New Input is the Key to Creativity and Joy

New Input is the Key to Creativity and Joy

Antsy. Down. Stuck in a rut. Whenever I find myself in these places I seem to also lose the knowledge of how to get myself out of them, a sort of blindness to the tools available all around me.  In this state, new input can’t make its way in. Eventually, something snaps me out of it and through the crack in the barrier between me and joy I remember that doing, seeing, and learning new things will bring me to a better state of being.

As I’ve moved through life and gone through this cycle a few times I’ve attempted to leave prompts for myself to find when I end up back in these down cycles again.  Like a squirrel hiding nuts, I put these prompts all over the place, knowing some will go uncovered but hoping others will be stumbled upon when needed.  Post-it notes on the fridge. Scribblings in my calendar. Notes on my phone, a folder of bookmarks to inspirational videos, essays, classes I want to take, and books I want to read.

There are loads of great TED Talks to inspire but my favorite for being reminded of the need to go out and absorb new experiences is probably Stefan Sagmeister’s talk about the 1-year sabbatical he takes every seven years.

Likely, you’re not in a position to take off for a year right now. But here are things they can do, and they work:

  • Take morning walks along a new route.
  • Spend one day on your weekend flipping through new books and magazines at a library.
  • Go to a local film festival and watch films other people recommend that you wouldn’t normally choose yourself.
  • Watch youtube tutorials on how to do something new with tools/equipment/software you already have.
  • Go to a place where people are doing things you wish you could do and talk to them.

If you can go bigger:

  • Plan a weekend excursion, solo or otherwise. If you’re solo and that’s an experience you’re getting used to, just bring books or a notebook to write in. When feeling awkward eating alone at a restaurant or sitting at a park this is a good retreat until you get more comfortable.
  • Use your vacation time.
  • Take a class.
  • Take a tour, even if it’s in your own city or a museum you’ve been to before. You will likely be surprised with new information.

Plan a real sabbatical:

  • If you’ve worked someplace a long time, talk to them about taking extended time off, a leave of absence, or something similar. Offer a creative solution for how you can work remotely or train your sub. I have worked at many places where I was told that an extended vacation wasn’t possible and then successfully negotiated the time off.
  • Give yourself time between jobs. Save some cash, create a plan. When teaching English I was able to give myself 1-3 months off between jobs, applying for the next gig from the road.

I find my hidden prompts around my house and in my devices and they set me on the path to the activities above. It doesn’t take me long to find my footing once I’m on track and the new input enriches and informs me as I go.

I hope one of these ideas sets you on the right track as well if you’ve been in one of those low places lately.

Photo by Chetan Menaria on Unsplash

It’s OK to Take a Trip Without Your Significant Other

So, you’re taking a trip without your significant other.

People will say things.

“What does your husband think about you going there all by yourself?”

“Isn’t your boyfriend worried about you?”

“Isn’t it a little weird that you aren’t taking this trip together?”

A few months after my husband and I were married we took separate vacations on our week-long holiday from work. It wasn’t really planned that way, I had a free trip through my company that we could pay for him to join, but he also had a chance to catch up with old friends back in Korea, where we used to live. I was all about a free trip to Malaysia with some of my favorite coworkers and I certainly didn’t begrudge his desire to spend his extra cash on time with friends instead.

There were comments. Suspicious looks. Maybe our new marriage was showing its first signs of impending doom!

But really it was no biggie. We both had a great time and it set a precedence for us; we are independent people and we don’t have to do everything together to have a happy relationship.

Since then (we just celebrated our seventh wedding anniversary) there have been plenty of adventures together but neither of us is afraid to plan a trip that meets our particular interests and goals and invite the other along for the ride, with the option for them to choose to save their vacation days and cash for the next adventure.

When I take the occasional archaeology voluntourism trip, he always opts out, having little desire for staying planted in one place for a week, roughing it, and getting deeply nerdy about the history of an area. On those trips, I am free to connect with others who share my interest and don’t have to spend any time trying to entertain someone who’s not into the theme of the trip, or even worse, missing out on any part of what brought me there in the first place.

It’s ok to plan travel that feeds your soul and then invite the other in- or not. And if they don’t want to go?  Then you are free to connect to the place without filtering it through another through constant attention to how they are feeling and what they are experiencing. You will meet more people and observe more. And, if you spend the whole trip thinking that your significant other would love it and wishing they were there? There’s always the next adventure to plan together.

Photo by Vinh Pham


Habits worth cultivating.

What are your healthy habits? Are there any you’re trying to build in your life?

Of course, in my never ending mission of self improvement, I’m often analyzing my habits and trying to identify what’s working, what isn’t, and what needs a little tweak.

I wanted to share a few habits I’ve developed that have helped me over the years.

Taking a walk.

It gets my legs moving after sitting at a desk for too long and relaxes my eyes after staring at a screen. It lets my brain pay attention to what’s around me rather than just text and focused (or, trying to be focused) work. When I’m upset, bored, or restless this is the best next step to take. I always return with my head and body in a better place to make a decision and get back to work.

Monthly money roundup.

I have not been successful in developing a daily, or even weekly, habit with tracking money. I’ve managed a monthly check-in though that has become a rewarding part of my routine. It’s spaced far enough apart to not feel like a chore but is frequent enough to give me that relaxed feeling that all my financial stuff is in order and all my systems are purring along in the background. I use Google Docs spreadsheets to note any changes, issues, service phone calls and whatnot which leaves a nice little tracking record always at hand.

Quarterly Review and Goal Setting.

This habit has been a mainstay for me. Even if everything else falls out of whack, my quarterly check-ins help bring everything back into alignment.  I keep these pretty loose, just me, a notebook and some tea. First I consider whether or not I feel like things are going well in a general sense and then map out what I want to accomplish in the next few months regarding both short-term and long-term goals. I update calendars, make to-do lists and declutter a bit.

Self-prescribed Quiet Time.

I tend towards anxiety and have a really hard time relaxing, always wanting to be productive. Of course, this is not really sustainable so when I catch myself being particularly strung-out I give myself a time out. This is something that goes beyond the walk-around-the-block and usually has to be a whole afternoon or evening.  I find movies, extended time reading in bed, and listening to favorite albums work best. Sometimes I’m tempted to write but that can too easily bring me back into working mode. I don’t find socializing has the same effect, although it can be a great stress reliever it doesn’t refill the well in the same way some quiet time does for me.

Those are a few of the things that work for me. Please do share yours as well, I’m on the lookout for good ideas!

Photo by Abigail Keenen on Unsplash.

Practical Tips: Renting a Car

If you are new to renting a car or just haven’t done so in a while, here are a few tips and questions for you to consider before the next trip.

1. Do you really need it?

We’re so used to driving all the time at home so it can seem automatic but if you just use your rental car to get to and from the airport, and then spend a load of money to have it parked most of the rest of the time there might be a better way. Consider the alternate transport options from the airport and the walkability of the town as well as bus and taxi options.

  • The airport website will list all possible transport options into town. Airport shuttles are usually a good bet– shared shuttle, leaves regularly, takes you straight to your hotel for under 20 dollars.
  • You can check out public transportation routes on Google Maps now, just put in your start and end point like usual but toggle from  the car icon to the bus icon at the top left of the screen.
  • Call taxi companies ahead of time to get price quotes or call the front desk or concierge of your hotel.

Since parking at major cities can range from 25 dollars a day to much, much higher, even at your hotel, you’ll save tons of money by skipping the car entirely plus you won’t have to deal with finding parking.

2. Are you aware of all the charges?

The price quote you get when you search online to make a reservation is not inclusive.

  • It doesn’t include insurance which can double what you pay per day and doesn’t include any extras like GPS or kids’ car seats.
  • Also, be aware that when you pay the car company will put an additional hold of around $250 for incidentals. If you’re using your credit card a lot on that trip, or are near the balance limit this can mess you up!
  • If you’re not using your credit card you will have an even harder time as you must present a lot of paperwork (call and ask, I’ve seen people not get a car because they couldn’t pay with credit card.)

3. You can say no to some of these charges.

  • Do you have your own car insurance? Health insurance? Are you a AAA motor club member? Are you using a major credit card to pay for your rental?
  • You have automatic protections from many of these sources that will allow you to decline some or all of the insurance options.
  • If you’re considering renting a GPS for a week or more, I’m not kidding you, it’s cheaper to buy one.
Caroline Gutman,
Caroline Gutman,

4. A few more things for you to know.

  • Renting from one city and dropping it off in another city is often not allowed or is prohibitively expensive.
  • Save a little extra money if you’re staying at an airport hotel (with a free shuttle) during any part of your stay by dropping off or picking up your car a day or two later/earlier. I’ve saved money when flying out on an early flight by dropping off my car the night before and taking the shuttle in in the morning. However, check what hours the airport shuttle runs.
  • If you are only reserving for a few days and are having trouble finding cars online, expand your reservation to a week; suddenly more options will appear in your search (just make sure there’s no penalty for returning the car early).
  • Airport rentals are always more expensive due to taxes and fees. If you can get into town another way and rent from another location you’ll save.
  • If there’s an option to rent a toll pass and you’re in a major city and/or will be doing a lot of local highway driving it will make your life a little easier.
  • Most car rental rewards clubs are not worth it when you don’t rent frequently. However, major chains are partnered with airlines so you can accrue frequent flier miles instead. Go to the website of wherever you are trying to earn the most miles from and see their partner deals which might also include discounts and upgrades. If you’re into travel hacking, which you can read a bit about here and here, this is the route you should be going from the start.

This is based on rental cars for business on a weekly basis for several years. I have not yet had the pleasure of renting internationally (on my own anyway). Have you?  If you have more tips, please share.

How to ask better questions.

I like to hop onto Quora every now and again and answer people’s questions about moving and living in new cities and countries. It helps me better articulate my thoughts on these subjects and generates ideas for my blog and future courses or books I might offer.  I’m selective about which questions I actually answer, only chiming in when I think I might really be able to connect and help.  If you haven’t been on the site before, check it out: anyone can ask and answer questions and topics range from practical advice to getting really into the weeds with philosophical questions. It’s easy to go off onto a tangent clicking interesting questions and reading the long threads of answers. After you spend some time on there, you’ll see that when people ask better questions, they get better answers.

Maybe there are no dumb questions, but there are poor questions.

There are a lot of questions that are asked poorly and you’ll see that they don’t get many answers, or worse they are attacked or mocked. I’m not talking about grammar or spelling, but when the question has no context that allows someone to reach out and give you what you really need. When asking questions, think about what kind of feedback you are really looking for. Consider the other person and meet them half way. Make it easy for them to give you what you want.

Example: Should I move to New York?

Ummm, the city? Somewhere else in the state? Are you going for a job, or following a loved one, or just looking for a change? Why? What’s your goal? What’s your budget?

How can anyone even start to answer this question in a way that truly will help the asker?  Even if their question is sincere the barrage of follow-up questions and irritation from the answerers might make the asker feel rather under attack.

Ask a better question.

People are more willing and more able to help if you take them right to the problem spot.

A better version of that first question, as an example: I have a good job and friends in my hometown in the midwest but always dreamed of living in New York City someday. I have some savings and am confident I can get a similar job there but I’m worried because I won’t know anyone. Should I go for it? If you went through a similar situation I’d love to hear your advice.

Sometimes, through working out a better version of your question you actually organize your thoughts. This hypothetical person may not have realized that their anxiety really stems from fear of being lonely in her new city. Just in creating a better question she’ll uncover some answers.

Plus, in asking a better question you are targeting your answerers, the people who can talk to you about your specific problem.

Of course, this isn’t really about Quora, or any other online platform. In life, when we ask better questions, we get better answers, even when we are just asking ourselves the question.

Feeling Ready to Change Your Life

Feeling Ready to Change Your Life

How do you feel ready to change your life, whether a big change or small? How do we stop pushing that point further and further along, keeping it in the vague future?


There are some practical things you can do. For instance, if you want to move to another country you would of course have to do some research and make a few plans and probably save some money.  But, there’s a point where research becomes a trap, a way to procrastinate and avoid the scary part, which is actually making the leap.

This is where so many get stuck, and it’s not for lack of desire or even commitment. Can you think of a dream you’ve been thinking about and reading about and planning for years on end?   Where is the point that it stalls? Fear.

Our fearful, critical inner minds start throwing every worst case scenario at us at such a rate and with such force that of course we feel overwhelmed.  It doesn’t help that no matter how well we plan we know we can’t predict the future.

From my experience erasing this fear is not a real option. You have to be brave. You have to walk right through and get to the other side of fear.

I tell myself I only have to be brave for long enough to do that one pivotal thing and after that I’m just following along on the new path. Maybe it’s buying that one way ticket, or giving notice at work. After that one thing, your fear will morph into a weird fear/exhilaration as every other decision will just be following along from that first big one, smoothing out the edges and preparing your landing on the other side of that big fear.

I can tell you from my own experiences of moving across the country and across the world several times, as well as changing jobs and careers, that I never approach these changes without fear. I rarely really feel ready. But every time I have managed to be brave long enough to make the pivotal decision.

After making the pivotal decision (or rather action) there is a weird in-between period you have to navigate where you’ll wonder if you’ve just made a terrible decision.  Just focus on the fact that you’re doing this, this is for real, and you’re not taking it back. This is your new life, and you’re living it even when it’s scary.

In no time you will begin to disassociate with your life before the decision. Really, it’s kind of freaky how quickly this will happen.  Every time I’ve quit a job I’ve agonized for weeks over giving notice, even when I was in really terrible work situations. Yet, after making it official I almost instantly begin to disassociate in my mind. The job begins to become a part of my past, even if I’m still working that last week. We’ve all experienced this before, as school ended.  So, if you’re still having trouble making that pivotal action, meditate on that after-feeling, how you will feel when on you’re on your way. Show your subconscious that it’s not all krakens and seas serpents in those uncharted waters.

If you’ve gone through this or have something to add, please share?

How travel increases your social skills.

How travel increases your social skills.

Picture the stereotype of a bad tourist; loud, obnoxious, asking questions about things that seem obvious to everybody else, and probably dressed a little funny for the setting as well. They are not displaying the best social skills, the ability to pick up on what’s appropriate to their setting and situation and act accordingly.  Take it down to another scale, have you ever gone to a restaurant or bar that catered to a group you didn’t feel you fit in to (think a punk club or a super-ritzy place)? That discomfort comes from not being sure exactly what to say and how to behave.

Navigating a cafe interaction.
Navigating a cafe interaction.


Learning how to navigate these fish out of water situations is a learned skill that gets better with experience.  For some of us these experiences can trigger some anxieties and fears, so you may have to go a step to further to dig in to those issues.

So, how can you do this, now, before you even embark on your next out of town adventure?

Observation exercises:

  • The next time you’re eating a meal out spend some time observing how people interact; eye contact, body language. Mentally note what patterns you see and how people react when patterns are deviated (as described in Vemkat’s article).
  • Look at different groups of people where you work and consider the codes in dress and speech that differentiate them (men, women, executives, service staff…)

It’s these exact observation tools that help you adapt to a new culture or setting. When traveling abroad, if I ever begin to feel a bit overwhelmed or like I’m being very conspicuous my best bet is to stop for a minute and just watch everyone. Taking a moment to assess the situation always reveals a good next step to take.

Read this great article on Fluent in Three months for more perspective.

If you’re already living or traveling abroad can you identify an experience you had that should have been simple, but you seemed to have done everything wrong?  Mine would be the time I tried to hug someone goodbye in Thailand (our lovely host on a village stay). Don’t do that. If I had just paid attention to the action of those around me I could have easily avoided that embarrassing situation. I wonder if that guy still looks back on that moment with horror!  Haha.

This article was prompted by an excellent, in depth article on Vemkat’s Ribbonfarm blog that you should read here.

These three easy ‘rules’ will increase your daily productivity.

These three easy ‘rules’ will increase your daily productivity.

credit: The ReflexMan
credit: The ReflexMan

Three things. Two minutes. 30 seconds.

Yes, I like easy-to-memorize rules. I’m definitely one of those people who tries to do far too much in a day and can often feel anxious, stressed, and not just a little disorganized. However, productivity does not have to mean running around like a crazy person. These three little rules ring in my head when I need them throughout the day and have gone a long way in helping me prioritize and even relax a little, while still being satisfyingly productive. I hope they help you too.

Three things. Write down a three item to-do list. No more. Sometimes I do this the evening before, if not then in the morning when I’m planning the day. Three things is manageable and helps you focus your energy throughout the day. This is really great for handling big goals-just write one small step on your three things to-do list. If I’m having trouble narrowing my mental list of a million things down to three for the day I consider 1) big wins, would one action have a big meaningful result or move something significantly forward? 2)time sensitivity paired with priority. I stress the priority here as we can be tricked sometimes into thinking something is important when it is merely urgent (like, hitting up a sale that’s about to end. It ends today but would buying some on sale clothes further your goals? maybe yes, but if not, you might consciously choose a more important task).

Side note. I got the idea of big wins from articles on Ramit Sethi’s blog and have found the concept to be extremely helpful in prioritizing tasks.

Two minutes. Can this be completed in two minutes or less? Do it now. This little exercise does a couple of things for me. For one, it clears my head of a bunch of little piddling to-dos that I will inevitably forget because they’re small tasks to begin with. Two, they give me a little feeling of rewards because, hey, at least that’s done. Also, they bring a little consciousness to how I’m spending my time.  For instance, if I’m a checking an e-mail and I know it’ll only take a minute to respond but I think to myself, “I’m too busy. I don’t have time to send even a short response to this e-mail,” then that is a little consciousness spark. “Hey, why am I checking e-mail if think I’m too busy to actually respond? Better get back to that report that I was mindlessly drifting away from…”  I also use a variation of this to tackle tasks that feel overwhelming, like organizing my clothes.  “I will spend exactly two minutes putting items from that wadded up pile on hangers”.  Voila, progress.

30 seconds. I got this idea ingrained in me when I did some construction monitoring and we had to do daily safety meetings.  The idea was, before you start any task, take 30 seconds to think about what you are about to do.  When me mindlessly go into what is a typically routine task we risk injury. (Ugh, just this week I zoned out while digging and fell. On the ground. I fell.) Over the years I’ve started applying this to my life in general with great results. Stopping at your door before heading out and thinking “OK, I’m going to work and I’m not coming home until— oh yeah, I’m going to the bank after work….” That 30 second pause is usually just long enough for my brain to say ‘hey you forgot something’ or to snap me out of some far away thoughts and bring me back to the here and now, “Oh yeah, I should be looking around while backing up and not thinking about how annoying my coworker is right now.”

These three ‘rules’, if you will, have helped me a lot in having productive, yet not too-anxious and hectic days.  If you try any of them I’d love to hear about it and if you have your own to share, please do!

What’s your hard choice?

Don’t you love TED Talks?  I just watched Ruth Chang’s TED Talk on making difficult decisions.  She really struck a nerve with me when she started to talk about the difference between floating through life, waiting to see what happens or taking the easiest route, rather than taking agency in your life.  When we make a choice, we also choose reasons to go forward with that choice, and maybe find or create more reasons.

I can certainly identify times in the past where I was afraid to choose and merely went with the flow (I think there’s a difference between choosing to go with the flow, because that’s the best next step for you and doing so out of fear). When I compare these times with other instances where I made a choice and then acted on it, driving myself down that new path, I can see the value of taking agency in my life and in my own choices.

This was a timely reminder for me, as i have been agonizing over some hard choices lately, worried about doing the wrong thing.  The points in her talk gave me some perspective and loosened the knot in my stomach.  I can see now that neither choice is inherently better, but one is better for me and I’ve been waiting around (going with the flow) hoping it would just take care of itself.  Time to get in the driver seat!

Even if things didn’t always go smoothly, it doesn’t necessarily reflect that you have made a bad choice, as there is no such thing as a guaranteed-success life path.

Have you floated along, waiting for the choice to be made for you? Can you compare that feeling with a time you made a more conscious, difficult choice? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Make new friends now who support your goals.

Make new friends now who support your goals.

One frustration you will discover as you make changes in your life and get excited about goals you are setting is that many of your loved ones will not respond exactly as you would hope.

You can waste a lot of time and energy trying to win people over to your ideas and turn them into the cheerleaders you wish they would be, but that energy is better served cultivating a few new relationships with people who are swimming in the same stream.

I’m certainly not suggesting you ditch your old friends or shut out family members, just manage the relationship as it is, not as you wish it were. This is a big realization when you see it for the first time and you might be amazed by how much those knots in your shoulder loosen when you stop trying to force things and stop seeking validation from people who simply cannot provide it to you at this time.

Use or peruse Craigslist for groups meeting locally that share your new interest. Don’t worry about being a newbie, you might run into a condescending jerk from time to time but most people will be excited to talk to someone who’s interested in the same thing as they are. Join online forums about your topic of interest and start asking questions. Look for ways to share what you’ve learned with people who are even newer than you.

Sometimes, it’s not so much that you need to find someone doing what you’re doing, but rather that you just need some exposure to fresh perspectives. If you are part of a rather insular group of friends and family, all echoing the same ideas and beliefs, you can begin to feel that they represent ‘everyone’. I recommend setting up an account on You do not have to let people stay at your home, you can just offer to meet people for coffee when they are passing through town. There will also often be potlucks and other get-togethers. You will meet people doing things with their lives you never even thought of and that can have a really energizing effect when you are exploring your own possibilities.

Couchsurfing pillow fight! This can be you; making new friends and...pummeling them! Credit: Beatrice Murch
Couchsurfing pillow fight! This can be you!
Credit: Beatrice Murch

Let your circle expand outward and get energized by the new, friendly vibes you get back.