Unraveling Our Love Lives

I have many friends old and young, gay and straight and asexual and polyamorous, every color, from every culture, and above and beyond them all being humans, there is another characteristic that unites them—they are all searching for someone (or multiple someones) to be with. And even deeper than that? They are looking to be understood by this someone(s), understood and most of all accepted for who they are. As most of you reading know, this can be a very messy and painful process.

I want to disclose that I’ve been married for four years and been with my husband for almost nine years. I was lucky- lucky to find my “someone” as young as I did, lucky that we’ve been growing in the same direction, lucky we are willing to learn alongside each other about who we are and who are evolving to be. I’m also lucky to have not been jaded by any extremely painful relationship breakups previous to the one I’m in now and have been in since I was 18. I realize that this disclosure may make some people think I have no credibility to offer them advice with their more advanced years and experience in dating and relationships. Admittedly, maybe I don’t…but, let’s be honest- I’m not still searching, so maybe I’m doing something right. My parents met in their teens and have been together for 35 years and both sets of grandparents were together for more than 50 years until death did them part, so I’ve had my fair share of great role models when it comes to relationships. I’ve also witnessed many of my friends in relationships that didn’t work out (and some that did of course) and have observed some patterns of positive/successful and negative/unsuccessful relationships. Without further adieu, here are some lessons I’ve learned along the way:

If only finding love was as easy as love-seeking binoculars!
If only finding love was as easy as love-seeking binoculars!

1) Figure out who you are first.

That sentence makes it sound so simple, but believe me- I know it is not. One reason figuring out who you are is difficult is because we seem to always be in flux, changing from one moment to the next. And yes, it is true- the me ten years ago is in my opinion a totally different me than I am now. However, when I look deeper than my friends and hobbies and interests, there are aspects of me that have not changed. I have always been a pessimist, for instance. I have tried to change that, but it has not been fruitful. I have always felt as though I was an old soul in a young body, and throughout the years, I continue to feel as though my mind ages quicker than my body. I have thus always been attracted to others who feel similarly. I have always yearned for central stability- financially, emotionally, physically- and repelled any act of impulsiveness (though it does sound like a more fun way of living sometimes). I saved my money for months and years in order to comfortably afford what I wanted even when I was a child. I had no trouble delaying gratification or having extreme amounts of self-discipline. I could keep going with this list. I’m sure if you meditate on yourself- the deeper traits that make up who you are- you will soon come up with a list as well of things about you that have not changed through the years.

This list is essential to understanding 1) who will best understand you and 2) who you will best understand. The reason for this is because though opposites attract in terms of more superficial traits (like being organized or messy, homebody or life of the party), the more fundamental character traits need to complement each other or major problems are likely going to crop up. For example, how many times have you seen a happy couple where one partner’s religion is very important to them, but the other partner was brought up in a different faith and going to religious functions is the last thing on their to-do list? I only know of one. Another example: One partner who wants children and one who does not. Both of these examples portray two people whose image of their future and world outlook is inherently different and is more likely to cause problems than two people who are, for instance, not complementary in their desire to be tidy or messy.

2) If you have one bad relationship, it might be a bad apple. But if you have a string of bad relationships (especially with similar failures)…hate to break it to you, but it’s probably you.

I’m not trying to be mean, but the above statement is true. Don’t we all have a friend who we want to support, but part of us just wants to tell them “Look, you keep dating the same guy!” I’ve noticed a pattern of women (young and old) who continue to be attracted to the “bad boy” and continue to be wooed by the impulsive money spent on them, extravagant gifts and vacations, and constant sense of thrill and mystery. Many of these women expect the impulsiveness, fun, and thrill to continue through a dating relationship and then to morph into perfect husband or father material. They think a naturally impulsive person will suddenly want to begin saving when a ring or a child comes into the picture or that the fun will continue to be the same while throwing up with a stomach flu. I understand that there is a time for fun, impulsiveness, thrill and mystery. But what I’ve found is that far and wide, people don’t change very much (unless they really *really* want to—and not because you want them to either). So before going into a relationship and expending time and energy and pieces of yourself on it, consider who this person is now and who they will continue to be in 10,15,20 years and whether that is a person you think you will still want to be with at that time given what you want for your future. When we accept a long-term relationship as a commitment, we are saying to the person “I love you as you are and I will continue to love you and see and understand you- warts and all.” If you can’t say that to the person you are dating (and keep dating), find someone you can.

3) No one is perfect, even you.

Did you really need it said? When you are in love, love goggles make you think the person in front of you is perfect. You ignore the things that grow to bother you later in the relationship, once the “honeymoon phase” is over. This love is only the initial phase of love, the blinding love. The best kind of love, the real love, is the love that sees you at your most vulnerable, your sickest, your most hurt and hurtful, and understands who you are and why you are the way you are- and accepts this. Does a person who loves you love everything about you? I guarantee you that the answer is no. They just know that you as an entity are the package- and that inherently comes with baggage. They take the bad with the good, because the good is perfect for them. That aside, our partner also has a view into us that no one else in our life has. So if they tell you to consider another viewpoint or tell you something that feels very painful and raw…maybe it’s true. You aren’t perfect. Neither are they. But as a partnership, you can help each other be the best people you can be as mirrors of our best and our worst traits.

4) Don’t compromise. (Really!)

I had always been advised by others in relationships that the key to relationships is compromise. But when I looked up what the word really meant, I was confused. I had always thought these people meant that sometimes someone “wins” and other times they “lose.” The definition of compromise is “an agreement or a settlement of a dispute that is reached by each side making concessions.” So compromise means that both people lose. It isn’t what sounded or felt right to me. If we are both unhappy in order to resolve a fight, what good is that? I decided to never compromise on the big things, but instead to figure out who the fight is more important to and discuss openly what each person hopes to gain. And unlike all those people who say “don’t go to sleep angry”….well, we sleep on it. It gives my husband and I time to process our disagreement without being swept into emotions. If it’s really an important fight, it requires some thought to resolve. If you wake up and can’t remember what you fought about, it wasn’t important enough to continue. In order to decide how much a fight matters to each of you, you can either discuss it openly or last resort- each rate it on a scale from 1-10 and talk about it. Communication is obviously key, but make sure you do not give up things that really matter to you and also consider the other person’s needs and wants to make a decision that everyone is *happy* with. You may even determine a hidden third option that doesn’t remove anyone’s desires from the equation.

Love hurts!
Love hurts!

5) Love Hurts.

Hollywood romances are not real. We all know they aren’t real (logically), but emotionally, we all want a partner like those on the screen. We want a beautiful and sensuous love/lust to propel us through an entire lifetime without ever having a fight or hurting each other. We want to be seamlessly accepted into one another’s families and friend groups. We want to have amazing sex, take luxurious vacations, and never consider finances. But love is not enough, finances are always a concern, family and friends will not love your partner as much as you love them, sex will not always be amazing…and worst of all, you will hurt each other. Do you know why? Because in order to have someone understand and accept you, you have to show them who you are. And in showing them who you are, you are providing them with weapons- weapons they may use against you when they are weak and vulnerable against you. If there is a couple in the world who can say they have never had a fight or hurt each other, I will show you a couple who has not put their whole selves on the table. And I will also show you a couple who is missing out. Because you have to put it out there- you have to show them- to get real love, real connection, and real strength. Without this, you are just two people living in two worlds, sharing bits and pieces of a life you have created under a facade. You work to keep up the facade instead of risking rejection or hurt. Instead, you hurt all the time being someone you are not… Real love is worth hurting for. I promise.

6) Real love grows with the years, while lust is quickly extinguished.

People talk about “real” love, and I suppose everyone’s opinion of real love is different. My opinion? Real love is one that has always felt natural, from day one. It is a love that never makes you question your partner’s commitment to you. It is a love that becomes something much much deeper over the years. As you watch your partner’s face changing, real love allows you to keep seeing them in new ways- and smile more because of it. Real love is when you’ve finally accepted that your partner’s dirty socks will always be on the floor in the morning- and there is no point in bringing it up again because that’s obviously just who they are. It is also picking up one’s dirty socks because you know the other partner gets pissed every time they see it. Real love is making each other grow as individuals and asking the hard questions. Real love is making the hard decisions. Real love is sometimes hating your partner’s guts, but knowing in the same moment you still love them as much as you want to kind of kill them right now. Real love is not always happy; in fact, real love is there in the saddest of times and the silliest of times too. Real love involves embarrassingly telling your spouse that you have a crush on someone else and them smiling and saying “It’s okay, sometimes I have crushes too, but you’re more than a crush and you are important.” Real love is being with someone for 50 years and still thinking “There are never enough years in my life of being with you.” Real love is a constant, something that doesn’t need to be questioned or explained or justified. It just is.

1329463562_looking-for-love-stop7) Work on yourself first and the right person will come along.

I spent 18 years of my life entirely single. I know that isn’t long and relationships in middle school and high school rarely work out anyway, but for the longest time, a relationship is all I really wanted (and of course, always with unattainable people). The most amazing thing happened when I got to college. I didn’t care anymore. I was having way too much fun with my new friends and auditioning for plays and dance companies and learning new things and taking on new hobbies and finally for once in my life- being accepted as myself. I stopped thinking about dating or relationships and decided I would just enjoy myself and having someone else didn’t matter. I was a means in myself; I didn’t need another to complete myself. My now-husband was meanwhile in the same boat. He had been working on himself: learning tai chi and understanding himself better. We both had profiles on Match.com which had been sitting there for months to years (years in my case, months in his) without success and were both very close to cancelling our accounts. And then, on a whim, I winked at his profile. He looked cute and his profile was thoughtful (as opposed to 99% of the other profiles); I thought nothing of any follow-up. And then I received a response from him that took my breath away. And there went my not caring about being in a relationship. The right person came along, and there we were…attached. There were no fireworks, no blind dates, no romantic meeting in a coffee shop. It took both of us feeling “complete” to bring us together.

I’m not using any scientific method to prove my point, but I’ve certainly met a number of other people who actively searched for many more years than I did for a partner, and the minute they stopped caring and decided they could honestly be alone in life and be happy, they met someone that turned their world upside down. I know that the last thing someone wants to hear after they have been searching for so long is “Stop searching (emotionally) and work on you.” But I think it’s true. It doesn’t mean give up. It means find completeness in you. The person who finds you attractive in this state will love who you truly are, not the persona you wanted people to see while you were actively searching.

8) You can’t expect one person to complete you or fulfill every relationship role (ex: lover, friend, person to go to the clubs with, etc).

It used to be a long, long time ago that relationships (specifically marriages) were merely contractual agreements to be bonded financially and have children. Love did not enter the picture. Therefore, people would very regularly have other “love” relationships outside of their marriage in addition to friendships with others. In this construct, it was easy to have a more logical and responsible relationship with one’s husband/wife, while also having a less responsible but more fun and impulsive relationship outside of this. Friendships were also very important to a person’s happiness, as this is where a person could be most themselves. Nowadays, it seems we keep heaping more and more responsibility, expectations, and roles onto our partners. We want them to provide and be responsible with finances, take care of children, take on household tasks, be our best friend and confidante, be fun and carefree and impulsive, and also want us all the time as lovers. Not only is it hard to accomplish all of these roles in general, some of these roles conflict. For instance, when we watch our partner being strong and sufficient (or just plain dirty/tired) in taking care of children all day or doing the dishes or telling us about their warts they went to the doctor for, it may be difficult to want them in bed. Instead of wanting our partner to “complete” us, it may be better to pick and choose what roles are most important and necessary for them to take on. If they don’t enjoy comedy clubs but you love them, for instance, give them a night to themselves and go out with some friends who can share the experience with you. Make some nights all about being fun, some nights about finances and serious talk. When allocated, it becomes easier to compartmentalize different roles.

9) Find a passion you can both appreciate.

My husband and I discovered rock climbing together, but I don’t think rock climbing is the only avenue where a shared passion will help to continue sparking a relationship. Though it is of course important to have your own passions separately, when you share in a passion together, it is easier to continue growing in the same direction. It also provides for built-in “together” time where you are both engaged and involved with each other (or at least with whatever the shared passion is side by side) and shared friendships.

falling-in-love-is-not-a-choice-but-to-stay-in-love-is10)  Don’t “need” your spouse; choose them. 
I’ve noticed many people stay in relationships they are unhappy with because they feel they need the other person emotionally or financially. Though my mom has been happily married for 35 years to my dad, she always instilled in me that I should be able to be financially sufficient on my own “just in case.” Though I didn’t like the “just in case” concept (because I didn’t like the idea of planning for a possible divorce), I did take the idea of being sufficient on my own financially to heart and extended it to emotionally as well. I think that whether or not it is actually needed, it increases the confidence of people in relationships if they know they are not dependent on each other emotionally or financially. In this light, both people are in the relationship only because they love each other, not because they at some point feel obligated (though I do understand adding kids into the situation changes things slightly).

11) All great relationships are work.

With the divorce rate close to 50% in 2014 per the CDC, it always makes me wonder what it is that causes people to split up so frequently. Is it cheating, illness, financial issues, the stress of kids, generally “growing apart,” or something else? Based on my very unscientific experience, it seems like very often it is just generally “growing apart.” I am convinced (again, through my very unscientific analysis with an “n” of friends and acquaintances in my life) that many of these relationships could be brought back together again if only their perspective was altered slightly to realize that all good (especially great) relationships require feeding and work. What you inject into the relationship is very much the product you will get out, so if you think love alone is what will keep you and your partner growing in the same direction, you may be in for a surprise. Growth also requires work, so you can deduce that stagnancy will lead to the “same old, same old,” which many people take as “I’m not in love with this person anymore because they aren’t ___ anymore.” Not to get too metaphorical on you, but a flame also requires feeding or it dies too. If you are not feeding your relationship like the flame it is, it’s intrigue will continue to degrade with your love..or at least lead to a very boring relationship.

Every relationship fails until one doesn't. Keep kissing the frogs until you find your prince (or princess).
Every relationship fails until one doesn’t. Keep kissing the frogs until you find your prince (or princess).

12) You only need one to work out.

Dan Savage (sex ed columnist) once responded to a person complaining that they’ve had X number of failed relationships with “Every relationship you are in will fail until one doesn’t.” It sounds so obvious, but it does seem like people think they have failed themselves or are doomed to die single when they haven’t concluded their search after dating a certain number of people. You haven’t failed; you’re just working through the pool of potential people. Perhaps you are looking in the wrong place if you aren’t finding enough potentials, but yes, they will all fail…until one doesn’t. That one is the only thing that matters. So keep kissing the frogs (and keeping an open mind) until you find your prince.

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My Love-Fest With the World

Can it be acceptable to hold hands with someone we love who isn't our lover?
Can it be acceptable to hold hands with someone we love who isn’t our lover?

I have always been one of those people who form crushes very easily. And I hesitate to say crushes because it feels like something a lot deeper and significant than that. It hasn’t changed since I’ve been married. Whenever I tell people that, their usual response is shock. “So you’re married, but you imagine being with other people?” Well, no, not exactly…I imagine loving them, not necessarily making love to them. I imagine that the world can be a place where I can share all of me (emotionally, mentally, and to some extent physically) with a person beyond my spouse and it be okay.

Because, yes, I do think it is acceptable (and even expected…if not downright recommended) to make connections with people (and animals too), connections that get down to the core of who we are, connections that make you wake up in the morning and smile. To me, expecting our spouse to be that one and only connection is a depressing thought. Everyone has a special spark to them that makes them their unique self, something special only they can offer to the world. How is it fair that only their partner can experience that? Why must everyone else put up walls around them in order to prevent such a connection with them?

Rocks loveI’ve never been able to find the balance- of where to draw the line. I fall in love with everyone I see a special spark in, everyone I have a meaningful conversation with. There are definitely some things that are unique to spouses/partners. Everyone draws this line differently, of course, but mine is apparently drawn with a very light marker. I share my residence, my dog, my life, and my bed with my husband, but many many people share my heart. Don’t get me wrong; I love my husband and love spending time with him and creating a life together. However, I have thought (and spoken) “I love you” more than just in thoughts regarding my husband (who’s been my only serious relationship). I haven’t felt comfortable bringing this up with the majority of people in my life and really hope I won’t regret writing about it here. It wasn’t until I read this that I even considered it. To see that someone else “gets it” beyond a couple of friends who share my thoughts and was able to put it into words and share it with the world is inspiring.

1385767_13100666I suppose if I had to put a label on what I’m talking about, it would be “intimacy.” A close friend of mine calls it cosmic intimacy: a connection that feels like it’s been present since the beginning of time, a connection that is more than a friendship and does not spring from sexual or physical thoughts. Sexual thoughts may come up, of course- they often do when you feel deep and true love for someone- but they aren’t the point. The point is remaining connected, as the connection itself is the reward. The connection drives you to hold their hand, hug them close, wipe away their tears…but there is always the “other” holding you back, the nameless words of society telling you that isn’t okay for friends to do.

It seems like this lack of acceptance for close connections is not as present in non-European/American cultures. Hugging, kissing, holding hands are not defined as “public displays of affection” and are not specifically identified as acts between people who are “involved” in many other cultures. I distinctly remember my friend’s mother (who is Chinese) taking my hand and prancing down a trail with me when I was in my young teens, and when she stopped, kissing me on the cheek. I remember feeling so many emotions in that moment- surprise (because no one, especially someone so much older than me, had ever done that before with me), appreciation (to know she felt connected to me), glee (to see someone expressing themselves without regret or hesitation in front of me) and love (to reciprocate feeling connected in the warmth of her hand and her heart). It made me yearn for creating and embracing those moments of pure connection and unadulterated love and innocence in my life. It was the beginning of my love-fest with the world.

How do you balance connections in your life? Do you have a love-fest with the world? How do you feel about its acceptance or lack thereof in your life?

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How to Study Effectively and Efficiently Without Losing Your Mind

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.

Studying is all about finding a rhythm and studying frequently in small chunks so it isn't overwhelming.
Studying is all about finding a rhythm and studying frequently in small chunks so it isn’t overwhelming.

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.

Studies show that studying in multiple locations reinforces concepts better.
Studies show that studying in multiple locations reinforces concepts better.

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.

Let friends and family (and pets :-)) help you with your studying.
Let friends and family (and pets :-)) help you with your studying.

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).

Re-synthesize Information

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 can be helpful if they are organized effectively!
Study groups can be helpful if they are organized effectively!

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 really are your friends!
Flashcards really are your friends!

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? 🙂

Your brain and body need a break. Stretching is good for both!
Your brain and body need a break. Stretching is good for both!

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.

Super foods fuel your brain and body- you'll need it for those study sessions!
Super foods fuel your brain and body- you’ll need it for those study sessions!

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. 🙂

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The Amazing Vitamix

We love our Vitamix. This is one of our staple smoothies before being blended.
We love our Vitamix. This is one of our staple smoothies before being blended.

Anyone who has come over to my place to eat knows how much I use (and love) the Vitamix. It took me a couple years to convince myself to get it due to its price (yes, it’s about $400…$600 if you get the wet and dry containers), but it ended up being one of the best purchases I’ve ever made. Obviously, a total “want,” but it is a want that did make life a lot easier! Here are the reasons why:**

1) It replaces most other food appliances.

At the time I acquired a Vitamix, I owned a breadmaker, food processor, and blender, all sitting on my countertop. As soon as I realized how great this thing was, I got rid of all of them. Had I also owned a juicer and ice cream maker, it would have replaced those as well. For the type A personality in me, I love the fact that my kitchen is less cluttered and requires the use of (and space for) less appliances.

2) It is freaky fast and freaky awesome.

As a vegetarian who makes homemade food for most meals a week, do you know how much time I used to spend chopping vegetables and fruits? Even when my husband, the anal food chopper, laboriously cut vegetables or fruits into 92 pieces (all exactly the same size), many times I needed them to be smaller for what we were making. With the Vitamix, I can chop, dice, or mince at whatever variability I want. It’s even better than a food processor because you can make pieces whatever size you want…and do it freaking fast.

3) It gets so hot that it will actually cook food. (And so cold it will make ice cream and sorbet.)

I’m serious. The Vitamix has 2+ horsepower to produce enough heat to actually heat and cook soup. This means on a cold winter night, you can get home and spend only 10-15 minutes in the kitchen and have a healthy homemade hot soup ready to warm you up. Who wouldn’t love that? Similarly, on a hot summer day, a minute or two of blending frozen fruits will create some amazing ice cream/sorbet. To make a thicker ice cream texture, use whole milk or full fat coconut milk (here is why you should consider the latter).

4) You can make homemade flour, dough, and granola bars.

It used to be a Sunday ritual that my grandma would come over to our place and I would make pancakes. Because this happened every weekend, I got pretty creative sometimes. With the Vitamix, getting creative was easy. I made pancakes from totally raw materials like flour from garbanzo beans or kasha. I prepped biscuits or other bread or dough in minutes without requiring kneading. For our hikes after brunch, I made granola bars in minutes from apples, steel-cut oats, berries, and other super heart healthy schtuff (See a staple recipe here). Making breakfast was not only made easy, but also fun!

5) It’s a professional-level smoothie-maker.

The Vitamix is beyond a good blender; it is an amazing blender. It makes smoothies taste as consistent as fruit juice, but doesn’t remove all the great fiber and nutrients from fruits and veggies like juicers do. The next time you go to a smoothie place, look at the blender they use- I guarantee it’s either a Vitamix or a Blendtec (competing brand). And for good reason. These things can take any combination of healthy food items (and take them whole) and blend them into smooth goodness. And yes, I realize how sexual that sounds. I’m not un-typing it.

6) Clean-up is quick and easy!

Clean-up of a Vitamix requires putting a couple drops of soap and some water in and turning it on high for a minute. It’s just as much fun using it as cleaning it up. 🙂

7) Make organic fertilizer from your food scraps!

Yes, you can actually take food scraps, blend them in the Vitamix, and use them as organic fertilizer. It’s cheaper and better for the soil anyway. Find out more here if you might be interested.

8) Provide the best for your babe!

Do you have a young child? Why not give them the cheapest, healthiest, and least processed food to grow up on: steamed and/or pureed fruits and veggies. No more BPA to worry about or chemicals you don’t know how to pronounce. Pure fruits and veggies, no more and no less (see recipes here). You can even make raw almond or soy milk if your baby is lactose intolerant! (example here)

9) Get the creative juices flowing!

My favorite thing about the Vitamix is that it makes cooking so much easier in general that I am much more willing to try preparing new dishes. When the chopping only takes a minute or less, I can spend more time doing other more complicated things within the meal.

So those are my reasons for why the Vitamix is awesome. Have I convinced you yet? If I have, go out and see one for yourself (click here for more information about Vitamix retailers in your area) or buy one online at the vitamix.com website.

**Note: I am not being given anything from Vitamix to get on my soapbox about this great product. 🙂

The Balance of Creating A Great Vacation

I just got back from an amazing vacation. I feel relaxed, rejuvenated, and energized to be productive and throw myself anew into personal and career goals. It’s rare I feel this way after a vacation, so when I do, I ask myself: what made it feel so great? Over the years, the conclusion I’ve drawn is that even though everyone has a different definition of what a “great vacation” is, all great vacations fulfill (and balance) a number of different desires: rest, adventure, productivity/new experiences, nature and intimacy.

I came from a family where a “great” vacation was one where my parents could get away from us kids for an extended amount of time and where my brother and I could also be separately participating in activities we enjoyed (sometimes I think we have entirely different genetic makeup). We were lucky enough to go to Club Med a couple times, where there were supervised sports for my brother and theater/circus performance participation for me (adventure). My parents laid on the beach reading most of the time (nature and rest), but my dad also learned how to hang on the trapeze and we all snorkeled together and rode donkeys through the small villages of Dominican Republic, where my brother and I witnessed what “poor” really meant (productivity/new experiences). We spent evenings eating dinner as a family and were often accompanied by interesting people from all over the world, who were more than happy to tell us their stories (intimacy). We never looked at a clock, as there were no clocks on premises. It is something I’ve kept in mind for future vacations- to enjoy and be in the moment, not think about the future or the past (rest).

 

We warmed up our hands by hiking hard, then beginning climbs while not being able to feel the rock and midway thawing out (adventure). We climbed on new rock with new routes, experienced our first New England fall foliage, ate dinners at local restaurants, and met a whole bunch of people from all over the US and even Canada (productivity/new experiences)! It may not be the ideal vacation for most people, but it was one we will never forget and learned a lot from.

Don't sleep away your vacation, but let your body and mind relax while you have the time!
Don’t sleep away your vacation, but let your body and mind relax while you have the time!

Rest- Like I said before, all “great vacations” look different to everyone. Rest to you may be defined as sleeping in, catching up on some good reads, or getting up early but taking a nap in the middle of the day. Some people may even identify a long walk or yoga as rest. Rest is whatever your mind and body need to replenish its reserves from the more hectic and stressful experiences of your day-to-day life. It is a getaway, a restoration to re-connect you to your family, your friends, nature, and/or yourself. Just make sure not to sleep away all of your vacation, as rest is not the part of a great vacation that makes you feel restored entirely.

Adventure allows us to put everything else in life in perspective.
Adventure allows us to put everything else in life in perspective.

Adventure- Adventure is definitely a matter of degree. For some people, adventure is rolled into new experiences and for others, it’s taking a short hike or backpacking into a desert, climbing hundreds of feet up a rock, or hiking up Everest. Whatever adventure is to you, its significance in vacations is important- it allows your brain to put day-to-day concerns into perspective and it provides you with feelings of accomplishment and energy to face future challenges (related or unrelated to this adventure). So the next time you just want to lounge on the beach on vacation, consider finding something outside your comfort zone to experience as part of the trip too.

It was my first time feeling comfortable on lead outdoors this trip, something I've been working towards for over a year now.
It was my first time feeling comfortable on lead outdoors this trip, something I’ve been working towards for over a year now.

Productivity/New Experiences- The only reason I roll productivity and new experiences together is that sometimes challenging yourself to experience something new is productive on its own. And sometimes it requires productivity like planning in order to have the best new experiences. For instance, before every vacation, I make what I call an “itinerary,” but it’s really not a real itinerary. It’s a list of all the places and things to do (and food to eat) in the area that look interesting with all the key information about them bulleted such as hours of operation, website, price structure, type of food, etc. There are no times or official schedules of events. When we get to the location, we see how we feel and pick things to do as the time at a location progresses. This way, I’ve done all the research “work” before the trip, but there is no stress to get X, Y, or Z done within the specified amount of time. It has worked out well for my husband and I as a couple, since I am type A and tend to schedule too much and my husband is definitely type B and would tend to lay around not doing anything with himself and regret it later. It’s also worked out well on trips where one or both of us get sick and the original general plans are just not working out for us anymore. Since all the needed information is right in front of us, it’s just a matter of a decision and quick preparation so we are “productive”, but not stressed or feeling overly obligated with our time.

My second 5.9 lead! I was super proud to be confronting my fears this trip!
My second 5.9 lead! I was super proud to be confronting my fears this trip!

Nature- To me, this is the most important aspect of a vacation, and it often satisfies all of the other desires too. Within nature, we can feel intimate- with ourselves, with nature, and/or with whoever our partner in crime is. Within nature, we can be at peace while having an adventure, exploring new places or even just exploring ourselves within the quiet. Nature is unpredictable, beautiful, dangerous, and yielding. Accepting that a vacation within nature will be in part what nature wants you to experience and also a large part how flexible you are to the experience it is providing will bring you to a better understanding of yourself and things around you. Bring a raincoat all the time so you don’t miss the beautiful sounds and smells of a fresh rain. Plan to accomplish something, but ditch the plan as soon as plan A isn’t working out as well as you had hoped. You may find a vacation in the rain is the best one you’ve ever had. (I’m talking from experience—a backpacking trip in the rain on the Appalachian trail pulled me out of my sinking depression quicker than months of talk-therapy did. See picture below.)

Intimacy- I’m not just referring to sexual intimacy, though of course that may be on your agenda too. 😉 Intimacy is not even entirely about personal or significant relationships. Intimacy is about “a close association with or deep understanding of a place, subject, etc.” We can feel intimate with people we just met, who happened to be on the same trail as us. We can feel intimate with the squirrels sharing our space. We can feel intimate with ourselves. And in order to gain intimacy, one needs to quiet all the thoughts we typically we have running through our heads like cars in NASCAR. A peaceful, safe, and beautiful moment must be created to yield deepness and clarity within words, within silence, within touch. And these sometimes brief moments allow us reflection into what holds our world together: connection. It is easy to forget connection when we live our lives within our separate cars and houses and cubicles. And it is this lacking connection that continues to make us feel we need vacations at all. It doesn’t seem society is going to change anytime soon, so vacation is where you can embrace this and rejuvenate your feelings of being part of this world- your significance and insignificance within it.

Wherever you are off to on your next vacation, be sure to balance rest, adventure, productivity/ new experiences, nature, and intimacy into it in order to have a *great* trip.

Balancing Time

I used to spend hours upon hours online wasting time, playing video games, or watching television. When I had homework, it would take me triple the time to complete it because I was doing three other tasks at the same time. I would constantly say “Who has the time to ____?” and others would nod sadly in agreement and understanding. It took meeting people who made decisions to prioritize their time and create happiness in their life for me to realize that I was in control of every minute of my day. There was truly nothing holding me from anything except me. And now…well, this is my weekly schedule:

4 days a week, I wake up at 5:50AM. On those days, I make breakfast and get my lunch together and take a 30 minute walk with my husband and dog. I work 8AM to 6:30 PM with a half hour commute both ways. 3 days a week, I go climbing for 3-4 hours at the climbing gym after work or on the weekends. 2 days a week, I do a 30 minute climbing gym workout during my lunch break. The other days, I take a 30 minute walk during lunch. When I get home on the days I’m not climbing, I take a walk or hike and work out with my husband. On the day I have out from work during the week, I wake up at 7:30-8, make and eat breakfast, head out on a 2-3 hour hike with the pup, meet up with my grandma for lunch, head to the climbing gym and boulder, come back home and shower and write a blog post, make dinner, eat dinner, meet up with a friend sometimes, take a hike, and stretch for an hour. On the weekend, typical fare is climbing either at a crag a few hours away for the whole weekend or climbing 4-5 hours one day and taking a small hike or hiking all day for 15-20 miles. Sunday night, we cook our meals for the week. We also make homemade oatmeal a few times a week, which lasts a couple of days each. Rinse, repeat. Somewhere sprinkled in there, I go to 2-3 social events per week, often hosting, and trips out-of-town 2-3 times a month.

I realize my priorities are different from most and that my choices are likely not what you may choose to do and that some people are even more (voluntarily) busy than me. I choose to be busy and very active, and despite that, I still manage to make homemade food most meals of the week, work 40 hours a week, and sleep 7-8 hours a night. I understand I don’t have kids, but I know people with kids who also still find time to climb, make homemade meals, and work too. I even know someone who has three young children and managed a climbing trip to a national park recently with all of them! If that isn’t dedication, I don’t know what is.

The point is that the time is there for you to do those things you keep saying you don’t have time for; your time just needs to be allocated differently, your priorities need to change, and you need to become more efficient with the tasks that need to be done. Here is a good start: the average American watches about 40 hours a week of television. That is like having another full-time job in terms of time allocation! How different would the world be if every person decided to take their TV time and use it for health, for productivity, creativity, and/or charity? Here’s how you can start realizing the benefits of consciously balancing your time:

Do you feel like time is slipping through your fingers? Read on for tips to find more time for what you love.
Do you feel like time is slipping through your fingers? Read on for tips to find more time for what you love.

1) Figure out where your time is going.

Just like a food journal, start a time journal. Draw a line through the middle of a legal pad and on the left side, write down what you are doing with your time every 15 minutes or so and write how much time it took. Include sleep, eating, cooking, driving, and distraction time as well (ex: how much time did you spend checking Facebook instead of working?). Do this for a week or more.

2) Determine what needs to stay and what needs to go.

Look at your time journal and circle the things that were positive or necessary tasks (and make sure they really are necessary!). Highlight (with a dark color) the things you spent time on that were time sinks or unhealthy/negative in your life. Reevaluate things you thought you needed in your life, but may not actually need (and yes, maybe even consider the activities your children are participating in).

3) Make a list of all those things you said you have no time for, but desperately want in your life.

On the same time journal, on the right side, make a list of things you don’t think you have time for but would like to add into your life and put an estimate of how much time you think it would take on a daily or weekly basis to complete. Now take the time from these and compare them to the time of the tasks you highlighted. How much of the time you used on time sinks can now easily be replaced with goal-oriented/productive time?

4) Execute!

There is no better time than now. There will always be reasons (excuses) for why now is not a good time, but now is the only time to change. Every time you find yourself drawn to the television or Facebook, ask yourself what you could be doing that would make you feel better about yourself. And then…do it! That is all there is to it.

5) Get more efficient.

Still finding that the time you were using on time sinks is not enough to account for those desired goal times? It’s time to re-evaluate the amount of time you spend on the necessary tasks like work and home chores. Here are some ideas:

 

 

The first step to organizing clutter is removing the excess.
The first step to organizing clutter is removing the excess.

-Organize.

Organization first begins with getting rid of things you don’t need (read this for more on that). After you’ve narrowed things down (multiple times), you are ready to make it clutter-free. Organization is difficult to teach to someone who is not naturally gifted (or cursed) with the type A personality. It is also highly individual. Binders and tabbed folders work wonders for some people, and some would rather stack things in a methodical way. As long as you can find what you need to without searching through everything you own, you are on the right path. 🙂 The key to organization is that it needs to be an automatic reflex, not something you deal with every week or month. When you get a piece of paper, it needs to be an automatic decision- Can it be thrown away or recycled? Do I need it? If I need it, where does it need to go in order to be with like items? It is also important that you have milestones of when you will get rid of things or things will pile up no matter how organized they are. Milestones should be based on how long certain documents or items are important to keep. Tax documents, for instance, should be kept for 3 years and in some cases seven years. Extremely important documents like marriage certificates, titles to cars or houses, etc. should have a special place in your house not easily accessible by others. Organization also, of course, needs to be applied to other items besides paper, but paper (and electronic files) are what tends to be applicable to work and necessary tasks.

– Multitask.

There are things that require focus and attention and there are things that just don’t. Cleaning, in my opinion, does not. Cooking also does not (if you’re following a recipe or making a staple item you’ve made many times before). Therefore, do multiple things at once. For example, while the water is boiling for some pasta, clean the counters or the dishes. Or make three dishes at once (just don’t get confused!) to limit the amount of cooking and cleaning to an hour or two for the week. Alternatively, cook or clean while doing something you enjoy that doesn’t require an extra modality such as listening to music or the radio or podcasts. Stretch while you watch television. The options are limitless! 🙂

 

Multitasking does not mean you're brain has to be frazzled. Focusing on one thing with some other tasks in the background is how to be most effective.
Multitasking does not mean you’re brain has to be frazzled. Focusing on one thing with some other tasks in the background is how to be most effective.

– Focus.

It may sound like focus is the opposite of multitasking, but I’ve found that focus is actually the key to multitasking effectively. In order to get anything done multitasking, you need to focus on each task at hand as though you aren’t also doing other tasks while keeping in mind in the background that other things are indeed happening. You just need to break every task up as a very small item. Let’s take the example I used above. If the water is not boiling yet, put that out of your mind in the moment and focus on cleaning (knowing in the back of your mind that it will begin boiling in a few minutes). The important thing is that your focus only remains on something for a short time, so it must be a short task that will fill the time. Water boiling takes about 10-15 minutes (depending on altitude), so in that time, you may be able to wipe the countertops down. While a meal is cooking for 20-30 minutes, you have time to wash the pots that were being used while sauteing vegetables for the soup and set the table. This is just an example of course, but using your time in this way will allow you to be done cleaning and cooking at the same time so you can just sit down and enjoy it. Same goes for any other tasks that require waiting before something is complete—fill the waiting with other tasks that need to be done and you’ll be productive like no one’s business!

– Reward yourself for being focused. 

In the day and age where so many people are being diagnosed with ADD or ADHD, I wonder how many people are honestly just bogged down in overstimulation. If you’re watching television while listening to music and doing homework and at the same texting your friend, are you really focusing on anything? Our brains are not evolved for doing similar tasks at once and moreover truly focusing on more than one item at a time. Because our jobs and our world now encourages if not requires us to be scattered in our work and our life, our brains have become scattered too. In order to re-program the brain to enjoy and be effective at focusing again, provide it with rewards. Give yourself half an hour to accomplish a task that usually takes an hour, but really focus. If you really focused, I bet you completed the task in half the time. Give yourself a reward- a half an hour to stretch or meditate, a 10-minute break to look at the news or take a walking break. The more your brain learns that focusing accomplishes more with less time and allows you to have the best of both worlds (productivity and rest), the more it will want to focus and the more productive you become. Don’t forget, the less you want to accomplish something, the bigger the reward for completing it efficiently.

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Wants Versus Needs

Even in a country where the vast majority of homes/families now have at least one computer, television, cell phone, a dishwasher, a stove, a fridge, a washing machine, a dryer, and numerous other items people even some decades ago would have thought was a huge luxury, we still hear people saying “I/we need ___.” I catch myself saying it too, and when I do, I think “Really? There is no way you need that.” It used to be that I really did think I needed __ when I said I did. The reality, though, is that all we truly need can be fit into a backpack.

The first time I set out to backpack with my husband with our brand new packs from our wedding registry, the first many steps away from the car were difficult. I felt I was leaving everything stable behind me. As I walked away from “safety,” I thought about everything I was leaving behind- no air conditioning, no heater, no refrigerator, no stores, no water from a spout, no toilets, no Internet, no locking doors, etc. But after the first night of sleeping under the stars in complete remoteness (or as remote as I had been) and stillness and being snuggled in a sleeping bag, listening to the rise and fall of my husband’s breath next to me, I realized there were a lot of things I was more than happy to give up for this. Moreover, none of those things I was leaving behind were really “needs” to begin with. While backpacking, there are no jobs, no concerns beyond surviving, no limitations in where you can set up shelter or make food. That is freeing.

Shelter, food, potable water, and clothes- that's about all we truly need.
Shelter, food, potable water, and clothes- that’s about all we truly need.

At that point, I started to reconsider what my needs really were. If I could pack everything I needed to survive for X many days in a pack on my back, then were these other possessions in my life really something I “needed” at all, or were they just objects weighing me down? Everything in my life was up for re-evaluation. And what I found was that most of my possessions (and actions) were the latter. Furthermore, most of my possessions were not even useful to me! So I began the process of shedding the excess….and most of it was excess!

    Shedding the excess

I’ve always been the kind of person who holds onto mementos, sentimental items, and even papers thinking I “might need this someday.” Sound like a familiar thought? As I went through each item that used to be so significant to me, I found the significance had weakened dramatically. I couldn’t even remember the sentimentality of some of the items at all. Heck, I couldn’t even remember most of the people who had signed my sentimental shirts from plays I had been involved in. For the items I did remember the significance of but the item was not useful, I took a picture and put it in the “donate” or “sell” pile depending on how much its actual monetary value was. I had also kept old class notes and tests and other assignments. Now that I’m at the end of my career path (read: as far as I’m going to get in my studies), I realized not only did I not need to keep these because I hadn’t referenced a single paper once in all these years, but they had been taking up space for that many years as well and had been carried along to every apartment too! It felt like such a waste.

For items like pictures, I made scrapbooks, and for the numerous letters and cards I had received since birth, I scanned them into a “memories” folder in my computer organized by event (i.e. birthdays, graduation, etc). Don’t get me wrong, it took a long time. But memories mean a lot to me, and I know that having words from people I love will be especially meaningful when they are gone. I also know that the amount of physical space this stuff was taking up was not acceptable to me.

What else did I scrap/donate/sell? Well, for one, I found that so much of my technology had been replaced by new technology or was just not being used. A lot of the old redundant technology was something other people still wanted and would be willing to pay good money for, so I sold a lot of it on craigslist. I kept only a printer, one laptop, and a monitor for when I wanted two screens. We got rid of or sold every TV we owned because instead we use our laptop connected to an LCD projector for entertainment desires. We now use free Hulu accounts for TV and scrapped the cable subscription. In addition to saving money, we found that without the urge to have the TV on and watch something (even something totally uninteresting), we watch a LOT less of it (read: 1-2 hours a week. seriously). We’re considering getting rid of the projector too.

I ditched the vast majority of my books and continue to read and then donate books as I go through the ones I’m still interested in reading. I buy digital copies of books now or go to the library. I kept about 50 books that are either informational hiking/backpacking/climbing guides or are books I have read multiple times and will read again. All of these fit in one small bookshelf with my husbands books he loves as well. I trashed the PC game CD’s that are totally outdated and unusable at this point and saved some of these as ISO files on my harddrive if they were still useable. I also donated all the DVD’s I own and copied some to an external harddrive if I liked them enough as well as the VHS tapes because, really, who has a VCR anymore anyway?

My husband and I had collected a number of pictures of us that we had blown up to put on our walls, but found that over the years, we would put up less and less of those as we moved. They looked cheap or the picture was very old or because it seemed too weird to just have pictures of us up in the house. Tastes change; it makes sense. But why keep things that don’t fit us anymore (in the physical or emotional sense)? If you haven’t used it/put it up/looked at it over the last year or even better if it still in the box from your last move, you cannot argue you need this thing. The only exception might be medical items, but even medical items have expiration dates and those need to be bought again at some point as well.

Clothes. I’ve found most of us have a small amount of clothes we actually wear compared to the vast clothes collection we have sitting in our closet. Our clothes stop fitting, they stop fitting our mood, they make us uncomfortable, they don’t look like they did in the store mirror, or we never really liked them to begin with- whatever the reason, we all have clothes that are not being worn and when we’re serious with ourselves will never be again. There are other people in the world who would be most appreciative to have your clothes, to have any clothes. Give them away to people who could use them.

Are these gifts or weights in your life?
Are these gifts or weights in your life?

Do you have a relative who likes to buy you little useless trinkets for decoration? I did too. And I kept holding onto them and justified keeping them by saying “Well, they’re from this person and it would hurt them to not see this out at my place.” or “Oh, they are good decoration.” But what I realized is that 1) If you keep something out that you don’t have a use for or like, then that person will think you want more of it. That defeats the whole purpose, doesn’t it? They are spending money on something they think you will like, but you don’t and you are keeping it because you feel obligated. Is that really a gift or a weight? 2) Honestly, do these trinkets make your house look more homey, or it does it make your house look cluttered and messy? When I looked at my collection of trinkets, I determined the latter. I took a picture of all the trinkets together and sold or donated them. And this person stopped buying me trinkets! *If you think your trinkets/collectibles make your house look better, then make sure to organize them in a fashion that people will notice them as though they are actually furnishing your house. You are proud of them- let others see that.

Which brings me to my next point. I told this person and everyone in my life who might buy me a gift to stop buying me gifts. I appreciated the sentiment, but the reality is that the vast majority of the time, people’s gifts just sit in your place wasting space and not being used. Most people think they know people better than they think they do. I can count the gifts on one hand that both meant a lot to me and were used in my life regularly. I tell people that their sentiments mean more to me- write me a letter. Donate money to a good cause. If you feel so inclined, give me a check to use on things I have found the need for. But no. more. stuff. please. and thank you.

Needs versus wants

    Maintaining the Simplicity

This leads me to the most important step in all of this. I decided to STOP BUYING THINGS unless I deemed it TOTALLY NECESSARY or if buying X would allow me to get rid of more than a couple of other things because it had multiple purposes (like a Vitamix- I’ll write about that later). At this point, I think the only things I would deem totally necessary are basics like toothbrush, toothpaste, toilet paper, food, etc and also recreational items I will use in climbing/hiking/backpacking that will allow me to do the things I want to do safely. Even then, though, there is a long process of considering whether it really is something I need to climb/hike/backpack and also to finding the best value and most efficient product for me specifically. If it is going to be a redundant purchase (ex: I already have a harness, but I want a better one), I either need to get rid of the first item or find a purpose for keeping it (ex: having an extra harness is good for bringing new people to climb without them having to rent gear).

What did we keep besides a small amount of clothes, books, technology and basics (toilet paper, etc)? Day-to-day items like kitchen supplies (the least we needed to cook with), dog supplies, organization tools for those things we kept so everything is as tidy as possible, and fridge/stove/washer/dryer, bed, couch. Oh yeah, and recreational gear (I think this probably comprises the majority of our stuff at this point). And this feels like a luxury- I am willing to up and leave most of that behind to live in a trailer traveling the rest of my life if that becomes a possibility.
We definitely don’t live as minimal as some, but compared to most Americans, we live with a small amount of items and the vast majority of those items are used on a daily basis. The other aspect of wanting/needing less items is that I save 100% of my paycheck and a large portion of my husband’s every month despite the fact that we travel two to three weekends every month to climb with friends or backpack, own a large dog, buy food for the week at Whole Foods, and eat out a couple times a week. When we travel, we either camp at a cheap site or stay at a friend’s (or friend’s relative’s house), we travel in one car with many people sharing gas, we bring our own food or eat out at cheap places, and we do free activities (climbing, backpacking, hiking) unless there is a day pass fee and most of the time there isn’t. Our luxuries involve every so often celebrating at a nicer restaurant than $8 a meal and taking a vacation to a place requiring a plane ticket. Even so, we are traveling to Colorado soon and plan on car camping the majority of that time. Our dog is being taken care of by a friend instead of at a dog daycare. In other words, though my husband and I could easily afford more stuff, more luxuries, we don’t indulge in many. We want to retire early. That is our goal, and because we know that, we work towards it. We know it is worth avoiding immediate gratification for long-term success (however you define that for yourself).

American media and society encourages us to buy, buy, buy and want, want, want. It is the initial excitement about buying that makes us continue to do this. But when you look at the results in your life- the clutter, the disorganization, the money you sacrifice and thus the time you sacrifice at your job for that money and that stuff- are you really excited or happy? By wanting less, by acknowledging you “need” next to nothing and find a balance between wants and needs, you will find your life is simpler and your financial and long-term goals come into focus and come to you easier and more effectively.

    Extending the Concept

The concept of balancing wants and needs can be applied in every avenue of life, not just financially. Here are some examples. My husband replaced gaming with rock climbing. Why? Because he wanted to keep gaming, but he realized it was an unhealthy addiction. He realized his life needed more healthy habits and so he sacrificed immediate desires for long-term health and ultimately happiness. Similarly, if I gave in to my desire to eat Kraft mac and cheese and chai tea for every meal, I would be nutritionally deficient and constantly strung out on caffeine and sugar (not to mention more than a few pounds heavier). I indulge every so often, but generally find healthier alternatives that don’t taste as good to my taste buds, but are what my body needs to stay healthy and happy. Additionally, I found a job that balances my desire for stability and variety. It has pros and cons like any other job and I still sit at a desk all day, but I make a point to walk or climb during my hour lunch break to satisfy my need for activity and movement.

The list could go on and on. Look at your life and find areas where you are allowing excess rule and not balancing wants and needs as you would like to ideally. I promise your life will be simpler and more fulfilling.

Sources for Pictures:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/thenext28days/9401264203/
http://www.flickr.com/photos/87310047@N05/9423098109/in/photolist-fmFQLM-bUwu3d-d7QRxh-9BRsvG-au4b5X-8hNL3P-8fFRvV-afSQxg-daFg95-carbQW-ctAVu9-9jWoWQ-afVA6A-fmWoxm-ePc2b9-ehPdhg-eaB6E1-ehWtGy-ehRzDk-f87Kpk-d4S7PW-9PjH49-eCYBZd-eiqmkE-8mGqLT-8sqZph-aJ8hrP-dEWce7-85xnSr-fKJ5RR-fxLfA1-bvp1z5-fpoRJY-9PT5QX-a6mwXW-fmVXCA-fp3VN5-7CMsEY-f6MojQ-7ECz77-9E56kR-7EBTQo-a9nNXH-b1pbze-8xXKoR-91JEpD-acrY2i
http://www.flickr.com/photos/86838704@N00/3933387503/in/photolist-6ZzD4V-7bNnmu-7m5JSq-7mhbd6-7mkyp5-7nNwya-f8yDux-bFcYy8-hgzA2X-fGXeu1-9wjPd3-9wjPLo-9wjPy5-9wgNUp-eihLqE-f8y2hV-c73whC-cwRpM5-bpKt7B-aCfh3i-aS3SRe-djLQhB-8i1Le6-fGXiwj-fGXhiE-fGEDcB-d5j4Es-dRPg5d-8MugCV-dNazWo-bVzhx8-bicR8n-eaJvEb-c73yzL-9UhyMT-9Ukn3y-9Ukn8b-85J4cv-eDX9kQ-eDX9m7-dX6ZCi-dXcDnY-9f9z2w-dDaMJb-f8NKDG-89A3EB-7LwttS-fiC2yT-93uVZD-aS3SHr-du7HWs