I Ate the Frog!

Mark Twain once said, “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” or alternately, “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.” This is a quote popularized in the book Eat That Frog! by Brian Tracy, which provides multiple strategies for procrastinators to get over their procrastination and get things done. I am a procrastinator and this morning I ate the frog… in fact, I ate two of them.

Yesterday I talked about how I was neglecting my SMART Goals in certain areas of my Level 10 Life, including the Health & Fitness and Physical Environment categories, and needing to focus more on those areas. I was specifically struggling with a seemingly simple goal of getting on the treadmill for 10 minutes each day and getting through the additional accumulated clutter in my home due to emptying my storage unit.

This morning I got on the treadmill and walked for 10 minutes before I even allowed myself to have my daily cup of coffee. It felt good to get it done and I checked it off as complete with a little more flourish than normal. It made me happy to see this accomplished. Many of you may be thinking,, “Only 10 minutes walking on a treadmill? That’s nothing. Why don’t you try for more?” Well, I have tried for more…. and failed. I’ve had a gym membership for 5 years, but almost never go. I used the excuse that it took too long to drive to the gym, work out, shower and drive home. It was an easy excuse because my lifestyle at the time didn’t allow for that amount of time to devote to anything for myself, including for my health. So, last fall I bought a treadmill. It was expensive, but I figured after spending that much money on equipment and having it conveniently located in the living room of my home, I would have no more excuses. Yet, I seemed to find them in spades. I didn’t have time at the end of the day; I had to get up too early to drive an hour to school every day; and I didn’t want to walk for an hour every day. Remember, I’ve allowed myself to get used to a very studious, sedentary lifestyle. This is why my writing and reading goals are so much easier to accomplish. So when I devised my fitness goal, I wanted to make sure it was something that would create a habit. It’s not going to make me lose 50 pounds by January, but it will develop the habit of getting on the treadmill every day and walking. The only problem was, even that was challenging me, until I made it a frog that needed eating. Yep, walking for 10 measly minutes on my treadmill is currently one of my frogs. But today, I did it. I felt a lot better about myself than I have in weeks just by eating that darn frog. Tomorrow, I will get up and eat it again… before my coffee. The next, and the next day, and for many days after that, I will get up and eat that 10-minute frog until it doesn’t feel like a frog anymore, but more like a lifestyle. When that happens, I’ll gradually increase my time. For now, getting on it and walking for those 10-minutes is enough.

The second goal was to reduce clutter and I ate that frog after I enjoyed my coffee to wash down the first. I went through 4 drawers of clothes in my bedroom and 2 boxes from the storage unit. I now have a whole garbage bag for Goodwill, a few well organized drawers full of clothes I actually enjoy wearing, and a little more space to get around my dining room. I spent an hour on this project today and didn’t find it to be as difficult as I was imagining in my head. I will put in another hour tomorrow morning and then take a day off. I’ll continue with the 2-days on / 1-day off schedule until I’ve made my way through the whole house. What’s more successful than before? I used to wait until I thought I had time to complete a whole room before I would start and then I would be frustrated by the time I was finished because it always took longer than I anticipated. This time I set a timer instead and focused on smaller areas. I worked on one drawer at a time until the timer went off and then spent a couple minutes over the hour organizing that last drawer. Like with the treadmill, I felt accomplished. I still have a lot of work ahead of me, but by focusing on smaller chunks, it no longer seems so overwhelming.

How are you coming along with your goals? Are you feeling overwhelmed and don’t know where to start on them? If so, maybe you have to find a way to break them down into smaller pieces so they are manageable and start taking small actions in the right direction. If I can do it, I know any of you can.

I leave you with the fortune cookie from my dinner tonight, which I think is actually quite fitting for this point in my life, maybe in yours as well. Feel free to share with me.

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Needing to Focus

As I review the first couple weeks of my Level 10 Life, I’m noticing some disturbing trends. It seems that certain habits aren’t getting done at all and others are done every day. Writing this blog is an exercise designed to improve the career segment of life and it has been going well. I’m enjoying the writing process and hopefully you’re enjoying being along on this journey with me. Reading 30 minutes every day is designed to improve my personal development sector and something I generally don’t have a problem accomplishing. But there are other categories, especially 3 of them, where I’ve given myself the simplest habits and still can’t seem to accomplish them.

In the family and friends category, I find myself avoiding my “call or meet a friend once a week” habit despite it’s apparent simplicity. Only, it isn’t simple. You see, as I reflect on why I’m not making those calls, I’m realizing that many of my friends are in very negative places right now and I’m struggling to not feel drained. I am usually the one who reaches out and then I feel emotionally drained after the conversation from being supportive of all the stuff they’re going through and never getting reciprocal support for the things I’m struggling with. While I do want to continue to be there for those friends, I’m considering an amendment to the SMART goal. I’m thinking my goal needs to be to find additional friends who can be mutually supportive to balance out my time with the other friends. On the surface, this feels selfish, but as I look closer, I think it’s probably better for all of us. No one deserves to have a friend who is resentful of the time they give you, and I’ve become that; I’ve become resentful of one-sided relationships that take away all of my energy. In order to be a better friend, I need to stop relying on those relationships for something they aren’t giving and expecting to get something our of them that I’m not. I am not really sire if changing goals is “technically” allowed, but I think this is a good call.

Which brings us to the Health and Fitness category. I’m struggling with 2 of the 3 goals in this category and doing pretty well at the third. The problem is, that this category is one I feel really needs a lot of work right now. I quit smoking 5 years ago, when I started school, and have doubled in size since then. I get out of breath easily, ache all over, and feel like if my body & health don’t get the attention, I might not live long enough to accomplish the things on my bucket list. I’m just now starting to have grandchildren and I want to be around, and actively able, to participate in their lives for quite some time. So for the remainder of this week, I’ll be heavily focused on the 3 SMART goals for that category. I will be getting on the treadmill for at least 10 minutes, 5 days each week. I will be getting to sleep (or at least laying in bed in the quiet dark trying to sleep) by midnight each night. I will continue to restrict my calorie window to no more than 10 hours. The 10-hour calorie window has been going well, but neither of the other 2 have happened a single time in the last 3 weeks and that just cannot go on. For the next couple weeks, these will be my priority and I will “Eat the Frog” by trying to accomplish the treadmill first thing in the morning. We’ll see how it goes.

The third area I’m currently struggling with is the Physical Environment category. This was going quite well initially. You might remember reading about emptying out my storage unit and letting most of it go. The only problem is, I brought home some of the more valuable and unique items with the intention of selling them and they are now cluttering my daily personal space. I need to spend a day photographing and posting these items for sale so they can move on to new homes where they will be useful or bring their new owners joy. Their presence (this overwhelming clutter) has also alerted me to the added items I have laying around the house that are not useful, or beautiful and don’t bring me joy. So after everything is photographed and posted for sale, I need to go through every corner of the house again and purge the clutter. I think once the physical clutter is gone, I will feel much happier in my physical space and hopefully be able to focus better on the other habits I need to work on.

So those are my 3 struggles and how I plan to tackle them in the next few weeks. I hope you will stick around to hold me accountable here and maybe find a couple things you need to work on as well. If you are looking for someone to be accountable to, feel free to share in the comments and I’ll check in periodically to see how you are coming along. I hope we can all help one another get closer to lives we want and deserve!

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Finances… Otherwise Known as Torture.

Finances are one of those topics most people dread talking about, reading about and, more than anything, doing anything about. Dealing with finances usually means lots of numbers and even more deprivation. Do you enjoy your morning cappuccino? If so, that’s too bad, because most financial advice columns are going to tell you that’s the first thing you need to give up to become financially fit. It’s a numbers game, and if you feel like you’re winning at it, just read a few tidbits of advice and you’ll feel like a loser pretty darn quick. This is especially true for me right now. I’ve been a full-time college student for 5 years now; there’s no going to architecture school part time. This means I’ve incurred a mortgage-worth of student loan debt and, since I was rarely able to work more than 12 hours per week, my finances are a mess in other areas as well. The financial segment of the Level 10 Life didn’t look so good during my assessment.

I have a small IRA that would make a 21-year-old pretty envious… which would be great, if I wasn’t 45 already. By now, I’m supposed to have 3-times my annual salary saved and I’m only at 1/100th of that. I had a small 401k once upon a time, which saved us from homelessness during the recession, but unfortunately disappeared in the process. I wrote down my expectations for Level 10, cried a while, ate way too many cookies, and then resolved to figure out (somehow) how to get there. One thing I realized is that I will never live enough hours to get there on wages alone; it’s going to take some other strategies to do it. So, I spent the last half of August reading about finances. I’m not talking about the articles that tell you give up that morning coffee because, let’s face it, at this point that is not going to cut it. I’m talking about how money works and especially, how it works most effectively.

I decided to start living on only 70% of my already meager income. Since I’m not working at the moment, this amounts to back child support my ex owes me from 15 years ago, when he decided not paying child support for over a year sounded fabulous. We came to an agreement at the end of that time that he would continue to pay support when the children were grown until that back support was paid off. It’s a small amount, but it’s something. I also contacted all of my utilities and negotiated lower rates on my monthly bills, redid my car insurance and am emptying out and selling items I’ve had in a storage unit. I’ve cut my monthly bills by about $400/month and am making a little money on the storage unit stuff. I’m also helping a friends who just had surgery by cleaning her home once a week for a few weeks. But just having money coming in isn’t as important as how to spend it, so I created a financial plan and have stuck to it for the first month so far. Here’s how it goes.

All the money I receive for the month goes into a “holding” account. This is a savings account that earns interest. This is not the money I will spend this month; it is for next month. This way, I know for certain ahead of time what amount I am working with and what I can and can’t afford that coming month. Plus, the money earns a small amount of interest while it waits to be divided. At the beginning of the month, I divide up the money in my holding account as follows:

  • 35% – Needs – these are things I need to live, like food, shelter, transportation for work, electric and natural gas. The food included here is the basics. Anything fancy falls under the wants.
  • 21% – Wants – this is anything I want, such as wifi, cellphones, restaurants, movie night, or that morning cup of coffee. It doesn’t matter what these items are, but I cannot exceed this pre-determined amount in the month. If the budgeted funds are gone, I have to do without it until the next month. If I want to upgrade to the iPhone X, I might have to give up coffee for a few months. Simple and effective.
  • 14% – Debt Reduction  – I have a small amount left on my car loan and will soon have to start paying on student loans. The required monthly payment is in the needs category above, but whatever amount is here is what I add to the payment of my highest interest debt so that I get the loans paid off faster.
  • 10% – Passive Venture – this is set it and forget it investing. I have a small investment account with a low-fee index fund and a couple shares of stock, all of which have reinvested yearly dividends. It is usually making money at a slightly better rate than inflation. I’m working on diversifying my portfolio now to include bonds, gold, and commodities to protect against market fluctuations. There may be other opportunities for this segment of money at a later time, but right now this is where it’s going.
  • 10% – Active Venture – this is the money that supports the side-hustle. This is the money that could be used to start an online dropship business or purchase real estate.
  • 5% – Retirement – There’s a lot of advice on retirement funds. I have a Roth IRA and try to make sure I fund it to the max whenever possible. Even when I can’t, I always try to put in a small part of my income into it so I feel like I’m making some kind of progress.
  • 2.5% – Emergency Fund – I’m determined to be ready if another recession hits. I’m working on having a 1-year emergency fund to keep me going. It’s being funded slowly but surely and is always kept in an interest-earning (1.2% APY) savings account. I’ll be moving it to a higher-interest Beam account (2-4% APY) as soon as they get to me in their gradual roll-out process… I’m on the list!
  • 2.5% – Personal Goal – I think it’s important to have something you’re working for that is set aside from the rest of your finances and special. In my case, I’m going to Italy… maybe not this year, or next… but eventually. It keeps me excited about my financial plan because if I stick to it long enough, I will have an amazing trip to look forward to.
  • Charity – You may have noticed that the above categories add up to 100 already and may think I’m being awfully selfish. In reality, I am donating another valuable resource at the moment… time. Non-profit organizations definitely need money to keep them going, but they also need people willing to donate their time. While I’m working towards putting myself in a good place financially (so I can ultimately give more money) I am donating my time on a regular basis. It’s important to me to always give back somehow, so that will always be part of my financial plan.

I know my plan may take a bit of tweaking as I go along, but it’s a good mix of taking care of my current needs and my future needs simultaneously. It’s hard to get used to living on 70%, but as I see my investments going up, my loans going down and my net worth being positively effected, it makes me feel better about that awful budgeting and even allows me to fully enjoy an occasional cappuccino, guilt free!

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Getting it Done

Today I’m looking at my Level 10 goals new habit list and I’m finding myself completely unmotivated to do any of them. It just seems to be one of those days. I really didn’t even feel like getting out from under the covers this morning. This happens once in a while, but usually only when it’s cold outside. Right now it’s over 80 and sunny here in SW Michigan and I’m a little confused about why I’m not in the mood to do anything. Now some of you can maybe relate… maybe you don’t like working out, or cleaning the house, or studying for monstrous tests, or eating healthy? The problem is, that I also have things on my list like… call and talk to a friend, sketch, walk in nature, read for 30 minutes, and write for 15 minutes… and I don’t even want to do any of those today. So what am I going to do?

Well, I may have procrastinated a little bit, but I’m forcing myself to pick 3 items off the list and do them anyway. The first of these was to call a friend (Friends & Family goal)… Done. It wasn’t hard, it didn’t hurt, and despite the fact that I didn’t want to do it, I felt a little better after it was done. The next one I’m tackling is right now… write for 15 minutes (Career goal). Writing about the fact that I am not in the mood to write seems a little awkward, but I’m getting it done, and maybe working through this mental block at the same time. The third task I’ll tackle today is to go walk in nature (Personal Development goal). There’s a beach down the road and only a few more pleasant days to walk on it this year… plus the vitamin D may help with this funk I seem to find myself in today.

So what’s the lesson in all of this? Progress in life usually isn’t made in big changes; it’s in small daily habits that we barely notice. Today I may not have wanted to participate in my new, better daily habits, but I know they are for my own benefit, so I did them anyway. I also may not feel very good about having gotten them done, or the way I got them done, but that’s ok. Some days are always going to be better than others, but when I look back on my habit tracker in 6 months, I’m not going to see any of that. In 6 months, I’m just going to see that check mark in the box that says, “I did it!” and because of that I will become the person I’ve intentionally decided to become instead of just the person who takes what life throws at them. Because of these 3 check marks today, I may eventually move closer to level 10 in 3 different areas of life. Because I chose to something, anything, instead of nothing, I have accomplished something I set out to do and can feel successful.

The lesson I’m taking away is that life, and achieving your dreams, is not always going to be easy. Sometimes life is hard, sometimes just showing up is enough, and sometimes showing up is the hardest part of all. Today I showed up, even though it was hard, and I am a better person for it.

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I’m writing, again!

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So one day doesn’t make a habit, and neither does two… but two days is twice as many on the way to starting a habit and I am on day two of my daily writing habit. Yesterday I talked about how I worked through a Level 10 Life assessment and generated 3 SMART goals in each of the 10 categories (read that post here). Well, one of my goals in the career category was to start writing daily again. It’s something that scares me and that I sometimes drift away from every now and then, and therefore it’s actually one of the more important habits I want to get back into.

They say that everyone has a book inside them waiting to come out. I know that to be true because mine started to come out and I shoved it right back up in there and tried to ignore it. In 2009, I found my career in marketing (like so many others) to be a victim of the recession. I had quite a bit of time on my hands and I’d always wanted to write. My marketing background made me decide to start a blog. I figured I would use it to learn about social media marketing, which was the latest buzzword in the marketing world, by signing up for a couple mentorships and promoting my blog writing. Turns out, people enjoyed it. I soon had a nice group of readers, we got on well, and they supported me as I entered and won contests on other websites for my writing. It was a great feeling. Writing the blog every day was easy; there were few other obligations to get in the way. I was a divorced stay-at-home mom writing online and I loved it.

After a year, I decided to get a little more ambitious and write a novel. I had an idea running around in my head that was dying to get out on paper. So I dug in. I created character charts, working hard on developing characters that weren’t black and white, but varying shades of gray to make them more believable. I outlined my plot arc and found it to be sufficient to probably write a trilogy instead of a single story. I worked through where those arcs would end, so that if you finished a book it felt like you had read a complete story and yet still wanted to know what happened next. I edited other authors’ works so that I could gain experience on how the story would progress and how the books would ultimately be structured. I worked on my book every day for at least an hour, but often more. It began to kind of take over my life and sometimes my blog writing suffered for the sake of the book, but it was all writing, so that was ok.

It was an amazing experience, and then something happened. I had to create the environment in which the characters interact. The story takes place in a semi-fictional location (but still on earth), giving me the opportunity to create it any way I wanted within the framework of basic physics. I started planning a city. I thought about the way the streets were formed; were there cars or carriages or another form of transportation that hasn’t been invented yet? What was their technology, and how would that effect the design of buildings. Were people comfortable enough to have their homes infused with technology? At the time, the idea of a device eavesdropping on your home (Alexa), waiting for you to order a pizza, or request a song be played, or to remind you to call your mother in an hour was still pretty scary stuff. Most people were still skeptical of who or what would be listening and how that information might be used against them. Many people still are. I thought that might make a “utopia” with advanced technology somewhere that an average person might find a little creepy, to say the least. An excellent place for more character development.

I spent so much time envisioning the design of the buildings that I started to look at the buildings around me and wonder why we couldn’t have buildings like I was envisioning. I wondered if what I was thinking was impossible to build. I started to become obsessed with architecture. The more I tried to write, the more I questioned the architectural environment I was putting my characters in. I would take out paper and sketch instead of writing. Even if I wanted to write a description of the environment, I would sketch out the basics of it in order to properly describe it. I found that I liked working on the architecture more than writing the story. I was beyond distracted.

By this point it was 2011. I started to look at the possibility of going back to architecture school. I had been out of work for 2 years at this point and thought I must clearly have flipped my lid if I thought I was going to incur mountains of debt to obtain a fancy degree halfway through life, but the idea persisted; it just wouldn’t let go. I enrolled in a community college first and spent a year in art classes, loving every minute of it. I went on to architecture school and felt like I’d finally found what I was meant to be doing. It’s not that it wasn’t hard, or frustrating, or full of moments where I just wanted to quit; but it just felt like it was where I was meant to be.

Now architecture school leaves little time for anything else and writing was quick to fall to the wayside. To be honest, I was so busy that I hardly even missed it. When I really needed a writing fix, I found a way to argue with one of my unfortunately unlucky friends on Facebook; not the good friends, because I happen to be really good at arguing and often find myself blocked when the poor soul can no longer come up with replies to my arguments. Yet for the most part, writing had become a thing of the past.

It wasn’t until I graduated and started to look at how mono-focused I had become that I realized how much I really enjoyed writing… it’s part of who I am. That story is still stuck inside me, wanting to get out; the blog is still in me, wanting to be written; and most importantly, I’m running out of casual friends to argue with (and potentially lose) on Facebook. So when I looked at the career spoke of the Level 10 life wheel, I just couldn’t envision that area ever becoming a Level 10 unless writing was part of it. I set the SMART goal to write for at least 15 minutes a day… so here I am today, ready to finish up my second blog post and make it through one more day of rebuilding my daily writing habit. It feels cathartic. It feels good. It feels like coming home, and I thank you for following along with me.