Posts Tagged ‘stress’

Sometimes what we need to do is clean house. I’m not necessarily talking about making your bed or doing the laundry — although either one is a good start — but channeling your inner minimalist and ditching the clutter.  Both literally and figuratively.

I’ve been thinking about this lately as I watched a friend make some changes in her life, both big and small.  As she has gone about this process of reclaiming herself, one of her tasks has been to reinvent her physical space.  Out with the stuff that doesn’t matter.  In with the stuff that does.  There’s a metaphor here.

According to a piece by Jack Feuer in the July issue of UCLA magazine, we have become a clutter culture.  As Feuer writes:

Walk into any dual-income, middle-class home in the U.S. and you will come face to face with an awesome array of stuff—toys, trinkets, family photos, furniture, games, DVDs, TVs, digital devices of all kinds, souvenirs, flags, food and more. We put our stuff anywhere in the house, everywhere there’s room, or even if there’s no room. Park the car on the street so we can store our stuff in the garage. Pile the dirty laundry in the shower because there’s nowhere else to store it and no time to wash it.

George Carlin famously observed that “a house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it.”

Freuer’s piece centers on a new book, Life at Home in the 21st Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors, due out this week, part of a long-running UCLA research project on working families run by UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives of Families (CELF). In tracking the material culture of these families, the researchers found that when we say we have it all, what we have all of is stuff.  And lots of it.

And often, they found, this hyper-abundance leads to a world of grief, especially for women, whose stress-hormones spiked when smacked with the family clutter and who often referred to their homes with words like “not fun” and “very chaotic.”

“Cortisol data show a link between unhappy verbal characterizations of arrays of household possessions [chronically messy, cluttered rooms  or  unfinished remodeling projects] and higher stress level as measured by the hormone cortisol in the MOTHERS in the study,” UCLA professor of anthropology Jeanne Arnold, one of  the founding faculty of the CELF project, wrote in an email.  “Women who characterize their homes as restful, restorative, or tidy had lower stress levels. Fathers often omitted any mention of the same messy and unfinished spaces and were unaffected physiologically. Why? Likely because mothers still take on the lion’s share of responsibility for housework and because we still place value on tidiness. Our spreading possessions take oh so much time to organize and clean.”

No kidding. But there’s more to this mess than just cleaning out the junk drawers.  Research shows that physical clutter can lead not only to stress, but also depression, especially in women.  It’s not too much of a stretch to assume that it can also screw with our ability to focus.  I don’t know about you, but I get more than a little bit frazzled when the surface of my desk is hidden under a jumble of books, papers, files and to-do lists, some dating back to last spring, and my computer is slamming me with some 200 unread emails.  (True confession:  I even have a hard time holding down a thought when the breakfast dishes are still stacked up at dinner time.  Well, maybe that’s writer’s block.  Whatever.)

All of this has an obvious solution. Clean off the desk, read the emails, and do the dishes.  Done.  But it all gets more dicey when you extrapolate the effects of all this chaos to the clutter that clogs our brain when we deal with issues more profound than simply meeting a deadline or sorting through the clothes in your closet.  And where you can end up is in one hell of a pickle:  Undecided.  Lusting after the greener grass.  Longing for the road not traveled.

Just plain stuck.

Is it the curse of the information age?  We carry so much baggage, so many shoulds, from society, the workplace, our families, our friends, Facebook– all blasted at us at lightening speed, thanks to the interwebs — that it’s sometimes hard to find our authentic selves within the mental clutter.  And when the information, not to mention choices, increases exponentially, where’s the space to process? To reflect?

Amid all that chaos, it’s hard to isolate what it is that we really want to do with our lives, what it is that makes us happy.  The trigger for our book, in fact, was a conversation with a smart, accomplished woman we called Jane who nonetheless was so overwhelmed with trying to figure out what to do with her life that she once confessed she wished she had been born into a culture in which everything – where she lived, what she did, who she married – was chosen for her.

But back to my friend, the one who is redoing her house along with her life.  She emailed me a link to a blog by a woman who has embarked on what she dubbed  The William Morris Project. To wit: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

As in houses, so in life?  Good advice when we start to cut the clutter. No matter where we find it.

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Hey you! Yes, you–the one with all those balls in the air! Before you take another bite of pumpkin pie, read this.

A couple of new books–Willpower, by social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister, PhD and New York Times reporter John Tierney, and The Willpower Instinct by Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal, PhD–dig into the science of this mysterious and elusive thing we call willpower, and a little examination of their findings reveals that the current reality of women’s lives leaves us particularly screwed. And that’s just in regular life: add on the stress of the holidays and the abundance of temptation that surrounds during this most wonderful time of year, and it’s little wonder we find it so difficult to say no to the second helping, the umpteenth glass of bubbly, the fifty-seventh mini-quiche, one more little goat-cheese stuffed date…

Where was I? Oh, willpower. So, in an example of a serious willpower fail, the other day, after writing for several hours, I opted to flip through the latest issue of Elle, rather than do my laundry, go to the grocery store, or sweep the house. Although the slip proved serendipitous, as that’s when I came across Rachel Combe’s piece, “Control Freak-Out.” In it, she takes on how this science affects women, and she gets it exactly right. Check it:

We tend to think of self-control as a spiritual virtue, like love or charity. However, research shows it’s more like a muscle, subject to fatigue, lifestyle, and energy supply. You can wear out self-control not only through traditional tests of will–resisting pastries, not cheating on your spouse–but through less obvious means: making too many decisions, having lots of competing goals, castigating yourself if you fall off whatever wagon you’re trying to stay on, failing to sleep or eat well.

The list of willpower sappers pretty much describes my life and those of most women who are out there trying to have it all… It seems to me that women are at particular risk of having their self-control henpecked to death… Marketing studies show that we make, on average, 80 percent of major and minor household purchases and decisions such as food, cars, health care, and the house itself…

Sociologists say that women inhabit more roles these days than ever. This multiplicity of hats can translate into nonstop competing goals (work or kids, kids or spouse, spouse or self, self or community, community or extended family)… [A] study found that the more subjects’ goals clashed, the more they worried, the less they got done, and the more likely they were to be physically and/or mentally ill.

The above is likely not news to you: more than likely, to a certain extent, it is you. The question is, in this season of gravy and eggnog, of cocktail parties and family get-togethers, of shopping and traveling, how can you keep your willpower muscle in shape, so you’ll be equipped to flex it when you need it most? (I’m talking to you, Thanksgiving dinner.) Here are some tips:

1. Don’t be the decider: Decision making is wildly taxing on your self-control. So do what you can to delegate (surely your husband can handle choosing which brand of TP to take home?) and simplify, and–most importantly–consider the timing. Study after study has shown that the more choices we have to make, the more likely our rational brain will just check out–and with it, our willpower. So don’t spend an entire afternoon at the mall agonizing over what to buy whom on your list, and then expect to be able to behave like anything other than a mindless vacuum cleaner in the face of the buffet at the Williams’ holiday party, with its dessert table piled high with homemade fudge and macaroons, and that cheese plate that undoubtedly cost more to assemble than your fanciest little black dress did to accessorize. (Oh, and speaking of little black dresses, consider one of Combe’s strategies, and come up with a “uniform.” One less decision to make.)

2. Ratchet down the stress by putting things in perspective. I spent upwards of 10 hours over the past two days worrying over how to prepare the items I’m responsible for at Thanksgiving… an amount of attention that’s decidedly out of proportion with the importance of the decision at hand. (After much deliberation, I’m opting to go savory on the sweet potatoes; cheesy on the brussels, for the record.) This tends to be harder for women, though. Just as an example, during a recent interview, I was explaining the concept of “Opportunity cost”–the idea that when you’re doing A, you are by definition not doing B–to the woman who was interviewing me. So, I said, “if you’re staying up late to make cupcakes for your kid’s bake sale, you are by definition not working on your report for work, or having sex with your husband.” “So, you’re saying you should figure out if your kids are more important than your work?” she asked. “No!” I said, “Not at all, in fact. A cupcake is not your child.” Sometimes we ascribe too much weight to things. Sometimes, finishing a particular report is more important than lovin (or the oven) but that doesn’t mean work is more important to you than your children or the sexual state of your marriage. Sometimes, in fact, a cupcake is just a cupcake. Something to remember the next time you find yourself freaking out over the napkin rings or the wrapping paper. (Ahem. Guilty.)

3. Fail well! This time of year is loaded with land mines. You will, inevitably, have one too many at the office party, realize you’ve inhaled a platter of cookies without even tasting them, swear at a fellow shopper, and/or snap at someone you love. But there are good and bad ways to deal with your missteps. Combe writes:

The What-The-Hell effect applies to eating, drinking, procrastination, and just about any other act of will. The key, however, isn’t that you shouldn’t try to control eating or drinking; it’s how you react when you fail. In studies of drinkers, the worse people felt about drinking too much one night, the more they drank the next two. The same went for procrastinating students: The harder they were on themselves for missing a deadline, the more likely they were to miss a subsequent one. On the flip side, the more compassion people show for themselves, the more likely they are to take responsibility for failures, seek advice, and correct the situation.

Realize that traversing the holiday season is like running a gauntlet of temptations. And when one of them knocks you off track, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, put your party shoes back on, and dare to face another tray of passed appetizers. Forgetting the gift for your office Secret Santa, indulging in a pumpkin scone AND a pumpkin latte on the same day, sending your kid to her performance of the Nutcracker with uncombed hair — these things happen. They do not make you a bad person (though they might make you an undesirable Secret Santa); they make you human. (And–hello!–slip-ups of the caloric variety are generally delicious, or they wouldn’t tempt us so. Shouldn’t you be enjoying that mouthful of peppermint bark, rather than silently berating yourself for eating it?) Give yourself a break.

4. Be good to yourself: The very things that keep you healthy boost your willpower, too. Yes, this season is hectic, but capitalize on those moments when it’s not. You know you’ll have more than enough baked goods in your life over the next couple of weeks, so squeeze in a salad where you can. Exercise. Sleep. See your friends. And, failing all of that, just take one minute a day, 60 seconds to close your eyes and be thankful for every last bit of your crazy, imperfect life, and all of the crazy, imperfect people in it. Then open them back up, and face the fondue pot like the soldier you are.

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