Kitchen Stories

Prologue: Delancey 
Last December, I read Delancey by Molly Wizenberg, a sweet and funny memoir about opening a pizza place with her husband Brandon. Molly, who writes the blog Orangette, portrays the unglamorous side and stress of owning a restaurant. It’s easy to romanticize the idea of being a restauranteur, especially with the onslaught of reality shows like Top Chef or profiles in Food & Wine magazine. I occasionally have fantasies of opening up a cafe, where artists and community members gather over good coffee and events. However,  Delancey shows what happens before the doors officially open –from the fights between the married couple, the scraping together of money and second-hard parts to build the kitchen, and the exhaustive cleaning and prep work involved during the hours long after doors shut at 10 p.m. Owning a restaurant is not the same as the dream of hosting a dinner party with friends, Molly confides. It is more like hosting a huge Thanksgiving dinner for family, friends, and strangers. Every single night.

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Reading Delancey did not make me want to open a restaurant or progress in the dreams of my cafe, but It piqued my interest in cooking again.  It also renewed my craving for a good slice of wood-fired pizza.  And surprisingly, a good salad.

Act 1: Starting with salad
As Molly created the first menu for opening night, she prepared a simple salad using local produce, sharp cheese, and a homemade vinaigrette. I’m not typically impressed by salads, but J & I learned to appreciate a really good salad.  One of our favorite Italian restaurants serves a serious seasonal salad– sweet golden beets, Beemster cheese shavings, toasted nuts, and a citrus vinaigrette.  We silently hoped the other person was done so that we could finish off the plate.

I never had a salad that made me care about it before.  I had found the inspiring dish that would draw me back to the kitchen again.

Recipes

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Pasta Salad with Tomatoes, Zucchini, and Feta via The Pioneer Woman
My aunts like to task me with bringing the salad to bring for parties and holidays. Maybe they think salad is easier to delegate and is a failure-proof potluck dish. I made this salad for my grandma’s 86th birthday last October at a beach house family event. I found this simple, refreshing salad from The Pioneer Woman, and I loved that it required less than 5 ingredients.  It’s great to make in advance and keeps well during long drives.

Radiccio and Radish Salad with Pear and Parmesan via Orangette

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I returned Delancey to the library, ready to make a REAL salad, and realized that I did not copy down any of the recipes from the book. I assumed Molly would post some of her newer salad recipes on Orangette, but I couldn’t find them. Instead, I found an older salad recipe on her blog that seemed just as refreshing and simple as the ones featured in her book. It was my first time experimenting with creating my own dressing, and it was fun.  I usually grab a bottle of dressing from the store, but it goes to waste because I never make enough salad at home to use it up. I liked everything about this salad except for the radiccio itself.  I had forgotten that leaves like radiccio and endives tasted bitter, so I would personally substitute the radiccio for shredded red cabbage.  When I made this, I also used an apple instead of a pear.

Beet Salad with Oregano, Pecans, and Goat Cheese via Fine Cooking

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It was my first time buying beets at Whole Foods and roasting them!  It was odd to finally see what these vegetables look like in their raw form.  I didn’t know they came with huge stalks of green.  It was an easy process to cook and slice, but a bit messy due to the red beet stains.  Also, listen to the recipe order and sprinkle the goat cheese on last before serving.  My cheese bits were stained by the time I mixed everything together.  Even though it looked red and pinkish, the salad was refreshing and delicious.  I also used walnut pieces instead of pecans.  The next time I make this, I’ll add golden beets and the actual beet leaves for an extra pop of color.

Lazy Salad:  Literally, I throw together grape tomatoes with sliced Persian cucumbers from Trader Joe’s.  If I have cheese or basil leaves, I use those, too.

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Act 2: French Classics Made Easy
I decided to take my next cooking step and open up my kitchen and home.  Making salad and dressing was a good start, but it’s more fun to share food with others and loved ones. Plus it adds the right amount of pressure to make something good.

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I’m surprised at how much I’ve enjoyed the recipes that I’ve made from French Classics Made Easy by Richard Crausman.  We received it as part of my husband’s Quarterly package from Timothy Ferriss, author of The Four Hour Chef (more about Ferriss later in this post).  The Made Easy part of the title speaks to my preferences of easy, simple techniques and minimal ingredients.  I started off by making a simple side of green beans in a garlic, cream sauce.  Then, I tested the poached salmon recipe in a different cream sauce.  How fantastically simple and versatile are cream sauces?  You don’t have to worry about anything else except tossing the fish or meat in the oven, and it piggybacks on the flavors of the sauce.  The sauce itself only has a couple of steps and ingredients – my favorite kind of recipe.

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After making a few dishes from the book, I was ready to test some of the recipes on others.  Every Christmas morning for the last five years, I host brunch for my family.

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I decided to serve a simple menu from French Classics Made Easy:  French omelettes with Gruyère cheese and a mushroom cream sauce, bacon, and a side of tomatoes and mozzarella with truffle salt.  J and I have an Aeropress and a French Press coffee maker, so we also whipped up a few rounds of Bulletproof Coffee blended in butter (our breakfast staple).  My mom said she felt like she was at a bed-and-breakfast joint, and I beamed.  Cooking for others in my home is probably the closest thing I’ll have to running my own cafe anyway.  And it feels even better.

Recipes
Recipes from French Classics Made Easy:
Omelette au Fromage (Gruyère Omelet). Similar recipe via Food.com
Champignons à la Crème (Mushrooms in Cream Sauce).  Online recipe via SavorSA
Basil Beurre Blanc (Basil Butter Sauce).  Similar recipe via allrecipes.com

Gouda Béchamel Sauce via Food and Wine

Bulletproof Coffee via Bulletproofexec.com

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Act 3:  Sous Vide and Sunday afternoons 
For Christmas, my husband excitedly received his gift at our front door — two enormous crate-sized boxes lugged upstairs by the poor FedEx delivery guy.  It wasn’t from me.  It had been a hefty investment in Tim Ferriss’s Secrete Santa Megabox – the ultimate mystery package.  Among the random assortment of tech goodies, including bluetooth Sonos speakers, an electric Boosted board, and a humidifier, there were two items that especially resonated with me.  An Andrew Zimmern enameled cast-iron wok and a Sous Vide Supreme!  Vacuum sealer included!  I tore open the Sous Vide Supreme box in excitement.  It was understood between us that I could claim any culinary items that came in the Megabox.

“What is that?” J asked.  We’d never seen one before.  I just knew it was a fancy gadget for cooking food in water, and it was as large as a microwave.

I spent the next few days poring over the recipe books, researching articles about sous vide cooking, and watching the Sous Vide Supreme starter dvd.  As summarized by many sites, sous vide cooking originated in France and is a method of cooking food in vacuum-sealed pouches using a water oven.  The vaccuum seal also intensifies the flavor within the pouch, so only minimal ingredients are needed.  The water oven is set to maintain a precise temperature, which allows for food to cook evenly and to keep warm until ready to serve.

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There is less margin for error in overcooking food, such as steak.  I can toss my steak into the Sous Vide at 140F, and leave it in there for 1 hour, even for 4 hours, and it will still come out perfectly cooked at medium.  The method of cooking is used in many restaurants, even in Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry.  Keller had written a book dedicated to sous vide cooking called Under Pressure.  The thought of learning a cooking technique that Keller advocates for was thrilling.  And intimidating.

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My world of cooking had expanded exponentially.  I made it a goal for 2015 (and on) to learn how to use the sous vide, along with other cooking tools that have been sitting around my kitchen.  My first test was cooking our New Year’s Eve dinner using the Sous Vide Supreme and the new wok.  It took nearly 5 hours total, including fiddling with the water oven and the sealer, but I triumphantly pulled together a delicious meal:  ribeye steak in brown butter and stir-fried green beans.

The possibilities seemed endless.  I could use the Sous Vide to cook large amounts of food in advance, and thanks to the magic of the vaccuum sealer, the food could freeze for up to 6 months.  There are a few downsides of sous vide cooking, such as the large amounts of water used in each session and that it takes a long time for the water temperature to reach 140 degrees.  For busy weekdays, I don’t have 30 minutes to wait for the oven to warm up before I can cook dinner.  It’s not a quick cooking method, but more suited for batch cooking on a Sunday or for a large group dinner.  After a few trial runs, I devised a few sous vide cooking hacks.

One idea is to only use the Sous Vide roughly once per month, which would allow me to batch cook and freeze several packets of food during one or two sessions.  If I need to use it for a second session, I save the water in a jug so I can re-use it a few days later.  That way, my conscious is at ease given the California drought.  Instead of using the sous vide to re-warm the food, I thaw the pouch in the refridgerator overnight, and re-heat the food in the oven.  Because I can control the temperature and cooking times of the food using the sous vide, I cook the food to medium rare.  By the time I reheat the food in the oven, it should be at medium or nearly well-done without overcooking too much.  I researched lots of ways to reheat frozen or thawed food without sacrificing the quality and taste.  Here, here, and here.

My secret weapon is not really a hack, but a disciplined habit.  I spend Sunday afternoon cooking a lot.  And listening to Pandora and podcasts.  Lately, these have been on heavy rotation: StartUp, Pop Culture Happy Hour, The Tim Ferriss Show.  Here’s the latest episode of StartUp:

I still spend 3 or 4 hours cooking on Sundays, but I’m more intentional about using different cooking tools and methods.  One time, when I was really organized and focused, I had different meals cooking in the sous vide, the oven, and the stove top at roughly the same time.  It doesn’t happen often because it takes so much damned advanced planning –finding recipes suited for each type of cooking method, finishing grocery shopping, and preparing all of the ingredients.  Most of the time, I’m lucky if I can crank out a few extra meals that will last me from Sunday through Tuesday.  I have to continuously remind myself that those 4 hours are worth it because I get a cooking break for a few days, and I save money by bringing lunch to work.

One of these days, I might be as organized as this blogger.  Until then, I’m just happy that I found my way back to the kitchen.

Recipes 
Recipes from the Sous Vide Supreme website.
Ribeye Steaks in Browned Butter
Basic Sous Vide Salmon
Pork Tenderloin Sous Vide
Sous Vide Poached Eggs

Stir Fried Green Beans from The Slanted Door cookbook (a wonderful holiday gift from my sister-in-law!).  Actual recipe via KCRW.

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P.S.
I’ve compiled the links and resources from this post, in addition to a few others, into an online flipboard magazine: CONTEXT | Kitchen Stories.

View my Flipboard Magazine.

Posted in Food, Writings | 2 Comments

Fuzzy Pink Robe

Fuzzy pink robe

There was a period for a few years during my childhood and teenage years when I anticipated my father’s Christmas gift: pajamas.

Every Christmas, like clockwork, my sister and I received pajamas from our dad. We used to joke and wonder which colors or patterns he would surprise us with that year. As a kid, my heart sunk a bit upon holding the wrapped gift and feeling the lightness of the bundle. Light gifts were almost always clothes, which were practical and no fun at all to a ten-year-old. As a teen and young woman, I gradually grew fond of the pajamas from dad tradition.

I have an assorted collection of pajama tops and bottoms from him — a pink and grey plaid Espirit flannel set, pink Betty Boop cropped pants with a white ruffle trim, and a light blue snowflake cotton set. Some pieces have come and gone throughout the years, whether lost or donated, but I still wear a majority of them. During the final two years before the tradition faded, he decided to mix things up by giving us robes instead of pajama pant sets.

My favorite clothing item to wear at home is the fuzzy, pink robe I received one Christmas. I honestly can’t remember which year he had purchased it for me, but it was around the time I first moved back home from graduate school.  2008?  I vaguely recall having received two pink robes that Christmas year — one from my dad and one from my aunt. I gave the robe from my aunt to my mom, since I reasoned that I didn’t need two plush robes taking up space in my closet — a patch of fluffy pink in the corner that contrasted my wardrobe of largely black, whites, and denim.

The robe followed me when my husband and I purchased our home.  On chilly mornings, I would throw it on as I prepared my coffee. I also love writing and reading in it. I imagine stay-at-home writers to be people with messy hair wearing robes and drinking coffee. Doing so makes me feel like I’m donning the wardrobe of a writer. I’d cozy up in it on slow Saturday mornings. I feel immediately at ease when I wrap myself in it.  It was like receiving a big bear hug. There is now a little hole in the back of the neck tag area from excessive wear and hanging. Although I have a tiny suspicion that my stepmom had a say in my dad’s gifts over the years, I like to think of my serious dad – the opposite of a fuzzy, pink robe person – tied to this warm and loving piece of clothing.

My husband made comments now and then about how warm and comfortable I looked in my robe.  I think he longed for a robe of his own. Two years ago for Christmas, I purchased him a fuzzy robe on a whim. It was a dark green and blue plaid robe, and it was just as soft and cozy as the pale pink robe I wear and love so much.

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This piece is inspired by the book Worn Stories by Emily Spivack, a collection of sartorial stories and memories of the clothing we wear, own, and love. For a deeper dive, read Brain Pickings post of the book here and see Spivack’s ongoing project Worn Stories here.

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Morning Meditation | The Ritual I Grew to Love

“Waking up this morning I smile
knowing there are 24 brand new hours before me.
I vow to live fully in each moment,
and look at beings with eyes of compassion.”
- Thich Nhat Hanh via zenhabits

 

“I’m not a morning person.”

I’ve said this statement countless of times in the past few years. It was easy to use as an excuse. I’ve said it in the mornings when I was forced to wake up early in the morning for school, teaching, or meetings. I didn’t realize that the more I said it, the more I closed myself off to the possibility of ever changing and becoming a “morning person.”

Earlier this year, I decided to challenge this belief. I no longer wanted to wait until the end of the work day or the weekend to carve out time for myself. I wanted to read. I wanted to write. I wanted to work on fun, creative projects. By the time I came home from work, all I had the mental energy to do was either turn on Netflix, hastily make dinner, or drag myself to the gym. Mindless tasks. After spending so much effort and energy at work, I was too tired to make use of the remaining scraps of time for other activities, even though I knew they would fulfill me. This sort of lifestyle felt backwards.

I had three choices. I could either continue with my status quo routine. I could make use of late evenings for personal time. Or I could wake up earlier. The thought of more monotonous weekdays filled with Netflix shows and web-surfing seemed comfortable yet empty. Staying up late in the middle of the night seemed tiresome and torturous. That left me with the mornings. I would learn how to become a morning person.

I Googled and tested nearly every strategy I could find for waking up in the morning. I made myself go to bed earlier. I set the alarm an hour ahead of my usual time. I tested the alarm with increments of 15 minutes. I put my alarm further away so it would force me to get out of bed. I stumbled into the kitchen to make coffee. I started the morning with stretches and light exercise. I jumped in the shower right when I woke up. I used my phone so that the screen would stimulate my senses.

It was a long process. There were several mornings when I defied the entire exercise and intentionally snoozed through the alarm. I can’t remember which strategies worked because I mixed and matched them sporadically. However, with a month of deliberate practice, I started to notice a shift in my attitude. On the days I was able to wake up earlier than my usual time, whether it was 20 minutes or 45 minutes or an hour, I rewarded myself. For days I woke up 20 minutes early, I read a blog entry. For days I woke up 45 minutes early, I journaled or squeezed in a writing session. For days I woke up an hour or more early, I headed to Philz coffee for leisure reading and writing. My mornings transformed into something to look forward to instead of something to dread or disregard. That mental shift alone attributed the most to my success than any strategy could.

After another few weeks, the times became more consistent. I was able to wake up with a full hour all to myself. There’s a luxurious comfort and stillness that comes with waking up before the rest of the world. Before the frantic pace of rushing in the morning, getting ready for work, commuting in traffic, running into the office, and checking e-mails. All of that would eventually arrive. But that hour belonged to me– untainted by the demands of the outside world.

My morning ritual has evolved since that spring. I used to spend that hour for coffee, leisure reading, and journaling. It was a great way to wake up my mind and stimulate my creativity first thing in the morning.  In late May, my husband J introduced me to a device called emWave that uses Heart Rate Variability science as part of a relaxation practice. The device measures your pulse either through the finger or earlobe and signals your coherency levels with your breath and heart rate. He purchased two devices for us to test out at home. I had been interested in the idea of medtiation for some time, but was too intimidated to try. My mother-in-law is a devout Buddhist, and she has encouraged me to read spiritual books and attend temple with her. I imagined myself as a clumsy spiritual being, so the emWave device seemed like an accessible place to start.

For the first few days, I used the emWave device while I prepared my coffee. I was eager to jump straight into my reading and writing routine. Needless to say, the HRV results were not that great. Multi-tasking is the antithesis to meditation. By day 4, I took the task more seriously. I rolled out my purple yoga mat in front of the living room window and sat there in silence. I lasted for 3 1/2 minutes before I ended the session. However, to my surprise, the HRV coherency score was significantly higher. I was so excited by my improvement that I meditated later that day for twice as long, also getting a high coherency score.

For that month, I challenged myself to devote at least the first few minutes of each morning to begin with meditation. Before the coffee and the reading and the writing. If I could only do 5 minutes, that was okay. Some days, I would go longer. Just like a shift took place when I started to enjoy waking up early, another subtle yet powerful transformation took place from my morning meditation. I noticed that I would write more freely, the ideas were more creative, and my mood significantly improved throughout the day. All I had done was the daily practice of mindful meditation for five minutes!

Prior to using the emWave, the closest I had come to a secular spiritual practice was taking a yoga or pilates class every now and then. My favorite parts of yoga were the beginning sun salutations and the ending with shivasanna. Sun salutations moved and stretched my body from the ground to upward, embracing the heavens. Shivasanna was quietly laying in the stillness, pulling myself to the present moment through all five senses. After reading Josh Kaufman’s book, in which he covers yoga practice, I was inspired to incorporate sun salutations into my morning meditation.

This is now my morning ritual. I wake up at 6am. Even though I may still be tired, I calmly ease into the morning by walking to the kitchen to begin brewing my coffee. I head to the purple yoga mat, where it now consistently lays by the windowsill. In that space, I have a candle that I light and a sound machine set to ocean waves. Sometimes I’ll open my window to feel the crisp morning air. I start with 5 sun salutations — slow and deliberate movements that gently stretch and awaken my body. If my joints are tight, I use the foam roller which loosens my back and shoulder muscles. When I feel ready, I set up the emWave device on my phone, sit, and breathe. I appreciate the still simplicity of the moment.

I take comfort in knowing that the next two hours are mine before the outside world comes into focus. And when it does, I reach a place where I’m ready to welcome it.

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More Reading:

Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages exercise

Daily Rituals book by Mason Currey

The First 20 Hours book by Josh Kaufman

zenhabits post Creating a Lovely Morning 

Tara Brach’s guided meditation and talks as recommended by Maria Popova

Sam Harris post The Mirror of Mindfulness and guided meditations

emWave and HeartMath information

 

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Time Traveling in Japan

Japan 2014

My husband and I returned from our 2-week vacation to Japan in early April.  We were happy, tired, reinvigorated, reflective, and appreciative –the feelings that can come from a meaningful trip.  It was a trip we had originally intended for our honeymoon, a dream of J’s ever since he studied Japanese in high school, and one big food adventure after we had discovered Daikokuya ramen in Los Angeles as college students and watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi last year.  It was the trip that celebrated a year of big changes in our lives –a transformation of our health, close friends moving back home, and renewed family relationships.  I love vacations during milestone moments.  The distance grants me the perspective I need to appreciate the big things and the small day to day.

Japan 2014

Japan 2014

I could dedicate several entries to Tokyo and Kyoto; each were magical cities in its own right.  When friends and family ask about our trip, I never know how to convey my experience.  I usually start with something familiar or popular, such as our dining experience at Sukiyabashi Jiro in Roppongi Hills and comparing it with Sushi Bar Yasuda, wandering through the Tsukiji Fish Market in the afternoon, being swallowed up by the crowds and lights of Shinjuku at night, overlooking the panoramic views of Tokyo from the New York Bar in Park Hyatt, or visiting DisneySea theme park where the lines are 4 hours long and filled with Japanese teenagers in matching, colorful attire.  For Kyoto, I make sure to share stories about the gorgeous sakura blooms that fan out over our heads in the Imperial Palace Park, the mystical bamboo groves in Arashiyama that stretch on endlessly, and visiting beautiful, old temples and pavilions.  It was like traveling in time to the future and to the past.

Japan 2014

Japan 2014

Small, everyday events rarely make it into our anecdotes, but deserve just as much credit for making the trip memorable.  There was the tiny, dry ramen restaurant Abura Soba that we discovered in our Tokyo neighborhood that housed one of the best bowls of noodles we ever ate.  The third time we ate there followed an all-you-can-eat shabu shabu dinner; we couldn’t bear the thought of leaving Japan without a final dinner at Abura Soba.  The streets and subway stations are immaculate; there was not a trace of garbage on the ground.  The curious obsession with Kit-Kats that range from the popular matcha green tea, the seasonal sakura and green tea combination, the cheesecake, the roasted rice tea, and to the oven-baked kind.  The genuine hospitality and warmth of every worker we met was amazing, ranging from hotel staff to cashiers to waiters.  In Kyoto on a drizzling night, we were lost in a maze of alleyways.  A waitress from a nearby cafe graciously escorted us a few blocks away to the Shi-Shin Samurai Cafe we were searching for.  I loved the way we could completely immerse ourselves in the crowds.  We stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the locals on the metro and were swept up in a sea of salarymen and women in well-tailored business suits and tan trench coats.  Although the crowds were hectic, we never felt self-conscious about being tourists.

Japan 2014

Japan 2014

I loved the quiet metro ride across Odaiba Bay.  Every time the train circled around the city, I caught my own reflection gazing out at Tokyo Tower, a rising ember from the stretch of blinking buildings.

During our last night in Tokyo, we stood on the pier that overlooked the city skyline.  I thought about where I was in my life years before that exact moment.  Roughly five years ago, J and I were in the process of searching for our new home together.  We were frustrated with the process and our families, and we argued often.  It was the first, grown-up thing that we done together.  I wanted to tell our younger selves that it would turn out okay, especially for our relationship.  In a couple of months, you’ll have a lovely home where you’ll begin your lives together.  The photos that line your walls will include future milestones of your engagement in Hawaii, your wedding day, your honeymoon in Spain, and soon, of this trip across the world to Tokyo, Japan.  

We snapped one last photo together, the city peeking out behind us, and bid Tokyo goodnight.  We were ready to go home.

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CONTEXT| Starting Fresh: On Goals, Habits, and Resolutions

Champagne bw

I used to be addicted with goal-setting. What a nerdy thing to admit, but it’s true.  When a new opportunity or project arose, I automatically brainstormed action items, targeted dates, and a strategic plan. For things as big as applying into graduate school or preparing for a half-marathon to little things like seeing my family at least every other week. I created little plans to even see people! Every New Year’s Eve, I faithfully recorded a journal entry of my reflections of the past year and my resolutions for the upcoming one. After a certain time period, especially after the cozy structure of graduate school, I noticed that life planning mostly did not work (remember that time when I decided to leave teaching while I was still in graduate school for teaching?). In the midst of my wedding planning, I saw the distinction between predictable goals and plans (e.g. ordering a cake, setting my budget, and going to the gym 3x a week) and the unpredictable ones (e.g. wanting the in-laws to get along, receiving all rsvp cards in time, and cutting traditional aspects without offending family members). Setting unpredictable goals (which sounds like an oxymoron) is not only stressful, it’s also an illusion. Setting a goal for something that you cannot control, such as how other people will behave, is not truly a goal.  Dear Sugar has said that you cannot make people love you or behave as you want them to.  It’s a hope or aspiration, but to treat it as a “goal” will only lead to disappointment and a false sense of control.

Still, I love the feeling of having accomplished a goal that I worked hard for.  I like having something gleaming in the distance to strive for.  And yes, I like feeling in control.  To my dismay, recent experiences and modern research has shown me that I better seek another approach to goal-setting and life-planning.  Is there a balanced approach to setting long-term goals–perhaps one that gives us something to aim for, but is also forgiving if we change our minds or if life throws us a detour?

Lately, I have been trading in big goals for creating daily (or weekly) habits to follow.  If there is truth in the saying “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives”, then the best way to achieve the life I want is perhaps in starting smaller.  Last December, I was emotionally drained, and I felt too disillusioned to set any grand resolutions. Instead, I focused intensely on setting two new habits for myself –going to the gym 3x a week and eating a healthy breakfast each morning. Since popular research says that it takes 28 days to form a habit, I used a monthly worksheet to keep track of my progress.  Every time I accomplished the task, I drew an X under the tally marked “Working Out” or “Breakfast”. It was slow and gradual progress, and there were several days when I did not complete the tasks.  The beauty of forming habits, which is similar to how Gretchen Rubin approaches daily resolutions in The Happiness Project, is that every day is a new day to commit, even if you failed to meet them yesterday or the day before.  If I had approached this task as my old self, the one determined to set grand goals, deadlines, and big resolutions, then I may have labeled my mishaps as failures, get discouraged, and give up.  I believe this is the approach that many people take, which is why traditional resolutions never seem to work.

There is a huge difference between the approach of maintaining resolutions through sheer willpower and the approach of building habits every day. After several weeks, I became more consistent, and after two months, I no longer needed the tally sheet to log my work-outs or breakfasts. It naturally folded into my daily and weekly routine, and it no longer became a battle to haul myself to the gym or time-consuming to make a healthy breakfast. Of course, there are still days when I feel too lazy to lace up my sneakers or tempted to skip the smoothie in favor of a blueberry bagel with a honey walnut schmear.  Most of the time, I am able to say no.  Once in awhile, I cave in.  And then I start over again the next day.  Habits don’t erase my impulsive urges, but they make overcoming them a lot easier.

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In honor of the new year and upcoming Lunar New Year (Happy 2014 and Year of the Horse!), I am launching my CONTEXT e-magazine project.  My first Flipboard compilation is devoted to celebrating and building new beginnings: CONTEXT| Starting Fresh: On Goals, Habits, and Resolutions.  These digital pages contain diverse perspectives that address the benefits and challenges of goal-setting, why New Year’s resolutions are so difficult to keep, how to start a happiness project using resolutions, the upsides to thinking negatively, the power of habit to change our lives, and other intelligent ideas to try on for the new year. Whether you are obsessed with goal-setting or simply at a loss for how to start implementing changes, this issue offers new approaches and accessible strategies for just beginning.  Happy new year, and happy reading!

Issue: CONTEXT| Starting Fresh: On Goals, Habits, and Resolutions

Contents Overview:

Start Here” via The Happiness Project. Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project” chronicles her one-year journey of creating a happier, fulfilling life. She develops resolutions centered around a monthly theme (i.e. Energy, Family), and daily tracks her process using a Resolutions Chart. Even if you did not read the book, you can download the Resolutions Chart and develop your own happiness project from her website.

Level Up” by Vienna Teng (song).  Talented pianist and musician Vienna Teng sings this song of hope and inspiration for us to “come out and level up” in our lives in her latest album AIMS.  A great theme song to start off a new beginning, wherever you begin.  The music video for “Level Up” was funded as a Kickstarter campaign.

How to Change Your Life:  A User’s Guide” via ZenHabits.  Leo Babauta, blogger of ZenHabits, writes about a simple, powerful way to making life changes: making daily changes.  Instead of creating a goal, action steps, or a plan, Babauta suggests seven steps on how to implement small, daily changes to meet your aspirations.  Take any lofty goal, such as traveling or saving money, and scale it down.  He suggests, “Think about what you could do every day that would make the change happen, or at least get you closer to the goal.”

Commonly Broken New Year’s Resolutions” via Oprah.  Writer Corrie Pikul discovers that every year, about 40% of the population make and break new year resolutions.  She summarizes the top resolutions that people usually break and offers some suggestions on how to keep them well beyond the first few months of the year.  From losing weight, saving money, finding a new job, and improving relationships, Pikul shares research on what makes each resolution difficult and strategies for how to make each one stick.

The New Year” by Death Cab for Cutie (song).  A song from the Transatlantacism album that observes the superficiality of New Year celebrations and a nostalgic lament for a different sort of life.

Tim Ferriss vs. Leo Babauta on Goals” video via ZenHabits. In this friendly debate, Leo Babauta, author and founder of ZenHabits, and Tim Ferriss, author of the 4 Hour series (Work, Body, and Chef), share their philosophies on the pros and cons of goal-setting. At times in disagreement and often in alignment with each other, this conversation highlights two enlightening approaches on living a balanced and fulfilling life – with or without goals.

Set Smaller Goals: Impress Friends, Get Girls, Lose Weight” via I Will Teach You to be Rich.  Ramit Sethi, author and blogger, shares his blunt advice on how to make sustainable, behavioral changes.  For areas such as personal finance, fitness, or even studying, instead of making extreme changes, it is much more effective to stick to small, incremental changes.  While it initially feels good to go from one extreme to the other extreme (e.g. saving $0 to saving $500 a month), Sethi warns that “habits don’t change overnight, and if they do, chances are it won’t be sustainable.”

How to Master Your Creative Routine and the Pace of Productivity via BrainPickings.  Maria Popova of BrainPickings reviews a new book called “Manage Your Day-to-Day”, which covers how creative rituals and habits fuel inspiration.  The post also features visual inspirational quotes, such as Aristotle’s “We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”   

The Key to Getting Motivated: Give Up” via 99U. Oliver Burkeman, author of “The Antidote: Happiness Advice for People who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking”, writes this counter-intuitive piece on why attempting to get motivated can be a bad idea. The problem with most motivational advice is that “it’s not about how to get things done, but about how to get in the mood for getting things done.” Burkeman offers practical, non-fluffy advice on giving up the need to be motivated while still moving forward. Hint: it doesn’t involve visualizing your goals or constantly repeating self-affirmations.

How to Set Unplannable Goals” via the Get-It-Done-Guy Podcast. Stever Robbins, the podcast host and a business life coach, distinguishes between goals that you can plan for (i.e. studying for a test, building a house) and goals that are “unplannable” (i.e. becoming a successful artist, getting a high-paying job). Using anecdotes, Robbins advocates for following an aspiration as the guiding compass for determining next steps instead of setting linear goals with unpredictable outcomes. For example, aspire to become an actor, and utilize various means to follow this aspiration –auditioning, networking, and taking classes.

How Ursula Nordstrom, Beloved Patron Saint of Childhood, Did New Year’s Resolutions” via BrainPickings.  Maria Popova, blogger and curator of BrainPickings, shares a glimpse into Ursula Nordstrom’s musings on resolutions.  Nordstrom, a children’s book editor of beloved authors such as Maurice Sendak and E.B. White, vowed in 1957 to be more loving in spite of the uncertainty and chaos of life.

Save Me From Myself” via Freakonomics Radio. Host Steven Dubner, who co-authored Freakonomics with his economist friend Steven Levitt, explores the effectiveness of commitment devices–ranging from quitting gambling or stopping bad habits cold-turkey to extreme dieting and even committing to prosecuting sexual assault offenders. How high do the stakes need to be in order for us to stick with a commitment? Can our present selves predict and outsmart our future selves? In typical Freakonomics fashion, the answers and rationale are usually more entertaining than conventional wisdom.

Habits:  How They Form and How to Break Them” via NPR.  Charles Duhigg, author of “The Power of Habit”, discusses the science of habits behind his book in this Fresh Air interview.  He explains the “habit loop”, which is a cycle of 1) a cue or trigger, 2) the behavior, and 3) the reward.  In this informative interview, he shares why vacations are the best times to change a habit, how companies use habits to sell us products, and the importance of understanding the “habit loop” in order to form and break habits.

Happiness: Should You Have Goals or Resolutions?” via The Happiness Project.  Gretchen Rubin believes that there is a differences between a goal and a resolution.  Namely, “you achieve a goal.  You keep a resolution.”  Goals, like learning a language or running a marathon, are specific and achievable.  Resolutions, like eating healthier or being nicer, are something to strive for every day.  There is no end outcome.  While there are times that are more appropriate to set goals, Rubin prefers the challenge of keeping resolutions every day.  She states, “Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail, but every day is a clean slate and a fresh opportunity.”

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