7 Surprising Upsides to an Empty Nest.

They are gone. The last kid is safely back at college. The extended family back in their appointed homes. And the silence is deafening.

My daughter’s laugh is infectious and nothing makes her laugh more than playing Super Mario Brother’s with her brother. One minute they are laughing hysterically and the next they are bitter rivals. This is the magic of the holidays. Sibling rivalries reignited. My son insisting that there was only one night to set up the Christmas tree with his sister (family tradition) so they stayed up on Thanksgiving night putting the tree together to surprise me in the morning. It’s amazing that the act of service is so much more important than getting a new Rolex. My Christmas was made that morning when I walked out and the tree was light up and decorated with all milestones of my two kids. Think about how this applies to work. Making sure you get your annual budget in on time or perish the thought “early”. Your coworkers will appreciate the service as opposed to a new company logo t-shirt.

Two weeks ago we couldn’t find enough chairs in the house. Eating breakfast was in shifts or sitting on the couch balancing a plate on one knee. The dishwasher ran three times a day. The bustle and hub bub hummed. Visiting with nieces, I see at best, once a year. Catching up and reminiscing over childhood stories with my two older brothers. Looking at photos from the trip to Minnesota where my history loving father was in search for evidence of Vikings and the fabled Kensington stone. Countless photos of three awkward looking kids pointing at mooring holes that could have been left by Leif Erickson. Criticism of my mother for her taste in children’s clothes and haircuts. Good fun. And now it is silent. Even the dishwasher is silent along with the dog.

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So now that the nest is officially empty, I have discovered some surprising gifts in its wake:

1. I have my dog to myself. I don’t have to share my dog, Baci’s, affection anymore. It’s all about me. She happily follows me from folding clothes, to writing in my office, and most importantly, to the kitchen in the hopes I will drop something. I have to admit I was getting jealous of her divided attention for the past few weeks. Do you have resources at work that you have to share? Make sure that when you have them back to yourself that you are showing them the gratitude.

2. There is space in the fridge again. I don’t need to be stocking whole milk for my son, Almond milk for my lactose intolerant daughter and buttermilk for an army load of pancakes. I can easily find things again. Including a cream container that was 6 weeks past expiration. Whew. Similarly, it’s such a relief to have last year’s files moved to storage.

3. I sleep through the night. My son is terrific at accomplishing all kinds of chores. I appreciate him taking out the garbage, emptying the dishwasher and creating culinary confections in my kitchen. The issue is that he does these chores in the wee hours of the night. Like 3 or 4 AM late. Invariably I hear the clang of pots or see the light under my door. Now, I finally have my sleep back.

4. No more midnight rides to Cook-Out. Every time my son is home, he has to commandeer my car for midnight or 2 AM runs to Cook-Out. It’s a local restaurant chain that is not available in Miami, where he goes to school. I know this by the telltale signs of a Cook-Out Styrofoam cup on the counter and my car seat on too much of an incline when I get in my car.

5. My kitchen counters are clear. My children seem to have amnesia when it comes to the location of the dishwasher and the garbage can. There has not been a change in the location of these items since we have lived in this house for almost 14 years. My morning was spent putting empty cups in the dishwasher and empty packaging in the garbage. Now I can rest assured that the counters are clear when I rise in the morning. It’s like moving into a new office, you suddenly know where everything is because you are the one who put it there. A clean slate.

6. We are clutter free. Two adult children and my extended family visiting for my parent’s sixtieth wedding anniversary meant jackets, laptops, phone chargers, cameras, shoes, coffee cups and two rental cars to jockey around. I lost my coffee cup and water glass several times. Now the Christmas clutter is all packed up (thanks to my amazing son who packed it all up in the dead of night!) and I know where my water glass is.

7. Silence. It can be deafening. But now that everyone is gone, there is a bit of Zen in the air. Peace. Time for reflection. Time to write. Getting my groove back. Think about spending some time just reflecting. Close the door to your office and just ponder.

We had a terrific family celebration and holiday. It was wonderful to connect with extended family and even better to laugh at old photos from our childhood and watch the faces of our kids as we relived family trips and occasions. But now that it’s all in the books? I’m happy to get back to the empty nest and ready to embark on 2016.

The Pathway to Your Best Work.

I used to live in Northern California. The thing I loved about living there was that there were hundreds of hiking trails within an easy drive (or walk). I remember taking on Mount Saint Helena or Mount Diablo on a given weekend or just heading to Foothill Park with my dogs. There was always the choice of which trail to take. The well-trodden or the elusive deer trail, the steep or the flat, the fastest to the top or the meandering scenic view. There was always a choice to be made. the pathway to your best work

The same is true for your best work. You make decisions every day, every moment about doing your best work. There is the steep, arduous trail or the meandering poppy strewn path. The ball is always in your court on which approach to take. Whether it’s deciding on what to have for breakfast, whether to purchase that fixer upper house or working on your novel. How you approach these decisions is always up to you and there are ways to make it an easier, less stressful path.

So here are some ideas on the pathway to your best work:

1. Early. Getting started early in the day is critical. I know you night owls out there are rolling your eyes. You start the day with a hundred units of energy. Every day. And it is impossible to replenish those 100 units. Once those units are spent, they are gone for good. The only way to insure that you have the energy to spend on your best work means you need to start early so if the cable goes out or your boss calls an emergency budget meeting, you’ve already spent some precious units on your best work. Expect interruptions.

2. Space. Clear the space to focus. I wrote about this recently. Find a clutter free, pleasant, quiet environment to do your best work. Do you want to hike the rocky trail where you need to pay attention to every step or the clear path where you can stroll unencumbered? Physically clear your work space so that it’s a comfortable or find a space that is. I had a client once who went to the library to find a quiet space to study without interruptions. If you are over twenty, when was the last time you went to a library to do your work? Find some clear space.

3. Satisfice. This concept was proposed by Dr. Barry Schwartz and summarized by Emilia Lahti as “Satisficing simply means to not obsess about trying to maximize every single task outcome and ROI.” In the last 30 years, your local grocery store has gone from 9,000 choices of products to about 40,000 choices. That is an explosion of choices when the average person buys about 100 core products. I shop once a week. I make a list for all my meals for the week and then purchase them all on Saturday morning. I try and minimize the amount of time I am surrounded by the onslaught of choices and I’m OK if my bananas aren’t green by Wednesday. I satisfice.

4. Minimize decisions. In Daniel Levitin’s book, The Organized Mind, he wrote that when Warren Buffet travels he eats Oreos and milk for breakfast. He doesn’t want to think or spend time trying to figure out the optimum breakfast. So when he’s in a hotel in New York City, he has Oreos and milk for breakfast. Done. Now on to his best work. Don’t clutter your head with unnecessary decisions. I actually eat the same thing for breakfast during the week (a berry smoothie but I might need to give Warren’s a try). Don’t spend your energy on small decisions.

5. Sleep on it. Levitin posits that sleeping on something improves your thinking. Studies have shown that participants learning rubric’s cubes and Tetris exhibited improved performance after a night of sleep. Your unconscious mind works on it overnight and has the ability to make new connections in your neural pathways. The participants were able to double their success rates after one night of sleep. Maybe this is why the SAT exams are first thing in the morning? Now this isn’t going to happen through osmosis. Don’t put a Spanish dictionary under your pillow and cross your fingers. You need to spend focused time on the topic before sleeping on it. Grab your pillow!

6. Flow. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s book, Flow, is all about optimal performance. Flow is the state of consciousness where you are engaged, creative and completely immersed in your work. There are ways to set yourself up for flow. Find meaning in your work. Tie it to your purpose, make sure it’s challenging and that you feel qualified for the challenge. If I don’t think I can hike for 3 hours, or that my boots are on their last legs, I won’t be able to find flow.

7. Task. Only focus on the one task. As Levitin described, trying to multitask actually burns glucose in our brains. When we try to talk on the phone and go through our inbox at the same time, we are depleting nutrients in our brain. Our anxiety and cortisol levels go up. You end up feeling exhausted which leads to impulsive, poor decisions. Task switching just means you are doing more things only half way (or less). You never get to the top of the mountain if you are constantly switching trails. Stay on task.

I have to say that when I write, I follow these guidelines. I block off time on Saturday and Sunday morning to sit down and write. I spend several nights reflecting on what I want to write. When I’ve tried to write on a Wednesday afternoon after a long day of work or break it up over several days, the end product is not as good. I think I’ve found the right path. How do you do your best work?

5 Steps to Hitting the Pause Button

I find that the holidays are a time of Absolute Overwhelm.  Making sure I have purchased gifts for the family equitably (like we all sit there with a calculator on Christmas morning), prepared joyful cards and letters for delivery before year end, made sure the holiday menu includes all the family traditions (Caramel Bubble is a Christmas morning must have), arranged travel home and back to college for my kids, arranged for a tree and getting it decorated by said children before they head back to college after Thanksgiving… is overwhelming.  Having one less week between Thanksgiving and Christmas makes me feel like I’ll still have turkey leftovers on New Year’s Eve.  Whew.  Time to hit the pause button. 5 Steps to Hitting the Pause Button 1

In Tara Brach‘s book Radical Acceptance, she recommends the “Sacred Pause”.  This is a break from constant striving.  Isn’t that the American way?  To constantly strive.  Who has time for a pause?  You do;  especially this time of year.  Have you ever woken up on New Year’s Day and wondered where the holidays went?  That means you never paused.  Take in the moment.  Drink it up.  Take a break and be present.

Here some ways to hit the pause button:

1. Stop. Stop what you are doing. Put down the dishes.  Stop liking on Facebook.  Get out of your inbox.  Put your phone on the charger and walk away.  Close out all the windows on your desk top.  Turn off the TV.  Don’t try this while driving, unless of course, you are not the driver.  Just stop.

2. Space.  Find a space to be.  Sit in your favorite chair.  Stand at the window.  Lay down on the couch.  Go for a walk outside.  Sometimes a complete change in environment or temperature can help break the spell.  If you are outside raking leaves, you might want to go inside.  If you are inside and have been sitting at your desk for two hours straight, you might want to go outside (this may require a jacket and gloves…use your best judgment).  Be in your space.

3. Eyes. Close your eyes.  When our eyes are shut, it’s so much easier to reconnect with ourselves.  It turns on our other senses.  You smell the coffee.  You hear the wind outside or the hum of the light bulb.  You feel the temperature of the room or the gravity of your feet against the floor. You taste the sourness of the orange juice.  Shutting your eyes turns off the constant barrage of information.

4. Breathe.  Take some deep breaths.  Feel your chest rise and fall.  Feel the air come in and out of your nostrils.  Feel your body soften as the air leaves your body.  When I find my breath, I become centered.  Present.  There is no grocery-list-making when you are focused on your breath.  Just breathe.

5. Inhabit. Tara recommends inhabiting the pause.  I love that image.  Inhabiting the pause.  Living in yourself.  Being yourself.  I invariably feel tension in my shoulders.  I concentrate on letting go.  Release the tension.  Let go and inhabit the pause.

Find a time to hit the pause button.  Before you take a shower, head into that meeting, decorate the tree or bake your sugar cookies, find a time to just pause.  Don’t wait till New Year’s Day and find the holidays are gone and you never just connected with the moment.  Do it NOW.