The Pleasures of Autumn

We can enjoy the beautiful colours of autumn now

It’s the 1st of November. I always used to tell myself that I didn’t like autumn and winter, but I have realised that there are many aspects of this time of year that I do enjoy.

Beautiful scenery

At the end of last week we went to Somerset for a few days in order to see the autumn colours. Unfortunately as the weather has been fairly mild the trees hadn’t changed colour as much as we would have liked. It was a little disappointing, but then today I realised we have beautiful places on our doorstep, one of which I pass through on the way to work several times a week. It is a small wooded area and this morning the colours were absolutely beautiful.

Opening your eyes to the beauty around you is a simple and free pleasure. Even if you live in an urban environment I expect there are some trees about. As a child I used to walk to school in the London suburb where we lived and the journey in autumn was often taken up kicking the piles of leaves that had fallen off of the plane tress.

Let podcasts keep you company on the dark drives home

New ideas

As well as the looking at the beautiful scenery I was also enjoying listening to Ryan Holiday talking about stoicism. It’s something new I’ve discovered whilst listening to the Afford Anything podcast. His work, which is a modern interpretation of ancient philosophers, is really interesting. At the moment I have only just scratched the surface, but am looking forward to learning more.

You can listen to him here being interviewed by Paula Pant.

On these dark nights there can be little to look at, so keep yourself company with one of the many podcasts there are. Only today a colleague was complaining about long journeys that she has had to make recently and I suggested several podcasts that she could listen to. Make your commute something to look forward to as you lose yourself in the infinite world of podcasts.

chestnut in spiky casing
Sweet chestnuts can be roasted in the oven

Simple Pleasures

Whilst we were away last week Mr Simple collected sweet chestnuts. He was amazed that there were so many on the ground. Maybe due to the mild weather they hadn’t all been eaten by the squirrels. He has been roasting them this evening. We probably don’t do enough of this. Autumn is the time when the hedgerows are laden with blackberries. We didn’t go picking them as we still have a couple of boxes in the freezer from last year. The season is now over, but it’s something to look forward to for next year.

Although the weather is pretty miserable, one of the joys of this time of year is snuggling up on the sofa in front of the wood burner. Like most people we have central heating, but there is something lovely about a naked flame. I look forward to weekend evenings with Mr Simple watching a bit of TV whilst sitting cosily in front of the fire. All of the wood comes from trees that we have had cut down in the garden so it feels like we’re getting it for free.

Be grateful

So, as we go into the weekend I hope that you’re finding something to enjoy. Even if it’s just being grateful that you’re inside warm and dry as the rain lashes against the windows outside.

How Not to be Busy

How well do you plan your work?

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For me ‘a simple life’ extends to keeping work simple, to keeping it between Monday and Friday and between approximately 9am and 5pm, but I know that it’s easier said than done. It seems that we are all expected to be busy. I don’t see my colleagues very often, as I work at home a lot, or am out and about at meetings, but when I do see them that is the first question that they ask me, ‘Are you busy?’ It’s an expectation. I feel scared to say that I’m not. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I haven’t got enough to keep me occupied, but most of the time I don’t feel overwhelmed by it. I’m not up until 2am writing reports the day before the deadline, unlike some of my fellow workers.

So how do I manage this then? I haven’t got less work than other people, it’s just that I have systems in place to manage it and I spend a lot of time planning. Some people would say that I spend too much time planning. The thing is when I’ve got a plan I feel calm.

Daily planning

My work days are very varied. Sometimes I am at home all day, other times I am out at the door at 8am, going to various appointments and don’t get to sit down at my computer until the afternoon, if at all. When I do get some time to myself though I have a system that I go through and I have that system written down. It includes tasks such as:

  • complete timesheet
  • reflect on previous day and note tasks arising
  • check voicemails
  • check emails
  • list any other tasks

Most days I get at least an hour to do this at some point. What this means is that I don’t end up for example having to fill in my timesheet days or weeks late when I can’t actually remember what hours I worked on that day. It doesn’t become a chore. It takes a few seconds at the beginning and end of the day and it’s done. I don’t forget about a message someone left on my phone. If I went to a meeting the day before then a task I add to my list is to write up my notes.

Make all your phone calls at once

How to keep track of your tasks

So, where do all the tasks go? Thanks to this book by David Allen I’ve developed a task sheet. It has sections for phone calls, emails, notes to write up, documents to read. The idea behind this is that instead of flitting from one type of task to the other it is easier to make all of your phone calls in one go or send your emails one after the other. On many days I am out and about between meetings and sitting in my car. I can look at my task list to see what calls I need to make and do those whilst I have time to kill. Other, lengthier tasks, I’ll save for when I am sitting at a desk.

Weekly planning

Years ago, I went on a training course about planning. It was a two-day course, the days several months apart so that we could try to implement the recommendations and then return later in the year to review how we were getting on. What I learnt from that course is that it’s not just enough to have a to do list, you have to put time aside in your diary to undertake those tasks. In fact, I came across an episode of The Life Coach School recently entitled ‘Throw away your to do list’. Brooke Castillo talked about this exact thing. Take your to-do list, diarise each task and then throw away your list.

We all have deadlines. My job involves writing reports, one at the beginning and one at the end of the project. For the initial ones I don’t always have a lot of notice, but for the final ones I know six months in advance when they will be due. I can also pretty much guess what other tasks I’ll have to do to gather information for the report. Each week I review where I am on different projects and put aside time in my diary several months in advance for any meetings that I need to arrange and to write the report. Now, I don’t always stick exactly to the time and day, but I know roughly what I’ll have to do over that week. It also means that I won’t miss anything nearer the time. I won’t sit down to write my report and think, ‘I should have met with so and so’, because I’d have diarised it and done it before the slot for report writing was in my diary. It also allows me to see how much work I’ll have in a certain month and if the manager is trying to give me something new to work on I can show how many other commitments I have at that time.

Every week I try to look at the following week, which should already have appointments pencilled in, and book those meetings. When the week arrives then I add the other day-to-day things such as making calls and typing up notes.

Do you ever turn these off?

Being Effective

There is also the question of focus. When you have to prepare a report how well are you able to concentrate on it? I have recently listed to Cal Newport on a couple of podcasts talk about his book ‘Deep Work’. Although I am yet to read the book, the basics that I gleaned from the interviews were that in this world of instant responses and the temptation of social media, in order to be able to be productive you need to disconnect yourself from all of that. He recommends turning off your email alerts, putting your phone in another room and basically reducing distractions as much as possible. All of this may be very difficult if you work in an open plan office, of which Cal is not a fan. If you can reduce distractions, he then recommends practising ‘deep work’ by setting a timer for say 30 minutes and trying to immerse yourself in the work you need to do for that period of time. After 30 minutes you can check your emails or your phone. It might be a good idea to get up from your computer. You could make a cup of tea, or if like me you are at home, hang out the washing. I have tried this recently and I can only do so many 30-minute slots in a row before I feel exhausted and I need to do something less taxing. I have found it to be very effective though. I am hoping that when I get around to reading his book (which is on my bedside table) I will learn how to get better at this.

Now, I don’t want to sound as though I am perfect as there are times when I have worked on the weekend, but they are few and far between. Usually they are before or after annual leave. Unfortunately, in my job, there is no one else to pick up your tasks whilst you are off, therefore if you have a deadline for a report in the middle of your holiday that report needs to get written before you go away. Apart from that, as I said, life is simple. Work happens on weekdays and rarely extends past 6pm. That way I can enjoy my early mornings, my evenings and my weekends. Work feels just a part of my life and I have time for plenty of other activities.

So, how do you plan your working life? What do you struggle with at work? What tips do you have for others who have a busy schedule? Let me know if you want more information about anything that I have written.

How to Eat Well

Dr Chatterjee recommends eating a rainbow of different coloured vegetables

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This week we’re back to Dr Chatterjee’s Four Pillar Plan and the pillar I’m looking at is ‘Eat’. It seems quite relevant to be writing about food at this point as Mr Simple and I have started the 5:2 diet today. Actually, he is starting it, bullied into it by me and I am keeping him company. He keeps saying that he will cut out beer and crisps or just eat a calorie-controlled diet every day, but it never happens. I think that the 5:2 diet, although it is difficult on the fast days (I know I have tried it before) the good thing is that on the other days you can eat normally, including the occasional bowl of crisps, and it is still effective.

So what does Dr Chatterjee saying about eating…

Dr Chatterjee does not believe that there’s one true diet that’s optimal for everyone. According to him we are capable of thriving on a whole range of diets. Have you heard of blue zones? These are magical areas where the proportion of people who live past 100 is up to ten times higher than the average rate. If you go back to my previous posts by Dr John Day you will see that he studied one in China.

The broad and basic principles that are consistent among all the blue-zone diets are:

  • None has a processed-food culture. By and large they eat fresh, unprocessed, local produce.
  • They all sit down and eat meals together.
  • They eat what’s in season.
  • They have treats, but only at very special festival times such as Christmas and Easter, not every day after school or every Friday and Saturday.
Many of our foods contain a lot of sugar

Dr Chatterjee recommends the following:

De-normalise sugar

Retrain your taste buds by removing all sugars from your cupboards and get into the habit of always reading the label on your food to check the sugar content. It is really surprising where manufacturers hide sugar e.g. mango chutney, which I love with curry, is full of sugar – it is the main ingredient.

A new definition of ‘five a day’

Aim to eat at least five portions of vegetables every day – ideally of five different colours. Dr Chatterjee says that one of the reasons for this is that variety is good for the bugs that live in our gut and their associated genes collectively known as our microbiome.

How to increase your colours:

  • Print out the rainbow chart from drchatterjee.com (link) and put it on your fridge. Tick off all the colours you have consumed in one day.
  • Get into the habit of snacking on veg – carrots with hummus, cucumber with tahini, celery sticks with almond butter.
  • Leave colourful appealing vegetables on the kitchen worktop or your desk so that you see them regularly: bright orange carrots, red and yellow peppers, green olives.
  • Add two vegetables to every meal, including breakfast. If you’re having eggs in the morning try adding spinach and avocado. This is one of my favourite ways of increasing the amount of vegetables that you eat. So many people eat cereals and toast for breakfast, missing out on the opportunity to get in one or two of their five a day.
  • Roast a whole baking tray of colourful vegetables drizzled with olive oil; eat some with your evening meal and save the left-overs in the fridge. They can form the basis of lunch the next day.

Introduce daily micro-fasts

Get into the habit of eating all of your food within a twelve-hour time window. Our bodies are designed for going without food for certain periods of time. As soon as you start to give your body a break from all the gorging, incredible things start to happen. Eating all your food in a restricted time window allows your body to repair cells and the immune system. I heard a great analogy on one of Dr Chatterjee’s podcasts – your body trying to repair cells with food still passing through your gut is like workmen trying to resurface the motorway with cars still driving up and down it.

Six tips to help you micro-fast:

  1. Choose a twelve-hour period that suits your lifestyle. Note that your twelve-hour eating window is from the beginning of your first meal to the end of your last meal.
  2. Your body likes rhythm so try and keep to the same times every day, even at weekends. Occasionally you may need to change your eating window – this is absolutely fine.
  3. Outside your eating window stick to water, herbal tea or black tea and coffee. Be careful with caffeine so you don’t adversely affect your sleep.
  4. Try to involve other members of your household or even work colleagues. This will help to keep you motivated and increase your chances of success.
  5. Don’t be disheartened if you miss a day or even two. It really doesn’t matter. When you feel ready, try again and see how you get on.
  6. When you are feeling comfortable with twelve hours, you may choose to experiment with short eating windows on different days. If you do this pay attention to how the change makes you feed and adjust accordingly.
Try to drink more water – adding calorie-free flavour

Drink more water – aim to drink eight small glasses of water per day (approx. 1.2 litres)

Tips to help you increase your water intake:

  • Have two glasses of water when you wake up each morning
  • If you’re hungry mid-morning or mid-afternoon, try having a glass of water instead of a snack
  • Once every hour get up from your desk and go to the water cooler
  • Drink a glass of water thirty minutes before each meal
  • Set an alarm three times per day to remind you to have a drink
  • Try adding lemon or orange slices for flavour – I add fresh mint leaves

Unprocess your diet

There’s no need to count calories, fat, carbs, weight watchers’ points, slimmer’s world sins. Simply focus on avoiding highly processed foods. It’s a pretty safe bet that any food product that contains more than five ingredients is highly processed. Dr Chatterjee believes that the major problem is not that we’re simply eating too much food; it’s actually that we’re eating the wrong type of food. We are now eating large quantities of low-quality food.

Tips to unprocess your diet and eat more real food

  1. Start your day with a meal containing some protein as well as some healthy, natural fat. This will help you stay full for longer, stabilise your blood sugar and help you avoid the mid-morning crash e.g. those eggs and vegetables, not cereals and toast.
  2. Keep an emergency snack pack with you at all times. It can live in your back-pack, your car and even your office. Dr Chatterjee’s includes a tin of wild salmon, almonds and nut butter.
  3. Write a meal planner – many people find it useful to plan out their meals for the whole week so that they can plan their weekly shop.
  4. Remove all highly-processed food from your house – if it’s not there you are much less likely to eat it.
  5. Healthy food is available to buy in every supermarket. Find out where it lives and only shop those aisles.
  6. Come up with five simple meals that you can whip up in fifteen minutes or less. These will become your go to staples.
  7. Keep frozen vegetables in the house at all times. Easy to steam, they can be a quick, healthy snack or form part of a meal. I think that there is a snootiness around frozen veg i.e. they are seen as only eaten by the lower classes, except maybe frozen peas. In fact they have more nutrients than fresh veg that have taken days or weeks to get from the field to your plate. They are also cheaper than fresh. In particular I like frozen spinach to put in curries and have recently bought broccoli and cauliflower for this purpose as well.
  8. Keep pre-chopped garlic and onions in the fridge at all times.
  9. Make sure you always have a healthy protein source such as fish or eggs in the house. Protein is the macronutrient that keeps you most full. It takes little time to boil an egg or pan-fry a salmon fillet.
  10. Herbs and spices are your friends – use them freely as they are a great way to add new and exciting flavours to a meal. Many, such as turmeric, ginger and black pepper, have powerful health benefits. Mr Simple and I eat curry several times a week. I think that you can curry almost any vegetable.
  11. Make your kitchen area desirable. You want to love being in your kitchen.

So that’s it. Do you want to change your eating habits? I think that it’s so easy to overeat and our society makes it easier to be fat than it is to be thin, which takes real effort and a great deal of willpower. As Dr Chatterjee’s suggestions show, you have to make it easier to make healthy choices. What are your tricks for doing this? I would love to know. Or are you struggling with food? Need some help? I would love to give you some more tips to try. Let me know in the comments below and don’t forget to check out ‘The Four Pillar Plan’.

How to Sleep Well

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A couple of weeks ago week I introduced to you Dr Rangan Chatterjee, a GP and author of ‘The Four Pillar Plan’. I talked about how to relax and hopefully that’s given you some good ideas. This week I want to tell you what he says about how to get a good night’s sleep.

According to him, waking up feeling refreshed is a good general barometer of overall health, but I know that many people struggle with this. He believes that waking up at the same time, give or take 30 minutes, without an alarm, is a good indicator that your body’s intrinsic biological rhythms are working well. I am lucky as this happens to me, but Mr Simple complains as he likes to sleep in. Unfortunately I feel like death warmed up when I do that. Most days I get up and go and make a cup of tea. This helps to get Mr Simple going in the morning.

Not being able to drop off within thirty minutes of trying means that there is likely to be something in your lifestyle that is un-training your body’s own natural ability to sleep. I think Mr Simple is jealous of my ability to fall asleep almost as soon as my head hits the pillow. He would say that he struggles to get to sleep, because as soon as I do so, I start snoring and he can’t get to sleep due to the noise level.

What then are Dr Chatterjee’s tips for a better night’s sleep. Firstly…

Create an environment of absolute darkness

Try to keep your bedroom completely dark and free of televisions or e-devices. One of the worst things you can do in the hour or two before bed is look at your smartphone or tablet. What goes for e-devices also goes for television. Turn it off at least 30 minutes before you go to bed. I’ve never really understood the idea of having a TV in the bedroom. Maybe it’s because I’m a bit of a bookworm and so bed is for reading and not watching TV.

Embrace morning light

Spend at least twenty minutes outside every morning. Even on the dullest days we’re still exposing ourselves to light at a higher amount outdoors than if we were inside. This is not something that I am good at. My excuse is always that if the weather was better I would do so. Also, our patio area at the back of the house is a bit tatty at the moment and not a pleasant place to sit. Once it is looking better I will have no excuse.

Have a cup of tea outside in the morning

Tips to help you embrace morning light:

Have your morning tea or coffee in the garden or next to a window

Don’t get your newspaper delivered; collect it on foot.  My frugal streak would say not to buy a paper at all, but just go for a walk. My grandfather used to go to the local shop every morning to buy his paper. Whenever we stayed with my grandparents we would go out with him to the shop in the morning.

If you must drive in the morning, leave the car a ten-minute walk away from your destination.

If you shop in the morning park as far as possible from the supermarket entrance.

Get off the bus half a mile from your destination and walk the remaining distance.

Consider getting a dog and taking it for a walk every morning. This is lovely on a summer’s morning, but I’m writing this on a particularly wet day in July and the thought of having to take a dog out in that is not something that I would look forward to. I do know though that when we looked after a friend’s dog for a week last August I went out twice a day no matter what the weather.

Try to take a morning break and go for a short walk outside. This obviously depends on where you work. Some offices are not in particularly good locations for walking, but if yours is, try to spend a few minutes outside.

Create a bedtime routine

No matter how late you go to bed, no matter if the next day is a Monday or a Sunday, always get up at the same time. If you did stay up late the night before and are still feeling tired in the morning, it is worth trying to catch up a with a nap later on in the day.

Dr Chatterjee’s ideal night time routine

Make sure that all vigorous exercise is done by 6.30pm.

By 8.30pm turn off your computer and mobile phone.

Watch a bit of TV, but make sure it’s relaxing and do some light stretching at the same time. I watched the film ‘Everest’ a few months ago; a true story about a climbing accident and couldn’t sleep as a result of thinking about the trip leader who had to say goodbye to his pregnant wife as he was going to die on the mountain.

Alternatively, sit and listen to relaxing music or do some deep breathing in silence.

Drinks should be non-caffeinated.

Go to bed around 9.30pm. Mr Simple thinks that this is super early, but it’s when I think about going upstairs. It takes time to brush my teeth, wash my face and then I have half an hour or so to read, so lights out is not until after 10pm.

Have the bedroom window open a little. Central heating can make the bedroom too warm. It is better to have a cool bedroom and snuggle under a duvet.

Read next to a dim light until ready to fall asleep. I have a sunrise/sunset lamp which I absolutely love, mainly for the mornings as it gradually increases the amount of light in the room over 30 minutes. It is so long since I was woken by the alarm in a pitch black room and had to tell Mr Simple to cover his eyes as I switched on the bedside lamp and blinded us both. I have also used it at night when Mr Simple is away as I can go to sleep next to a dim light rather than in darkness, worrying about who might be breaking in to murder me.

Manage your commotion

Minimise any activity that will raise emotional tension before bed. Make it a cast-iron rule that you do not discuss emotive subjects in the evenings or crack into a new work task.

Tips to manage your commotion

Don’t watch the news, a thriller or any similar commotion-causing programme before bed.

Don’t discuss financial or stressful family matters

Make it a rule not to check work emails in the ninety minutes before bed. In an ideal world I would say don’t check work emails after 5pm.

Focus on relaxing exercise in the evening such as yoga or light stretching.

Meditation before bed can help you quieten your mind.

Educate your family and friends about your evening routine.

Make an entry into a gratitude journal before bed.

Enjoy your caffeine before noon

Ensure that any caffeine you do choose to consume is taken before lunchtime. When I started taking a flask of coffee with me to the office in order to save money, as there was usually some left in the afternoon, I was drinking it and had several sleepless nights as a result.

Tips to reduce your caffeine intake

Drink non-caffeinated herbal tea to get you past your 3pm slump.

Avoid decaffeinated coffee as many brands still contain trace amounts.

Drink sparkling water in place of your caffeinated beverage. Not sure I agree – just drink tap water -it’s cheaper.

Reduce your sugar intake. This will actually give you more energy and reduce the likelihood of craving a caffeine pick-me-up in the afternoon.

Drink camomile tea in the evening. This can be a great caffeine-replacement as well as promoting relaxation before sleep.

So that’s it. How do you sleep? Could you try some of these tips to help you feel more refreshed when you wake up in the morning? Do you have any other advice for how to get a good night’s sleep? I would love to know them. If you want to find out more don’t forget to check out Dr Chatterjee’s book.

Ideas for relaxing

The by-line of this blog is ‘Ideas for simple living, saving money and being well’ and I feel that recently I haven’t talked enough about being well. With that in mind I decided that I would introduce you to Dr Rangan Chatterjee. Dr Chatterjee is a general practitioner (GP), and you may know him from the BBC One series ‘Dr in the House’. The basic format of the programme was that he would stay with people who were suffering certain medical conditions, which were often caused by their lifestyle. Once he had made his assessment he would then ‘prescribe’ certain activities, foods and therapies in order to treat their conditions. I really liked the approach that he took, looking at the causes of the medical problems rather than just treating the symptoms and helping people to make permanent lifestyle changes to address their difficulties.

I then started following his podcast in which he interviews people from all areas of the wellbeing spectrum, from other doctors to sleep experts and chefs. His interviews often lead me to discover some really interesting individuals and then I can explore their ideas and maybe even buy their books.

Dr Chatterjee has himself written two books. So far, I have only read one, ‘The Four Pillar Plan’. This is an affiliate link (my first one), so if you click on here and purchase the book I will get some money. Alternatively, do as I did and get it out of the library, but if you decide to buy a copy it would be nice if you remember where you heard about it first.

According to him ‘The Four Pillar Plan’ tells you how to:

‘Relax, eat, move and sleep your way to a longer, healthier and happier life. This book is the solution to help you feel better than you ever have before.’

This is a pretty steep promise, but I do think that it lives up to it. The book gives lots of simple and easy-to-implement advice about how to make small changes to your life in order to see big improvements to your health. I got it out of the library at first, but liked it so much that I decided to buy it. I thought that I would take you through the four chapters – relax, eat, move and sleep – over my next few blog posts to give you some tips on how you can improve these areas of your life.

So here goes….

RELAX

According to Dr Chatterjee the health problems of the majority of patients that he sees are driven entirely by their lifestyle. The source of their problem is the way they’re choosing to live and their conditions are often exacerbated by the fact that they’re very busy. In order to address this he suggests the following:

Regular Me Time

Every day, for at least 15 minutes, enjoy some time for you. It must not be an activity that involves any electronic device. Examples of phone-free me-time you might consider are:

  • Having a bath
  • Going for a walk
  • Sitting in a café having a drink
  • Sitting on a park bench relaxing
  • Reading a magazine
  • Reading a book
  • Singing
  • Playing music
  • Gardening
  • Cooking with your favourite album playing, or in silence
Focusing on the positives can improve your state of mind

Keep a gratitude journal

This is a popular tool which I have come across in a lot of literature. Dr Chatterjee suggests that every night before you go to sleep, you write a list of all the things that have gone well for you that day and what you’re grateful for. He believes that this can be really effective at changing your thoughts to a more positive outlook.

Practise stillness every day

I have written about the benefits of meditation before, but that can seem quite daunting. Here Dr Chatterjee has some very simple and easy suggestions for creating a small period of calm in one’s day. He recommends making time to practise stillness for at least five minutes daily. A simple way to create a similar state of mind to that of meditation is through simple breathing exercises. He says that when your out-breath is longer than your in-breath, you activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which you can think of as your relaxation mode.

Stillness interventions you might think of trying:

  • Deep breathing
  • Yoga breathing practices such as breathing in through left nostril for four, holding for four and breathing out through the right
  • 3-4-5 breathing: breath in for 3 seconds, hold for 4 seconds and breathe out for 5 seconds.
  • Five minutes of colouring in

Reclaim your dining table

Dr Chatterjee states that in the last few years the importance of social connection to physical health has started to become clear. In order to increase our social time with loved ones he recommends eating one meal a day at the table, in company, without your devices. He believes that we’ve evolved as tribal creatures living happily in large groups so the brain interprets social isolation as a major problem. Apparently the levels of the stress hormone cortisol tend to be higher in lonely people, so we need to make more social connections with others.

There we have it, chapter one. How do you relax? I find cooking, listening to my favourite comedies on the radio or pottering in the garden are times when I can forget about my work day and feel relaxed.

Let me know your thoughts on his recommendations or maybe try a few of his suggestions and see how you get on. I think in our busy world we all need to find time to relax or and to make the most of the time that we do have to cut off from the pressures of the day.