In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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Envelopes

You may have noticed an anti-consumption undercurrent in my posts lately.

It’s not that I’m against shopping per se. Or buying things. But so much modern American spending is programmed and conditioned by the barrage of advertising that dominates our every waking minute. We waste money on trivial, disposable gifts despite being so stressed out over finances, and I am just as trapped by the madness as anyone.

As Christmas looms on the horizon, I am trying new finance hacks to spend more mindfully. I want to exchange my precious dollars for actual needs rather than desperate attempts to purchase happiness and acceptance. (Because all those ads scream in my face that I will NEVER EVER be good enough until I own their product or use their service.)

I’m sure everyone has heard of the Envelope System. I think it’s mandatory content in any financial management book! And while I have read many of those in my day, I had never actually tried it. The idea is to put your monthly budget, in cash, for some category – I picked groceries – in the envelope. When the cash runs out, you’re done spending in that category for the month. The end. Cash forces you to face hard limits (as opposed to the never ending opportunities of credit cards), leading to more careful choices whenever you spend.

Well, I quickly learned that for me, personally, this whole thing only works if I write down the price of everything going into my cart as I go through the store.

I mean, everything.

Otherwise I am “that” person in the checkout lane, awkwardly holding up everyone as I hunt for items to be voided from my purchase.

I use my phone’s “memo” app to record each item and its cost to the closest 50 cents. Every ten or so items, I tally the total, so I know roughly how much  my cart costs at any given point. Yes, yes – this means I am also that person, the one who stands in the middle of the grocery store aisles “playing” with her phone. It’s for a good cause, I swear.

The few times I have tried this, I definitely noticed a difference in my spending choices. Which is the whole point, right? I can clearly say this hack is “working” from that perspective. Faced with the choice of organic, hormone-free milk for my kids, or ready-made high-protein snack bars for me, the decision is easy. I’d rather spend a few bucks on better quality milk for them; I’ll just nosh on fresh veggies instead (which is, in fact, healthier than any processed food snack bar).

The other thing I quickly learned: I cheat.

Yes, really.

Even though, by definition, I am only cheating myself because this whole hack is self-imposed.

For example, we have no ATMs close by, so I never have cash for a whole month of groceries to put in my envelope. It turns out feeding a family of four takes a LOT of cash. I have tracked my spending by categories for over a decade now, and I always assumed we spent so much on groceries because I splurge on things like wild caught salmon, lion’s mane tea, almond flour, and the aforementioned organic milk and high-protein snack bars. But the USDA Cost of Food reports show that even a “thrifty” or “low-cost” food budget for a family of four is still a whopping sum. (And more cash than I ever have at one time!) So oops? I still end up using my credit card because the cash runs out so soon.

I also cheat by moving certain items to the “big box” shopping list. Sometimes this makes sense, because buying in bulk can be more cost effective. However, the big box trips are so expensive, I always use my credit card. (See previous note about not having a lot of cash on hand.) So the regular grocery bill ends up being less, preserving that precious cash. But I’m not buying fewer things…just spending more cleverly!

That said, despite the cheats, the hack still seems to be accomplishing the goal: greater mindfulness while shopping. For groceries, anyway. Don’t even ask about the Christmas shopping!

What hacks have you tried for more mindful shopping, and what were the results? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!


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Your Brain on Exercise

A few weeks ago, my friend Dave raised the issue of cognitive function, and his comment inspired me to write a post on the tactics I have tried to keep my brain working at peak performance.

Unfortunately, the more I wrote, the more I realized I had to say on the subject. As a result, I will write a series of posts. (Because I hate blog posts that drag on and on and on…)

First up: exercise.

Researchers are still exploring the exact mechanisms by which physical activity improves the brain’s health, along with questions like what kind, frequency and duration of exercise are most effective. A quick internet search will turn up a slew of hits, and many books (for example Dave Asprey’s Head Strong) also cover the topic. According to studies, physical activity boosts cognition, mood and even memory. These benefits could be from improved blood flow and oxygen to the brain; increased neurogenesis; enhanced mitochondrial function; more or different neurotransmitters to connect the neurons; other things we haven’t discovered yet (or I haven’t read about yet, which is more likely); or some combination of the above.

I am discussing exercise first because it has so many benefits beyond just mental capacity, such as increased stamina and heart health, the self-confidence boost that comes with sticking to a workout routine, and fitting into your favorite jeans you haven’t been able to wear in over a year. (Yes, really!) Plus, exercise can be cheap or even free. A brisk walk outdoors is free. (By the same token, exercise has the potential to suck up every spare dollar to have, so your mileage may vary! Speaking of which, does anyone want to buy a gently used elliptical machine?)

DISCLAIMER: I am not a certified fitness professional (although I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express once), and the workout routine described in this post is what works for ME. Please consult a medical professional before engaging in any new exercise, and consider speaking with a personal trainer for advice on the proper execution of these or any other exercises. No, YouTube videos do not count – which is why I have not included links below.

I first described my workout back in May, so miracle of miracles, I have stuck with it for over 6 months now! (I guess that is long enough to make it a habit.) I have tweaked my original routine slightly to ramp up the intensity without having to buy a heavier kettlebell (see previous note about how exercising can be expensive but doesn’t have to be!). My current kettlebell weighs in at 35 lbs, up from the 15 where I started way back when.

My workout, three days a week:

Hip flexor stretches – 30 seconds per hip
Kettlebell swings – 25 reps
Jump squats – 30 seconds (this is anywhere from 15 to 17 jumps for me, depending on my energy level)
Donkey kicks – 20 reps per leg
Planks – high plank, side planks, and reverse plank, each for 45 seconds
Kettlebell swings – 25 reps
Jump squats – 30 seconds (by now I am panting)
Exercise Ball Bridge – 20 reps
Cat vomit – 10 reps of 20 seconds each, with a 10 second rest in between (I often do “Cat-Cow” stretches during the rest period)
Kettlebell swings – 25 reps (at this point my form gets sloppy so I really concentrate on proper technique)
Jump squats – 30 seconds (then I collapse)
Myotatic crunch (on my exercise ball) – 10 reps, with a four-count hold at the top of the crunch

Yes, this workout still kicks my abs. (Haha.)

Best of all, it only takes about 30 minutes to complete. So even at my busiest, I have no excuse to skip it.

Now for the real question: does it improve my brain function?

And the truth is, I have no clue. I don’t know how to self-administer tests for mental sharpness, and even if I did, I have no “before” metrics for comparison. Maybe I need more cardio to really see the difference, or maybe I should exercise longer for a noticeable improvement. (Or less often but with greater intensity, according to Mr. Asprey’s book.)

However, I do know that I love the dopamine hit from setting and meeting my fitness goals three days a week … and from being able to wear those jeans again!


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Learning New Behaviors

I have a problem.

Well, I have many problems. But most of all, I recently realized I am afflicted by a compulsive need to buy stuff. And buying stuff, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily “bad.” It comes down to what you are purchasing, and why. Every single tool and all the supplies and a bunch of books for a brand new hobby I became infatuated with? Yeah, that’s been the story of my life. Luckily at my age there aren’t many “new” hobbies left for me to repeat that mistake.

No, my real challenge (or “opportunity” if you prefer to think positive) is buying solutions for every little difficulty I encounter.  Maybe you can relate. I have a long history of doodads and gadgets and whatnots for every little hiccup I might encounter. The majority of them promised to make cooking easier and faster. Cooking and I enjoy a love-hate relationship, so anything that helps make mealtime less of a chore was a worthy investment in my book. Similarly for health. (The easy spending part, not the love-hate part!) Exercise equipment, videos, yoga props, more videos, nutritional supplements – you name it.

If I could buy my way out of a problem, why shouldn’t I?

Ummmm, because all these “solutions” clutter my home and very few ever made good on their promises of improving my life.

Because however cheap they may be, these consumer goods still cost money that might be better used elsewhere. And as they accumulate, you suddenly need more storage, more room, a bigger house, a store room, a new organization system, and maybe even a whole kitchen remodel. Just to accommodate all this great stuff … that … stops … being … so … great … when I can no longer find it because its buried under even more stuff.

(I won’t even go into how manufacturing and global shipping of cheap consumer goods impacts developing economies, the environment, and the rapid depletion of our planet’s natural resources. That’s already been covered quite thoroughly in other print and online sources!)

Basically, what it all boils down to, is that most of these purchases have actually been waste in terms of my life. Waste of money, waste of time, waste of the planet’s resources. In other words, this kind of spending is not in line with my values, and needs to stop.

But I’ve built this habit up over a lifetime, and modern society makes it so very easy to just keep spending.

…which means I have plenty of opportunities to practice new behaviors!

For example: I need a spiky massage ball.

I mean, REALLY need one.

See, everyone has some part of their body where they carry tension when they are stressed, often in the lower back, shoulders, neck, etc. Well in my case, I apparently clench my legs. Don’t laugh, this is a real thing! It may be related to the “flight or fight” syndrome. My leg muscles – particularly my hamstrings – tighten as they prepare for my mad dash away from danger. You know, lions, tigers and bears, or more often, bad traffic, poor customer service and telemarketers that call during dinner. True life and death stuff, there. But my lizard brain doesn’t know the difference, and lately my hamstrings have been seizing up to the point of cramping.

A spiky massage ball would solve my problem. I could sit on the floor with it under my thigh, and allow gravity and the weight of my leg to apply pressure to ease my cramped muscles.

You know what happens next, right? A quick internet search reveals that Amazon.com sells them for a great price for TWO of them, complete with Prime shipping. They would get here literally in less time than it would take to drive to every possible local store to see if they had the spiky massage balls I so desperately need. (No, calling the stores to ask a real live human being is not a viable option in my life… maybe if I could buy a product that lets me text the store…) All these thoughts skitter through my mind in a flash, and my finger reaches for the bright yellow “buy it now” option on my phone screen.

And because this is the exact habit I aim to break, my finger drifts past “buy it now” and taps “add to cart” instead.

Adding the item to my cart creates space between my compulsion to accumulate and the actual act of purchasing yet another product.

Instead of buying the spiky massage balls, I am buying time.

I put down my phone, and go back to my day, confident I can complete my transaction at some future point if needed.

Luckily, later that day, a solution presented itself.

I had recently found a(nother) golf ball while doing yardwork. While it is smaller than the massage balls, and missing those tantalizing spikes, it turns out to do the job just fine. After a few tries I found the perfect pressure point on the back of my leg for the deepest impact, and then I held the yoga head-to-knee pose (janusirsasana) for five minutes per leg.

A Massage Tool, Cleverly Disguised as a Golf Ball

A Massage Tool, Cleverly Disguised as a Golf Ball

And it worked. And it was free. And it was immediate, since I already had the golf ball and didn’t have to wait for even Amazon Prime shipping. It even fits easily in my purse, so I can take it on the road if needed. (And I have, in fact.)

Best of all, I had the proud feeling that comes from knowing I solved a problem on my own, rather than turning to the marketplace to solve it for me.


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Tiny Steps

You might’ve noticed, I’m a bit of a self-help junkie.
While I haven’t read any self-help books recently – so I can use the time spent “fixing” myself through exercises to write instead – I’m still getting emails from a few self-help guru-types, and well, they’re just emails so they don’t take that long to read. And they usually don’t include exercises. (I might’ve snuck in an audiobook or two, but shhhhhhhh don’t tell.)
Recently there was an email from Courtney at Be More with Less about toasting “tiny steps”. She discussed her own life experiences, the tiny steps she’s taken, and how long it took to transition from where she started to where she is today. I found the article particularly inspiring because so often it feels like we’re not doing enough. Like we’ll never get to wherever it is we want to be. Like you feel as though you’re getting nowhere, so why even bother? Particularly if your tiny steps are focused on transitioning to a lower energy lifestyle, consuming less, and eating more naturally. The overwhelming majority of your friends and neighbors aren’t bothering, and you find yourself wondering what’s the point.
Well, here is a list of tiny steps I’ve taken over the last year(ish). As I was trying to recall exactly how long it has been, I remembered … I have written about tiny steps before! It’s fascinating to see what I meant to do, compared to what I have actually done. This list may have to become an annual tradition!
Consuming stuff:
  • Using fewer single-use disposable items. We rarely use paper plates anymore; I reach for a sponge or cloth towel before a paper towel. Not always successful, but again, this is about tiny steps.
  • Not using plastic produce bags at the grocery store for fruits or veggies that have their own wrapping (sweet potatoes, lemons, limes, etc … although the cashiers hate finding that one extra lime in my order because they weren’t all bagged together)
  • Reusing single-use disposable items wherever feasible. For instance, when I do end up with plastic produce bags, I save them to store veggies I harvest from my garden. The plastic containers that hold deli meat get reused to pack lunches.
  • Compost what paper napkins and paper towels we do use, so at least they aren’t cluttering up landfills.
  • Started a ‘deep pantry’ so I can buy food staples when they are on sale, rather than when we run out.
  • Figuring out ways to use possessions we already have in new ways to solve problems, rather than immediately purchasing a solution.
  • Reading books through the library and free ebook services rather than purchasing books. Not always 100% successful … trying to buy used books when I simply can no longer resist.
  • Mending clothing, which says a lot because I hate mending.
  • Simplifying my wardrobe… I even tried Project 333, but it really didn’t work for me. (Sorry, Courtney!)
Still working on…
  • Phasing out paper napkins… even though they are teens, my kids are still really messy
  • Shopping less. I’ve tried, but the results are inconsistent at best.
  • Watching less TV.
  • Spending less time on my cell phone.
Eating:
  • Reducing food waste through ninja meal planning skillz.
  • Eating out less often, particularly at fast food restaurants.
  • Eating more produce from my own garden. I had wanted to join a CSA, but I can’t even properly use everything from my own garden before it rots. It didn’t seem responsible to buy even more produce I would struggle to use.
  • Incorporating more wild foods into our diet.
  • Eating more food in season and local to the area. I mean, there is nothing sadder than a grocery store tomato in Maryland in February!
  • Using more permaculture techniques (like intercropping and polyculture) in my garden to improve overall health and reduce the need for energy-intensive human interventions.
Still working on…
  • Preparing at least one vegetarian meal per week
  • Preserving or sharing garden produce rather than letting it go to waste
  • Finding innovative ways to feed my family whatever I can harvest yes, really, one more time. Ask my kids how sick they are of green beans!
  • Actually listening to my body and putting the fork down when I’m full even if it’s wasteful to stop, or so delicious I don’t want to.
Energy Consumption:
  • Sewed light-blocking curtains for the full-length windows flanking our front door. The summer sun streaming into the foyer made the whole house an oven, and the AC worked overtime. In the winter, cold radiated from them. The curtains let us control the temperature better on the main level of our house.
  • Installed a new attic fan and skylight. OK these were big steps, but we needed to redo our roof anyway so both attic fan and skylight got upgraded as well. The skylight has a remote control which allows you to open and close the curtain to allow or block the sun as needed, or open the skylight to allow hot air to escape. The attic fan has also kept the temperature upstairs more comfortable.
  • Trying to combine errands to use less gas… or better yet, just not go out!
Still working on…
  • Finding and completing more projects to insulate and weatherproof our home. For example, I bought foam to insulate hot water pipes after reading Green Wizardry last year, and they are still just piled all over our basement floor.
  • Line drying more clothing.
Friends and Family:
  • Making time to actually listen to the kids.
  • Spending time with friends and family, sharing a home-cooked meal rather than going out to a restaurant.
  • Sharing experiences instead of exchanging store-bought gifts.
Still working on…
  • Working to connect with other people locally who share my interests and values.
  • Learning to enjoy what the local environment has to offer rather than going on fancy vacations; there’s lots of local opportunities for hiking and camping, for instance.
I am sure to many people these tiny steps seem like self-deprivation and misery. (Although people who feel that way probably aren’t reading my blog in the first place.)
But putting one more plate in the dishwasher is no more work than throwing out the paper plate.
Cooking at home from scratch is more work, but allows my husband and I time together while we prep the meal; we enjoy the meal together as a family, and we’re all healthier as well.
Instead of shopping as a past-time with the kids, we’re actually having conversations and trying to cook together, while the money saved has helped us better cope with a few financial crises.
Hanging laundry up to dry is actually better for the clothes as well as the environment.
And even though I still abhor mending, it brings with it the quiet satisfaction of fixing a problem myself, and returning a loved garment to my wardrobe rather than scouring the malls or internet hoping I can find *and* afford its replacement.
Last but not least, I find joy in knowing that in even small ways I am cutting back on waste and reducing the degree of variation between my values and the life I’m actually living. And that’s worth more to me than any minor inconvenience which may be caused by these tiny steps.


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Ode to Self-Help Books

You may be wondering why my blog posts consist of a random mix of self-help / self-improvement / lifehacks and gardening / foraging. No, it’s not a symptom of multiple personality disorder, I promise! (Or is it?)

I am struggling to find (make) time to write. My weekly foraging series (while mostly unread) has created a firm commitment that I will post something, however short, at least once a week. But I have so much more to share.

I keep thinking… just one more technique from one more self-help book, and I will at last discover the ultimate trick to unlock my true gifts and unleash my creativity on the world. I will finally overcome (or embrace) the resistance, and be able to write.

Just as soon as I am done getting things done, papers filed, inbox to zero, boxes checked – then I will finally be have all the time I need to write.

Maybe I can change my life by tidying up, which will help me cultivate an uncluttered mind, and then I will finally be able to write.

You know, I need to manage my budget better, and when I am less concerned about finances, then I will have the spare brain cells to be able to write.

I must exercise, and eat healthy (including cooking meals from scratch), and take all the nutritional supplements because when I am at my peak, physically speaking, my mind will be as well and then I will be able to write.

If I could just lifehack a little more free time into my day, then, well … you know.

If I could only perfect my sleep so I could survive on less thanks to the amazing quality of the sleep I did get, then … sigh.

…are we noticing a theme here?

“Is there any chance that the healing you seek is just another form of resistance?”

–Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

My friend Kristen at The Sojourning Spinner recently suggest that for at least a month I try – get this – rather than spending time on lifehacks to free up time to write, I just (gasp!) write.

It’s a great idea. And I’m going to give it a serious try. But first, I need to find my “Flow Pattern” on the Flow Genome Project so I know I can really maximize those precious few moments to write.

…. oh wait. Oops.


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And Now for Something Completely Different

This is not a foraging blog.

Yes, I have recently written many foraging posts. In fact, mostly foraging posts. I discovered that committing to a “weekly series” helps motivate me to post more regularly. And there are always new developments in the realm of wild edibles, particularly this time of year.

But foraging is just one element of what the Lean Six Life means to me. I am seeking ways to reduce waste and clutter in my life, and to reduce variation by bringing my life closer into alignment with my values. (I know, I know, I really need to update my About page.)

Health is also important to me, but historically I have neglected the “fitness” aspect of my well-being. Focusing on food is so much… well, tastier. To address this, recently I started a new workout routine loosely based on / inspired by some exercises and concepts from The Four Hour Body by Tim Ferriss. (From my local library. I have a moratorium on book purchases until I declutter my current collection … see previous description of my Lean Six Life.) Here’s what I am doing, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays before work:

hip flexor stretches – 30 seconds per leg (p. 179)
kettlebell swings (although I hinge instead of squatting, based on independent research, aka lots of YouTube videos) – 25 reps (p. 165 & 166)
jump squats – 30 seconds (not in the book – I added this for additional toning)
flying dog – 15 per side (p. 164 & 167)
cat vomit (hey, blame Tim for the names, not me!) – 10 reps for 12 seconds each, with a 10 second rest between reps (p. 177 – 178)
kettlebell swings – 25 reps
jump squats – 30 seconds
bridge – 20 reps (p. 164 & 167)
planks – 30 seconds front and each side (p. 179)
kettlebell swings – 25 reps
jump squats – 30 seconds
myotatic crunch (or as I prefer to call it, the myotatic couch … since I don’t have a proper exercise ball) – 10 reps with a 4 second-hold at the top of the movement (p. 175 – 177)
collapse in a quivering pile

This whole routing takes less than 25 minutes, so less than 1.5 hours per week. It’s short enough that my usual cop out (“But I don’t have time!”) holds little weight. (Haha, get it?)

However, I have veered from the book’s guidance in one major way. I have NO before photos, measurements, weight, body fat measurement – no metrics at all by which I can assess my progress towards being more “fit” or “toned.” Yes, Tim emphasized repeatedly the importance of having starting measurements. I’m sorry, Tim. I didn’t listen.

See, over a year ago, I stopped tracking. Yes, really. Yes, everything. I ditched the FitBit activity tracker and the scale, and even abandoned food logging in LoseIt. After reading Yoga of Eating by Charles Eisenstein, I decided to listen to my body and be more in tune with its messages rather than blindly tracking metrics hoping that some perfect combination of macronutrients and calories would lead to some kind of physical perfection. And I don’t (often) regret it. The human body is more than the sum of its measurements, after all.

So I define “success” for this workout by my experience. How easily does it integrate into my daily routine? Can I do it at home with simple equipment? Does it wipe me out by the end of the workout, i.e., continues to challenge me physically – and when it no longer does, how easily can I increase the intensity again? Do I dread exercising or look forward to it (at least enough to haul myself out of bed)? Do I feel changes in my muscles, like a tighter core that helps support my posture?

No, it’s not scientific… but by focusing on my experience, I’m hoping establish an exercise system rather than achieve a specific goal.


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Well… Chit

If you read my post yesterday (but missed my reply to Carolee, of the Herbal Blessings Blog), you might be wondering why I would ever have planted peas last Sunday, knowing there was a snow storm in the forecast.

In a word: chit.

That’s right. I said it. In my blog, no less.

After reading (most of) Steve Solomon’s Gardening When It Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times, I decided to try chitting as a way of jump starting seed germination. The approach is similar to sprouting seeds to eat, except when the roots are just becoming prominent, you plant the seeds in prepared soil. If you wait too long, the fragile roots grow increasingly susceptible to damage when planting.

Chitting takes three to four days, and in the Mid-Atlantic you NEVER know what the forecast will be in a few days, much less a week.  In other words, when the seedlings are ready to plant, you plant – oncoming winter storm or no.

… or you let them fully mature into tasty pea sprouts, and try chitting a new batch in another week! (That’s probably what I’ll do next time.)