Choose your words carefully

Time

To resolve or not to resolve, that is the question. It’s the one we ask ourselves each January as the annual invitation to start over rolls around. In the media, there’s the usual flurry of “How to make resolutions that last”-type articles (the kind of stuff I love to read), along with the expected slew of “Why making resolutions is a waste of time” pieces (not my cup of tea). Personally, I feel resolution-making as an expression of the will to self-improvement is never to be discouraged: the simple act of voicing a desire to change and then attempting to do so is a massive step forward. For me, failure to keep a resolution does not indicate that making resolutions is futile; rather it suggests that the resolution was perhaps the wrong one for you, or it was made for the wrong reasons, or – crucially – it was badly worded.

Specific and committed

The way in which we word and specify our intentions is crucial to their longevity. The difference between “I’m going to be healthier in 2015” and “I’m going to jog for 10 minutes twice a week in 2015” is huge. The first is vague and contains no real action, the second is specific and involves a solid commitment. Which is more likely to be kept?

Now, you’d think that, self-improvement info junkie that I am, I’d be able to sidestep these kinds of mental potholes. Think again. This New Year, I caught myself making a whopper of a rookie error as I sat down to set some intentions for 2015. There I was with a nice list of all the things I wanted to find more time for over the year – yoga, new coaching clients, promoting my work as a writer – when I noticed that every item on that list was – mentally – preceded by the words “I will find more time to…” See the fatal flaw? Answers on a postcard to the woman who’s still looking through her chest of drawers to find where she left that bit of spare time she just knows she put somewhere for safekeeping.

Stop searching, start creating

What was I thinking? You don’t find time for anything. Time is not a crumpled fiver you come across down the side of the sofa, nor is it something you discover left over at the end of a long day. Time is finite; no-one gets any more than 24 hours in a day.

The minute I changed the word “find” to “make”, my perspective on my resolutions changed. I am going to have to make time to prospect for clients, clear space in my diary for that extra yoga class, and – whisper it – make the choice between crashing on the sofa like an extra from The Walking Dead and getting out the laptop to write. Finding time is about trying to cram even more into the day, snatching five minutes here and there. Making time is about saying no to activities that aren’t priority, crafting your schedule to work towards your objectives, and making conscious decisions about where you put your energy at any given moment – which sometimes means giving up things that aren’t useful and don’t serve you.

A sense of agency

It all comes down to a feeling of agency, really. Making time puts me firmly in the driver’s seat of my life, relying on myself to make the decisions that get me where I want to be. Finding time – just like finding a forgotten banknote – relies to a large extent on luck and good fortune. And my goals are a little too important to me to leave them in the lap of the gods. Aren’t yours?

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Dear diary

How keeping a one-line diary has changed the way I look at, describe and recall my day… and my life.

On this day in 2013, I was having my first wedding dress fitting. And it’ll be a year ago this weekend that I saw a fantastic production of Sunday in the Park with George, with (and this pleases me no end) my friend George. And around this time last year, I was enjoying reading The Woman in White. Fascinating, I know – but more interesting is how I know and remember all this. Well, in 2013, I started keeping a one-line-a-day, five-year diary. The concept is this: each date has a page, each page is divided into five sections. You write on the same page on the same date each year – and you do so for five years.

I bought my journal for a song. Baby blue and leather-bound with gold-edged paper, it’s a little marvel that consistently makes me reflect on the passage of time – both looking back and thinking forward. I find traditional journaling a chore – the pressure to write regularly, the tendency just to pen a personal monologue of every worried, angry or depressed thought I’ve had. But this diary is different – I only have space to write two sentences, which only take a couple of minutes so there’s no pressure. Even more delightful is my discovery that, far from dragging me into a quagmire of self-analysis and rehashing my doubts and fears, it elevates my thoughts and offers me clarity and positivity.

Remember, remember…

Since I began the project, having just a few lines in which to sum up my day has made me think very clearly about what I want to be reminded of five years from now. Do I want to write that I had an argument with my boss, got a manicure and had drinks with a friend? Or perhaps I want to express something that I won’t remember unless I write it down. A stunning winter sunset watched from the office window with a couple of fun colleagues as we worked late? The stranger on the metro who handed me a tissue when I was crying with laughter reading David Sedaris? It makes me really choose what shapes my memories and thus my experience of the day.

How was your day?

And by making me consider what I want to remember about this day, the diary also makes me think about what I want to focus on here and now. So, when my husband asks about my day, I can go into details about an endless meeting, a last-minute request for a report, a coaching client who keeps changing her appointment. Or… I can tell him about a great book I read during my commute, the email I got from a friend I haven’t seen in ages, how I got on in my yoga class. What I choose to tell him about my day colours how I view my day even as I see it that very evening.

Looking back

Now that I’m in my second year of the diary, I also get to look back at what I was doing last year. I have cited just a few examples and every memory makes me smile. When I’m feeling in a rut and look back at what I was doing last year, I’m reminded of how far I’ve come. I’m also noticing potential patterns: for two years running, late January has not been a pleasant time for me. Maybe in 2015 I’ll be able to factor that in and find a way to take the edge off.

Choosing your memories

Journaling, of either the traditional sort or the type I’ve embarked upon, may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but really thinking about how you want to describe your day, week, month or year and what you’d like to remember are great habits to adopt. It’s so easy to get caught up in what went wrong with your day or what you didn’t get done, but those things don’t have to be the sum of your experience. So, the next time you’re having drinks with a friend on a Friday night and she asks, “So, how was your week?” think about what you want your week to have been about and the experience you want to call to mind before you answer.

When giving up makes you the winner

Seeing things through. Honouring your commitments. Giving your all. Noble thoughts, and laudable goals indeed, but are they always the best route to peace and happiness?

Stop pushing yourself

This week, as I was leaving the office after a hectic day, I faced a dilemma. I had a life coach networking event to attend and, boy, did I not want to go. All I could think about was a hot bath, a glass of wine and a comedy show that would relax my over-taxed brain. But wait, the type-A/achiever/self-motivator demon living inside me shouted: “You’ll regret not going and slobbing on the sofa when you could be making valuable new contacts!” I phoned a friend. “Don’t go”, she said, “You’ll regret going because if it’s anything other than insanely useful, you’ll just sit there wishing you’d listened to yourself and headed home”.

It took a lot of effort for me to overcome the dire sense that I was copping out – baling on something I’d said I would do. (Said to whom? Just myself and my diary!) And yet… as I unwound at home, I didn’t regret staying in one bit. It didn’t feel like laziness or doing myself out of opportunities. It felt something a little like… self-care.

Help those who would be helped

It has been theorised that when you decide to buy a red car, you start seeing red cars everywhere. In that spirit, a coaching client this week brought me a second example of when giving up is far from giving in. She was bewailing her failed attempts to help a friend, complaining that the friend just wouldn’t listen and was impossible to help: “I sometimes think my friend doesn’t want my help.” Ah, there it is. My powerful coaching question: “So, if this person doesn’t want help, what’s the result of trying to help him against his will?”

Cue fireworks, glass shattering, earth ceasing to rotate on its axis for a split second. “Yes”, said my client slowly, wrapping her mind around my unexpected enquiry, “I can only really help people who want to be helped. The rest is just a waste of energy.” When faced with intransigence and a lack of willing, insistence can only lead to frustration and even conflict; sometimes giving up is an act of self-protection and kindness.

Why shout them down?

I have recently been grappling with a difficult relationship with a work colleague. She does not listen. I don’t mean she hears what I say then ignores my recommendations. No, worse: she literally doesn’t let anyone speak – she cuts people off, talks over them; I even saw her get up and leave the room when another co-worker was mid-sentence answering a question she has asked. This kind of behaviour pushes all my buttons. A lack of consideration for anyone else’s contribution to the discussion (otherwise known as interrupting, not letting you finish, finishing your sentence for you) is a personal bête noire.

This week I realised (finally) that I was never going to change this woman (see my previous point!), and I am certainly not willing to shout in order to be heard. So I decided I’d just stop. Stop trying to make her hear, stop trying to give her my opinion, stop attempting to converse with her at all, in fact. And, oh, the relief! Essentially, I’ve decided that if she doesn’t want to hear me, I won’t waste my breath. I’ll give up, and in doing so, I’ll conserve my energy and spend it on someone who wants to listen and who shows me enough courtesy to deserve my precious time!

Obviously, powering through is sometimes the best course of action – who wants to be someone who doesn’t follow through or get anything done? But it’s essential to identify those times when the wiser course of action is to stop trying so hard, walk away from a damaging situation, or abandon a toxic project or relationship. Sometimes giving up is not equivalent to losing the war but to picking your battles.

 

Using your not-so-basic instinct

Leading with your heart is a sure-fire way to banish hesitation and make regret-free choices. Learning to listen to yourself and trust your gut can stop a decision from turning into a dilemma.

Despite being an only child, I’m a twin – a Gemini, that is. I’ve always felt rather lucky to have been born under a sign whose symbol is not a barnyard animal, a venomous arachnid or a crustacean, but a pair of cherubic babies. Apparently, being a twin makes me versatile, communicative, energetic and inquisitive. The flip side seems to be that I’m glued to my mobile phone, good at accumulating trivial information, moody and – gasp – indecisive. Now, I couldn’t possibly comment on my qualities, but I can confirm that I am indeed a fan of all things telecommunications (my phone conversation record is a whopping four hours), I can go from sunshine to showers in seconds (for heaven’s sake, who can’t?), and I do store a remarkable number of random quotations and film facts in my little grey cells.

The one thing I am not, however, is indecisive. Yes, I can often see both sides of the story and can find arguments for both debate teams, but I’m not a ditherer. Why? Well, I don’t possess a crystal ball, nor am I overly impulsive. I simply have a strong instinct (inherited from my grandmother, according to Mum) that – and this is crucial – I have learned to listen to at all times. So many people have strong gut feelings but choose not to listen to what their heart is telling them. In fact, I think we all have the ability to make good instinctive decisions, but, often, over-thinking seems more sensible. Indeed, in our society, making too quick is decision is often frowned upon and labelled rash.

I never used to listen to my instinct. It seemed irresponsible to make important decisions without first getting out the notepad, listing the pros and cons, talking it over with all and sundry, consulting my horoscope, offering up incense… Yet, funnily enough, the choice I ended up making was always the same as what my internal GPS had told me right from the start. So I stopped wasting time reasoning and deliberating, cogitating and digesting, and started listening to my heart. I believe that, deep down, in every situation, we always know what we want to do and also what we think we should do – whether or not they are the same thing is another matter. We are usually also aware of the consequences of the choice we want to make – again, whether or not we like those consequences is another kettle of fish.

And, ay, there’s the rub. It’s often the anticipated fallout from a decision that provokes the ‘dilemma’. Put simply: if we’re honest, we know what decision we’ll eventually make, but we’re not always comfortable with the changes or upheaval that will ensue, so we agonize over self-created ‘dilemmas’ to put off the inevitable moment when taking a decision turns into taking action. Ending a relationship, for example, is one of the most difficult decisions we ever have to take. Often, people stay with unsuitable partners long after their romance has died because they anticipate the consequences of separation. So the dilemma begins. The person spends sleepless nights, talks with friends, and weighs up the possibilities, desperately trying to think about a choice that is purely a matter of feeling. Of course, love is the clearest example of a situation in which heart should rule head, but instinct can be applied to any so-called dilemma.

Making choices can be painful: any path taken inevitably leaves alternative roads untravelled. As one proposition is accepted, another must be rejected. However, the opposite – not making a decision – leaves you static and paralysed, staring down a path that leads precisely nowhere. Listening to your heart at least ensures that any choices you make are your choices. They’re not what you thought you should do, or what so-and-so thought you should do, they’re what you truly felt best with at the time, with all the information to hand and your instinct periscope very definitely up. Knowing that, and owning your decisions, is a shortcut to eliminating regret and recriminations. Sure, you’ll still make mistakes, but at least you’ll know that at any given moment, you were leading with your heart and not trying to second-guess or rationalise away your sentiments. Ultimately, there are no dilemmas if we simply trust ourselves to make decisions that may not always be right, but that will at least always remain faithful to our own truth.

 

Wake up and smell the coffee – and make sure the coffee’s your choice

While I’m an inherently non-violent person, I have to admit to a penchant for a good spot of culling. I particularly like culling clothes, but almost any stock of items will do it for me. Twice a year (in a fit of spring fever and in autumn as part of the ‘back to school’ madness that makes me want to buy notebooks and fountain pens), I go through the house like a whirling dervish, culling anything for which I no longer have a use. Clothes that no longer fit, are old, out-dated, or that I never wear because, frankly, I should never have bought it in the first place (if you haven’t worn something for two years running, surely there’s a good reason). Books that I’ll never read again, medication that’s past its use-by date, random boxes that I kept because they “might come in handy”, instruction booklets for electrical items that have since gone to meet their maker. My beloved actually takes care to remain very active during my culling periods for fear that, if he stays still too long, he’ll find himself wrapped in black plastic hurtling head-first down the rubbish shoot.

The crucial questions: Keep? Donate? Chuck?

Now, while I’m clearly an extreme case, there really is something to be said for regularly and ruthlessly re-evaluating one’s possessions to ensure that everything that surrounds us and which, to some extent, defines our lifestyle, lives up to William Morris’ tenet: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful”. Getting rid of things that no longer have a function in our lives can be incredibly cathartic; it can be a way of saying goodbye to a past that we’d rather not re-visit or that we need to shed in order to move forward. A friend of mine reported feelings of elation when she finally chucked the size 8 jeans she’d bought to – yes, I know – “slim into”. It had taken her a long time to accept that she was a natural, healthy and beautiful size 12, and throwing away the useless garment was not a defeat but a victory over the self-critical voice inside her head that told her that she was in some way unacceptable as she was.

With TV shows like ‘The Life Laundry’ and ‘How Clean is Your House?’ turning what is for me just a biannual outburst into mid-week entertainment, the benefits of the physical cull are becoming more and more well known. However, the psychological cull has yet to go prime-time. If getting rid of old clothes leaves me feeling lighter and more streamlined – like a three-day detox – the psychological cull (to be performed less often!) is the equivalent of a full week at a spa drinking smoothies, doing downward-facing dogs, and being wrapped in seaweed.

360° spring cleaning

The psychological cull is remarkably simple. It’s the act of taking a long, hard look at one’s life, maybe even of making a list (yes, someone who enjoys culling will clearly be an inveterate list-maker too), and considering the place that each element has in one’s life. A perfect example would be in friendships. Most of us go through life collecting friends from university, summer placements, jobs, sports clubs, friends of friends… We do our best to keep in contact with everyone as we go along, making time to have drinks, phoning and emailing as often as possible. We rarely stop to think, however, about the quality of each relationship, asking ourselves the vital question: in what way does this nourish me?

Now, I’m not suggesting burning bridges with people you’ve known for years, or blocking names from your facebook page just yet. I’m merely suggesting that it’s a good idea to stop every now and then to check that the people we surround ourselves with are people we are actively choosing, not just passively accepting. If, physically, we are what we eat, I believe that, psychologically, we develop through the relationships we choose to maintain. The same can be said of activities we decide to participate in (the gym you’ve been going to for ages but which no longer offers the kickboxing class that made you join in the first place), the establishments we frequent (that Italian restaurant that has become more of a reflex than a choice, especially since the recent discovery of your wheat intolerance), even the things we say (self-deprecating humour was de rigueur at university, but you’ve been doing it so long now it’s just a habit, and one that subtly gnaws at your self-esteem)

Making a choice

In essence, spring cleaning your life – whether its shoes, the medicine cabinet and your computer files, or the way you spend your time – is simply a ritual that helps ensure that the life you live is a product of choice and not of laziness, habit or apathy. Of course, sometimes an evening in front of the television is exactly what we need – undemanding relaxation to recharge the batteries, but when that sort of activity becomes a matter of reflex and not of active choice, it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee (that same old coffee you’ve been drinking for ages despite your new-found preference for green tea). The time we get to use as we wish is too limited to spend it on activities or people that don’t nourish us in some way, and life is too short to go through it living only half-awake. Today, make the choice to make a choice.