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14 Better Ways to Express Yourself on Valentine’s Day

Photo courtesy of Kell

Valentine’s Day is one of those holidays that has mutated into a commercialized abyss into which many of us repeatedly toss scads of our hard-earned money. Besides the fact that we’re already a nation overwhelmed with material possessions (most of which we don’t really need), how about thinking outside the proverbial gift box this year?

Believe it or not, there actually are much better ways to demonstrate your appreciation and love than slapping a heart shaped box of calories onto the kitchen counter as you mutter, ”Happy Valentine’s Day, Babe,” before you scoot off to work for the day. Think you’ve done your job as one half of a relationship?  Think again.

Let’s take a look at some of the more creative ways to express how much you love someone. Although Valentine’s Day is typically for lovers, it’s also appropriate to celebrate your love for your children or other friends and family members who hold a special place in your heart.

For your significant other:

  • The snail mail - This idea is going to require a little bit of forethought, but you may be able to to accomplish it quite easily with the convenience of the Internet. Research a way to to get your hands on a postcard from the town, restaurant, or wherever the two of you happened to meet. You could try mailing it from the local post office, but you’d risk the postcard arriving on the wrong day. A better plan is to strategically place the postcard in with the rest of his or her mail on February 14th.
  • The Shades of Grey gift basket -  If you need ( or simply want ) to spice things up in the bedroom, create a gift basket filled with things meant only for your lover’s eyes. Some ideas include: a blindfold, handcuffs, massage oil, candles, a CD of romantic music, bubble bath, a sexy board game, and anything else that might turn your lover on!
  • The notebook -  In a luxurious notebook, write down one thing you love about your significant other every single day for one year. Present it to your partner wrapped in a bow on Valentine’s Day. If you like the sound of this idea, but haven’t had the necessary prep time, dedicate some time each day to create a similar list in the days leading up to the 14th.
  • The big favor -  Take over doing your partner’s most hated chore for a time period of your choice.
  • The scavenger hunt – Send your partner on a fun and exciting set of clues that ends with you waiting at your love’s favorite restaurant or store.
  • The recipePick a recipe that you can both cook and enjoy together. The time you spend together preparing the meal will be the real gift.
  • The adventure – Discover an unusual part of your city or town that you’ve never experienced before.  Take the day off work and explore it together.
  • The money saver- Create a fun basket filled with everything you’ll need for a fun and affordable date night in: popcorn, a movie rented from Redbox or your local library (look for free movie codes), a small bottle of champagne (optional), a deck of cards, a few chocolate-dipped strawberries. If you have kids, see if Grandma and Grandpa want to have a sleepover that night!

For your children:

  • The treasure hunt – Send them all around the house searching for new clues leading them to a fun, colorful box full of their favorite goodies.
  • The list – Make a fancy list of 14 things you love about your child and frame it. You could also include it in the treasure box above.

As a family:

  • The new tradition – Together, decide on a new family tradition that you would like to start. My husband, sons and I have a ‘Foovie (Family+Food+Movie) Night’ every other Saturday. We snuggle up as a family, enjoying delicious bowls of buttered popcorn and chocolates. No cell phones or other distractions are permitted, allowing us to focus on our time together. Perhaps you could start your first tradition on Valentine’s Day this year, or even the day after Valentine’s Day (since it will be the start of a weekend).
  • The walk - Set a family date to take a walk together on February 14 this year, if the weather permits. Walking together is a great way to spend family time because you can mindfully enjoy the outdoors and your loved ones simultaneously.
  • The project – Whether your family is into art, science, cooking, fixing, building or something else entirely, put your heads together and come up with a project that you’d all like to contribute to.
  • The helping hand – This February, make it one of your family’s goals to help those less fortunate around you. Not only will you be helping those in need, but you’ll be doing something really meaningful together.

By doing something a little off the straight and narrow this year, you’ll shift the focus from materialism to what really matters. And remember that any day is a great time to slow down and take the time to appreciate those closest to your heart.

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Are You Killing Your Capacity for Creativity?

Photo courtesy of Mark Couvillion

The incredible convenience of modern technology has without a doubt improved the productivity levels of professionals around the globe, but at what cost?

Admittedly, I did make the switch to an iPhone about six months ago, and because of it, I’ve been able to successfully coordinate several virtual projects that might have otherwise taken a lot longer. My response time for work emails is impressive, and anytime an important client has had any questions, I have been able to reply when they needed an answer - not when I managed to get to a computer.

I’m a big proponent of taking change as it comes and being open to our ever-improving world. After all, we don’t refuse to use indoor toilets just because our great-grandparents didn’t use them, right?

Times they are a-changin’, and our time happens to be the era of huge technological advances. Instead of pounding out our work reports on a Brother Opus 885 typewriter, we’re now able to create documents simply by talking into our phones. Sitting in doctors’ offices will rarely leave any of us bored now that we can surf the internet while we wait. Finding new and interesting restaurants to try is as simple as asking your personal virtual assistant to do a search for you.

The incredible conveniences and productivity enhancements that we now have access to in our back pockets come at a price, and I’m not just talking about the big bucks you’ve got to pay just to own the latest technology.

Before nearly everyone had a hand-held office/entertainment/computer/communication device, down time was just that – down time. Waiting rooms, car rides, sitting by the pool – these were times that we used to spend thinking, imagining and coming up with new ideas. Solving our problems was something we used to have to do without any help from a massive network of connections or 24/7 access to the world wide web. It seems to me that the old fashioned concept of ‘thinking’ has quite frankly gone out of style.

So what should one do? Is it prudent to toss your iPhone 5 out the next open window you see or stomp it to bits on your driveway? Luckily, there’s a much easier and cost-effective solution.

Balance.

It’s ok to own a smartphone, laptop, tablet, e-reader, and whatever cutting edge gaming system floats your boat. Time keeps on slipping right on into the future, and far be it for us to sit back and not take advantage of this incredible world we live in. Multi-task by tele-working while you monitor your baby with high tech pajamas, email from the comfort of your totally customized, fully-loaded bed. Read books that you’ve downloaded – you can save a tree! Enjoy the hell out of your Xbox 360 Kinect and carry your grocery coupons in your phone.

The only catch is that you absolutely must plan time during your day where you’re not relying on technology. Let your brain do some of the work. If you work from home, turn off technology during non-working hours. Power down your phone once in awhile and even leave it at home from time to time. Read magazines at the doctor’s office, or just daydream while you look out the window at the sky. Ponder your life and try solving some of your problems without turning to the internet – see what you come up with.

You may have forgotten just how enjoyable the unplugged world can be.

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10 Fun Things to do During a Power Outage

Photo courtesy of D’Amico Rodrigo

Hopefully it’s not something you find yourself faced with very often, but when dealing with a power outage, brainstorming fun and interesting things to do is important if you want to come away from it with your sanity. If you happen to be without power right now and like many people, have never thought this through, you’re in luck, because I have just recently been in your shoes.

This week, Hurricane Sandy has caused power outages for thousands of households in between Jamaica and Eastern Canada. As she made her way toward my town, along with buying the appropriate survival supplies, I started compiling a mental list of activities that would keep us adequately entertained, should we find ourselves without electricity:

  • Make a tent world. All this requires is candles (or flashlights) and blankets. Especially when you have children, hours can be whiled away creating interesting “rooms” and telling stories inside your gigantic room-sized tent. For added fun, bring pillows, books, and snacks in with you!
  • Sleep. Taking advantage of the lack of power to catch up on your sleep may not sound like fun, exactly, but it sure feels good, and is good for you.
  • Tell stories. Make them up as you go, having each person in your family add to the story as you tell it outloud, or read a good book!
  • Have a pig out. Raid your freezer since everything in there will be the first to melt or go bad, and reach for the ice cream first. Make the most of it and have a “Make Your Own Sundae” party with your family and/or neighbors.
  • Draw or paint. Take advantage of this time to get in touch with your creative side again.
  • Trade back rubs.  Take turns paying special attention to your significant other’s back (or feet, or….you get the idea). And then make sure the favor gets returned. Another fun idea is to “draw” words on your kids’ backs and have them try to guess what you “wrote.” They’ll love it (and it feels great!)
  • Have a candlelit dinner. Even if the food is sandwiches and fuit – eating dinner by candle light isn’t something you probably get to do very often.  With all of your electronic distractors turned off, you might end up having the best conversation you’ve had in a long time.
  • Meditate. The best place to practice meditation is in a quiet, dimly lit room.  Light a few aromatherapy candles, get comfortable, and get in touch with yourself.
  • Have a fashion show. While this might seem like something that would need light, you’d be surprised how much you can see with some of today’s powerful flashlights.  Set up a few battery powered lanterns and try out some new clothing combinations, or engage your kiddos in a game of dress-up.
  • Sing. Perhaps you’ve forgotten, but playing ”Name that Tune” is actually really fun. If the power is out for an extra long time, you might have to resort to ”99 Bottles.”

As always, be sure to stay mindful during whatever crisis may be causing you to be without power.  Although it may be scary at times if you’re in the throngs of an intense storm, follow the mindfulness principles, find your center, and try to make the best of it.

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How to Unblock Your Flow for Optimal Productivity

Photo courtesy of Drew Coffman

For optimal professional productivity in our lives, we must be in a free “flow state” – which essentially means that we love what we are doing. Time flies when your flow is open and your creativity is sparked.  Everything else in your world becomes background noise as you focus in on the task at hand.

As a writer, when I experience a loss of flow, it’s called “writer’s block,” but this problem definitely presents itself in a wide variety of professions.  Even what appear to be the most mundane and routine jobs and tasks can be engaging and fun as long as you enjoy what you do.

To develop good flow and to keep it unblocked, you’ll need to have clear professional goals, good concentration skills, an established pattern of feedback, and the appropriate skill level to accomplish what you’ve set out to do.

Tips to Open Your Flow:
Always have a conclusion in mind. (When will your task be “finished?”)
Stay focused by practicing concentration every day. (Form a healthy, positive habit.)
Know where you can get reliable feedback.
Stop while you’re ahead (or excited.)
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Find a new location, even if it means simply moving to another desk for awhile.
Unformat your regular task process and come at it from another direction.
Never forget to have fun! As soon as the fun stops, your flow becomes blocked.
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Find new ways to constantly challenge yourself.
Love what you do.
Open your thoughts. Live and work mindfully.
Work productively, feel satisfied, and be happy.

 

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How Small Changes Can Rejuvenate Your Productivity

flower
Photo courtesy of Theophilos Papadopoulos

We’ve all been there at some point in the past—one day we’re working fine, efficiently, and then the next, without explanation, we discover we can’t work anymore. Writers get writer’s block; artists find they can’t decide where the next brushstroke should go. For whatever reason, something in our brain clicks and we lose that spark that tells us we’re good at what we do.

This condition of ‘being stuck’ is often attributed to feelings of inferiority as a professional. Sometimes the effects can be trivial, lasting mere hours or days, but in worse cases they can lead a person to go years without successfully returning to work, or sometimes giving up their craft altogether.

I’ve been in this situation several times in the past, and it isn’t pleasant. I was frustrated with myself because I just wasn’t feeling motivated to work. So I decided to change things up. Instead of working at home like I was used to, I went out and tried working at a local coffee shop. At first, nothing seemed to change. In fact, I found the new environment distracting. Then over time I started to work again, just a little at first, but enough. Then I returned home, and astonishingly I was able to work more efficiently than I had before. I’d killed my artistic block.

If you really want to get out of your creative rut, I would suggest changing something in your workflow in order to rejuvenate your productivity. Change your environment – go outside, work in park, a coffee shop, wherever. Change your tools – your paints and brushes, your software. Change the people you surround yourself with on a daily basis. Change your hours. Change everything about your workflow if you think it’ll help.

And make the decision to take time off too. Listen to music. Watch movies. Play video games. Read. Study the work of other professionals in your craft. Just because you’re not working at the time doesn’t mean you won’t take something positive away that will benefit your workflow later. Inspiration can be found in absolutely anything, so enjoy yourself while you’re not working.

It’s surprising how a little change can make all the difference to your workflow. If you’re stuck in a rut, try changing something in your day-to-day life and see your productivity flourish.

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How Building Upon Existing Ideas Can Lead You to Greatness

lightbulb
Photo courtesy of Ramunas Geciauskas

Most of us are familiar with those boxes of jumbled text on web forms – officially called reCAPTCHAs – that are used to tell humans apart from spam bots. They’re a necessary (albeit slightly annoying) level of protection on sites such as Ticketmaster, where a computer could attempt to hack in and order thousands of pairs of tickets in a row. But the other day I came across a video that revealed the full functionality of reCAPTCHA, and how it built upon its predecessor to make something far more useful. Which then got me to thinking – how easy is it to build upon existing ideas?

As Luis von Ahn, creator of CAPTCHA, put it in his recent TED presentation, there’s a load of potential energy and brainpower that can be harnessed out there. While discussing how he and his team repurposed CAPTCHA to help in the digitization of books, von Ahn pressed upon a really interesting topic for me – how do you make people do a job for free without even realizing they’re being productive?

That was the spark that led to the formation of reCAPTCHA – a security system that uses human-typed responses to help digitize books. Each time you fill out one of those text boxes on a web form, you’re actually identifying a word from a scanned image that has been taken from an existing print book. Humans have a far greater ability to decipher words from images that are slightly askew than, say, a computer dictionary, (the very reason for reCAPTCHA’s effectiveness as a spam bot detector) so it takes a human set of eyes to translate some older books from cover to cover.

According to von Ahn, people were collectively spending 500,000 hours a day filling out CAPTCHA boxes, and he saw the potential for something more useful. reCAPTCHA is currently digitizing the archives of The New York Times as well as books from Google Books, and utilizing the input of over 100 million CAPTCHAs every day.

In the digital age, we are surrounded by opportunities to improve upon systems that are already set in place. Some have argued that Facebook, for instance, simply built upon the idea of online journaling; and Netflix, then, is offering the same media rental service that Blockbuster was a few years ago, only in a way that is more appropriate and convenient for the current times. Sometimes we just need to look at ideas that are right in front of us to see the potential for greatness.

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