Design For Life: Personal Sustainability

Some days our passion for doing good work is so great that we think of self-care as frivolous indulgence, but forgetting our own well-being just isn’t sustainable.In the last few years, my personal energy output has definitely exceeded input, so I asked several friends and colleagues how they fill their wells while doing valuable work for the world. The responses were inspiring.

1. Make yourself a priority

I used to say, “I’ll take care of myself after I’ve caught up on everything else.” Guess what? I never caught up. But we all can learn from Trathen Heckman of Petaluma, California, who directs Green Sangha, a spiritual community dedicated to environmental action, and Daily Acts, which offers sustainability tours and publishes Ripples: A Revolutionary Journal of Seasonal Delight. “The busier I get, the more tenaciously I cultivate my peace,” he says. “Because God and Gaia are in the details, I track how many times I sauna, stretch, garden and play music each week, making sure I don’t let life’s vital bits slip away.”

2. Take time out

Marc Allen, president of New World Library, exemplifies the value of free time. “Over the years, I’ve developed a simple method of relaxation and rejuvenation: I only work when I feel like it,” he says. Allen doesn’t work mornings; Sundays are reserved for family, spirit and rest. His Mondays are dedicated to whatever he feels like doing.

While adhering to this rhythm, he’s built a successful publishing company dedicated to healing and spirituality, written several books–including The Type-Z Guide to Success (New World Library, 2006)–and recorded several music albums. He’s a self-made multimillionaire who works no more than 30 hours a week. Where to find the time to just sit? Sarah Susanka, architect and author of the bestselling Not So Big House series, has a new book called The Not So Big Life: Making Room for What Really Matters (Random House, 2007) that’s bursting with wisdom on the subject. Susanka writes: “Whether you call it quiet time, meditation or contemplation, the point is to have a period each day when you are not thinking, socializing or working. What you are really doing when you make a time and place just for you is inviting your inner nature to become a player in your outer life.”

3. Move it

Activity also plays a role in mental health. Richard Feather Anderson, a geomancer and Eco Dwelling faculty member at New College of California, finds that swimming calms his mind, releases difficult feelings and leaves him rejuvenated and inspired. “Along with the endorphin stimulating effects of exercise, for me, the sensations of buoyancy and gliding through the water wash away all unwanted thoughts and feelings,” he says.

Architect and natural builder Kelly Lerner, my coauthor for Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green House (Lark Books, 2006), says her dog, Zoe, keeps her from stagnating physically or mentally. “I might not make time to walk just for myself, but Zoe makes sure I get a walk in every day,” she says. “Training Zoe also taught me some important lessons about life: Build up to big goals in small steps, give myself treats for each success and always make it fun!”

4. Work from the inside out

For many people, internal habits make the biggest difference. Mark Lakeman is the founder of Portland, Oregon’s City Repair, which helps people reclaim urban spaces to create community-oriented places. He says: “I let go of stress by maintaining a near constant state of appreciation. This helps me feel positive, see opportunities and have more energy.” When healthy-home consultant Mary Cordaro, owner of southern California’s H3Environmental, starts to feel overwhelmed, she reminds herself: “I’m connected to everyone else, no matter who they are and how they live. Feeling one with everyone restores me.” For Judy Knox, a straw bale building pioneer from Tucson, Arizona, true staying power and creativity emerge from a joyful being. “I fill my well by doing things that bring me joy every day,” she says. Taking time for soothing exercise such as yoga can help you rejuvenate and energize.

Taking Care of You

? Get back to Nature: Penny Livingston-Stark, cofounder of the Regenerative Design and Nature Awareness Institute, spends half an hour daily in a special spot outdoors, listening to the birds.

? Kill your television: Ted Baumgart, a film concept designer and creator of a fantastical eco-remodeled home, says: “We just discontinued cable TV. Like magic, I suddenly have more time for reading, playing music, discussing things, doing home projects, exercising.”

? Keep good company: “People in green building are the best: intelligent, dedicated, fun and funny!” eco-building consultant Ann Edminster says. “Time spent with people I cherish is the best ‘joy juice’ I know of.”

? Party!: Ecological Building Network founder Bruce King finds virtue in blowing off steam. “After finishing the dreary work of writing, meetings, details and computer hassles, I throw a party,” he says. “We get crazy and burn marshmallow sculptures. It does the trick.”

Carol Venolia is an eco-architect who is passionate about reuniting humans with the rest of nature. She’s the coauthor, with Kelly Lerner, of Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green House (Lark Books, 2006), and she co-directs the Eco Dwelling program at New College of California. Share your experiences with her at

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