After exiting the holiday season and getting back to the regular course of your life, you’re likely looking around and thinking: Things could be better. It’s OK. You’re normal.
The new year grants a symbolic opportunity to examine yourself, to figure out if there’s anything that could be discarded or improved upon. Last January, we helped by relaying guidance from experts on how to sharpen your intellect, whittle your waistline and thicken your wallet [“Intelligent Life,” Jan. 13-19, 2011].
We’ve returned bearing brand-new niblets of advice. A pair of experts on mindfulness told us about finding inner peace. A master of communication gave us the keys to getting a point across. And to help you get organized, we took down tips from a simplicity specialist.
Here’s to 2012 being your best year yet!
Lauterstein and Braden both think the best way to find a little more peace in your life starts with community—whether that be through a yoga class, a meditation session or some other avenue. But they still had some tips that even the shy (or skeptical) can employ at home.
Follow your breath. Both agree that one of the best things you can do for yourself is take five minutes at the beginning or end of your day to just sit and breathe. Simply closing your eyes and paying attention to your breath can have huge calming affects on the body, recentering the nervous system, says Lauterstein. “Breath is one of the things we can live without the least in life,” she says. You can last a little while without food and water, but “you can only live a few minutes without breathing.”
Make a space. Braden says while breathing exercises can be done anywhere, it’s best to look for a comfortable, relaxed place in your home where you can sit without distractions. To help keep your mind from racing, try concentrating solely on the tip of your nose. Concentrating on one fixed point or intention is called single-pointedness. “As we learn to hold our focus single-pointedly,” he says, “our mind automatically gives rise to a more calm, peaceful experience.”
Come back to the calm. You can bring this technique into your work day as well, says Braden. Before going into a stressful meeting, take a couple of minutes to breathe and ground yourself. “If we can back away for a moment,” he says, “it helps you to know what it feels like to be calm” so that you can return to that feeling at times when you may be provoked.
Advanced inhaling. A more engaged way of breathing comes in alternate-nostril breathing. While sitting in a relaxed position, try this: Make sure your jaw is relaxed and let your tongue rest on the bottom of your mouth. Take your right-hand thumb to your right nostril and your ring finger to your left nostril, with your pointer and middle finger resting on your third eye (basically, your forehead). Start by closing your left nostril with your finger and exhaling out your right nostril. After fully exhaling, inhale through the right nostril, then close it with your thumb and exhale through the left nostril. Repeat these steps on the other side, inhaling through the left nostril, then pressing against that nostril with your finger and exhaling through your right nostril again. That makes one full round of breathing, starting and ending with an exhale through your right nostril. Doing that three to five times can have a calming affect on the body.
Small is good. If you’re feeling stressed, little changes can make a big difference. Substituting even 20 minutes of TV or computer time in the evening with taking a walk or reading a book can improve your psychological health, says Lauterstein. She cites one of her favorite quotes, from Sydney Smith: “It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do a little. Do what you can.”
Find your crowd. Lauterstein says if you decide to attend meditation or yoga classes, it’s important to find a teacher you resonate with. So when you start going, shop around until you find someone who makes you feel absolutely comfortable.
Look inside. One of the philosophies that stems from Buddhism is that, out of ignorance, “our happiness arises on dependence upon external things,” Braden says. That could be a job, partner, house or car. “Because we don’t know otherwise, we try again and again and again to manage all the elements in our life to achieve lasting happiness from all of these conditions outside of ourselves.”
Accept change. Temporary contentment can often be found in these things, but humans attach themselves to them and are disappointed when they change. “In reality, everything is impermanent—our job changes, partners change, bodies change, our age changes.” Buying a new car, for example, can make you feel happy, like you’ve solved a problem. Down the road, though, that same car could cause happiness. “It makes us angry, despondent, frustrated when it breaks down. But didn’t we expect that it would one day? We experience stress over something completely predictable.”
Redefine happiness. The solution to this problem is to understand why you’re angry or sad about something and change your expectations. “Stress is a direct result of our mistaken expectation that we can control all of these external factors,” he says. Happiness, then, can be found in learning to “view things more appropriately.”
Murphy teaches courses in interpersonal communication, public speaking and intercultural communication. In other words, she’s an expert on how to better understand people—and have them better understand you.
So, how might adopting new strategies in the ways you get your point across benefit you? Murphy says that one of the biggest advantages is employment: Bosses pick candidates with good communication skills over those who don’t. On a day-to-day level, saying what you mean—and doing it in a way that’s well-received—helps you achieve goals. She also says that more satisfying relationships and improved health are other benefits. “People who live solitary lives live with more disease and illness and die earlier than their social counterparts,” she says.
There are three areas that folks struggle with the most, Murphy says. Changing these behaviors can make an immediate difference in the way others perceive you.
Not listening. “All humans want to feel valued, to feel like they matter in the world,” she explains. “Listening in itself validates another human being.”
Defensiveness. She says it’s hard to “own up to something we know we can do better.” Instead of talking about it, we “push it away” and blame it on others.
Not considering your audience. If you don’t tailor your delivery to who you’re speaking with, your message will be less effective.
Whether you’re trying to talk to a boss about a raise, resolve a conflict with a co-worker, discuss an issue in your relationship with your partner, or ask your parents for more respect or trust, there are some simple factors you’ll need to take into account.
Power or status differences between yourself and the person you’re talking to. When talking to a boss, for example, you’d want to be particularly conscious of not being defensive.
Cultural differences. What’s considered normal behavior in one culture could be offensive in another. Know your audience.
Gender differences. “Males and females aren’t as different as we might think,” says Murphy, “but there are some basic communication style differences that—when understood—can improve effectiveness.” She says women tend to use communication to bond, as well as build and maintain relationships. Men more often use it to try to solve problems or give advice.
When you find yourself at odds with others, use these communication strategies to help resolve the conflict.
Figure out what’s really bothering you. Many arguments can stem from getting upset over symptoms, not the root problem. “We argue about the fact that ‘I did the dishes yesterday, so you have to do them today,’ ” says Murphy. “And ‘Yeah, but I walked the dog, so that counts and now you have to do the dishes.’ What these two are really arguing about is the equal distribution of tasks and who has decision-making power.” The problem isn’t the dishes, it’s trying to establish power, control and, ultimately, respect in a relationship.
Adopt a problem-solving solution. Instead of arguing for the sake of arguing, approach a discussion with the goal of solving whatever problem has brought you to a disagreement. A small example Murphy gives is two roommates who fight because one wants a clean kitchen and for the garbage to go out every night, while the other doesn’t want to take out the trash that often. With creative thinking, the problem could be resolved by simply buying a bigger trash can. A larger example is a couple with a new baby. One partner wants to quit his or her job to stay home, while the other is concerned about money. By moving into a smaller home, both can get what they want.
Stop talking and listen. Don’t jump in when you have something you want to add; wait your turn. Ask clarifying questions. Paraphrase what you’ve heard to make sure you understand.
Use “I” language. Instead of saying “You make me mad” or “You hurt my feelings,” talk about how an action or event makes you feel. “Expressing how you interpreted something and reacted to something is more likely to be well-received than blaming another person for your thoughts and feelings.”
Be aware of your short- and long-term goals. It may feel good to unload during an argument, but you can’t truly take back anything you say. Remembering what you want in the long run will help you keep an even temper.
Empathize. “Try to view the world through someone else’s glasses.” Everyone has their own unique set of experiences that create the lens through which they see the world. Try to imagine how someone else would interpret what you’re saying.
Go further. If you’re interested in exploring any of these scenarios more thoroughly, Murphy suggests taking a class. She also recommends The Seven Challenges Workbook by Dennis Rivers. The 100-page workbook is available for free as a downloadable PDF or printed copy here: bit.ly/7CWorkbook.
Ortiz y Pino’s work stems from a straightforward philosophy: Everything you do is connected. By freeing up physical space, she believes you can open mental space as well.
Decide what you want your space to be. This goes beyond the obvious I want this to be a kitchen. Do you want to cook more and eat more healthfully? Is it important for your kitchen to be a communal space or a personal one? Figuring our how you want a space to function to meet your needs is the first step in understanding how to organize it.
Stop feeling guilty. If your space is in disarray, think about what factors went into it becoming that way. Have you been sick for awhile or taking care of someone else? Has there been a big change in your life that made it easier to lose track of day-to-day maintenance? By knowing how you got somewhere, you can let go of your guilt and focus on how to fix your habits.
If you’re procrastinating, change the order around. You know that teetering stack of papers you’ve been avoiding for months? Turn it upside down or shuffle it around and then sort through it. Since you’ve been looking at it for so long, you’ve likely come to associate a lot of daunting emotions with its appearance. By changing your literal perspective on it, you can erase some of the symbolism you’ve attributed to it.
Baby steps. If you feel overwhelmed by how dirty or disorganized your house or office is, start with something small, like the pantry or laundry room, “something a little more task-oriented,” says Ortiz y Pino. “It’s a lot easier to get someone to understand that putting canned goods on that shelf and snacks on that shelf is better.” More stressful activities, like coming up with a filing system for your paperwork, can come later, after you’re feeling good about accomplishing something smaller.
Move disorganized items into a clutter-free space. Sort them out there, then put them back. Oftentimes you’ll think more clearly in a clean area.
Ask a friend to help you clean your closet. Have them hold up items, and you can decide if you want to keep it from across the room. “We have a different emotional response to something tactile,” Ortiz y Pino says. This exercise can help you be more objective.
Be willing to throw things away. Ask yourself if an item serves your current vision for your life. “Does it make sense to keep the chips and cookies when your New Year’s resolution was to lose weight and be healthier?” she asks. “So, great, you wore this suit five months ago, but you just retired. Will you ever need 12 suits again? Keep your favorites.”
Make some rules for yourself about when a task is truly completed. Grocery shopping isn’t finished until everything you bought is put away. Your laundry isn’t done unless your clothes are folded or hung.
Create a schedule for when tasks should be completed. Instead of continually trying to remind yourself to take in the dry cleaning, just decide that every Thursday is dry cleaning day.
Ultimately, your space should fit your needs; you shouldn’t work to fit your space. If something seems unmanageable, change it so it molds to you.