365 days of change

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Creating a sleep schedule

Things have been fairly busy around balconville lately. As many of you know, I am in the midst of starting my own business, which doesn’t leave me a lot of time to spend writing. Still, I did want to talk about what I have been doing.

One of the things I have been trying to work on is regulating my sleep schedule. It has been a rough go lately because of the cozy fall weather and the short days of sunlight, but I am trying to put myself on a decent sleeping schedule to create a habit of getting adequate sleep, and to try and get up at the same time everyday.

I don’t know what it is but the earlier I wake up the more I get done. I don’t know if this is because I am not sleeping further into the workday, or because I have too many administrative tasks do at the end of the day so I can’t concentrate on the other things I want to do. Either way, when I am up before 6:30 am, it seems like those days are more productive.

Keeping this in mind, I have been trying to get to sleep earlier and trying to wake up earlier. Although not impossible, I am one of those people who hates going to bed, and who also hates getting up. I suppose a kind of inertia sets in when you are awake you like being awake and when you are sleeping, you like sleeping. So I have been trying to use a little willpower in combination with a little behavioural work to try and keep myself on track.

Having a kid in my life actually helped me with some of the changes I needed to make. One thing I realized about K. was that if he was playing video games, he would rarely think he was tired even though he was exhausted. He would just keep playing because the quick flashes and rapid scene changeovers would keep him occupied and interested. Still, once we would kick him off the computer and make him chill out and do something else, he was usually asleep in the space of 10 minutes.

I wondered really if this kind of thing affected us as well. I remember being younger and playing games well past the point of exhaustion, but since I haven’t found a game I’ve liked recently, it hasn’t been an issue. Still, the evenings would find me sifting through websites and reading various articles or watching various videos. All the lights were turned on in the house until the moment we forced ourselves to bed, and we usually didn’t feel tired when we did that.

In a sense we had been keeping ourselves active artificially. Having bright lights on, as well as having a bright computer monitor staring us in the face was telling our bodies that it was daytime and that we should be doing daytime things. I also found that the evenings seemed a lot shorter and I felt like I didn’t even have a chance to relax. The problem was spending way too much time in front of the computer. Nick and I often had decided to go to bed in say, 5 minutes, and then found ourselves still sitting at our desks an hour later.

Since I realized this, I have decided to create a darker, more relaxed period of time after about 8:30pm. I turn off all the bright overhead lights, stick on a small floor lamp and then I get comfy on the couch with a mug o tea and a book. I find when I do this, my body actually starts to slowly wind down from the day, and I get to the point where I actually feel like sleeping. I also don’t feel like I have wasted a lot of time just by passively sitting at the computer clicking for entertainment. By doing this, when I eventually hop into bed around 10pm, my body is nicely relaxed and I find I can fall asleep easier.

(I imagine that this could be done with any other activity too. As my urge to knit gets stronger in October, I plan to probably start some Christmas presents. I also have some sewing that I could be doing during this time as well. Basically, it can be any activity that you find relaxing.)

There are a few other things I would like to try, especially in preparation for stressful days. I think the evening would be a good time to start to incorporate meditation into my life. I have historically been terrible at trying to meditate because my brain always goes a mile a minute. Still, I have often thought that slowly working myself into meditation could be helpful, especially for those nights where you are having trouble sleeping because your mind is full of the stress from the day. I have seen people suggest that you actually allow yourself a period of time where you allow yourself time to worry about whatever is on your mind, and then after that period of time is up, you push it out of your head. Although I have never done this myself, I think this would be an interesting habit to create: allow yourself to stress about life stuff, and then follow it up with some meditation. I figure it would be a good follow-up tool.

Along those lines, doing some stretching or yoga would probably also be good right before bed. Personally, I find yoga to be super relaxing (ok, not Power yoga or Bikram for example, but you get the idea), and 15 – 30 minutes of gentle stretching would probably help a lot, especially on nights where you feel super wound up. Especially now where the business I am starting will be strenuous, stretching properly would be beneficial to my overall health.

Creating a quiet environment before bed helps me to get tired enough to sleep quicker when I do get into bed. Still, I am having problems waking up in the morning which is partially because it is cooler in the morning these days and the bed is much warmer, and partially because the fall mornings are also darker. I am taking the small victories where I can get them though, and I am sure the waking up part will fall into place soon enough.


Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Food and Exercise -- Sparkpeople

My friend Judy recently introduced me to the SparkPeople website, an online health and wellness tool that helps monitor your eating and exercise habits. I have already had experience with websites such as Fitday, but I find that the Sparkpeople website is more intuitive and their interface is a lot more user-friendly. For someone who is trying to focus on their health and who doesn’t have time or money to join an organization such as Weight Watchers, Sparkpeople is a great alternative.

Like other healthy eating organizations, Sparkpeople has the basic tenets of a good program: up-to-date information and tools, a system for personal accountability, and a community section where you can get support from like-minded people all over the world. Personally, I don’t use the community section, but I do use the food and exercise section extensively and I find it helpful to monitor my food intake to make sure I am getting the right kind of food, and the right amount of it.

Check it out!

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

One week of change. 51 weeks to go!

It has actually been a week since Nick and I sat down and agreed to clean up our lives a little, so I figure I should honour that with a post about how things are going. I thought I would try and use the headers of my intro post as a guide to this update so that I have a bit of a benchmark as well as a bit of a reminder of what we are trying to accomplish. As soon as things calm down a little, I am also going to get Nick to write a mini-update of his own detailing how he feels since the inception of our changes.

1. Drinking and smoking: for some strange reason both Nick and I have been craving cigarettes a lot lately. According to our quit counter however, we haven't smoked for 7 weeks, 2 days, and haven't smoked 1287 cigarettes. In two days, I personally will have saved almost $500 from not smoking, and Nick almost as much (I smoked more). Like all new habits though, it does get easier not to smoke as the days go on. Most days we both don't even think about it.

Drinking has been a little different because we really only have "officially" quit for about a week. The problem isn't that we crave alcohol either, at least not in the strict, addiction sense of the word. It was a little strange not having wine with dinner, but for the most part the only odd thing was creating new patterns of behaviour. From a seasonal perspective it worked out because it used to be that most of our evenings were spent just hanging out on our balcony and talking over a bottle of wine. Since fall squeaked in rather quickly this year, the evenings have been too cold to sit outside, forcing us both indoors.

The only real twinge of wanting to drink came when Nick and I had to go to a friend's birthday party. We both knew that being in a bar surrounded by friends was going to be extremely difficult, and so we both braced ourselves for the event. Strangely though, I was happy enough to just sit there and sip on my cola and I still got to visit with friends and have a good time. Nick apparently found it a lot harder than I did and he said he felt like drinking and smoking the entire night. Either way, we both did well and we didn't succumb to our old habits.

2. Stop eating crap: I have been eating a lot better since I am making sure that my body eats at regular intervals before it gets to the point where it is really hungry. I find that it helps me choose better foods, as well as keeps me from eating larger portions. I have also been a lot better at ensuring that I get lots of fruits, vegetables and water in my diet.

3. Exercise: I still walk the dog twice a day (Nick is on third shift), half an hour in the mornings and then we walk down to the dog park to spend a hour there every day. We also rode our bikes to our friends' birthday party the other night, so we are definitely incorporating exercise into our day-to-day lives.

4. Spend more time on the things I love: well, I have sadly spent a lot more time on the internet lately than I had intended to. In my defense I was writing and doing some research as well. Unfortunately, I haven't really made time for much more. This past weekend I did manage to read 3 books however, and I am now ensuring I make time for reading every day.

5. Spend more time with the people I love: while I am writing this, a dear friend sent me an email to invite me out for tea today. Unfortunately, I seem to have caught a cold of sorts and will be spending more of the day in bed. I hope that tomorrow or Friday I will feel a lot better so that I can spend some time with her. I also have been making the effort to touch base with other friends as well. I am looking forward to seeing more people over the next couple of weeks.

6. Get our finances back on track: this particular change seems to be taking care of itself. Nick and I haven't been spending any money lately because we are soon going to lose one of our streams of income. We had to laugh when we were at our friends' birthday party the other night. Typically when we go out for drinks, our bill is rarely under $40. Our bill the other night? $4.50 -- $7 with the tip. I have often found that a positive change in one area of your life often leads to positive changes in other areas. This is a direct example, but it's a good one.

7. Get organized: I am definitely giving myself an F for this category. The house is a mess and a lot of our stuff is out of order. I have some plans to get organized, but sadly I haven't made the effort to start anything.

8. Learn one new thing this year: also an F. I don't anticipate I will start this until later on in the year. For now I have those other things I want to concentrate on, and I find them more important. I did inquire about a yoga teacher training course that will start in January and run every second weekend, but because of the cost and the time, I am still unsure about whether or not I will do it.

So that is about it. Week one of change, really. I feel a lot more confident about the little things now that I am writing them down and making the effort to concentrate on them. There is a lot going on in our lives right now and a lot of change that we have no control over. It makes me feel a lot better about the little things we can't control when I have a list of things that I am actively working on and that the work I am doing is having positive consequences in my life. So here's to another 51 weeks of change!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

How trying to eat more fruit changed the way I ate completely

An apple a day ... so the old adage goes. Unfortunately for me however, I am definitely not a fruit eater. I shouldn't give the impression that I somehow dislike fruit, because that is far from the truth. I would have to say that while I do enjoy fruit, I just don't prefer it and that in itself has made it difficult to eat more of it. I have never had a problem eating as many vegetables that I could get my hands on, but when it came to fruit I could never manage more than a piece or two a week -- if that.

Still, we get a weekly organic basket that is filled with delicious, ripe, organic fruit that needs to be eaten. For the most part it has been Nick who has made sure that the majority of it has been taken care of, but sadly he sometimes has been unable to get through the entire weeks' worth of fruit before it goes bad. I feel awful that we make the effort to have such amazing food in our house when some of it only goes rotten, but every time I made the effort to eat more fruit it has never worked out as planned.

I have tried a few different ways to try and incorporate fruit in my diet. When I was working full time I always made sure I had a piece of fruit safely stowed in my bag. Unfortunately, most of it didn't get eaten until I had to throw out a weeks' worth of fruit that had accumulated on my desk. I also tried to use fruit in muffins and oatmeal which luckily hid the fact that the poor produce was way past its prime. Although this method worked well for older stuff, I still wasn't benefiting from eating the fruit when it was at its peak of freshness. It just seemed like whenever I was in the mood to snack the very last thing I wanted to reach for was fruit, even though I made sure that fruit was the first thing that was in my line of vision when I was hungry. Even at those times where I actually ate, say, an apple that I had brought specifically for my afternoon snack, it still wasn't satisfying enough to keep me from wanting to snack on other things.

After reading about a friend who reaches for a piece of fruit as the first thing does when she gets up, it occurred to me that maybe I was totally off-base with my eating habits. My typical breakfast usually consisted of downing a coffee first thing, followed by eating something heavy and loaded with carbohydrates. I wondered if I, too started the day with fruit, perhaps I would actually eat more of it. I have often assumed that eating a big breakfast was important to ensure that you don't overeat later in the day and so I worked my eating habits around that belief. Now, that may true for some people, but as it turns out, it wasn't for me. The problem all along was that I just wasn't listening to what my body wanted. My body doesn't require a big breakfast, it just needs quick fuel to help it jumpstart into the day.

Once I started listening to my body and amazing thing happened. I woke up, picked out a fresh piece of fruit, and then started my day. I was worried at first that my body would miss the bigger breakfasts of bagels laden with cream cheese or giant muffins, but in fact, my body was perfectly content to hum along on a sole apple for a few hours as I warmed up to a busy schedule. Mid-morning when I started to get hungry again, I once again picked up another piece of fruit which kept me happily energized well until lunch time. The quick energy from the fruit is exactly what my body wanted. In the past I had typically eaten a large breakfast early on, and not eaten anything else during the morning until lunch time. Naturally, by that time I was absolutely ravenous and was desperate to shovel food into my mouth as soon as I could and I rarely took time out to enjoy it. I overate a lot when I scheduled my diet in that manner.

I realized I was reading too much about the theories behind how I should be eating, and not really listening to what my body was trying to tell me. Sure, I brought fruit for an afternoon snack, but around 2:30 pm when I "hit the wall" a piece of fruit was the last thing my body wanted. So even if I did eat the fruit like I had intended, my body would just tell me that it was still hungry... "and wouldn't I love to go downstairs for a calorie-laden, junk food snack? HMM?" Between the hours of 2:30 pm and 4:30 pm I definitely needed to snack, but what I really needed was some protein to help me get through the afternoon so that I felt sated until dinner time. Instead of fruit or another quick energy source, what I really should have been snacking on was trail mix or cheese and whole wheat crackers.

Taking time to figure this out was important. Too often we read what the "experts" tell us is the best way to eat. However, what we do have to keep in mind is that expert advice is geared toward an average audience. It doesn't make the advice wrong for all -- even most -- circumstances, but it doesn't necessarily apply to every single person either. I am still not the world's biggest fruit fan, but I am much happier eating this way. It may be sneaky to trick my body into wanting fruit first thing in the morning before it even knows what it is doing, but it seems to be win-win. I get the vitamins and minerals that my body needs and these days produce from the organic basket rarely goes to waste. As an added bonus I am eating at regular intervals and I am eating the right foods. It seems that cravings and overeating are greatly reduced when I am actually making sure my body is properly fueled at the proper times.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Rediscovering my love for the mocktail

Like most kids, I absolutely loved those times where my parents would actually take us out for a sit-down dinner. No matter where it was, it always made me feel grown up to sit there with my mother, grandmother and little brother sipping on the ultimate in mocktails -- the Shirley Temple. Most of our dinners out as children usually happened around the corner from our house at St. Hubert, and if my memory serves correctly they served up one mean Shirley Temple (with cherry and slice of orange, of course). Of all the memories of eating out I could have remembered distinctly, for some reason my brain always comes back to the excitement of having a "grown up" drink served to me in a restaurant.

It's no surprise then that I have come around and started making them on my own. A few days into my new teetotaler status it occurred to me that I needed something party-oriented to take my through an upcoming celebration. My friend's 30th birthday party was happening on my first sober weekend (huzzah!), and so I needed a drink that was a little more exciting than a diet coke. Re-enter the Shirley Temple!

I did google a few recipes only to discover that many people consider a Shirley Temple to be nothing but grenadine and gingerale (OH BLASPHEMY!) . Luckily for us, wikipedia's entry includes our beloved friend orange juice into the mix. As far as I am concerned, it isn't a Shirley Temple without the juice, so I am sticking with this version. I am 50/50 on using gingerale vs. sprite, so I say go with your instinct on this one. I like mine both ways.

Basic Shirley Temple recipe

Take a large wine or cocktail glass and throw in at least 3 ice cubes. Layer the following into the glass:
1 TBSP of grenadine
3/4 glass of ginger ale or sprite (I use diet)
1/4 glass of orange juice (the least amount of pulp, the better for aesthetic reasons!)

Take a sip .. and then brace yourself for a sugar high.....I fed one of these to my stepson who found it deliciously sweet enough to consume for an entire weekend straight.

Grenadine is readily available in the soft drink section of most grocery stores. Technically it is supposed to be pomegranate syrup, but these days it is mostly just sugar syrup.

If the Shirley Temple doesn't seem that interesting to you, the LCBO has a great guide to interesting mocktails. The Ontario Health Unit also has a list of mocktails (the party drink for drivers!) - both hot and cold. (Interestingly enough, when I googled "mocktails," the two first entries were both from my area of the world. Go figure)

Friday, September 08, 2006

An introduction of sorts

On September 1st I had my last night out drinking. I had quit smoking about 6 weeks previous, but on this night I was all about the binging. The next morning I woke up with a bit black spot where the previous evening had been, a sore throat, and about $100 less in my bank account. I wondered why the hell I had thought it was such a great idea to spend the previous evening acting like an asshole and pouring my body full of chemicals. Obviously, nothing was so great about it.

Over the past few years I realized my life had become a sequence that repeated itself. Work, come home, eat dinner, have a few drinks, sit in front of the computer all night, sleep, wake up with a headache, go to work, rinse and repeat. On the weekend it was binge drinking with friends at a pub, or going to a house party. Somehow, our lives started to revolve almost completely around alcohol. It wasn't like we didn't recognize it either, we often talked about how we needed to curb our drinking habit (usually over a bottle of wine) and quit smoking, but even when we did quit drinking during the week, the social activities on the weekends all centred around alcohol. We would binge to make up for all the hard work we did of not drinking over the weekdays.

Finally we quit smoking on July 24th of 2006, and with it, we lessoned our alcohol consumption. Eventually however, the bottle crept back into our lives to the point where could actually drink 3 bottles of wine between the two of us in one night. I didn't think that much about it until labour day weekend when we decided to buy a pack of cigarettes. We ended up at a bar, I behaved like an asshole, we drank too much, smoked too much and I woke up the Saturday morning asking myself why the hell we even bothered. Drinking definitely brought me no joy, and I had long passed the time when I had enjoyed smoking, so what the hell was I doing spending so much money -- money I had earmarked for life goals -- on things that not only didn't make me happy, but that had made me wake up absolutely miserable and in pain (both psychologically and physically)?

Enough was enough. This was my 30th year on this planet and if I was going to make a big change, this should be the time to do it. My lifestyle in the past couple of years had left me overweight, a lot more lethargic and unhealthy, and much, much poorer. Two years previously, my husband (then-boyfriend) and I had decided that we were going to pay off our debt, and save enough money to buy ourselves a place in the country. According to that plan (had we stuck to it) we should have already achieved that goal by now. Today, we haven't even moved close to our goals, instead spending our money on lifestyle-related expenses. Also, at that time I was fairly active; I was swimming daily, walking to-and-from to work, and I did yoga once or twice a week. These days I am 40 lbs heavier than I was then, and I rarely exercise.

Luckily for me I got the kick in the ass I needed, and I have decided that enough is enough. For the next 365 days I am challenging myself to change my life for the better. In fact, Nick will actually be joining me for 4 months of this journey as he will be quitting drinking and quitting smoking until New Years so that he can spend more time and money on hobbies he loves. After that, we will see what happens. Either way, during the next year, this blog will be the public face of that change, where I will log all the ups and downs.

Here are the basic things I want to change about my life.

1. Drinking and smoking: obviously, the two catalysts that have lead me to start this journey. Even though many members of my family smoke, I really don't anticipate this being a problem. I am used to not smoking by this juncture, and if I stay sober it certainly isn't a problem. Drinking will be more of a problem, but only because the lives of those around me are focused on alcohol a lot of the time. Holidays in particular will be difficult, but I am fairly sure it won't be as hard as I think it is.

2. Stop eating crap: we spend a lot of money on organic food, but that means nothing if we are stopping in for fast food. Honestly, we don't eat out a lot, and we usually never eat fast food but I have eaten it twice in the past two weeks, so I want to nip that in the bud. The plan is to make eating out a special occasion rather than a habit, and instead brown bag our lunches and make food from scratch. I also want to concentrate on making more vegetarian meals and on proper portion control. Considering that obesity is huge problem, I have decided to pay more attention to what goes into my body.

3. Exercise: obviously no health changes are complete without some form of exercise being needed. I used to love to swim and do yoga, and I love going for bike rides during the summer and ice skating during the winter. The goal is to get to the point where I have a reasonable amount of exercise in my life (not to become a endorphin freak), and to walk and bike places as much as possible without using public transportation. I may even get really ambitious and take the yoga teacher training course that begins in the winter (on the weekends), but there is a really small chance of that.

4. Spend more time on the things I love: less time on the internet and more time writing, playing music, reading and learning to draw. My first default to boredom is alcohol, my second is playing on the internet. I am spending a disproportionate amount of time on activities that are easy but that bring me no joy, but I spend almost no time on the activities I really enjoy and that I find satisfying. That isn't to say I am giving up completely with online activities -- I did start this new blog after all -- I just think I personally spend too much time refreshing certain sites and too much time getting angry over eejits in public forums. I have long since realized that I was wasting too much time and energy on those conversations that don't really matter.

5. Spend more time with the people I love: most of my interaction with people has been via online channels. I can contact a plethora of people I love via a blog entry, so I have become very, very complacent in even writing a basic email to friends. Having said that, it is rare these days that I actually have one-on-one dates with friends. Most of the time a whole bunch of us get together, have drinks either at someone's home or at a bar. It is rare that one person or a small group of people get together to just have a cup of tea and chat. For those friends who are far away, I am going to make more of an effort to send email/snail mail.

6. Get our finances back on track: saving money is a lot like losing weight (as I blatantly steal from Amy Dacycyn) - you already know to lose weight you need to eat less than you expend just like saving money is about not spending as much as you make. Still, the little I WANNAs in life are what cut us off on the path to our goals. Getting our financing back on track is about ignoring those I WANNAs and about making the decision to spend our money on the myriad of things that bring us little joy, but that keep us from attaining the things that will bring us a lot of joy. For example, eating dinner out once a week at $60 a pop is $3120 a year. Incidentally, that is close to the amount it costs to take Nick, kiddle and myself on an all-inclusive cruise for a week. I think I would rather take the cruise and eat at home, thanks.

7. Get organized: a lack of organization leads to spending more time and money. For example, If I don't plan what we are going to eat for dinner before I am staring down the fridge at 6pm, chances are we will decide to eat out. Had I been more organized and taken out something to defrost the night before, it would have been a no-brainer. The same applies to other things such as getting the laundry folded and put away (saving time rooting through baskets), making sure the filing is up to date (easier to find tax-related stuff), and ensuring things are in their proper places (not buying more tape even through you know three rolls are kicking around somewhere).

8. Learn one new thing this year: I am not speaking of learning pieces of information, but more along the lines of learning to play piano, or learning how to paint.

Although there may be more changes to be made, for now these are the ones I am going to concentrate on. Hopefully this blog will be a year of ups-and-downs as I try to document 365 days of changes.

Wish me luck!