Living to Work

May 14, 2009

This past weekend one of my husband’s co-workers passed away.  He was in his 50’s, in seemingly good health and fit.  It made me think of all the professionals I know that spend 10 or more hours a day, not including their commute, in the prime of their lives (their 30’s) and the youth of their children’s lives, at an office away from their families.  Many miss important milestones hoping that some day, all their hard work will pay off and some day they will have time to relax, travel and experience fun.  Some day typically means retirement.

I have to ask…… why?  At the end of the day, the golden years often aren’t very golden.   In fact, if we are lucky enough to make it to retirement, not having been stopped by the two biggest killers in the US  heart disease or cancer, we will likely not have the energy or the money to just do what we want.    Why wait until our kids have kids to enjoy spending time with a child? 

I say work less now, pare down expenses to live on less, take time out for our children now while they are young and developing, take time to travel now while you can enjoy the experience without fear of health issues and fixed incomes weighing on your minds. 

I hate to break the bad news but you can’t bank time and experiences to be saved up and used when you are ready for them.  You either live now….or you don’t.

The third step in simplifying your life is to look at your obligations and prioritize them.   Once you have prioritized your list, eliminate anything that isn’t a required obligation.  For instance volunteering, book clubs, bunko groups, birthday parties, etc. etc.   You won’t have to eliminate these things forever, just long enough to regain control over your life. Once you have freed up time and money, you can bring back the things that are most important to you.

Below is a look at some of my obligations and the changes I made:

Most of us have to work in order to feed and cloth ourselves so obviously work goes to the top of the priority list.  But you will find that as you simplify your life, you need less money and you may be able to work less in the future.   However, there may be things you can do today to lessen the burden of a stressful job.  Can you work from home, eliminating a commute and possibly reclaiming two or more hours a day?   Can you work part time, freeing up more of the day to put toward the wants in your life?

Volunteering is important but it can be put off until you have achieved balance and simplicity in your life.   I have always volunteered.  In the past I was on a homeless feeding group, I was on the board of my son’s daycare center, I was on the board at church to establish a mobile homeless food canteen and I volunteered at my son’s elementary school.   In the end, I had to drop every single one of those until I had gotten my life where I felt I needed to be.   Today, I have a saner volunteer schedule.  I volunteer weekly in my son’s school on a program that early identifies and early intervenes in dyslexia and other learning disorders but don’t volunteer for things like parties.  I do try to make one class trip a year because it makes my son happy for me to be there.   I am slowly getting back into my homeless causes, something that is very important to me.  I will realign those and re-volunteer because now I have the time to devote to it without feeling overwhelmed and pushed.

Family and friends.  I used to be involved, along with  my crazy volunteering schedule, in many neighborhood activities like a book club and a bunko group as well as sitting on several committees for our neighborhood association.   Many women in my neighborhood enjoy this time out.  But I found it became mostly an opportunity to complain about their lives, their husbands and their children.  I wasn’t comfortable in that environment because my husband has always been my refuge so, after deciding I wasn’t getting anything out of it and spending money on hosting or providing entry fees, buying books and the obligatory holiday white elephant gift exchange, I dropped them all.   We try to spend more time on what really matters,  family members and close friends.   We have a standing Friday  night date with our son for dinner and a movie – we cook at home and watch a family movie from Netflix.   We reserve Sunday as a time for just us and our son because it is easier to do without interrupting his time with friends.   Most importantly, we remain flexible and if he has a Friday night sleepover with friends, my  husband and I lock the door, light candles and enjoy being together.

Incessant child parties, and adult parties for that matter…We completely eliminated these.  We don’t even go anymore.  With 22 kids in our son’s class, we could be having at least two parties a month (and sometimes we did).   This costs money for gifts that the kid probably doesn’t need and won’t play with more than once, money that you could be saving for something far more worthwhile.   It also takes time and lets face it, with a large, rambunctious party the kids aren’t really attending to developing meaningful relationships.   We usually RSVP with regrets that we have a conflict that cannot be avoided.   That conflict may be us staying home and riding bikes together, the host doesn’t have to know and I don’t feel I have to explain.  I haven’t seen where this as unduly affected our son’s friendships.  We make sure to organize meaningful time together with friends so he  can build relationships and spend meaningful time on friendships that are very important to him.

Grocery shopping.  Many of us live in areas that have grocery delivery.   If you do, take advantage.  Shop on the internet and let the groceries come to you.   If you can’t, plan well in advance what you need and minimize your stress level by going at an ‘off peak’ shopping time – I used to leave my husband and son home and shop at 9 pm because I knew the crowds would be at home getting ready for bed.

Kids activities.  These need to go right now.  Yes, extracurricular activities are important but in America we have over scheduled our kids to the point they need their own daily planners.   Our child actually did this for us when he broke his arm so spectacularly that he couldn’t participate in anything for three months, it was during this time we realized how crazy his life had gotten.   Once he was able to rejoin extracurricular activities we decided to limit it to one a semester.  Instead of robot club and chess club after school, music lesson and baseball – most of which he didn’t care about, we now focus on one activity.  If he really wants to join a second we probably wouldn’t stop him but we encourage him to rationally choose what he wants to join, keeping a balance between activities and school work as well as prioritizing free play.   He chose to drop everything except music lessons.  We have one music lesson weekly — for 1/2 hour plus his daily practice sessions.  The rest of the time he spends time with friends and free play activities like riding his bike or scooter around the neighborhood or playing legos or games indoors.   There is nothing quite like the shock on your drum instructors face when he shamefully asks if we can accommodate a schedule change and we happily say “Dave, we are at your disposal, you are our only obligation on Saturdays….”   There is also nothing quite like the beauty of waking up and knowing we don’t have anywhere to be on any given Saturday or Sunday with the exception of our one half hour commitment.  Again, we have freed up more money by not being involved in many organizations that each require a fee and support throughout the season.  Kids don’t need a host of activities to be happy and healthy or have strong sense of self and accomplishment.  That is an adult creation and a fairly modern one at that.  I believe kids need far more free time, down time and opportunities for free play than they need soccer three times a week.

I know, I am slightly late a day late posting the second step to simplifying your life.   Last week, you should have been focusing on identifying the things you want in life, from big to small, the things that you think will make you happy.  

This week, the focus is on obligations.  We all have them.  These are the things we either think or know we cannot avoid.  In order to get to the next step and set priorities, you first have to know what you want out of life and what you have to do to get those things but you also have to recognize when there are activities that cannot be avoided that you must account for in your quest to simplify.  In a later post we will talk about how to make those obligations as simple or as enjoyable as possible.

Here is a sample list of obligations that you feel you cannot avoid.

  • Work – most of us are not fortunate enough to have been born with enough money to simply float through life doing what we want.  Generally, in order to live or survive, we have to work.
  • volunteering – whether it is with your child(ren)s school or the community, many people feel that giving back to the community is a “must”.
  • family
  • friends
  • social or adult “playdates” – these are those little things like bunko with the girls or poker with the guys.  They build community, relationships and help you unwind or even required attendance for work like cocktail parties or those awful holiday parties
  • vacations – everyone needs time off – even if you just stay at home
  • our children’s obligations – sports, theater, dance, etc.

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As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness. .  – Henry David Thoreau

Electronics and computers were supposed to make our lives easier.  The rise of home computing promised a virtual (literally) utopia of composing, storing, finding and sending information with just a few key strokes.  But what happens when we get that information? Our promised utopia shatters into the reality of procrastination and clutter.  In my own life, I have found that most information on my computer ends up lost in some obscure file folder that I created so I would never lose it.  Ironic, no? 

At the beginning of this week, I set about ruthlessly decluttering my two,  yes two, computers.  My unique life of having three jobs requires some separation for tax purposes and no matter how much I love the laptop my office bought for me, I admit, I am a slave to a desktop.   With two computers and three jobs, this area of my life clearly needs work.  Four years, one full time job and two consulting jobs later, things are a mess. 

My goal is to delete, or assign folders to, the 2500 emails hanging out in my in-box and clear my in-box so that it isn’t so overwhelming when the “you’ve got mail” alarm sounds.  This is the last, and most painful, task in my self imposed punishment.  My first task seemed infinitely easier – painstakingly going through every byte of information on my hard drive to determine it’s necessity, file appropriately in well labeled files and delete anything unnecessary or unused over the past five years.  Just the first task of cleaning off unused or obsolete files has turned my previously painfully slow laptop into the Speedy Gonzales of the electronic world.  But the emails are more difficult.  Deciding what I may need in the case someone asks a question or documentation necessary in a case I may become involved in takes a lot of thought and concentration.  

Despite the daunting task, I persevere and  as with all decluttingering and simplifying efforts, I am rewarded.  For every group of emails I select and delete, my computer gets a little bit faster and I feel my energy flowing.   As I finish, I review my system resources.  I freed up 50% of my computer’s hard drive.  Wow, that was a lot of junk just hanging out doing nothing but cluttering my life.  What would that look like in the paper world?  I imagine it would be similar to keeping every piece of junk mail, catalogue and newspaper for five years.  Picture that pretty sight!

Reduce Waste

February 14, 2008

Americans consume a lot.  We also waste a lot with enormous landfills and barges sent out to sea with our trash to end up somewhere else, just not here. 

I have one challenge for each of you.  Reduce waste.  Think about what you buy, the packaging it comes in and how you can either do with out it or figure out how to reuse it.

Some ideas:

Find a recycle center in your area.  Our municipal recycling is limited and time consuming.  We use it but we also use a separate recycle center called Ecology Action that accepts far more recyclables with a lot less work.  Our muni recycling will only take 1 & 2 plastic in bottle shapes, Ecology Action will take all 1 & 2 packaging such as the fruit packing berries come in as well as unbound cardboard, newspaper, phone books, cell phones, and pressed cardboard like cereal boxes.   We keep bins in our garage and just throw the stuff in it.  When it is time to make a run, we combine it with another errand in the same area or we use it as an opportunity to go out to lunch and enjoy an afternoon in the city.   My son loves this, he has such a great time sorting the recyclables and making sure everything gets where it needs to go.

Re-use glass jars.  Sure you can recycle glass – it is the most widely accepted recyclable material but it still takes resources through energy to recycle anything.   You can recycle by finding alternative uses for those pickle jars or spaghetti jars.   I like to store beans and rice in them.  They also work well to sort nails, screws and bolts in our garage.  My son uses them to hold treasures like seashells and sand from various beach vacation.   If you have found a jar for every use you can think of, list them on your local Freecycle or Craigslist and send them on to someone who could use them.

Find alternatives to paper.  A tree had died to give you every bit of new paper you use.  If you need “new” paper, buy 100% post-consumer recycled paper.  Wrap gifts in nice bits of fabric or reuse those gift bags that you get.  My family has been passing around the same Christmas gift bags for five years now! 

Spend a little more money to buy quality or look for real wood used furnishings that can be restored.  Quality furniture, hopefully made from wood grown in a sustainably managed forest, will last far longer than cheap particle board wood type furniture and will ultimately reduce what finds its way into a landfill.   I tend to look at garage sales for quality wood furniture that, while not immediately attractive, can be remade into something beautiful.  I have restored a Mission Style Spindle Bed, a few free chairs that were in good shape except the upholstery was ruined, and a few tables.   My sister and I make decorating our homes on the cheap with quality a game and we help each other restoring our finds.  It gives us time spent together and helps us build and maintain our relationship while also creating beautiful homes. 

Reducing waste is definitely a simple life virtue.  First, doing without but also ensuring you use what you buy and leave as little behind as possible.