What to Do When Stress Breaks You – Part 3

Previously speaking…

The two previous articles in this series include:

  • Part 1: Discussed the onset of my stress overload, and things that you might want to be alert for in your own life too.
  • Part 2: Simple tactical steps that I used to immediately reduce stress.

Grab a cup of coffee or other favorite drink and relax in a comfortable seat for some reading, because this third and last article will deal with the heart of the matter. It discusses the more strategic long term health and wellness approaches that I’ve taken since January 2020 to get myself to a better place regarding stress and overall health. It’s taken a long time to reset myself from back then, but I stuck with it and I’m mostly there now. The stress reduction approaches in these articles are well within reach of everyone if you stick with them consistently, and they were so impactful to me that they justified being shared here.

A tough nut to crack

This was the hardest of the three articles to write, and also the one with the longest time span from ‘idea’ to ‘writing’ because I had to let some time pass to see if these strategies would work. This third installment is a lot about “feeling”. For example:

  • Understanding what you think about things, and why.
  • Using some of these ideas to “feel your way” to calmness and finding peace.
  • Recognizing what’s working and improving your situation, and what’s not that you should move on from.

It can be hard to dig at your emotions and feelings in this way and many people don’t bother to put in the effort, but if you do the payoff can be huge. What I realized while writing about this is how many pieces there are to the puzzle of wellness. It’s not a scenario of just improving a few things here and there and then you’re done. It involves reviewing your whole personal picture, your mental and physical state, and optimizing them consistently over time to raise the bar for yourself. It takes time, so be patient with it.

Dawn brings new light, and a new mind

The photo above was taken out the front window of my house, which faces almost directly east. I’m often treated to spectacular sunrises just like this one, and it’s quite a scene when the right kinds of clouds are present. The few minutes that these light shows last in the silence of the morning are like gold to me. Taking the time to watch them is one of the ways that I’ve taken back my mornings and it allows me to be mindful of the moment I’m in instead of waking up and immediately getting to the tasks of the day.

With that image of a new and refreshed mindset, let’s get to it! Here are the long term wellness approaches that were effective at reducing my stress levels and resetting the foundation of my daily well being:

1Start the day right

When looking at the subjects of overall wellness and reducing stress, the logical place to start is the beginning of the day. There’s an old expression that goes something like, “Own your morning and you will own your whole day”

The spirit of that expression means to start your day your way, on your terms, doing things you want to do, and hopefully that will help set a positive tone for the rest of your day. I know that’s often much easier said than done, especially if you have young kids to get off to school or you’re having a rough period at work, but it’s an idea to start with that can be flexed to your daily routine. Finding these “starting point ideas” is critical to resetting yourself, because otherwise it seems like a daunting task that you simply can’t get traction with.

Over the years leading up to 2020 (and without me realizing it), my mornings had transformed into what I realize now was a wrong direction for me. I typically wake up early each day without an alarm, and I’m an easy riser who’s up and about in just a few minutes. Since I’m interested in world topics and business in general, I would usually watch CNBC to catch their morning discussion about global business topics, see how the markets were looking for their opening, and grab my laptop to go through some work email with my coffee. Everyone in the house is normally asleep at this time so it’s very quiet.

Sounds pretty normal, and maybe a lot of people follow that same sort of routine. This went on for a long time until I started looking for some more personal time during my busy days to pursue some of my interests. That’s often hard to do when working all day, so eventually I turned my attention to the mornings and changed my routine to get some time back. No CNBC. No work email. Instead I focused my morning hours from 6:00-8:00 am on quiet time while relaxing with my coffee and reading, writing, and simply thinking.

When that old “CNBC morning routine” was gone, I realized two key things:

  • I didn’t miss those activities at all
  • They were adding no value to my life whatsoever

I regret letting myself fall into that morning time trap over a period of years. As we get older, we gain the wisdom and perspective of how valuable time is, and those activities were wasting my time relative to the valuable things I really could have been doing instead. Now those old morning habits are gone for good!

If you have kids or other obligations that need attention as soon as you’re awake in the morning, then try to grab some time as soon as those obligations clear to take a breather and reset yourself. It doesn’t have to be long period of time, just a few minutes of something you enjoy will often do. Try to get to it earlier in the day rather than later, don’t let the morning slip totally away without some “me time”.

Taking back my mornings made such a huge difference for me that I won’t go back to my old ways again. There’s nothing like the satisfaction and peace that comes from the process of starting your day in your way.

2- Cultivate good sleep

In addition to starting the day right, it’s important to ensure good sleep the night before. Those are the bookends of your day and both help to reduce stress. As with the morning suggestions above, this might be easier said than done sometimes, but we’re shooting for generalities here knowing that things won’t be perfect every night.

One of the best tips that I can offer that worked well for me is to develop a nighttime routine that gears you down far before you reach your actual bedtime. For years, I was in the habit of doing tasks leading right up to bedtime, whether it was using my computer or phone, doing chores like paying bills, or sometimes working for my job. These are all thinking activities that keep your brain going full force right until you lay down to sleep, and then your brain keeps rolling right along when the lights go out instead of drifting off to sleep like it should. Not good.

I stopped all of the things above except for the occasions when it’s unavoidable, and I typically start to wind down for bed several hours before I actually go to sleep. If we usually go to bed around 11:00, then I start to do some of my nighttime activities around 8:00 or so. This includes finishing chores, preparing for work the next day, taking an evening shower to relax the mind and muscles, and putting on some comfortable clothes. Then my wife and I will typically do other less intense activities around the house like pursuing hobbies, watching some TV, listening to music, or reading. This varies by the season because we’re typically active later into the evening in the summer, but this is the general routine I try to follow (remember those starting points I mentioned above?). All of these things are cues to your body and mind that it’s time to start winding down for the night. You’re training your mind to prepare for sleep.

Using the approach above, I transformed my bedtime from a restless and sometime long scenario of getting to sleep into one where I typically now fall asleep in less than five minutes every night. Huge improvement, and I also sleep better throughout the night.

If you want to read more sleep tips check out this short article on Healthline, or simply Google “sleep tips” for more like it. Many tips are common sensical and will clearly help, yet few people try them on a sustained basis to see if they work. Pick the ones that can fit your lifestyle, and consistently give them a try for a few weeks to see what happens. Remember that you’re re-training your mind and it takes some time, but a good night of sleep is a strong foundation for the next day and it’s worth the effort.

3Re-learn how to breathe properly

Do you ever think about how you breathe? Probably not, because it’s part of the autonomic nervous system and it just happens all day without fail.

Try this small exercise to determine how you naturally breathe when at rest. Lay comfortably on the floor and place your left hand on your upper chest around your sternum and your right hand on your stomach around your belly-button. Now, simply breathe like you normally do for a little while.

Which of your hands do you notice rises as you breathe, your left or right? If it’s primarily your left hand resting up on your chest, then you’re a chest-breather. If it’s primarily the right hand on your stomach, then you’re an abdominal breather. Hold on to that thought for a minute…

When I started exploring stress reduction techniques, it was interesting to learn how much our breathing impacts our nervous system. Over time as adults we mentally and physically gravitate away from the proper breathing techniques that we instinctively knew as young children. Stress, poor posture, and a variety of other factors change us into open mouth shallow chest breathers instead of deep abdominal breathers, leading to negative repercussions for the mind and body.

When I learned that deep abdominal breathing through the nose can lower stress, lower heart rate and blood pressure, improve sleep, and improve overall wellness, I said “Count me in!” I’m a fact and science-based person, and when it’s easy to find consistent information from multiple trusted sources and medical tests about a given subject, there’s probably something to it. I read enough to convince me that there’s a connection between proper breathing and stress reduction, and I’ve included some of those links below.

So if you’ve ever wondered why people say “Slow down and take a deep breath” when you’re stressed out, the reason why is the affect that type of breathing will quickly have on your mind and body through a modification of what’s called the fight-or-flight response and your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system responses. This is a central idea in yoga and meditation, and has found its way firmly into the mainstream where even our devices like Apple and Samsung smart watches and apps on our phones remind us of the importance of taking a break multiple times per day to simply breathe slowly and deeply.

Remember the test above to figure out if you’re a chest or abdominal breather? If you’re already an abdominal breather, that’s great and keep it up! If you’re a chest breather, you might want to try modifying your breathing technique to become a deeper abdominal breather.

Modifying how you’ve defaulted to breathing throughout your adult life is not an easy thing. When I learned about this subject, decided there was merit to it, and started to focus more on deeper abdominal breathing through my nose, I often found myself slipping back to shallow chest breathing through my mouth. This was especially prevalent while working at my desk job. Over the course of several weeks though, I changed my breathing in the right direction and have been able to stick with it until it became habit. I now just breathe slowly and deeply through my nose into my abdomen throughout the day no matter what I’m doing (except for strong exercise, which requires a different approach).

For more information about why abdominal breathing is so important and also how to do it, check out these links. There’s plenty of clear information available to help you on the path to better breathing.

4 – Yoga (yes, yoga!)

Most people know the benefits of yoga such as increased flexibility, increased strength and resiliency, a more calm and focused mind, and improved sleep to name a few. Despite knowing this, yoga is not the first thing that came to my mind when I realized I had a stress problem, but it most certainly should’ve been!

As I was researching how to de-stress, I happened upon a YouTube link to a short and simple yin yoga video. I thought to myself “What do I have to lose?” I closed the door of the room I was in to make it quiet, lowered the lights a little bit, and gave it a try.

Wow! After doing that short yoga sequence, I felt noticeably less tense and anxious, so I replayed it two more times in a row. Each time I listened to the calming voice of the instructor Paige Galster and followed her moves, I felt a little better, like my whole body was releasing tension. I started doing that same video two or three times throughout the day for a week or two, until I felt enough consistent and lasting benefit from it to think “OK, maybe there’s something to this.”

Considering the wealth of high quality material that you can find for any subject on YouTube, I find it silly now that I stuck to just that single video over and over for my first experiments with yoga in those early weeks. It shows you though how desperately you sometimes cling on to anything that works when you’re trying to reduce stress. Soon enough though, I started doing research into yoga, why you can achieve so many health benefits with it, and the many different varieties that exist. I tried a few different styles, but I eventually settled into the gentle yin approach because of the long, stress-releasing position holds, the calming music that’s often in the videos, and the instructors who gently talk you through everything they’re doing so you understand the mechanics and can avoid injuring yourself (yes, like any form of exercise, you can hurt yourself doing yoga). They also frequently narrate their videos with general wellness advice, stress reduction tips, etc.

Since this initial discovery of yoga back in early 2020, I’ve done yin yoga routines of varying length almost every day of the week (usually 30-45 minutes per day) over three years and it’s made a big difference in my daily life. So much so that I tell anyone I know about it when the subjects of stress and anxiety come up in conversation. I focus here on yin yoga, but most people who do yoga will see the same benefits I discuss here no matter which style they prefer.

I realized three things shortly after starting my yin yoga practice:

  • Yoga is equally about the mind as it is about the body. Through the moves and the focus on calming breathing techniques used in yoga, you’ll learn and feel how much these things impact your mind and calm you. It’s quite amazing, and I’m not sure I would have believed it as much if I hadn’t experienced it myself.
  • Yoga is a mindset that you can carry with you throughout your day (the “yoga mind”). The calmer mindset, the optimized breathing, the positive attitude…these are all things you can make a part of your regular activities and interactions with other people once you’ve been doing yoga long enough for them to become second nature.
  • Yoga is not about doing all of the moves and positions perfectly. It should be a zero stress and “come as you are” activity where you do what you can do within your physical limitations. Don’t worry about how you look or that you’re not exactly matching the instructors perfectly. The good instructors will regularly reiterate this in their classes and videos to reinforce that point. Their focus is to show viewers how to do the moves correctly and safely, and then you can take it as far as you can within those guardrails and the limits of your own body. If you achieve a 1:1 match with the instructor, great! If not, don’t sweat it. You have to remember when you’re first starting yoga that many of the instructors producing these videos (and some of the students they put in the videos) have been doing yoga for many years. Their bodies are flexible, their range of motion is large, etc. You can’t expect that you would be in the same place as them when you first start.

If you want to try yoga as a form of stress relief, then I can recommend the YouTube channels of:

Travis and Kassandra are two well known yoga instructors who maintain free and robust YouTube channels, as well as authoring several books about yoga and the yoga lifestyle (remember, yoga is body + mind). I arrived at the two of them as my main focus for my yoga practice after moving through many different YouTube instructors and eliminating a lot of them for various reasons (poor video or audio quality, annoying music in the videos, too fast with their moves, too much distracting talking during the videos, didn’t explain things adequately, etc). I use a few other instructors as well, but the vast majority of what I do comes from Travis and Kassandra, who also teach other styles beyond yin.

After espousing the benefits of yoga to my wife for a few months she decided to give it a try with me, and she’s been a devotee ever since. We learned that Travis and his wife Lauren (also a good instructor) have an online yoga service called Inner Dimension TV. My wife and I viewed some of their classes during a free trial offer, and we were hooked and signed up. Since then we’ve come to realize that Inner Dimension is far more than a yoga streaming service. It’s an entire wellness platform with the core focus of all styles of yoga, but there’s also content for meditation, wellness talks, and how to elevate your health in general. In addition, the service has many other instructors than just Travis and Lauren, so there’s a variety to pick from to vary your practice (although for sure Travis and Lauren’s philosophy and approaches govern the overall spirit of this service, which is a good thing). Their entire platform is based on high quality videography, clear audio, and a unified approach to their content. It’s a great service that I highly recommend, and you can use their free trial offer to see if you like it.

If you decide to try yoga for stress relief and an improvement in your overall wellbeing and daily life, I hope you find as many benefits as I did when I went down this path. There are many resources to explore on YouTube or websites and apps like Inner Dimension TV, and of course there are local yoga studios near you for in-person instruction as well. All of these resources will give you a chance to dip your toes into the waters of yoga to see what it can bring you. Try it, and give it some time (weeks or months) to sink into your mind and body. For the most benefit, find a quiet place in your home where you’ll be undisturbed while you practice.

For me, doing daily yoga and developing a yoga mindset over the past three years has been nothing short of transformational, and perhaps it can do the same for you.

5 – Reduce social media and newsfeeds

There’s no doubt that social media has done good for the world, but it’s also does a hell of a lot of bad. However, rather than discussing my opinions about its merits and drawbacks and providing examples of each, I propose turning the discussion simply to one of value instead.

I’m not a huge social media user anymore, limiting it now to periodically staying connected with my hobby groups on Facebook and Instagram. However, I know many people who spend a lot of time every day on various social media platforms, so I would propose simply asking yourself: “What value is this adding to my life, and would I miss it if I used it less often?”

Answer honestly.

If your answer was something similar to “Maybe I’m not getting a lot of true value out of this”, then try an experiment of reducing your daily time spent using social media to half of what you normally do, or take a break from it entirely for a while. Instead, try using that time on something that you truly enjoy that adds value to your life like a new hobby or activity. Maybe use the time to get some exercise or just go outside to walk and think with no external stimulation on you.

If you decide to try it, think about how your new activities make you feel? Better? I did this and never looked back because it felt like such a breath of fresh air to me. I don’t miss social media and all its negatives at all, and instead I’m doing things that I enjoy much more with my time.

I was reading something recently about social media and the author commented, “Spend time enjoying your own life rather than scrolling through the lives of others”.

That simple statement resonated so deeply with me that I think about it every time I see someone scrolling through their phone with a look on their face that tells me that they really don’t even care about what they’re looking at. Just mindless scrolling, perhaps to fill time? Stop, and do something else with your valuable time!

My trajectory with news was the same. I used to habitually scan the headlines of a few mainstream news websites each morning to keep up on world events until the constant barrage of worldwide death, destruction, negativity, and stupidity just got to be too much. I realized that it was adding absolutely zero value to my life, and instead was making me stressed and sad. Accordingly, I cut my news ingestion down to quickly scanning the business headlines to be aware of any topics that could impact my investments, and I read the the Tech, Health, Arts, Travel, and Magazine sections of the New York Times (which is more a form of entertainment than news to me). That’s it. The time saved is now used on other more value-add activities that make me happy.

In summary for this topic, focus on value and decide for yourself if there’s an optimization that can occur to reduce the excess “noise” and external stimulation from unimportant social media and news, and bring some more free time and peace to your day.

6 – Understand yourself

Do you have a good understanding of what makes you tick? What makes you happy or sad? Why a certain person or situation stresses you out? Why certain things make you anxious?

A large part of de-stressing your life is understanding how you think about things and how they affect you, why you react to things the way you do, and why you do the things you do in the first place. Perhaps then, using this deeper understanding of yourself, you can determine what you’re doing that might be at the root of some of your stress. People will often say “I feel so stressed out”, but they don’t then take the necessary steps to figure out exactly what the root cause of their stress is and whether it’s in their control to do something about it. Consequently, it never goes away and the stress cycle repeats.

To understand yourself requires soul searching, and analyzing yourself and how you think. It requires you to figure out why you react certain ways to given situations, and then decide if you want to change those reactions in the future. You might not like some of what you discover about yourself and how you handle things, but that’s OK because it’s a learning and discovery process. A lot of people are uncomfortable with this type of self-analysis, but it’s essential to de-stressing.

The goal with achieving this self-understanding is to take the positive thought patterns and behaviors in your life to move forward with, and eliminate as many of the negative thinking and behaviors as you can, because the negatives are often the root cause of stress. I would argue that just gaining the self-awareness through this process is a big step in the right direction and will probably give you some form of immediate relief because you’ll better understand “how you work”, and that’s a good thing. It empowers you to change yourself for the better.

However you cross this bridge, I consider self-understanding and self-awareness to be critical to stress reduction. Spend some time on this and reward yourself with the benefits.

7 – Distance from stressful people and situations

Stating it plainly, some people and situations can be unpleasant and stressful. We probably all know someone who is more of a drag on us than they are a positive. We also have certain activities that we do that aren’t particularly rewarding, yet we still do them anyway for whatever reason. My thought in some of these cases is to distance from them.

There’s an old adage that’s quite true and says, “Whatever doesn’t lift you up brings you down.” The reality is that the things that bring you down are also adding latent (or direct) stress to your life, whether you realize it or not. Try distancing yourself from these people and/or situations on a consistent basis for a while and see how it makes you feel. In my experience when I’ve had to do this temporarily (or even sometimes permanently), it has a positive effect on my mindset and reduces my stress level. Less negativity often means less stress. It’s as simple as that.

Here are two interesting articles that I stumbled across a long time ago that are roughly about this, and deal with the specific topics of toxic family members and troubled friendships. Many of these same thoughts can be applied to the miscellaneous unpleasant situations that we sometimes find ourselves in as well.

Realize that distancing yourself from a friend, relative, or co-worker is not a trivial thing, and I certainly don’t think it should be a regular course of action. It can cause tricky repercussions that will ripple for a long time in one way or another, and these situations often need to be handled delicately. Perhaps one way to look at it, which is admittedly maybe a little bit harsh, is to ask yourself if you’re living for them, or you. The answer should be you, so do something that you feel is appropriate to try to improve difficult and stressful situations that involve people. If you can’t improve the situation amicably, then perhaps think about distancing from them to have the space to de-stress and think things through more completely to reach a solid decision that works for you in the long term.

The final words…

It’s been a long road between January 2020 and January 2023 to reduce my stress level consistently and permanently. Over those three years, I’ve learned a lot about how the body and mind work under stress, and how they improve in the absence of it. Stress will always come in waves, but now I feel that I have a solid foundation and toolset to consistently manage it when it rears its ugly head.

Let’s summarize the takeaways from this final article in my 3-part series:

  1. Start the day right. Greet your mornings with enthusiasm and energy, and do it your way.
  2. Get good sleep. It’s scientifically proven how much a good night of sleep can help you. Find your favorite ways to set yourself up for nights filled with deep, healthy, regenerative sleep.
  3. Breathe better. You might not remember how you did it when you were a child, but it’s easy to re-learn and it has real benefits.
  4. Try yoga. It’s easy to initially explore yoga with the resources I mentioned above. There’s nothing to lose and so much to gain.
  5. Ditch social media and negative news. Try reducing or eliminating them, and feel the fresh air of sanity enter your world!
  6. Understand yourself. Empower yourself to change for the better.
  7. Let go. Examine your relationships and activities for opportunities to improve them, or possibly distance if all else fails.

As a writer, I rarely know exactly who reads my words or what value they might get from them. Out of respect for the reader’s time, I try to put my ideas forward in an easy to understand and usable way. I hope the people who had the patience to read all the way through Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of this series are able to take away some key thoughts, make them your own, and try to achieve success in de-stressing your life. I wish you peace, we all need more of it!

Don’t Miss the Rocket Man and the Piano Man

What happens when the pianos stop playing?

Ever since I was a kid in the 1970’s and realized in an increasingly osmosis-like way that I liked music a lot, for some reason I used to wonder, “What will it feel like when these bands that I like stop playing music some day?”

It was an innocent thought at that young age, but in a way it stuck with me in the back of my mind all these years as all of the musicians that I like from the 1970’s are now reaching deeper into their 70’s and 80’s. As they hit those higher age numbers, one by one they’re retiring from music. The end of an era, for sure. Some of them will go out with big bang final tours, and others just drift out of the limelight…still playing well but seemingly tiring from the rigors of concert touring. In either case, they consider their musical legacies complete.

I vividly remember hearing songs from the Eagles, Elton John, Billy Joel, Fleetwood Mac, Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, etc coming out of the bedrooms of my older sisters in the early to mid 70’s, as well as my dad’s large and loud stereo in our living room. Classic albums Like Hotel California, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, The Stranger, Rumors, Dark Side of the Moon, Houses of the Holy, and Sticky Fingers.

These are truly great rock bands and albums, timeless music with excellent storytelling and songwriting that have stood the test of time with the legions of fans they’ve built up over the decades. In many cases, their fan bases are actually growing even now as parents introduce their kids to this great music. Just look on YouTube at the recent shows of some of these bands (all of which are still playing except for Zep and Floyd) and you’ll see plenty of smiling 20 and 30-something faces discovering this music (and spending a lot of money to be there!). It explains why those albums are some of the largest selling in music history.

As every generation of music lover will say at some point in their life “They don’t make music like they used to”. We all do a double take when we say it and realize “I sound just like my parents!” I’m definitely at that moment in time now. A lot (but not all) of the pop and rock music that I hear today just doesn’t seem to be at the same level of songwriting as those bands from the 70’s. The hooks and catch-phrases are often there, but much of it just doesn’t seem to have the same staying power (with me) of the music from back in the day (yes, I just said “back in the day” lol). Some of those classic albums mentioned above were at the top of the charts for 20+ weeks at a time. Or in the case of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”, it spent many years on the charts!

Catch the music now…while you can

With those thoughts in mind, over the past few years I’ve been spending admittedly exorbitant amounts of money for good seats to see some of these bands on what will be their “final world tours”, either overtly designated as such or to which you can reach that logical conclusion. I mean, really, how many more years are Mick and Keith going to be able to pull off energetic multi-hour shows to stadiums of 70,000 people and still sound great doing it. The Stones, by the way, do sound great on their current stadium tour, which is the key thing to me. I wouldn’t spend the money to see any of these shows if the bands weren’t in top form. It’s just too expensive to see an artist underperforming while reaching for things that are no longer possible.

The most recent artists I couldn’t resist seeing one more time are Elton John on his “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” tour and Billy Joel during his multi-year residency at Madison Square Garden in New York City. I’ve also recently seen Genesis on their “Last Domino” tour (they’re now permanently disbanded), and the Black Crowes on their “Shake Your Money Maker” anniversary tour. Lots of great stuff at these shows!

Don’t miss the opportunity to see Elton John and/or Billy Joel if they play in a city near you on their current tours. In addition to his New York City residency, Joel is doing some stadium shows this summer.

Elton John’s farewell is grand at Nassau Coliseum

We saw Elton John at Nassau Coliseum in New York on March 6, 2022 in one of the final arena shows on his massive multi-year Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour. The show was sold out, and after those arena shows he’s now doing a limited run of stadium shows and then that’s it for him. (which is why I’m posting this now, to encourage anyone who wants to see him to do it now before he’s gone for good)

The show we saw started at 8:00 pm sharp. Gone are the days when artists would drift onto the stage 45 minutes after their listed start time. Over the years many local noise and post-concert traffic ordinances have been put in place near arenas and stadiums that put an end to that. My humorous guess is that there’s also a lot less backstage hanging out and partying going on these days for these guys, so they want to get on with it when show time hits.

I happened to be standing in line for beer when they started slowly lowering the upper house lights in the arena at 7:55 to signal people to get to their seats. I heard the roar of the crowd start to rise, so I quickly paid and made my way around the corner to our seats just in time for the arena to go full lights-out and hear the opening note piano bang of “Bennie and the Jets”. Whew! That was a close one…

It was clear right from the beginning that Elton’s voice was strong and steady, and the band was right on. Part of the reason for the tightness of the band is the inclusion of long time members Davey Johnstone (guitars, backing vocals) and Nigel Olsson (drums, backing vocals). They’ve been with Elton’s band for decades and are as tight as can be as a musical unit.

At 75 years old, and with some hip/leg problems, Elton doesn’t bombastically bounce around the stage and do things like jump off his piano like he used to. The show is less dynamic than it used to be because of that, but that didn’t diminish his vocals or the band’s music at all. He hit the notes and played wonderfully.

A trend I’ve noticed on YouTube lately is a lot more recording and posting of entire concerts online, so I won’t go through a song by song review of the concert when you can easily find any recent show and see plenty of video for it to listen and see for yourself. I’ve even found some people who apparently go into these shows with the intent to film them with multiple people, and then they edit together and post full multi-camera amateur recordings of the shows. Some of them are quite good!

What I will say though is that concert sound systems these days have reached such a high state of the art that you can hear everything very well from probably anywhere in the arena. The piano was clear and present, the vocals were clear and strong, and the band was in perfect balance. Another great thing is that concert volumes for most of the shows I’ve seen recently (the Black Crowes being an exception) have come way down. This is good because it leaves your ears pain and damage free, there’s much less sound distortion, and you can hear everything clearer. Lower volumes are a win/win for everyone.

The light and video show was well done and creative, unlike some of the cookie-cutter light shows I’ve occasionally seen over the years. These old classic rock bands with ample money in their bank accounts spend it well on good sound, lights and video.

In Elton’s case, the only thing I didn’t like was the video being used for the first two or three songs of the show. For whatever reason, it just seemed to be pure filler video that had nothing to do with the songs being played, they didn’t show the band on the screens, etc, which was quite silly. After that point though, the video snapped into thematic step with the music and was fine through the rest of the show.

Any concert will have its standout songs…the foundational greats that always get played, are fan favorites, and seem to get a little extra attention from the production crew to raise up the presentation. For this concert, those songs for me were:

  • “Rocket Man” – It was stunning, with a beautiful piano interlude in the middle that had everyone rapt.
  • “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me – Two of my personal favorites.
  • “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” – That great long intro got all the attention, lights, fog machines, and grand sound system that it deserves
  • …and then of course the “energy songs” including “The Bitch is Back”, “Crocodile Rock”, and “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” where the lights, crowd response, and dancing at the seats were elevated to the next level

The set list and a few of my photos from the show are below.

The stage backdrop at Nassau Coliseum

This was a great show, and a classy way for Elton John to say farewell while he’s still singing and playing so well. The crowd was roaring the whole night, and in fact the people on the floor stood up the entire show. If you go to see one of his final concerts, enjoy the end of this era.

Billy Joel delights at Madison Square Garden

In a similar way to Elton John, Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden on June 10, 2022 did not disappoint. The 26-song set list left the Garden fans cheering for more when it was over, as this show was added to the record-breaking total number of times Billy has played at the Garden in his entire career.

Joel signed a deal with Madison Square Garden in 2014 to become what back then was called a “franchise artist”, and agreed to play one show per month at the Garden for the foreseeable future as long as ticket demand remains strong. Well, ticket demand for the past eight years has remained very strong indeed, with all of the shows selling out! So he keeps on playing, over 100 shows in total at MSG over his full career, and counting!

One of the things that made this show special for me was that it was the first time my college-aged kids have been to see a big name artist at a famous arena like MSG. Not bad for a first time! This goes back to what I wrote above about connecting these artists to new generations. While my kids didn’t know all of the songs played, they at least had heard many of them through me playing them around the house and on car drives. They enjoyed the show, got a good taste of what a big time rock concert is like, and can carry the memory of the shared experience as a family forward with them forever. A successful night indeed!

As with Elton John, Billy Joel at 70+ years and counting is slowing down a little bit. He doesn’t jump off his piano anymore either, and doesn’t dance and get around in the spritely way that he used to in his prime touring days. But just his presence on stage and the engaging show he delivered kept the audience’s full attention for sure, so the age-related limitations were of no concern.

My comments about the quality of the lights and sound for Elton John also apply to Billy Joel. The one thing that I didn’t like about Joel’s show is that he sold the seats behind the stage, which always limits what an artist can do with video because typically a huge video screen would be hung back there to be used during the show for videos and live shots. Consequently, Joel’s video usage was limited to much smaller and higher video screens that didn’t block the view of those fans back there. As a result, I didn’t feel like the video was integrated into the concert as much as it usually would be, and was therefore used to lesser effect. For the people sitting in the back seats of the arena or stadium that rely on the large video screens to see what’s happening on stage, this was probably a painful thing. I think the visual creativity of Joel’s show suffered a little bit because of this, but it’s a matter of personal preference. Some people like to see the audience behind the stage because it adds more movement and energy back there, but I prefer to have the video screens and deeper engagement in the overall presentation.

I really enjoyed this show (which I’ve seen before a few years ago) not only because I’m a big Bill Joel fan, but also because I was able to share this great event with my kids. While I like Elton John a lot too, I find Joel’s lyrics (and perhaps his music too) to be more accessible and relatable. The standout songs for me from this show included:

  • “Miami 2017” – Great, high energy way to open the show, and the references to New York in the song lyrics pulled the crowd in from this first song forward through the rest of the night. I’m glad I wasn’t on the beer line for the start of this one!
  • “The Entertainer” – That he is! It was a good follow up to “Miami 2017” to keep the opening shot of songs rolling.
  • “The Downeaster Alexa” and “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” – I like these songs not only for their unique music but for their storytelling as well.
  • “She’s Always a Woman” – A classic Billy Joel ballad, interesting sentiment and lyrics, smooth music.
  • “Only The Good Die Young” – I grew up with this coming of age song, so seeing it live and hearing the crowd sing in certain sections was fun.
  • …and then all of the high octane classic rockers (really, is there ANYONE who doesn’t like these songs?) – “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me”, “Big Shot”, “You May Be Right”. It doesn’t get much better than this multi-song punch to end a great show.

You’ll notice I didn’t list “Piano Man” as one of my favorites. Yikes! Is it Billy Joel sacrilege to say that? It’s just not one of my favorite songs, but I can say this…it was to the rest of Madison Square Garden on this and probably every night he plays that song. I’m mentioning it because this song brought the audience together into a giant sing along that went mostly through the whole song. Search it on YouTube and you can plug into the crowd’s energy, which was nice to see.

The show was interrupted for a few minutes early on by two players from the New York Rangers hockey team, who joined Billy on stage for a commemorative moment. They made an announcement that it was Billy’s 80th consecutive concert at the Garden, and they raised a banner to the ceiling of the arena to recognize the historic moment. It was neat to see that, and of course the crowd gave the moment a big roar.

Nobody knows how long Billy will continue with these shows at Madison Square Garden, so if you’re at all interested I would recommend catching him now while he’s in strong form and additional shows are still being added. Or, you can catch one of the few stadium shows that he’s doing this summer. Either way, it’s a night of great classic music that shouldn’t be missed.

The set list and some of my photos from the show are below.

The options for seeing Billy Joel are more limited than Elton John, since Joel typically only plays once a month at MSG in NYC. But if you’re looking for an excuse to take a long getaway in New York City with a fun show to go with it, buy into a Billy Joel concert. You won’t be disappointed!

Goodbye guys…

So what’s the answer to the question from my childhood in the first paragraph about how it would feel when these bands stop playing completely? Honestly, it feels a bit weird. It will be even weirder as some of them pass away in their later years, like Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones recently. I love the Stones, so with Charlie’s death and the age of all the remaining members, it probably won’t be long before they call it quits after 60+ years. They better come back to the U.S. one more time before then though!

I’ve seen some of these bands in concert multiple times over the years with many good memories attached to each event, and their music has filled my ears for most of my life. It’s just like the old adage says, that this music is “the soundtrack of your life”. For me, it truly is.

So I say goodbye to Elton John and Billy Joel. Their concert days might be coming to a close soon, but their music will always stay with me and the millions of other fans to be enjoyed through headphones and speakers for many years to come.

Free Viewing Opportunity for Book Lovers

The Book Makers documentary

I was down one of my learning rabbit holes the other night watching a short documentary on The History Guy’s YouTube channel about the history of paper. At the end of the video, he mentioned a short documentary film called The Book Makers (trailer is here) that sounded interesting to me, with the following description:

Artists, authors, and book lovers worldwide reveal why books resonate with us like nothing else. The film travels to New York, California, London, and Germany, from the intimate studio space of book artists to the vast digital library of the Internet Archive to explore what books are and can be in a digital age. The documentary features extraordinary handmade books and limited edition printings, and interviews with authors Dave Eggers (McSweeney’s) and Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket (A Series of Unfortunate Events), among many others who work to preserve the book’s unique place in popular culture.”

OK, I’m intrigued! So I used this free link provided by The History Guy to watch the documentary on Magellan TV. The link is usable through February 24, 2022 but there are other ways to try to view the show that I mention below if you can’t watch by that date.

Why do you love books?

Probably like most people, I read many things digitally on either my laptop, iPad or phone. It’s convenient, portable, searchable, highlightable, etc. However, depending on the nature of what I’m reading, I still prefer to buy physical books sometimes. For example, I’m interested in photography and I like big format coffee table books, so I’ve purchased many of them from my favorite photographers over the years. Special project books like The Library: A World History by James Campbell/Will Pryce or Transit by Uwe Ommer also find a spot in our home because it’s best to see them in their large format, heavy paper stock grandeur.

One of the reasons why the description of The Book Makers caught my attention was because of the word “resonate”. A good book captures you, transports you, and wraps itself around you in a way that digital media often can’t. You remember a good book for many reasons, but whatever they are it’s probably because it resonated with you and therefore became a small piece of you to carry forward. You attach memories to it. You can feel the touch of the high quality paper in your hand or remember the scent of it in you mind.

That’s why I love books. How about you?

Spend an hour with The Book Makers

With the above being said, it sounded interesting to learn through The Book Makers about the incredible creative and labor intensive effort that goes into handmade books. This is a fading art form as a result of today’s digital media, but there’s a dedicated group of global artisans that still make books by hand using age-old type setting and printing machines. These presses have been handed down, maintained, and used through generations, and what a labor of love it is! The book makers have a large annual gathering called Codex to display, share information about, and sell what they’ve created. These are no ordinary books!

If this sounds interesting, I would encourage you to use this link to watch The Book Makers on Magellan TV for free. If you can’t watch by February 24, 2022 then the show will also air on PBS on certain dates. If those dates have passed in your area then the show might be available to stream on the PBS app, or perhaps even on YouTube eventually. Finally, if you really want to see it and can’t find it somewhere for free, then I suppose you could join Magellan TV for just one month to view The Book Makers and whatever else you might be interested in, and then cancel it if you no longer want it after that.

However you watch it, give The Book Makers a try. It’s a glimpse into the world of people who keep craftsmanship alive in all forms. Enjoy!

Finding Inspiration Every Day

I take a 2-mile walk around our neighborhood almost every day. In the winter I bundle myself up, and as I’m getting ready to leave the house I think about…a puddle. What will the puddle look like today?

There’s a dead-end road in our neighborhood that goes down a gentle incline, and at the bottom of that hill there’s a pothole in the road. Water from any recent rain and melting snow collects in this hole to make a puddle, and in the winter it freezes and thaws repeatedly in the alternating cold temperatures and warm sunshine.

I’ve noticed when I walk past this hole that each freeze and thaw cycle brings a completely new pattern to the ice that forms in it when there’s water there. Sometimes the ice is clear and smooth and shows the ground below. Other times there are interesting patterns and air bubbles frozen in time as the ice quickly formed when it’s been especially cold.

I walk by this spot every day and pause to see the ice if it’s there. It’s a simple moment of beauty that adds some inspiration to my day. If the ice holds a particularly interesting pattern, I stop to take pictures like the ones that I’ve included in this article, each one a different and complex creation. When the sun catches the surface of the ice, sometimes the brown color from the road below comes through in the picture to add some warmth to its tone.

I’m not a New Years resolution type of guy, but there’s one thing that I do remind myself of at the beginning of (and all throughout) each new year that I want to share with you: Try to find beauty or inspiration every day. Something, somewhere, to brighten your day.

It could be something that you see outside on a sunny day or something a person does or says that you find nice. It could be a scene that strikes you in a photo or while you’re driving in your car. It could be part of a conversation, something you read or learn, or even some music that you heard that made you perk up and listen more closely. The beauty and inspiration can also come from within yourself by your actions and words. Whatever it is, whatever form it takes (even an icy puddle!), watch for these inspiring moments every day and embrace them when they come along. Pause and think about them for a minute. Appreciate them and take them with you in your mind.

We’re in rough times right now, not just because of Covid but also because of many other complex things happening in the world at the same time. But the arc of history, people, and the world has always been that way, and it always will be. Like the consistency of the ocean tides coming in and going back out again, things are sometimes bad but they will eventually change and get better.

So instead of getting down about the frequently difficult state of things around you these days, find something inspiring each day, think about it, and smile. Don’t wait for things in your corner of the world to get better, make them better yourself by keeping your eyes and mind open to the moments that will make you happy. If you make a habit out of it each day, you’ll be smiling sometimes without even realizing why. Happy New Year!

The Critical Importance of Being Your Own Advocate

Own your health

As I experiment with different subject matter to decide on the topics that I like to write about and share here, one of them that keeps bubbling to the surface is self-care.

As my wife and I go through our early 50’s with our two college-age kids, it’s becoming crystal clear to me how critically important it is to take care of your physical and mental health no matter what age you are. Poor decisions made today about your health will most certainly come back to haunt you years down the road.

What I want to touch on here ties directly into the heart of self-care, and that’s the fact that you must be your own advocate in all of your health matters. Nobody else is going to do it for you, and in our complex healthcare system it’s more important now than ever before that you’re aware of your full set of options in any given situation.

By using the word “advocate”, I mean that it’s important to:

  • Communicate: Develop the skills and communication methods to define what your problems are and explain them clearly to medical professionals. People can’t offer the right help without the clearest explanation possible of what your problem is. Perhaps start by writing down your questions and the history of your problem (including any relevant dates) so you don’t forget things when you need to speak with someone about it. Having things written down is a stepping stone to an effective and thorough discussion. Also focus on listening and interpreting what’s being said. Don’t accept something that you don’t understand and move on from it because that will ripple through the rest of the conversation.
  • Research: Use trustworthy and reputable internet research tools to further understand and self-educate about your problem. Learn what it is, why it might be happening, what might be done about it, and whether or not it’s something you can improve on your own or something for which you need professional help. Corroborate what you learn across different websites and experts, and dig incrementally deeper to separate fact from fiction. Do this before or after you speak with your doctor, but definitely put the effort into it. I often start with general heath websites like WebMD, Healthline, Mayo Clinic, or Harvard Health and then work my way into specific sites dedicated to a problem I might have, for example the American Heart Association for cardiac topics. Etc…
  • Know the system: Understand who the best people are to help you with your problem and how to find them. Or maybe you can help yourself without them and avoid the need for the healthcare system altogether. If you need a doctor, start by asking your Primary Care Physician for referrals. You can also use a site like Castle Connolly Top Doctors to explore further. Just make sure that if you use a physician search or ranking site that you understand how they make their selections and do their rankings. You can also ask friends you trust about their experiences and recommendations.
  • Question: Ask as many questions as you need to understand your situation, write down the answers, and note who was involved in the conversation and when. Don’t just accept a prescribed path as the only one for you. I’ve been given conflicting advice by physicians on a number of occasions, and you shouldn’t just walk away from those situations without trying to understand why they made their recommendations and how they differ from one another.
  • Persist: Relentlessly drive toward a solution to your problem. There are often several ways to pursue a health solution, and many don’t involve immediately turning to medications. One might not work, but another will. Understand your options, because we all want to stay off medications for as long as possible in life. Stand up for yourself when you feel that finding your solution is going off course. You are in control of your health.

Why is this important?

In just the past five years or so, I’ve seen many examples myself and also through the stories of friends and family of how poorly various health situations were handled by the medical community and sometimes the patients themselves. I’m sure you’ve experienced the same thing. We would like to believe that we go to doctors who are knowledgeable, cutting edge, and whose opinions we can trust. Fortunately, in many cases this is true. Sadly, in some cases it’s not.

To be clear, this is not an indictment of the entire medical establishment. I have no problem with the majority of medical professionals I deal with. This is just a simple message that no doctor knows everything, some let their biases determine a treatment path that might not be optimal for you, and sometimes they’re just wrong.

Here are two quick examples…

Scenario 1:

My friend’s elderly father with Parkinson’s disease recently suffered a fall and hit his head. He went to the hospital, was treated for a few days until he seemed stable, and eventually returned home. As often happens with the elderly after an accident, things just didn’t seem quite right with him after that. One thing led to another and eventually he had to return to the hospital with various issues, one of which was breathing difficulty. He was diagnosed with pneumonia. He was treated but his condition continued to worsen to the point where my friend was told there was nothing else that could be done for his father and that he should be moved to hospice care.

He was moved to a rehabilitation facility where hospice care was offered and my friend was told that his Dad had just a short time left. I recommended to him to say what he wanted to say to his Dad now because this might be his last chance, which he did and was very glad he was able to have a semi-lucid discussion with his Dad before he possibly passed away.

In hospice care, a new doctor stopped in to evaluate the situation and decided quickly that more help was possible, and put the father on an IV for a few days. He eventually improved to the point where he was able to sit up, interact with people, and eat pureed food. Eventually he improved enough that he went home! He needs extensive mobility assistance at home, but he is there and he is alive.

So he went from fall + injury, to hospital, to hospice, to near death, to re-diagnosis + treatment….and then to home?! Wow! Talk about a roller coaster ride. Makes you wonder what was going on in that hospital and with the initial set of doctors that sent him down a path toward death when the option of saving him was so quickly picked up by another doctor in a different facility. Terrible situation…

Scenario 2:

Another example is my own experience with trying to solve several problems I’m having with my feet.

Do you know what size shoe you should be wearing? I bet your answer is “Of course I do”. My answer was the same. I was wrong, and I’ve since learned that many adults are possibly wearing the wrong size and/or width shoes and might be causing irreparable harm to their feet.

I have the good fortune to be in a high quality medical group for the past 20+ years that has grown over time in our region to include many doctors and specialties under their umbrella in almost every area you would normally need. I don’t think I’ve gone outside of our medical group once in the past 20 years because the doctors have always worked well with me, given solid advice with explanations as to what was going on, etc. Great situation! Unfortunately, I’ve learned that this doesn’t always protect me from poor or incomplete advice because it lurks even in places we consider trusted.

The first podiatrist I went to about my problems within my medical group wanted to do an MRI imaging test of my foot using an injected contrasting agent though an IV to make the MRI image clearer. I’ve read some bad things about contrasting agents and I didn’t want to use it during the test unless absolutely necessary, so I asked to do the MRI without it because I learned before the test that contrasting wasn’t really needed to diagnose my suspected problem. He refused. I left and never went back. He was stubborn about listening to my concerns and wanted to do things his way despite evidence showing it wasn’t necessary for my particular situation.

The second podiatrist gave me a thorough exam, started targeting the same possible causes as the first podiatrist, and recommended some actions to try to solve the problem (including an MRI without using contrast, imagine that?!). None of his solutions seemed to work with my somewhat chronic problems, and indeed one of the solutions about using orthotic inserts in my shoes may have caused a further problem because he didn’t give me proper instructions for how to acclimate my foot to the orthotic over the period of a week instead of just suddenly using them in my shoes all day, every day.

Seeing how this was going, I decided to further research the problems these podiatrists were diagnosing me with, and I do indeed have all of them. But here’s the crazy part….All of my problems are primarily caused by incorrect footwear. In my case I was erroneously wearing the wrong size sneakers over a long period of time.

When you were a young kid and you went to purchase new shoes, they would always measure your feet in the store with that metal device with the sliders on it called a Brannock device. That’s how you were assured of proper fit as your foot grew like crazy in your younger years.

As an adult, when is the last time you measured your feet with a Brannock device? Exactly. I don’t either. My foot stopped growing around the age of 20 and I’ve been generally buying the same size shoes for the past 30 years. I buy shoes that feel “good enough”, and move on without giving it a second thought. Until I developed foot problems…

When I discovered how much feet actually change over the years once past the age of about 30, and that all of my problems are typically caused by incorrectly fitting shoes, I realized that neither of the podiatrists I went to even bothered to measure my feet! What??? They jumped right into diagnosing me and offering solutions without first measuring my feet and then asking the most basic question that a podiatrist should ask, which is: What size and type of shoe are you wearing? It never even dawned on me at the time how stupid this was, and I willingly went down their path without pausing to assess the situation.

Using the philosophy mentioned above about being my own advocate, I’ve learned more about feet and shoes in the past three weeks than I ever thought I needed to know. In fact, everyone should know these things. I used a Brannock device to measure my feet properly, was surprised to find that I had both my size and width wrong, and I’ve since purchased the right size shoes. My wife needs to do the same. Interestingly, I’ve also learned that many common athletic sneakers are shaped incorrectly and contribute to the problems many people have, so I’ve switched to what’s called a natural shape shoe (I have some photos below to demonstrate how absurd that situation is).

Since getting the new type of sneakers in the right size, the discomfort from my chronic conditions is somewhat easing. I’m hoping that it continues to do so to the point where it’s not such a big distraction to my everyday life.

Improve your outcomes

So what is the point of the two stories above? The answer is simple: Be an advocate for yourself.

In the case of my friend’s father, they were basically in a situation where they were guided to follow the advice of a single doctor without being offered a second opinion, and only saved him by the happenstance of another doctor giving him one final check at a different facility.

The difficult takeaway from that is that in those dire circumstances, perhaps we should all consider a second opinion before final decisions are made. When I think back about some of the decisions our family made in my father’s elder years, the takeaway would probably be the same because he had some clunker doctors for sure (one of which was eventually terminated from the retirement community where my Dad lived).

In my situation, the point is that what I was hearing and seeing didn’t make sense to me. When I educated myself about all of the involved topics, I found that I was likely diagnosed correctly and the solutions offered were mostly right, but they had absolutely no chance of helping me because of the basic fact that I was wearing the wrong size shoes. Zero chance.

So the overall message of this article is about owning your health and the possibility of achieving better outcomes. Don’t blindly turn yourself over to the medical system and assume they’ll make all the right decisions, because they might not or might be following a “one size fits all” approach that’s not right for you.

Learn, ask questions, get answers. In my experience over the years, I’ve found that doctors have appreciated and commented positively about the effort that I put into understanding my conditions and options. It enables them to better help me and have a more complete discussion when they know that I understand the problem, the possible options, and that I can work with them to make appropriate decisions.

I hope the information in this article (and the photos below) are helpful. Be your own advocate and own your health!

Bonus: Want to help your feet? Here are some photos as food for thought…

I mentioned above that a common problem that shoes have is simply using the wrong shape. Driven by the desired appearance of the shoe, marketing needs, or whatever…many companies design their shoes to have a curve in them in the toe box area that jams your small 3rd, 4th, and 5th (pinkie) toes up against each other inside the shoe. They also force your big toe inward when it should be straight. These things lead to your toes flexing unnaturally and your bones rubbing against the nerves in your feet to create painful conditions like Morton’s Neuroma, metatarsalgia, numbness or tingling, and many other problems.

The types of sneakers that I’ve been wearing my whole life have this exact type of design, and when researching my problems I made the decision to buy natural shape sneakers instead. The relief from eliminating that inward toe box curve in my old shoe’s design was nearly immediate. My toes felt like they had room to spread and move with a less crowded feeling in the toe box area of the shoe, and my feet were more comfortable all day long.

Here are two photos that show the differences…

This first photo below shoes the two shoes. The typical athletic shoe is on the left and the natural shaped shoe is on the right. You can notice the leftward curve in the toe box area of the shoe on the left. Not good… The natural shape shoe is basically straight ahead from back to front.

The second photo below shows the insoles of these two shoes which I took out of the sneakers for this photo, and it demonstrates the difference more dramatically. My old athletic insole is on the left, in the middle is the insole from the new natural shape shoe, and finally on the right is a custom orthotic molded from my foot. Is your foot shaped like the insole on the far left or the one in the middle? My guess is the one in the middle. You can see that the natural shape insole and the custom orthotic are the same straight ahead shape.

See where this is going? Typical athletic shoes probably aren’t doing your feet many favors, and many other types of shoes have the same design problem.

If you have foot problems and you want to explore shoes that might help you, check out HealthyFeetStore.com. There’s a good search tool on their site that lets you specify your problem and then it matches you to shoes that might help you. To be clear, I have no affiliation to their site and I didn’t even buy anything from them, I’m just putting the link here because their ‘problem-to-shoe’ matching search tool was helpful to point me in the right direction. I actually ended up buying my new shoes directly from the New Balance website.

Happy shopping and healing!

Using Your Old Photos as Journaling Prompts

Memory Lane is a nice place to visit

Journaling is an anchor for me in many ways. Sometimes it holds me in place in calm times so I can linger over my thoughts and enjoy them, and other times it holds my ship steady in the rough waters of life so I have some time to process difficult topics through writing.

I journal to recall and document memories and what they mean to me, re-live funny moments from trips, and process emotions both good and bad. I record many of life’s fun, random, and fleeting thoughts and ideas that might otherwise pass by and be forgotten to time. What did I think about a particular article or book I read? How did I like a day that I spent exploring a new place? What did I do on that trip I went on? I don’t want to forget those things because they’re the breadcrumb trail of my life, and I enjoy periodically going back to read what my thoughts were about such things to go along with the photos I’ve taken. I’ve written a previous post on how and why I journal that discusses more about these topics.

Dusting off the boxes of photos

Several years ago before my Dad passed away, we tackled the long-standing project of digitizing thousands of his old 35mm photography slides of our family from the 1960’s – 1990’s. He wanted the project done to get the photos out of the closet and into digital format where they can be easily enjoyed by the whole family in the future.

I was born in the mid 60’s, so the time period from then all through the 70’s is of particular interest to me because that was my childhood and I remember a lot of it well. Although people typically didn’t take nearly as many photos back then as they do today with cell phones and digital cameras, Dad did a good job of capturing many great memories over the years.

I have very strong picture-recall (for lack of a better phrase). Meaning, I might remember the details of certain things from when I was young in a fuzzy manner….until I see a photo of them. A single photo often brings back a flood of memories that can be surprising to me at times. It’s like when they used to release dozens of white doves to fly away from a box during the opening ceremony of the Olympics. That’s the exact feeling I have sometimes when I see an old photo, thoughts flying free all over the place.

I’m sure many people are the same way, which is what gave me the idea for this short article. Combining the ideas of photography, journaling, and the concepts of nostalgia and “tasting life twice”, yesterday I had the idea to grab a very old photo of my Dad’s from my computer, put it in an entry in my digital journal, and write about what it reminded me of. Wow, what an unexpectedly great experience!

Inside the little white box is…

I chose the photo above when I stumbled across it because I recall this day like it was yesterday, just from seeing this one picture. It was my Holy Communion Day, which was a beautiful spring day in 1974. The photo is of me opening a present from my parents in our back yard, which was my first ever mechanical watch. I remember opening that box so vividly, seeing the watch, and being stunned by such a gift. I thought “Wow, this is no toy! This is a nice watch!” It made me feel special that my parents would think to buy me such a gift at that young age.

I took it out and my Mom helped me put it on, and I wore it proudly throughout that day, staring down at it many times to admire it. I remember holding it up to my ear to hear it tick and wondering what was inside of it. I also remember treating it like it was gold. When my neighborhood friends stopped by later that morning to ask me to play basketball, I wore the watch while we played and I remember looking down at it many times to make sure it wasn’t breaking from the rough playing. It would have been wiser to just take it off, but there’s no way that watch was leaving my wrist! Perhaps receiving this first watch seeded my long term interest in watches and horology that I wrote about here and here.

The photo also reminded me of my home where I grew up, our yard, all the special times we shared there, and most of all my parents. I journaled about all of it in the entry that I created for this photo.

As I wrote, I thought to myself “This is exactly why we take photos, isn’t it? To go back and enjoy them over and over.” There’s not much point in taking photos if we never look at them and reminisce about the times when they were taken.

The nice bookend to this story is that I still have this watch, 46 years later! I’ve taken it out every once in a while as I’ve come across it over the years, and each time I wound it up to find that it still worked. Sadly, this time when I wound it while writing this article, I found that it no longer functions. But since it’s a mechanical watch, all it needs is a good internal cleaning and re-oiling and it will work like new again. Since I’m into watchmaking, maybe I’ll make that a personal quest of mine in the years to come…learn enough to get this watch working again!

Give it a try…

Grab an old photo of yours and try journaling about the memories that it brings back. You might be surprised at how easily your thoughts come flooding out, like the white doves coming out of their box at the Olympics. Enjoy the time spent with the process, it’s an opportunity for you to taste life twice.

What to Do When Stress Breaks You – Part 2

Relaxing is hard. I mean truly relaxing, where your mind is calm and freed from its rush of thoughts so you can disconnect from everything around you and focus on the moment you’re in without distraction. Remember that thought, we’ll come back to it.

The need to move on…..but how?

In Part 1 of this article series I wrote about how a few generally stressful years in a row (and one terrible year in particular) brought me to my brink with stress, and how I ended up in the hospital because of it. In Part 2 here, I’ll focus on how I brought myself back from that brink using some initial tactical steps to get my days under control and reduce mental overhead. The final Part 3 article will focus on strategic steps that I took for long term overall health and well-being, and the sometimes surprising results of those steps.

To be clear I’m not a doctor, therapist, or licensed in anything that qualifies me to offer medical advice, so you won’t find me doing that here. What I am is an average guy who’s logical, organized, pragmatic, and has a lot of common sense. When I have a problem I learn about the things associated with it, pull together facts and concepts that I can relate to, and then put that knowledge to use solving the problem. I’m open-minded to new ideas, and that open-mindedness was the key to me beating stress.

I don’t want to over-simplify the conditions of stress and anxiety. They’re both complicated beasts that can cause a myriad of health problems, and they often land people in doctor or therapist offices. My particular situation was somewhat straight forward to resolve once I set my mind to it and stuck with my approaches, but your mileage may vary with basic stress management techniques. At some point you might need to investigate professional help if you can’t ease your situation by yourself. But regardless of whether basic techniques work or you need something more advanced, the key point is not to ignore stress because it’s an insidious thing to live with.

My tactical steps for immediate help

I saw two basic problems that I had to tackle right out of the gate. First, over a long period of time my average day had morphed into a zoo of personal and work activity that was simply too much to handle. I was rarely achieving the goals that I set for any given day and this created a lot of mental churning and angst because I’m normally a very organized person at home and work. Second, there were a lot of negative and energy-draining activities occurring without a lot of positives to counteract them. This quite frankly became a big downer over time, and both of these scenarios were sinking me.

It’s important to note that I didn’t de-stress and ease my mind overnight. It took many months of sticking to the following approaches to feel better in a holistic way. But I did it, and maybe some of these things will help you as well.

With the above statements made, below are the tactical steps I started with. Some might work for you, others might not, but remember that open-mindedness I mentioned? Try to absorb what’s here without judgement. If you see an idea that you want to explore further, try it. If something doesn’t click with you, then just pass it by. Make the concepts work for you…

1) “Houston, we have a problem”… so make a list!

The first thing I did was acknowledge to myself that I was in over my head with stress. Something was wrong, I knew it, and I had to do something about it. The morning after my hospital visit, I sat alone for a long time and thought about how I got to the point of being so stressed out. How did I get bogged down by a conspiracy of topics to the point that it affected my physical health? My mind was swirling on the topic without focus until I decided to make a list of the things that were bothering me.

Some topics immediately came to mind (my Dad dying), but other things were much more subtle like an endless to-do list, home projects that I saw unfinished every day when I walked around the house, a friend causing angst, etc. Those items and many more weighed on me to varying degrees, and if you think about it you probably have things just like them in your life as well.

Stress is insidious. It’s like rust. It eats away at you like rust does to metal, and before you know it you’re crumbling. These items on my list, both large and small, were overtly (and sometimes more subtly) eating away at me and contributing to my overall stress picture until I snapped.

This list-making process requires soul searching and honesty, there’s no getting around that. I found that nothing can go unexamined because stressors can creep in from many paths in life. Look at your daily activities, your work, the people you spend time with, the things you do throughout the day, time you might be wasting that could be spent better elsewhere, etc. Real…honest…examination. If you’re not willing to be honest with yourself about what you really think and feel, then this process will fail. Write down each item and why it bothers you.

Well, let me tell you, I had quite the list when I was done! It took me a few days of off and on again work and coming at it from different viewpoints to get it completed, but a strange thing happened when I finished. I looked at the list and breathed a sigh of relief. My mindset had already started to shift more positive because there it was, staring me right in the face. There on my list were the major contributors to my high stress level. Amen!

For me this was a difficult but crucial first step because it helped me to qualify and quantify my situation. It put meaning and guardrails around it. It was a starting point in an otherwise swirling and concerning situation. And from there I went on…

2) Focus on what you can control, and learn to let the rest go

When I looked at my list I started to see commonality between some of the items, and two high level buckets emerged quickly: 1) Things that I have control over, and 2) Things that I don’t.

People generally like to control as much of what goes on in their lives as possible, and I think that’s human nature. Who wants to live in a constant state of reactive chaos, right? You try to resolve things, put some order on things, move forward, and lead your version of a normal life. That’s great, until you try controlling things that are out of your control. All that does is create friction and stress in your life, “rope burn” if you will.

You have to control what you can control, and you have to let go of what you can’t control because when you try and control something that you actually have no control over, that’s called rope burn.

Travis Eliot

Here’s a story about how this type of rope burn eventually wore me down…

After my Dad died, I was the family member responsible for handling his estate and dissolving it equally between me and my three sisters. He had a lot of different accounts at many different financial institutions. Each one had a Beneficiary Services department and specific processes for how they handled the closing of accounts. Each day was a process of endless phone calls, paperwork, signing, scanning, and mailing documents. More phone calls, more waits, etc. I’m sure you can imagine…

The process really started to grate on me after a while because with every phone call I would get more and more frustrated at the long time things were taking and the incompetence of some of the people I was dealing with. Side note: It’s scary that some of these people manage money, because I found in some cases that I knew more about certain topics than they did and I’m certainly no expert.

My stress level spiraled upward with these daily frustrations until one comment from an agent at a bank snapped me out of my thought pattern. She said “The paperwork you prepared was excellent and it will make this arduous process go much smoother. I’ll take care of this and get back to you”. A few days later, she did get back to me and SHE actually thanked ME for the perfect paperwork that I submitted. The process was completed, there was no aggravation, and my stress level started to come down for this one particular situation.

The critical takeaway for me from that scenario was: You can only do what you can do, and you can only control what you can control. Sometimes the rest is up to someone else to complete and you must accept that. It is what it is.

Think about how many ways that thought can apply throughout your day, whether it’s in your personal or business life. Every day we deal with various types of situations and try to control outcomes that are at least partially out of our control at some point along their path. You have to realize when these times are occurring and let them go.

I adjusted the way I dealt with every financial institution after that. I made sure the paperwork I submitted was perfect, that it was done on time, and that it made it to the right person. Then I accepted the fact that I had done my part of the process, I had controlled what I could control and did the best I could with it. Now I had to turn it over to someone else to do their part without micro-managing it.

With this approach my expectations were more realistic and the small wins started to come, one after the other. And you know what? Everything worked out fine in the end. It took a lot longer than I wanted for sure, but it all got done and my stress levels were noticeably reduced bit by bit along the way.

The exact same thought process can be applied to people. In your daily interactions with people, at some point their reactions and subsequent actions are out of your control, and you must accept that for the sake of your own sanity. Any parent who has tried to help their child can relate to this. You can give your children all of the solid advice in the world, but at some point it’s completely up to them to internalize it, find any value in it that works for them, and then act on it if they choose. It can be frustrating and stressful watching a proven piece of advice go unheeded when you know it will help them, but it is what it is. You have done your best.

3) Make your daily to-do list realistic, and set up the following day for success

I’m a heavy user of the lists and the Reminders app on my iPhone and Mac. I have four different lists of reminders for different purposes, but it wasn’t always like that. I used to have just one long list of reminders.

When you’re extremely busy and find yourself in a situation when you have to fit as much as you can into the usable day, there’s nothing more stressful than reviewing your to-do list and seeing 65 things on it. All that’s saying to you is “You will never finish all of these things today.” That creates subtle subconscious stress all day long. It’s more rope burn. I used to scroll up and down my list to find the highest priority items that needed attention each day, and the rest just stayed there staring at me until I eventually got around to them another day. Another week. Or never.

That situation had to end. Instead, I created lists for Today, House, Monthly and Miscellaneous. When I bucketed the tasks it was easier to see how things naturally segmented themselves and priorities became clearer. For example, I have many tasks that fall into that Monthly bucket. Why was I scrolling through them every day if they only needed to be done…once per month?!

When I look at my plans at night for the following day, I have a pretty good idea of how much free time I’ll have throughout that day. At that point, I review my to-do lists and I pull only the top priority items into my Today list that I want or need to achieve that following day. Sometimes it’s one item, other times it’s five. It depends on how much free time I have and how complex the tasks are.

You have to be ruthless with what makes it onto the Today list. Keeping it low volume and achievable sets the tone for the whole day that will come with the morning. When that’s done, I turn out the lights and fall asleep with a clear, organized mind knowing (for the most part) what the next day will bring with regard to work. I rest easier doing this the night before instead of figuring it out in the morning. It allows me to start my mornings much more peacefully because I don’t feel that morning rush to get things organized anymore.

In reality you’ll still have just as many to-do’s as you did before. However, when they’re managed in this way you don’t have the subconscious stress of staring down an endless list of things you know you can’t finish in a day or don’t need to be focusing on at all that particular day. You’ve chunked the list into realistic and achievable goals.

Bonus tip: Keep your calendar realistic in the same way as managing your to-do’s. Set up your day so that you have some blocks of time to rest, process the events of the day as they’re unfolding, and get ready for the next thing you have to do. Don’t eat breakfast or lunch while working. Avoid back to back appointments. And for sure, don’t double-book yourself on your own calendar! It’s literally impossible to be in two places at the same time, yet I’m amazed at the number of people who double or even triple book themselves in the same time slot. It makes zero sense and only creates stress to see that mess staring back at you.

4) Focus on the small wins and they will add up to big wins

We’ve all got busy and challenging lives. Sometimes you run into a string of days, weeks, or even months that just don’t go well. I had a lot of bad days in 2019, which I mentioned in Part 1. It’s easy to get into a cycle of feeling like things are just going wrong and there’s not much light at the end of the tunnel.

I found success in re-framing that situation. Things go wrong during the day, but things go right as well. I started focusing more of my attention on the things that were going right and adding up the small wins throughout the day that made me feel good. The things that made me smile or laugh. When I focused on the good parts of the day, my mindset started to shift to the more positive side. I still had the problems, I still had the to-do’s, work, etc, but I took those wins during the day and banked them.

By doing this, I found that at the end of the day I was no longer focused as much on what went wrong and what I didn’t get done. Instead I was focused on what I did get done and the things that made me feel good. Over time this approach put a blanket of peace on the end of the day. I found that when I framed my day with a good start (using #3 above) and a positive end that things started to smooth out overall. Some peace was coming at last…

5) Move!

I originally titled this item “Get some exercise”, but then I realized that this is something different and much simpler than that. It’s really just about moving yourself and giving your body and mind some activity and a few minutes to refresh and reset periodically throughout the day. Some people experience barriers to entry with starting an exercise program, but there are no barriers to simply moving and refreshing your perspective.

I typically work from home as an IT Manager, but these same principles apply to an office as well. When I get bogged down with work and personal tasks, I realized that I was stuck at my desk or in one room of the house for hours on end. This can get to be a bit much when it happens over the course of many months, so this suggestion is simply about recognizing when that’s happening and counteracting it by getting some motion into your day. Move to a new room to do whatever you’re doing, go outside for a little break to catch some sun and hear the sounds of the outdoors wherever you live or work. It does wonders for your mind and body to just…move!

I live near wooded areas, so when I go outside for a few minutes I can smell the grass and fresh air. I hear the birds singing, the wind blowing through the trees, and the sun has a chance to hit my face. I can walk around the yard or neighborhood to get my blood flowing. It’s well documented how much this helps your well-being and I highly suggest trying to work these small mental and physical breaks into your day. It makes a huge difference. It’s precisely why many companies are restructuring their environments to provide employees with these opportunities for breaks. Apple, for example, has taken it to an extreme with their amazing new Apple Park office in California that pushes their employees toward nature literally in every direction they turn.

This need to move is also the essence of why fitness devices like the Apple Watch and Fitbit have reminders to stand, move, exercise, and take breaks several times throughout the day to do some deep breathing exercises. Science clearly shows the benefit of doing these things, it’s not just an opinion or marketing tricks. That’s why these devices try to motivate you with daily goals, activity rings to close, and visual reminders of your progress. They’re all forms of motivation to get you moving. (Anyone who owns an Apple Watch recognizes that little tri-colored ring above…Did you close your rings today?) 😉

6) Do nothing

To the opposite of #5 above, try this one as well. Sit still. It’s OK sometimes. Let your mind wander and maybe let it go down a rabbit hole to satisfy your curiosity for a while. Stop worrying about always making progress with everything. It can wait.

This is a critical thing I needed to remember while I was trying to de-stress and get myself back on track because I’m typically not one to sit still for long. The combination of having a lot to do for my job, many chores, and also making time for my hobbies and other fun things put me on a treadmill of always doing something. I forgot to just stop once in a while to take a breath. Read a book. Watch a movie. Watch the grass grow. Take a short nap. It’s all OK.

Don’t hurry. Don’t worry. And be sure to smell the flowers along the way.

Walter Hagen, from his autobiography. This is the phrase that later morphed into “Stop and smell the roses” some time during the 1960’s

I think modern culture is so fast paced that people begin to think that by sitting still, enjoying the moment, or doing something just for the sake of doing it that they’re wasting time and letting life pass them by. I would argue the exact opposite. I think that when we rush around like maniacs that life passes us by much faster. We need to remember how to savor the moments, and stop to smell the roses.


The content above is a lot to process, so let’s summarize the takeaways from this second article:

  1. Identify your stress points. Dig deep, be honest with yourself.
  2. Focus on what you can control, and learn to let the rest go.
  3. Manage to-do lists and calendars realistically, and set your next day up for success.
  4. Focus on small wins that add up to bigger wins.
  5. Move!
  6. It’s OK to do nothing sometimes.

These were the immediate tactical steps that I took to calm my days and bring some peace of mind. Having chaotic, emotional, always-on days was the primary cause of many of the items that I listed out in #1 above. It’s just not sustainable.

If you’re feeling that your days are not quite yours anymore, I encourage you to try some variety of the ideas above to throw a rope around things and calm them down. There are many websites about creating effective to-do lists, managing your day in a mindful way, 7-minute exercise routines to get some motion into your day, etc. The ideas presented here are meant to be seeds for further investigation if you see value in them. Google is your exploration friend!

Last but not least

Remember what I said in the beginning about relaxing and how hard it can be to really let go? Using the tips above can help you frame your day better and remove some of your daily stressors so that you can start moving toward regularly getting some chances to relax. It takes time, but slowly and surely things will catch on. The final installment in this series will focus on the strategic long term stress-reducing steps I took that could be classified as lifestyle or wellness changes. These are the things that brought me sustainable peace, and with that peace came a better ability to truly relax. Stay tuned for more…

What to Do When Stress Breaks You – Part 1

Part 1: A relaxing evening turns into an unexpected trip

It was 9:45 pm on January 23, 2020, and my wife and I were relaxing with some TV at the end of a busy day.  She left the room to do some things and I suddenly started to feel tired, so I got up to brush my teeth and change into pajamas for the rest of the night.

Strange feelings came over me shortly after I entered the bathroom.  There was an irregular pounding heartbeat in my upper chest, feeling like it was up close to my neck.  A different kind of shorter and shallower breathing involuntarily swept over me.  Adding to these uncomfortable feelings was a sudden wave of anxiety, which was strange because I’m not prone to those types of feelings at all. I suppose it might be akin to a panic attack, but I’ve never had one so I can’t be sure.  

I quickly finished brushing my teeth (because you can’t not finish, right???), left the bathroom to sit down, and figured out what was happening.  I used my Apple Watch’s ECG function to confirm what I suspected, and I was correct. The 30-second test on the watch detected an abnormal heart rhythm called atrial fibrillation (AFib)

When your heart beats properly, you’re not even aware that it’s there because it pulses along steadily and quietly doing its job in the background of your life.  But you clearly feel it when it’s not working right, and it’s alarming. The realization causes your anxiety level to immediately skyrocket precisely because…it’s a heart incident!  This is your ticker, and if something goes wrong with it then you’re often in big trouble if you can’t get help fast enough.  The sudden and involuntary auto-anxiety that washes over you causes your body’s systems to flood your bloodstream with adrenaline and stress hormones like cortisol. Additionally your blood vessels constrict, heart rate and blood pressure increase, and your breathing rate accelerates.  The regulatory systems in your body feed off each other in a red-alert escalation.  

My Apple Watch indicated that my heart rate was up at 145, while doing nothing except sitting on the bed. Normally in that situation my heart rate would be around 60. I used the ECG function again to see how my heart rhythm looked, and when I reviewed the result on my iPhone it was ugly. It was an erratic irregular pattern with odd peaks and valleys, again indicating AFib. So at least I knew what I was dealing with, and I knew it was dangerous, so this clearly got my attention.

My normal (sinus) heart rhythm, as recorded by my Apple Watch. Perfect peaks, spacing, and valleys.
My abnormal heart rhythm of January 23 showing the temporary atrial fibrillation (AFib), as recorded by my Apple Watch. Notice the irregular spacing between peaks and the different profiles in the valleys.

I sat for a few minutes hoping for it to clear up, but it didn’t.  Things seemed to be getting worse and then came some shortness of breath when I stood up, so at that point I suggested to my wife that we should go to the hospital emergency room. My anxiety at that point was becoming uncontrollable, yet I was somehow strangely calm overall. The two are opposing feelings, yet somehow they were co-existing in that moment. I’ve never felt anything like it.

My wife drove to the hospital since it’s only twenty minutes from our house. Despite the situation, I didn’t see the necessity of calling an ambulance and waiting for transportation. It was probably a lot faster to just leave immediately and get there ourselves.

The hospital and emergency room were luckily quiet at that time of night, and I breezed right into one of the ER side rooms.  This was occurring shortly before COVID surfaced, so there was no commotion at all. They hooked me up to an EKG, blood oxygen meter, gave me aspirin and Diltiazem to settle my heart, drew blood for at least three dozen types of blood work, and took chest x-rays. Then I waited, and the stress level grew.

After several hours of monitoring and check-ins with the doctors where they explained each step of what they were doing and looking for, the decision was eventually made to release me. I left the hospital still experiencing minor AFib, but I was told to get some rest with the hope that things would settle down by morning under the medication.  With AFib still occurring at that point, my thought was “Should I really be going home already?” but the doctors said it was safe.  Appointments were made to follow up with my primary care physician and a cardiologist the following day.  

The three hours in the hospital ER were billed to me at almost $10,000, but luckily because of good insurance I “only” had to pay slightly over $1,000.  The entire experience gave me much to think about, and it started me down a year-long “reset” where I gave a lot of thought to some of the things happening in my life and how I approached them, and how I viewed and responded to sometimes difficult aspects of the world around me.  I’ll explain my reset process in a series of articles, of which this is the first.

How did I get to this point?

The year 2019 was not a good one in our house and my stress levels were through the roof the entire year, especially from November wrapping into January 2020. The years prior were a little rough too, but were less intense overall.

My Mom died in 2014 after a long, difficult, and sometimes odd health decline. In the years that followed, the family (Dad, sisters, me) went through the sad and difficult process of moving Dad out of the two-story ranch house in New York where we all grew up, and in which he was hoping to spend the rest of his life. The house was rapidly outstripping his mobility and it simply wasn’t safe anymore. He knew this as well as we did, so we eventually made the decision for him to move into a very nice senior living community with the hope that he would engage in the community there and with people his own age to find some commonality to support him. My sister lived just fifteen minutes away and was able to help and visit frequently, but sadly the scenario of him getting involved in the community never worked out and he was never truly happy there.

By 2019, Dad was experiencing rapidly declining health after a series of physical setbacks and surgeries.  There were household problems in my own home, our kids had many challenging things happening (some good, some bad), and then Dad passed away at 94 years old in August 2019.  I spent the latter half of that year working with the kids to resolve their topics and prepare them for college while also dealing with my grieving process and working with lawyers, bankers, insurance, and tax people to handle my Dad’s estate.  One of his final wishes was for me to ensure that everything was handled correctly for me and my sisters, and it was a ton of confusing work that will continue into 2021 when all is said and done.  This was all occurring while maintaining my full time job. It was a lot, for sure, and the breaking point under the stress of it all was approaching fast.

Stress + more stress = breaking point

I’m a pragmatic, logical, and persistent person.  Give me a problem and some facts, and I’ll doggedly figure it out and get it resolved.  The issue with 2019 was that life was overwhelming me from all directions at once with nothing but problems, worry, stress, and sadness.  We all have those types of years, and 2019 was mine.  It piled up on me, and I kept a lot of it inside just trying to “get the job done” so I could get to easier and better times ahead after I had solved all of the problems.

When you get that stressed out, other aspects of your life suffer greatly.  In my particular case, one example of how it hit me is that all of my creative energy went out the window because I just didn’t feel like pursuing my hobbies and there was little time to do so anyway.  The energy was sucked right out of me by everything else going on.  That only happened one other time in my life back in 2012, and I briefly mentioned it here.  It’s a completely draining, negative, cyclical experience that I vowed not to let happen again, but circumstances in 2019 conspired against me and I found myself back in the same scenario as in 2012.  There were other impacts on me as well, but that’s one of the easiest to explain here.

The thing I didn’t realize is how the stress from all of this was mounting up over several years, not just 2019. It was taking hold over a large span of time, and I just kept going forward no matter what to “get things done”, in a way hearkening back to the old British adage during World War II of “Keep Calm and Carry On”. That approach doesn’t address the root cause of the stress though, it just perpetuates it cyclically and endlessly.  

The thing to realize about stress is that it’s like rust eating away at a piece of metal. It takes hold a little bit at a time, spot by spot, until it overruns the metal and causes its surface to erode and become weak. If left unattended, the rust will engulf the metal and eventually cause it to fail.

Stress does the exact same thing to your mind and body as rust does to metal. It eats away at you on every surface, negatively affecting so many different aspects of your health that I’ve found it incredible to learn about it over the past year. Some of the impacts are to your body’s internal systems like your heart, organs, bones, etc. Other impacts are easily visible on the outside like poorer looking hair, eyes that look dim and sullen, skin problems, poor posture, etc. For some insight of what uncontrolled stress can do to you, reference this article from Healthline or this one from WebMD. There are many articles just like those that spell it out, just search on your favorite trusted/reputable source for medical information and you’ll find plenty of eye opening research.

As my understanding grew, I felt compelled to share my experience here with the hope that readers can relate to this story and take action in their own lives to “stop the stress-rust”. I had a specific set of circumstances generating my stress, and yours are certainly different. The stress might be coming from ten sources, or it might only be coming from one. Regardless, stress is stress, and it should be addressed.

Recognize and respond

Once you become overwhelmingly aware that there’s a problem in your life or with your health, as I did through my emergency room experience, how do you get past it?  How do you begin to “reset”?

The first step is the same as what you’ve heard about other personal challenges that might occur in your life: You must understand and admit that you have a problem.

So that’s where I began. The morning after the hospital incident, I was sitting alone in a quiet room thinking about the experience and about the ramifications for my life and my family’s life if things didn’t go well for me that night. I thought about the complexities of the past few years, the passing of my parents, my wife and kids and our future, and then the epiphany hit me like a bat to the head. I said to myself “I can’t go on like this. I have to fix this.” And thus my journey to reset myself began right in that moment…

That’s the beginning of this story. In Part 2 of this series, I’ll focus on the specific steps that I took to get started with my de-stressing process. I’ll explain how I calmed my mind and daily life, and how I proceeded through 2020 resolving and/or modifying one thing at a time until I was feeling better. It’s a mindful and iterative process of soul-searching and adjusting in which you must be brutally honest with yourself about…everything. For sure though, it’s something that you can definitely do for yourself if you consistently focus energy on it over a sustained period of time.

Stay tuned for more, and if you think this series of articles might help someone you know, please forward this link to them so they can follow along too. Thanks!

Inspiring your “becoming”

I wake up before dawn every day, usually somewhere between 5:30 and 6:00. No alarms needed, it’s just the way my brain and body work.

I used to prefer sleeping a bit later, because waking up early can make me drowsy during the afternoon and requires a power nap to recharge myself. However, when early rising started happening consistently a few years ago, I learned to embrace it. I now fully enjoy waking up while it’s still dark, and it has become “my time”. The silence in the house is a nice way to quietly start the day as I read, write, drink coffee, and watch the sky start to lighten. Every sunrise is a unique gift, and I often photograph them. The photo above is the view from our front window a few mornings ago.

I often go for walks while it’s early; before the cars are on the road, the neighborhood dogs start to bark, or there are other distractions out and about. On a recent walk when I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, I came across something great that I want to share here…

The process of becoming

This is a link to one of the most inspirational things I’ve ever heard. It’s an episode called “Over Time” of the podcast “A Beautiful Anarchy” by David duChemin, which I’ve previously written about here.

The episode is only 14:06 long, so I encourage you to listen to it in order to catch David’s expressiveness as he discusses the topic. If you want to read it instead then there’s a full transcript at the same link.

For any writer, photographer, artist, dancer, painter…or anyone who’s doing something that you enjoy and strive to get better at, David’s words are simply stated, yet full of inspiration and hope. The episode was so impactful to me that I stopped walking to play back this section several times:

David duChemin:

“We live in a culture focused on being great, not becoming great. On being talented, not becoming talented. And on being creative and prolific and successful, even lucky, but not on becoming those things.

Becoming takes time. And grit. Your grit might not be as, uh, gritty, as someone else’s grit, but it’s grit all the same.

Becoming is not easy.

Becoming depends more on mistakes than on getting things right straight out of the gate.

It takes focus.

And it’s messy, full of moments that invite us to either quit or keep going.

But what is deeply hopeful about the idea of becoming is that it is largely in our hands. It does not rely on a random gift of genetics. It does not demand that we be better than anyone else or even compare ourselves to anyone, including ourselves.

Becoming is hopeful because it means while the person I am today might not be able to pull it off (whatever it is), the person I will become tomorrow or next year, might be.

I’m not talented enough to do tomorrow’s big thing today. I never am. If I had the talent or ability right now to do the bigger things about which I dream, I’d have done them already. I might not be able to do it now, but I will be in a year. Maybe two or ten. Because while I’m not yet the guy who can write my next book, I am becoming that guy. And, though it feels like a paradox, writing my next book (and all the books that led me to it) makes me the person capable of writing exactly that book. The man I am when I start a book is not the man I am when I finish it. Yes, we make our art, but our art makes us.

But remember, too, that merely sticking it out, merely persevering, is of no particular value. Just being patient, and putting in the time, is not the same as over time becoming, learning, or growing.

Being is static. Being one thing or another is fine if you’re content with that, but it’s not really the stuff of possibilities, is it? Becoming is on-going. It’s cumulative. Evolutionary. Becoming is about transformation.

But we don’t talk like that. No one talks about who we are becoming. They talk about who we are, as if it’s been decided, nailed down, set in concrete. As if the person I was when I was born is the person I am now and will be in 20 years. But we are not. We become. Or we can, if we are willing to learn.”

As I continued walking and listening to the rest of the episode, I thought about all the things I’ve tried in my life that I enjoy doing, and what my arc has been with them as I’ve continually strived to do them better. Photography, music, writing, craft-related activities…it doesn’t matter…his words apply. They’re a potent reminder that it’s about the journey, not just the destination. And it’s also a reminder that the journey is our “becoming”. I think we forget that, or perhaps never even realize it in the first place.

Remember his words while you’re on your journeys and you occasionally reach points where you have to try over and over again, or put in much harder effort to reach your goals. Stay focused. Keep doing, learning, and growing. You’ll get there eventually, and you’ll be a “better you” for the effort. Enjoy the process…and become!

How to start and benefit from writing a personal journal

The path to a clear mind, and the enjoyment of tasting life twice

“Writing serves to heighten our own awareness of life…to taste life twice, in the moment, and in retrospection.”

Anaïs Nin

The quote above nicely captures why writing is important in the lives of so many people, myself included. Like any art form, the creative possibilities through writing are nearly limitless. You’re free to go wherever your mind takes you, and to explore as deeply and as long as you like. This post is specifically about how to begin writing a personal journal, and how to realize the many benefits that you can gain from it.

I’ve wanted to write about journaling for a long time, but I didn’t get around to it until something pushed it to the front of my mind recently. Maybe it was the New Year marking the end of the terrible year that 2020 was, combined with all of the hope about how 2021 will bring us to the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. Maybe it was also because I was off from work around the end of the year and I had some peaceful time to just sit and think about personal things. Whatever the reason, here are my thoughts about journaling and developing the habit of keeping up with it for the long term. If you decide to try it, you’ll likely be glad that you did…

Physical or digital, that is the question

In order to journal, you first need to decide where to journal. Many people like the process of writing with a good quality pen in a nice leather bound journal, or some other type of notebook. If that sounds like you, then you can shop on any number of online sites or local stationary and craft stores to find one. For example, Barnes & Noble has a large selection to choose from.

Physical journaling has many benefits, one of them being that it’s tangible. You can touch, feel, and even smell your journal (if yours happens to be leather bound). It’s there. It’s sensory. You can hear the pages flipping and feel the weight and quality of the paper. You can use different color pens, sketch drawings, tape mementos like ticket stubs, pictures, or travel guide pamphlets into the journal. Some people even do things like pressing small flowers in their journal so they become flat and dried over time. Journals can be small and in the range of 4×6″ or 5×7″ which can be tucked in a pocket or purse, and others can be the size of a photo album for large format journaling with room for adding additional pages when needed. There are all different sizes and styles to suite varying tastes.

The other option is to go digital. I personally prefer using a digital journaling app because I don’t want to carry around a book and pen. More importantly though, I want the option to journal at any time, anywhere, on any of the devices that I always have with me. That freedom helps me to keep up with my writing habit. It’s also nice to have the liberty of attaching a digital photo, video, or audio file to a journal entry to enhance it. Plus, journaling apps can automatically add other valuable information to your entries if you choose. The additions could include using GPS information from your phone to note where you made an entry, what the weather was in that location, or even what music you were listening to at the time you were writing. All of these features can be turned off if you prefer, but including them is a great way to capture your thoughts while adding additional information to your entries for a richer contextual writing experience.

Whatever format you choose, remember that it’s not cast in stone. If one approach doesn’t work for you and it becomes an obstacle to actually doing your writing, then try something else. Eventually you’ll hit your sweet spot of physical or digital (or both), convenience, and features that click for you.

You just have to start…..and then keep going

“The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.”

Walt Disney

One of the difficult things about writing anything is that you have to…start. For some people, that might be easier said than done because a blank page can be intimidating. If writing comes easily to you then the words will quickly start flowing onto the pages when you sit down to write. However, for those of you for which writing is a struggle, you might understandably need some tips to encourage and guide you to grab a pen and paper (or download a journaling app) to write your first entries and get yourself out of the starting gate.

I’ve been journaling since 2012 and have learned some key things along the way that might help you. Here are my tips for putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and also benefiting from the writing process:

Privacy: One of my most important suggestions is to remember that a journal is your private space. It doesn’t matter what you write or how you write it. Nobody is going to judge it, edit it, or even see it if you don’t want them to. It’s your space, your thoughts. Keeping that in mind should help free you from self-editing when you write. Self-editing, and thereby blunting your thoughts and ideas before you can express them, is the biggest barrier to writing of any kind because it stops your thoughts before they even get out of your head. Journaling is all about your mind flowing to page, and if you know that people won’t see what you write unless you want them to, then there’s no worry. Be free with it!

Honesty: Be honest with your writing. The primary benefits of journaling are getting to know yourself better and getting a deeper understanding of how you think and react to the world around you. If you’re not being honest with yourself about what you really think and feel about a topic, then it’s impossible to achieve these benefits. If you feel good about something, then write about it and explain why. If you’re angry or disappointed with someone/something, you’ve failed at a goal, or you’re harboring some other type of unpleasant feelings, just let your emotions pour out honestly. No sugarcoating or self-editing. With the aforementioned privacy, be comfortable that your truth is secured, and the more honest you are then the more insightful your journal will be for you. I’ve humorously dropped more than one f-bomb in my journal when writing about something that made me very angry. I can’t help but laugh when I read those entries back to myself…

Prompts and templates: If you’re new to journaling and you’re having difficulty choosing what to write about, then try starting with some writing prompts here or here, or Google for some other prompts and journal templates that appeal to you. Journaling videos on YouTube and pins on Pinterest can help here as well. There are endless possible prompts to choose from, or you can create your own to suit your needs. Journal templates take the idea of prompts one step further, and are usually a blank page that’s divided into sections with headings that also act as prompts. For example, a template might have sections for “What happened today”, “How did it make me feel”, and “What will I do tomorrow”. Whatever the specific prompts are in a template, the goal is that they provide a way for you to frame your thinking and let the thoughts start flowing. If you’re using a journaling app, they often have built-in templates that you can select for an entry to get you started.

Simplicity: Especially in the beginning, approach your journaling by keeping it simple and low-pressure. If you start easy by writing your most basic thoughts about whatever you choose, you’ll get into the swing of journaling without pressuring yourself to write a novel every time you sit down. Get some basic entries under your belt, maybe writing just a few sentences about what you did this weekend, who you were with, and how it made you feel. Was it fun? Boring? Adventurous? If so, why? Did you have a bad weekend? Write about why, and maybe what you’ll do next time to enjoy yourself more. Using the prompt approach mentioned above is also a way to keep things simple in the beginning and jump-start yourself until you determine what you want your journaling approach to be.

No rules: Your journal entries can be as short or long as you like. You can choose to write once per day, once per week, or just whenever the inspiration hits. Some of my journal entries are just a few sentences to capture a thought, and others go on for pages. I’ve gone through periods when I’ve written more than once per day, and also times when I’ve skipped a few weeks due to other priorities happening in my life that took away my time. (Interestingly, I’ve always felt odd during those skipping periods, like something was missing. Then I realized that it was the process of journaling that was missing!) The main rule is that there are no rules. Journaling should be a pleasurable experience that you enjoy and learn from, not a chore that you feel you have to do. Of course, if you want to journal consistently then developing some good habits around it to provide regular inspiration and output never hurts, but steer clear of hard and fast rules.

Review: Re-read your entries. At some time interval of your choice, review your older entries to see the things you’ve thought about, places you’ve been, and things you’ve done. See how your journaling has changed and grown over time. Some people use the end of the month as a checkpoint to go back and review what they wrote that month, and also set themselves up mentally for how they want to approach the next month. Think about how the process of re-reading makes you feel and see which thoughts and benefits come to you. Your writing will eventually start to feed off itself when you do these reviews and realize what you’ve done and the changes in how you’re expressing yourself. Before you know it, you’ll probably be surprised at how much you’re writing!

Time and persistence: I don’t have a specific time during the day when I journal, but I do specifically find the time for it. I carve out a little slice of alone time to jot down my main thoughts, which sometimes morph into a much longer writing session. I’ve found that if I don’t specifically do that then I get engulfed with other activities and journaling falls by the wayside for a few days. Use your own approach to finding your time, but try to do it and stick with it. I regret the periods where I let my journaling lapse, they seem like holes in my memories.

One for all: You might see recommendations to pick a subject for your journal, but I don’t recommend that in the beginning. For example, some people have different journals for travel, life topics, work, general ideas, etc. When you’re just beginning, it’s easiest to just have one journal for everything so that you don’t have to segment your thinking into “Oh, this should go in my travel journal” or “This should go in my journal for work”. Remember the tips from above…keep it simple and barrier-free so that your ideas will flow easily. You can always transition to using multiple journals in the future if you decide to go that route.

Making the choice of using a physical or digital journal, using my tips above, and maybe trying a few prompts should give you enough foundational ideas to get started with your journaling. Now let’s take a look at some of the benefits of journaling…

Benefits, you say?

There are many mental and physical health benefits of journaling, far more than I ever imagined or were apparent to me at first. This article from Mindful.org or this one from Huffington Post mention some of them that have been researched over time, but if you want to dig deep on the topic then review this article from PositivePsychology.com. It’s a thorough look at how you can transform yourself through the expressive writing of journaling.

Below are some of the specific benefits that I’ve personally experienced from journaling. You might experience these and many others as well, because each person reacts to the process differently. Some benefits came immediately to me and others were realized over time, but no matter how they surfaced the impact of all of them has been undeniably positive on my life.

Stillness: You hear it repeated every day and probably by many people you know, “life moves too fast”. Think about your average day. You have work or school, chores, exercise, friends, and maybe a house, cars and kids to take care of as well. When do you get time to just…think? This is exactly what journaling provides for me, the time to do nothing but sit, think, and express my thoughts. Journaling is “my time” that I carve out for myself with all other activities and distractions eliminated. It is peace and stillness, and I strongly believe that everyone needs this private time in their daily life for optimal health. (Hint: Put your devices on Do Not Disturb when you’re writing…there’s nothing worse than having your “me time” interrupted by a buzzing phone)

Reflection: I’m a thinker. I enjoy learning about and experiencing new things, and afterward I like reflecting on them to expand and deepen those experiences further into my thoughts. I also like to think back about the things I’ve done and places I’ve been to remember and reflect on them as well. This type of reflection , which also involves nostalgia, is a great way to build memories and cement them firmly in my mind. On so many occasions, I’ve thought about a random memory of some time, place or thing and quickly grabbed my journal to write about it. Sometimes I laugh out loud while I’m writing about a funny memory. A perfect example is the time my family walked in on an already occupied hotel room in the middle of the night that was also accidentally assigned to us. We were so stunned when we opened the door, stepped inside, and then realized what was going on that the only thing we could think to do was slam the door shut in the darkness and…run! I don’t know why we ran, but we were laughing so hard that we could hardly breathe as we made our way back to the front desk to tell them their mistake. We still laugh (almost to the point of crying!) when describing each of our panicked reactions when we re-tell this story years later. I enjoy those moments of recollection and like to write about them, especially when they’re funny. Understanding and feeling what you’ve experienced in the past also helps to pave the way for your future.

Consolidation: My head spins with thoughts, and sometimes I can’t dedicate the time to them in their moment to fully resolve what I think or feel about something. Journaling provides me with an opportunity to jot down a quick thought at some point during the day and then return to it later to consolidate and solidify my thoughts. Journaling drives me to organize, articulate, and get my thoughts written down, transcribing them from my swirling mind into text on a page. It gives me an opportunity to debrief with myself.

Closure and healing: For a variety of reasons, sometimes life leaves topics open that really need to be closed for you to heal and move on from them. It could be a disappointing experience, an argument, a death, etc. Sometimes in those circumstances we just don’t say and do the things that should be said and done, and you can be left with hanging threads in your life that can drag you down. Writing about it and getting it off your mind can help to either resolve it within yourself, or lead you to a path to resolve it with others. Resolution leads to healing.

Privacy: I do occasionally write about some things that I don’t discuss with other people. I don’t have difficulty expressing myself or my ideas, so that’s not the reason I keep them to myself. It’s just because some things are…private, and everyone has some thoughts sometimes that fall into that category and you prefer to keep to yourself. Using my journal to get these private thoughts out of my head and more solidly formed in writing is like a long exhale of relief. It feels good.

Stress reduction: If you’ve read the points above and connected them together then you can easily conclude that they lead to a reduction in my stress level. I’m writing an article series about my experience with stress overload, and journaling is one of the ways I worked my way out of being buried by it, so that was a direct benefit to me. There’s nothing like a cleared mind combined with a relaxed body and soul to reduce your stress level.

Self-awareness: Through the process of surfacing thoughts and emotions about my experiences, writing them down in my journal, and re-reading them in the future to see where I’ve been in life, I create a pathway to self-awareness. I know myself very well. I understand what I like and don’t like. The experiences that have been successful, and those that have failed. This knowledge comes from the cycle of processing thoughts and emotions, and then taking the time to write and absorb them. I apply what I learn to help understand my past and also guide my future.

History, memories, and tasting life twice: I’ve saved the biggest benefit for me personally until last, which is the ongoing and rewarding experience of recording your journeys, history and memories in a way that does indeed allow you to “taste life twice”, as mentioned in the quote above from Anaïs Nin. Sometimes I journal as something is happening, and other times I return to do it when I have time at the end of the day. There are so many things both large and small that happen every day to enrich life in some way, and you simply won’t remember them all. I enjoy capturing these thoughts and occurrences so that I can look back and re-live them through my writing. It’s my breadcrumb trail through life.

How do I journal?

With the above being said, what’s my approach for journaling? I chose to go with a total digital approach on both my iPhone and MacBook computer using the excellent Day One application. It has won design awards from Apple and others over the years, and I’ve always found it to be one of the consistently best journaling apps available. Others have come close using approaches similar to Day One, but they never quite hit the same high mark of features and usability that I prefer.

I started using Day One when it was first released and have stuck with it ever since. The developer’s support for the app is strong, and they’ve made constant updates to it over the years to refine and polish it. It has grown into a seamless all-encompassing writing environment. Nearly any type of information you’ll likely want to add to a journal entry is possible with Day One. You can simply type your entries and be done with just your typed words, or you can have the app automatically add other types of ancillary information to your entries to give them more context.

For me, the digital approach strikes the perfect balance of flexibility, portability, usability, and features. If you’re interested in potentially going digital, then please take the time to read this excellent review of the Day One app on The Sweet Setup website. It’s a complete look at all of the features the app has to offer, how to use them, and how they can help you have a better journaling experience. The review also describes several other good options to pick from other than Day One.

Some of my favorite features of Day One, which many other digital journaling apps have as well, include the following:

  • Adding photos, videos, and audio files. It’s great to augment my entries with additional media to make a “complete entry” of the moment I’m writing about.
  • Using hashtags to categorize, organize, and search my entries (e.g., #travel, #movies, #kids, #books, #memory, etc). This is handy when I want to find and re-read entries about a particular topic.
  • Automatic extra data added to my posts, including weather and location. Having location appended to my entries allows me to pull up a map to see where and when I’ve written.
  • Full text search. This is huge. Having my journal entries full text indexed means I can find anything I’ve written over the years by simply searching on a word or phrase that might have been in the text of the entry, its tags, or its title. Very powerful, and not possible with hand written journals. This one feature alone would be enough to push me in the direction of digital journaling.
  • Writing prompts. The prompts included in Day One are thought provoking, and although I don’t use them often because I typically have a lot to write about, it’s interesting to try to tackle one of their prompts when the mood hits me.
  • Exporting/archiving. When I made the decision to use a journaling app, I was conscious of not tying my content up in a proprietary platform from which I could not easily get it out if I ever decided to stop using the app. Day One has good exporting features so your content is definitely yours, and there are no worries about it getting stuck somewhere against your wishes.
  • Exporting entries to print books. I haven’t used this feature yet, but it’s a great idea. The Day One service has a book formatting feature that allows you to select the entries that you would like to export (including photos) for printing into a keepsake book. If you journal about your next family vacation, include some photos about it, etc, then you can export that into a travel book for yourself or as a gift for someone else. I plan to try this on our next family trip.
  • “On This Day”. Day One has a feature called On This Day that will automatically show you the posts you’ve made on a particular day in the past. It’s fun to see what pops up on a given day, and it’s given me a lot of “Oh, I remember that…” moments to enjoy.
  • Encryption and security. Last but not least, security and encryption are fully embedded in the Day One apps and their synchronization service used across your devices (if you subscribe to that option). This is a must for any digital journaling tool. Not only is the content encrypted, but you can password protect the app itself to keep anyone else who might be using your devices out of your journal.

Take the first step

The information in this article provided a glimpse into journaling, how to get started, the benefits, and the route I chose based on my preferences. Journaling is a great private hobby that can span your entire life and provide much positive benefit to you. I encourage you to take the first step and give it a try, and if you like it then you’ll likely find that it will open your mind to new ways of looking at yourself and the world around you. It has the extra benefit of allowing you to taste life twice, and how can you turn that down when life is so short? Enjoy the journey!

P.S. – If you found this article helpful, please forward the link along to others you know who might enjoy it. Thanks!