Facing Illness with Grace

How To Be Sick Well

I’m a bit unwell, and writing what I need to hear today.

Awhile ago I had a (congested) laugh when I was coming down with a cold and googled ways to think about minor illness. I’ll talk about the helpful advice below, but the funny one was an article about karma. It said that the cold was caused by something negative I’d done and I should be glad that it wasn’t worse – that it could have led to a horrible rebirth, such as a “hell being, hungry ghost, or animal.” 

As entertaining as it is to think about being a hungry ghost (idea for my next short story), blaming me for my illness was NOT HELPFUL. When I got sick or hurt as a child, my family was angry at the disruption and burden it caused. I’d live in denial, ignoring symptoms until things either went away or got so bad I couldn’t hide them anymore. It took practice and caring friends for me to acknowledge illness calmly. Thinking my cold was payback for some misdeed in my past was not the route I wanted to take. Also, being reborn as an animal doesn’t seem like a punishment, at least not if I could pick (sea otter all the way – seriously, they have POCKETS! Shedd Aquarium on Instagram).

What advice was helpful?

I knew my thinking about the cold was making my situation worse. The physical symptoms were what you’d expect, my reaction to them felt out of proportion – that’s why I turned to google. I’ve since had different health issues, and find myself returning to these lessons. Illness is part of life, it’s as natural as joy, but my thinking gets clouded by pain and poor sleep and I need these reminders about how to be sick. How to be sick well. 

Focusing on the present

Is step number one, basic. I let go of worrying about how I’m going to feel later in the week when I have to do some physical work, or if my nose will be drippy when I do a presentation (spoiler: It was. It was also nowhere near as bad as I’d imagined it would be.) 

This is harder and more important with illness that might be a serious or long-term issue. I hear my brain saying, “What if [insert nightmare scenario here]?” and feel worse, of course – I can create some horrifying scenarios! So, I learned to take “What if?” as a cue to shift to “What is?”. What is happening right now? What is helping? What is my body able to do?

Gratitude

Mostly that I am not being reborn as a hell-being, and also that I have a comfortable place to rest. That my children are old enough to understand and take care of household tasks. With the cold, I could be glad it wasn’t something worse. Even with worse issues, I appreciate the chance to talk about health and aging with my kids. And a shoutout to Canada’s (flawed but… awesome) healthcare system 🙂🇨🇦  

bookshelf with cards and kids' notes
It helps to have a cheering squad: “Think of the great things you do.”

Connection, Compassion

I wondered to myself, what would the Dalai Lama do? I think he would consider the seven billion souls on this planet and know that some of them are feeling illness. He would send kindness to them, compassion and empathy. I smile just having the loving-kindness thoughts. I send kindness particularly to those who don’t have the comforts I just felt gratitude for. I can empathize with people in my life facing their own challenges and learn from them too.

Letting tasks / productivity go

Rest has value. There are times – being sick is one of them – when rest has more value than most other tasks. When I’m unwell, I take responsibility for making sure the kids and I have food to eat and that’s about it. I do what work I can, and don’t do what I can’t. If I’m not obsessing about how awful it is to be sick, I can do a lot more than when I’m wallowing in self-pity. 

I get sad about things I miss, or things I didn’t get done – I feel the sadness and it moves along, as all feelings do. 

puppy giving me kisses
puppy kisses fix everything

People like helping, I let them

Most people are glad to be of help. I know I feel a sense of belonging and usefulness when a friend or neighbour asks me into their life to give them a hand. (Bonus: Good karma!) I might not need much help to get through a cold, but with limited energy, my appreciation for small gestures expands like a get-well balloon. 

So, I started writing this in a bit of a funk, hoping to talk myself into grace… and tada! It worked, and I will leave you with one more tip: When you answer your door in pyjamas at 3 pm on a sunny almost-summer day, people trying to sell you things make awkward apologies and leave quickly 🙂

Expect the Unexpected

I love to plan – LOVE setting out all my upcoming adventures in my calendar, dreaming about what I’ll do on that weekend in Manhattan or what chores to tackle before a gaggle of teenagers fills my basement for a sleepover.

A lesson I have to learn repeatedly though, is that whatever story I tell myself about how the future will play out is wrong. Always. My imagination can’t ever create the wild realities that come to pass.

Don’t believe the story you make up about the future

I don’t remember exactly what I pictured for the month ahead back in March. I know I expected to find a winter camping trip fun but stressful, sharing close quarters with my kids and their friends. Instead it was a soul-warming reminder of the magic of being outdoors and easy family living in the simplicity of a yurt. We’ll go for even longer next year.

kids by a frozen lake
JOY!

I’d been sure that I needed strategies to deal with the noise, with the differing bedtimes, with the physical discomforts. One of my strategies was to avoid getting hangry – minor irritants grow so big with hunger – so I got preoccupied with making a meal when we arrived. Luckily (what did we ever do without instant communication?) my daughter texted about being at the waterfront and that snapped me back to the real reality, not the story I’d told myself about how hard everything would be. I laughed as I slipped and slid down the icy trail to join everyone at the frozen beach, and soaked up enough enchantment there to feed me for days.

I could tell a hundred more stories of my faulty predictions, and even when I know I’m clinging to guesses, I find it hard to imagine any other version of events, so the guesses feel like truth. To break the trance, I used to play with outrageous possibilities in my head – then the universe would laugh at my feeble attempts, making my outrageous ideas mundane compared to how life actually unfolded.

So again, I’m learning to not even get on the ‘future fantasy’ train. I save my mental energy for enjoying the present moment, with time for doing concrete planning that’s necessary, covering the basics, getting started and trusting that things will work out. I’m picking general themes for future events rather than detailed plans – so our yurt adventure was about “savouring winter” before the thaw started. As soon as I stood on the shore and realized that, I didn’t give things like bedtimes a second thought.

Leave space for woes and windfalls

A month ago, I was oblivious to the version of the world where a vibrant colleague dies of cancer, sewage pipes rupture, I’m given a car, adopted cats join our household, and a freelance opportunity turns into a master class in creative writing. Yet a few weeks later, here I am, listing woes and windfalls that weren’t part of any plan.

two cats by a door
Rookie and Meeko ❤️

One of the monthly reflection questions in my planner (www.passionplanner.com, not an affiliate link, just an awesome product) is “How are you different between this past month and the month before it?” and there are months I write, I see it all better.

A wise friend described stages of her children growing up as a sheet of tissue paper being pulled back as each stage passed, removing some haze, and she could understand more clearly. Sometimes the haze that’s lifted is so thick, new light and understanding flood in and I See it All Better.

These leaps of insight are both surprising and not. With hindsight, I can see the ripening of an idea or an impulse, hear it bubbling up in conversations or echoed in quotations I saved from books. As with my broken pipes, there are conditions that make new insights more or less likely to happen, though there’s no telling what is going to flow when the break occurs. And while yes, some insights do turn out to be sewage 😕, thankfully not many do, so maybe a better analogy is a flower: I hear and read and share ideas as seeds, then water and feed them with stillness, breathing, meditation, time outdoors, walking, noticing, and they blossom. When my days and brain are too full to do those things, the seed doesn’t sprout, or if it does, I don’t notice. Having a decluttered life and mind both allows for more of these leaps of insight and gives me the space to respond (mostly) calmly to the broken pipes.

This is why I don’t put much energy into setting specific goals and tracking my progress towards them (How do you want to live your life?). Life is too wonderfully random and full of surprises to expect to move from point A to point B in a straight line. I plan, staying unattached to the specifics, and leave all sorts of space for unimagined possibilities to unfold. I know the directions I want to go, with clarity about what matters to me, so I know which opportunities to jump on, and what can fall by the wayside if need be.

Add a Contingency Budget

At work, budgets for big projects always include a contingency expense line of 10-15% for what I call the “expected unexpected” situations. We don’t know what will go wrong or turn out to cost more, but we know that something will. It’s also possible that an opportunity will arise and we want to have funds available to take advantage right away, not have to scramble.

I do this with my home budget too, and most importantly with my time/energy/life planning. About once a month we have a home day where we can simply be. No tasks, no ‘shoulds’, no planned social events. At work, I protect my first hour of the day for taking care of woes and windfalls. If it’s a dull day, I use it to maintain my zero inbox and decluttered space so I stay on top of my productivity game the rest of the time. And when there’s excitement… I can jump right in!

There are stars you haven't seen 
and loves you haven't loved. 
There's light you haven't felt 
and sunrises yet to dawn. 
There are dreams you haven't dreamt 
and days you haven't lived 
and nights you won't forget 
and flowers yet to grow. 
There is more to you 
that you have yet to know. 
~ Gaby Comprés

 

Letting “Sunk Costs” Go

I sometimes keep things or stay in situations that I know are a mistake, just because I spent a lot of time, energy, and money making that mistake. It’s hard to let go of my “investment”, but as soon as I do I wonder why I didn’t move on much sooner – the freedom and space are luminous compared to the darkness of living with a constant reminder (or denial) of a mistake. I am learning to let go sooner and sooner, and I’m basking in the lightness it creates in my life.

A story

A friend of mine has a new car that plays music from their phone automatically. They apologize in frustration each time they start the car up and it blasts a surprisingly annoying song. They haven’t figured out yet how to get the car to recognize playlists, so it always plays the first song alphabetically on the phone. I ask, “Why don’t you just delete that song?” and their testy reply is, “I spent a lot of money on that album.”

That’s not the only song they don’t like on their phone – there are literally hundreds of them, usually bought unwanted as part of an album, and sometimes just from changing musical tastes over time. There’s no getting the money spent on them back of course, it’s not like they can be sold secondhand. The money is gone: Sunk costs.

Imagine that every time you turn on your car, a song you love starts playing. Imagine opening your music app and being happy with everything you see – with no reminders of your cringe-worthy boy band phase or regret at the tedious guitar solos you tried to like to impress a lover. Let. Them. Go.

A second story

We have a tedious government reporting system at my workplace. It is full of details (no joke, every clinician has to record what they do in 5 minute intervals for their entire workday every single day) but the details aren’t organized in any meaningful way. It was developed for a different purpose in a different type of organization, but the government  drooled at the “accountability” of having all that data and imposed it on us.

When the system was first required of us, we had lots of meetings with the government about how to implement it, and about what the information from it was – and was not – telling them. Over time, they started to see reason. We eventually felt close to a decision that we could stop all this wasteful work when someone in authority said, “Huh. Maybe we should rethink this.” Such relief! There was even clapping from one group.

It was, however, a premature celebration: My counterpart from another organization got up and made a heated speech saying, “I have spent three years of my life putting this system into place. I won’t hear of dismantling it!” They spoke about all the staff training time, the investments in software, and the reorganization of their own internal information systems to match the government one. “Changing things now would be too big a burden.” Our comments on the burden of wasting more time on the current system went unheeded.

That was almost 20 years ago and we’re still stuck with the meaningless system. Imagine what we could have achieved in those decades if we’d let go of the initial lost time and put our energy into something better. 

A story with a happy ending

I ❤️ NY. I find any excuse I can to be in New York City, wandering the streets, ogling the art and architecture, and finding quirky nooks in parks or buildings where I can sit and write. On one trip, I signed up for a walking tour of a couple of neighbourhoods I was interested in, thinking I would get the insider’s scoop on the best nooks. I was wrong. I got a bitterly out-of-work actor, fairly new to NYC himself, telling a large group of us scripted stories and taking us to places filled with other walking tours.

padded chair
comfiest nook chair ever

The walking tour wasn’t cheap, and it was two hours long. I knew 15 minutes into it that it wasn’t what I wanted. I gave it another 15 minutes “just in case” (never works) then realized I had two choices: Stay with the group for another 90 minutes, possibly seeing an interesting thing or two but mostly feeling unsatisfied, or politely leave, and spend those 90 minutes exploring on my own. Money wasn’t part of the decision because the money was gone, it was simply a matter of deciding how I wanted to spend my time. The answer was clear, and I greatly enjoyed the adventures I had on my own walking tour, complete with a unique nook find 🙂

What’s your story?

What mistakes have you made that you’re holding onto for no reason other than what they cost you? Can you picture how lovely your life would be without them? You can’t get the time or money back, but you can decide to put it all behind you and stop spending any of your present and future energy on the mistake. The freedom will feel wonderful, I promise.

ps The picture at the top is the Rose Room at the NY Public Library – a favourite indoor place to write but not at all a secret nook… I don’t usually take pictures of those sacred spaces 😉

Freedom from The Scary Pile

When I was young and in a new job, one of my responsibilities was approving (or not) requests for government funding in an area I didn’t know much (okay, nothing) about clinically. There were rules and politics and personalities involved in each decision and I didn’t like doing it. The requests came in by mail, a handful each week, and I felt a pang of dread with each envelope.

I would open them all, glance through them, and sigh with relief at the ones that were easy to approve. I’d quickly deal with those, doing all the associated paperwork while the not-easy ones got added to the pile: The pile that I would get to “when I had time to focus,” or “when I’ve had time to reflect.” The Scary Pile.

The Scary Pile sat in the dark corner of a shelf, as far from my workspace as possible. It pulled on me the way the ring pulled on Frodo. I wanted to pretend it didn’t exist but felt its constant weight.

Sometimes I would sift through and tackle a few of the difficult ones from The Scary Pile, but it was nowhere near as rewarding as working on the easy ones where the answer was ‘yes’. Of course, people were upset at the delays, so the pile got even heavier with self-criticism and shame piled on top. All these years later, I can still feel the gnawing pit in my stomach as I write about it.

On a sunny walk to work one day, I imagined what it would be like going to an office without a scary pile. That glimpse of freedom felt unrealistic, but motivated me enough to take care of the three oldest letters in the pile first thing. Which gave me an idea… 

Each day as I was leaving my office, I put three things from the scary pile onto my desk, with papers for a task I wanted to do peeking out from behind them. I could face three difficult things, especially if it meant I didn’t have to worry about The Scary Pile the rest of the day. For each of those three, I made the calls that had to be made, asked the dumb questions, challenged the egos trying to skirt the rules, and said ‘no’ when that was the answer.

I got through the pile. It was a bit of a shock to have emptiness where guilt had filled my gut. As each new letter came in, I dealt with it right away, easy or hard (which led to my magic email strategies). 

Do you have a scary pile? Messages you’re avoiding? A mess of a drawer filled with who knows what tasks left undone? A project you don’t fully understand or maybe disagree with so you keep putting it off? Can you picture how it would feel to be free of it?

I do my most focused work first thing in the day, so I use that time to face challenging work. Everyone’s brain and body schedule is different so freedom from your scary pile might be found at the end of your work day or through evening ‘second wind’ sessions – you know yourself best so you get to pick :).

What The Scary Pile taught me was that the only thing harder than doing the difficult tasks is not doing the difficult tasks. 

Now, the time I usually realize that I’m avoiding something is on my walk home from work, as my brain sorts through the day and I notice things that aren’t so obvious in the moment. So, my strategy is, when I go in the next day, I have to take care of that work before I get my morning coffee – crazy right? but so very motivating, it’s magic!

me holding a coffee by the christmas tree
with my beloved coffee

A few words about things taking the time they need, and yoga

My first yoga class echoed with laughter as a friend and I twisted our bodies into awkward knots. We were young, at a gym to get a workout, and paid no attention to the meditative or relaxation parts of the class. A bit older, I lay on my mat in a library basement, no longer acting silly, but reciting my grocery list in my head while the instructor talked about mindfulness. I joked about it with the neighbour who went to class with me, and she said she found the lessons from Lotus, the instructor, profound. I started paying attention… and had glimmers of insights, but it was another decade before I was ready to truly appreciate the spiritual wisdom my teachers were offering. 

Now, I carry learnings from yoga instructors through all parts of my life, literally with each breath (and I just read a post by Val Boyko reminding us to breathe). Here are a few of the most impactful:

“Savour what’s happening”

This is from a video (Yoga Mind and Body) that I did from a VHS tape for years. I think of it as an introductory link from the physical to mental. I started not just noticing how a pose or movement felt, but also enjoying it, savouring all the sensations. I often repeat the phrase to myself when I’m doing something new or different. It’s a pretty good mantra for life, right? Savour what’s happening. 

“Commit to stillness”

I think I gasped out loud when the instructor said this in a yin class. Her immediate meaning was, let your body stay still in this pose. In my heart I knew it meant so much more: There is deep power in simply stopping and being still. Anywhere, anytime. I commit to stillness many times a day, and as an overall approach to life. 

“When this feels complete to you”

What a concept! Let my own body, and my own mind tell me when something is complete. It may be a yoga pose, a meal, a relationship, emotions, a walk, a piece I’m writing in my journal, a dance session in the living room, or adding rosemary to my famous focaccia. I simply notice if it feels complete to me – no rationalizing or angst, it simply is ready to be done or it isn’t. 

“Wait for your body to let you in”

This is also from the video linked above. In physical terms, this helps me refrain from pushing too hard. I stretch to the point where I can savour the sensation, then I wait (in stillness… see how this all fits together?!), my body starts to let me stretch a bit further, and I hold that until it feels complete. Mentally, it helps me avoid rushing my emotions or thoughts – things take the time they take, and my body, my heart, will let me in deeper when the time is ripe. 

“Feel the whole earth under you, supporting you”

I heard this in a pregnancy yoga video, and – let’s blame it on hormones – cried out loud at the feeling that all of mother nature was holding me up (honestly, at 200+ lbs I was tired of fighting gravity). When I do outdoor yoga in the summer, I feel a special joy with this thought. It also linked later for me to the buddhist idea of interconnectedness – that there are 7 billion humans here, all linked, all supporting and supported by each other. 

purple yoga mat and block
love my purple

Like the way my yoga practice shapes my body, these words of wisdom shape my inner world every day. I am forever grateful to all the yoga teachers I’ve had, and hope that the ones who met me early in my journey forgave my irreverence. I expect they knew that their words would ripen in my heart and that I’d see their wisdom when I was ready 😊 

Let the Snowflakes Settle

As I got better at noticing my emotions and my internal state in general, I often felt that it wasn’t what it “should” be, and then I’d feel a drive to change it. I had a whole host of techniques to fix my thinking.

If I was worrying about something, my strategy was to think through a worst-case scenario to reassure myself it was going to be manageable. If I had insomnia, I’d do calculations to figure out when I had to fall asleep and wake up to be functional the next day. When my imagination was obsessed with building a fantasy future, I had a list of distractions to snap myself out of it. When I was busy or flustered, I’d name the signs – restless body, shoulders hunched, edgy voice, mental chaos, irritability – and write out ALL THE THINGS rattling around in my head. The list usually overwhelmed me even more.

This was all done with a background of my inner voice scolding me for letting my life get out of balance. Then scolding myself for passing judgement. Then trying to fix my thinking about that.

Can you feel the spiral? I could – I knew that none of this was working.

To get to a calmer place when my inner state was less than zen, here’s what helped me the most: Not doing anything about it.

In The Little Book of Big Change, Amy Johnson uses the analogy of a snow globe to describe a busy or flustered mind and she points out that a snow globe is self-settling. When you set it down, the swirling snowflakes eventually go still. In fact, the only way to stop the swirling is to stop doing anything.

So now when I notice that my mind isn’t settled, I just leave things alone to let the snowflakes calm down by themselves. I don’t need to fix anything.

It works like magic – sometimes as quickly as in a couple of breaths. Other times it takes awhile, but during that while I’m not actively struggling to change things, at most I’m taking a pause while my body and mind figure it out in the background.

So I’ve decluttered my mind of all those strategies to fix my thinking 🙂 Freedom!

calm winter scene
calm stillness, all is settled

 

 

What I’m Reading Now

I’m a big fan of meditation and yoga, and everything I’m learning about buddhism is bringing me more and more wisdom and inner peace. I’m also irreverent and sarcastic, and probably used to make fun of people who talked about ‘inner peace’. Life is messy 🙂 

So, while my reading lately has been spiritually enriching (Rebecca Solnit’s Field Guide to Getting Lost touched my soul in ways I didn’t know were possible – I’m still re-reading it often, then sitting in awe while I digest it), I thought I’d drift back into mainstream business productivity books for some straight-talking, practical inspiration.

Wow, did I find it with Greg McKeown’s Essentialism! . This guy has a fancy MBA and is writing for corporate business types and entrepreneurs and what he is saying is pure gold. 

He says, “I’ve coached “successful” people in the quiet pain of trying desperately to do everything, perfectly, now. I have seen people trapped by controlling managers and unaware that they do not “have to” do all the thankless busywork they are asked to do.” SAME. HERE. I’ve been both the person doing it and the coach to those still trapped. 

He gives reasons and ways to eliminate and say no to everything that isn’t essential. And in doing so, to produce better, more fulfilling work and enjoy a more fulfilling life. 

“I challenge you here and now to make a commitment to make room to enjoy the essential. Do you think for one second you will regret such a decision? Is it at all likely you will wake up one day and say, “I wish I had been less true to myself and done all the nonessential things others expected of me?””

Give this one a read, your life will be better for it, guaranteed.

(Nope, no affiliate links – I don’t get money for any of this, just sharing my enthusiasm!)

Finish Chewing Before Filling Your Fork: a Lesson in Decluttering

It was in an article about the Queen of England that I read about this habit. She takes a small amount of food into her mouth, puts down her fork and chews completely before loading her fork for another bite. As someone who approached every meal as if it were a speed-eating contest … I was interested in the idea of slowing down and dining more like royalty, less like a wild dog. I quickly (haha see what I did there?) followed the Queen’s example, and found I enjoyed my food much more when I savoured it one small mouthful at a time. (This post is not actually about eating habits, but as a side note: With the help of a charming little book called “How to Eat” by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, I further grew my eating habits to become almost meditative – highly recommend it.)

The lesson about eating had a big impact on the rest of my life too. I noticed that I was always gathering up new things before I’d finished chewing what I had. I bought books as though I were building a library. I gathered up scads of cheap yarn to go with the reams of crochet patterns I was always adding to a pinterest board. And surfing the internet. Well. There are always so many awesome ideas out there, I had to explore them all. It was my bookmarks list that put me over the edge, when I realized I had overwhelming indigestion from all the information I was trying to digest as I crammed more and more in. I was setting up a new computer and was asked about importing bookmarks. I had so many folders within folders and random sites, I spend an hour just trying to make sense of the mess, never mind actually read any of the information on any of the sites. I deleted them all. All. And my life’s been immeasurably better for it!

Stop shopping for new things and new ideas. Use what you have. Do not buy or borrow any new books until you’ve read the ones you have. You may find you have some that you aren’t actually interested in reading after all – give them away or sell them, someone else is ready to read them right now, and you’re not. And from now on, finish the one you’re reading before getting a new one. When you get that new one, you know you will read it right away because you’re picking one you’re interested in right in that moment. Marie Kondo explains this well in her https://konmari.com/collections/books/products/the-life-changing-magic-of-tidying-up.

The thing with the books, and yarn, and everything else, was that I spent so much time gathering it, managing it, and searching through it, only to find that I rarely had what I wanted at the time. I often ended up getting something new anyway.

I deleted most of my pinterest boards and similar ‘storage of ideas’ sites and folders too. I keep a couple, to gather up ideas around one or two specific projects that I’m actively working on at a time. When the projects are done, I delete them. When I’m going to start a project, it’s easy to find great information, and it’s more relevant information because I’m actually using it right away.

Back to food. I love cooking (this is new – I didn’t used to have time to love cooking, now I savour the process, the simple tasks of chopping and stirring, the smells and tastes and textures, mmmm.) I was tempted to gather up ALL THE RECIPES but I’d learned from royalty, and when I see a new recipe I want to try, I either plan and make it within the next few days, or I don’t save the recipe. I don’t have any recipes sitting around that I haven’t tried – when I’m done chewing on the ones I do have, I pick up my fork and load it with a new one 🙂

 

The Year Of…?

A favourite habit of mine is naming my day / week / year – giving each one a theme or a focus. I’ll have a day of Ideas or week of Calm, and picking the name makes me smile, even when my teenagers roll their eyes at me repeating the really good ones way too often. Sometimes it’s just fun to say the word – when I first made focaccia it seemed like a miracle to have this yummy bread appear from scratch in my kitchen, so the next weekend I had another Day of Focaccia. Try not to smile when you say that out loud a few times, it’s impossible.

Naming a whole year takes a bit more reflection since it’s so much more of a commitment!

In December 2015, I declared (to myself and my journal) that 2016 would be a year of Celebration and Simplicity, and it was. Having two themes was a bit much though, especially since one of them was Simplicity… so I decluttered down to one theme for 2017. It was The Year of Adventure, and what *spectacular* adventures they were!!

I was confident about my theme for 2018: Serenity. I’d learned so much about intentional, peaceful living and had (on one of my adventures) held a ceremony to release things from my past that weren’t of any help to me anymore. I was feeling very calm and thought it wise to take a break from all the adventures.

One lesson I am forever learning is that I can’t predict the future. Life is full of gloriously unexpected events and 2018 turned out to be a year of love, serene at times but far more of a roller coaster ride than 2017-Karen foresaw.

So, 2019? I’m aiming for The Year of Wisdom, bringing together all the ideas and work I’ve done and sharing it with others. Does that seem pretentious though? There will always be so much to learn and so many ways to grow, will I ever truly feel wise? Maybe it will be the year of Magic. I do think of all the great ideas as magic lessons… so that might be it. We’ll see what I decide on New Year’s Eve – I’ll put off the commitment till the last possible moment 🙂

[Updated Dec 10, I can always trust that the answer will come to me – 2019 will most definitely be the Year of Wonder! The wonder of possibilities.]

[Updated again: I just read that Socrates said, “Wisdom begins in wonder.” 😊]

While it’s still 2018, I’m going to enjoy a serene cup of coffee and a good book.

email Magic

At my work, we had a productivity expert do a training session with us, and she asked how many emails we each had in our inbox. The answers – in a team of 15 people – ranged from 4 to 800. Everyone on the team works in a similar job, with a similar volume of messages coming in each day… which inbox would you like to have? And yes, I was the person with 4.

Simplicity

Don’t spend time on a complicated system – like any kind of organizing, it’s not about the system, it’s about having less stuff. With email, you want to limit what’s coming in and move stuff out quickly.

No matter what, move the message out of your inbox. The only messages in your inbox are those you haven’t opened yet. Deal with them one at a time, and move each one out.

Unsubscribe, unsubscribe, unsubscribe.

If you’re one of the lucky ones living here in Canada, then all newsletters and commercial emails must have a one-click unsubscribe option at the bottom. CLICK IT. Be honest with yourself about which newsletters you actually do ever open and read – for the couple of ones that are of use, we’ll look at how to handle those below. For sales/promotions emails, unsubscribe from all of them. All. Of. Them. You and your wallet will thank me. You’re not getting deals, you’re buying things you don’t need – there’s a whole post I could write about that! For now, Unsubscribe, unsubscribe, unsubscribe.

picture of unsubscribe button
magical decluttering button

Move things out

Now, open the first message in your inbox. No – don’t scan through them choosing one to open, you’re cluttering up your brain with those words and ideas and worries. Open the first one. The possibilities are, it’s a request for information, for action, or information the sender wants you to have. Here are common scenarios, and how to deal with them:

  1. It’s a request for a meeting. If the sender has access to a shared calendar, ask them to use it. “My calendar’s up-to-date, please send me an appointment for anytime that’s open.” Then delete the message. If the sender can’t see your calendar, send them a couple of possible times, delete the message. Or if it’s a meeting with a bunch of people, ask them to set up a doodle (doodle.com) to book it. Delete the message.
    1. You’re saying, “Wait! There’s information I might need in that message – about what the meeting’s about.” You don’t need that information. You’re not going to remember to look at the message before the meeting anyway. When you have the meeting, ask the person to remind you what the meeting’s about.
    2. But wait! “There’s a document they want me to review before the meeting! I can’t delete that.” Okay. This message isn’t a meeting request, it’s a request to review a document. Open the document, review it. Add your comments/edits and send it back, ideally saying – I think it’s good to go, no need to meet! Delete the message.
    3. “I don’t have time to review the whole document.” Yes, you do. You’re going to review it at some point, right? If you save it to review later, it’s going to take you longer than if you do it right now when you’ve just read the message about it and your brain is focused on it. So, filing it away for later and then refreshing your memory about it later – those are the things you don’t have time for. Review it now. If you read it and have to think about something in it, or get information from someone else, then see the relevant examples below.
  2. The email is a question for you: Same as the document review above. Answer the question, delete the message.
  3. It’s a request for you to approve or authorize something. Authorize it, or don’t. Send it on or reply to it as needed and delete it. If you need to keep a copy of things you approve, move your reply from the Sent mailbox to a Reference folder.
  4. It’s a message or request you need to think about, your brain needs time to process it. For these, you’re going to tag them in some way (in GroupWise, you can “Personalize” the subject line) to label it with exactly what you need to decide about. E.g., “Decide about committing to do a workshop next month.” or “Choose flyer design.”
  5. It’s a request for information or action, but you need more information to respond. Get the info. If this requires searching online or in paper files, then do those things now. Again, putting it off until later will just take more time. Find the info, reply, delete the message. If another person has the information, call them, or forward the message to them and ask for what you need. Then move the message to a Pending folder – there’s nothing more for you to do about it right now. I sometimes label these messages too with what I’m waiting for, e.g., “Waiting for Carol to send data” Depending on the situation, you might reply to the original message saying, “I’m working on this, gathering information – I’ll get back to you when I have it.”
  6. A newsletter. Click Unsubscribe. Or, if it is one you actually read, then make a rule (or filter, whatever your software calls it). When a message from that sender comes in, have it bypass your inbox and go straight to a Newsletters folder.
  7. An fyi – something you’re cc’d on or a link / info someone thought you’d find interesting. Read it. Will you need to refer to this again? Put it in a Reference folder. Do you need to share it with others? Forward it to the chair of a committee if you want to add it to an agenda (then delete it), or add it to a Committee Prep folder if you’re the chair. Is it a mailing list message trying to sell you something? Unsubscribe. Delete it.
  8. Information for an ongoing project. Move these to a Tasklist, or Current Projects folder.

Your messages are all some version of a request for information, action, or reference information. Answer the requests, take the actions, or file the information. Delete lots.

Do you have other kinds of emails you get? A specific email challenge? Tell me about it in the comments 🙂

Organizing

You don’t need a fancy file system – computers are wonderfully searchable. I do have a couple of folders within my Reference one: Travel, where I keep my boarding passes and itineraries so they’re easily found at the airport or train station, and Receipts, so those are handy for doing taxes. When I had a work twitter account, I had a Social Media folder there as well – I generally opt out of all notifications, but I needed them for that account because I rarely checked it. (Eventually I came to my senses and deleted the whole account… and the email folder)

simple list of email folders
even this simple list seems cluttered to me sometimes

No matter what, move the message out of your inbox. The only messages in your inbox are those you haven’t opened yet. Deal with them one at a time, and move each one out.

email Habits

Set an amount of time you’re going to work through emails. When the time is up, close (or at least minimize) your inbox so it won’t distract you. If you have to end your email time while you’re in the process of working on one of them, save a draft reply, with a note at the top to yourself about what you would do next, e.g., “finish reviewing document” or “add info about next steps”.

Also set time each week to read your Newsletter folder and to check through your Pending folder. I go through my Reference folder once a month as well, deleting all the stuff I thought I needed to save forever but I was wrong. I delete from my Sent mailbox too, saving a few of those into Reference.

Take it to the next level

When there’s information in a message that I need for a meeting, such as a teleconference phone number and access code, I change the email from a message to make it an appointment in my calendar – it’s out of my inbox, and the info I need is right there when I need it.

Some software makes it easy to have rules that notify you about specific messages – so if you’re waiting to hear from a person, you can have the email program text you (or otherwise alert you) when you receive an email from them. I find this worthwhile when I find myself compulsively checking messages, waiting for that special one, only to get distracted by the other messages that come in… cluttering up my mind when I’m trying to focus on something else.

How about you? Any great email hacks? How many messages are in your inbox now?!