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Turning your year around

We all know the feeling that time is slipping past us, gone before we have a second to focus on it. We might be working in jobs that we don’t care about, but that make ends meet. Our relationships might not be getting the attention they deserve or might be the wrong ones all together. Our fitness or creative goals are no closer to being achieved than when we set them.

Then we start making excuses for ourselves about why we are where we are. Work could be so much worse and there are bills to pay, meeting new people is impossible, we’ve been too busy to focus on what brings us joy in life. Time presses on, taking our days, months, and years with it, waiting for us to wake up. Time and tide wait for no man (and unfortunately they seemed to be particularly against women).

My recent revelation on this topic came from my therapist. We are discussing anxiety, triggered by stress from work. She is nudging me to push back on workload, and to stop going the extra mile (a concept which seems to be taking off at the moment – titled quiet quitting in the West and lying flat in the East). This is a bizarre notion to me, raised by a nurse who worked intensely long hours for criminally low pay, and who was entirely immune to any pretence about needing a sick day from school. I don’t think either end of that work ethic spectrum is the right one, but there has to be a mid-point in which you can thrive as your own person and also genuinely deliver value to your employer.

I believe this is achievable through a series of simple mindset shifts, habits, and routines. The first thing is to decide what you want to prioritise. In my case in the broadest sense this is a gradual career shift towards balancing work that pays the bills alongside more creative and physical pursuits. I didn’t need to know exactly what it would look like, only that I needed to carve out the time in which I was going to start figuring it out. In order to do that, two mindset shifts are required: first to work the hours that I need to work to do my job to an acceptable standard and to believe that this is enough; the second to take the pressure off the creative journey being instantly productive.

The next revelation came from my research into habit formation. In the briefest of nutshells, habits are formed best through a trigger, action, reward, accountability framework. We need to dedicate time to them, ideally the same time every day, and tie them to something that is already happening every day. Typically this means first thing after waking up (my preference), last thing before going to bed, or around one of the three standard meals each day. You then remove any barriers to completing the action in advance. It’s worth keeping in mind that we treat our future selves with a similar level of empathy to a stranger, so it’s easy to leave all the hard work to tomorrow’s version of us. If we want that future self to actually complete the action, we need to make it easy for them. In my case, my trigger is my alarm which I put outside the bedroom next to my laptop – leading me directly to the tool I need to do my writing. In the case of a fitness habit, it would be next to laid out exercise clothes, keys, headphones, water and a gym membership card.

Researchers in the area of habit formation Katy Milkman and Nir Eyal have excellent advice on making the journey to sustainable change more enjoyable. This is the reward part of the habit. From Milkman’s research, she emphasises the need for temptation bundling, essentially the linking of something pleasurable with the habit in question. For instance allowing yourself to watch a favourite TV show whilst exercising, or only allowing yourself a favourite food after ticking off a habit forming action. Eyal’s advice was particularly beneficial to me: the concept of the MEA or minimum enjoyable activity. This is linked to the pressure-relieving mindset. In essence you only do the smallest amount of the activity that you find manageable. For him, this was to go for a walk for his exercise, and if he had the urge to run, he would run for a moment until he stopped enjoying it. I also found this super helpful with running, but my main habit has been writing first thing in the morning, so I would simply allow myself to write whatever I wanted, rather than trying to force it to be productive.

The final key point is accountability. I’ve added this myself, and it’s the point I struggle with the most with. Accountability is so important because of the social evolution of humankind – we want to be part of a group dynamic. I struggle with this because some of the techniques suggested didn’t really work for me: the typical ones are to make a bet with someone that you will achieve what you’re aiming for, and make the bet a painful financial gift to someone or an organisation that you really don’t want to give it to. I have no doubt this is an excellent motivator, but it’s not for me. The other is to simply tell people you know what you are trying to achieve, and asking them to hold you to account, but I also didn’t feel good about this suggestion. In my case, the way forward is to do a course. This is a financial commitment, it makes me part of a group with others with similar goals, and I am accountable to the course tutor to get the work done. I’m sure there are plenty of forums available for those not able to pay for a course at this moment in time.

I’ve been working through this for a long time, so no one is pretending this is easy, but it is possible. It’s about asking the right questions, addressing the responses, and taking a tiny step. Motivation comes from activity, not vice versa.

What is making me dissatisfied?

What small habit could help me start moving in the right direction?

What time of day would be best to do this activity?

What barriers might hold me back, and how can they be removed?

What is my trigger to start doing this activity at that time?

What needs to be put in place to make this as easy as possible?

What reward will make this more enjoyable either during the activity or afterwards?

Who is going to hold me accountable?

Now take any pressure off yourself, do just one small step, and be proud of yourself for it, no matter how small it is. Momentum will build with time.


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