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Archive for July, 2008

Retaining Your Emotional Agility

Thursday, July 31st, 2008

At the moment, I’m working with my publisher on the title for a book. They have great ideas and know the business. I know what I said in the book. They are good people, and I want to believe what they say about what will work. But I am the one who knows what doesn’t as “retirement.” I know “not working” doesn’t work. They love that title.

They’re in the prime of their careers. “Retirement” hasn’t even hit their radars yet. They are sure “not working” is the coolest thing you could ever do. How do I mesh my truth with theirs to the greatest benefit–of our working relationship and what we ultimately get out to the public?

This is just an example of the challenge that’s often cast as “keeping an open mind.” Sometimes, it’s not as simple as it seems like it should be.

So what do I do to honor and get the most from what this enthusiastic, young team is doing to help me? And how does that relate to what you are trying to do? We deal with this so many different ways. How can we be true to ourselves and easy to work with?

  • In every instance it’s good to revisit the priority list when you hit an impasse. How important is the sticking point? Is what they want to do more workable than you are telling yourself?
  • Then it wouldn’t hurt to just stop thinking about it for a few hours. The more pressure you put on trying to get to the solution, the harder it is for the easy breezy brilliant ideas to push their way in the door.
  • And above all, believe there’s an answer and trust that all involved are looking for it. They usually are.

These are good people and what we are trying to do is good work. The right title will come. Once we use it, you won’t have any idea how many e-mails we spent trying to hammer it out.

But to get to that answer, I need to keep my emotional agility. To let the new ideas have the full floor. To not cling to a favorite just because it worked for me. I need to let go of what I already decided. Nobody likes a stubborn grump–young or old. Keeping an open mind may not always be easy, but it’s the only way to go.

On the Folly of Taking Too Many Meds…

Tuesday, July 29th, 2008

This morning’s paper reported a study published yesterday in the Archives of Internal Medicine that found of 50 million death certificates in the US, more than 224,000 involved FATAL medication errors–overdoses or mixing prescription meds with illicit drugs or alcohol. It’s unlikely they looked at interactions between prescription meds since that issue is just now starting to get some attention. (The data they used was from 1983 to 2004.) What’s most alarming is that, adjusting for population growth, they found a 700% increase between 1983 and 2004.

They saw this dramatic rise reflected in DEATH CERTIFICATES–which are sometimes less than complete in establishing cause in complex situations.

So what? Well…..so think think about what you agree to put down your gullet as “medicine.”

Every day something new comes on the market to help with “what ails you.” But the more you take, the greater your chance of discovering the hard way that two drugs are incompatible. It might even be something as simple as drinking grapefruit juice for breakfast that can give you trouble. (It causes problems with heart rate for people taking certain blood pressure meds.)

Just because they’ve found a medicine that helps with one problem doesn’t mean it won’t create another. Have you ever listened to all those side effects they mention at too-fast-to-really-hear speed in the pharmaceutical ads?

There’s no substitute for taking personal responsibility in this, a most individual set of decisions. Before you buy in on the idea of taking a pill to solve it, make sure it’s the best solution available:

  • Could a lifestyle change accomplish the same thing? Eating right as opposed to a cholesterol reducing prescription drug, for example.
  • Is the problem bad enough that you want to risk the side effects taking the drug might produce? Being totally pain free is unrealistic. Is what you are avoiding/alleviating by taking the drug major and worth it?
  • Is there a BETTER way to do it? I love the story of the guy who went to his doctor asking for anti-depressants to help him deal with his awful job. He got all the way to the pharmacy counter before he read what was on the script: “Quit your job.”
  • Are there things you do for “fun” that you need to make sure your doctor knows about? If you want to be safe with the prescription stuff, whoever is ordering it for you needs to know what else you are putting in your system. Period. The study confirms that lying to yourself and your doctor about this can be fatal.

We don’t need to die this way. And we could live better if pills weren’t the answer in so many cases. Take the time to find out whether another route would work just as well (and most likely be less expensive). Be good to yourself. Make a conscious, well-informed choice every time you agree to solve a problem with a pill–even if “everybody’s taking it” and “it’s been around for years.”

How to Use the Economic Downturn to Improve Your Retirement — Part 6: Rethink Work

Saturday, July 26th, 2008

There’s nothing like a poke in the eye to get your attention. Inflation is that sharp stick when it comes to thinking about giving up a paycheck to retire. Living on a fixed income when expenses aren’t fixed can be unnerving in the best of times. Right now, it takes superhero emotional strength. Even if you have not yet stepped into retirement, this kind of economic climate can make you worry about your sanity if you still yearn to leave the daily grind behind eventually.

As you stare at the rising cost of pretty much everything, take off the blinders and stop seeing the decision to retire as “Yes/No”. There are a whole lot of possibilities between those two extremes that might meet your needs better. Explore them.

Even if it isn’t/wasn’t part of your traditional work life, you can make a flexible approach to work part of your retirement lifestyle. We want time to do the things we haven’t been able to do while we were working. We want time to travel or garden or take care of grandkids. Time for golf or kayaking. Yes, we do want time. But the surprise many of us meet once we retire and start to do it is that it’s not a full time replacement for what we were doing. Often, there’s time for more. Perhaps that more is “work.”

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s recent commentary about the potential of baby boomers like Bill Gates and Peter Agre to change the world for the better with their “encore career” choices was inspiring. But we don’t all have to take on full time jobs that require trips to Africa to make a difference with what we do. We need to find what we believe is important to get done though. And we need to know how we prefer to work. Some of us need a year to play before we move on to the next work. Some of us need two days a week to play from here on. Some of us will find the “authentic work” we get involved in so rewarding that play isn’t even a relevant construct.

What’s important to you? How can you make a difference at that? Sometimes, the only way to get it done is to do it as a job. Sometimes, it’s so important that it becomes the thing you want to do most, paid position or not.

We need to do better thinking about this before we leave work. We need to make better choices about how much leisure time is enough, both while we are making plans and once we start to implement them. A life of total leisure gets very boring. And when the economy starts to shake, it’s also gets very scary.

Add some work in the mix–at what you believe in and in a format that gives you the kind of flexibility you value–and you will weather the inevitable economic rollercoaster rides more easily. And that’s not just because you’ll have money coming in. A big hunk of that reassurance will come from knowing that you are competent and doing something worthwhile.

How to Use the Economic Downturn to Improve Your Retirement — Part 5, Take a Walk

Friday, July 18th, 2008

When things that aren’t going well are beyond your control, it’s important to have a way to feel like you are taking relevant action. For that kind of situation, nothing beats a walk. You get to take yourself somewhere else without having to ask permission or organize a major expedition. It won’t take a thimbleful of gas. You feel a sense of progress as you move down the street. And it helps you think.

Walking has long be applauded as great exercise. That’s true–and another good reason to go for that walk. But it’s the mental health boost that is the biggest plus. When it starts to feel like you can’t do a single thing to make the situation better, taking the time to go somewhere on foot goes well beyond calories burned and heart rate achieved in terms of the beneficial effects.

A walk provides a rythmn and a cadence that seems to help thoughts get themselves in order. After a few blocks or a mile, stuff just starts to make more sense. Walking is calming. One foot in front of the other, again and again. If you want, you can make it a meditation.

I walk when I am trying to solve a problem, too. The steady pace and resulting predictability give my mind a chance to run on automatic pilot for a while. Often, that’s when the best solutions slip in–when I’m not actively trying to find them. When I took a screenwriting class where I had to make the characters do things I couldn’t imagine them doing, walking usually revealed a way.

That bit about it being good for your health makes it an even more valuable tool in a downturn. Walking helps you stay healthy. It helps you control your weight. It can keep you away from those very expensive places–the doctor’s office and the pharmacy counter.

Walking helps dissipate stress because you feel yourself doing something. Because of that, it energizes you. Walking also gives you a chance to meet your neighbors, learn your neighborhood, and get out in the sunshine.

So take a walk. It’s a low cost, high value element of a good overall strategy for living well. Go with your best friend–or your dog. What are you waiting for? Get out there. And then keep doing it for the rest of your life. The payout is huge.

Small Bites to Reduce Stress

Tuesday, July 15th, 2008

A couple months ago I decided that if I wanted to play tennis and hike all the way to my hundredth birthday, I had to give my knees a break and lose a few pounds. The strategy that’s worked best for me in the past is to slow down and eat smaller bites. I’m pleased to report that strategy is still sound in terms of food intake.

But this time around, I discovered something even more useful. I can use the same strategy for how I do my work, and it brings my stress level way down. When you approach what you are doing–be it eating or trying to get a blog post accomplished–slow, steady, and calm beats a frantic rush to the finish line. And quite often, the only difference is what you are telling yourself. In addition, both food and work taste better when you take time to notice what you are doing. That bit of avocado…delicious! The right word to express what’s important–exquisite!

You are probably muttering that I just don’t understand how much you have to do. Oh, but I do! I’ve been at this “get it done” business for a long time and I do know it’s daunting when there are 85 things clamoring for your attention–and completion. But try it before you knock it.

Pick up the thing you need to do next. What do you want to achieve with getting it done? Now set about that calmly, but with all the competence you know you have. Do it smarter. Only do it as well as the task deserves. (Remember some things ARE worth doing “C” level work on.) Do it with grace. Then move to the next thing.

This strategy is equally good when you don’t have enough to do. (Yes, the Golden Years often include some of that.) Take the time to notice what you’re doing. Bring your skill and competence to bear on getting it done. Savor the results. Then find something else.

Too often we’re so focused on getting beyond whatever it is that needs our immediate attention that we don’t really know what we are doing. What’s really sad is that the people we care about are the ones who get lost in the shuffle.

Try small bites. Whether it’s eating a mango or finishing this month’s sales report. You might be really surprised at what you get done.

Finding Flexibility with Work

Friday, July 11th, 2008

When we step into the workforce out of high school or college, we typically consider one option. “Regular full-time” is by far the most common version of “work. ”Then we look longingly toward “the Golden Years” of retirement as the solution to our workday blues.

Maybe it’s time to consider the shape of your work when you decide how you want to earn a living. There are many other options–project work, piece work, seasonal work, shift work, commissioned sales. How about work you get done “whenever you can” that’s paid according to the quality of what you produce? (creative work)

The “Golden Years” version of life prescribes certain amounts of work for a certain length of time—40 hours a week (or much more!) until you can draw a pension and Social Security. Then you get to stop cold turkey. The Golden Years themselves are to be years of 100% leisure or at least lived with leisure as the core value. Other things—like meaningful work–are considered minor, temporary tangents if they’re part of it at all.

But we need meaningful work for a good life.

The assumption is that it’s the workload that’s been the problem. But maybe that’s not where we need to focus.A big chunk of why we look forward to retirement is the flexibility it provides. Do we have to wait our entire adult working lives to get that?

What would happen if we found ways to claim that flexibility before we “give up work? ”What would happen if that flexibility were available to deal with life more serenely right now instead of having to wait for the liberation of “retirement day”? It’s worth exploring the possibility.

The first step is to figure out what kind of flexibility is important. Do you need time to take the dog for a walk midday or time to go see your great grandfather for two weeks? Do you need to be able to work at home to avoid child care costs or to work from your laptop wherever you are?

I can hear the twitters and the jokes.“I want a job that pays $1,000,000/hour so I only have to work one hour a year.” That’s not what I’m talking about. Is there a better way for you to hold a job than 8 to 5 with weekends off (sort of) and two weeks vacation once a year?

The pluses of being able to get more of yourself reflected in when, where and how you do your work may be worth it. One of the benefits is that these arrangements tend to provide an easier transition once you do reach retirement age.You can throttle back without totally opting out more easily.

At a minimum, “regular fulltime” becomes more tolerable if you’ve explored other options and chosen it. There are good reasons to take a regular job. The schedule is easy to get used to. The pay is regular .Most employers work that way, so it’s easier to find.

But there are also many reasons to consider unconventionally shaped work. Maybe it’s a family situation. Maybe it’s your personal philosophy. Regardless of the reason, the first step is to understand your most effective work style. Can you get more done without the office chatter or do you need the office camaraderie to get motivated?Do you do better working in the middle of the night? Do you just plow through whatever needs to be done or come on fire when a project is due? Do you need a supervisor checking on you or can you make yourself work when it’s time?

How do you work BEST?

The first time you try to define it, the lack of a good answer might surprise you.We tend to just keep doing what we are doing without worrying about whether it’s the best way to go about it.You have to want to know.

How would you do the work if you could do it the way you preferred? How would you work if your current work schedule was outlawed? Doing things your way is an important aspect of living well. If you can build that into your work now, you don’t need to wait for “the golden years” to create a good life.

How to Use the Downturn to Improve Your Retirement — Part 4 Learn (or Relearn) to Cook

Tuesday, July 8th, 2008

There are all kinds of jokes about the older you get, the less you remember where the kitchen is. And there’s triumph in giving up dinner at home once it doesn’t include kids who refuse to eat the zucchini casserole. But the merits of doing your own cooking are far more extensive than what prompted us to take that route earlier in life. Cooking offers a lot of potential as a source of both cost cutting and pleasure. When the economy makes us look for ways to cut back, eating fewer meals in restaurants is a no-brainer. But if you do that, do cook. Scarfing down Cheetos while you watch Wheel of Fortune is an insult to your body.

I’m not talking about Peking Duck for your Saturday night dinner party. I’m talking about nutritious, easy-to-make, ordinary meals. The kind you make from what you have on hand instead of hunting through four stores for three different exotic ingredients. (That’s not cooking. That’s culinary one-upmanship.) If you already know how to do this kind of cooking, take a shot at doing more of it. If you’ve never really gotten into cooking, maybe it’s time to learn those skills. You don’t have to get fancy, but make what you LIKE.

Here’s a quick list of some of the major advantages to eating at home:

  • You get to decide the whole menu. No need to ask permission to substitute.
  • You get to decide the portion size. You can eat a bit less. A few leftovers are nice, but there’s no need to cook for an entire fire battalion.
  • You get to decide when you want to eat. No waiting for a table.
  • You get to enjoy it however you want. Chili sauce on your mashed potatoes? Who’s going to know the difference?
  • You can eat local–especially this time of year. Food has more nutrients just after it’s picked, so you get more healthful stuff eating local.
  • It’s a great opportunity to cut back on processed foods, which are high in salt, fat, high fructose corn syrup and other nasty stuff.
  • And it costs a lot less than restaurant food–at least if you are paying attention.

I am always amazed at how much fun I can have in the produce department for under $5. My mom–who at one point fed a family of nine healthfully on $25 a week–taught me early to buy what’s in season and what’s on sale. That’s still good advice. But only buy it if it’s pretty. Fresh stuff looks pretty. (Well, maybe not jicama. I’m not sure that’s ever pretty. But it tastes good.)

Same deal in the other sections of the store. If it’s outrageously expensive, it can wait. Buy what you need for a week and put meat you won’t use right away in the freezer. You can get both chicken breasts and peeled uncooked shrimp frozen in bags. You use only what you need and leave the rest in the freezer for later. Lots of stuff can be cooked starting from frozen. There are hundreds of ways to be smart in a grocery store and another hundred for what you do with the food when you get home. It’s a management issue. Step up to it!

If you still need to develop your cooking skills, relax. It’s not rocket science. There are lots of basic cookbooks that tell you how to do everything from boil eggs to fillet a fish. And you can get them at the library to give them a test drive before you invest in one.

So get at it and count this extra blessing: Learning something new is a great plus when we get to where learning is considered optional. That’s the best advantage of all. Cooking makes you think. You need to use you head to figure out the recipe, to decide what to substitute if you don’t have what the recipe calls for, to follow the instructions. You also get to be creative with what you do with what you have left. (I’ve made some inexpensive but heavenly salad meals of late that I would never have been able to sample in a restaurant.)

Yes, there are a lot of benefits in cooking for yourself. And it’s like riding a bicycle, once you learn, you know it for the rest of your life.

Plus when you do go out to eat at a restaurant, you’ll enjoy it more because you know how all that good food is prepared.

Freedom vs “Free”

Friday, July 4th, 2008

With the firecrackers and fun and the assorted trappings of Independence Day come thoughts of freedom. Today I’ve been playing with the difference between freedom–which today is all about–and “free”–which we are bombarded with at every turn as a marketing ploy.  Are they the same or opposite?

After letting this simmer on my mental back burner all day, I think it’s the latter.  Freedom is the chance to do it your way, be it worship, words or what color you want to dye your hair. It’s the ultimate statement of human uniqueness–our right to our own individuality.

“Free” is usually about what someone else wants you to do. Try this cheesecake sample–and then buy one. No interest payments if you buy this car. It’s the opposite of unique because it’s mass marketing to the core. It’s also usually anything BUT “free.” Every time someone gives you something for “free” you take on a responsibility, even if it’s just to burn up the calories you just ingested and get rid of the little paper cup the tidbit came in.

I bet life would be easier if we were more conscious of accepting the free stuff–“free literature” and “free estimates” and “free credit.” You have to really want and need whatever it is that’s being offered for it to be a plus and, even then, you have to figure out what to do with it once you no longer need it. Perhaps living free involves saying no to “free.”

Emotional Flexibility — The Milk Jug Challenge

Tuesday, July 1st, 2008

Yesterday, the New York Times reported on a new design for gallon milk containers recently rolled out at Sam’s Club and Costco. The new container is cheaper to ship and better for the environment, but that’s not enough to guarantee its success. We still have to get used to it.

Older people are stereotyped as not being willing to try new things. Well, here’s our chance to flaunt our ability to flex. Let’s see if we can get used to this better than the kids. The trick, from the sound of it, is to “rock-and-pour” instead of “lift-and-tip”. This sounds like an improvement in and of itself for me. That means you can leave the weight of the container on the table. But then I haven’t had the chance to try one yet. (Yes, I do still buy milk by the gallon. I’m a Wisconsin girl.)

According to the article, learning to use the new container is a bit like learning to pour milk when you were a kid. There will be messes until you get the hang of it. Well, that might be a nice whiff of nostalgia, too. Only now we are old enough we don’t cry over spilled milk. Cuss, maybe, but not cry.

The point of all this is to suggest that when it’s time to learn something new, we find the bright side. This container is going to win–unless we want to pay an extra 50 cents a gallon for the privilege of having the old fashioned one. We may as well get on with learning how to use it. And then we can show our kids.