My kitchen has a bay window above the sink. I like the way it looks, but it’s a bit awkward because I am short enough that I can’t easily reach the middle section to open and close either the window or the blinds.

Bay window in dim light.

When we moved into the house, I got in the habit of standing on my tiptoes and stretching out to reach the window. Standing on a stepstool is much more comfortable, but now I often find myself closing the blinds without it at sunset just because I haven’t stopped to think about it.

I probably ought to break that habit by making a point of consciously going to get the stepstool whenever I do anything with that window. Of course, it doesn’t really matter much one way or the other; but in general, I see habit-busting as a good way to exercise mental flexibility.

My subconscious mind has been in a cranky mood for the past few weeks.

It all started out innocently enough. I was going out to get my hair done, and then a peculiar thought popped up out of nowhere. Wouldn’t it be interesting to go back to college and study biochemistry?

Well, no, that actually made no practical sense whatsoever, given the fact that I do not have a science background and it is a very difficult and time-consuming course of study. If I wanted to change careers, plenty of other options would be a much better fit.

But it would be so fascinating, the little inner voice persisted. So many amazing things to learn and discover!

I left that odd thought to settle for a few days, and it quieted down. Meanwhile, I was still writing a daily “kindness journal” as described in my New Year’s resolution post, keeping track of ways in which others were kind to me. It was meant to be a reminder that the world is full of kindness.

When March came to an end I’d been keeping that journal for three full months. My subconscious mind made clear it wasn’t happy about that accomplishment, though, because when I picked up a pen to make an entry, it snapped at me like a bad-tempered badger.

Badger showing its teeth.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

“Quit! Right now!” it snarled. “This journal is just another chore draining your energy, and you’ve had too many of those already! You need to take better care of yourself and quit piling on random obligations.”

Well, okay. I hadn’t in fact done much over the winter, but it was true that I had been feeling low on energy, for whatever reason. So I decided to take my cranky inner badger’s advice and abandon the journal, which I figured had probably served its purpose well enough.

After two journal-less weeks, I had a dream that seemed like it was related in some way. In this dream, I asked my husband a question. Instead of answering it directly, he said “Remember,” in a tone that might have been used to lecture a forgetful child. Then he told me something tangential.

I felt annoyed for a moment, and then I started to wake up. As is the way of dreams, I promptly forgot whatever he had been telling me to remember. That seemed hilarious to my half-asleep brain, and I snickered, “Ha, guess what, I forgot already! Phooey to whatever you said!”

After that I woke up more fully and realized that I was being snarky and childish with someone who wasn’t even there. Still, it felt like there was some meaning to this nonexistent and totally silly conversation.

I gave it some thought for the next few days, along with the other weird messages I’d been getting from my subconscious recently, and decided that all of them had to do with saying “Phooey” to expectations. That is to say, I need to lighten up, be more flexible, and not let routines and assumptions get in the way of seeing the world’s possibilities.

I enjoy having a digital art display on an otherwise blank wall because I can imagine it as a window into many places. The company that made it is no longer in business, though, and I can’t always count on being able to log into the online art library to change the picture. Not enough bandwidth where it is now hosted, apparently. Of course, I’m lucky that it still functions at all, rather than ending up as just a dead screen.

It’s a bit of a disruption to my routine because I had gotten used to changing the picture every morning, so as to imagine myself starting the day in a new and different place. Now I can rarely log in that early and instead have to wait until the afternoon. Today I wanted to display this peaceful image of a garden path, but I had to try several times before it worked.

Flagstone path through a perennial garden.

(Photo credit: Jennifer Rafleyan)

I found myself thinking about how people create calming rituals and routines to make a busy, complicated world feel a little more manageable. When it works as intended, it’s all good; but when something doesn’t go quite right, it becomes another source of anxiety.

Looking at it in perspective, the time of day when I change the picture is so insignificant that I shouldn’t care at all. Most disruptions to everyday activities are just as small and unimportant, but people often find them hard to cope with anyway. That’s probably because in the modern world, there is always so much going on at once, the least little disruption can feel like it might all spin out of control.

That feeling is just an illusion, though, like the window on my wall that isn’t really a window. Those little disturbances and interruptions usually cause no problems at all. The more difficult part is simply to convince the subconscious mind that it’s all okay. Looking on the bright side, a nice, relaxing imaginary walk along the garden path should help with that…

Over the weekend I read the book Counterclockwise by Ellen Langer, a professor of psychology at Harvard who studies how people react to social cues. She is best known for a study in 1979 of elderly men who spent a week living as if they had gone back in time 20 years, in a building that was furnished entirely with items from that time period. They read books and magazines from 1959, listened to the radio shows that were popular then, and watched TV programs from that era on a tiny black-and-white set.

The participants in the control group were told to reminisce about life twenty years earlier in the past tense, while the instructions for the experimental group were to use the present tense and discuss events as if they actually were living in 1959. The men in both groups looked and acted younger by the end of the week, with significantly more of a difference for the experimental group. They stood taller, walked more easily, spoke more confidently, and showed some improvements in objective measures of health such as lower blood pressure readings.

That study, and others discussed in the book, illustrate the effects of our environment on what we believe about ourselves and how the body conforms to those beliefs on a subconscious level. Noticeable changes can happen even if we don’t rearrange our physical surroundings in great detail, but simply reframe the way we think about them. The key, according to the author, is to be mindfully aware of the possibilities. When we realize that our habitual assumptions are not necessarily the only way to look at things, we allow ourselves—whether consciously or subconsciously—to discover other ways of being.

I’ve noticed this effect when changing the images on my digital art display. Nature scenes leave me feeling rested, while photos of interesting places abroad make me feel adventurous; and I’m likely to feel younger and more creative when I choose fanciful scenes, like this seashell picture that I displayed on Sunday. Doesn’t it look like a fairy tale illustration from which a mythical creature might suddenly emerge?

Large seashell on beach.

As for all the things we don’t notice because we get so used to them, I found myself in one of those situations on Monday afternoon. I went into a jewelry store to get a watch battery, and one of their salespeople pointed out that the prongs holding the diamond in my ring had gotten very worn. Maybe he was exaggerating when he said that the diamond might fall out at any moment; however, once I looked closely at the prongs, there was no doubt that they really did need replacing, so I left the ring for repair.

Of course, if I had ever stopped to think about it, I would’ve realized that after being worn every day for the 32+ years since I got engaged, the ring would naturally show signs of wear. But it happened so gradually that the changes were not at all noticeable from one day to another, so my mental picture of the ring was that it had stayed the same as always. When I went back to get the repaired ring, the new prongs were much longer. It’s such a difference—I keep poking myself on them and getting surprised!

After I ran the Turkey Trot, my heels felt a bit achy, and I realized that it was time to get new running shoes again. I had bought the old ones in early 2016, and they didn’t look decrepit, but it’s not always noticeable right away when the cushioning starts to go.

I decided that was okay, though. This was a good time of year to replace them, both because of the Thanksgiving weekend sales and because the cheerful colors of new running shoes always help to make the short, dark afternoons a little brighter.

New pair of running shoes.

As with many things for which a regular routine works best, it’s a good idea to replace old running shoes on a schedule so that they don’t get too worn out and cause problems. So, from now on, I’m going to make a habit of buying a new pair on Black Friday. That’s very easy to remember, once a year seems like a reasonable interval, and I expect there will always be a good sale somewhere.

The division of labor for yard work around my house is that my husband mows the lawn and puts down mulch, while I plant and weed the flowers and prune the shrubs, and we pay a lawn service company to do the fertilizer. I mostly use small pruning shears and cut small branches, which hasn’t been a problem except that when we had an unusually cold winter a few years ago, some of the larger branches on the backyard willows started dying. I cut them off with my husband’s lumber saw from the tool chest in the garage, but it was kind of big and awkward.

My husband didn’t say anything about it for a while, but last weekend he took me along on a trip to the hardware store and pointed out that they make long, thin saws especially for pruning. I bought one that folds up neatly and is just the right size to fit in my basket of small garden tools. It is much easier to use and does a better job of cutting branches, too, since that is what it was designed to do.

Folding pruning saw on garage shelf.

I took two useful lessons away from that: (1) In the modern world, if something is an awkward chore, there is likely to be a better tool for it; and (2) even if I don’t know what that tool might be, it’s probably not that hard to find out what it is, either by doing research or by asking someone who knows more about it.

Finding useful new things isn’t the hard part—what takes a bit of mental effort is cultivating the mindset to look for them, rather than habitually using the same old stuff just because it’s what happens to be there.

I didn’t get around to writing a Clutter Comedy blog entry last weekend, though I had good intentions. There was some disruption to my schedule, and also my husband upgraded our home computers from 32-bit to 64-bit Windows 7, which he said took a long time because it should have been done sooner. When tasks are left to wait longer than they should, there’s usually more work as a consequence. With software, there are more upgrades to install.

This is not even the final task; it’s all just preparatory to installing Windows 10 later this year, which will require buying more memory because operating systems have gotten enormous. That’s the way of things in the modern world—technology has given us much more capability, but keeping up with all its changes can feel like running frantically on a hamster wheel.

During my mostly unplugged weekend, I started thinking about how there’s not much difference between upgrading our gadgets and refurbishing our minds. If we let too many bad habits, outdated assumptions, and other mental junk pile up, then it’s harder to clear that stuff away than if we had done timely maintenance all along. Same thing with clutter in the house and weeds in the garden—there’s always something in need of attention that wasn’t a problem when we last looked.
 

Big leafy green weed between orange and yellow snapdragons. 

I have no idea how a weed resembling a small tree got into my snapdragons, when I’m sure it can’t have been more than a couple of weeks since I last did something in that garden…

Of course, our ancestors also had to do plenty of weeding and other chores, without benefit of today’s labor-saving devices. Their work couldn’t be neglected because if too many weeds got into the fields and choked out the crops, they might starve over the winter. Still, their lives were much simpler and more structured than ours, so they didn’t feel overwhelmed by the pressure of having to keep up with thousands of different things all at once.

We don’t really have to juggle huge heaps of tasks either—it just feels like we do, sometimes, because we haven’t yet settled into comfortable routines for such a fast-paced world. There are plenty of computer programs and smartphone apps to keep track of the little things. For example, my husband has a reminder in his Outlook calendar to run the self-cleaning cycle on the oven every four months, which was easy to do last weekend when it was cool enough that opening the windows was comfortable. Way easier than our ancestors had it, cooking over a hearth where they had to bring wood and sweep out the ashes every day. Their tasks rarely changed, though, so they didn’t have the stress of keeping up with to-do lists.

Our world has left behind the familiar customs and simple chores that once allowed people to go through their days without much need for conscious decision-making. We have many more choices now, and that means we need to manage and upgrade our choices proactively, so they don’t overwhelm us. It’s not just about getting used to new gadgets, either; the culture is changing rapidly around us, which means our assumptions are constantly being challenged. Sometimes everything feels like a leap into the unknown.

I am optimistic that as time passes, our society will develop more effective ways to help people navigate its complexity. The concept of supported decision-making refers to informal arrangements that assist people with disabilities in making choices. As I see it, people in general could benefit from having more structure and support in their lives. It’s not that modern humans are any less competent than our ancestors; we just live in a much busier world.

Every Thanksgiving when I was a kid, my father made fruit salad. The ingredients were McIntosh apples cut with the peel still on, big red grapes neatly halved, mini marshmallows, and a half-pint of whipped cream. I thought it was great and always scarfed down lots of it.

After I grew up and moved away, I made the same fruit salad because I associated it so strongly with the holiday. There was a problem, though. My husband didn’t care for it, and neither did our children. We had Thanksgiving dinner at his parents’ house every year, and I would always bring a big bowl of fruit salad, which only a few people would eat.

This year I didn’t make it because my husband said he’d like to bring sugar cookies instead. He went to the supermarket and picked out a bag of easy sugar cookie mix that needed only an egg and a stick of margarine. The cookies got baked very quickly on Thanksgiving afternoon, I didn’t have to do anything, we brought them to dinner on a festive red plastic plate, and everybody ate them happily.
 

Sugar cookie mix, eggs, and a stick of margarine. 

I hadn’t realized until now that when I always made the fruit salad as part of my holiday routine, even though my husband and kids were not interested in it, I was depriving them of the opportunity to create different family traditions they’d enjoy more. If they had baked sugar cookies every year, then we would all have pleasant memories of our sugar cookie tradition.

Routines can be helpful when they genuinely serve our needs, but they only get in the way when we let many years pass without reflecting on whether they fit our current circumstances. Rather than putting things in the category of cherished traditions just because we haven’t changed them, we should take time to consider whether we really cherish them or whether we’re only doing them by rote.

We should also keep in mind that even if we like them, we’re not obligated to do them exactly the same way. If I want to eat fruit salad during the holiday season, I can make it for myself one December weekend. I might find that I enjoy it more, giving myself a bit of comforting holiday cheer to brighten up a dark evening in between Thanksgiving and Christmas vacations. It’s all about being flexible in how we look at things!

Motivational authors often advise against using weak words like “should” and “someday” that amount to nothing but idle fantasies, lacking any definite commitment. Such words can lull us into believing that we are taking constructive action when in fact we haven’t done anything. We may think we’re making progress along the road to someday; but really we’re just frozen in place, not moving in any direction.
 

Three-way intersection with light snow. 

While I agree with being careful not to confuse fantasies with action, it’s also important not to jump into action without forethought or to get overly stressed working on plans for everything we might possibly want. “Should” and “someday” can be useful in their proper place, as preliminary steps toward action. Before committing ourselves to act, we first need to reflect on whether the action would be a good thing to do—whether we should do it. If the answer is yes, then we move on to considering the logistics. Although some plans can be made right away, it’s not practical to immediately set an action date for every idea that comes to mind.

That’s where putting “someday” items at the far end of the to-do list comes in. For example, someday I would like to travel to Australia, but right now there are plenty of other things that have higher priorities in my life. So, for now, it’s just a fantasy, and it doesn’t need to be anything else. If I considered it to be more important, I would research the details and put together an action plan, complete with specific dates. But until then, it’s just one of my somedays, and that’s okay.

What’s not okay—and all too easy to do, unfortunately—is to get stuck in a deep rut, avoiding even the smallest changes to our routines because of fear or laziness, while telling ourselves that we should do better and someday we’re going to work on it. In that context, “should” and “someday” are nothing more than excuses for hanging onto bad habits in the here and now. And as excuses go, they’re pretty worthless ones. Although change may seem scary or difficult, often all that’s needed is simply to take a small action each day, building better and healthier habits as time goes by.

Setting aside time for reflection, with the aim of discovering one’s authentic self, is common advice in inspirational books and articles. The modern world’s distractions and responsibilities often lead to the feeling that somewhere along the way, we have gotten much too busy and lost a clear sense of who we really are. Meditation, long walks in the forest, and spiritual retreats are seen as ways of reconnecting.
 

Path in autumn forest with fallen leaves.

(photo credit: publicdomainpictures.net)
 

When I started clearing clutter out of my house earlier this year, I wasn’t thinking about it in terms of improving my sense of self; I just wanted to tidy things up and feel more comfortable at home. I’m starting to feel that it’s all part of the same process, though. Letting go of physical clutter brings up thoughts and emotions having to do with each item’s source and what function it once served in my life. This in turn causes me to reflect on where I am now and what has changed since then. So I’m not just taking old stuff to the thrift store, but also clearing out my old emotions and routine behaviors associated with the stuff. I am making space for creative energy, positive thought patterns, and feeling more present in the here and now!

The subconscious mind is full of associations relating to the stuff in our environment. Even when something gets to be so much a part of everyday life that it doesn’t get noticed consciously, it still triggers emotions and habitual responses just by being there. So I would say that discovering one’s authentic self is not just about remembering the past; it’s also about clearing away whatever doesn’t feel right in the present.