Lighten your load

January is traditionally a time when we start expecting more from ourselves, imposing diets and exercise regimes on our bodies, beginning new projects and giving up vices. But what if, this year, you chose to lose a different kind of weight? 

Happy New Year, readers! A bit late this time in the month but a hearty wish for health and happiness is never de trop. Actually, my first column of 2013 is coming to you late in January on purpose. We’re spoilt for choice in terms of resolutions and self-improvement articles from about mid-December to mid-January every year and, while I’m a big fan of making resolutions and setting goals, I thought I’d opt out this year.

January is a horrible month to make changes in your life, isn’t it? It’s cold out and you’re trying to take up jogging; you’re stomach’s stretched from all the Yuletide excess and you’re trying to eat less; the post-Christmas blues set in and you’re trying to give up your favourite vices. The back-to-school time in September is a much easier time to start any project, in my opinion, but my letters to the UN suggesting we re-think the calendar fall of deaf ears each year, so I guess we’re stuck with January resolutions.

But hey, here’s an idea, what if this year we made a different kind of resolution? Or rather, what if we framed our resolutions differently? Instead of thinking about “making changes” and “giving things up”, how about simply letting go of things that do not serve your wellbeing?

What are you carrying around?

Let’s take the humble handbag as a nice tangible start. Many of us are guilty of filling to capacity. If you had emptied mine out not so long ago, you’d have found at least three pens, a filofax, my phone, a notepad, lip balm, paracetamol, plasters, tissues, an assortment of hair pins, a novel, a comb, two memory sticks, a few business cards, perhaps a journal, an apple, some post-its… you get the idea. It was like I was trying to prepare for every eventuality in life, make sure I had everything I’d need in all circumstances. One day I got so fed up (and my right shoulder got so sore) that I decided to downsize my handbag – and now I only ever leave the house with the things I’ll really need. The rest – I’ll make do! One pen is fine; leave the journal at home (I never stop in a charming café on my way home to write a few lines); put my appointments into my phone diary… I literally lightened my load.

Shake it off

Applied to other areas of life, the benefits of lightening your load are myriad. Why not stop expecting yourself to behave perfectly all the time? What would happen if you took that weight off your shoulders? Or what about not always obliging yourself to answer your phone or reply to texts the minute you get them? What if, every so often, you let yourself off the hook? As well as getting rid of self-imposed expectations, we can all do with letting go of some other, heavier, mental baggage. Like perpetual pessimism; the long-held and unjustified belief that we are not good enough; the conviction that we’re not great at sports; fear of commitment…

Eliminate the negative

Whether it’s by travelling light, or working to shed a few psychological kilos (yep, living in France, I’ve gone full metric), we can all lighten our load a bit, without dropping balls or becoming irresponsible or unreliable. As we enter 2013, why not think about imposing less on yourself rather than more? I’m not saying don’t give up smoking or take up exercise, of course. But do think about framing them in such a way that you’re more aware of the ways in which you are freeing yourself up than the things you are giving up.

 

 

 

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The forgotten commandment: Thou Shalt Not Whine

In the long grey winter months, it’s easy to be negative and hard to act cheery, but just as you are what you eat, so too you feel what you focus on. Choose to change your focus.

You can’t really argue with the Ten Commandments. I mean, as rules for happy and harmonious living go, they’re a pretty solid base: don’t kill; don’t cheat on your spouse; don’t steal; don’t lie. So far, I’m on board. Have a day of rest every week. Yep! Take care of your parents. Absolutely. Without wishing to labour the point, I don’t think many people would take exception to any of the above, whatever their religious leanings. Sadly, however, I have often felt that one commandment was missing.

Don’t get me wrong. Ten is a great figure – it’s even, pleasingly round, fits with our decimal currency, can be nicely spaced out into two five-item lists on a couple of handy stone tablets. I can totally see why Moses would get to the end of dictation, see a nice symmetrical pair of lists, and casually decide to leave commandment Number 11 at the top of the hill, but honestly, I really think he dropped the ball. Our lives would be infinitely more pleasant had he just added one last rule to the list:

Thou shalt not whine

The addition of those four little words to that fateful list would have made such a difference, wouldn’t it? Whining is perhaps one of the least attractive traits in a person, and is certainly one of the most draining. I have an acquaintance – let’s call her Wendy – who, whenever I ask the innocent question, “How are you?” replies with some permutation of, “Oh, I’m so tired. Yep, really shattered – I worked until 10 o’ clock every evening last week. It’s just crazy.” When I first knew Wendy I made the mistake of trying to help her with this apparent problem – suggesting she speak to her boss about her workload, asking whether she was eating properly, that sort of thing. Recently, however, I had an epiphany (I don’t know why I’m on such a religious theme today, I’m on a roll and I’m just going with it). I realised that Wendy isn’t actually asking for help, nor does she need to talk. The bottom line is: Wendy likes whining. And she particularly likes whining about being tired.

You feel what you focus on

I don’t actually know anyone who isn’t tired right now. In the bleak midwinter, it’s dark when you go to work, dark when you leave work. You’re trying to lose the Christmas bulge, keep that resolution to go to the gym, maybe even give up or cut down on something – cigarettes, chocolate, wine… The post-Christmas winter months can feel grim at times, and yes, they’re tiring. But does saying you’re tired all the time help at all? If, every time someone asks me how I’m doing I answer, “Crikey, this rain is getting me down, I just can’t seem to get warm, and I have a splitting headache”, all I can think of by the end of the day is the rain and the cold and the headache and, lo and behold, it’s all actually worse than at the beginning of the day. But if I reply, “I’m great, thanks! Looking forward to a quiet night in, that’s for sure”, miraculously, I can actually convince myself that I do indeed feel full of beans, and that quiet night has become a choice I’m making in order to take care of myself. I find that I feel what I talk about; which means that I don’t also choose to talk about what I feel.

Accentuate the positive

Now, I’m not suggesting we bottle up our feelings or lie, but unless mentioning aches, pains, gripes and groans will actually do some good, why go on about them? Now, whenever I see Wendy, I avoid asking how she is and instead pose very specific, fact-based questions: What did you do this weekend? Did you go jogging like you wanted? It’s not that I don’t care, it’s just that not only does Wendy’s whining about being knackered exacerbate her own tiredness, it also exhausts me! If only she could take her focus off the negatives she’s feeling and concentrate on something – anything – positive, that good feeling would be increased instead of the bad. The mind is like a magnifying glass – whatever we choose put under the lens is what our eyes will see enlarged; whatever feeling we choose to talk and think about is what we’ll feel magnified. Luckily, we get to pick what we train our lens on. So, it’s precisely when I’m tired and a bit hungry and maybe a little paranoid that I try hardest to remember to apply the 11th commandment and silently order myself not to whine.

Turn over a new leaf in 2011

A new year, a new chapter of life to be written. Choose your words wisely and make your new year’s resolutions work for you.

I am, and always have been, a notebook junkie. A handbag-friendly size, a pretty cover, and all those clean white sheets waiting to be filled are a writer’s nirvana. Something about those empty pages strikes a note of hope and promise – they represent a new set of ideas, new journal entries, a new chapter in my scribblings. Knowing that, you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that I also love the turn of the year. The change in date from 31st December 2010 to 1st January 2011 is like a beautiful new notebook for me, and this year, the date is particularly delicious, isn’t it? 1/1/11. Doesn’t that just make you want to clean the house, detox your liver, and – yep, you knew where I was going with this – make some resolutions?

But wait, hold it, back up a second! You don’t start a new notebook when the old one isn’t yet filled up, do you? So why be in a rush to jump into making worthy resolutions without properly rounding out 2010? There’s not much point setting new objectives without first taking stock of where you are now and how far you’ve come since last January. While many advocate taking a look at the ups and the downs of the past year, I’m afraid that doesn’t suit me at all. I find that most people are only too keenly aware of anything that hasn’t gone well and that ending the year listing only the positive points of 2010 is much better for the soul. Think hard about all the great things that happened this year – did you learn a new skill, take a trip, change jobs, meet new people? Don’t just count the big achievements, think of the smaller, daily victories as well – managing to stick to an exercise regime, finding time for a phone date with a far-flung friend, remembering birthdays… We’ll happily kick ourselves for forgetting to send a card in time, but how often do we pat ourselves on the back for getting that sort of thing right? Celebrating the joys of 2010, however big or small, is guaranteed to put you in the right frame of mind to contemplate objectives for 2011.

Strengthening your resolve

I happen to enjoy making resolutions. I find setting an objective or deciding to make a change wholly invigorating and motivating. However, I am aware that I am very much in the minority on this issue. It seems that many people find the post-Christmas push to Improve Oneself a heavy burden and see it as a thinly-veiled excuse for self-punishment after festive excess. Who can blame them? It’s the middle of winter, we’re all tired after the party season, we’re facing three of the bleakest months of the year, and it’s now that we decide to start depriving ourselves of pleasures and forcing our bodies to the gym. A recipe for disaster.

Don’t should on yourself

The main problem with most resolutions is that they are all too often the result of people shoulding on themselves. I’ll wait while you re-read that sentence. Yes, people should on themselves. Instead of identifying a resolution that will truly boost happiness, all too often we jump on the insidious bandwagon of “I really should be healthier” or “I should shape up a bit”. These resolutions come from a negative place and generally take a negative verb form – I will not drink, I will not eat chocolate. I’m not saying these resolutions aren’t fundamentally good ones – of course we all need to take care of our physical health, but maybe we can do it in a way that doesn’t damage our mental health!

Start as you mean to go on

This year, how about making positive resolutions based on what you want to do? If better health is your goal, make it more about your decision to favour positive choices than a battle to resist unhealthy options. Think “I choose to eat a fresh, nutritious salad this evening”, rather than “I can only eat salad, and I mustn’t have dessert”. If changing jobs is your aim, say, “I want to spend an hour working on my CV this weekend” rather than “I have to update my CV”. Think as much about the phrasing of the goal as the goal itself.

Another way of self-motivating is by setting an intention for the year, rather than an objective. Your resolution could simply be a one-word theme for 2011. “Healthy”, for example – health-consciousness will inform all my choices for the year. Or “give” – I will become more generous in 2011. Of course, a one-word intention has to be translated into actions, but once you have the theme, the rest comes quite naturally. In any situation, you might ask, “What’s the generous thing to do here?” You may react with generosity to a news item by sending some money to a charity, or by donating some time to relief work. When faced with a difficult colleague, you might give him the benefit of the doubt, choosing to believe he’s just having a bad day, rather than jumping to conclusions about his inherent and unchangeable evilness.

Don’t blot your copybook

Resolutions are supposed to be tools for self-improvement, not sticks with which to beat yourself. Make sure that the intentions you set yourself for 2011 serve you, bringing you closer to goals that will increase your happiness and prompting life-affirming decisions. Think of the new year as a beautiful leather-bound notebook with heavy cream pages and a sewn-in place marker. Make sure you write in it with the best pen you can find, using your nicest handwriting, and make sure that whatever you write is kind, loving and positive. Live the year on purpose.