Making Life Run Smoothly

man and woman walks on dock
at home

We all love going on holiday, but how often do you arrive at your destination only to realise that you’ve forgotten something. One time Mr Simple forgot to pack any pants and we had to stop on the way to buy some. Fortunately they are something quite cheap, but if he’d forgotten a more expensive item or some medication we might have had to turn around and drive home.

So what’s the answer?

A packing list. Every holiday is going to be slightly different, so when you create one list, not everything on it is going to be relevant all of the time, but you will be able to adapt it. Whether you’re off for a beach holiday in the sun or a week walking in the Lake District there are basics that you’ll need. If it’s the latter you can ignore the swimsuit, but you will need the rucksac. If you’d like to see what’s on my list I’ve created a Freebie here just to give you some ideas and to get you started.  

woman in yellow tshirt and beige jacket holding a fruit stand

Another example where a checklist can come in handy is when buying groceries. I have a master list of all the items that we buy and when I do the shopping order I refer to the checklist and then see if we are running low on that item. Ideally you would notice when you’re getting low on something and add it to your shopping list as you go through the month, but that doesn’t always happen. Maybe you’re in the middle of cooking dinner and although you meant to do it you got distracted. By using this checklist it means that you don’t do your order and after it arrives realise that you’ve run out of something, but didn’t buy it. Alternatively you don’t get to the supermarket, see a product on the shelf, think to yourself, ‘I wonder if we’re running low on that?’, buy two and get home and find there’s already plenty in the cupboard.

How often do you clean the bathroom and then 30 minutes later you’re lying in the bath and you realise that you missed something – the mirror’s dirty or you forgot to check whether there’s a spare toilet roll in the cupboard. So what’s the solution I hear you ask. A cleaning checklist.

To be honest the possibilities are endless and by taking a little time to think about what areas of your life would run more smoothly and then creating a checklist, you can save yourself hours and make life run much more smoothly.  

books business computer connection
at work

I have also recently started to use checklists at work. I am a social worker. For every case there are certain tasks that have to be done. Previously, each time I was allocated a case I would sit and write a list of what I needed to do. Obviously that meant I would create that same list several times a month. Sometimes I’d miss things off, only realising later on that I’d overlooked a task. Basically, I was reinventing the wheel every few weeks. What a waste of time!

Then I came up with the idea of creating a standard list which I use every time. Now circumstances do vary and sometimes I have to add things and other times points aren’t relevant, but on the whole I use 95% of the list. It is such a time saver and I have shared it with several of my colleagues.

I also use checklists when I am writing reports. Every situation is different and there are certain issues that I need to consider; certain questions that I have to ask to make sure that nothing gets missed. Over the years that I have been doing this job I have developed a list of prompts for myself so that I don’t miss anything. There are occasions, usually fair unique situations or something that rarely comes up, where important points are overlooked and when that happens I add that to my checklist so I never forget it again.

So, it might take a little time to write out, but for many tasks you probably already have a list in your head anyway. Maybe you have written lists in the past and thrown them away. Next time you’re planning your packing or creating your shopping list, write it in a notebook and keep it. Next month, when you’re doing the shopping list again, or next year, when you’re packing for that holiday in the sun, you can just open your notebook and there it is, a list, already written for you!

If you need anymore convincing about the usefulness of checklists take a look at this short video by Matt D’Avella.

My Future Self

adult alcohol blur celebrate

This post started out as my monthly review, but has turned instead into an example of how to make decisions about your future self . Thinking back over October and about what was memorable, one occasion was a spontaneous glass of wine in a neighbour’s garden. I was coming back from a walk and bumped into two neighbours. One of them I know a little. The other one I used to work with, about ten years ago and to put it delicately, she’s not my sort of person. Nevertheless, after discovering that she lives in the same village as me, I am polite to her and she is friendly to me.

When I enquired where they were off to, the neighbour I know a little said that they were planning to have a glass of wine in her garden and she asked me to join them. I am not good at doing things on the spur of the moment and my first reaction is always to say no, but two things made me accept. Firstly, the sun was shining and I thought that it would be nice to sit outside, even if it was October and secondly, the garden in which we were going to sit opens to the public once a year as part of the National Garden Scheme. In other words, it’s a lovely place to sit with others and contemplate life.

three assorted beverage bottles on brown wooden table

The more challenging decision was when we arrived in the garden and I was asked ‘white or red?’. I have never been a big drinker and since I was diagnosed with a heart condition I rarely drink. My weekend evening tipple is one bottle of Beck’s Blue – low alcohol lager. Occasionally Mr Simple likes to have a glass of wine and as that means opening a bottle I usually have a small one as well. The problem is that I often regret it the next day. Even one small glass of wine in the evening can lead to me feeling too warm in bed and sluggish the next day. Natalie Bacon, the life coach that I follow, doesn’t drink alcohol and she has recently released a podcast about her year of being free from alcohol, which had made me think about my alcohol consumption.

I did though, on that sunny afternoon, submit to peer pressure and had a small glass of white wine, although there was a little voice in my head saying, ‘just ask for a cup of tea’.

cafe tables on the street

Since then I have been thinking about my future self and whether she drinks alcohol. I have realised that I don’t want to give it up, as I do enjoy it on occasions. Thinking of examples of those times when I do enjoy it they are mostly when we are on holiday or sharing a midday meal with friends or family. As I’ve probably mentioned before I much prefer a long leisurely lunch than a heavy meal in the evening.

On those days I enjoy a glass of wine, in particular a glass of rosé in the sunshine. Just imagine a beautiful summer’s day in France, tables and chairs outside a little restaurant and a glass of wine to accompany a delicious three course meal.  Another occasion when a glass of wine goes down well is with lunch on Christmas Day. The upside to drinking in the middle of the day and with food, it that the physical impact is much reduced. The food seems to cushion the immediate effect of the alcohol and the several hours before bedtime allow my body to process the alcohol before I go to sleep.

autumn autumn leaf autumn leaves chocolate

The long and the short of this is that I have made the decision that I will only drink alcohol at lunch time and with food. This has yet to be tested though. A friend has invited me and Mr Simple round to her home. She has a fire pit and an outdoor heater so that we can all sit outside and social distance whilst still being warm. I know that alcohol will be involved and plan to decide on an alternative before we go. In fact, just thinking about it now, if it’s a cold evening something warming, such as a hot chocolate, sounds much more attractive than a cold glass of wine actually.

So have you made any decisions about your future self? If you want a copy of my guide on how to write your future self letter you can down load it here. It really is possible to create a vision of who you want to be one, five or ten years from now and with that in mind make decisions today to move to you closer to being that person.

Your Future Self

I spend a lot of hours planning just a few weeks out of every year

If you’re like me you spend a lot of time planning your holidays, considering every detail of just two or three weeks of your life out of every year. In times when we could travel abroad I used to plan our annual two-week holiday to France in great detail. The areas that we wanted to visit, and then the specific tourist attractions in those areas. I’d spend ages on Google Maps looking at the route, picking out small towns where we could stop for our midday meal and consulting TripAdvisor for the best restaurants for that leisurely three-course lunch. place. By the time the holiday came round I’d have it all typed out in a lovely table, with accompanying leaflets that I downloaded giving ideas for walks and cycle rides. I’d include all the travelling times, the day’s activity and where we were staying that night.  

And then the best bit, implementing the plan and getting to visit and experience all the exciting things on the plan. Occasionally things wouldn’t always go as planned – places would be unexpectedly closed or we’d come across a more interesting place to visit than I’d proposed, but on the whole, we did what it said on the plan. It was great. We didn’t spend hours working out what we were going to do or where to go whilst we were actually in France, as all of the hard work was done beforehand. We just typed the day’s destination into the sat nav and off we went.

What do you want to have achieved by the time you’re old?
What about the rest of our lives?

Now, I love holidays and I’ve certainly missed going away this year, but they are only a small part of most people’s lives. The rest of the time, the 47-50 weeks of the year when you’re not away, just happens. When it comes to that time, i.e. the majority of our lives, few of us take the trouble to consider our destination or what we actually want to do on our journey. We all know the general plan – school, uni and/or job, find a partner, buy a house, kids, grandkids, retirement, death.

The trouble with not making a plan is that you may arrive at a place that you never wanted to be or you end up sitting in that chair in the old folks’ home thinking about all the things that you were going to do, but never did.

It will always end like this, but what about the journey?
Advice from Stephen Covey

Stephen Covey, the authority of ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’, talks about beginning with the end in mind. In order to decide what you want ‘the end’ to be he suggests imagining your funeral. I know it’s morbid and not something most of us want to think about, but bear with me here. Just take a moment to consider what you would like your family and friends to be saying about you after your life is over. What have you achieved? What good have you done in the world? What was important to you? This can help give you some general themes e.g. she loved nature and wildlife, he was an entrepreneur who took risks and made a million, he devoted himself to his family.  

Write to Yourself

In order to begin to me more specific about your future life, what I recommend is writing a letter to the present you from a you in the future. Decide how far into the future you want to go. Imagine it’s 2025 and Covid19 is a distant memory. Describe your ideal life. Consider areas such as your family, home, health and job. If you’re reading this in December and about to make your New Year goals perhaps just take yourself a year into the future and contemplate how you’d like to be living in December the following year. You can make your new life as realistic or fanciful as you want.

As well as activities you can also look at the sort of person you want to be e.g. someone who looks after their health, a person who gives to charity, a non-drinker. You can then use those principles to guide your current choices e.g. cutting down how many glasses of wine you have on a night out. You don’t need to change everything all at once, but just know the direction in which you’re going.

My Future Self

I’ve started to do this recently, looking at the life I’d like me and Mr Simple to be living when we’re retired. Not only does it give you long term goals to work towards, you can also identify things that you can do now. Mr Simple and I met in a walking group and we used to spend one day most weekends out hiking in the years before we lived together. More recently, particularly since we’ve moved to our current home, we’ve spent most of our free time working on the house. When I saw that in our retirement I’d like us to spend time together hiking I realised that was something that I could implement now. We don’t plan to go every week, but I’ve put it in the diary for once a month. So far we’ve managed to do this on two occasions. It was great to see the hills again, although my body’s not used to it now, but it was amazing. It’s particularly good at these times when you have to enjoy the simple pleasures that life has to offer.

Get Started

So, do you want to put as much thought into the rest of your life as you do into your holidays? If you’re not sure where to start I’ve got a freebie for you setting out areas of your life to consider. Just sign up below to get a copy and start planning the rest of your life.

Further inspiration from my favourite life coach – Natalie Bacon’s podcast and future self free training.

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Ideas For Meal Planning

introduction

As you will know if you’ve been here before I am a fan of meal planning. It’s something that I have discovered since I have been trying to reduce our monthly spending. Like anything it’s a case of trial and error and the last few months of lock down have made it more difficult. Fortunately now that things are easing up I’m back to getting a regular supermarket delivery. If you are trying to reduce your budget, food spending is one of the big three to focus on – housing and transport being the other two. It’s also probably the easiest area to work on without having to make drastic changes to your way of life. If it’s something that you’ve been thinking about for a while here’s a few tips and freebies to get you started.

Firstly check what you already have
Check your fridge and see what needs eating up
Begin with what you have

The first thing that I do is to open the fridge and take out the salad drawer. For me, this is where I store most of our vegetables. Make a list of what’s in there, particularly anything that’s been rattling around for a while and is on the verge of going off. Hopefully that won’t be the case very often in the future as planning your meals helps to reduce food waste. As well as veg what else do you have in the fridge that needs using up e.g. cheese, jars of sauce, half-empty tins, bowls of left overs.

After this, check your cupboards. I keep vegetables like potatoes and onions in there. You’ll obviously have non-perishables, such as tins of tomatoes, lentils and pasta. They don’t need eating up immediately, but I always think it’s a good idea to use up ends of packets or alternatively look at what’s been around for a while. It might also give you ideas for meals that you’ve not eaten in ages.

Finally, look at what’s in the freezer. I tend to put single portions of leftovers in the freezer. Although they’ll keep for a while, they won’t keep forever and so I try to eat them at least by a month after I’ve put them in there. Don’t know what’s in your freezer? Use a fridge magnet to put a list on the door or alternatively stick one on your kitchen noticeboard.

Think about what’s available at this time of year
What’s free or cheap

If like the Simple household you grow some of your own veg you need to add to your list what’s available to harvest. At the moment it’s peppers and tomatoes. Some things may keep in the ground for a while, whereas others, such as tomatoes and runner beans will need picking before they get too big or rot.

Even if you don’t grow your own it’s advisable to have a think about what’s in season. I feel that we’ve lost touch with this as many veg are available all year round. You’re more likely though to get a bargain on something that’s in season in the UK. I know that some people advocate looking at your supermarket flyer as it will tell you what’s on offer. To some degree I can see the sense in that, but usually many products on offer are highly processed ones that aren’t good for you and are more expensive than buying fresh ingredients.

There are lots of recipes freely available on the internet
Find recipes

Once you’ve got a list to draw upon you need to get some recipe ideas. I think that we can get into a rut with our meals and end up cooking the same things week in week out. Whilst we all have our favourites I believe that it’s good to have some variety. You may just discover a new favourite! We’ve got a selection of recipe books that I sit down with regularly. There’s always the internet as well, where you can find thousands of ideas. In more normal times I would regularly get recipe books out of the library. If there were enough recipes that we liked I might consider buying the book, otherwise I’d just photograph the best ones and then take it back to the library.

Ensure you shop with a list
make your shopping list

When you know what you’re going to be cooking over the next week or month you’ll have identified some ingredients that you need, so make sure that you put them on your shopping list. Having a list when you go to the store or do your online order is a certain way to save money and avoid future waste. It’ll stop you just shoving things in your trolley randomly and finding out when you get home that you can’t quite put together enough meals for the week or a crucial ingredient is missing.

Decide how long your plan will be
Structure of the plan

What period of time you plan for is up to you. Initially I was creating a monthly menu, but now we are having a supermarket delivery twice a month I’m planning from one delivery to the next.

There’s also the question of which meals you plan for. I started with just noting our evening meals, but more recently I’ve been planning breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. If you’re looking to lose weight or at least keep it under control, particularly when we are all at home so much and taking comfort in food, a clear plan of what you want to pass your lips makes feeling in control so much easier.

Review

As with any plan it makes sense to review it from time to time and make any changes you think would help. Once you’ve been doing it for a few months, if you keep your plans you can look back and make a list of your favourite recipes and where to find them. This can reduce the time you spend going through cookery books, although it’s always fun to have a few new meals each month.

So there we are. Now there’s no excuse not to get planning those meals. I’ve also created some basic sheets to help you get started. Just enter your email address below to get a copy.

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Draining the Shallows

If you’re a regular reader you’ll know that I’ve been making my way through Cal Newport’s book ‘Deep Work’. So far I’ve given you a general overview and introduced you to his first two rules – ‘Work Deeply‘ and ‘Embrace Boredom‘. There are four rules in total, the third of which is ‘Quit Social Media’. This title pretty much speaks for itself – limit the amount of time that you spend on your smartphone. I’m therefore just going to skip to the final rule which is ‘Drain the Shallows’.

In this chapter Cal says that if you eliminate shallow work and replace this recovered time with more of the deep alternative, not only will your business continue to function, it can become more successful. Basically if you’ve been wasting alot of time scrolling through Instagram, when you stop doing that don’t then use that extra time to watch TV. Instead do something useful to move you towards your goals. So what are his ideas for achieving this?

Plan your schedule for every day ahead of time
schedule every minute of your day

I know what you’re thinking, that’s so boring, but I honestly believe that it is life-changing. Cal believes that we spend much of our life on autopilot, not giving much thought to what we’re doing with our time. I see this so often. People’s days lack any structure. Then all of a sudden that report is due tomorrow and they’re up all night writing it. Their life goes through peaks and troughs. They lurch from one crisis to the next, instead of being on an even keel. That may sound boring, but I can tell you, it’s a lot less stressful.

Cal recommends dividing the hours in your work day into blocks, assigning activities to each block. The minimum length of a block should be 30 minutes. The block tasks should be generic and you then make a separate list of the full set of small tasks that you plan to accomplish in that block. The life coach Natalie Bacon would say that you shouldn’t write “work on article”, but should say, “write 1000 words of article”. In other words, quantify the task that you want to have achieved at the end of that block.

How can you guarantee that you’ll allow enough time to achieve a task? You probably won’t at first, but you will get better as you go along. You will also have tasks that crop up unexpectedly. It’s rare than someone has a job which is entirely predictable. So, even though you’re going to write yourself a schedule, it needs to be flexible and you may have rewrite it as you go along.

I have recently moved to having only an electronic calendar and it makes this so easy. There’s no more messy paper diary with lots of crossing out. All my tasks and appointments are given slots on my calendar and as the week goes on they get moved around. Sometimes I put off a task until the following week. Other times, if something is cancelled, instead of wasting the space that’s been created I can easily see what I planned to do tomorrow and bring something forward.

Divide your day into activity blocks
Cal’s tips for scheduling
  • Over time you will get better at predicting how many blocks tasks require
  • Use overflow blocks – allocate the expected time a task will take, then follow this with a block that has a split purpose
  • Be liberal with your use of task blocks – lots of things come up in the day. Having regularly occurring blocks of time to address these surprises keeps things running smoothly. I have two 30 minute blocks a day where I deal with emails and make calls. Sometimes these get extended and other days they are shortened. I also use this time to create new blocks in my calendar for tasks that arise.
Work out what is ‘deep work’ and the rest is ‘shallow’
quantify the depth of every activity

Once you have a schedule you can determine how much time you’re actually spending in shallow activities. To determine whether a task is deep or shallow ask yourself:

How long would it take (in months) to train a smart recent graduate with no specialised training in my field to do this task?

Once you know where your activities fall on the deep-to-shallow scale, try to make more time for deep work and reduce the amount of shallow activities that you do.

Try to get guidance from your boss about deep work
Ask Your Boss for a shallow work Budget

Ask yourself or your boss:

What percentage of my time should be spent on shallow work?

Settle on a specific answer and try to stick to this. Obeying this budget will likely require changes to your behaviour e.g. saying no to some projects, having more mornings where you turn off all communication e.g. emails and your phone. You may decide it’s not as important as you once thought to respond quickly and in detail to every email that crosses your inbox. If your amount of shallow work increases over the limit you’ve set, your boss should agree to you saying no to things.

Cal comments that it’s incredibly wasteful to pay highly trained professionals to do things such as send email messages. When I read this I wanted to copy it to my management team as I spend a lot of time doing administrative tasks, as do many people in the public sector. I always feel that it is such a waste of me as a resource. Someone on the minimum wage, with half a day’s training, could do some of the tasks that I have to regularly complete. I feel that I could be a much more effective employee if these tasks were reallocated.

Your desk should be clear by 5.30pm
Finish Your work by Five Thirty

Cal calls this ‘fixed-schedule productivity’ – fixing a firm goal of not working past a certain time. I think nowadays many people are very poor at this. I think that it’s a result of a couple of factors. Firstly, many people do have too much work, but there are those who do seem to manage their time better than others. I think there’s also something ego-boosting about feeling that you have to be available all of the time. It’s like saying that your work couldn’t run without you, when in fact that’s probably not the case. I am definitely a fan of turning your work phone off at 5pm and on a Friday it stays off until Monday morning.

Email and instant messages makes us too available – you need to learn to manage it
Become Hard to Reach

Finally Cal gives a few tips for dealing with emails:

  1. Make people who send you email do more work e.g. sender filter laying out expectations e.g. I don’t always reply.
  2. Do more work when you send or reply to emails. Give full replies with specifics e.g. meet up times and locations to reduce the amount of emails back and fore. Each email will take more time, but save you time in the long run.
  3. Don’t respond

So there we are. If you’re like me and still in work, but doing all of it from home, you may have some more time to reflect on how you’re managing your work day. How about putting some of these suggestions into practice? You may find that if you put them in place now, once life gets back to normal you’ll be more productive than you were before.