Our last two weekly tips gave some ideas for how to intentionally and meaningfully take time for yourself an others. This week, try to shift gears and think about how to make the best use of your time for focus and productivity. Once you set yourself up for some kind of task or project, apply yourself to that project fully by reducing distractions (put your phone away!), setting yourself up in a space that helps you focus, and allowing yourself (short) regular breaks to help you re-set and re-energize for your task.
Having positive interactions with others is so important, but it can be tricky to fit in time with people we enjoy. Spending time with others doesn’t have to be a big event though – try setting up time with a friend for a FaceTime call, a walk outdoors, or a text chat. Or reach out to someone you haven’t spoken to for a long time and re-connect – you might make someone’s day by reaching out, and it might make your day to have that interaction as well.
When we think about time, often one of our thoughts is that there is never enough time in a day to do everything you want to do. One way to give yourself a gift of extra time is to wake up 15-20 minutes earlier than usual and use that time for something you enjoy. Have a relaxing cup of coffee (not in your car on the way to work), go for a walk, meditate, do some stretches. There are a huge number of things you can do for yourself with just a little extra time in the morning to get your day off to a perfect start!
It is a time of transition for so many of us. It’s the end of summer and for many people this signals a start to a new school year. For a lot of people, it is a time of lifted restrictions and resuming more normal social activities. For other people, it is time to go back to restricted activities because of new outbreaks and variants. As we look at out own transitions this September, think about taking time for what is important to you and your family, no matter what else is going on in the world.
So, what fun activities is it time for in your life this month? Will you go apple picking with your kids? Will you read a good book? How about meeting a friend for coffee on a Saturday morning? Starting a new month and a new season is a good time to make a list of what you hope to make time for this month in the way of activities and events.
What goals can you set for your family this month? With a new season, it may be time for looking at your responsibilities and how you will handle any changes that are coming with autumn. Sending kids back to school is one of the big transitions people are thinking abut right now. Teachers, professors, academic professionals everywhere are gearing up for an unpredictable year. Students of all ages are jumping back into school with continued covid-related issues affecting their experiences. Parents of students are faced now with helping their kids navigate unpredictable waters with school while they themselves work on coping with ever-changing circumstances in the world. For everyone who is looking at changes in schedules and responsibilities this fall, this is a good time to take stock of what will be new and different for you in the coming months and make some plans on how to tackle these changes.
Is it time for anything else as you head into a new season? Maybe you have been thinking about some personal goals, like improving your health habits. Maybe it’s a good time to take on daily meditations and mindfulness practices to build your overall wellness. With the weather cooling off a bit, maybe this is a good time to think about spending more time outdoors in comfortable temperatures.
It is always time for something – work, activities, family, relaxation. Take a few minutes to think about how to frame the next few months, making time for what is important to you.
It is so easy to find things to criticize about ourselves. Try to focus on one thing every day that will boost your confidence. It can be something you do, something someone else says to you, or something about the way you look. This is a great way to add positivity to the way you think about yourself and all the things that make you a beautiful person.
New! Look for my tip of the week every Monday for tips and tricks that build on my latest blog.
Finding Beauty in Others
It can be hard to find beauty in others when you’re having a bad day. Try to focus your attention on someone’s smile. A smile conveys thoughtful reflection and spreads joy. It’s a great step forward in finding the beauty in others!
They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I am sure that this is true. After all, there are things that are beautiful to some people but not to others. We all have basic preferences for color, shapes and design. We also have preferences for beauty in the form of landscapes, animals, and other people. In many cases, we may come to appreciate beauty where we had not seen it before.
When it comes to other people, there can be tendencies as part of human nature to make judgments based on appearances. Sometimes these judgments are purely about attraction – do I like how that person looks as a potential romantic partner? Other times these judgments are more complex, looking at someone and thinking you may know them because of the outward appearance you see. Clothing, hairstyle, skin color – these are all things that can affect our judgment, often leading to inaccurate representations or poor outcomes.
In the field of psychology, we strive to understand and predict human behavior to help build better success for people with regard to personal interactions. It is often disappointing to see negative patterns of behavior repeat themselves – with individual people we know, with ourselves, and with society. In my specific experience, spending my entire career working with and advocating for the needs of some of our most vulnerable citizens – those with autism, developmental needs and diverse abilities – I have challenged others to look for beauty and strength in people where it might not be as obvious to society. We have come a long way in the past 20 years towards increased acceptance and community inclusion, but we still have a long way to go. It doesn’t seem like we can fix things in any easy fashion, but looking at where we are today, it seems that one thing we can all do is look for and find beauty.
In others. In ourselves. In our communities.
How good are you at looking for an finding beauty in others? Not just physical beauty, but inner beauty, positive qualities and attributes? Do you look for the best in others, or do you focus on the things you don’t like, or the things that make you uncomfortable?
We often see the negatives more than the positives. In doing this, I can promise you that if you look for a negative quality in another person, or look for fault in what that person says or does, you will find it. This also holds true for the opposite – if you really apply yourself to looking for the best quality in another person you will find it. I believe that there is beauty somewhere inside all people, with very few exceptions.
In addition, it is important for us all to remember that we have each only really walked in our own shoes. Do any of us really know what it feels like to be someone else? Someone who was rude to you at the store? Someone who has a different skin color than your own, or who comes from a different culture? Someone who has been born with a disability that affects every day life in ways you might not be able to imagine?
Try to imagine – only just imagine – that each person you come into contact with today is honestly just doing the best they can with what they have in that moment. If you can even imagine that, your outlook may become more balanced. This may also result in more positive interactions and less frustrations throughout your day.
While I do think that in general, we tend to be too hard on other people, I also think that we tend to be hard on ourselves. It is so easy to slip into negative thinking about ourselves, our skills, our looks, our interactions. Have you ever second-guessed a conversation after it happened and thought about what you could have or should have said differently or better? Have you ever looked in the mirror or at a picture of yourself and really focused in on the things you don’t like about your looks? Have you ever talked yourself out of trying something because you think you won’t be good enough?
Simone Biles, bright, beautiful, and possibly the best female gymnast of all time, just stepped down from the Olympic team competition to let her team compete without her because she wasn’t sure she had it in her to live up to the world’s expectations in that moment. She, who from an outsider’s perspective with her incredible talent and should have every reason to believe in herself, was wrought with doubt this week. The world was shocked. We look at her as someone who is flawless, perfect in her sport, the epitome of strength and perseverance. But even Simone Biles has her moments of self-doubt, and if she does, it is no wonder that we all do. Simone Biles had the courage to say to the world that she needed a break for herself, and I hope that in doing so she is able to search and find that strength, beauty and brightness once again.
How can we face our doubts and not lose sight of our own beauty and brightness? Maybe it means sometimes hitting the pause button to give yourself some grace for a time. Maybe it also means looking at yourself in a more balanced way – you may challenge yourself constantly to overcome weaknesses and things that get in your way, but it is important to not let this dominate your thoughts about yourself. For every weakness or challenge you seek to improve within yourself, look for one thing you are proud of, one thing you like about yourself, one thing you know other people like about you. Balance yourself with positive thoughts about yourself while you strive for self-improvement.
In our communities.
Boy oh boy, is it easy to find fault in our communities, isn’t it? Do they do enough of this, that or the other thing that we think is important? Probably not. But like the balanced perspectives we can strive for regarding others and ourselves, we have to do this with our communities as well. Like people, communities are not perfect. How could they be? They are made up of imperfect people, after all. That is the nature of life. This is not to suggest that we shouldn’t advocate for our communities to do better in things that could be improved, but it is to say let’s think about them in a more balanced way.
When you consider your own community, including our collective state and national community, do you see more things that you like or more things that you don’t like? Is it easy to criticize local, state or federal organizations and governing agencies for everything they do wrong? It is, I think, very easy to find fault with organizations and systems. And there are things that need to be improved, without a doubt. This is true for things that affect lives of people in a multitude of ways. Does your community do enough to support people in financial need? Does it do enough to support and include people with different needs and abilities? Does it do enough to provide opportunities for positive interaction and productive debate? Does it do enough overall to support diversity and inclusion for all people?
Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. But, I would venture to say that all our communities have qualities and strengths that we may take for granted. While you consider the things you wish would be better within your own community – or even on a broader scale with state and federal organizations or governments – also consider the things you value in these area. What does your community do well? Look for the beauty.
If we start from a place with a focus on what is bright and beautiful, it will make it easier to tackle the challenges that we face with others, with ourselves, and with our communities.
Has anyone else been feeling more and more distracted by the world? Having a hard time focusing on things? It seems that the distractions in the world are ever-growing, between nonstop news, social media, and the entire world at your fingertips everywhere you go when you carry your smartphone with you. This phenomenon has been growing for years, and does not seem to be getting any better.
Recent studies have looked at increasing trends for ADHD in children and adolescents. In 1997-98, 6.1% of children between the ages of 4-17 were diagnosed with ADHD. That number rose to 10.4% in 2015-2016. There may be many reasons for this disturbing trend, but most experts agree that access to devices most likely plays a role. Parents and teachers can and should work on structures, guidelines and limits for using electronics to help with this situation.
What about adults? Several studies have shown a marked increase in adult ADHD diagnosis, with reports of between 2 and 3 times as many cases of adult ADHD in recent years. Some of this seems to be due to greater understanding of symptoms and recognizing the need for assessment. However, is not out of the question that an increase in symptoms of ADHD for adults is also due to constant access to distraction from our devices.
Over the past year, many people have had to adjust to working from home and finding a balance that is healthy between productivity and leisure in the home environment. Some have surely been successful with this. Others may have great struggles staying focused when working at home. There are all kinds of distractions, including household tasks (“I’ll just go put in one load of laundry now”), food (“I’m a little hungry and bored and the kitchen is right here”), neighborhood activity (“it’s too loud to work when someone is mowing the lawn so I will just have to take a break”), and kids (“I can’t get anything done when the kids need my help”). How is one supposed to manage?
On top of that, whether you’re working from home or not, for people who have access to devices during the day it can be difficult to stay focused on work when your phone alerts you to something. You may also be distracted by the impulse to look up answers to every question that pops into your head throughout the day, pulling you away from your work. Or you may be feeling a little lazy and unmotivated so a quick game of Candy Crush seems like it might be ok. All these little distractions add up.
So, what can we do?
That is mainly up to us, as individuals. Whether a lack of focus is affecting your studies, your professional work, or your responsibilities at home, you can do things to improve your focus and motivation.
For starters, set daily goals for yourself. Make a list of reasonable priorities for the day, and when you have gotten those things done, reward yourself with one of your distractions.
Work on changing how you are thinking about your time and your tasks. For example, if you have the thought to check your phone for something unrelated to your current task or goal, talk yourself out of it. Remind yourself of your current goal and remember that whatever you wanted to do on your phone will still be there in a little while. Try to avoid impulsive distractions.
If you are distracted by thinking about other things you have to do or want to look up, jot them down for later.
If you are able, put your phone away or put it on airplane mode, or do not disturb mode, when you are trying to finish other things.
Practice mindfulness. Focus on the moment, and if you find yourself having a hard time with focus, pause for a couple slow breaths to help you bring yourself back to your focus.
Take intentional breaks when possible. Use your breaks to re-set. If this is a scheduled lunch break or a coffee break, enjoy the time and allow your mind a break from your work.
Avoid multi-tasking. This applies to work, but it also applies to leisure time. Are you on your phone or your laptop while you watch your favorite series on Netflix? Try to allow yourself to enjoy one thing at a time. This will help improve your focus habits, both for leisure and for work.
Self-care. Even though this comes up all the time, sometimes we forget. Having a healthy diet, good sleep habits, and taking some time for exercise every day are all positive tools for maintaining focus and a good balance in your day-to-day life.
Everyone on earth has challenges to cope with every day. Big challenges, little challenges, and often multiple challenges. Despite difficulty, there is a tendency for a lot of people to avoid seeking or accepting help from others. Why is it hard for us to need help?
We are wired in many ways to do things on our own. This starts in childhood – children are often insistent that they can do things by themselves, even when they can’t quite. The “I can do it” attitude is nurtured in childhood for good reason – we want children to grow into independent and competent adults.
We may also have a hard time asking for help because we don’t want to be a burden to other people. We are all aware that people are busy, that other people have their own things to deal with and challenges to overcome. Asking for someone to help us with something may feel like too much to ask.
In many cases, we don’t ask for help because we don’t want to appear weak or fragile. We may want to be seen as self-sufficient and capable of taking care of ourselves with no help.
Interestingly, though, one thing that often makes people feel really good about themselves is — wait for it —
So – in general – people feel good about helping other people, and at the same time – in general – people don’t like to ask other people for help. Isn’t there a better balance here for us to think about?
Thinking about this in terms of balance, as individuals we need to consider what we need in the way of big asks and little asks. On a daily basis, do we ask people to help us with little things? Asking a family member to take out the garbage, asking a friend for a small favor? Some daily small asks may feel easy, because we do them frequently and don’t need to put a lot of thought into them. Asking a family member to help with a chore is nearly a no-brainer because it is part of daily life and we are all in it together as a family. These types of helps are a little easier to balance.
But asking for bigger help, for bigger things, is a more challenging issue. During the pandemic, for example, people have needed to ask for help in unprecedented ways. Outside of the pandemic, there are always times that people need help but still don’t ask. It can be so difficult to do this. So how can we correct this imbalance?
It seems like we need to stop thinking of ourselves as potential burdens and start thinking of ourselves as part of a fellowship of human beings, who can best enjoy the time we have together on earth by helping and doing for others, and allowing others to help and do things for us. The phrases we hear, such as “It takes a village” or “Do unto others“, are meaningless if we don’t ask for or accept help. Opening your mind and your heart to the notion of letting someone else help you is the first step towards having better balance.
Asking someone for help in a time of need can, in some ways, be seen as a gift to the other person. Keep in mind that people feel good about helping other people, for the most part. So if you trust someone enough to ask for help in a time of need, you are gifting them with this trust, and gifting them with the opportunity to help someone they care about.
Offering help is an equal gift. When you know someone is struggling, offer to help. If she declines help but you believe she needs some support, find a different way to provide the support. An example if this might be if you have a friend who is ill, and you ask if she needs anything and she says no. Instead of just accepting the “no”, you could drop off some food at her home or send a thinking-of-you note to her to brighten her day while she recovers.
Finding this balance within relationships is an important piece of the equation. We have to be able to trust friends enough to ask them for support, but we also have to trust people to let us know when they can’t provide the support we need because of their own busy schedules, stress, or other burdens they have at the time. If you have one or two trusted friends that you know you can count on in times of need, you should be able to have honest conversations about what is possible in the way of help and support at any given time.
One final thought about seeking and accepting help when needed has to do with professional support. If you are sick, you likely will go to a doctor. If you need a haircut, you will likely go to a hairdresser. But if you need professional help in the way of counseling, or special support for your children (such as special education or behavioral therapy), it is often more difficult to take the steps to seek this help. Sometimes people may see this as a weakness or a stigma. It is so important that we strive to help reduce this perception. If you or someone you care about needs emotional or behavioral support, there are thousands of talented, compassionate and highly trained professionals to help people get through challenging times.
To find a better balance we can all benefit from looking for more ways to be supportive to others, while opening up our own minds to allow others to be supportive to us. With this balance, there is a potential for benefit to everyone.
As I predicted in my previous blog, we did not wake up on January 1 to a new world. Many of the things that stressed people out for most of the year last year are still creating stress. Pandemic, isolation, politics. But, despite the ongoing challenges we still hold hope for a better year in 2021, and there are some promising signs as we see people successfully being vaccinated across the country and as our incredible health care workers and medical scientists develop more and more effective interventions for COVID-19.
For many people, the things that are causing such stress over the past year are things that we just can’t control. It is so frustrating in life when situations are completely out of our control. Think about even simple daily things, like being a passenger in a car when someone else drives differently than you do – too fast, too slow, taking a different route (the wrong one, to be sure!). When we are not in control, it can increase our feelings of stress. In 2020, so many things felt out of control. In one post last year, I wrote about focusing on things you can control during times of stress. As things drag on with the pandemic, this would be a good time to re-group and consider what things each day are within your control and what things are not. Once you determine this, you can work on a plan to let go a bit of some of the worry about what you can’t control while focusing your energy on what you can actually do to make things better for yourself and others right now.
One thing we can all do, pandemic and politics aside, is examine our daily habits and routines. What is working well for you? What are some things you would like to change on a daily or weekly basis? I can easily think of five things I would like to do differently when it comes to daily habits, the question is how to make these changes in a meaningful and lasting way.
Habits are hard to change. I am not just talking about commonly known vices like overeating, smoking, or alcohol use. I am talking about all our daily habits and routines. There has been some research looking into habits, and the most common lore tells us that we can make or break a habit in 21 days. In reality, based on a study done in London, it can take anywhere between 21 and 254 days to achieve automaticity with your habits. A lot of this will depend on how much you like your current habits, and how badly you want to add some new, healthier habits.
To help focus on making some positive habit changes this year, here are some ideas for small, simple changes with big potential benefit:
Take 5 minutes every day to reflect on one positive thing. This can be ANYTHING. Did the sun shine today? Did you have something good to eat? Did you do something fun? Accomplish anything? Did someone say something nice to you? Take those 5 minutes and really focus on one thing that was uplifting for you. Even on the darkest days you will be able to find one point of light if you let yourself look.
Start a step towards one of your goals. If you have a big goal to be more organized, each day you can tackle one small thing towards this goal. Clean out a drawer, go through one pile of things that has been waiting for your attention. Every goal can be broken down into steps that are manageable. If you do one step a day, you will make progress and will have the benefit of a sense of accomplishment each day.
Go outside. But wait, it’s January you say! It’s cold outside, and there may be snow. Ice. Wind. I hear you! Winter is NOT my thing either. But if you push yourself for even a few minutes of fresh air every day, you will get that benefit of being outside, breathing new air, seeing something outside your own walls, and in some cases challenging yourself to be a little bit uncomfortable in the process. (Extreme weather in the summer can be equally challenging to cope with for many people). You may even find that by stepping out for a few minutes for a tiny walk can lead to longer walks than you planned, and more enjoyment of fresh air.
Do one nice thing for someone else. When we think of doing good deeds, often we think about things that include a bigger commitment than what we may be able to do every day. For example, helping at a soup kitchen, or taking food to a food pantry in your community. But kind acts can be the simplest things, and can make someone’s day. While doing things like helping at a soup kitchen totally count and are always encouraged, if you can’t do this type of service every day consider some smaller kind acts. Some examples include posting a positive comment on Facebook for a friend, giving a compliment to someone, sending a note to someone you haven’t seen for awhile (email or snail mail), doing something around the house to help out, or – one of my favorites – paying for the person in line behind you when you go to a coffee drive-thru.
Treat yourself. Like with the positive thoughts, this can be ANYTHING. A favorite TV show. Ice cream. A conversation with a friend. Yoga and/or meditation. Every day should include one thing that is just for you. It will be important here to first of all, LET yourself do something just for you. Some people have a hard time allowing themselves to do things that are for their own well-being or satisfaction. It will be equally important to acknowledge things you may already do every day to treat yourself, even if you don’t think of it that way. For example, maybe you already do yoga or meditation every day, and then carry on with your busy life and routine. Remember as you cope with your day that you did take some time to do something that was just for you – in this example, yoga – to help you stay focused on the things that you do to make yourself happy every day.
These 5 small, manageable daily habits can make a big difference in your day and may even help with stress and overall happiness.