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Posted on Jan 31, 2014 in How to simplify, My Journey

Curiosity Saved the Dog


I want to live a simple, happy life.  I guess you could say I’m moving towards minimalism.  What’s the word for this?  Simpleton? Simplist?  I kind of like the term simplicity, but “simplism?”

My dog, although a true simplist in his life and habits, is not interested in having fewer possessions.  He loves to make piles of pillows and blankets to sleep in, and piles of toys to play with.  He brings his favorite soft toys to bed with him as the honored pillow for his head.

We are having an unusually cold winter here.  This is a problem for my greyhound, who can’t tolerate cold very well.  Our long walks have become shorter, and I am always looking for indoor activities that he can enjoy to get some exercise and stimulation.

This weekend, despite the snow, wind and cold,  we bundled up and went to an event to get the word out about greyhound rescue. First, we greeted the other dogs.  Somehow, we always choose the opposite end of the dog to greet, so this works out pretty well.  We spoke with the other greyhound adopters, and chased a ball around for a while.  When came time to go back home, it was a sad moment for both of us.

I decided to get my dog a new toy to keep him entertained as the temperatures drop again this week.  It is bouncy like a ball, but it is caved in and has holes in it to get treats in and out.  I gave it to him with a couple of pieces of kibble, expecting him to get the food out, and come back over to play.  But he didn’t. He rolled it, pawed at it, picked it up and bounced it, chewed it.  It gave up a few pieces, but kept most of them.  He didn’t give up, but brought it with him to lay down.  He studied it a long time, occasionally licking it and turning it over with his nose. Then he was inspired to get up and drop it down the back stairs.  As it bounced its way down, it lost the remaining food, allowing him to run along behind and collect them.  Last night, the new toy was his constant companion. He brought only this toy to bed.

Just now, as I was sweeping up the downstairs entryway, a slow rain of toys came bouncing down the stairs, followed by a curious pup, looking for treats.  I think we have a new game that will keep us both busy until things thaw out–Simplicity and minimalism can wait for a thaw.



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Posted on Jan 15, 2014 in How to simplify, My Journey

3 Reasons To Put On Your Oxygen Mask Before Helping Others


Now that the holidays are over, I’m back in grant-writing mode at work. As usual, I’m trying to balance the regular workflow of the lab and regular meetings with the extra workload of coordinating and writing a fundable grant (well, four of them in the next few weeks).  In the past, this would have me in a panic, and staying up all night trying to get just the right combination of clarity and convincing in a too-small page limit.

Over these many years, though I discovered that the grant does not benefit from exhaustion and vending machine food.  To get the work done, I have to cut back on time usually spent on other tasks.  Since I am also less willing to sacrifice my personal time, this means I have to find time during the workday.  So, I took a close look at where I spend my time.  I mean with a timer.  What I found was truly surprising.  I am not very good at predicting how long things take.

Here is why:

1. If your door is open, you are going to be interrupted.

Interruptions come in many forms.  One is the actual door being open.  My students, employees and colleagues all feel free to stop in with a question, a request for a favor, or just a visit.  But the open door can be the ping of a new email or the phone ringing, too.

2. When things are boring or frustrating, you look for distractions.

This can be a peek at Twitter or a game of Candy Crush, but it can also be another task.  I find myself picking up simple tasks to do when I am stuck on a decision or problem. I really like this strategy, and often use it to let problems percolate through my brain, or let the frustration subside so I can start again from another perspective.  But when you are under a deadline, choosing to focus on tangents can really reduce productivity. Somehow, having the timer made this dilemma better. If I knew that I had only another 15 minutes before I had to move on to another task, I could hang on to a problem instead of letting my mind wander. I also had the strong motivation to finish up what I was doing before I stopped working, so I would not have to face the same problem again when I started.

3. When you allow yourself to be distracted, you are working for someone else.

The hard truth is that if you answer every email immediately, stop what you are doing every time someone has a question, and “just taking a quick look and giving some feedback on my paper”, you are not focused on your own agenda or priorities,  but working under someone else’s.  If your priority is to get a big project done, you have to focus more on that than other things.

How can you realistically manage this, when you are responsible for other people as well?

Here’s what I did:

1.  Close my door.

I have some Post-it notes on the inside of my door.  They have description on them of what I am doing, and how best to contact me, ranging from “please knock if you need me” to “send me an email if you need me”.  I might have my email off, though.  The people in my group have access to my calendar, and they know what an emergency is. They will knock if something is on fire.  This is not a metaphor.  Things sometimes catch fire.

2. Focus on the task.

This could be going to the library or a coffee house to work, or putting on some music.  Somehow, this cues me that I have separating myself from the rest of the world. I’m not sure if this is just a way to provide white noise to block out the discussion outside my door, but it works. This also means letting some things slide, like non-urgent meetings and packing elaborate lunches.

3. Engage more in the lab’s activities.

Normally, I have my schedule of meetings and work in my office or the lab.  I let my group members do the same for themselves for the most part. When I am busy, I make sure I know what is happening every day so I can be available when I might be needed, and I work out details with my group members before they get started on an experiment. Then I can close the door and not worry about those details, and there is less need for my real-time availability. I also let the group know what I am working on so that they can cooperate with my modified workplan.

I’m not sure if I can keep this up for the 6 weeks or so that I am busy with these proposals. Keeping balance over long periods of time is difficult. Or, maybe this will be a more permanent plan.


How do you find time for special projects?


 Photo credit:  Debbie Ramone
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Posted on Jan 10, 2014 in How to simplify, My Journey

Things I am Throwing Away This Month


As usual, when I re-read what I wrote in this blog, I have to laugh at myself.

Recently, I wrote a post 2014 Things to do in 2014.

The last thing on the list was

“Let one person per day make a mistake on the road for free (you might try two per day next week!)” -Myself

Today, as I was driving to work, a woman wandered into my lane.  Yes, she was driving very slowly down the middle of the white line with giant mittens on both hands. Somehow, she was talking on the phone at the same time. While I have to admire the challenge she made for herself on her morning commute, I was equally surprised at how several blocks later I was thinking about all the things she was doing that she should not do.

You know, for traffic safety.  Not for my personal benefit.

I wondered how I could remove this problem from my day, when my brain sent me a message.

You could just stop worrying about other people’s responsibilities!

So, I will take that challenge.  Here is what I can give up responsibility for:

  • People who are rude because they are not paying attention
  • People who are rude for any other reason
  • People who have hurt me in the past
  • People who don’t do their job, and make mine harder
  • People who are chronically late or unprepared

This should simplify my life and give me more time and energy to focus on my own responsibilities.  I’m sure that woman in the car this morning will be sorry not to have my list of errors available for review, but she will just have to take care of them herself.


Photo credits:  Donald Lee PardueShawn DeWolfe

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Posted on Jan 8, 2014 in How to simplify

Routine Check-up


During the fun, indulgent, craziness of the holidays, and the recent ridiculous weather, it’s easy to get off the routine and just respond to things as they come.  Now that the holidays are over and the temperatures are moving back into the normal range, maybe it’s a good time to check in on the routines that keep us healthy and happy.

1. Get a good night’s sleep.

I am kind of sleep crusader, but going to bed at a regular time and making sure to get enough sleep has made amazing changes in my life.  Getting up early and having time in the morning to do things for myself without having to rush off to work is enough reason for me to get some rest.

2. Put away the decorations.

Putting up Christmas decorations is so much fun.  Taking them down and putting them away seems like work.  I guess it’s sad to see the holidays finally over, but putting them away gives a concrete sense of a new beginning .  Letting go of the ones you don’t actually use before putting the rest in the containers will give you more space and a real sense of achievement.  Think of how nice it will be decorating next year if the lights are not tangled with strings that don’t work.

3. Move around.

This past week of crazy-cold weather has given me (and my poor greyhound) a severe case of cabin fever.  I have never been much for workout equipment and mall walking, and prefer to be outdoors, but I can see the benefits of alternative exercises now.  If only I could bring my dog to the mall…

4. Pack lunch.

The number of parties and food-adjacent events during the holidays made my eating habits revert back to the whatever-is-in-front-of-me diet.  Packing a healthy lunch each day reduces expenses, and helps ease us back into better eating habits.  Now, once I get through the last two holiday parties this week, things should settle back into a more healthy routine.

What healthy routines are you working on this week?

Photo credit:  Sarah_Ackerman

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Posted on Jan 1, 2014 in How to simplify, Resources

2014 Things to do in 2014


OK, so I didn’t count exactly, but this is a long list of things that will contribute to a simpler, happier life.


Things to do for yourself every day 

(This is more than 3000 things right here)


Get a good night’s sleep

Get up early

Start the day with an intention

Make a (short!) to-do list

Eat some fruits and veggies

Move around more than necessary

Tell someone you love them

Give a (sincere) compliment that is not expected

Write down 3 things you are grateful for

Think of 3 good things that happened that day before you go to sleep

Spend time with someone you like


Things to donate


Old phones, GPS, cameras, TVs, watches, computers,

Clothes that don’t fit, you don’t like, you don’t wear regularly

Clothes you bought for others that they do not like or wear

Kid’s old toys and clothes, no matter how cute

Gifts that you keep out of duty or guilt (take a picture of you wearing it or using it and send to the giver, or post it on Facebook)

Books that you have already read

Books you have owned for more than 6 months that you haven’t read


Old magazines (declare amnesty on anything before the January issue, and drop them by your doctor’s or dentist’s office)

DVDs that you have watched only once

Out-of-date media (video tapes, audio tapes, albums-Hipsters excepted)


Things to let go of


Cancel subscriptions for anything you don’t look forward to every month

Cable TV (here are some alternatives Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime, and more )

Land line

Recipes for things your family dislikes and things you feel you SHOULD eat

Copies of bills already paid

Paper bills.  Sign up for auto bill pay or electronic bill paying though your bank

Food past its expiration date (maybe)

Medications past their expiration date (dispose of them safely)

Prescription medications past their purpose (don’t save them to give away!)

Food containers that have no lid

Lids that have no food containers

Tins, plastic containers and jars from food (if you haven’t used them this week)

Single socks (even if you think you will find the mate the next day)

Wire hangers from the cleaners (try recycling or giving them back!)

Buttons and thread for clothes you no longer have

Broken stuff that you have been meaning to fix

People that you have been meaning to fix

People that are a source of pain in your life

Expectation that people will change


Take care of these and feel the glow of accomplishment


Send one delayed email per day

Keep a box of notecards with a pen and stamps, and send a thinking-of-you or thank-you note as soon as you think of it.

Pay bills every week on the same day

Put a load of laundry in the washer whenever you turn on a movie, the TV or computer.  The load of laundry will help you keep track of the time, and you will be productive while you relax.  Fold the laundry while you watch and it will be (almost) painless

Catch people doing the right thing (loading or unloading the dishwasher, picking up their stuff, walking the dog) and give them a big smooch

Let one person per day make a mistake on the road for free (you might try two per day next week!)


Photo credits:  brad_holt,  matsuyuki,  Yukiko MatsuokaWickerfurniture,  Sharandra








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Posted on Dec 18, 2013 in How to simplify, My Journey

You Can’t Lose


Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery

Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery

In December, we start to think about the past year, and what we have accomplished.  Rather than think about what I have not achieved this year and line up the resolutions for the New Year, I thought I would think about what I am grateful for.  I am posting some thoughts about what has worked this year, and the positive changes that resulted.

Good news: You can’t lose.

1. You can’t lose unless you give up.

One of the biggest changes I made this past year, was a simple one: just a small change in perspective.  Maybe it’s getting older that did this, but I realized that as long as you are moving toward a goal, you can’t really fail.  If you are not happy with the situation, you can make a change. As long as you don’t give up, you can keep working toward your goal.

2. You can change your goals.

Of course you can.  Who’s going to stop you?  The goal police?  Go ahead, change your mind.

3. You can have many goals.

One way to be sure to see progress in your life is to have goals in different areas at the same time.  If you are working towards health, work, creative and financial goals, you will have less chance of having everything looking bleak.  For some, you will be just starting out, and for others, you will have made measurable progress. Make sure to focus on the progress at least as much as how much you have left to do!

4. You can have too many goals.

Too many things going at once can make life seem like a lot of work, and is a sure route to frustration and overwhelm.  Stick with your most important values, and you will know when things are in balance.  I have modeled my dog’s plan to focus on squeaky toys (fun), rest, socializing (his involves more sniffing), food, exercise and work (he’s retired, but still volunteers).  This is working pretty well.

5. The end is the same for all of us, so enjoy the ride.

If you make sure you have some fun along the way, nothing is completely bad.  I learned this the hard way.  If you work all the time and expect happiness to flow from your job, you are at risk for some big ups and downs.

What did this perspective replace?

It’s hard to understand from where I stand today, but I once thought that if I worked hard, I would reach a state of success and happiness, and that I would then relax and coast through in this happy state for the rest of my life.  It would be beautiful, like a graduation day or an award for hard work.  I’m pretty sure this is what I was taught as a child.  It was a direct path to stress and disappointment.

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