Take a Mental Break Before It Becomes a Mental Breakdown

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At the start of the week, I had not one, but two deadlines due the following day. One was a Photoshop rendering perspective for a project I never worked on and another was to make minor updates to a re-submittal construction document package for a project I loosely worked on. I also did not have a full two days (16 hours) to work on them since both were given on short notice. I was notified about the rendering at 11:00 am with a noon deadline the next day and the other with a similar notification time that was due later in the afternoon the following day. So, in reality, I only had about 11 hours to complete both – 1 hour lunch not included. Mondays are a buzzkill, amiright?

On the same Monday, I also had planned on doing a quick run to the office during lunchtime to grab a couple of drafting supplies I have been running low on, as we were on the 9th week of quarantine. For me, I personally see driving – not commuting – as a therapeutic way of relieving stress and anxiety. There’s something about driving at my own speed and pace that is mentally soothing and relaxing. I also enjoy driving on my own from time to time and, plus, the freeing ability to unashamedly blast selected K-pop songs on repeat in my old SUV.

Others may view this little errand run an as an interruption to workflow and productivity, but I believe this was a good “mental break” for my mind. Not working on those deadlines and doing something mentally calming was more productive than me sitting anxiously in front of the computer and most likely wasting half an hour mulling on the fact that I had two deadlines with no game plan in sight. While driving, I unconsciously came up with a bunch of ideas on how to plan the rendering quickly from scratch during the 40-minute drive to and from the office. If anything, the scheduled office run worked in my favor and quite possibly prevented me from having a mental breakdown by hour four of the deadlines.

Deadlines happen all the time and never at the moments you ever expect. But lately, I have been seeing the glass half full than empty when it comes to such realities. Nothing I do will change this reality, so I find it helpful to accept it, move on, and focus. Like really concentrate on the task at hand for a couple of hours with a few breaks in between. I also choose not to worry about those two deadlines outside of working on them. Instead, I find something completely opposite to occupy my mind with for the latter part of the day. Even knowing fully well I had two deadlines the next day, I slept well and not a single thought about either projects entered my mind that night. It was tomorrow’s problem, not tonight’s nightmare.

The remaining four to six hours left of the deadlines consisted of intense focus. And yes, I did finish the rendering in the nick of time (ok it was really only 10 minutes over). I also did monitor the clock a few times that morning, but I did not panic or dwell into worry. I was already in my work groove, so I just worked a bit faster and kept going. I also made my second deadline by 2 pm.

The familiar saying “Whether you can or can’t, you are right” rings true here. If we were really being honest, I actually did not think I would make the deadlines. Turning a blank page into a manager approved, client-worthy product in a small time frame felt very nerve-wrecking. Though, in actuality, it was the fear of not getting it done in time that caused me more anxiety than actually doing it. When I was in full concentration mode, my willpower to finish and rendering skills somehow combined to work magically and produced magical results. It is astonishing what your mind can do in just little time.

It always helps to take a mental break, even when the odds are stacked against you. Luckily for me, driving was the mental break I needed, even though it was probably the last thing I would have done in such a time-sensitive period. This fortunate incident reminded me that it is okay to take a step away from the screen and to calm the mind before diving in too deep into the work. A refreshed mind can really turn seemingly impossible tasks into very real, tangible possibilities.

Your “Tick” to Creativity

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(Photo taken from an art gallery in The Venetian Hotel, Las Vegas, 2017)

When you hit a creative block, it sometimes helps to follow your anger. Criticism rather that polite praise can work more wonders than you think. Throughout my personal and professional life, I have received a fair share of hurtful comments, outlandish critiques, and harsh judgements. Of the many, those from a very strict manager I used to work with were the most critical, toughest words I have ever received for my concept designs. Deep down, I knew he was coming from a place of heart and did this in my best interest to succeed professionally. He wanted to push my potential to the limit, even to a 25-year-old entry-level employee with barely any experience in the industry.

Whenever I showed my manager my crappy concepts, he would sarcastically ask, “What would the client think?” I would go back to the drawing board, huffing and puffing inside, knowing fully well that I had failed in his eyes. Rightly so, I did suck at developing residential design concepts in the beginning. I also naively thought they were good and, looking back, they were terrible and my manager was right. While his critiques were big blows to my self-esteem, I channeled my frustration to developing better and more creative designs, to prove my worth and to show him I can get to his level one day. I eventually did get much better and faster at developing concepts, after many hours of practice and many rolls of trace paper.

So that this impressed my new manager at my new job recently. When I showed him three concepts for a neighborhood park, the manager was actually taken aback and was torn between choosing one of the three. That was the biggest compliment to date in my professional career. Not positive words like a “good job”, but the reaction of surprise and indecisiveness of several great designs was the long-awaited approval I have worked so hard for.

If it weren’t for my previous manager’s criticism early on in my career, I probably would have foolishly still been producing unaspiring work today. His critiques were my main motivation to do better and propelled me to become a full-fledged professional who can come up with really cool, interesting concepts for many different types of design projects now.

Inspiration can come from anywhere. One outlet of inspiration is from constructive criticism, as this is actually my biggest driver to keep improving and keep going. Try to use criticisms to your advantage and not only do better, but also overcome and overachieve in front of others who have placed doubt in you. Take actions to prove them wrong and be “so good they can’t ignore you” (a quote by Cal Newport). Find what make you “tick” and funnel all that energy to become somebody others never thought possible. You would surprise even yourself at how far you can go.

Another person’s doubt could be the path to your greatest victory yet.

30 New Things I Learned During a Month in Quarantine

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No, it did not involve a skill or language. With more time alone and isolated, I have been learning new, little bits of information every day since the shelter-in-place has started. The lack of social obligations has really freed up my time to focus on doing things I want to do and being more observant of my surroundings. None of these things were hard to learn and sometimes a quick Google search can do the trick. Some things were learned from an embarrassing scenario or by random too. If anything, being imperfect has probably taught me more than actively trying to be perfect.

  1. From hearing wild turkeys gobbling loudly outside my house for the past few days, I learned it is now mating season for turkeys this time of year.
  2. The quote, “I am not a businessman, I am a business, man,” by Jay-z.
  3. Bananas can be artificially ripen in the oven and then used to make banana bread.
  4. There were a lot of SATs words that I looked up (but now have forgotten) in Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book City of Girls.
  5. Investing is a fancy word for reallocating savings.
  6. A couple of passionate 450-word emails to my city and local park district to close a park entrance in the middle of my neighborhood during the stay at home order worked.
  7. A digital cleanse of unwanted email subscriptions can be mentally refreshing.
  8. Homemade cheesecake and apple cinnamon coffee cake taste way better after a day in the fridge.
  9. Washing my hair every other day and not blow drying it has made my hair appear healthier and stronger.
  10. There is a keyboard shortcut to toggle WIFI on and off on a Windows laptop. (I accidentally pressed the keys in an effort to take a screenshot and I embarrassingly spent 15 minutes on the phone with our office IT guy trying to resolve my remote desktop connection. He was not amused.)
  11. A new high yield savings account can be opened a lot easier than I originally thought through an online application.
  12. A male barista at my local bakery shop is always chirpy and enthusiastic towards customers every time I grab coffee to go once a week.
  13. Weeding is much easier to do in the cool, cloudy mornings than in late afternoon.
  14. The unconscious fact that I have been touching my face a lot before the pandemic and now have roughly reduced the number of times by about half.
  15. The podcast “What You Will Learn” is literally the audible version of spark notes on books in topics ranging from investments, lifestyle, non-fiction, and self-help.
  16. Placing hot brown butter too quickly into the cookie mix can make the texture of the baked cookies flat and runny.
  17. Social “dieting” and social distancing can go hand-in-hand and nobody is the wiser about your unknown whereabouts.
  18. There is usually some technical difficulty when doing a virtual hangout session, but this can be resolved pretty quickly.
  19. Reusable mesh produce bags can be washed in the washing machine on delicate mode and air dried after.
  20. The quote, “We don’t make movies to make money, we make money to make more movies,” by Walt Disney.
  21. Wear sunblock even when going outside on a cloudy day.
  22. Salt and pepper are not the only seasonings that can make soups and curries tasty.
  23. Installing a new TV wall mount requires locating existing wall stud locations and figuring out where to anchor wood screws to ensure a secure and stable wall mount installation.
  24. The time to cook or bake takes longer than you think.
  25. Washing my face in the shower with regular bar soap has helped cleared my skin (on top of washing my face in the morning and at night with a facial cleanser).
  26. People appreciate receiving a direct phone call or voicemail message when I was attempting to contact a sales representative of a paving company for work.
  27. Frozen kimchi pancakes are actually very flavorful and delicious when I stir fried them.
  28. Correcting my posture with three pillows in my home office chair has done wonders.
  29. Re-watching episodes of The Office on Netflix is a good default entertainment during lunch breaks. (It feels like I am in an office setting when I am working from home.)
  30. Little joys like passing by spring blooms or not burning steaming vegetables can brighten up my day.

You can learn something new every day. It does not need to be a difficult mathematical equation or trying to solve world peace. Dial it back down and learn something easy and simple that you didn’t know or notice before. Learning something new does not have to be boring or tiresome either and should be something that excites you and lets you pause for a moment. My greatest motivation is knowing I am not perfect and that I don’t know everything, even with a masters degree and several years of industry experience. There is always something you can learn, you just need to go look for it.

Happy Monday and carpe diem!

Rethinking Parks as a Landscape Designer For Post COVID-19

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Public parks are closed, but my ideas about public parks are not.

I was wondering how my work as a professional landscape designer can make a difference during times of a full blown global crisis. In actuality, COVID-19 has made me rethink about what public parks can actually mean for people. The mental aspect of public parks has never mattered more until the pandemic happened. Sure, healing and “zen” gardens have been designed in many spaces, but typically in healthcare campuses and hospital environments. But why does it stop there? Can’t these types of spaces be weaved into public parks with other programs such as children playgrounds and open courts?

These are the questions I have been asking myself when developing public park concepts and being cooped up at home for the past six weeks. The ability to work from home and continue working on projects as a landscape designer with a financially healthy company has been a grateful blessing and I am now more diligent than ever before to use my experience and understanding to create concepts for public parks that is not only functional and aesthetic in form, but also mentally calming when being inside the park. Adults need sanctuary and healing spaces too and have the chance to go to parks not only for recreational purposes or watch their children play in the playground.

The pandemic has actually sparked a fire-breathing dragon of creativity inside me to create spaces that are relaxing and tranquil within public parks. There is never a better opportunity to start now. I have been given the opportunity to design multiple parks for a neighborhood development project and certainly did not let this go to waste even while being isolated and working remotely. It did take some adjustment to sketch ideas on an 8 ½ x 11″ paper with a 100’ scaled base, but this did not stop me from developing really cool and interesting ideas about how to incorporate such spaces in 5-acre public parks.

And guess what? The project manager loved my ideas and told me so with five exclamation marks. He’s also the type that barely shows much emotion through a Zoom message or let alone, leave any punctuation marks at the end of a sentence. While I can contribute financially to the pandemic – and I do have the sufficient means to do so – I wanted to help in a different way and something that has a lasting impact to locals and even visitors from afar. I have the power to make spaces good, but I also have the power to create something truly unique and better for everyone. These times of uncertainty is not a time to be lazy or uncreative; it is a time to start thinking, be creative, and do things fearlessly (not recklessly).

It is ok to be afraid, but not to live in fear. This period of instability is making many people anxious, including myself. But I choose not to dwell in the rabbit hole of worry and have opted to instead figure out ways to contribute professionally (through concept ideas) and personally (virtual hangouts with friends and constant updates with immediate family members). Just remember you do not have to be the best or the brightest to think of big ideas, you just need to start and keep going.

Self-Care Activities I Now Have Time For

 

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It is quite the luxury to feel un-rushed now. Before the shelter-in-place order, I was incredibly busy with my new job during the weekdays and attending social activities on the weekends like baby and bridal showers, brunch dates, and obligated family gatherings, which pretty much occupies most weekends for a woman in her early 30s. Now, with all the time in the world due to the shelter-in-place order and working remotely from home, I can finally do things I wouldn’t normally do if we all weren’t on house arrest (or at least it feels like one).

This new temporary norm was definitely an abrupt lifestyle adjustment at first, but after four weeks in, some of these activities could permanently fit into both my current and post-quarantine schedule. Best of all, they take thirty minutes or less and can also positively contribute to your overall health and well-being. Nothing is sweeter than a double dose of goodness.

1. Take an outdoor walk with a household member.

Instead of normally commuting back home after work, I now replace the time with a 30-minute evening walk with my sister, who I currently live with. After 5pm, we take a walk around our hilly neighborhood and pretty much talk about anything and everything. The latest updates on COVID-19 and the virus’s impact on our work and overall economy have certainly been our main discussion topic, but it is nice to be able to talk to each other about our feelings and thoughts about current issues, un-judged and unfiltered. At the end of our walk, both of us feel relieved getting stuff off our chest with each other and we get an easy, short workout while doing so. Plus, we get to see cute, neighborhood dogs from a distance during our walk.

We have never done this before the quarantine. But with this shelter-in-place order, we have adjusted our lifestyle around it and managed to find a way to have a deep conversation, in between binge-watching Netflix shows and baking. Actually, this is more like triple dose of goodness because this lets me spend more time with a tolerable family member, unload my unrestricted opinions on this person, and meet my 5,000 steps goal on my Google Fit app every day, all at once.

2. Perform a cooking challenge during lunch hour on weekdays.

For the past five years, I have been mostly eating microwavable food and leftovers for lunch at work. Don’t get me wrong, I like convenience and I still do, but the ability to cook a fresh meal at home beats a mildly warm leftover fried rice at the office any day. Lunch is now a plethora of hearty choices using whatever is available in the fridge and pantry, along with a handy kitchen gadget and clean cookware.

There are lots of healthy recipes that take thirty minutes or less to prepare, and I use the remaining time left to watch an episode of Kim’s Convenience. Lately, I have been doing a personal challenge of figuring out recipes and methods to cook a rainbow plate of delicious food, which consists of vegetables, healthy carbs, and lean meats, using the least amount of time and cookware possible. So far, I have really enjoyed making tasty, colorful lunches for the past several weeks and found myself being more productive and less sleepy on the latter half of the work day. Win-win.

3. Treat myself to a spa and relaxation session.

Before the state-wide lockdown, whenever I did a face mask, I would also be doing something else simultaneously, in order to save time. Now that there is no rush to go somewhere or meet someone, I have some extra time to do a face mask while relaxing my mind and body. It is still multi-tasking in a way, but in a good way. I can lay on my bed with either a cool face mask or mud mask and listen to soothing music without much interruption – outside or mentally. My thoughts are not consumed by the next task, but just being in the moment and actually meditate a little bit.

This has probably been the best treat I have given myself while staying at home. It is free, takes only half an hour, and, at the end of it, my face is brighter and my mind is clearer. For somebody who rarely goes to a spa or let alone even pay for one, this is the next best thing to the real thing. I also never would have thought of doing this in relaxation mode, without doing something productive at the same time. Having time for yourself and performing a self-care routine was considered a luxury to me and I now do both simultaneously on a regular basis. I can even do this on a weekday and not need to wait until the weekend to do this.

Self-care has usually been something that I needed to squeeze somewhere in my busy life and kind of doing it half-heartedly when I did find time to do it. Recently, it has gradually cemented into my not-so-busy schedule and paved itself as a necessary activity for benefiting my overall mental health, improving my mood, body, and mind. Self-care is not selfish, because if I strive to live with a healthier mind and body, it benefits everyone else around me and the work I do. I can have better relationships with people, improve work productivity, and be more creative with a calmer mind. The important thing is to start now, when you now have the time to do it.

Minimal Ways to Maximize Ideas

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Ideas can sprout anywhere. It does not always come in the perfect environment, the best timing, or an ideal location. If anything, they come at the oddest and most inconvenient moments. Knowing this, there are ways to help foster ideas and spark creativity by sticking to using basic tools in a not-so-perfect setting. Being minimalistic and even messy can spark big ideas. As a landscape designer by profession and a general creator in my free time, I have found ways to maximize creativity by using minimalistic tactics. This is not always pretty or organized, but, truthfully, the root of creative ideas never are anyways. They are usually the rawest and roughest form of bigger ideas, which is how ideas are naturally generated.

1. Use basic tools to sketch ideas.

A clean, new sheet of scratch paper makes me nervous and could actually hinder me from developing new ideas. I agonize too much over ruining the new sheet and beat myself over about whether or not the first line is worth drawing on. I also get too stressed over the possibility that if the idea sucks, then the new sheet is wasted. So instead, I became more flexible to drawing my ideas on a random paper or something accessible at the time, like the back of a scratch printed paper, on a lined journal page, or on a paper napkin. I became accustomed to sketching on things not exactly designed for ideas, but they are still economical, resourceful, and practical. Most ideas are produced by chance too and not at the dedicated times when I sit and stare over a blank piece of paper, so it is okay to grab whatever piece of paper is handy.

A basic working pen or pencil can be more appropriate to use for ideas than a fancier one. As long as the pencil or pen produces enough ink or marking without too much effort, then it remains an effective tool in drafting ideas. I prefer to use a black ink pen because this forces me to commit to the sketch without the ability to erase or retreat from my initial thoughts. Inked sketches also help keep a permanent track record of the ideas that were thought out, so I can go back and revisit earlier versions if the one I developed does not work out. I can use fancier pens or pencils later on once I finalize my ideas and want to draw a final design.

 2. Sketch small first then bigger later.

 I tend to draw in small, quick bursts rather than in larger and slower movements, especially when ideas start to flow all at once. I draw multiple sketches of a singular idea and if I do not see it working out, I move on to a completely different idea and keep repeating this cycle until I reach a satisfactory point where the idea can be truly finessed. This helps maintain idea flow and avoids wasting too much pen or paper during the brainstorming process. Drawing small can be messy and disorganized, but the whole point of the sketching exercise is to develop ideas, not constrain them. The messier the paper is, the better.

3. Maximize comfort and limit distractions when brainstorming ideas.

When deliberately trying to brainstorm ideas, it does not really matter where you are, as long as you are able to concentrate and are in a comfortable environment when doing so. The place can be at a local coffee shop, a computer desk, or even on your bed. There is no right place for generating ideas, just one where your ideas can flow freely and with little to no distractions. The space should match your comfort level and be spacious and tidied enough to draw. Your ideas can be messy, but the space around your sketch should be cleared and free of obstructions.

It also helps to turn off your computer or phone, so you will not be disturbed by an impromptu text message or swayed to procrastinate on your computer. You can listen to music or have something playing in the background if this helps you with your creative juices going. Try to concentrate for twenty minutes  – or longer if you can – and then take breaks in between by grabbing a snack or taking a walk outside. Taking breaks can be just as important when developing ideas. Sometimes when we are not actively thinking about ideas or productively procrastinating, the ideas come out in full force. Do have a paper and pen handy when they do come out of nowhere because they usually do half of the time.

How to Make Money Without a Bra or Makeup

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Photo by Alexavier Rylee Cimafranca on Pexels.com

I am ambitiously lazy. I have been making extra money, aside from my full-time professional job, but in my own comfort zone, barefaced and un-shaved legs, while sitting under a warm comforter on my bed in my pajamas and drinking coffee from my favorite mug. For a woman in her early 30’s, it is a freeing concept to make money whenever and wherever, without having to wear make-up, contacts, or a bra. I do not have to face anyone, look older and mature, or try to wear work attire that is not too tight or low or short to make more money. Best of all is that I do not have to be told what to do within a 9-to-5 timeframe to earn money, I can make money my way and on my terms.

To do this, I had to first take a step out of my comfort zone. In order to live comfortably, I needed to be uncomfortable first. This means deviating from the standard and taking the risk to be different. Consider this analogy: instead of hiking up on the wider, paved trail to the mountain peak of success like everyone else, I decided to take a less traveled, alternate route. It was riskier and steeper and the path may or may not have reached the mountain peak at all. I may have encountered obstacles, slip, or fall. Though, despite all the uncertainties, it was my choice to create my own path and decide where I go next. Even if the path was more difficult to climb and required a bit more work, my path could potentially lead to the peak faster.

For a long time, I was like everyone else. I was not the fastest or slowest person on the conventional path up, but I was going at a decent pace in achieving academic and professional success. I was also following the usual path of a woman in finding the “one”, getting married, and building a family one day. All of my girl friends were doing this, so I was doing the same without missing a beat. I got married last year and my wedding day was truly one of the best days of my life. While the route I was on made me feel stable and secure, I was not fulfilled. My sense of purpose was lacking, even though I did all the right things, stuck to the same path, and was careful not to disturb the status quo along the way.

Career-wise, I was chugging and grinding along like I was supposed to by having a regular job and just getting paid for doing good, honest work. Yet, I found the work unrewarding and felt trapped in a cycle of dead-end responsibilities. For the first time in thirty years, I wanted to quit a job for one that I actually wanted, not because of any life reasons or because it was the only company that gave a job offer. After achieving financial stability, I wanted to choose what I wanted to do and for the salary I wanted. This meant straying from the norm and leaving a four year job that would have made me terribly unhappy if I had stayed for another 30 years. And so, I stepped out from the conventional path and into the bushes.

At first, it was prickly, uncomfortable, and the unfamiliar terrain made me very nervous. Nobody was guiding me forward, I was on my own. I kept going though, treading carefully and purposefully. I negotiated for a higher end salary at my new job that I wanted and successfully got it. I spontaneously traveled to South Korea, a country I have never been, within three weeks of my decision to go. I did a freelance project designing a front yard residential landscape and was involved in the entire construction process, which is now built and enjoyed by the owners. While I have never done any of these before 2018, I was carving my own path.

As a petite Asian woman in her early 30’s, I seemed to be going against every traditional, cultural and social norms. Being different meant being isolated from a social circle of friends and acquaintances who were doing things by conventional standards. While a handful of my friends were having babies, I was pursuing side ventures. While they were focused on planning their baby showers or baby rooms, I was focused on my self-worth. It was a solo journey and it did feel lonely at times to be detached from conversations about family planning aspirations and expensive daycare costs. But I wanted to increase my income, to travel to places I have never been, and to create something I called my own. I did not want conventions to define me, I wanted to define myself.

It is easy to take the conventional road to success because it does lead to some guarantees and promises of financial security by relying on a steady job of 50 years, the safety net of social security and government handouts for retirement. It does not require much thinking or creativity to follow this path, as long as you work hard and long enough to reach the peak. I believe at some point in time this path may have worked in the past, but it will not make anyone a millionaire today. If anything, those who follow this path now would be unhappy, unmotivated, and even in debt. To actually get to the point of making money without a bra or any make-up on, you will need to break away from these conventions and start making money by doing things you like, not what you have to do. In the long run, you will make more money by doing things you are interested in and, once you do, you can make even more money your way.

Investing in myself was probably the most profitable decision I have made in my life. It allowed me to make more money than I ever thought and now I have the ability to make even more by investing. It has been rewarding to do things on my own. It is a new high that I have discovered and the more I do this, the more of this I want. Plus, my side ventures did not feel like work at all because I enjoyed doing them. I also did not need to work ten times harder to get ten times the results. It was true that I worked longer and I needed more brainpower to push through, but I did not work harder. I did what I normally do when doing something new for the first time, which included many hours of researching and reading. I also talked to friends for some guidance and advice who were long-time veterans of these situations, like negotiating for a higher salary. If you are open to continuous learning and gaining new skills, then do not be afraid to ask for help from others who have succeeded in doing so.

Now that you have a steady income flowing and presumably have paid off all debts, the fun part begins: it is time to make more money by investing. In the next Part II post, I will explain techniques on how to earn compound interest, how to conservatively make money from the stock market, and how to maximize your 401(k). Truthfully, if you choose to invest in yourself, all the other parts of your life could be very rewarding – professionally, socially, and financially. All it takes is a first step off the conventional trail.

Coronavirus: America’s Wake Up Call

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Photo by Tim Mossholder on Pexels.com

The past couple of weeks have been nasty and disruptive. Who knew a virus could single-handedly wreck the stock market, day to day life, and our access to basic necessities? It sounds like a crazy dream, but we are all living this nightmare in real life. And we never saw it coming.

Everyone’s situation is different. I see employees adjusting to the new work of home life on LinkedIn, I read stories about people losing their jobs on Reddit, and I hear those still partying on the beach as if nothing is happening on the national news. I am beyond lucky to have a job that allows me to work from home – starting this week in fact – in a profession that I love. I work with a landscape architecture team that focuses on large-scale projects (park design, residential development, and commercial landscapes) and we are able to continue working on projects remotely because our client contracts were secured months prior. And luckily, most of our work is done using the AutoCAD program and on the computer about 85% of the time. I have never worked from home before in my line of work of 5 years, but this abrupt change has been both interesting and enlightening in a couple of ways.

The new quarantine and work from home life has been a blessing in disguise for me. I admit I am a homebody and I love being in the comfort of my childhood home. So far, I have been enjoying working in my pajamas and eating non-microwavable food for lunch. I do not need to put on make-up or eye contacts. I can go to the bathroom as loudly as I please without needing to be as discreet as possible in the women’s public restroom. From having to commute round-trip to work for 3 hours to 1 and half hour to 40 minutes to no commute at all, it has been nice and stress-free to just walk to my own desk and get to work. I also get to see my neighbors (and their furry companions) from a safe distance when I got out for my daily lunch walks.

I seem to be more focused, without being disturbed or leered into random conversations, and I do not feel a sense of loneliness as I have been building up my independence for a long time. I am also incredibly grateful that the home I live in is built for working remotely (my other family members do this regularly), has a working heating and cooling unit, and enough private space for three adults to work remotely at the same time. It is Day 4 and I have definitely adjusted to the new work from home life. I can’t imagine going back to working full time now. The only first-world problem is that I do not have enough pajamas to go through and will have to wash my only three pairs often and regularly.

Also, the timing has never been more perfect to invest in stocks or funds (index or mutual, depending on whichever butters your bread) in a down stock market. For a gal who loves a good discount, this is the silver lining I have been waiting for the past 12 years. I have slowly been building a small nest of funds, emergency and otherwise, and have been watching the bear market like a hungry wolf. The moment to strike is now, oddly caused by something that was totally abnormal and outside from the typical world of economics. Even with the many lessons learned from previous downturns, new techniques set in place, and a seemingly strong economy, the stock market is not immune to volatility and disturbances. And us humans will always feel the effects of it, in both the good and bad times.

I know it is luxury to still have a job, to have the resources to work remotely, and to even have toilet paper (one bulk set of 16, nothing more or less). I know others are not so lucky and living in a much tougher and difficult reality. But the truth is that you can be in my shoes one day – probably sooner than you think – and be able to have the ability to ride this massive wave the next time an unexpected high tide comes. The stock market will be a never-ending roller coaster and life will keep throwing lemons at you, but you can learn to be self-sufficient and find ways to overcome worst-case scenarios. You can survive this and come out stronger if you keep calm and focused. Know that you have options and others have succeeded with far less and in worse situations than yours.

If you are still in panic mode and still don’t believe me, I highly recommend reading the book, “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living” by Dale Carnegie. He talks about people from leading businessmen to prominent leaders to ordinary people who suffered from constant worry and overcame this by changing their mindset and finally saw life through a different lens. He tells stories of people in the worst of situations. One such story is an American manager for a life insurance company who happened to be in China when the Japanese army invaded Shanghai in 1942. He had no choice but to work under a Japanese admiral and liquidate the company’s assets for him. He did not tell the admiral about one of their securities, but this was soon discovered by the Japanese army. He was told he would be sent to a torture chamber for being a traitor. Nobody ever came out alive from there. How did this same life insurance manager and guy with an incoming death sentence later become one of the most successful American businessman in the Far East? I will reveal this later as you continue reading.

Carnegie also talks strategies and mentions a ton of inspirational quotes throughout the book. Though, I find reading the stories of people who overcame worries and eventually became rich – either financially or in life or both – has made the book relatable and gives me hope that I can achieve the same feat. He writes in a way as if he was talking to you in person, where it feels like you are having a coffee chat with a very supportive, restorative friend. It is also eerie and impressive at how he easily predicts your skepticism too. For a worrywart like me, this book is probably the best $10 I have spent to date and a way cheaper alternative than going to see an expensive therapist. By the way, the book is not sponsored and I am merely echoing similar praises from over 2,500 5-star reviews on Amazon.

If you are not in panic mode, it is time to wake-up and make lemonade. Stop reading the news, stop listening to your friends about the news, and stop talking about the news. Knowing and spreading this sort of information will not change your situation. You could be doing something more productive with your time, especially with all this extra time being stuck at home. This crisis has shown us the true nature of people. We find out things like American senators selling stock before the market slowdown, people exploiting consumer goods, and corporations laying off thousands to save their own companies. Whether these are true or not, there will always be people one step ahead of you and trying to get ahead of everyone else. Be one of those people – legally and logically of course.

We cannot rely on the current system because it remains unfair, unreliable, and unstable for those struggling to build wealth. The system has been working for those who have already made it to the top and have catered to their best interests all along, not yours, no matter how much it appears like it. So, it is time to stop beating around the bush and beat the system. To do so, you need to figure out your finances and this all just comes down to basic math. It does not take a mathematician to figure out how much debt you have, how much income you have, and how much you spend on a regular basis. Write this down on a piece of paper or an excel sheet. Once everything is laid out, find out expenses you can cut for the time being, perhaps Netflix or even the 401k contribution if you still have a job and need the extra money now. Maybe also start thinking about selling things you do not need and get a cheaper alternative, like a $500 car baby seat for a baby that is still due in months. Do not spend things you cannot afford.

If you have debt, figure out a game plan on how to tackle this first. And not just tackle it, but tackle it aggressively, so interests won’t continue to pile up. Perhaps in our current state of emergency, interest rates will not budge for now, but it will start again in the future. Do not think your debts will go away because they will not and you will need to address them sooner or later. If you do not have income anymore to pay your debts, figure out a way on how to generate more income. For the time being, you can be a Lyft driver, an Amazon delivery person, or even an online freelance gig – anything that could give you income. Take all three jobs if you have to. Remember, all this is only temporary until you get back on your feet and while you may have friends and family who laugh at you now, you can laugh back at them once you have no debt, no financial worry, and more than six zeros in your bank account.

It will not be easy at first. It will be excruciating, tiring, and sometimes you will feel like giving up. Though, hard work, perseverance, and discipline will get you farther than anything else. There is a helpful quote of Military origin (based on a quick Google search) that states, “Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.” A good analogy of this is the children’s story about the tortoise and the hare. The tortoise still won by making gradual steps forwards instead of the hare being lazy and taking a nap. You can still win by being slow and steady. Little changes could make a big difference over time. And this doesn’t have to be a children’s story, it could be yours. Once you become debt-free, then you can start building wealth from then on, including your emergency fund. You will have a better peace of mind and can live a lifestyle you have always dreamed of. And when life throws lemons again, you will still be ok and not be financially affected because you will then be one step forward than half of the U.S. population.

Remember the American manager who was on the brink of death by the Japanese admiral? He had one day to think of a game plan, so he thought about his options for hours before writing the top four down and their consequences. His first three options were to either give the admiral an explanation, try to escape, or not go into the office the next morning, but all might lead to inevitable death. So, he decided to go with his fourth option, which was to pretend nothing had happened and the admiral would be too busy to remember the exposed discovery. The next morning, he went to the office as usual and, fortunately, nothing more came from this. The admiral returned to Tokyo six weeks after. The time spent to figure out all options and writing down the “what ifs” literally saved his life. So yes, I am a strong proponent in spending time to think and writing about the top possible options (and their outcomes) to really figure out your strategy for any of your worries. This will really prepare you in the long run.

The coronavirus should be a wake-up call to all Americans. If a virus can financially affect you this badly, then what you have been doing so far has not been working and probably has not been working for a while. Don’t feel bad, feel good that you are acknowledging this. Because once you do, you can either figure out how to build an emergency fund or a strategy to pay your debts or a second or third income to keep a roof over your head. Remember there are options, you just need some time to figure them out. Start today, not tomorrow or the day after. Time is non-renewable and the longer you wait this out without a course of action, the harder it will be to overcome your problems. Your future self will thank you for it.

Final Note: It has been a devastating pandemic and the world has seen the both the ugly and good sides of humanity during these uncertain times. My hearts go out to everyone to be safe, healthy, and responsible because we are all in this together. Remain calm and buy necessities in the amount you absolutely need. We have never faced a crisis like this before in modern day history, so I believe most of us are learning as we go. Sometimes protocols are unexpected and may continue to be for a little longer, but know that you are not alone in this. You can get through this and the rest of the world will too.

How to Negotiate Your Salary and Beyond

Market2 copy 2
Mongkok Ladies’ Market / September 2015

My earliest memory of bargaining was when I was 13 years old. I was with my mom at the Mongkok Ladies’ Market in Hong Kong, sweating and sticky under the hot mid-afternoon sun in July. I wanted to buy a couple of souvenirs for my school friends and my mom was determined to get the best deal from an older female shop owner. My mom was firm in the lowered price she wanted to pay, but the owner was reluctant. My mom and I then tactfully walked away, but not too far because the owner later shouted for us to come back and accepted my mom’s price. My mom smiled and we returned to the shop to pay for the souvenirs. We did this several more times at the market. By the end of day, our red plastic bags were full of items my mom happily bargained for.

Bargaining is a cultural norm and a skill kids growing up under a traditional Chinese household learn and try to excel at as much as academics. The ability to convince a complete stranger for the price you want is a concept I learned early in my childhood and one that carried on into my adulthood. I eventually became very good at bargaining in local street markets whenever I was traveling overseas. It felt really good to purchase something for much less than the original price and having the final say was highly rewarding. Jessica Huang from ABC’s Fresh off the Boat series would have been incredibly proud.

Bargaining is daring and thrilling, but negotiating is scary. Perhaps the fact that the word itself starts with the latin neg– meaning no connotes negativity already. Yet, bargaining and negotiating mean pretty much the same thing since both involve discussion and agreement on something. The difference is that bargaining is often associated with price and negotiation applies to more broader terms and guarantees, sometimes not involving price in the first place. 

While I knew how to bargain, I was terrified of negotiation. So much so that in all the miscellaneous jobs I held for the past ten years, I have never once negotiated my salary. I accepted the pay offer as it was and I did the same when there were annual pay increases after yearly performance reviews. I never questioned my previous employers’ decisions because I was always thinking they were getting what they were paying for. This does not mean I was satisfied with the outcome (if anything, it was far from it), but my desire to not disrupt my relationship with my employers or change the status quo outweighed my own happiness, every single time.

And I was not alone in this. I know of a senior technical recruiter who did not ask for a raise after three years with the company, despite a few years of industry experience before this role. I know of a high-level HR manager who did not ask for a raise in five years even after having accumulated job responsibilities over time. I know of a sales marketing engineer who agreed to the same salary at a new employment opportunity even with a couple years of experience, a college degree, and certification in the field. They, including myself, are serial bargain hunters when it comes to shopping, but none of them had the courage to bring up to their supervisor about a raise or salary adjustment in their professional lives.

All of them are successful and smart Asian-American women in their respective fields. Perhaps being raised under a traditional Asian household we all learned to regard money with uncertainty and insecurity. While bargaining was a strategy to get the cheapest deal as possible, it was done so we could save money and maintain a stable nest egg. I myself learned all the aspects of coupon clipping, finding cheap deals, and bargaining whenever possible, so I could remain financially secure. For a long time, I thought money was meant to be preserved and sustained, so I was always so focused on never losing less. I never thought to make more. 

Last year, I had a defining moment to make a change. In my fourth annual performance review with my previous employer, I was given a small pay bump of a $1 increase to my current hourly pay. In the previous three years, I was given either $1.5 or up to $3 increase to my hourly pay every year, so hearing this was a major blow to my ego and self-esteem as a hard-working professional. I was also carrying more responsibilities and workload, but not getting paid substantially for it. It was then I realized they were not getting what they were paying for anymore and, instead, they were getting what they wanted for at a bargained price. I was the older female shop owner at the Ladies’ Market from 18 years ago. 

At the time, I did not challenge the pay increase and just accepted it for the time being because I knew from then on I was going to work harder to get the pay I wanted at another firm. I was thinking about leaving anyway and find a company that better fit with my career goals and project types. I set out a mission to update my portfolio and resume, as well as take freelance work on top of my full-time work to gain outside experience. I was also planning my own wedding too, but my willpower to earn more money and showing my professional skills and potential was equally important, if not more. There was never going to be a better time than at that moment to do so. 

I did a schedule send email on a Monday morning of my application to only one firm, hoped for the best, and did not think to hear back from them for months. I heard back from the HR manager within 2 hours in an email, stating they wanted to schedule an interview with me in the same week. Emotions of surprise, panic, and relief came all at once after reading the email, but it was mostly a sense of reward that I felt. Hard work really does pay off. 

I did well in the interview and was offered a job the day after. The compensation offered was what I put down in my application, which was a bad mistake I later found out. I learned from my recruiter friend to never write down the compensation amount and write either ‘N/A’ or ‘Negotiable’ instead, so there will be some flexibility to actually negotiate the salary once there is a job offer. My initial reasoning to put down a slight salary increase was that so they would be more willing to hire me, but she told me my logic was wrong and leaves no room for negotiation down the road. She explained not indicating a specific salary amount works better in the candidate’s favor and reassured this will not deter a company from hiring someone. Many applicants do this anyway and I should have done the same.

I did not want all my hard work to go to waste for a slight increase in pay. Since this was the only opportunity to negotiate my compensation, I asked for the pay I actually wanted, which was about a 20% increase from my current salary. I briefly explained after reviewing the job description and pairing this with my skills and experience that I believe this new compensation would be fair. I reread my email about 100 times before I sent it. Deep down inside, I was absolutely nervous and afraid of what they would say. Many questions consumed my thoughts. What if they retract the job offer entirely? What do I do if they came back with a counter offer? What if they never get back to me?

None of my concerns actually happened. After a few days, they accepted my new compensation and sent over the revised job offer. It worked! I was mind-blown because it was my first negotiation ever and it was successful beyond my expectation. Of course I have to prove myself at my new job, but this was something I can do, since I have been building skills, experience, and knowledge in the industry for a long time. I was beyond excited to finally get the compensation I wanted with a job position I have been longing for.

Today, I no longer see negotiation as terrifying. I view it as a normal business transaction and actually quite empowering. Even if there was a counter offer or they stuck with my original compensation, I could have also negotiated for things other than salary, such as more paid time-off or mandatory yearly increase in pay. It is not the end of the world if the initial negotiation does not work, just try to negotiate other terms since it is your only opportunity to do so before signing the offer contract. The employer rarely retracts a job offer just because of your willingness to negotiate. 

Now that I feel like a superwoman who can do anything, I am also shifting my focus to find ways to earn more money rather than focusing on trying not to lose less. It is interesting how I, along with my Asian girl friends, grew up to think about money as something that needed to be saved, bargained for, and protected. Our male counterparts often grow up learning otherwise and see money as power, investing, and strength. I find this dichotomy unfair but I understand this is something that is inherited culturally, socially, and historically. While I cannot go back in time to change my past, I have the ability to control my future. This year, I am slowly starting to invest and build my net worth because nothing is sexier than compound interest from savings and having varied investments for a bargain hunter like me.

Ladies, negotiate, negotiate, negotiate. Breathe it, chant it, and repeat it. Negotiation is not as scary as you think it is and once you do it, you will be amazed at the new wave of opportunities that come with it and wonder why you did not do this earlier. If your professional experience and potential matches with the salary you would like to negotiate for, then go for it. It does not hurt to ask for more. I know of another Asian girl friend who was able to successfully negotiate a salary compensation of $50,000 more and they accepted her offer! Do not settle for less, settle for more. 

This post is in honor of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day. Thank you to all the women for their achievements, contributions, and influence. Let’s continue to move forward and bring positive change. We can do it. 

4 Things You Should Know About Weddings

I love going to weddings. I have attended eighteen weddings so far, including my own. I have witnessed long-time friends become lifetime partners, cried at almost every heartfelt speech by loved ones, and tasted unbelievably delicious sweets from fabulously decorated dessert tables. Weddings are joyous occasions and celebrating love between two people makes me feel so happy and whenever there’s an open bar, extra happier.

But having been a bridesmaids to five dear girl friends and a bride herself, I know it is not all dandelions and roses leading up to the big day or on the day of. While the wedding itself is just for one day, the planning process could feel like an eternity. This is because you and your engaged partner are doing the best you can when you have absolutely no experience in wedding planning but suddenly have the societal expectation to plan the perfect event on the biggest and most important day of your lives, while maintaining some sort of sanity, your professional jobs, and flawless skin doing so. And on top of that, balancing a stretching wedding budget with external opinions darting left and right from all angles. It sounds completely absurd, but this is a cyclical reality every engaged couple gets dragged into before marriage.

If I have learned anything about weddings, it is that they are not easy to plan. It can take a psychological, financial, and physical toll on a relationship before it legally begins. Behind the exquisitely decorated dessert table was probably a ton of behind the scenes design coordination, numerous tastings, and budgeting efforts prior to its inception. Behind the table seating chart display was probably many heavy, and sometimes heated, debates among traditional parents over guest invites and count. Also, specific decisions regarding guests such as ‘plus ones’ require more time and open conversation with your partner than you think. Should you invite a cousin’s new girlfriend of 2 months to your wedding? Should you even invite this cousin at all?

This can get really overwhelming, really fast. There is no perfect recipe for planning a stress-free wedding, no matter how hard I tried. Some things will no doubt be difficult and not work out the way you want them to. For those who are planning a wedding for over 50 guests, I do have a couple of handy tips to help you go through this process. While I am not an expert in this industry and nor will I ever want to be, I was able to pull off an almost perfect wedding day for 150 guests without a wedding planner. You can do the same too and not lose your mind by your wedding day. Here are four things you should know about weddings:

1. You will need to make uncomfortable decisions.

I was not ready for this, but I still had to make them. My most difficult decision in the wedding planning process was choosing my five bridesmaids. Actually, it was not the act of choosing who they will be, but the act of choosing who was not going to be my bridesmaid, which was the gut wrenching part of it. It was easy to ask a close, longtime friend to be a bridesmaid, but it was much more heartbreaking to tell another close girl friend she wasn’t going to be one. Three of the women whom I was a bridesmaid for were not a part of my bridal party. It was a tough and dreadful conversation, but I still had to suck it up and do it anyway. They took it better than I imagined, as they understood and were busy planning for their growing family.

It is ideal to be upfront in the beginning about this so there are no misunderstandings about it later on. Choose your bridesmaids or bridesmen wisely because these are the people who will literally stand by your side at the altar and be with you for all the bride-related festivities, including your dress shopping, bachelorette and bridal shower. Also, when you ask your friends to be your bridesmaids/bridesmen, outline any financial expectations and requests you have before they commit to being one. This will save potential frustrations and uncomfortable conversations in the future or even a broken friendship by the time the wedding comes along. Losing a good friend over one of the happiest day of your life is not worth it.

Guest invites were my second most difficult decision I had to make because this involved my traditional parents who wanted to invite people they knew, including people I have never met before in my life. There were times when my parents and I would get into screeching arguments at a local Starbucks over something so menial like a few guests they wanted to invite. It was definitely not my proudest moment as a thirty-year old, but this conversation kept repeating itself with no resolution and tripled my frustration every time we talked about it. My partner and I wanted to keep an intimate guest list, but they wanted to invite the whole world. We later compromised with them to strictly invite their close friends, since the venue could hold a maximum of 150 guests and we were paying for the wedding ourselves. In the end, we had a total of 120 wedding guests and half of their friends were unable to attend due to schedule conflict.

The wedding planning process will involve hard decisions, especially if you have traditional parents. My advice is that while you cannot control the situation, you can control your actions and emotions, so keep your chin up high and stay focused. Your friends are more understanding than you think and there may be a silver lining or an opportunity for a compromise later down the road.

2. Use referrals or plan early to help save time and money.

Because my partner and I were conveniently one of the last couples among our group of friends to get married, we were able to use vendors referred to us from our married friends or friends experienced in the wedding industry to help us save time and cost. We did not need to do much research for some of our vendors because our friends have done them already for their own wedding. Our wedding officiant, florist, and make-up artists were all referrals from our friends. Because they were referrals, we were either able to get a slight discount for their services or had several things added to the service for free. Networking with people in the wedding industry is similar to professional networking, so definitely mention the referral whenever you first talk to the vendor. Also, if you and your partner can afford to pay for a service rather than DIY, then this helps minimize a lot of stress and additional coordination to purchase, transport, setup, and so on.

Also, it saves to plan early. The rumors are true; wedding prices do increase every year. But if you plan your wedding at least a year in advance, you have the opportunity to pay the current year’s rate and not the following year’s rate for a vendor. My partner and I were engaged for about two years before getting married last October. When we booked some of our vendors back in 2018, we were able to pay the 2018 pricing, not the 2019 pricing. If we waited to book them in 2019, then we would have needed to pay more, probably an additional several hundred dollars or so. This concept is similar to booking a flight or hotel early on to save money, so try to book your vendors sooner rather than later.

Sticking to your set wedding budget is probably one of the most important aspects of wedding planning. This is a number that you and your partner will both need to agree on and be committed to before the wedding planning begins. Once you know your budget, allocate how much funds you and your partner are willing to spend more or less on. Also, booking a vendor requires a deposit upfront, typically half of the total cost. If you have trouble making just the deposit, then perhaps you should re-evaluate your total budget or, if possible, postpone the wedding a little later to get the funds you need to make both the deposit and full payment later on, without getting a loan.

Be firm in maintaining your budget and try not to go rogue. I know Instagram and Pinterest are fun resources for wedding ideas, but try not to be swayed by the dreamy decor or nonessential details. If you can afford these additions, then sure go for them. But if you cannot, stick to the original budget.

3. Get ready to smile a lot with sore cheeks on your big day.

I consider myself as someone who smiles a decent amount each day, but I did not anticipate my cheeks would get so sore from just a few hours of smiling on my wedding day. My cheeks started to hurt by noon, after smiling so much for photographs during the tea ceremony that morning. There was still nine hours left to go and the wedding itself hasn’t begun yet. My partner was struggling with sore cheeks too. We were fortunate to take several breaks between our wedding ceremony and reception so we could rest our faces. It is both a relief and a mystery that nobody captured us frowning at each other while we took our breaks.

There are muscles in your face cheeks you probably never knew existed until your wedding day. This may be the oddest piece of advice in this post, but to avoid sore cheeks, try training your cheek muscles sometime before the wedding. If you were planning to work out anyway, might as well squeeze in some cheek training in your workouts too.

4. Bride-to-bes, you will feel like a celebrity on your wedding day.

Assuming no other guest tries to steal the spotlight, then all eyes, cameras, and focus will be on the bride on her wedding day. Now, I am an introvert at heart, so being the center of attention for twelve hours was kind of nerve-wrecking. Nobody in my family or friends has looked or stared at me for more than ten minutes before, but as a bride, I was their direct line of sight for a whole day. I was not used to 120 pairs of eyes staring at me and being the person everyone wanted to take photos with or talk to. It was a mind-boggling experience to take center stage for once, to feel like a celebrity and have ‘paparazzis’ and people come up to either greet me or take a candid Instagram story with me. At times, I felt like a deer in headlights and unsure of how to handle this newly found fame.

There is no other day in a regular woman’s life where she will receive as much attention when she is a bride. Being a bride somehow means to be social and smile constantly, while making certain to not show embarrassing habits or weird gestures in front of everyone that would be captured for life. So, I went out of my comfort zone to be an extrovert for my wedding day and it was more liberating than I initially thought. I was not forcing myself to smile in front of the photographer but smiling because I was enjoying the moment with my partner and being surrounded by loved ones. Eventually, my new celeb status wore off by evening, a big thanks to the open bar we had. By the end of the night, everyone was focused on having a good time with each other. The remaining hours of our wedding celebration was incredibly freeing for both me and my partner because the wedding planning was finally over.

Our wedding day was the most magical, happiest day of our lives. We planned it like it was our last so we would never have to through the wedding planning process again. Yes, we had a few mishaps on our wedding day, but nothing ever really goes as planned. As a bridesmaid, I have witnessed a bride having a meltdown right before the grand entrance and a staff from catering quit and leave while serving dinner during the reception at another wedding. In our wedding, one of our guests drank too much by the end of the night, blacked out, and had to be picked up by his parents at midnight. Some things just happen beyond your control, so the best you could do is to handle the situation as best and calmly as you can because there is a solution for everything. While our wedding was not totally perfect, it was to me because most things worked out and some things even exceeded beyond my expectations.

I am extremely happy that my partner and I are no longer discussing anything related to wedding planning anymore and we are able to have normal conversations again. For two years, wedding planning consumed our thoughts for many days and nights, with some decision or concern agonizing us for weeks at a time. Planning for a once in a lifetime event was exhausting for us since we were simultaneously maintaining full-time jobs, handling uphill battles with my parents, and making big and small decisions on a daily basis. It did become easier with time, help from friends, and patience. Know that you are not alone in this. Keep the wedding simple if you can, keep calm if you can’t. Congratulations on your engagement and good luck with the wedding planning!