Sunday, October 23, 2016

Lose the Stuff and Find Yourself

I talk a lot in my blog about how I have changed, especially in the last three years, but I don't often talk about how I have stayed the same. I am sitting in my living room, surrounded by stacks of papers that take me back to the person I was 20 years ago. And she bears a striking resemblance to the woman I am today.

Before I go into too many details, maybe I should give you a little context for my story. It all started a little over a month ago when I read a book called The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. You might recall hearing about this book because it was all the rage a few years ago. Everyone was talking about her unique organizing techniques that were designed to systematically go through all of your possessions and keep or discard each item based on one simple criteria: Does this item bring me joy?

I am a few years late to the party, but I finally listened to her book and I immediately knew that I wanted to try it at my house. She advises that you follow a specific sequence when going through your belongings. She refers to this process as the KonMari method. It can take anywhere from six months to a year to complete, depending on how much time you can devote to it and how much stuff you have to sort through.

Without going into too many details, the basic sequence is as follows:
  1. Clothes, which are further divided into subcategories, such as sweaters, pants, skirts, etc.
  2. Books
  3. Documents, including all papers that you have in your house, unless they fall into the last category of sentimental items.
  4. Komono. This is a Japanese term that translates to miscellaneous. Basically, it is everything else in your house that is not already covered by one of the other categories.
  5. Sentimental. This category includes things like photos, cards, letters and other mementos that are hard to part with for whatever reason. That's why she saved this category for last.
According to Kondo, her method helps with more than just cleaning and organizing your house. It helps you to filter through all of the clutter to see what is really important in your life. She shares many stories of clients who, after following her method and getting their house in order, also ended up getting their life in order. Whether it was losing weight or changing jobs, these people discovered something hidden deep within themselves that affected them in a profound way.

Which brings me back to my story and the reason I am sitting in my living room surrounded by documents. I started the KonMari method a few weeks ago. I sailed through the first category in one weekend. I had previously done some purging in my closets, but I felt so liberated by the idea of using just one question to help me decide whether or not to keep an item. As I held each item in my hand and asked Does it bring me joy? the responses came back swiftly and easily. It was so much better than the other criteria I had previously used, like Does it still fit? Could I possibly use it someday? Or my personal favorite: What if I gain or lose 10 pounds?

I ended up with over 20 trash bags filled with clothes, shoes, purses and accessories. I packed everything into the car and dropped it off at the Goodwill the next day. Books were another easy task. Until recently, I haven't been much of a reader. I bought some books here and there, but unless I was really compelled by the writing, I would end up starting a book, then setting it aside and never picking it up again. I was able to sort through my entire book collection in about an hour. The ones I decided to keep are all neatly sorted on a small bookshelf in my living room.

Then I started on paperwork. At first it was easy shredding old bank statements and tossing expired product information books and warranties into the recycling bin. I found a huge stack of medical articles that I had collected from when I was sick a few years ago. They covered every subject from irregular heartbeats, to sleep disorders and anxiety. It was cathartic to throw all of that stuff away!

Now I have reached an interesting phase of the project. While I wouldn't quite classify these papers as sentimental, they are certainly a part of my story. I found a file box with folders dating back to my graduate school days in the early to mid-90's. Each file I opened was a new discovery, or should I say rediscovery, of who I was at that time. And yet, I could also draw parallels to my life today.

One of the folders I opened contained a stack of invoices from 1996, when I had worked as a freelance consultant for a local public health agency. It was just after I quit my first big corporate health care job. I had finished graduate school and gotten my Masters in Healthcare Administration. Once I started working, I quickly became disillusioned. So I left Minnesota and moved in with my parents back in Michigan.

I always remember it fondly as the time I worked in a bar called 3D and folded jeans on the giant denim wall at Old Navy. I had completely forgotten that I also took a part-time consulting job developing a training program to help educate nurses about the conversion to managed care that was going on in Michigan at the time. Of course, I would go on to play a pivotal role in that conversion, working at three different Medicaid managed care plans in Michigan over the next 15 years.

Here I am 20 years later, and I find myself in almost the exact same situation. I left my corporate health care job and I am working as a freelance writer. Plus, I am working a retail job at Anthropologie. The only thing missing is the night job at the bar. Even though the tips were good, I am pretty sure I couldn't stay up late closing the bar down five nights a week for any amount of money!

And it's not only the experience that is the same. As I started pouring through documents, I could see my true personality shining through. All of the reasons I got into healthcare in the first place were staring right back at me. And all of the skills and talents I was lauded for back then are the same fundamental skills I have today. I read a performance review that was written after I had my first internship and it talked about my strong analytical skills and writing abilities.

And then I found a research paper I wrote at my first corporate health care job that included a review of current practices related to prenatal incentive programs for women on Medicaid. I went through a list of options for how to structure the program and included a list of operational questions that needed to be resolved. I recently wrote a business plan for a new product for one of my clients and it addressed some of those same types of issues.

Then I came across a paper I had written about child abuse prevention for one of my public health classes. And in another folder, I found the certificate that named me as a Court Appointed Special Advocate, or CASA, in Wayne County. I had enrolled in that program when I moved home from Minnesota and I had even taken on one case. In the end, it was too emotionally draining and I decided not to continue with the program.

My desire to help people who have suffered from abuse continues to this day. I recently applied for a contract position as a grant writer for a local non-profit organization that provides therapy for victims of rape and sexual abuse. There is some part of me that is drawn to these situations, although I am not sure why. I was fortunate to be raised in a loving family and I have never suffered these types of horrific acts. Yet I am compelled to help in some way.

Reading through these documents reminds me that I am the same person I was 20 years ago. Perhaps I lost sight of that for about 15 years, but I am finding my way back now. Although I still have many folders left to sort through in my file boxes, I feel like I am closer than ever to the answers I have been seeking. And I am certain that the path I am on will lead me to the exact place where I am meant to be.

We all grow and change over time. But I believe there is a certain part of us, our core being, that remains the same. Sometimes it may become overshadowed by other aspects of our life, or remain dormant under layers of obligations and expectations. Sometimes its quiet voice may be drowned out by our own fears and doubts. And yet it remains, waiting to be discovered once again.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Sleep is the New Productivity

Ironically, I am writing this post about sleep from the balcony of our apartment while I am watching the sunrise. This is definitely not my usual morning routine. On a typical weekday morning, Mark Johnson gets up at 6:00 AM while I lay in bed trying to quiet my mind so I can get a little more sleep. After he leaves for work, I usually sleep until around 8:00 AM, or I may even let myself sleep longer if I am really tired.

I have always loved to sleep, but since I got sick a few years ago, it has become much more important in my life. I can't survive without my eight hours of sleep. Or, I guess I should say that I can't thrive without my eight hours of sleep. As we humans have proven time and time again, we can survive almost anything. But I don't think we should have to go through life just "surviving" from one day to the next.

This morning I had to sacrifice a few of my precious hours of sleep to ensure that I had access to another one of life's necessities. Hot water. Yesterday, there was a water main break at the apartment complex and they told us a work crew would be here first thing in the morning to repair it and that the water in our building would be shut off until the work was completed. The term "first thing in the morning" means different things to different people, but I am pretty sure the city workers get started before my typical waking time, so I got up with Mark Johnson and took my shower early today.

We have been reading a book called Perfect Health, by Deepak Chopra. It is all about how to improve your health and well being by living in tune with nature. One of the things Deepak talks about is our sleeping habits. He encourages us to wake with the sun. He goes on to explain that the morning hours are a magical time, as the world is waking up. I never really understood what he meant, but I can see it now. Fifteen minutes ago there was total silence, and now I am hearing a symphony of birds chirping. I started to observe all of these birds flying over the roof of the apartment and then I realized they are bats.

While the birds are just waking up, the bats are rushing home to go to sleep before sunrise. Once you really start watching, you can easily tell the difference between the birds and the bats. The birds have longer and more graceful strokes of their wings, with a pause in between flaps as they glide through the air with effortless ease. The bats are flapping their wings constantly and rapidly, as if they would fall out of the sky if they stopped. And the birds tend to fly in unison with each other, while the flight of the bats is much more erratic. At times it looks like they might crash into each other in mid-air. They are like the drunken masses stumbling home on their flight of shame after spending the night out partying and eating too many spiders and bugs.

Anyway, why am I sitting here on a quiet Wednesday morning writing about the sunrise, aside from the fact that I had to get up unreasonably early to make sure I could take a hot shower today? I guess waking up early with Mark Johnson today made me think about how it might be good practice for a time in the not-so-distant future when I have a job that requires me to wake up early and go to an actual office.

I am doing pretty well with my freelance writing, but I need to get at least one more client to make it work financially. Last week I had an interview for a part-time grant writing job for a local non-profit. It might be just the solution I am looking for. If I could work there three days a week, it could provide some guaranteed income each month and still allow me two flexible days during the week to take care of my freelance writing clients.

As I try to cobble together some sort of flexible work life that won't require me to sacrifice my quality of life, I am not alone. In fact, it seems that more and more people are trying to branch out and adopt the freelancer lifestyle. I guess I am not the only one who is tired of all of the stress and dissatisfaction that goes along with most corporate jobs.

I have been listening to a book called Thrive, by Arianna Huffington in which she tackles some of the same issues. She is trying to define success in new ways, aside from the typical Western symbols of money and power. She argues that there should be another metric related to our well being that also defines success. And she provides a ton of research to back up her theory. Not only that, but she also provides some examples of companies that are starting to get on board with the idea.

Aetna now has a program that reimburses employees up to $300 per year if they can show that they get at least 7 hours of sleep per night. And other employers such as Google have on-site nap rooms for their employees. If companies are willing to pay their employees to sleep, I have to wonder if there would ever be a time when they would recognize the benefits of a four-day work week? Or a six-hour work day?

Of course, the companies are only doing this to increase productivity and improve their bottom line profits. But at least there is starting to be some sense of harmony between what is good for employers and what is good for their employees.

This is a drastic change from my days working in corporate America where the less you slept and the more you worked, the more successful you were, at least in financial terms. I remember so many presentations at our directors meetings where they would talk in detail and with great pride about the long hours the team had to put in on a project, and all of the personal sacrifices they had to make to get the job done. And then everyone would applaud.

While I really enjoy listening to Arianna Huffington's book and I appreciate her advocacy for these issues, I have to wonder why only the people who are rich and powerful have the luxury of re-defining success. It is easy to take time to smell the roses and enjoy life when you already have more money than you could possibly spend. What is much more challenging is to try and live your life in an authentic manner when you have bills to pay.

There are no easy answers, but I know from my own experience that change has to start at the individual level. For me, that means not trying to be perfect all of the time. And being clear about what I need, whether it is working part-time or having a flexible schedule that allows me to get to my morning yoga class once a week. And most importantly, making sure I get enough sleep.

I have been sitting here for almost an hour and the sun is just starting to make its grand entrance. It is too bright to look directly at it, but I can feel its energy. And my blanket and my robe are bathed in a warm glow. Luckily the railing on our balcony is at the exact right height to provide shade for my eyes, so I can stay out here just a little longer.