Free-Range Thinking


2010 is drawing to a close and the promise of the New Year stretches out before us. Tantalizing, intoxicating in its newness.

It’s the perfect time to reflect on where you are and where you want to be. In the New Year I will turn 45. Forty-five!!! So to say that I have been reflecting, pondering, thinking, ruminating, and “dream bubbling” (a term my BFF and I coined to describe our larger than life wishes), is an understatement.

I can list without hesitation all the tangible things I want, but there was something else, something intangible, that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

Then I ran across a blog post by Gretchen Rubin of http://www.happiness-project.com challenging her readers to find one word to set the tone for the New Year. One word to sum up your entire theme, everything you wanted to achieve for an entire year. I was intrigued!

Then I was stumped.

I thought and thought and thought. And then I thought some more. (Picture the Grinch trying to understand why the Whos in Whoville were singing on Christmas morning after he stole all their stuff, and you’ll come close to imagining my stumped-ness.)

Finally after still more thinking, and some mindless swimming around the bottomless ocean that is the Internet, a vague idea began to form. Then it became clearer. Then it became…a word.

Better!

What I want for 2011 is for everything to be a bit better. Overall my life is pretty good and I am extremely grateful for that. However, there is always room for improvement – my house could be cleaner, I could be more organized (like I used to be pre-baby), I could be healthier, I could work harder at my relationships, hobbies and projects, I could be a better parent/spouse, I could be early more often, eat better, exercise more, remember to take my medicine and vitamins everyday. The list goes on and on. In short, every area of my life could be better – some a little, some a lot.

So my theme for 2011 is BETTER, and my goal is to work everyday to make my life a little better than it was the day before.

With that vision in mind I no longer look nervously at 45, but welcome it and better version of me it will bring.

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Back in September my husband, daughter, and I took our yearly vacation to the beach. It was good, but while there I came to grips with the fact that I was tired, burnt out, frustrated. Pick an adjective, I was there, or in the neighborhood. 

When we got home I tried to convince myself I was “refreshed” and continue as before, but it wasn’t working out. So, I took a break, stepped away from my blog and other things and examined my life. Or rather, I looked at what was missing from my life. 

It occurred to me after all this reflection that somewhere along the line I misplaced it,my life that is. Not all at once, but incrementally, which is the worst way really, because its like the proverbial frog in the pot – he jumps out of a boiling pot, but will cook himself to death in a pot where the heat is turned up slowly. 

With the clarity that comes with hindsight, I realized that I have been ever so slowly turning up the heat on my own pot for, oh, about ten years now. Women as a rule are people pleasers, doers, the glue that holds things together. It is one of our greatest assets, and one of our greatest downfalls. Often, in the course of being that glue we sacrifice or morph a little too much and one day wake up and realize we are a shadow of our former selves.

What to do? What to do?

The short answer: Get a life!

The long answer: take a look at your life and decide what is missing, what is important, what you want back in this thing we call life and make it happen. That’s what I’ve been doing.

In formulating this post, I took pen and paper and quickly jotted down a list of things that I have over the course of time deleted, severely limited, or sporadically done that were once an important and enjoyable part of my life. In just a few minutes I came up with 25 things.  TWENTY-FIVE THINGS!!! Twenty-five things that I tell myself I can do tomorrow, next week, next month, or next year, in favor of what needs to be done now. That is no way to live…happily.

So now that the information has been gathered and assessed, the only thing left to do is make the changes needed to put me back in the saddle of my own life again. Time to get movin’!

This past week my husband, Little M, and I have been on vacation. We rented a smaller, older house on the beach and have been enjoying a bit of quiet time together without the distractions of everyday life and the hassle of in season crowds.

Thursday we took a day trip up to Manteo to visit one of my all-time favorite places to shop – The Island Gallery and The Christmas Shop. For those who aren’t familiar with it, The Christmas Shop has been a much beloved institution on the island since 1978. (I’ve been going there since the 80s.) A few years ago the owners decided to call it quits, retire and do other things. They sold off everything and closed down. Then following a public outcry, they brought the store back to life and reopened.

The new version of the store has the same flavor as the old, but with differences that only a seasoned veteran would notice. But this post isn’t about the changes to my favorite store, instead its about the changes in me it forced me to acknowledge this week.

In the old days I would have walked through that maze of passageways and old rooms oohing and aahing in every nook and cranny and trying to narrow down what I wanted to leave with to a reasonable amount. There would have been ornaments, snowmen, nutcrackers, jewelry, and prints all vying for my attention and any number of things in the upstairs Halloween room screaming to go home with me.

This time? Didn’t happen. My heart didn’t race, nothing begged to be bought. I realized as I walked through the shop that I felt detached from it all. At first I thought it was because the store had lost it’s “aura” for me. Then I realized it wasn’t the store, it was shopping that had lost it’s “aura.” That’s when I knew I had truly turned the corner and that something more important had taken over the spot that the “desire to acquire” had formerly held. I told my husband as we drove away with my one tiny purchase, that I’ve come to realize that there are too many things that I want to do and that moving crap – I’m mean clutter – around, isn’t one of them anymore. I’ve even announced that as the holiday decorations come out this season, they will get severely edited. No more holding on to things out of guilt or  habit. If we don’t love it, it goes. Just thinking about it makes me feel like the Grinch – not when he stole Christmas, but when his heart grew ten sizes because he discovered the meaning of Christmas…and it ain’t about the stuff.

When did you turn the corner? When did you know that shopping and acquiring had lost its hold on you?

Many of us don’t give a lot of thought to the actual process of decision-making, but there is a great deal of literature to be found on the process. For the sake of brievity, we can boil it down to a few basic steps:

– Define the problem

– Determine criteria for solving the problem

– Determine possible solutions

– Evaluate the possible outcomes and make a choice

– Evaluate the decision to see if you made the right choice

Often we chose hastily based on what will serve our needs right now, and not our long term goals. Other times we avoid making a choice, and the choice is made for us by proxy. The best choices are the ones that we make using the decision-making process because we have evaluated how they will affect us long term and chosen based on that information. I’ll give you some examples from my week to show you what I mean.

Here’s where using the Decision-Making Process served me well…

About a week ago Little M received an invitation to go to a birthday party to be held at a water park this afternoon for one of her classmates.  M commutes with me everyday, so her school, classmates, and the water park are all about an hour from our house. The party started at noon which meant M would have to have a very early lunch and catch whatever Zzzzs she could in the car on the drive over (and then home again) in place of a nap. The party was scheduled to last several hours so we would most likely arrive home around dinnertime. All this meant was a little extra planning on my part, a bit of a long day for us both, and possibly a cranky toddler by early evening, but it was all completely manageable.

The problem came yesterday morning when M woke up just on the edge of being really sick. What to do? Yesterday from work I monitored M by calling the school to check on her, and I informed the birthday girl’s Mom about what was going on. Today I determined the problem (M is still borderline sick and not her normal self), established the criteria (I don’t want her to get any sicker), determined solutions (a – stay home, b – drag her to the party), evaluated the outcomes (a – staying home allows her to rest and get back to normal, b – taking her to the party risks her getting sicker and possibly ending up at the doctors forcing me to miss work, use personal time, etc.), made a choice (stay home), and evaluated the decision (M was more subdued than usual, ate her lunch quietly, and went down for a nap early meaning she was tired and needed extra rest). Good decision!

Here is where not using the Decision-Making Process has caused us extra expense, and then finally using it saved us money all in one example…

It’s a couple of problems in one, so flowchart it if you must.

Problem A: On Tuesday my husband’s cell phone suffered a fatal attack of Can’t-Be-Fixed. This was a lucky break for him because he desperately hated that phone and reminded me of it regularly. The problem was he wanted to upgrade to a smart phone, but I was extremely frustrated at how much we were paying for my smart phone and I didn’t want to double that amount. For the sake of keeping the man happy I started doing some research online for possible smart phones for him to determine phone costs, plan costs, etc., and ended up in a live chat with a rep. During the course of the conversation I vented my frustration about the cost of my phone and found out that we were paying $30 a month for a service I had not asked for and didn’t want but that the initial sales rep had said I was REQUIRED to have. Not true. I/we learned the hard way that if we had made the decision then, or any time in the last 18 months, to question that charge we could have saved ourselves a lot of money. But at the time of the initial purchase we were more focused on our getting our couple month old baby out of an extremely packed store during cold and flu season (short term goals), and in the time since, well, lazy is all I can say (choice by proxy).

Moving on to Thursday, we hit the cell phone store. My husband had decided on a smart phone, and its monthly data package was extremely reasonable.  The phone he chose was eligible for a rebate, and we had a gift card that would cover half the cost of the phone, so after rebate the phone will end up costing us $30. (Ironic, I know.) We talked to the rep in the store and got the unnecessary charge removed from my phone and a similar (though not as costly) bogus charge removed from my husband’s phone, and voila, we both have smart phones and our bill will be cheaper than before.

Problem B: My husband hates MY cell phone because I’m constantly trying to take pictures of a moving target (Little M) with it and I end up with 1 good shot for every 9-10 blurry ones. I don’t hate my cell phone, I hate my 8-10 years old point and shoot camera that eats batteries and is slower than molasses in a snow storm, which is why I’m always grabbing the cell phone to take pictures. The problem – my husband wanted me to get a better phone to take pictures, I wanted a better camera to take pictures. To make him happy, we checked new phones at the cell phone store. I’m not eligible for an upgrade for a few weeks, but when I am the natural upgrade would be $125 after rebate and I would still be getting cell phone quality pictures of M. Not what I want. To make me happy, I researched new point and shoot cameras, I went to the big box store and touched the display cameras, I read reviews online. Finally, yesterday, I found a point and shoot that had all the qualities I wanted and was reasonably priced, and I could get free shipping with my order. I weighed all the possible scenarios and made the decision to order the camera.  Then, that evening, I opened the mail and had (surprise!) two birthday cards with almost enough money to cover the cost of the camera, save $9. Patience and good decision-making saved us money, and solved several problems.

What decisions are you making hastily, or putting off all together that are costing you money, or creating problems in your life?  Make the decision to make a GOOD decision.

Stress works on people in different ways. Some people eat to deal with their emotions, some people shop. I never considered myself a person who did either of those things until today.

This week was a stressful week and I plugged along through it as I normally would, but by the end of the week I was a bit brain fried and hit the fabric store…twice. This despite the fact that some time ago I had put myself on a spending moratorium until I had used up some of my in-house craft supplies. Mulling over my purchases today I realized my emotional spending weakness – craft supplies.

When I was a kid and felt stressed or frustrated, I cleaned my room. I mean REALLY cleaned my room. Moved furniture in or out. Pulled everything out of my closet. Threw things out. Basically I worked until I was tired and had worked out my problems in my head.

I still do the same thing. When I’m home and stressed, or have an issue I’m stewing on, I’ll start doing the same thing as I did when I was a kid. I’ll move things around, clean out cabinets. Take out the trash. Anything physical that helps me work through the emotional.

The problem with this method arises when I’m not at home. During the work week, my lunch hour is when the emotional crime sprees happen. There are two fabric stores and two craft stores within a short distance of my office, and if I’m stressed out or would just rather be at home, one of those shops is where I’ll end up. Luckily I’m a pretty practical person so my emotional spending usually stays in check – my spree this week cost me a total of less than $30.

It’s interesting to note that I never emotionally buy completed items – no shoes, bags, or clothing for me (though I do love all those things). I buy ideas. Projects that need to be thought through, worked on, physically completed. I’m buying the emotional equivalent of what I would be doing at home – a physical project. It’s reassuring to learn a little bit more about myself, and in thinking it through, it has helped me come up with a solution.

I used to always carry a cross-stitch project with me wherever I went, but somewhere along the line I got out of the habit. A new habit to begin will be to always make sure I have a small project – doable anywhere – with me in the car (have I mentioned I’m on the road a lot?). A pattern that needs trimming, a cross-stitch picture that needs finishing, a bracelet or earrings to be worked. The possibilities are endless.  And I know just the bag to carry them in…