Hard to believe we even questioned it at the time. Doing something new keeps us fresh, keeps our minds stimulated and gives us the opportunity to have fun and grow in new ways. Add in a family walk after a meal, have a snowball fight, go caroling, whatever, just something different.

2. There is nothing wrong with trying something new in the gift arena, either. Picking names, limiting money spent, you name it. I know someone whose family has an ugly gift exchange game, the White Elephant game, but each person tries to find the ugliest thing possible. They start looking in the fall, at yard sales, dollar stores, etc., spending less than $5 and searching for the ugliest thing possible. Apparently, Christmas morning is “wet yourself” funny at their house. Not to mention the laughter you get while on your search! Talk about bang for your buck! The point here? Don’t be afraid to try something new or to let go of spending countless dollars and to see what happens!

Want more?

Read Surviving Houseguests