Life is a work in progress

 Facilitating change, Setting and achieving goals  Comments Off on Life is a work in progress
Dec 242013

Well, here we are at Week 52. 2013 has come and practically gone. How has it been for you?

I had high hopes for this year and not all of them have been fulfilled, but I still feel far more stable and positive than I usually do in December. I think the big difference is I finally have the sense of having made genuine progress. For so long I’ve been stuck in a strange sort of sleep-walking cycle of making fantasy ‘plans’ that I know will come to nothing (because I’m going to sabotage them), living a few months pretending I believe in them, while making no concrete effort towards them, and sliding into frustration and depression at the end of the year because I’m no further on than I was twelve months ago.

For the first time since about 1994, this year I did things differently. I analysed my fantasies and separated the goals I really wanted from the ones that I’d set up only to sabotage and bring myself down. Then I made realistic action plans and worked towards them. All the while, I was also being very strict with myself in terms of not allowing negative thoughts to pass through my mind unchallenged. Gradually, I’ve changed my outlook and taken more and more control of my own destiny. It works! Turning around a life that had run aground as deeply as mine had is not something that can be achieved overnight but the secret is to cultivate patience and optimism, while making sure you are actually moving and not just sitting there waiting for someone else to rescue you.

Something I’ve found useful is to keep a diary. This helps me to focus my thoughts and feelings, and it also gives me a record of the journey I’m on. I’ve been writing at least a page at the end of every day since 1st January 2008 and, whenever I get disheartened about the slow pace of my recovery, I look back over my entries from a few years ago and I see that, in fact, I’ve come much further than I’d remembered.

Small changes can yield enormous results, given enough time. Recovery is a process, not an event. As we head into 2014, keep your eyes on your destination, the life you want for yourself. I hope you too feel you’ve moved some way towards it during 2013 but, satisfied or not with your progress this year, you can certainly make the next twelve months count. Discipline is crucial – keep up the good work and you’ll thank yourself later – and so is self-nurturing. This may sound contradictory but it isn’t at all. If your goals are good ones, truly your heart’s desire, then keeping yourself on track is obviously in your interest. Equally, loving, valuing and respecting yourself are fundamental both to identifying the right goals and to getting you there. Discipline and self-nurturing combine to form the carrot that I find so much more effective as a motivator than the stick.

So, there we are: the last post in this blog. Thanks for reading and I hope you’ve found something in it to help you. Best wishes for the Christmas season and may 2014 be even more successful and fulfilling for you than 2013 has been.

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Thinking outside the box

 Facilitating change, Setting and achieving goals  Comments Off on Thinking outside the box
Oct 292013

A trip to the dentist a few days ago reminded me of the value of thinking outside the box. I’ve always hated having my teeth X-rayed because the equipment is somewhat cumbersome and I gag on it, turning what should be a quick and efficient process into an ordeal. Imagine my relief, therefore, when my erstwhile torturer suggested we try a new approach this time and took the shots with me sitting up instead of lying down. The upright position allowed me to breathe more easily and to feel more in control and the images were done before I’d even had time to worry about it.

How often in life do we force ourselves to endure and struggle through tasks and experiences that really needn’t be so difficult? Speaking for myself, when I come up against an obstacle, my first (and often only) idea is to push harder and harder, to whip myself on until somehow I blunder out the other side. I chastise myself for being feeble, lazy, cowardly – whatever fits the situation – but it very rarely occurs to me that perhaps I could do this differently. I’m aware, at one level, that if I always do what I’ve always done, I’ll always get what I’ve always got, but my answer always seems to be try harder!

If at first you don’t succeed, stand back and look at the big picture. Start by analysing the objective: what are you trying to achieve? Is it actually feasible? And necessary? To take a banal example, if you want to tidy this room, you might try to shove all the extraneous stuff into that cupboard. It won’t fit. And there is absolutely no point in keeping on trying to make it fit, getting crosser and more frustrated as the door won’t shut and every time you open it something falls out. You’re failing not because you’re rubbish at stashing things but because it’s a bad plan. So change it.

This is a lesson I’m still in the process of learning but it’s such a useful one. I’m grateful to my dentist, both for finding a solution to the X-ray problem and for prompting me to shake up my own thinking.

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Is it the weekend yet?

 Setting and achieving goals  Comments Off on Is it the weekend yet?
Oct 152013

Do you find yourself wishing your life away, getting through the day, getting through the week, with your eyes fixed on some point in the future?  Living like this may be a necessary and worthwhile investment for a limited period, but if it goes on too long it becomes a terrible waste.  If your days consist of pushing yourself through endless hoops and always being on call in some way, so that it feels as if your life isn’t really your own, I urge you to reflect on whether the reward you envisage is big (and real) enough to justify all you’re putting in and all you’re sacrificing along the way.

However immutable you may consider your situation to be, I assure you there are changes you can make.  If you’re feeling stuck, it’s unlikely your circumstances are going to change by themselves: you have to make it happen – and you can!  It’s just a question of lateral thinking, of coming up with ideas you’ve never tried and testing them out.  This can be challenging because it involves behaving in ways that may seem unnatural, or even impossible, but it’s exactly this change in your approach that will lead to a change in your situation.

The sense of being trapped in long-term drudgery can sap our strength and motivation and leave us feeling low, exhausted and powerless, which is hardly conducive to making brave decisions and pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone.  I know.  But the truth is, either we allow life to pass us by or we take action.  It doesn’t have to be anything dramatic; you can start with baby steps and change things gradually, just as long as you’re doing something to take control and move your life in the direction you want to go.  It took me many, many years to get round to doing this but once I started I soon saw the benefit and the changes gathered momentum.  In the same way as if you smile when you don’t feel like it, it makes you feel a bit better in spite of your mood, doing something to take control, even if it’s scary, makes you feel stronger.

If you’re letting life slide, you know you’ll regret it. You won’t get these years back. Take some time out (important in itself) and think about what you really want. Then set about making it happen.

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Try something new for 30 days

 Facilitating change, Setting and achieving goals  Comments Off on Try something new for 30 days
Jul 022013

A few weeks ago, I was discussing the pros and cons of a single-minded approach to moving life forward (see Are you fighting on too many fronts?). Some goals lend themselves better to the full-immersion quick fix than others, of course, but the short, hard push has a great deal to recommend it, as is shown here in this 3.5-minute talk about what can be achieved in 30 days:

Matt Cutts: TED Talk

I agree with Matt Cutts that the 30-day commitment can be an excellent way to make things happen, on two levels. Firstly, it’s a useful method for introducing small, sustainable changes, such as taking the stairs instead of the lift. Often, the only obstacles to adopting better habits are inertia and psychological concern about the effort involved. In these cases, trying something for 30 days can be quite enjoyable because it’s different and we can anticipate the satisfaction of achieving a short-term goal. Once we’ve been doing whatever it is for a month, though, our synapses will have changed, we’ll realise it really isn’t such an effort after all and the good habit can stick.

As Matt says, if you really want something badly enough, you can do anything for 30 days. This is true but it’s crucial that we really want it; it’s no good trying this with things you believe you ‘should’ do because, even if you make it to the end of the month, the chances are there will be no long-term advantage. For this reason, I don’t advocate Matt’s idea of negative goals – cutting out sugar, not watching the news – if that’s all they are. As he found himself, Day 31 after no sugar for four weeks was a splurge, which does nobody any good. Subtracting things you like from your life feels like a punishment and is not inspiring. Cutting out whatever it is is never the true goal, so look beyond and identify what it is you want to achieve. For example, instead of “to consume no sugar”, what you really want may be “to have healthy, glowing skin” or “to get into those trousers I love but that have become a bit snug”. Obviously, taking the stairs instead of the lift is not the ultimate goal either – it’s a small change that takes us closer to the big goal of being fit and healthy – but it’s a good mini goal because it’s clear and measurable (unlike “being fit and healthy”) and it’s positive (taking the stairs) rather than negative (stop taking the lift). The latter point may seem semantic but psychologically it’s important.

Secondly, giving ourselves 30 days to complete some discrete project we’ve been meaning to get around to is a great way to focus our mind and get it done. Writing a novel is a good example because it’s so clearly quantifiable but I think the method is also valid for reaching a certain standard in a skill such as a foreign language or a musical instrument. A lot of the benefit comes from simply giving priority to that goal and tightly focusing your attention and energy on it – something you probably wouldn’t be able to sustain over a longer period but which we can all manage for a month.

The rewards for achieving the 30-day goals we set ourselves are big and deep.  I particularly like the two Matt mentions: that his confidence grows as he meets bigger and bigger challenges, and how instead of the months flying by forgotten, time spent working on a challenge is much more memorable. Trying something new for 30 days can help you to expand your comfort zone. Not only that, you will not just be drifting through the routine of your life, you will be living.

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What are you waiting for?

 Setting and achieving goals  Comments Off on What are you waiting for?
May 142013

When you visualise your destination, the life you want, and you contemplate the path that will take you there, do you find yourself dragging your feet? If so, why do you think this is?

Two weeks ago I suggested that an underlying fear may be preventing you from doing what needs to be done to achieve your goals. Another angle on this is that you’re waiting for some mythical condition to be fulfilled before you feel it’s OK – or safe – for you to have what you want. If this resonates with you, if you recognise a sense of putting off creating the life you’re supposedly aiming at until…, I offer you the following thoughts.

Are you waiting for everything to be perfectly in place before you implement whatever changes you’re contemplating? I’ve noticed this can work in two ways: small improvements can be put on hold for big events and big changes can be put on hold for a series of smaller conditions – sometimes simultaneously. What I mean is, for example, a single person might say it’s not worth looking after himself properly, eating well, keeping the living space clean and tidy, and so on, until he is in a relationship. A mother might say she’s not even going to keep in touch with her former interests or career until her children are at secondary school. A workaholic might say she can’t slow down until she has earned £X thousand, got the umpteenth promotion, or whatever. A couple wanting to start a family might say they can’t until they’ve got enough money, moved into the ideal house, etc.

Obviously, I’m not advocating rushing headlong into major life changes without any planning or preparation. However, if you find yourself consistently procrastinating something you really want, it could be that you’re afraid of the consequences of having what you want (the workaholic’s parents may have gone bankrupt, leaving the offspring with a terror of insolvency and an ingrained sense they can never let up; the couple may feel insecure about what sort of parents they’ll be or the extent to which being parents will curtail their lifestyle). In this case, being honest with yourself about what it is that’s actually holding you back will help you to process and sort out your worries, so you can make an informed decision, rather than just going on postponing life and existing in a kind of limbo.

It could also be an issue of self-esteem. If you’ve got children, of course they take priority, but that doesn’t mean your own needs have to be completely abandoned or ignored. If you’re single, this does not diminish your value in any way; you are absolutely worth the care and attention you would give another person.

A further possibility is that you’re waiting for someone to notice what a bad state you’re in and offer some support. This is a mistake I made, which caused me to waste many important years, and I urge you to drop this as a strategy forthwith! It doesn’t work, you’ll be waiting forever. Forget about what anyone else thinks; identify what you want and go for it.

Whatever it is you’re waiting for, think carefully about whether it is in reality a smokescreen, providing spurious justification for your inaction. The road to the life you want may be a long one but you’re never going to get there if you don’t make a start. To encourage you, here is a quotation from Publilius Syrus that I have recently discovered and find inspiring: Valour grows by daring, fear by holding back.

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