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.

Embrace Boredom – the route to ‘Deep Work’

Beagle dog looking bored
You need to learn to just be bored sometimes

In this third post looking at the book ‘Deep Work’, by Cal Newport, I’m going to take you through his second rule, entitled ‘Embrace Boredom‘. In a nutshell, this is about learning to live without distractions. It also includes tips and ideas for learning to concentrate better and focus your mind on challenging problems.

embracing boredom

I was recently reminded of the rarity of just sitting alone by this recent post from Hustle Escape. With smartphones as our constant companions we very rarely just sit and do nothing. Waiting in the queue at the supermarket checkout we spend the time looking at our phones. On the train home from work no one talks to each other, they’re all just looking at their phones. According to Cal you need to wean your mind from this type of behaviour. If you don’t you’ll struggle to achieve the level of concentration required for deep work.

phone showing social media icons
Make time slots to lose yourself in social media
Take Breaks from Focus, not from Distraction

Instead of constantly checking your email and what the authors of ‘Make Time’, John Zeratsky and Jake Knapp, call ‘infinity pools’, e.g. Twitter and Facebook, schedule times to do this. Outside of those times you need to avoid social media and other internet distractions altogether. Cal Newport suggests writing down on a piece of paper the next time you’re allowed to use the internet. He says that it’s not the service itself which reduces your brain’s ability to focus. It’s the constant switching from low stimuli/high value activities to high stimuli/low value activities at the slightest hint of boredom or when you’re trying to do an intellectually taxing task, that teaches your mind to never tolerate an absence of novelty.

the word email on tiles
Keep email to their own time slots
Three points to consider

If you have to spend a lot of time answering emails in your job, just schedule lots of blocks of time to do this, rather than switching back and fore between deep work tasks and email activity.

You must keep the time outside these blocks absolutely free from internet use. Basically, close your emails down so they don’t pop up as you’re doing deep work and distract you. Put your phone on silent when you’re having focused time. I do this with my personal mobile. I need to learn to do the same with my work one, as nothing is ever that urgent that it can’t wait, but I’ve resisted this.

Scheduling internet use at home as well as at work can further improve your concentration training. It might be that what you do in the evenings and on weekends is undoing all that great training that you’re doing for your brain when you’re at work. Try the same techniques in your personal life. When you’re spending time with your family put your phone in another room and agree just to look at it when the kids have gone to bed.

Set a deadline

One tactic for getting yourself to focus on a task is to set yourself a tight deadline. It will mean that you have to concentrate intensely on finishing the project. You won’t have time for distractions. I must admit I have never been one to work this way as tight deadlines stress me, although I know many people who seem to leave tasks until the eleventh hour and are able to work all night to get them done.

feet in trainers walking on boardwalk
Take a walk and think about a problem you’re trying to solve
Moving meditation

We’ve all heard about sitting in a chair, or even cross-legged, quietly for a few minutes and the benefits that this can bring. I’ve even written a post about it, but Cal suggests a different type of meditation. This is where you are doing something physically e.g. walking or showering and during that time you focus your attention on a specific problem. When you are distracted you need to bring your mind back to the challenge that you’ve set yourself. I’ve not tried this in such an intentional way, although I do find that my mind will mull over problems when I’m driving (if I’m not listening to a podcast that is) or over the summer, gardening is a task that allows my mind to wander. According to Cal, as a rule you should try to do this two to three times a week.

conclusion

So there we are, some really practical ideas for how to achieve the goal of deep work. For me it is something that I am still working on, but I do feel that I have improved my ability to concentrate, particularly in the afternoon, which I used to find really difficult during that ‘post lunch dip’ period. Have you tried any of Cal’s advice from my previous posts? I would love to know how you got on?

The First Rule of ‘Deep Work’

the words work harder in a neon sign on a blue wall
Learn not just how to work harder, but also how to work smarter

I have finally finished making notes from ‘Deep Work’ by Cal Newport. It has taken me much longer than I expected, probably because it contains so much useful information. I had planned to write just one more post looking at his four rules, but the first rule alone is going to take up all of this post.

If you missed my first post on ‘The Benefits of Discovering Deep Work’, then take at look at it here, otherwise let’s get started…

The philosophies of deep work

The first rule is – Work Deeply i.e. implement his recommended way of working. Cal suggests four different ways in which you can go about trying to do this, which he calls ‘philosophies’.

Monastic

Basically lock yourself away like a monk, ignore the modern world and do deep work. This is how some of the great minds of our time have written the texts that made them famous. Unfortunately this is not practical for most of us. I don’t think that my employer would be happy for me to take a couple of months off to go and live in the woods.

Bimodal

In this philosophy you spend whole days at a time, with a minimum of at least one whole day, doing deep work. Again, this may not be practical unless you have complete control over your time.

Rhythmic

Have a set time each day during which you do deep work. This may be achievable if your days follow a set format. Unfortunately for me, no two days are the same, so having to do this would make it difficult for me.

Journalistic

Fit deep work wherever you can into your schedule. At the beginning of the week or the end of the previous week, have a look at your calendar and see where there are gaps that you can allocate to doing deep work. This is the method that I have been trying to use and which Cal himself employs.

desk with laptop, lamp and vase of roses
If you want to do ‘Dee Work’ you will need to remove distractions from your desk
The Method

Once you have decided on when you are going to do your deep work, Cal then gives you tips on how to actually achieve it.

Where

Decide on a specific location in which to do deep work. Open plan offices are not a good place to focus. I have never understood why employers think that they are such a good idea. If you work in an open plan office and want to do deep work, I would suggest that you ask to work at home on some days. Alternatively you could try to block out noise distractions with ear plugs, but you can’t shut your eyes to cut out visual ones.

I am lucky in that I can work at home a lot. My office is at the front of the house and although I try to minimise distractions I still lose focus when someone walks past the house. I don’t want to close the curtains and sit in the dark, but I have considered buying a roller blind which would let in light, but block out the world.

Ritualise

Include various rituals as part of your routine e.g. start with a good cup of coffee, have a break part way through to take a walk and clear your mind. I suppose it’s a way of signalling to your body and mind that you are about to do some deep work. It’s a bit like brushing your teeth and putting your pyjamas on before bed. Your body knows that it’s time to wind down and think about going to sleep.

Prioritise

Decide what’s most important to you and focus on that during your deep work hours. You can’t do deep work all day every day, as it’s hard and your concentration is limited. Therefore you have to select the most important parts of your work to undertake during this time. For me this is writing reports, which is the culmination of all of my smaller tasks and what other people see.

Collaborate

This may be not be relevant to your role, but if it is you could work alongside someone else to push you both deeper in your work. You will also need to make time for your own individual deep work. An example would be if you are working in product development and want to bounce ideas off of someone else. You may be a scientist and deep discussions with a colleague may help you to make that breakthrough you so desperately want.

Be lazy

Have a set shutdown time at the end of the day and forget about work. This helps recharge the energy that you need to work deeply. It allows the conscious brain to switch off and the unconscious mind takes a turn in sorting through your most complex professional challenges.

According to Cal Newport, any work undertaken in the evening will not be ‘deep work’ and so will be less valuable. Without a break you may not be able to achieve quality deep work the following day. When later reflecting on this I realised that for those with caring responsibilities this may not be realistic. I know many women who finish work early in order to collect their children from school and be with them until they go to bed. After that they turn on the computer again and finish their working day.

Evaluate

Deep work is a new skill and from my recent experience, not easy. You need to practise regularly and hone your skills. You should routinely review what went well and what didn’t. Then change your practice accordingly. Over time you will hopefully get better at deep work.

Conclusion

In our working day there are so many interesting distractions, such as checking email or looking at our phones. It’s tempting to busy ourselves with these easier tasks, but they often bring less value to our work. It’s the more complex tasks, which take focus and commitment, that you need to master if you are going to progress. Whether it’s career advancement that you’re looking for or an ability to focus on your side hustles, both of which may help you on your road to financial independence, deep work may be the answer.

Fancy trying out ‘deep work’? I’d love to know how you get on. I’ll tell you about the three other rules next time. Until then, thanks for reading and take care.

The Easier Way to Set Goals

A new decade of opportunities ahead

If you’re like me you’ve probably been reading lots of posts about setting goals. It’s that time of year when everyone in the personal development world seems to sit down and make long lists of all the great things they are going to do over the next year. So, have you made your list or are you finding it hard to decide what you need to work on? Too many ideas rattling around in your head? Join the club.

I am late to the goal-setting party with this post as I have spent quite some time mulling over my non-financial goals for the coming year. In order to help I re-visited a podcast by Natalie Bacon in which she suggests eight areas of your life to work on. They are:

  1. Heath
  2. Relationships
  3. Money
  4. Career/business
  5. Personal/spiritual
  6. Environment/space/home
  7. Recreation/fun
  8. Service/contribution

With such a vast array of areas it felt very overwhelming. It’s not that I don’t think that all of these are important, it’s just that trying to make and achieve goals in all these areas at once seems impossible.

Whilst doing my physio exercises the other morning I listened to one of Laura Vanderkam’s Before Breakfast podcasts. She shared an idea, which she admits she stole from someone else, about splitting your goals into quarters i.e. spreading them throughout the year. I realised that this was the answer. I don’t have to do everything at once. I’ve now finally managed to come up with a plan for the first three months of the year. So here goes…

Health

A battle for most people, but for us the 5:2 diet is working
Improve our diet and lose weight

We plan to continue the 5:2 diet. I don’t have an aim for me, but I would like Mr Simple to lose half a stone. Secondly, I am going to try to add some more variety into our meals. In my bid to reduce our spending on food the menu has become rather restricted, so I’m hoping to add in some new recipes. The good thing about Veganuary is that the library has been displaying lots of vegetarian and vegan books. Now I just need to go through the ones I’ve borrowed and pick some new recipes to try over the next couple of months.

Walk 5000 steps a day

Now, I know what you’re gonna say, it’s meant to be 10,000, but I really struggle to achieve that when work involves so much sitting. Therefore I’ve decided to aim for something that’s doable. As I sit here, on a Sunday afternoon, I’ve only done just over 3,000. Therefore, walking 5,000 is still an improvement on my usual day. I’ve reset my Fitbit to vibrate and congratulate me at the 5,000 mark instead of the usual 10,000.

I can’t keep paying for this instead of addressing the problem myself
Reduce tightness in neck and shoulders

This is an ongoing issue, which I’ve failed to address for a very long time, except by going to massage or physiotherapy sessions. As I’ve said before, I am trying to save money on physiotherapy sessions and the way to do this is to practise the exercises that the physio has given me. Sadly, my willpower in this area is lacking or at least it is by the end of the day. I’m fine first thing and usually spend about ten minutes going through the routine, but by the end of the day, the honest answer is, I can’t be bothered. I was trying to think of a reward to give myself if I do my exercises every day for a whole month, but I haven’t yet. Any ideas?

Jog three times per week

I currently jog on my treadmill about twice a week. It is a very short jog, but it gets my heart rate up and I feel better for it. The trouble is that even though it doesn’t take a lot of time, with the other activities that I like to do in the morning I can’t always fit it in if I have to leave home before 9am. I need to adapt my routine, maybe jogging at lunch time if I’ve been out first thing, but am home by then, or when I come back in the evening. I’ve got a plan for developing my jogging in the next quarter (which I’ll let you know in April)  so I need to keep my fitness level up.

The last of our upstairs room to be decorated – our bedroom

Environment

As I’ve talked about before, we are gradually renovating our home. Mr Simple has almost finished painting the dining room. Next on the list is the main bedroom. We are probably going to have fitted wardrobes, but we’ve got to work out how they are going to fit around the chimney that passes through the room. We can’t knock this out as it contains the flue for the wood burner in the lounge. We’ve then got to decide on a colour scheme.

Relationships

Although this can be real life relationships, I’ve decided to focus on virtual ones. I get so much out of interacting with like-minded individuals on line and want to do more of this. My hope for the first quarter of the year is to increase my Twitter activity and have more followers. Over the past month I’ve gained about one follower a day and the current grand total stands at 194, which isn’t many at all compared to most. I am therefore going to aim for a total of 300 by the end of March. That may be pushing it slightly, but we’ll see.

And that’s it. They’re mainly health goals, which can’t be bad. Obviously I haven’t covered all of the areas that Natalie Bacon suggests, but that’s the idea. There’ll be nine more months when I can work on new goals in the career, personal, recreation and service categories. I’ve already made my financial goals for the year, which you can read here. I will let you know how I’m getting on at the end of March and then set some more goals for the next quarter.

So how’s your goal setting for 2020 goal? Feeling overwhelmed by all of the areas you need to work on? Why not just choose a couple and set goals for just the first quarter of the year? I’d love to hear how you get on.

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