If you’ve been reading along, you’ve likely been noticing my focus on intimacy lately – discussing cuddling sessions, bringing up intimacy discussions online (the second of which is happening on July 12 at 7PM MT), and stepping away a bit from my counseling career in certain ways (and towards it in others). This is because for the first time in my life, I want to plunge headlong into something that is by far not stable or a sure bet but what I’m passionate about. For the first time, I actually want to put effort into making the world better in as direct a way as I possibly can given my skills.
I’ve made a proposal for this that you can find below (or click here) and I’m starting on it as you read this. Some of these focuses/changes will impact this blog and some will be integrating other parts of my life into the blog and from my blog into other parts of my life.
Some changes you will find in the near future may include but may not be limited to:
Audio podcast links of written blog posts
New and improved layout
More frequent posts (yay!)
More discussion about intimacy, communication, and consent
If you like the sound of this and are enjoying and appreciate what you read here as well as value my overarching goal of making this world a more open, honest, loving place, please please please donate to my efforts below. Everything helps!
It was June 28, 2016. I woke up in my van in Colorado, still high on the fumes of my very recent vacation to Alaska. I turned 30 there, watching a silly live show cuddled up with my platonic friend followed with chocolate cake in a hotel room in Anchorage. I blew out the candles around 2AM and wished that I could find what I was looking for – and be content when I found it. It turns out one of the “things” I was looking for was literally right in front of the candlelight- staring back at me with loving eyes. I discovered that a few days later in Denali. And the other was the opportunity provided me by losing my job on this day in my van on June 28.
After the call finalizing my exit, I took out my list of what I would do if I ever quit or lost my job. (This wasn’t entirely unexpected and I already had another contracting job mostly lined up.) I made a bazillion calls to cancel a bunch of bills, change a bunch of automatic payments, and put my financial life into a place that felt a little safer with the questionable continued income. Then, I took a deep breath and started driving to the gym. The whole twenty minutes drive to the gym, I cried about the loss – mostly of a stable income, the life I’d gotten used to, the coworkers I would leave behind. When I hit the parking lot, though, I wiped away my tears and started laughing. I called up the aforementioned Alaska man, who was understandably worried about me in my new job status. He asked me how I was feeling and I said “I’M FREE!” I was free of the job I had hated, the boss I couldn’t stand, and suddenly had literally no excuses not to re-write my life in the way I wanted it to look. It almost felt like my house burning down and the subsequent thoughts of “Welp, I’ve got nothing now. Where do I go from here? What do I actually want to acquire?” Needless to say, he thought I was a bit crazy. But he already knew this.
I thought a lot about what I wanted in my life at that point. I knew freedom, cooperation and a feeling like I was working *with* a supervisor and not against them was vital to enjoying my next job. I wanted more variety, a feeling of fulfillment in what I do day to day, and an ability to be myself and be appreciated for it too.
I spent a couple hours over the course of a few days writing down all my skills (personal and career-related) and what kind of jobs I could acquire with those. My main career would still be my main money in the bank, but I didn’t want to work more than 3 days a week doing that. I wanted at least a 3-day weekend and another day working on things that I am passionate about that I could make money off of but not depend on (and see if maybe that could become money I depend on too).
I also made a list of things I wanted to do with my free time besides pursuing career passions. Those included my other hobbies and passions (hiking, dancing, backpacking, photography, writing, self-improvement emotionally and otherwise, etc) and new ones I’d always wanted to begin (or begin again). I still haven’t gotten through all of those, of course (and hope I never will and hope the list gets continuously longer). I also wanted to have the time and space to devote to people I love – those in my life already and any new people I met that I connected with.
Acting from these goals, I ended up meeting my goals above and more- with sacrifices, of course (this just from June of 2016, not the previous year, which also included many adventures):
It took two weeks to finalize the contracting job and another back-up contracting position with an old boss. It’s come down to currently working Tuesday-Thursday contracting in the medical field, counseling patients by phone. It’s rewarding, I love my boss and all the people I work with, and have a huge amount of time freedom as long as I don’t have scheduled patients. I am appreciated for who I am, not just what I do, and I am actually using my skills that I went to school for. I also have unlimited vacation time (as long as I can be okay without getting paid that time). I’ve sacrificed money and stability (no benefits, no sure bet I have a job for any amount of time, no consistent income monthly) for time, freedom, and happiness. Totally worth it. And I don’t dread working!
I started cuddling for money. And realized I would do it for free. It’s so freaking rewarding. See this post for more on that. Oh and I also started cuddling contests. Ya know, because.
I started writing again (aka this blog among other things). I love writing. 🙂 Maybe I’ll make some money off it, maybe I won’t.
I entered a relationship that has been amazing in innumerable ways. I never thought I’d be able to have such a healthy, loving, accepting, integrated and yet independent relationship in my life. And I’m lucky enough to have more than one amazing relationship with amazing people in my life – platonic and otherwise.
I climbed and hiked and danced a shit ton.
I tried a number of activities I always said I wanted to do: Pointe (since I was 8 years old and was told in ballet that my ankles weren’t strong enough), Silks (since I saw my first Cirque Du Soleil show as a teenager), tango, and handbalancing.
I went to Japan and Hawaii. I rode a bike in the streets of Japan with the cars and buses. I visited multiple onsen (public bath/hot springs). I blues danced in Japanese gardens. I hiked in bamboo forests. I took a bullet train (then a cable car then a bus) to a mountain with Buddhist temples and stayed in one, served traditional vegetarian breakfast and dinner by Buddhist monks. I hiked mountains in Hawaii and paddled 8 miles synchronously with 50 other people in canoes into the Pacific Ocean. I snorkeled in a coral reef.
I traveled all over the US, while still working consistently from wherever I had wifi. I saw/hiked/backpacked more than 30 national parks (I can’t remember the exact number and am too lazy to calculate again). I even took some patient calls from the entrance of Canyonlands. I went dancing in so many different scenes and met so many awesome people. In one day, I hiked in Yosemite, took a soak in a natural hot spring, and danced blindfolded and topless by the light of the moon in a camp between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite. I hiked in three slot canyons with amazing people and even had a naked muddy dance party in between two slot canyons. I hiked 100 miles in 7 national parks in 7 days. I climbed naked on the rocks in a national park at the end of a hike. I took my first bath in 4 days in a freaking cold waterfall. I ate breakfast and watched sunrise and sunset in amazing places. I reconnected with a friend I hadn’t seen in 10 years. I rode horses in Sedona. I spent an entire week in Acadia National Park eating ice cream for every single lunch, stargazed cuddled up next to a wonderful friend and her family, watched the sun rise on the first place to see sunrise (Cadillac mountain). I showered in golden light from peak Aspens in Colorado. I learned how to start a fire with a knife and flint.
I explored friendships and relationships in all the ways I wanted to – as much or as little as we were both interested in and could afford. I reconnected with people who used to be in my life and ended connections too.
I learned how to be frugal, live well on little, have few needs and few wants. When I finally got the few boxes I had left in storage for the time I’ve been traveling, I realized I didn’t need any of it. I gave >50% away to other people or to charity. I furnished my apartment with $40 at Goodwill to get some chairs to have more people over. And my entire bedroom is filled with blankets and pillows for crashing.
The best part about all of this? I feel like I have all the time to explore the things I want to explore without feeling rushed to take advantage of every second of my free time. I sometimes even just hang out and don’t do anything without feeling guilty that I *could* be doing something. A new one for me! Oh, and sleep! Oh glorious sleep. I actually get like a real 7-8 hours a day!
Oddly enough, the more freedom I had and the more I explored it, the more I realized I was more happy settling for less. As I traveled, every new place felt less and less new. I found myself wanting to grow roots and bloom somewhere with others I loved. I even went to Japan- with people I loved and alone at parts- and felt no culture shock. All it felt like was “not home” and everything had become that feeling. I felt more than location-less…I felt homeless.
And so here I am now, trying to create a home – not just a place to rest my head (because that can be anywhere, even my van), not just a place where my stuff resides, not just a place to invite people into. I’m trying to create a place that others *want* to come to for safety, for love, for genuineness, for true “seeing.” A place I can tell people “This is where you can come for family” and mean it.
Then, maybe, the people I love will also find their niche, their freedom, and their perfect place in the world too and we can all live together in our very well-constructed dreams around us.
January 1 has just come and gone and I’ve never felt less interested in making “New Years Resolutions.” The goals I made for myself in June were for my life in the bigger picture and they were positive, things I really honestly *want/wanted*, not just commitments to avoid things I *didn’t* want (like weight gain or managing too much stuff, etc). What I found was that when I’m committed to doing the things I love and committed to avoiding the things I’m not so in love with (like having stuff, like having a job I hate, like feeling so pressed for time that I can’t even enjoy the small amount of free time I would have with a full-time job even if I was getting more money) all the time, the sacrifices in order to get that are not difficult at all. The things I don’t want…just aren’t really relevant anymore.
Instead of making New Years resolutions (and likely not succeeding at them), I urge you to make lifelong resolutions to yourself. Consider not what you want to avoid, but discover what you really *want*, work towards that actively (while taking informed risks in that direction), and I will bet that the rest of your life will automatically fall into place.
Here’s to wishing you the best, most ambitious, happiest 2017! Don’t look back, only forward.
This is a guest post by a good friend who manages to have a busy job involving lots of travel, climb all over the world, cook healthy food, keep up a climbing blog, a house, a cat, and a very large group of friends! I always ask her how she does it, so here she is telling us how!
I often have folks ask me “How do you do it all?” and I just respond, “I am a trained Project Manager in trade, and I somehow am actually really good at transferring those skills to being a Project Manager at Life.” It may seem like an Infomercial pitch, but truly that is my approach and I am quite successful so far.
As a background, here is my story: I am working on an advanced masters, possibly PhD, rock climb around the world, work to cure cancer, hike, bike, exercise, cook fresh meals, blog, Instagram, Facebook personal, Facebook Climbingjourney, interview folks, see my family, help my mom, and so on. Oh my, now I am thinking “how do I do it all?”
There are many ways to balance one’s life and not one right way. There are many learned skills and not one perfect skill. And when I stated Project Manger of Life, that is how I view it. This is how I categorize my life to make it happen:
Make it a breathing priority – Without breathing, we die. Not taking it that drastic, but these are the things that we really need to focus on a daily basis. I categorize it as the must do, I don’t always want to do, the must do to live, the must do to have fun, and the must do to love myself. These are not scientifically proven to work, but it is how I categorize my day, how I balance my life.
Must do, I don’t always want to do – go to work everyday
Must do to live – eat everyday
Must do to have fun – social media, talk with friends, text, etc.
Must do to love myself – breast check in the shower for lumps, meditate and do yoga for 10 minutes right out of bed every single morning
Make it a frequent habit – This is not breathing, but maybe filling the gas tank type of level of prioritization. It does not happen every day, but you need to keep an eye on it several times per month. Here is where I try to schedule in things like paying bills. I only do this on the 16th and 1st of every month. If not those two days, I put it aside and revisit just those two days (unless an unexpected bills comes in that I must address). I also even schedule my laundry 2x per month (don’t have kids, have that luxury for now!) and if not those laundry washing dates, I just parking lot it until my next routine clothes washing day.
Make it a less frequent habit – This is not filling the gas tank, but this might be like dusting the house, once per month type stuff. I have routine tasks that I just don’t do as often but need to make sure I visit them every month or every couple months. This could be changing the oil, washing all the sheets, and so on.
Annual Clock Work Tasks – This is the routine physical exam. Like clock work, we need to do it, but it is something we just don’t do very often. I set up milestones and try to stick to them. I try to set one milestone per month. January like clockwork is my PE and teeth cleaning. May of every year is my neighborhood yard sale, so April is when I schedule spring cleaning. And so on and so on. By doing this, I tend to get the most important things done around the house and for myself.
Go into the 70’s and dream about it – There are things that seem so far out of our reach, that we must dream about them first. And out of 10 things we dream up, we can actually make 1-2 of these things a reality. Things here can be a house renovation project, a road trip, a ½ day at a spa, and so on. Anything that you want to dream up, do it freely. It does not hurt to dream at all because that is how typically I may have that 1 or 2 things unexpectedly amazing things I get accomplished. But because it is a dream, there are no commitments or disappointments; I shift any over to reality if the stars align. If not, I just keep dreaming and stay in the 70’s.
Overall, many ask how I do all that I do. Life is a balancing act and truly I have perfected being a project manager at my life. It may seem a bit overboard, but this allows me to travel everywhere and climb and explore different places while I still carry on a career and pursue other things in life. It may seem like too much and yes, I will slow down some day, but in the meantime, while I am trying to juggle many awesome things in life, I also do want to actually cherish and enjoy every moment of it too.
Are you one of those people who can eat the same thing every day and be happy? I’m unfortunately not. I go through phases of liking a staple food for a few weeks and then can’t stand it for another three months. It’s difficult. Thus, I am always going through recipe “staples” and this was one of them: salad in a jar. The concept is awesome and simple and really healthy. The best part is that you can use whatever grains, veggies, fruits, and nuts you have in stock and mix and match like you would a smoothie. And these keep for up to a week in the fridge if you layer appropriately! So all it takes is about 15 minutes cutting fruits and veggies and cooking some grains and putting ’em all together into 5 mason jars for a whole week of lunch at work (or home).
Basically, the issue with bringing a salad to work or making one ahead of time in general is that you need the stuff that is liquidy to be separated from the stuff that needs to stay dry until eating. The solution is layering the wet stuff and the dry stuff appropriately with the wet stuff on the bottom and dry stuff on the top and when it’s time to eat…bottoms up!
I get some weird excitement from turning a jar upside down into a bowl; don’t ask me why.
Here are some recipes to get you excited about bringing healthy and filling salads in a jar to lunch too!
A general recipe:
Bottom layer: Dressing
Next layer up: Absorbent stuff (like beans, rice, or whole wheat orzo) that will absorb some of the dressing flavor
Layers above it: Any veggies or fruits or nuts to your heart’s desire. I recommend fruits and nuts on the top.
A more specific suggestion recipe:
Bottom layer: olive oil with pepper and salt
Next layer: cooked whole wheat orzo, canned black beans (I use Eden brand because they are BPA free), baked tofu cut into cubes
Layers above that: tomatoes, raw almonds, carrots, broccoli, spinach, avocados
Top layer: blueberries, raspberries, pineapple, grapes, sunflower seeds, pecans
Have fun with it! Experiment! Challenge yourself to eat all the colors of the rainbow or put all the superfoods you can into your salad. Feel free to leave pictures in the comments of your creation! 🙂
I’ve had a couple of years to tell people about my job when they ask about my career, and let me tell you, the responses I get are always interesting…if not wholly uninformed. Some people think I am the person in the lab who actually runs genetic tests. Some people think my job is to convince people to get abortions if their baby has a genetic condition. Others think I am a proponent and worker of eugenics. My favorites are those who think somehow my job involves genetic forensics and catching criminals based on DNA. No, my job is none of those things. All genetic counselors do is inform people about what genetic options are out there and what they mean and support them through the decision process and the results. (And that is how I like it!)
After explaining what I do, the next questions people generally ask are related to conditions in their family that they think are genetic, but would like to know more about. For example, common questions include: Do you think obesity is genetic? Do you think autism is caused by vaccines? Am I going to get diabetes because my mom struggles with it? Am I going to die of Alzheimers because my dad was diagnosed with it? Are there really “for sure” tests to diagnose genetic conditions right now?
Every time, I take a breath and pause for a long time. Because though these questions are ones that have been brought up by the media time and time again with what seem like black and white answers, in reality, most answers are long and complicated and very ambiguous. The reason is because though we do have a map of the human genome, at this point we do not yet have a clear understanding of everything in this map. We know all the A’s, T’s, G’s, and C’s (nucleotides) within the genome, but we can’t yet pinpoint what each of them influences and the results those yield on the human body.
Sure, there are conditions we have a pretty firm grasp on like cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s, Fragile X…but even with those conditions, we see exceptions to the rule. Just because you have two mutations for cystic fibrosis in the CFTR (cystic fibrosis) gene, for instance, doesn’t mean you will have typical symptoms of CF. Some gene mutations cause such mild symptoms that people don’t even know they have cystic fibrosis until late age or ever. I had one doctor in his 50’s call me, for instance, who had finally put the puzzle together and realized he had cystic fibrosis and so did his sister. After all this time, he had wondered why they both had similar respiratory issues. Lo and behold, the test results came back proving it.
Though I went into the field of genetics thinking I would find clear answers about how our DNA blueprints influence the body and mind, I instead had to learn to appreciate and embrace ambiguity. What I also learned about ambiguity, though, is the freedom of the unknown. In one of my school projects, I interviewed a family who has a child with a condition they believe is genetic but no test has yet proven it. I asked them if this was hard for them- the not knowing of whether their daughter would learn to talk or walk or run or if she could even understand them at all. They said at first, it did bother them. Over time, though, they realized it was for the best. The not knowing gave them the ability to accept their daughter as she was and also as whomever she was going to be. They have hopes for her, but not expectations. They are grateful for the progress she makes every day and do not compare her to other children. They treat her as though she can understand them and love her just as they love their other children.
I also came into the genetics field with the opinion that knowledge is power, that more knowledge is always better. This has changed within me too. As I’ve seen more and more patients learn something they didn’t realize they didn’t want to know about their genetics and thus implications of their future child or their future health, I’ve realized that the consequences of knowledge are sometimes worse than consequences of not knowing. I’ve seen countless people choose to have an amniocentesis because they too thought knowledge was power only to find out that their baby had a genetic condition and the decision to do – or not do- something about it was worse than going through the pregnancy unwittingly.
I have also seen people let knowledge take power from them. The anxiety of knowing one is going to develop Huntington’s or has a high chance of developing breast cancer can bring people to devastating and paralyzing lows, though sometimes it does the opposite and brings them to acceptance and appreciation of themselves and their lives and the people around them. They may take measures to reduce their risks or live the best they can with what they have. Both are normal reactions, and yet unpredictable.
I have seen the other side of the coin- people taking knowledge and throwing it out the window. They take a label and say, “Screw it. I am not this disease. I am me.” I see them struggle (like every one of us) and still overcome the limitations medicine and genetics foresee for them. They sometimes live longer, better, healthier, happier lives than we imagine they will. They are resilient, they are beautiful, they are teaching the world that genetics- nature- and even nurture are sometimes nothing in the face of human will.
And so, you see, when people ask these questions about genetics (obesity, diabetes, autism, Alzheimer, genetic testing, etc), I have a hard time answering them. I can give them by-the-book answers. I can tell them about conflicting studies. I can tell them facts I have in my head. But what I really want to tell them is “You have so much more control than you think you do!” I want to tell them that these questions you’re asking are not the point. I want to show them these patients that came into my life who showed me that a genetic “condition” is not always what the doctors tell you it is, and that even genetic testing that is “for sure” does not predict exactly what you or your child or future child is going to be. I want to tell them that yes, there are some things outside of our control in our DNA, but how we deal with those things out of our control is in our control every single day.
Until a little over a year ago, exercise and movement was a regular part of my day throughout the day. Before, my day was split into intervals of one to three hours of sitting and in between, I would be racing from patient room to patient room or walking between buildings. In between classes, I would head to the gym for a workout. With the completion of graduate school and the acquisition of a shiny new job, though, 10.5 hours of my day four days a week were accounted for sitting in a chair looking at a computer or a phone. I know I’m not alone. Most Americans’ jobs entail a large amount of sitting and doing computer work nowadays. And it’s literally killing us.
Shortly into my new job, I began having back, leg, shoulder, finger, wrist, and arm pain despite exercising for hours every day outside of work. I was going to a PT on a weekly basis because of this pain. I felt like I had aged by at least a decade in a few months. I realized this job was going to shorten my life if something didn’t change. Good health is direly important to me (having not had much of it until I was into college). And so I started fighting a battle to prevent this from being my future. The battle entailed educating myself, my colleagues, and my employer, and then advocating for all of the above. I wanted to make it different for me and for everyone who would be affected by this instilled lifestyle most people passively accept as part of a job and making money.
My first battle: A Sit/Stand Desk
Education: I learned from arguments with my husband that without evidence as proof, I would never convince him of anything I believed. I take the same attitude with most any time I want to persuade someone of something (especially work-related items). Therefore, the first step to every battle I decide to take up is educating myself to understand the subject as thoroughly as possible. In this case, my main goal was to educate myself on just how good or bad sitting for as long as I was every day actually was for my body. Turns out it’s pretty freaking bad. I also researched the alternative desk situations out there, how much they cost (both individually and in bulk), and other companies that have begun to use these types of desks. I also talked to the owner of my husband’s company, who bought sit/stand desks in bulk for his workers. I asked him if he would be willing to be one of my “professional references” in this battle (he agreed to) and quoted him in my discussions with management.
Make your case: I am much better at writing than I am at confronting someone in person, so I decided this tactic would be best. I contacted the person who is in charge of ergonomics at my job and made him my point person for liaison between myself and upper management making the decision. I wrote a long letter about why sitting all day for our jobs is a problem (to their bottom line and to their employees’ health), verifying that other companies have seen this to be a problem and changed, and how they can change this as well. I also pointed out what efforts I made to solve this problem and why I cannot solve it myself. I asked the ergonomics contact to forward it to whoever would make a decision about this….and then waited. *If you would like a sample letter to use at your workplace, please comment on this post and I will email one to you.
Be Assertive and Don’t Give Up:
It took me 5+ months to acquire the sit/stand desk, but I finally did! (Of course, no overhauls of desk situations for anyone else has occurred…)
There were plenty of road blocks along the way (namely lack of communication back to me), but I just kept kindly reminding people every few weeks by email, phone, or in person where we were in the process and getting feedback. There is a difference between assertive and being aggressive. Unfortunately, I think I may have crossed that line near the end when I was fed up with the timeline (or lack thereof). If you can, be patient but stern and most likely things will continue moving in the direction you want. However, there may be a time and place to show someone you are serious about accomplishing your goal.
Find Supporters: Because I was so new into my job, I tried to keep the sit/stand desk battle under wraps for a while. I avoided telling my boss, but it ended up getting back around to him anyway. I found out he was supportive of my endeavors and helped to coordinate the efforts. If you have someone rooting for you and with more power than you to accomplish your desires, meeting your goals become much easier.
My second battle: Changing Myself
Even before getting the sit/stand desk, I knew sitting for so long was doing the most amount of damage but that I could also be doing better for myself beyond that as well. Below is what I did to be healthier at work.
Took more breaks- I know there are many jobs that are pretty bad about giving breaks, but I am lucky enough to have one where my boss actually encourages us to take a 10 minute walk when things get overwhelming. I decided to do that more, even though I could really only get away for 10 minutes or so at a time due to the nature of my job (needing to take urgent calls that come in). I take a walk with my friend at work multiple times to get water every day. I made taking breaks part of my routine socializing and “breather” time. That helped with moving more and helped mentally as well.
Stretching while working– I am the weird person who brought my exercise ball and theraband to work. It forced me to do my PT exercises when there was a free moment and it allowed me to at the very least stretch my back on the exercise ball. Since then, I’ve added neck and wrist stretches to my repertoire and downloaded an awesome app called Ergonomics (download it here) which not only reminds you of stretching at whatever intervals you want, but also has stretches included in the app and a timer to make sure you are stretching for long enough to be effective.
Better posture- One of the things I worked on the most in PT was actually correct posture. After years of sitting and standing in horribly awkward (NOT ergonomic) positions, I had made my body actually think these bad positions were normal. My proprioception (feelings of how you are in space physically) was all off, and my awesome PT helped to teach my body what “correct” posture really is. I am by far not perfect about my posture, but it is better and at least now I know what should be correct at least. 😉
Healthy snacks and meals- I know I am not the only one who eats things they would never eat at home at work simply because you are hungry and food is there and you wouldn’t otherwise have that accessible at home. I am a sweet-holic. I admit it. And therefore if I have no food left and I am hungry and someone has chocolate sitting on their table free for the taking…well, I take it. I don’t like myself for it, but I’m soooo hungry (my brain says) and so I give in. Instead, my friend at work and I trade off bringing in healthy snacks so that when the craving hits, we have healthy food and not chocolate to munch on. Of course, if someone brings homemade berry turnovers in…well, all bets are off. I also bring my own homemade lunches in every day both to eat healthier and to save some money.
Drinking water- I am not good about drinking water. I never have been. I’m okay with the taste of it (or lack thereof), but I just have a hard time remembering to drink until I’m smacking my lips wondering why they are so dry. Water is so vital to health and so beneficial, so it really should be higher on my (and your) list of priorities (Read more about why here.). Additionally, if you are trying to lose weight, drinking more water helps dramatically with feeling more full and causes you to eat less and thus lose weight. The means of forcing myself to drink more water is to get water as soon as I come into work in the morning and finish it by the time lunch rolls around. Once lunch comes, I refill again and aim to finish that before I leave. Honestly, I should be drinking even more water, but for me right now, this is still progress. I know many people who buy a Nalgene and fill it and use permanent marker to mark each liter; they compete with themselves about drinking more than they did the day before and this helps motivate them.
Calm Your Mind- Work can be a stressful place and stress can increase cortisol levels. Cortisol levels increased over a long period of time is extremely harmful to your body. When you feel overwhelmed, it can be helpful to do deep breathing exercises (see below for how), brief meditation, or take a walk in nature. If you can’t take a break, imagine all the times you were able to overcome obstacles at work and in life and consider how you might be able to become more efficient so you aren’t as stressed about all the work piling up (Read more about being efficient here.).
Exercising during lunch- Though it is nice to have a whole lunch break to devote to eating, socializing, and maybe reading a book, I find it extra refreshing to eat lunch at my desk and during my lunch break taking a walk or even heading to the climbing gym and fitting in a quick 30 minute bouldering and traversing session. Yoga would also be great too. Refreshing our bodies also refreshes our mind and takes out all that excess energy we have while we are cooped up in our offices. Additionally, exercising suppresses our urge to eat in general and also makes our body desire healthier, more nutritious foods instead of empty calories. I am also always much more productive after having gone to the gym and out of the office. I’m sure you will be too!
Power Naps- I might get some flak for this one. I am lucky enough to have my own office with my own door that I can close. If I don’t feel like I got enough sleep the night before or just am generally dragging, I take part of my lunch break to have a power nap. I shut the lights and the door, lay down on the floor, and put my sweater behind my head. I make an alarm for 20 minutes on my phone and with some deep breathing exercises, soon enough I am heading off to sleep. Before I know it, I wake up refreshed and rejuvenated. If you need some help getting to sleep for a power nap, see the below deep breathing exercises.
Deep Breathing Exercises: I was introduced to deep breathing at various times in my life but only recently have I perfected it for myself. It has helped dramatically with reducing stress in the short- and long-term as well as relaxing me enough to sleep (being a former insomniac). Here are my tips: Turn off the lights. Lay down on your back with your head on a low pillow and your arms either at your side or on top of your stomach near your belly button. If you want to, you can play one of these soundtracks to help relax as well. Close your eyes and begin to take deep breaths through your nose and exhale slowly through your mouth. Your stomach should be rising and falling with your breath (NOT your chest, which is how most of us breathe normally). Make sure your teeth are not touching; your jaw should be relaxed (almost feels like you are about to yawn). This, I’ve found, is one of the most important parts to relaxing because I tend to tense my jaw (and the accessory muscles in my neck automatically get activated too) when I am stressed. Focus on your breath. Allow your mind to calm. When a thought comes up, don’t dwell on it; imagine it drifting away. Focus on relaxing each muscle throughout your body. Soon, you will be totally relaxed…and likely asleep.
My third battle: Changing My Work Atmosphere
Changing the Lunch Situation
Before I could implement most of the above changes, I needed to change some basic unspoken rules at work in order to provide time to take a long enough break for a walk or going to the gym. When I first began working, it was expected that one person was manning the phone for urgent calls during lunch, and since everything needed to be “fair,” it had become assumed that everyone would sit in that person’s office and eat lunch together every day. This was great for being social, perhaps, but after being in an office without windows and not moving for hours, I was desperate to get out of the office. After some persuasion, everyone agreed to changing this. Most people were not happy with the situation, but the general attitude was “Oh, that just won’t change. It’s how we’ve been doing things for X many years.” And yet, it only took a few discussions and things were different. So many people complain about things at work, but don’t take action. Don’t be that person- Things can change if you work at it.
Ask people to participate with you- It isn’t a secret- the more people you have who participate with you in your healthy endeavors, the more likely you are to continue doing those things. Based on this study, it will even increase the calming benefits of exercise by participating with others and make you work harder than you would otherwise by increasing competitiveness. Additionally, you can feel good about yourself inspiring others to take on healthy ways as well. 🙂
Joining Wellness Organizations at Work
I joined the wellness organization at my work and have been on the committee with endeavors to change the health atmosphere of my company and the health opportunities. Companies have been realizing lately that the health of their employees is important not only to their employees and their employees’ families, but also to productivity and the bottom line. Per this study sponsored by the USDA, health wellness programs have shown effectiveness in helping workers (those participating at least) increase the frequency of exercising in their life, stop smoking, lose weight (10-13 lbs in 5 years of participation), reduce their total cholesterol levels and blood pressure, and consume more fruits and veggies and decrease their fat and energy intake. Companies also saw improvements of 2.5% in the cost of coverage, mainly due to reduction in inpatient costs (contributed 2/3 of that 2.5%) and reduction in outpatient costs and prescription drugs (28 and 10% respectively of that 2.5%). The wellness program effectiveness is only as good as the people organizing it, however. Be part of your work effort and see not only improvements in yourself, but also your coworkers! Be a great role model and reap the rewards.
All three battles have been a great learning experience for me. Of course, the last battle continues to this day and I’m assuming will be an ongoing project of mine throughout my time at this job. I hope this has inspired you to make changes at your work for your health and your coworkers’ as well!
I have never been the kind of person who could read part of a textbook once and remember it. I was always the one who returned a book with hundreds of highlights, notes in the margins, and a flashcard or two holding its place in an important chapter. I’m not sure if this was just a natural state of being for me (low reading comprehension perhaps), if it was because I went to a competitive prep high school and therefore not studying was out of the question to get good grades, or if it was because I grew up with a mother who is a special education tutor and tutored in our house. Maybe it was a combination of all of the above. Either way, studying for me has always been a meticulous process. Its rhythm calmed me before a test, its process allowed me to manage time expediently and (perhaps falsely) believe that academics was a piece of cake.
I’ve learned along the way that studying does not come easily to everyone, however, and moreover its process was never one that was taught explicitly to most people. I’ve met numerous people who are going into a graduate or professional degree programs who have never had to study in their life and suddenly are thrown into entirely new situations with far too much knowledge to absorb and well…are kind of freaking out. So here it is- the secrets to studying effectively and efficiently for those brilliant enough to never have to study before.
Before you start
– Figure out how you learn best and focus on those methods of studying.- The best way to determine the way you learn best is by paying attention to when information “sticks” best in your brain. When a teacher is at the board talking to you, do you feel like you pick up the most in what he/she is saying just by hearing it (more aural learning), or do you feel you need them to write on the board or provide you with a video to best receive it (visual learning)? Do you find being in class difficult because the only way you learn is through physically “handling” the information by way of experiencing a real-life situation with the material or writing notes yourself (tactile learning)? Most of us learn through multiple modalities, but we often have a primary way of learning that allows us to retain the most.
o Are you a visual learner? Then make sure you focus on picking up material during class in visual ways. Download powerpoints from your teachers before class (if you can) and write notes in the “notes” section of each slide so you can spend most of the time looking at and picking up visual cues from your teacher themselves. Create study guides (detailed information about doing this below) and re-read them over and over and over again. Use highlighters to draw your eyes to the most important pieces of information. Use flashcards to continue seeing information in visual ways and reinforcing it.
o Are you an aural learner? Ask the teacher for permission to tape the lectures. (Most teachers will and some even have recorded lectures on the school website now.) While you’re driving, on the bus, about to go to bed…anytime you have a moment to listen to the lecture again, do. This will be how you retain information best. There are a number of apps on the iPad and for the Mac (and I’m sure the PC too) that will allow you to record lectures while taking notes, which may be extremely helpful. One example is Audio Note, which you can find on the iTunes store here.
o Are you a tactile learner? Don’t fear. Just because you learn through experience and tactile memory doesn’t mean you are out of luck. However, you are at a slight disadvantage given that most teachers do not teach to your style of learning. I am a tactile and a visual learner and the best way I’ve found to retain information is type or hand-write extensive notes….and then re-type and re-write them in different ways. Additionally, I try to find ways of experiencing the information in other ways such as shadowing at a place I might encounter the use of that information or learning details about the information that is more interesting to me.
– Organize, organize, organize. Only a couple months ago, I was celebrating the end of studying for genetic counseling boards. It was well worth the celebration, as I had begun studying in January (8 months before the exam) and had spent 10-20 hours a week (more than that as I got closer to the big day) preparing. The real studying didn’t actually take place, though, until the beginning of April. It took me three whole months of organizing all the material I might need into one place that I could reference and study easily. I had gone through one entire textbook, 30 lectures, numerous notes and class handouts and medical recommendation articles and condensed it into two large study guides, a few large tables, and a small binder for important articles to reference. Organizing may not be as important for smaller tests, but when the material being covered is from numerous sources, notes and handouts and lectures, it is a necessary part of making studying efficient and effective.
– Plan it out. So you’ve organized the material. Your next step is to plan on how you’re going to get through it. You can use a datasheet like in Microsoft Excel or write it into your planner or your calendar. Whatever you feel is easiest to use to manage your time and information retention is what you should do. Make sure to break it into manageable and reasonable chunks for the time period you are allotting and spread it out. Give yourself a few days before the exam to go over the material you haven’t retained as well (This will largely be determined by your use of flashcards and quizzes. See below for more information).
– Reinforce the important stuff, but know the other stuff too. As good as I am at test-taking, I honestly despise tests because they are never a true indicator of how well or not well I know material. Often, I find that test makers focus on things that may not be that important (like details you would just reference books for in your own job, for example) or they emphasize one area too much and others too little or not at all. But we can’t control that, so there is no real point in complaining now. The point is, you don’t know what the people making the test will think is important…so, really, you should know it all at a shallow level and know the stuff that is cited multiple times by your teacher or sources at a more in-depth level. Therefore, when you are planning out when to study material, make sure you allot more time to these areas and less (but still some) time to the more minor minutiae.
– Start studying WAY before the test. As you’ve probably noted, in order to complete any of the above items, you need to not be studying the night before a test or even two nights before a test. Studying for true retention and not memorization requires little chunks of reinforcement over a longer period of time. When you are studying for your career especially, retention is vitally important to your future (and possibly your patients’ or other clients’ as well).
– Tables: I don’t find enough people using tables to study. Here is a tip: Don’t overlook the amazing capability tables have of organizing huge amounts of information in consistent ways into easily visually accessible means. With the use of a header row or column, you can organize just about anything and easily take this information and make them into flashcards or just use it as a primary study guide as long as the information is all similar/comparable. For an example, I made a very large table of over 300 genetic conditions while studying for genetic counseling boards with columns for gene involved, symptoms of the condition, age of onset, differential diagnoses, testing procedures to diagnose it, etc.
– Study guides: Everyone has a different idea of what a study guide is, I’ve found. A study guide to some may be just a bunch of class handouts and notes compiled together. For me, a study guide is a very thorough re-organization of information from numerous sources into one word document. Often, I will include pictures and figures from the text books or handouts or lectures in the location I am referencing that topic. I try to compile all information about one topic into one space in the study guide so that topic isn’t repeated in some other area. Honestly, I learn much more out of making the study guide than I do studying it. The numbers or other details are the things that often go onto flashcards, but the big ideas are covered in my brain just by making the guide. At the end of making the study guide, I have all the information I will need to review for the test in one place and written in my own words. Try it sometime! I guarantee the time you spend on it will be more than worth it. If you have a photographic memory (or close to it) or are a visual and/or tactile learner, this is especially helpful, as recall is as simple as remembering where the piece of information was on the page in your study guide and the other information around it will also come into focus with it.
– Memory Triggers: My grandfather was always repeating medical mnemonics to me as I grew up, since he went through med school for a few years. It is the means many people use to remind themselves of large amounts of information that has a pattern or organization to it and that order is significant. For instance, to remember the cranial nerves, it is easier to remember Oh, Oh, Oh, To Touch And Feel Vintage Green Velvet, Simply Heaven (well, that’s one clean version at least) than to remember Olfactory, Optic, Oculomotor, Trochlear, Trigeminal, Abducens, Facial, Vestibulocochlear, Glossopharyngeal, Vagus, Accessory, and Hypoglossal in that order. Personally, I don’t find mnemonics or other memory triggers to be helpful unless I or someone close to me invent them and they need to have something visual I can imagine or it just won’t “stick.” It doesn’t have to make sense; it just needs to trigger your memory. The more outlandish and crazy the better. 🙂 Songs are good too!
– Study groups: I am not a huge fan of study groups, but I know many people who are. It all depends on if you are the kind of person who learns best on your own or with a group of people working together. The key benefit of study groups is that each person has their own strengths and weaknesses, and if well constructed, these complement the others’ in the group. Notice the key phrase “well-constructed.” If everyone in the group generally tends to be disorganized, not punctual, and all are confused about the same material, I doubt you will be very effective. The other important thing about study groups is that you can’t expect all your studying to happen in the group. It is more effective to come to a study group with specific questions about topics you’ve already reviewed to bring up as discussion points. The easiest way to make sure this is accomplished is to make a schedule with homework for everyone every time you meet and a presenter of material and discussion included.
– Take advantage of your friends and family (if they’re okay with that). Though I have never been the type to work in larger groups, I do work well being quizzed by or explaining information to someone else as a means of studying. This is especially helpful when you are having trouble understanding a specific concept. The person doesn’t even need to know what you’re talking about; just trying to explain a concept in layman’s terms often clarifies details or reinforces your need for understanding in a specific area. Having someone ask you questions about your study guide or flashcards is also immensely helpful in figuring out what you know and what you don’t.
– Reinforce materials in other modalities. I discussed above how to determine what your learning style is. Often, if something is difficult to understand or remember in our primary modality, it is because we need our other senses to help out. If you can find pictures or figures about the topic you are not understanding or finding new sources that might explain the concept better, this not only provides you with new information, it also provides a different way of viewing that information from a new perspective. Pictures especially (if the material is something where pictures would be applicable) are very easy ways of recall. When I was memorizing genetic conditions, for instance, I would find pictures and stories online of people with these conditions because remembering their story and their image would remind me all about the rest of that condition too.
– Flashcards are your friends. I don’t know that I could have passed my boards without the use of flashcards. They are so immensely helpful in breaking down material into manageable chunks and also easily defining what you know and what you don’t and separating the two in physical space. I highly highly recommend using electronic flashcards if you are the type of person who is always on their smartphone or iPad. They don’t waste paper, they don’t cramp your hands up, and they are available whenever you have a spare moment to study (waiting for a friend to meet you at the coffee shop, while you’re eating breakfast, while you’re on the toilet, etc). I have been using flashcardexchange.com (now cram.com) for years now and it has changed my studying life. When you make flashcards, take into consideration whether the test will be a recall-based exam (fill-in-the-blank) or recognition-based (multiple choice). Though it is helpful to make flashcards that are reversible (those you can study in either direction) and study them in both directions, it’s best to spend the most amount of time studying in the way the material will be presented to you on the test. For example, when I was studying for boards, I put a description of a genetic condition on one side and the condition name on the other. Since I knew the boards would mainly be recognition-based, I focused mainly on recognizing the description and not defining the condition (seeing the description and trying to remember the name of it, not seeing the name and remembering the features of the condition).
Study better/Test better
– Know what you know and reinforce what you don’t. When I first make flashcards, I review them in totality once. Then, I quiz myself a few hours or days later and remove the ones I know. As I keep studying, I remove those I feel comfortable with. I don’t go back to the ones I’ve removed until the day before the test. I spend the vast majority of my time looking at the things I don’t know, not wasting time looking at the stuff I do. Flashcards and highlighting make this a much simpler and efficient task.
– Study EVERYWHERE. Studies have shown that retention and recall of material is both improved when studying occurs many times over a long period of time and also performed in many places (Read more here). This is because we have context-dependent memory and viewing the same information in multiple locations helps to reinforce this knowledge in your brain in different ways. Studies have also shown that studying in an environment that is different, but also similar in some ways to the testing area (such as noise level), will improve recall and effectiveness of studying as well (Read more here). Thus, in order to get the most out of studying, study in small chunks frequently in different locations that are quiet. Not too hard, right? 🙂
– Give yourself a break. Studying regularly is difficult; there is no doubt about it! It requires being motivated, organized, and focused. But if you do all of the above and provide yourself a good environment for it, you will be far less rushed to learn/memorize, more capable of retention, and you will even find that it takes less time and less focus in totality than your all-nighter ever did. Take that extra time to take a break and give your brain a rest: Exercise. Watch a movie. Hang out with friends. And make sure to sleep! Give your brain and your body time to refuel for the challenges ahead of you. You will feel even more willing to study with some time between anyway.
– Avoid all-nighters. In my opinion, this is the most important tip. I know I’m a little weird, but I didn’t have one all-nighter all through undergrad or grad school (or boards). I had a single all-nighter during high-school at a lock-in (not for studying). Why? Because my brain needs sleep to even partially function. And so does yours…even if you don’t think it does. Not only does lack of sleep or restricted sleep over time lead to “decreased cognitive function, emotional lability, increased blood sugars, weight gain, increased risk of substance abuse, and postpartum depression,” despite popular belief, it also can’t be made up for. “Recent studies in humans have shown that five days with only four hours of sleep/night result in cumulative deficits in vigilance and cognition, and these deficits do not fully recover after one night of sleep, even if 10 hours in bed are allowed” (Read more here). So on top of not being prepared because of waiting until the last minute to study and being stressed because of that, your brain is functioning even more poorly than if you had slept and not studied. And the more you do this, the worse your brain is functioning on a day-to-day basis too. I highly recommend adopting a new rule of 7-8 hours of sleep the night before an exam (or, ya know…any day of the year) whether you want to or not.
– Feed your body (and brain) well. Did you know the majority of the food that goes into our body is transformed into energy to process our brain? Therefore, feeding your body is directly correlated to feeding your brain, and feeding it junk food is not going to allow it to run optimally. While you’re taking the time to feed your mind, exercise, take mental breaks, and sleep, give your body and brain the extra nutrients and boost it needs with some healthy food such as superfoods blueberries, wild salmon, nuts, seeds, avocados, whole grains, beans, teas (especially green), and dark chocolate (I think most of us can agree to this one :-)).
It is easy to get swept into the stress of studying and leave friends, family, hobbies, and your own health by the wayside. It is difficult, but definitely possible to find a balance. At least try- for your brain’s sake at least. 🙂