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Archive for March, 2012

You Know You’re Stressed When…

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

Stress is a sneaky thief. It robs you of the joy of this moment and creates an amazing array of havoc physically.  Quite often though, we blame something else instead of seeing that old bogeyman Stress as the culprit.

Stress–the anxious state that results from the difference between what is happening and what you think should be happening.  Yep.  Stress is a control issue.

Right now, I’m stressed.  I should be embarrassed to admit that–for decades, I have been proclaiming “Stress is an inside job.  You give it to  yourself.”   Stress is something you give yourself.  And usually,  you don’t realize you are doing it.

There are some situations that are classic set-ups for stress.  A new baby.  Caregiving for a loved one who’s coping with illness.  An unrealistic load at work.   We notice those even if we don’t do anything to deal with the stress.

But you can create a stressful situation about just about anything.  I come from a family with seven kids.  At one point, there were four cars that needed to get out of the driveway to get to work or a college class at various times of the day and night.  This was particularly unnerving to one of my sisters, who seemed to always end up being the one most impossibly parked in when she had to get to work.  We were taught early on that it was up to you to deal with whatever was bugging you.  So every night she would gather three other sets of car keys and go out and rearrange who was parked where in the driveway.  End of her stress.  Wish it was that simple all the time.

One of the worst sources of stress is expectations of other people.  So-and-so should be more prompt.  Or more considerate.  Or less inclined to leave a mess in the sink after brushing his teeth.  These are the situations where getting something external to change is less likely.  People don’t change just because you don’t like what they are doing.  (The exception to this is if you are supervising people in a work setting.  There, you have a right and responsibility to get them to do the things they are getting paid to do.)

Sometimes, just mentioning that the behavior is a problem does have exhilarating results.  So it’s worth trying.  But if the needed change doesn’t happen immediately, waiting for it forever is a fool’s assignment.  Your options are either to accept whatever behavior you’re dealing with or end the relationship.  And in some cases (difficult parents, children, or bosses come to mind) ending the relationship isn’t much of an option.  So if  you want to not be stressed, get over the idea that so-and-so should be doing such-and-such.  Being honest with yourself about it being a source of stress makes that easier to do.  But it’s not “I’m stressed because my boss is a jerk.”  It’s “I’m stressed because my boss is a jerk and I’m letting it get to me.”

But how do you know when you’re stressed?  Are you tired?  Feeling worn out?  Irritable?  All those things are signs of stress.  Plus there are a whole host of physical problems that feed on stress–everything from hypertension to gastric problems are exacerbated by stress.  Mostly though, it’s a feeling that you are not in control and that you need to be.

When there’s not enough time in the day, the easiest things to cut out are the things you do for yourself.  Switch to less time-consuming options instead of eliminating self care.   Maybe you don’t have time to get a massage right now.  But you can do some deep breathing while waiting for a stoplight to turn or take a “three minute vacation” by imagining you’re somewhere personally pleasant when you have–literally–three minutes of down time.

For me right now, the stress has been coming from unpredictability.  No matter what I decide I’m going to do with a day it’s never what actually happens–and not because something I wanted to do more came along.   Oh, poor me.   But my highest priority right now is caregiving and that, plain and simple, is an impossibly unpredictable set of responsibilities.  To right myself, I needed to redefine what was “supposed to be happening.”  It’s not what I put on my “to do” list the night before.  It’s whatever we need to do to help my loved one heal.

Oh yeah.  How did I finally accept that I was stressed?  I put a load of laundry I had not yet washed in the dryer.  Stress makes you do really dumb things.



How Much Is Enough of Your Partner?

Thursday, March 22nd, 2012

One of the big challenges of retirement is figuring out how to be married all day every day–or finding a different alternative that works for both of you.  Getting those decisions right is sort of like a final exam in something many of us have been tested on–more or less–for decades. And that’s finding the right balance between “together” and “apart.”

At first the scales tip one way. The romance of new love makes most of us yearn to be inseparable.  Just parting to get through the workday, school day or other separate demands seems like cruel punishment.   Then, as you stay together for a while, that “time without” becomes a more easily endured aspect of life.  Life goes along smoothly with those two separate grooves because there are good reasons for them–work, kids, ailing parents who need our time, etc.   Eventually, especially when the “being alone” is because of something a partner needs time to do, many of us  begin to savor and look forward to solo time both for the serenity it offers and the self-attention it allows.

And that’s about the point that you start thinking about retirement.

What then?  Are you still going to have those separate grooves or are you expecting a magical return to that heady “I can’t live without you right by my side” fervor of young love?  If you aren’t talking about that with your partner, you might be in for a rude awakening when the time comes to actually step into that new version of life.   It’s not likely you’re in exactly the same place on this.

Waiting until retirement looms to start this discussion isn’t wise either.  To get this part of “a relationship” right, you need to be very clear about three things long before it’s time to retire:

How much solo time do you need?  The first step of having a good relationship with another person is having a good relationship with yourself.  What do you like about doing things on your own?  What needs does that kind of time meet for you?  We are all different and what works for me won’t necessarily even be in the same ballpark as what works for you.   So know what works for you.

A primary reason for that career -and the related “apart” time–is a paycheck.  Retirement means the funds come from somewhere else.  But your work is usually a source of satisfaction that goes beyond the financial.  If you can’t replicate those satisfiers with things your partner/spouse/signficant other is able or interested in doing, you are probably going to need significant time without him/her after you retire to meet those needs.

How much “not-together” time is ideal for your partner?  The other half of your duet needs to answer that same question.  One of the most dangerous assumptions a working spouse can make is that the non-working spouse is just waiting for the day when you’ll be home all the time.  According to Miriam Goodman in Too Much Togetherness, this is a major cause of couple trouble once the working spouse retires.    Whether there’s been a paycheck involved or not, each of you has a life.  Much of it is lived separately.  Figuring out how to spend more time together is a worthy goal, but being joined at the hip is probably not (unless you are in a sack race).

Figuring out what you need yourself is hard.  Figuring out what your partner needs is harder.  Both involve soul seaching and personal exploration–which can be really fun.   But then there’s the communication phase and that takes a skill most of us think we have but don’t.

How do we get what we each need and still enjoy time together?  The vast majority of us are not good communicators, especially in our primary relationships.  We rely on assumptions that we don’t check regularly and expect the other person to “just know.”  When we do talk, it’s about everyday drivel like garbage schedules and what to have for dinner.  This is a different conversation.

To do this well, you need to joint problem solve to figure out the best way for each of you to have the alone time you need.  A big piece of the challenge is to be honest about needs, too.  If your sweetie assumes she/he can come along and you really need the time on your own, you’re either going to have to admit it or waste time and emotion resenting the tag-along later.

Being part of a couple and yet complete on your own is not unique to retirement.  But when you get that far, you’ve reached the championship game and the stakes are higher.  Once  you give up work, your primary relationship tends to become even more important.  Work on those balance issues all along.


Work after 60: Look at Your Options

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

Society’s script for our 60’s says we walk off into the sunset to spend the “Golden Years” doing whatever we want.  But the checkbook—or the investment account –may be saying “not so fast.”  What do you do instead?  Trudging along doing what you’re already doing is not your only option.

According to Tom Lauricella in Wall Street Journal Sunday, almost a third of American men and women ages of 65 and 69 were still in the workforce in 2011.  Of those 70 to 74, almost 20% were still working.  This isn’t just a sour economy.  Many of these people simply prefer to include paid work as part of their lives.  More and more studies are confirming that people who remain in the work force are physically healthier, less likely to experience early cognitive decline, and have a stronger sense of well-being.  Work is good stuff for most of us.  But it’s got to be work we love.

If you need or want to keep earning money as you age, take a look at your options, your priorities, and your preferences.  Use that information to create a life that includes paid work, but that’s still an authentic balance of what you really care about.

Find work that’s your life calling.  Work at this stage of life is best done for the meaning it holds rather than the paycheck it provides.  Even if you do need the money, find something you believe in if you want to be happy (also healthy).  Doing work you‘re passionate about makes the time you spend at work part of your overall “Good Life” rather than just the means of funding it.

Find work that’s flexible.  When you are good at what you do or are willing to do something no one else wants to, you can often move toward more of a say in when you work and when you don’t.  The first step in getting to this nirvana is getting really good at what you do—which is a lot easier if you love what you do.  The second is knowing what kind of flexibility is important to you.  Is it the freedom to be able to take time during work hours watch your grandson compete in high school debate?  Or is it the flexibility to live where it’s warm in the winter and where it’s cool in the summer?

Sometimes, you don’t even need to change companies to find this.  (Home Depot and CVS were already hiring cold climate employees to work at warm climate stores where they wintered five years ago.)

Another version of flexibility comes from using technology. If you’re available to answer client questions via smart phone or can generate a bid with a laptop and wifi, where you are physically when you do it isn’t an issue.  Instead of shunning new technology, learn to use it to claim greater freedom in how you work.

Combine several small efforts to make the amount of money you need.  We tend to think in the singular about earning a living.  One job.  One paycheck.  In the traditional work force, this is true (at least for now).  But when you want to give your life better balance, combining two or three choice part-time jobs may make more sense.

I have a friend who’s a very convincing Santa.  Every year he returns to the warm climate of his career years to be a mall Santa for an employer delighted with his return.  For the rest of the year, he parlays his teaching experience into paid gigs as a tour guide for people eager to see the wonders of the western US.

Your combination will be unique to you, of course.  Let’s say you love quilting and also love dogs.  You could do custom quilting or teach quilting classes and also run a dog walking business.  Quilting works your mind and your fine motor skills.  Being responsible for those dogs keeps you fit—and feeling that unconditional love animals offer.  And you put money in the bank from both pleasures.

Anything is possible once you step into this foreign terrain called “life after 60.”  But don’t wait until you’re on that stretch of road to figure out where you want to go then.  You have to know what you love and have a pretty good idea of what kind of lifestyle is likely to work best for you if you want to thrive after 60—whether you retire or keep working.

Now’s the time to get started on that custom-designed life.


How Big IS This Problem?

Thursday, March 1st, 2012

When things go wrong, it’s easy to assume there’s something worse going on than is actually the case. I learned this in my kitchen recently.

A week ago, my sweetie mentioned that the toaster was broken.  I thought maybe he’d just not had it completely plugged in when he discovered this, so I checked it myself.  (I am more familiar with this particular toaster.)  He was sort of right.  The toaster didn’t work when I plugged it in either.

Later that same day, I realized the cordless phone in my office wasn’t working.  The main phone of  that set is in the kitchen, so I checked that next.  It didn’t work either.  This duet had been part of the family for a while, so I assumed the main one had died of natural causes and taken the auxillary with it.

I got tired of running upstairs to the bedroom to answer the phone before I got tired of making toast in the oven–I replaced the phones first.  (Note:  this was the more complicated of the two malfunctions to remedy.  Duh.)  I installed the batteries, set up both phones, plugged them in, and left them to charge for the night.  The problem would be history in the morning, right?

Nope.  The  phone still didn’t work.

That’s when I remembered that the outlet where we use the toaster and the outlet where the main phone is plugged in are on the same circuit.  I got the toaster out of the trash (I know–gross) and tested it on a different circuit.  Back in the toast business!

I wrote myself a note to call the handyman about fixing the circuit.  I didn’t want to bother him on the weekend so we did without that circuit, which we use a lot, for two more days.  But at least we could make toast…

When I spoke with my ever so practical handyman, this little equioment failure project took an important turn in the right direction.  He asked if I’d checked GFI outlet that’s on that circuit.  “Of course,” I replied.  “The green light isn’t lit.”

“But did you try to do a reset on it?”

Oops.   Ah…duh…..

I didn’t need a new toaster.  I didn’t need new phones.  I didn’t need to repair the wiring in my house.  I just needed to reset the GFI outlet.  I could do that myself in literally ten seconds and did while I finished the conversation with the handyman.

Maybe this kind of behavior is why we go to the doctor so often.  We assume the worst rather than looking at easier-to-remedy scenarios.  A cold becomes “Maybe I’m coming down with pneumonia.”  And that fatigue?  Well, it could be tuberculosis or blocked arteries or whatever you’re imagining.  But it could be that you’re not drinking enough water.

The worst part of making this mistake in a medical situation  is that once you go to the doctor, it’s highly likely they’re going to collude with you and spend huge amounts of time, money, and resources looking for that complicated possibility.  Even if all that’s needed is a simple lifestyle change.  Or just three more days to get over that cold.

Most of the time, something much simpler is probably going on.  But professional medicine these days is not geared to simple solutions.  There’s so much technology and so many drugs to bring to bear that the non-technical options might not even been on the radar in many cases.

We need to do this part for ourselves as a baseline effort.  Really think about what simple things might be causing the problem, whether it’s medical or otherwise.  Seeing if the small things over which you have total control can make a difference rather than immediately assuming it’s a major problem can make your life a who lot smoother.