10 Steps to Joy and Balance by Christina Knowles

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For the past few years, I’ve been struggling to find balance and contentment in the midst of my busy life of responsibilities. A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog describing my struggle called, Balance, Yeah Right, basically feeling lost regarding making significant changes. Well, since then, much to my surprise, I’ve actually made real progress. I feel happier and more relaxed than I have in years. No, I did not quit my jobs—any of them. I still teach college, high school; I still write my blog—in fact, now I have two. I’m publishing a collection of poetry, working on a short story collection, and writing another suspense thriller. So, what’s different? How can you takes steps to a happier, more balanced life too? Well, here’s what I did. Maybe it will work for you too.

  1. Separate work and home. First of all, I set boundaries between work and home. I do all my grading and planning at work and don’t let it invade my free time. The only exception is when I get an unexpected day off in addition to my normal weekend, and even in this case, I limit my work to a couple of hours. In fact, I have developed such a habit of not working at home that I can barely force myself to do even this.
  2. Get help and scale down. I resisted this for the longest time. I didn’t want someone else coming into my house, cleaning it in a way that was different than I do it. I didn’t want to spend the money either, but I finally gave in. It came down to the fact that I was tired of spending my only day off cleaning the house, grocery shopping, doing laundry, and cooking. The only time I spent with my husband was cleaning together or shopping together. I started dreaming of spending a day with him and my dog, walking through the streets of quaint Old Colorado City, going to the dog park, hiking, visiting a museum, or curling up together to read a suspenseful novel. That’s all it took.

We hired a trustworthy, bonded maid service to come when we aren’t home, we cut our grocery shopping down to every other week, and I gave up cooking all single ingredient homemade organic meals. We still eat healthy foods, but now I buy a few easy-to-prepare organic foods like premade sauces and deli-made meals or something similar. Not cooking everything from scratch has given me my life back! We had to compromise a little, but we still make sure we are eating healthy, natural foods, and I still make the homemade stuff, but only when I feel like it. What’s more is I actually enjoy cooking again!

I had to relax and be okay with the fact that my house may not be cleaned exactly as I would do it, but they still do a great job. Only shopping every two weeks has saved us money as well, so it kind of balances out, and that’s what it’s all about.

  1. Say no. This was a hard one for me. Have you ever been secretly relieved when someone cancelled plans with you, even though when you made them you really wanted to participate? I still find saying no difficult, but I’m getting better at turning things down when I know I’m overwhelmed. With that said, make sure not to isolate yourself by saying no to everything. Dump the responsibilities for a few hours, see your friends and loved ones, and nurture the relationships that enrich your life, but stay home and do nothing when you really want to.
  2. You can say no at work too. In the past, I thought I had to do whatever I was told even if it didn’t fit my job description or if it was impossible to do within the time allotted during my work-day. I finally had to stand up for myself and say that it wasn’t okay to ask me to work extra hours for free and allow work to invade my free time. I work my butt off without even taking a lunch break at work in order to get all my duties done at a stellar level during my working hours, but if it doesn’t get done, it doesn’t get done. No one has the right to expect the impossible. I guess I’ve had to lower my standards, but it’s the best thing I ever could have done for myself, and the strange thing is, I don’t think it’s lowered the quality of my work at all. On the contrary, everything seems to work better than ever before. Maybe it’s my happy, no-longer-abused attitude working to my advantage, allowing me to concentrate on the essentials of my job without stress.
  3. Make a practical and realistic plan. Every day I make two lists—one for work and one for home. I write down everything that needs to be done, and then star the most important things that are non-negotiable. I get the most important things done first, and then do the lesser things when I’m done. Whatever doesn’t get done, goes on tomorrow’s list. I always get the non-negotiables done. I also get a great deal of satisfaction crossing things off my list.
  4. Realize that some days it’s okay to throw out the plan altogether. I don’t do this often, but there’s nothing better than just ignoring the list altogether and doing what you want sometimes. By the way, there should always be at least one day a week when there is never a list at all.
  5. Fit little moments of relaxation and fun in wherever you can. I like to take 15 minutes in the morning after getting ready for work to read or work on a puzzle I’ve been putting together. I listen to fun, adventurous, or suspenseful books on CD in my car whenever I drive. This makes me feel like I haven’t neglected all the books I want to read, it makes me look forward to going to work or driving anywhere, and it has the surprising effect of making even rush hour traffic peaceful and enjoyable. I have actually wished that I could be stuck in traffic longer just so I can finish a book. I also keep an adult coloring book nearby to pick up whenever I need a few minutes of relaxation (not in the car!). I have a Kindle book on my phone at all times, so I can enjoy a few minutes of escapism whenever I have to sit and wait for anything. I get some sunshine and fresh air whenever I can by reading outside or walking my dog or meditating under a shade tree. These little moments are more than stress reduction. They make me feel like I have dozens of happy things in my routine that make every day feel like a joy.
  6. Do what you love, and it won’t seem like work. Everyone says this, but it is so much easier said than done. I know not everyone can just quit a secure job and change careers at the drop of a hat, but if you really hate your job, you need to make a plan for a change. However, you may not need to do anything that drastic. Once you make some changes in what you are willing to do and what you are unwilling to do, you may start loving that old job again. It’s amazing what setting limits can do to your attitude at work. You may start looking forward to working once you feel like you are no longer being taken advantage of. If not, then it might be time to look for something else.
  7. Realize that you don’t have control over most things. This can be tough, but realizing that there is nothing you can do about some things, and that you can’t control the outcome all the time is really quite freeing. Know that if your plans don’t work, it’s not the end of the world. You are going to be okay. Life is full of making little adjustments. Keep adjusting your course in ways that add joy, and before you know it, you’ll wonder why you ever bothered to be unhappy in the past.
  8. Finally, be content within yourself, and you will be happy most of the time. If we love who we are, take care of ourselves, and treat ourselves with respect, then we will be content and joyful almost all the time. Happiness is a fleeting thing, and when tragedies strike, of course, we will grieve, but we can experience moments of joy more and more often when we are accepting of who we are and take the time to nurture ourselves.

So, this is what I’ve done and what is working for me. I’m no life coach, but I know what it is like to struggle with stress, busyness, and discontentment, and I also know what it feels like to be free, joyful, to love my job and home life, and to finally feel relaxed. I hope you find this same contentment in your life. Peace. –Christina Knowles

Quiet Desperation–Okay, Maybe Not So Quiet by Christina Knowles

I’ve watched a lot of movies and read a lot of stories about people who have had a great awakening or an epiphany and completely rebooted their lives after finding out they have a terminal illness or after almost dying in an accident. I seriously want a reboot. Do I have to get sick or get in a major accident to do it? I hope not.

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If I found out I had a terminal illness and was told I had six months, or even a year to live, I would change my life immediately. So, why don’t I do it now? Why not live the life I want while I am still healthy and able to enjoy it? It seems I am in the majority with this one. The wisdom of Thoreau comes to mind. What’s the famous quote from Walden? “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”

I don’t think I would go that far. In fact, for the most part I love my life. I think, herein, lies the actual problem. I should clarify–I love my home life. I want more time being with the people I love and doing the things that matter. You see, like many people, I am sick of my job. It is slowly, maybe quickly, now that I think about it, sucking the life out of me. It is overwhelmingly stressful. I am not exaggerating when I say that I think it is literally killing me. Isn’t that kind of like having a terminal illness?

That is a bit of an exaggeration. I don’t feel ill, and I am not in any physical pain, unless you count the anxiety attacks that keep me awake at night. I don’t have the emotional trauma of knowing how little time I have left. But even though I don’t have a doctor giving me a time frame, I could die tomorrow or next week. With my luck, it would be on a Friday right after work.

But the truth is that this slow death is not traumatic enough for me to take a risk. Why don’t I have the guts to live the life I want to live? Am I enslaved by my own comfort? Like many Americans, I work to pay for things to make me happy because my work makes me unhappy. It’s a trap. I have thousands of dollars of student loans to get an education, so I can pay back my student loans. Sometimes I wish I never had a college education and a career. Yes, I know. There are homeless and starving people who would love to trade places with me. Maybe that’s what I’m afraid of–I know my life could be so much worse, but is that any way to live? Afraid that things could be worse? Am I afraid to give up the material luxuries to which I’ve become accustomed to the point that I would kill myself working to keep them? How important are they that now my daydreams consist of working in a little flower shop and going home carefree to a tiny two-room house, riding my bike because I can’t afford a car that is likely to break down at any moment. And I will sleep well in my tiny house, nothing to panic about. Like Thoreau, I want to “live deliberately . . .and not, when I [come] to die, discover that I had not lived . . . I [want] to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”

But I am rudely awakened from this fantasy by the thought of health insurance and retirement accounts and veterinary bills. There is no such thing as carefree. Were we even meant for that kind of life? Isn’t it conflict and struggle that make us thrive? Or at the very least give us the contrasts that make us appreciate the good times? I mean, would I even love being at home so much if I hadn’t just left work? I don’t know, but I would like to try. It’s not like I want to quit working and striving. I just want something that doesn’t feel like it’s hurtling me at full-speed toward the grave.

So I again turn to Thoreau for advice: “I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” But I have never been good at taking advice.I find that I am not really a risk-taker when it comes down to it. Although I have intermittent lapses, I am practical and responsible. I also fear the unknown. Even if what I have seems intolerable at times, I suspect that the alternative is more intolerable. Maybe this is just a mid-life crisis, but if it is, it’s a little late. I see the hourglass emptying, and I know if I’m going to change, it has to be now. But I don’t have the courage or faith or maybe enough desperation, so I guess I have no choice but to go to the grave with the song still in me.–Christina Knowles

All quotes from Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden: Or Life in the Woods”

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