Jan 062014
One of my proud moments of 2013 is that I managed to exercise even while on vacation!  It can be done!

One of my proud moments of 2013 is that I managed to exercise even while on vacation! It can be done!

There are a lot of themes going on this month. I told you about my overarching theme word for 2014 but this month, my focus, like most of America, is on diet and exercise. Last year, I started a diet and exercise plan and for the most part, I have been faithful about executing it for almost a year now! While I am not any sort of expert on diet and exercise and am just stumbling along with everyone else, I do have some insight to share about how I managed to stick with it, what the ongoing challenges are and how my plan is impacting my own health.

No matter what advances we come up with in medical science, it is probably true that we are never going to get away from diet and exercise as a means to obtain optimum health.

If you are struggling with diet and exercise, please know that my posts this month are not intended to make anyone feel guilty or jealous. I am not advocating that everybody should follow the plan that is working for me. I only hope to encourage people to seek out the plan that works for their body and their life.

If you have any specific questions or concerns you would like to see addressed on diet and exercise this month, please post your thoughts in the comments or email me.

P.S. My email inbox is overflowing lately with New Year’s inspiration and encouragement from so many different places. If I have one wish for 2014, it is that all of my gurus continue to stay fired up for the entire year and keep churning out more great ideas and words of wisdom so that I stay fired up (selfish, I know!). I loved Ramit Sethi’s post today with his theme for 2014. It links nicely with my own personal theme. Ramit also gives us the great quote: “As your surrogate Asian father, I demand more for you.” Marcia Francois, my theme word inspiration source, also shared her theme word for 2014 taking on a spiritual focus.

P.P.S. For those of you on my mailing list, I am trying to increase my posting frequency this year but don’t want to wear out my welcome in your email inbox. I am switching my email notifications to provide a weekly summary of posts rather than daily posts. If you would prefer daily notifications, just let me know.

Apr 062012

It's dogwood and azalea season in Virginia. One of the most beautiful times of the year!

My time is entirely controlled by Mother Nature lately. It started a few weeks ago when my daughter brought home a terrible norovirus-like illness she picked up somewhere. It spread quickly through the whole family and forced us to rearrange all of our plans to rest and recover. Lately, we have been doing some work in the yard and our days are basically controlled by the weather. If the weather pattern changes rapidly, we have to reschedule our entire day on the fly. It’s kind of a pain but nature is also an excellent teacher. If you struggle with perfectionism or you like things just so, it might be the best thing in the world for you to spend more time outside.

Over the course of this month, I will be sharing several projects I am working on to make my own yard look more organized. Last year, I focused on gardening projects that didn’t require much planting and were primarily about various hardscaping elements you can put into your garden.

This year’s focus is simply to finish up a lot of garden projects that have been on my to do list forever. Some are very small and simple, others complex. There will be some hardscaping as well as some planting.

First up, a very simple weeding tip.

Dec 062011

Christmas is coming! Scene from our local parade.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas . . . . everywhere but at our house! While I am seeing so many lights and decorations in my neighborhood as well as cute blogs showcasing elegant homes and decorations, we have yet to put out a single decoration! While the holiday cards are already rolling in, we have just started our shopping and are currently on the Type B path to Christmas.

If you are in a similar boat, take heart in the following:

1) “Christmas” in many cultures and religions starts on Christmas Day and continues for the 12 days following Christmas. On this schedule, Christmas “ends” January 6. So you can still get 30 days enjoyment out of your decorations if you start today!

2) There might be a safety advantage to starting a little later in your decorations if you are using a live tree.

“Do not put your live tree up too early or leave it up for longer than two weeks.”

Focus on Fire Safety: Holiday Fire Safety, U.S. Fire Administration

3) If you missed out on Black Friday sales, you might not have missed much and some of the best shopping bargains are only coming out now! When I spot-checked prices over Thanksgiving weekend, I didn’t find any sales that I found irresistible and even found that one sneaky retailer actually increased prices by 5-20% over Black Friday weekend and has only recently lowered them back down to where they were before the holiday season.

The “holiday season” is one long marathon from Halloween to Christmas and by this stage in the game we are a little tired. We enjoy the Christmas season, however, and we actually have done some things to prepare:

1) Months ago, we booked season tickets to the ballet, including my holiday tradition with my girls, attending the Nutcracker.

2) Around Thanksgiving, we negotiated with both sides of our family regarding gift giving lists for the holiday season. You may recall that last year, we implemented “No gifts.” This year we are trying “kids only” on one side and “draw a family for a family gift” on the other. This cut our shopping time and general holiday stress by 90%.

3) We booked activities with our children for each weekend in December. Last weekend, was the Christmas parade, this weekend the Santa Train and next weekend, the Nutcracker. We are trying to be out and about enjoying the season.

However, there is still a ton left to do and the time windows for certain activities are closing fast. Keeping track of priority deadlines is required at this point. If you need a quick checklist (like I do), here are the things to concentrate on this week and to finish no later than next week:

This week:

1) To the extent possible, finish Christmas/holiday shopping or at least finish your shopping list of exactly what you plan to buy this year.

2) If you are buying anything used (books, etc.), which is a great way to save money, you probably need to place those orders this week to ensure they will ship in time for Christmas. Most used sellers use the slower “Media Mail” shipping option.

3) Take Christmas/holiday photos and order any photo reprints needed. You can save some money on your photos if you give yourself enough time to take advantage of regular shipping and non-expedited printing. Soon, photo printers will be overwhelmed with Christmas orders and you may not get your photos in time for Christmas.

4) If you are framing anything for a Christmas gift or ordering anything custom-made, get that order in now before the maker is overbooked.

No later than next week:

1) Mail any continental U.S. presents. Regular shipping deadlines are closing around next Thursday, December 15, for most retailers. After that point, you will need to pay for expedited shipping which can be expensive and many shippers won’t guarantee that even if you pay for expedited shipping that your order will arrive in time for Christmas.

2) Decide on your Christmas menu. Put in orders for any special ingredients, etc.

This month at Ruly we are going to take it easy as we proceed through to Christmas and New Years. I hope to keep the posts light and fun and point out simple ideas from others to de-stress your holiday celebrations. We will also continue our organizing efforts with a feature on one of the organizational challenges for all parents…toy storage.

For your holiday enjoyment today, I wanted to point out the following fun holiday posts:

  • Apartment Therapy: No Room for a Tree? 10 DIY Modern Holiday Alternatives – I love these clever ideas for a unique and space-saving tree, from hanging items on the wall in a tree shape to projecting a tree with light. If we didn’t have a beast of an artificial tree in the basement (that our children are begging to put up) I would love to experiment with these ideas.
  • Lego’s Online Holiday Advent Calendar – While a physical advent calendar, counting the days to Christmas, is fun, this year we are experimenting with a virtual advent calendar. Lego has a great animation that unlocks about every two days showing different Lego characters getting ready for Christmas. I set it as the homepage on my daughters’ computer and they love it. Free!

How are you coming along with your holiday preparations?  Please share in the comments.


Nov 012011

"Eat Your Veggies: At the farmer's market in Holland, MI" (October 29, 2011) Photo by Kate Ter Haar. From the Flickr Creative Commons.

With holiday preparations added to the general mix of life, the fall months are flying by.  November is here already!  It’s another month and time for another Ruly theme.

With our 10 pounds of Halloween candy piled beside me, I know that we need to focus on eating more healthy food.  I am also a realist though.  We, like every family, are busy and I have already told you that I am not the greatest cook.  So, if we take some of the change principles we learned earlier this year to make the path easier and engage in short-duration test projects, my goal this month is to try to change my diet in the easiest way possible.

First, my general guidelines:

  1. I am not cutting out “bad stuff” like sugar and candy or fatty things like fried foods but instead am making sure that I get a full serving of fruits and vegetables each day.  If I am still hungry for candy or some other indulgence afterward, I will allow myself to eat whatever I want.
  2. It will be definite recipe for failure if I attempt to buy a variety of wonderful fresh produce at the store and try all kinds of recipes.  I can already tell you the result of such an experiment.  Half the produce will be a rotted mess in my fridge and we will eat out rather than cook something complicated.
  3. Suze Orman issued a challenge recently on her show to not eat out for 30 days, both as an exercise in health as well as financial savings.  With the exception of special occasions and business meals for my husband, we will aim to eat at home.
  4. We are really going to try to exercise every day as well.  We ordered up Biggest Loser trainer Jillian Michaels’ 30-Day Shred video from amazon.com which gives you 3, 20-minute workouts and promises results with just 20 minutes per day.  I have watched (but not done) one of the videos and it seems like it is a good workout for both men and women.  Amazon (or Jillian Michaels) was really thinking ahead on the sale of this video.  They give you an e-version of the video through Amazon for free after you buy it so you can get started right away while your motivation is fresh instead of hoping you are still motivated by the time the DVD arrives in the mail.

The Fruits and Vegetables requirement

I have no idea how much fruit and vegetables a person is supposed to eat each day.  I went online to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Choose My Plate site (which replaced the old food pyramid site) and found that the guideline for how much to eat each day is really simple.

Half Your Plate Should be Fruit and Vegetables

That’s it!  No ounces or cups or “servings.”  Just half of what you eat at each meal should be fruits and vegetables.  So if you eat a huge steak or several slices of pizza, you also have to eat a huge salad or a huge quantity of green beans or carrots to balance things out.  If you snack on a candy bar, you also have to eat a banana or apple.  Now that is a rule all of us can remember!

In practice, how could our family implement this?  We have a challenge because half of our eaters are under 6 and don’t really care for fruits and vegetables.  The adults like them but don’t have time to do a lot of peeling, chopping and cooking.  We also want to make sure that our veggies are relatively fresh and not laden with salt or sugar.  So, the quick options are:


  • Banana
  • Apple
  • Raisins
  • Orange juice or other no-sugar juices
  • Canned pineapple chunks in pineapple juice
  • Berry smoothie using frozen fruit and yogurt


  • Salad of mixed greens or Greek-style (cucumber and tomato)
  • Carrot and celery sticks with hummus
  • Low-sodium tomato or V8 juice or fresh vegetable juice from our juicer
  • Raisins or grapes
  • Ravioli with vegetables inside (from the frozen food section)


  • Broccoli (our big bag of frozen broccoli is likely to make frequent appearances)
  • Squash
  • Salad (again)
  • Whole grain Pasta with tomato sauce
  • *possibly more interesting dishes depending on my energy level

I am hoping that if we set the right example our children might start eating more fruits and vegetables too.

Coincidentally, this month the USDA is hosting an eat more fruits and vegetables video challenge with a $1500 prize for the best video.  You can check out some of the submissions here.

The USDA also is trying to teach people how to eat more fruit and vegetables without spending a lot of money.  They have catchy article titles like “Eat Right When Money’s Tight.”

So, this month will be about food and meal planning as well as organizing your life when you need to make a change.

How are your eating habits?  What are your strategies for eating more fruits and vegetables?  Please share in the comments.

Jun 022011

One of my gardening success stories...a bloodroot flower this spring!

It’s a new month at Ruly. We are halfway through 2011 and this month I am applying my organizing talents outdoors to update my garden! I started this process last year but still have a long way to go.

Last year, I left you with a Ruly Challenge to investigate a list of native plants for your area and consider adding more of these plants to your landscaping. I took my own medicine and ordered some native plants to put in the ground last fall.

I am pleased to report that most of what I planted has come up well. (So far, hooray for bloodroot, spiderwort, bleeding hearts, black cohosh and the Turk’s cap lily.) The only disappointing aspect, however, is that it is going to take years for these plants to get established, start spreading and give a “full” look to the landscaping. All I have right now is a stem here and there of various plants. Our local garden centers do not carry these plants so putting them in the ground one bare root at a time is my only current option. However, given the very challenging conditions of my garden (lots of trees and shade, limited sun, water source only from the rain and heavy, clay soil) it is nice to find ANYTHING that wants to grow without requiring special attention.

Landscaping can be a bit frustrating. Really nice landscaping is also really expensive. If you can’t afford nice landscaping, you can spend hours and hours of time amending your soil, pulling weeds and planting and still end up with something that either looks sparse and unhealthy or messy and overgrown. Our family needs a boost of encouragement to help us get our yard together. . . a few quick wins to get motivated. Particularly, I am looking for projects that won’t require much time or effort but will add a lot of style and will be almost guaranteed to work.

What projects might these be? I went looking on the web for hints. Interestingly, most of the tips are about working with non-plant materials to enhance your space.

1.  Mulch. It seems to be many landscapers’ philosophy that when all else fails, just go for a thick layer of decorative mulch or rocks. It gives a clean look and hides a multitude of landscaping failures. Mulch is also a relatively cheap material to purchase. There are a million types of mulching materials, including natural sources like fallen leaves, and you can get creative.

2. Paint. Painting the hardscaping structures in your yard (furniture, pots, concrete, etc.) a bright color adds a fresh, energetic look to a tired space. See this tip from Better Homes and Gardens for inspiration.

3. Art and Collectibles.
Peruse flea markets and garage sales for garden-appropriate items that can weather outside, like birdcages, watering cans, statuary, etc. Note: this takes a good artistic eye to carry off well and a little goes a long way. BHG again has a nice example.

For a personal touch and for not much money, DIY network has some great ideas for making your own garden art. I am particularly intrigued by the ideas of Michele Beschen of B! Original.

  • Concrete sculptures – mold and sculpt your own statues using concrete and molds.
  • Yard Bird – love this bird creation from garden tools. Wish I was a welder!
  • Garden Gal Pals – use roofing flashing and copper tubing to create unique characters for your garden.
  • Yard and Garden monuments – made from 2” insulation, adhesive, chicken wire and thinset concrete.

4.   Pots. While Better Homes and Gardens acknowledges a large collection of pots can be expensive, it encourages people to buy one or two a year over time to create an impressive display.

5. Outdoor lighting. Most people assume outdoor lighting means solar lights along the driveway but there are many ways to incorporate lighting outside, including candles, lanterns hung from trees, Christmas lights and others. BHG has some cool tips. For a unique look, Michele Beschen at DIY Network has another simple and creative idea here to dress up a plain strand of lights with aluminum screening “flowers” (last segment of the video).

6.   Groundcovers.
Find a quick-spreading plant to crowd out weeds. BHG has a list of easy-to-grow groundcovers here.

7.   Edging. Define the edges of your garden beds with edging materials ranging from plastic to wrought iron, brick, stone or even recycled glass bottles. A good list of options here.

8.   Stepping Stones. Stepping stones have a variety of uses from marking pathways to decorative accents in the garden. There are many varieties to purchase or mold your own!

Hopefully this list has given you some ideas to add some personality to your own yard and garden. While many people have been hard at work in their gardens for months now, those of us starting a bit late can take comfort from this recent advice from the Old Farmer’s Almanac:

“June offers the most hours of daylight of any month of the year. For farmers and gardeners, this is a great boon, allowing them to concentrate on their fields and flowers. One old proverb says, ‘Calm weather in June sets corn in tune.’

Folk wisdom tells us that all of the plants will catch up by the end of the month regardless of how early we got them in the ground!”

What yard and gardening projects are you planning this year? Please share in the comments.

Apr 052011

AGED EMPLOYEES OF THE GOVERMENT DEPARTMENTS IN WASHINGTON WHO WILL BENEFIT BY THE RETIREMENT BILL. Chas Mathews, aged eighty one for thirty nine years employed in the Records Division of the Pension office. (May 8, 1920). From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

This month’s theme is likely to make you uncomfortable.

As with last year, I am devoting one month to the difficult yet essential issue of organizing your finances.  Last month we talked about change and this month, we address one of the most difficult changes facing all of us: the economic crisis. Specifically, we are going to take a detailed look at one of the most challenging aspects of financial organization–retirement planning. This is one area of my own financial planning where I have a lot of questions.

My husband and I take care of the basics in terms of putting money away for retirement but what we should be doing to follow that money and strategize our investments is still a bit of a mystery. Adding to my uncertainty in this area is the current federal budget crisis and the sad state of the U.S. Social Security system. My husband and I are lucky to still have decades until retirement to learn what we should be doing and fix our past mistakes but the clock is ticking and it is time to get Ruly on this issue.

In our case, my husband and I will most likely not receive a pension or any other guaranteed source of retirement income. Yes, we are eligible for Social Security but, as we will discuss later, I am not counting that as solid yet. It is most likely that whatever income we receive in retirement will have to come from our own savings. And yes, we will have to save a LOT to make that happen.

There are a lot of news stories about how terrible the U.S. 401(k)/IRA and other retirement planning systems are–that they are ineffective at helping people save enough for retirement. While those criticisms may be very valid, in cases like ours, hearing a whole lot of negative information without any strategy is not helpful. We don’t have any other choice. We have to find some way to make the current system work for us. Most people are in the same boat.

If you are lucky enough to have a pension, we will discuss why you might want to be careful in how you account for that in your planning. The current federal and state government deficits, as well as what is happening to pensions in the private sector, warn that anyone counting on a pension as their primary retirement income should have a Plan B as well.

This month’s focus is not to direct you how to invest your money. That is the role of professional investment advisers. Rather, the focus is to understand the issues surrounding retirement planning, identify various scenarios you need to account for in your contingency planning, and find organizational tools to help you track your retirement investments. Armed with information, you will be better able to make your own decisions or discuss options intelligently with your financial adviser.

To start the month off, I wanted to highlight 10 lessons we all need to learn from the current economic crisis. We have the benefit of learning from the hardships, bad luck and mistakes of prior generations. While we need to have compassion for those currently facing these troubles, we also have the duty to learn from their misfortune and avoid falling into the same problems ourselves. The advice below is tough love. It is brutally honest. It is hard to accept. We may already be in some of these traps ourselves but it is our task to find our way out.

10 Tough Love Money Lessons from the Economic Crisis

1. Unforeseen Crises Will Happen Periodically. Our economy is always changing. Jobs and industries that are “safe” today are gone tomorrow. Taxes go up and down. Gas prices go up and down. The cost of living changes. Natural disasters strike. There is no sure way to riches. Hard work and dedication sometimes don’t pay off. Our best assets are flexibility, knowledge and creativity. You may need to plan more than one career. You may need to move to another location. You may make a lot of money some years and none the next. Recognize when you are having “good years” and set money aside. Assume that life will throw you a curve once in a while and be ready to react.

2. Saving Has to Become Part of Every Family’s Financial Planning. In the past, it was often sufficient, and even financially sound, to live off of your pre-retirement income with little savings, and in retirement live within the means of your pension or Social Security income with little savings. Today, this does not apply. If you spend every penny you take home and save little to nothing for retirement and/or emergencies, you are living beyond your means, no matter how low your income is.

3. Home Equity is for Emergencies Not Luxuries. Many families have an enormous amount of their net worth tied up in their homes. We have all seen the painful consequences of tapping that home equity for discretionary spending, most often for home improvements, debt consolidation or college expenses. If you don’t have enough money for your discretionary spending without tapping your home equity, chances are you bought a home you cannot afford or you can’t afford the discretionary spending.

4. Don’t Base Your Planning on “Average” Investment Returns. Nearly every investment presentation you will see bases the growth of your money on “average” returns—a return based on years of data, smoothing out the high years and the low years. This is often an optimistic, confidence-inspiring number, perhaps around 7-8% annually. In the event “average” does not occur (as it has not for the past 10 years or so), you can wind up painfully short of funds. For most people, we are going to sleep better at night using the “low case,” assuming investment returns will be low. If you make your planning work using the “low case,” then if the “average” (or better yet the “high case”) comes to pass, you are sitting pretty.

5. Employment Prospects Can Dwindle Starting in Your Mid-50’s. If you listened to this wonderful and interesting Marketplace Money radio broadcast on Money Through the Ages , you get the impression that most people don’t get serious about their money until their 40’s and in their 50’s they really buckle down and shovel away as much money for retirement as possible. This worked OK in the past. However, the current economic crisis tells us that this strategy is extremely risky. Take, for example, this former bank executive profiled on NPR who was laid off and after 26 months finally found an hourly part-time job in data entry.  Unfortunately, we have to accept that age discrimination is still alive and well in the workplace and that as the pace of technology increases, our skills become out of date unless we work hard to keep them up. Our employment prospects may start to decline as we age and we should not base our savings and financial planning on the assumption that our income will consistently rise until the date we retire. Our incomes could easily stagnate or decline as we age. Making the most of your employment prospects while you are younger and saving as much as possible during all of your working years are key strategies for success.

6. Benefits You Don’t Control Can Be Reduced, Eliminated or Modified. This is a key lesson for anyone counting on a pension. Five years ago, Frontline discussed retirement planning and showed what happened to airline employees whose pensions were cut by 30% during a bankruptcy proceeding. State and federal governments are now facing dire economic problems and a large number of pension plans are grossly underfunded. Anyone counting on a pension would do well to plan conservatively for the ultimate payout amount. For example, one of my husband’s past employers was one of the last private employers to still offer a pension to employees after a certain number of years of service. My husband watched a friend dutifully fulfill the minimum service term then resign to take another position. To the friend’s surprise, fine print in the pension plan allowed for a payout in today’s dollars of the pension amount in certain cases. So, rather than sitting back in retirement and watching the checks roll in, the friend had a relatively small sum of cash to manage himself for 30+ years and hope it would pay out as much in the end.

7. Status Symbols Are Changing. We are currently looking at a seismic shift in status symbols. Things that we may have devoted a lot of our time and effort to obtain may be valued far differently by younger generations. For example, owning a home used to be a major status symbol but the need for flexibility and mobility of today’s workforce may soon make that dream change.

“[W]e really don’t need an ownership society as much as we need an innovation society–one where workers are flexible and willing to move wherever there is a job opportunity.”

–Marilyn Geewax, NPR Senior Business Editor, Pursuing the American Dream, By Renting, NPR Weekend Edition Sunday, March 27, 2011.

From the many families we have known who were split apart across states while the husband traveled for work and the wife and kids stayed home to try to sell the house, this advice does make some sense. Anyone who owns a home also knows that homes require a lot of money to maintain. Homes are often not an “investment” so much as they are an expense. Our children may choose not to own homes. Our own homes could lose value due to decreased market demand. Similarly, college education may be seen very differently by future generations in light of the difficult job market for new graduates and the burden of student loans.

8. Be Ready to Manage Complex Financial Decisions Yourself. Current trends in reforming government health care and retirement expenditures will have a significant impact on my generation. Most of the proposals advocate some form of “do it yourself,” as in “Here is your benefit amount, do with it as you will but don’t ask us for more.” My generation and future generations will likely depend on the government less and less in retirement for either health care or retirement benefits. Many of these functions will likely shift to the private sector. It remains to be seen whether this will be positive or negative but the uncertainty is stressful and the burden on individuals to organize personal financial planning in these areas will increase.

9. Never Take Good Health for Granted. The biggest wild card for all of us is health. Everything changes when your health changes. There are some factors in health we can control, such as eating well, exercising, lowering our stress levels, maintaining health and disability insurance and keeping up with our medical appointments. We can also plan to get our financial house in order before an age where health issues are likely to be a problem. Having your house paid off and retirement savings goals met by age 65, for example, would be one step in this direction. Sometimes health conditions take us by surprise at any age, however, and then we have to draw on the love and support around us to get us through.

10. Your Adult Children and Aging Parents Will Most Likely Need Your Financial Support At Some Point. As though you don’t have enough to worry about for your own retirement needs, we have seen that children are more frequently returning home after college or requiring support from mom and dad to get started on independent living. Likewise, as parents age, the costs of health care and declining retirement income often dictate that children need to provide financial or other assistance to help them maintain their health and independence. A June 2010 Money Magazine article estimated these costs at $7,660 per year for adult children and $5,534  per year for care of aging parents. Factoring this into your retirement planning now could prevent heart-wrenching surprises later.

Do you agree with the above list?  What lessons have you learned from the economic crisis? What questions do you have about your own retirement planning? Please share in the comments.

Feb 012011

Rehabilitation client worrying over his accounts, Jackson County, Ohio (1936). Photo by Theodor Jung. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

It is the start of a new month and time to introduce a new discussion topic.  This month we will explore an extreme perspective of organization….obsessive-compulsive disorder.

This month’s topic comes out of my own curiosity and desire to better understand certain extreme points of view about cleaning and organization.  How many times have you read a news article such as this one about the hazards of sleeping with your dog or this one about exactly how many germs are on kitchen sponges, door handles and other household items.

I see these articles all the time and I keep wondering, “Who cares about this stuff? Does it really help anyone to know all of this?  After all, we have been doing these germy-dirty activities forever and no one we know has been sick or died from them yet!”   I just scratch my head and find it amazing how many people are truly interested in this information.  Some other viewpoints that confuse me:

  • People who can’t eat foods where the chef has to touch and arrange a lot of the ingredients.
  • People who fret excessively about using public restrooms.
  • The common refrain, “I can’t go to bed if there are dirty dishes in the sink.”

What is behind all of this?  I decided this month to try to find out.

My objective is not to cure people or provide any sort of therapy.  That is clearly not in my job description.  Rather, my goals are to share stories from people who have suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder, to better understand and recognize the condition and to learn how obsessive-compulsive disorder affects all of us and our organizing habits.

Below is my continuum of the human condition when it comes to organization. (Click the picture for a larger view.)

There are two basic organizing styles.  On one side is a structured, controlled style with the extreme end at obsessive-compulsive disorder and on the other side is a loose, adaptive style with the extreme end at chronic disorganization.  In the middle of the continuum is the fictional “normal” (which no one really is).  Neither style is “correct” and each style has its advantages and disadvantages.  Most of us generally lean one direction in most cases but we most likely employ a mix of styles in different circumstances.  For example, many people have one approach to managing their physical environment and the opposite approach to managing their money.

Taking a few steps in either direction on the continuum doesn’t cause most of us any serious problems coping with daily life.  Everyone goes a little too far once in a while but most of us can recognize when we have reached that point and make adjustments to come back closer to center.  When a person either can’t recognize that they are far from the center or has no idea how to dial things back, this is often where professional mental help is needed.

Starting our journey along the continuum toward obsessive-compulsive disorder (“OCD”), first I thought it would be helpful to have a brief OCD Q&A.

What are the characteristics of OCD?

As the name suggests, there are two essential characteristics of OCD.

1)   Obsessions. These are excessive fears the person has about one or more situations.  While everyone may worry about these things from time to time, a person affected with OCD worries about their obsession all the time.  It’s like a giant tape loop in their head constantly repeating the worry.  What are the common OCD obsessions?

  • Contamination and germs (the most common)
  • Causing harm to others
  • Being harmed or embarrassed by others
  • Not being prepared when circumstances change
  • Offending God or doing something immoral

2)   Compulsions.  Compulsions are activities the person does to relieve the anxiety caused by the obsession.  Sometimes the compulsion has a connection to the obsession, for example, washing and cleaning as a response to contamination fear.  Other times, the compulsion is something unusual like pacing a specific path or counting to a certain number.  The compulsion is generally something the person does not enjoy doing but feels is the only way to make the obsessive thoughts stop.  When the compulsions begin to take an hour or more per day or begins to otherwise interfere with normal life functioning, OCD is formally diagnosed.  Other disorders with an OCD connection include Tourette’s syndrome, certain aspects of hoarding, eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia and hypochondriasis (fear of having a serious illness).

What causes OCD?

The exact cause of OCD is unknown but OCD is generally thought to have a genetic connection related the structure of the brain.  Certain parts of the brain are hyperactive in OCD individuals.  Environmental stressors can influence the severity and frequency of the disease, however.  Some studies have also linked bacterial infection to OCD symptoms, particularly in children.

How common is OCD?

The International OCD Foundation estimates that approximately 1% of the population suffers from OCD.  A survey in the 1980’s by the National Institutes of Mental Health suggests the number may be higher, at around 2% of the population.

Many people with OCD are deeply ashamed of their disturbing thoughts and rituals and don’t want to disclose them to anyone–even a professional mental health counselor.  The condition causes them so much distress that often OCD sufferers also have anxiety and depression.  It can take an OCD sufferer a while to develop enough trust with a mental health professional to be willing to disclose the obsessions and compulsions.  It is possible, therefore, that the number of OCD sufferers is under-reported and that some people seeking help for anxiety and depression could also have OCD.

When is OCD diagnosed?

Approximately 1/3 of adult OCD sufferers are diagnosed as children. In most other cases, OCD appears in the teenage and young adult years and can come on suddenly.

How is OCD treated?

OCD is a challenging disorder to treat.  Generally a combination of various mood-stabilizing medications and cognitive-behavioral therapy is used to treat OCD.  The goal of most cognitive-behavioral therapy is to get the person to think about their obsession (or sometimes experience the actual fear itself) and to retrain the person to stop doing the compulsions and instead learn how to address the obsession in a more productive manner.  OCD is never fully cured but a person can learn to be effective and productive and handle their obsessions appropriately with proper treatment.

How does OCD impact family and friends?

OCD has a dramatic impact on close friends and family.  Often an OCD-affected individual will insist that family and friends adopt their compulsions.  Many family members will comply with such a request feeling that it must bring the OCD sufferer relief.  Surprisingly, it turns out that this harms the OCD sufferer more than it helps.

“Family members who participate in rituals are unintentionally reinforcing and strengthening OCD symptoms.  Recognizing the problem is easier than doing something about it.  Just stopping participation abruptly is likely to be met with anger, resentment and increased anxiety.  A better approach is to collaborate with the person who has OCD in a plan to lessen involvement with the symptoms.  This is most likely to occur in the context of cognitive-behavioral therapy with an experienced therapist directing the effort.”

–Bruce M. Hyman, Ph.D. and Cherry Pedrick, R.N., Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

What should I do if I think I have OCD?

OCD is a very complex condition that requires accurate diagnosis. Often it is best to look for a therapist with an expertise in OCD.  You can find a searchable list of therapists here at the Obsessive-Compulsive Foundation website.

I hope this month’s discussion will give you a new angle on organization and motivation issues and may help you think more about your own psychology.

Where do you fall on the continuum?  What are your experiences with OCD?  Please share in the comments.

Oct 042010

"Pumpkins....and it is not even halloween!" Photo by Roger Price. From the Flickr Creative Commons.

"office christmas party group photo." Photo by Andrea Allen. From the Flickr Creative Commons.

Here we are at the start of another new month and it is generally the time to announce a new theme.  As I was thinking through the themes I had planned for October, November and December, however, I realized that soon (and perhaps already) general holiday busy-ness/craziness is coming.  So, rolling with the punches, I am going to loosen up my themes for the next three months.  There will still be three themes but I am going to mix and match them together as needed.  We will mix fun things with the things that just have to get done.

The three general themes are: emergency preparedness, holiday celebrations and entertaining.  So, by the end of 2010, I aim to help you prepare at a basic level for the most common emergency situations while enjoying your holiday celebrations with less stress and more joy.

To kick off the month, I want to talk for a moment about holiday stress.  I can hardly believe that on October 4 this topic is even necessary but if laid-back me is already feeling some of the stress, I assume other people must be as well.  It’s the subtle cues that are throwing me off….the radio announcements about Christmas events, the displays in stores, the people who already have their Halloween costumes and are visiting the pumpkin patch.

Did you know, for instance that the folks at Organized Christmas already started their Christmas preparations August 29?  You can attempt their Holiday Grand Plan calendar now but you are already a month behind!  You have even missed their sister site, 101 Days to Christmas which started September 15.  Does reading this get your blood pressure rising?  Do you worry that everyone else must know something you don’t?

While being prepared is a good thing, there is such a thing as being too prepared.  Too much preparation breeds perfectionism, ridigity and oddly enough, stress!  Yes, the stress you are trying to avoid by planning ahead can sometimes increase with too much planning.  How?  Perhaps you are becoming frustrated that other people are not also planning ahead like you are.  Last-minute changes/emergencies?  What a disappointment!  You’ve been planning this for months! Perhaps you are making things excessively complicated because you tell yourself that you need to spend three months on something instead of one week, a day or a few hours.  Perhaps once the big day finally arrives you are so tired of celebrating that particular holiday that you just want it over with (or you are preoccupied with whatever is the next holiday/to-do item) rather than just savoring the moment.

What is overplanned to one person is last-minute to another.  Your priority is to do what makes YOU happy taking into account the needs of the people closest to you.  If everyone else around you plans 8 months in advance, you might have no choice but to begin at least some of your holiday decision-making in April.  If they all wait until the last-minute, your best course might be to simply announce what your plans are as soon as you know them.  If you can be flexible, you might invite people to join you and have one plan for last-minute arrivals and another for last-minute cancellations.

It might help you to look at the holiday worksheet I posted last year to plan out how much time/money you will likely need to get through the holidays.  Thinking about your higher level life goals a la Stever Robbins may also be appropriate here.  Focus in on what is most important and put all the other activities in the “optional” column.

Once you have in your head the plan that makes YOU happy, then step back, relax and let everyone else do what makes them happy.  Perhaps the person Christmas shopping in July really enjoys starting that early.  If so, let them have it!  I won’t start until after Thanksgiving.  And both of us can have a wonderful holiday!

I thought a few personal anecdotes would bring home the diversity of holiday preparation strategies out there:

“Rule #1 of being a crafty chick: NEVER volunteer your services for the holidays.

My room has turned into freaking Jo-Ann Fabrics after offering up knitted accessories for Christmas gifts.”

–Brittney in Chicago, “Never Again: The Christmas Saga (To Be Continued),“ Standards Are For People Who Have Options blog, October 4, 2010

“I have officially declared that THIS year is the year of “handmade Christmas” and got all excited and started making IMMENSE plans. I mean, we are talking EPIC.

And thus I have begun.

Please spare me the discussions of,  “But it is October!” and the infamous, “You’ll have a two-week-old at Christmas!”

I KNOW! That is why it is vital that I have already begun my preparations. DUH!”

–The Ing Family blog, “Christmas Part II,” October 4, 2010

“About a decade ago, I was the perfectionist Christmas fairy. I started mailing out cards before Thanksgiving. I made dozens of batches of rolled-out sugar cookies, so that I could choose the most symmetrically shaped ones, scraping off the excess frosting with the back of a spoon to keep it all smooth. And I spent so much money on gifts for everyone I had ever met —just to make sure I didn’t miss one — that I mostly ate rice and beans all of January. . .

The thing is — I didn’t really enjoy those Christmases past, when I gave my spirit to the season so entirely that I nearly passed out. It all felt so obligatory. . . .”

— Shauna James Ahern a.k.a. The Gluten-Free Girl, “Quiet on Christmas Eve,” December 24, 2007.

So, whatever you decide to do (or not do) about your holiday preparations this year, I hope that Ruly can be a place of refuge for you where you can get some fun ideas, some organizing help and useful advice, and some motivation and share your own projects, to-do lists and stories.  If I start stressing you out, please let me know and if you have any suggestions or specific questions you would like to see addressed, please let me know in the comments or drop me a line at info@beruly.com.

Breathe. Relax.  Enjoy October!

Aug 022010

"Safe clothes for women workers. Illustrating what the well-dressed women in search of a war job should NOT wear, pretty Eunice Kimball, Bendix Aviation worker, pauses at the entrance to the plant employment office where potential workers are interviewed. Though clothes may not make the woman, they ARE an indication of qualifications for a job, and Eunice's sweater, high-heeled and open-toed slippers, jewelry and loose hair-do are not improving her chances of employment. To contrast the inappropriateness of her costume, note trimly-dressed Alice Tripp, Bendix guard. Bendix Aviation Plant, Brooklyn, New York." Photo by Ann Rosener for the Office of War Information (1943).

It’s the start of another month at Ruly and this month we are continuing our organizational progress by focusing on clothing and closets. The closet is an organizing challenge for many people. The simple act of getting dressed is a challenge for many people!

Clothing is an expression of who we are and whether we like it or not, our clothes tell people volumes about us before we utter a single word. Fashion is both a celebration of individual style and a sad commentary on how superficial and judgmental society can be. This month at Ruly, we are not just going to focus on the simple aspects of tossing old clothes and sorting sweaters into piles but also the reasoning behind the organization. What clothes are in your closet now? What clothes should be in your closet? What do you need to know to scrutinize your own closet and use your clothing as a tool to influence your own success?

We will start off the month looking at one of the critical clothing situations–how your clothes can make you money! Your closet as a money maker? You bet! We are talking about the all-critical job interview clothing situation. In the job interview, your clothing matters immensely. The right outfit can land you the job and the wrong outfit takes you out of the running.

How much time is a hiring manager really going to spend looking at your appearance over your credentials and experience? Sadly, a lot! In a Newsweek survey of 202 corporate hiring managers, 57% of hiring managers expressed doubt as to whether an unattractive but qualified candidate would be hired for a position. Looks were the third most important attribute to the hiring managers, just behind experience and confidence.

What is considered unattractive to an employer? Unfortunately, two of the biggest negatives are things that are hard to change. Looking much older than your potential co-workers was a negative factor for 84% of the hiring managers. Being overweight was a negative for two-thirds of the hiring managers. Is this discriminatory? Yes! Is this reality? Unfortunately, yes.

The “beauty premium” as it has been named by economists indicates that attractive people have advantages throughout their lives. They get more attention as children and young adults and earn more money throughout their lives.

The New York Times reported on a study that showed that beautiful people are more self-confident and that their confidence seems to show up both in person and over the telephone. The study suggests that confidence is what is most attractive to employers.

So, when you are going in for a job interview, your primary goals (after showing your experience and qualifications of course) are to look attractive and be confident. What does it mean to look attractive for a job interview? There is obviously going to be a lot of variation from one person to the next but there are a surprising number of fashion don’ts out there.

The following list of fashion items (compiled from numerous job interviewing sites and my own experience) are offensive to at least some hiring managers. I don’t necessarily agree with every item on this list but if I was going into a job interview situation in today’s competitive market, I would avoid as many of these items as I could. And yes, ladies, our list is naturally twice as long as the mens!

Clothing items that offend some hiring managers:

pink, lavender or any feminine colors
bow ties
ties with identifiable prints or logos
black suits
light colored suits
leather jackets
tight pants
white socks
scuffed briefcases
scuffed shoes
slip-on shoes (especially those with tassels)
face jewelry (nose ring, lip ring, eyebrow ring, etc.)
any jewelry other than a watch or class ring
long hair
facial hair of any kind
ignoring instructions to dress in business casual clothes
too much black worn near the face

short skirts
shorts (including shorts suits)
dresses that are clingy or have plunging necklines
pants of any description, including jeans, leggings and capri pants
black suits
light colored suits
cleavage revealing tops
strapless tops
tops with spaghetti straps
leather jackets
jewelry that makes noise
oversized jewelry
ankle bracelets
face jewelry (nose ring, lip ring, eyebrow ring, etc.)
more than one earring in each ear
hair longer than shoulder length worn down
“No one wants to see your feet.” (sandals, open-toed shoes, backless shoes, flip flops)
heels higher than 2 1/2 inches
wild nail polish (i.e. any color other than “nude” or beige”)
wild lipstick (i.e. any color other than a natural pink)
brightly colored or printed purses
oversized handbags
ignoring instructions to dress in business casual clothes
too much black worn near the face


So what is left to wear? Men have two standard “uniforms”:

Suggested male interview attire

Formal dress: dark navy or dark gray suit with a white collared shirt and a tie with an understated pattern; black leather lace-up shoes and black leather belt

Casual dress: khaki dress pants, white or blue collared shirt with a white undershirt, leather belt and leather lace-up shoes in dark brown or black

As one Wall Street Journal reader put it:

“The best way to dress for the office is to dress like you’re going to a funeral, but then put on a more conservative tie.”

–Commenter Brian McNeill on “The New Power Suit for Summer” by Christina Binkley, The Wall Street Journal, June 30, 2010

Women, how about us? As in all women’s fashion, this is a little tricky. While there are some female equivalent “uniforms,” described below, you have to be careful that you pick something that is also attractive on you. If you look terrible in gray or navy, it might be just as risky to wear an unattractive color as to wear the slightly more controversial black suit. Women also have to strike a very delicate balance to look powerful but not masculine and attractive but not sexy in order not to offend most hiring managers.

Suggested female interview attire

Formal attire: Dark navy or dark gray, knee-length skirted suit. The tough part: a fashion-appropriate shirt underneath in a neutral color. Some say a collared shirt but this can be hard for many women to pull off. Some women I have seen wear more of a shell blouse. Choose something that frames your face well. Nude colored pantyhose and black leather shoes that don’t show your feet and make your legs look their best. For most women a heeled shoe is the most attractive. Some interview sites caution that you should be careful wearing heels if you are tall. If you look terrible in flats, though, I would risk a small heel. Subtle jewelry like a simple necklace or pair of earrings (in gold, silver or pearl) can give polish.

Casual attire: If casual, it gets even more challenging for women! You could try for a feminine version of the male look: a khaki knee-length skirt with collared white or blue shirt, white tank, hose and heels. A sweater set with a skirt or dress and sweater would also work. You might also be able to get away with khaki dress slacks depending on your figure and how conservative your potential employer is. Subtle jewelry like a simple necklace or pair of earrings (in gold, silver or pearl) can give polish.

May 6, 2009: UNDP Administrator Helen Clark mets Jeffrey Sachs, Special Advisor to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon," Photo by United Nations Development Programme. From the Flickr Creative Commons.

"Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, co-chair of the Congressional Military Family Caucus greets Deborah Mullen at the caucus kickoff." Photo by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. From the Flickr Creative Commons.

"EPA Administrator and incoming Chesapeake Executive Council Chair Lisa Jackson," Photo by chesbayprogram. From the Flickr Creative Commons.

So, now that you know what a hiring manager wants you to wear to a job interview, it is time for a Ruly Challenge:

The Challenge: Review your closet and determine whether you have at least one outfit appropriate for a job interview, in both a formal and casual dress style. If not, make a list of what you need to purchase and make plans to acquire the items in the near future. You might go shopping, add them to your wishlist, etc.

Even if you think you will never need to interview in your life (lucky you!) these dressing guidelines apply to any situation where you are aiming to impress a wide variety of people. You are not dressing for fashion here but to please the median taste.

Fortunately, once you get the job, you can add a little more personality into your clothing choices. I think we would all go crazy dressing “interview appropriate” every single day.

Please share in the comments your favorite interview attire as well as any mistakes we should all avoid. Is your closet interview ready?

Jul 022010

It’s the start of a new month and a new theme! In July we are going to be discussing how to organize your driving and car.

According to a recent study by the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration, 76% of the U.S. population age 16 and older drives a car every single day. Only 12% are “nondrivers.”

The University of California Berkeley found that Americans spend approximately 101 minutes of every day in their cars. The only thing we spend more time doing is watching TV (170 minutes).

So, with all this time spent in the car, this month at Ruly we are going to look at ways to make driving fun, safe, and perhaps even share a few tips to minimize the time spent in traffic.

We will start the month with a bit of a sobering post. We are about to head into one of the busiest driving weekends in the United States for the Fourth of July holiday and unfortunately one of the more dangerous times to be on the road as well.

There were 34, 017 fatal crashes in the United States in 2008 killing 37,261 people.  Holiday weekends are when a large number of fatal crashes occur with the Fourth of July weekend frequently showing the highest number of fatalities. In 2008, 491 people died in fatal vehicle crashes over the 4th of July weekend.

Driving is probably one of the most dangerous activities we undertake on a daily basis. If you are concerned about traffic safety and want to know how you can best avoid accidents, you may be interested to know that the number one cause of driving fatalities is entirely preventable!

Alcohol-related traffic fatalities accounted for almost 40% of all fatalities in 2004 and drivers taking to the roads while intoxicated is the biggest risk factor to all drivers. Most alcohol-related crashes occur between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. Drivers age 34 and younger are the most frequent drunk driving offenders.

The law in all 50 U.S. states is that it is illegal to drive with a blood alcohol concentration of .08% or higher. How much alcohol does it take to reach that level? According to MADD, it is roughly 4 drinks in one hour on an empty stomach for a 170 pound man and 3 drinks in one hour on an empty stomach for a 137 pound woman. How much would that mean for you? The University of Oklahoma police department has a calculator here where you can plug in your weight and the type of alcohol you consume to get an estimate of how quickly you could reach the .08 limit. I hope that you take a moment to check this calculator and find your own limit. Note that even before you hit the .08 limit, your judgment can be severely impaired.

As you head out to celebrate this weekend, please use a designated driver, know your own limits and please do not drive if there is any question about your sobriety. Many states offer free “Sober Ride” programs. You can Google “sober ride [your state]” to find a program near you. In the Washington, D.C. area, the Washington Regional Alcohol Program offers a free taxi ride home (up to $50) on July 4th from 10:00 p.m. on July 4th to 6:00 a.m. on July 5th. All you have to do is call 1-800-200-TAXI during those hours.

“A first time drunk driving offender on average has driven drunk 87 times prior to being arrested.”

Statistics from Mothers Against Drunk Driving

I also encourage you to take 5 minutes to support an initiative sponsored by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) to improve road safety. MADD supports the use of ignition interlocks for any convicted drunk drivers. The devices connect with a car’s ignition and require the driver to blow into a device to measure their blood alcohol content. (BAC) If the BAC is too high, the car won’t start. MADD has a video showing the device here:

MADD is pressing for a federal law requiring any convicted drunk driver to use an ignition interlock device. You can send a note to your Congressional representatives requesting they support this legislation through MADD’s website here.

Wishing all my readers a wonderful weekend and my U.S. readers a very safe and happy Fourth of July!