This September, I am celebrating the 18th anniversary of life in France. Since my arrival with one suitcase, a seven-month teaching contract, and a tiny room in a sort of Parisian YWCA, my life has undergone numerous metamorphoses. These days, there’s a husband, a house, two kids, good friends, a business, citizenship, and a much greater appreciation and understanding of the country I now call home!
In the nearly two decades I have lived here, I have learnt so much. However, contrary to what popular Francophile literature and TV shows would have you believe, the most useful things I have picked up from the French way of life are not the correct way to wear a scarf or which wine to match with a given cheese. The French lifestyle has taught me much, for example, about work-life balance, the importance of enjoying simple pleasures, the benefits of slowing down, and the wisdom of prioritising quality over quantity. Currently on my mind is the particular (peculiar?) manner by which French structure their year and the ways it makes life easier and more satisfying.
The Franco-Gregorian calendar: a hybrid approach
The calendar starts in January in France, but in all other respects, the year really begins in September here – and not just for schools and universities. After the long summer holiday that marks the end of the last ‘year’, the word on everyone’s lips in September is la rentrée, meaning “the re-entry”; as in going back – to school, to work, to activities, to normal life. I struggled against this notion for many years – I wanted to start classes mid-year, join a gym in February and pay pro rata, launch projects in April, and actually achieve – well, anything – in August (sheer madness!). However, once I finally stopped swimming upstream and embraced this way of thinking, I was struck, as I often have been, by the wisdom of the French way.
Taking a French approach to your rentrée can make life easier, more satisfying and more relaxing – wherever you happen to live. Why? And How?
- The rentrée is a propitious time to make resolutions
Our minds tend to turn to self-improvement, changing habits and fresh starts in January, but September is, in my experience, a much more appropriate time to implement some life upgrades. In January, we are often run down by the winter cold and illness*, and exhausted from the Christmas whirlwind. In September, however, we’re fresh and relaxed after the summer break. We’ve recharged our batteries and have the energy to begin new projects and change our ways.
- It’s a natural launch date
Speaking of projects. Even if you don’t have children, you can piggy-back on the momentum created by lots of kids sharpening pencils and going back to school to launch your own projects. That might be taking up a new hobby, signing up for adult education classes, or starting to write your novel. Whatever you choose to do, the fact that the nights are going to start drawing in and the days get colder can also help you prioritise these kinds of projects that require time spent in the home.
- It forces you change pace and stay with the season
The change of pace from summer fun to serious work in the autumn is just one example of the ebb and flow that characterises the French year. As they wave their kids off to school in September, the French immediately start planning their late October mini-break. By scheduling in – even ritualising – their holidays, the French ensure they change pace and take breaks regularly – before they’re on their last legs.
- The French find the joy in what is
In my experience, the French are very good at accepting and reaping the benefits of the season in progress. Take food as an example: the French quite consciously change the way they eat throughout the year. Winter is welcomed because it brings with it a promise of fondu and raclette, mulled wine and seafood; summer is all about rosé, fresh fruit and drinks at pavement cafés. The rentrée reminds us to embrace the seasons mindfully – reassessing eating habits and looking at sleep routines, the quantity of social commitments we take on, cosmetics used, maybe even the books we read.
- The rentrée serves as a great yearly reminder
I use the rentrée as a reminder to do a certain number of chores (the kind that occur yearly or a few times per year). The whole family has their annual appointment with the dentist; I get my eyes checked; the kids have haircuts and new shoes. These preparatory rituals of the rentrée all contribute to my feeling ready in September and raring to go. Which in turn helps me make the most of my time and get moving quickly as opposed to spending a week (more?!) lamenting the end of the holidays and wishing I were somewhere else.
Be here, now
Ultimately, that’s what the French obsession with la rentrée means to me: it’s a way of enjoying the “be here, now”. The summer is coming to a close, the holidays are ending, and that’s natural, normal. Do you know the song “To everything there is a season”? It’s the one with the “Turn, turn, turn” refrain. It’s based on a Bible verse (for the 40-something women like me reading this, it’s the one Kevin Bacon uses to convince the preacher in Footloose to let the kids dance): “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted…”.
Whatever your religious conviction, the notion that there’s a time for everything is helpful. To me, the rentrée is a yearly reminder not to try to do everything at once, to pace myself and undertake activities mindfully and at a time that is appropriate. I find that way of thinking takes the pressure off and offers me useful perspective – which is needed all year round!
*Apologies to readers in the southern hemisphere – some of what I am going to say will not apply directly but can be adapted to apply to your own post-summer rentrée in March…
If you’re seeking perspective and structure for your life, perhaps looking to make some changes this rentrée, supportive coaching that focuses on finding your pace and what’s right for you can help you create a life you love. Contact me for your free introductory coaching session to find out how working together can help you build a life lived with purpose and on purpose.
Asking yourself (and taking the time to answer!) these six powerful questions can help you emerge from lockdown with renewed purpose and a stronger sense of self.
One thing has dominated our lives for the last 18 months and, sadly, it has not been Bridgerton or Call My Agent! (although both definitely dominated quite a few of my evenings). The list of adjectives to describe the last year and a half is long – challenging and dismal for many, liberating and enlightening for some. I have read countless articles about how people are making the most of lockdown (this often involves sourdough bread-making and growing out hair dye), dozens on the impact it is having on our minds and bodies (we are calmer, less productive, happier, lonelier, fatter, fitter…), and loads about how the world will either be forever changed or will swiftly go back to how it was before.
How was it for you?
I myself have been – perhaps conspicuously – silent on the subject of COVID and lockdown in this blog and my newsletter. Mainly because I have felt so much was already being said and also because I – like many – have been zealous in limiting my engagement with the news, statistics and speculation in order to preserve my mental health and happiness. I am also acutely aware of how easy I have had it compared to many. My family is in good health, my husband and I can both work from home in our reasonably spacious house with all the tech we need, and we have suffered no bereavement due to the virus. The main emotion I have felt relating to COVID has been anxiety. Not really about actually getting ill, more about the loss of liberty, the need to fill the children’s days, and the general sense of uncertainty about the future. I am not alone, I know. So, while I feel I weathered the lockdown storm relatively well (the first one with two small children at home 24/7!), catching up on photo albums, writing, and keeping busy with house projects, I would have felt utterly unqualified to advise anyone as to how to find the silver linings in the situation. However, as we emerge from the latest of three fairly comprehensive and long lockdowns here in France, I now find myself tempted to weigh in.
Time to think
Apart from doing massive amounts of gardening and spending hours on crafts with the kids, my main lockdown activity was – unsurprisingly, given my profession – introspection and self-work. Stripped of all my usual diversions, I had the time to take a long look at my life and ask some questions about where I am and where I want to be. Ironically, “time for yourself to step out of your life and take a look at where you are and where you want to be” is generally how I describe the utility of a coaching session to clients. So in lockdown, I found myself face to face with the proverb of “physician, heal thyself”, or in this case, “coach, coach thyself”. Now, as we step out of confinement, as the French call it, it’s time to put all that introspection to good use in (re)constructing our lives and incorporating some changes, tweaks and enhancements based on insights gained while weeding, sewing and eating sourdough bread.
Questions to exit lockdown mindfully
These are the questions I am asking myself now, as I reclaim all the buildings blocks that make up a full life, so many of which were put on hold for so long – things like time with friends, travel, entertainment, hobbies, family time, learning, career development… I hope they will inspire you too.
- What is my relationship to uncertainty?
Some people are happy winging it and going with the flow. I know many and like them immensely, but I am not, nor will I ever be, one of them. I am one of life’s planners, organisers and charge-takers. The uncertainty about the future generated by the health crisis has been, in some ways, a positive influence on me in this respect. It has forced me to become more adaptable and allow for the unexpected. As lockdown lifts, I know life is not going to suddenly become predictable again – we may still face more lockdowns, for example. But instead of fearing the unknown, I am asking myself: How do I want to deal with the current lack of certainty? What tools do I have to help me through it? What pleasure can I find in not knowing what’s around the corner?
- Which people did I really miss?
Think about the people you really yearned for during lockdown. Now think about who you spent most of your time with in the days before COVID. If the two answers aren’t the same (for example, maybe you were having drinks with colleagues a lot but could only find one evening every three months to chat with a close friend who moved abroad), think about how you can find more time for the really important people. Maybe you need to weed out a few uninspiring or unfulfilling commitments and people from your planner to make time for the things that matter. Or perhaps you can structure calls and meet-ups into your calendar more regularly?
- How do I want to spend my time?
For a while there, our choices about how we spend our free time were severely restricted. Now that our options are multiplying, it’s our chance to break old habits and make more mindful choices about what we do and who we do it with. Pre-lockdown, I spent a lot of my social time “having drinks”, and yet actually during lockdown what I really missed was the theatre. I have therefore resolved to scale back on the Chablis and aim for a monthly theatre outing once everything’s up and running.
- What’s my busy-ness limit?
One of the most-cited “gifts” of lockdown was the permission it gave many of us to slow down. (I‘m excluding certain groups with this statement, of course, people such as healthcare professionals, for example – but to them I wouldn’t dream of giving any advice, the only thing they should be told is “Thank you, here’s a raise, some time off, and lot more funding”. But I digress.) It really took off the pressure to take in exhibitions, keep up with film releases, make dinner reservations, fit in the gym, organise play dates, and plan outings. It simply allowed us to stop running. As invitations and possibilities start to present themselves again, we have the opportunity to ask: How often am I comfortable going out? How much time do I like to have between appointments? How many commitments can I really enjoy in a single weekend?
- What habits do I want to maintain?
Many of us formed new habits during lockdown that it would be a shame to let slip now that life is becoming slightly more normal. Some people took up a sport, or started morning meditation. All jokes aside, some people discovered the pleasure of baking their own bread. My husband and I used to (and still do) sit on our front step after putting the kids to bed for a brief moment of quiet time to check in with each other and debrief about the day. Now that other activities are competing for our attention, it’s the right time to think about the things you started doing (often out of necessity or simply to help you cope) that you don’t want to give up.
- What didn’t I miss?
We might think a lot about the people and things we missed during lockdown, but I’m sure we also all had things we were happy to let go. Commuting. Wearing a suit. Eating at your desk. Running for the train after work to ensure you pick up the kids on time. It would be so easy to fall back into our old ways of doing things, so take this opportunity to go “back to normal” on purpose and with purpose. For some that might actually mean not going back, that is to say making a total change in job and lifestyle. For others, it might mean smaller adjustments like doing weekend batch-cooking so you can take a home-made lunch to work instead of buying a sandwich. Or perhaps having a firm “no meetings after 4pm” policy so you can leave work on time and your evening is less rushed.
Major life transitions – whether positive or negative – can be incredibly stressful. And just because we’re happy to emerge from lockdown doesn’t make it any less a source of stress than going into it. But transitions are also a prime opportunity for us to make changes – both to our outward-facing lives and our inner selves. Asking yourself a few powerful questions right now can help make the difference between whether you look back and view the last 18 months as a zoom, home yoga and online scrabble marathon or a time when you seized the chance to press “reset” and move a little closer to the life you truly desire.
If you’re looking to make some changes as you emerge from lockdown and reconstruct your life, expert coaching that focuses on fulfilment and personal satisfaction can help you figure out how you want your life to look and how you can make the vision a reality. Contact me for your free introductory coaching session to find out how working together can help you build a life lived with purpose and on purpose.
Despite my relative youth I have had what used to be called “quite a few different jobs” and is now referred to as a “portfolio career”. In each of my incarnations, I have learned new skills and worked with some wonderful people who have often become friends. During one of my past lives working in corporate communications, I had a fantastic manager (we will call her Angela), who taught me more than most; but the thing that really sticks out when I think about Angela is her fanaticism for alignment.
Whenever one of our team would send a brochure for printing or deliver a presentation to a client, Angela always said, “Check the alignment one last time before you send it, please!” Not only was she polite, Angela was also a stickler for ensuring that text boxes and images lined up nicely and that there were no random extra spaces at the beginning of lines. This thoughtfulness and eye for detail is what made Angela excellent at her job and a great mentor.
Now, as a coach, I think of Angela often as I work with clients on a different kind of alignment: the alignment of their decisions and chosen actions with their values and life goals. In sessions where clients are figuring out who they want to be, what they want to do, and where they want to go, I frequently ask them to check their alignment before moving forward, with questions like, “What values are you honouring with this choice?” and “How does this action serve your ultimate objective?”
However, while it is fairly easy to judge whether a couple of images are in a straight line in a PowerPoint presentation, evaluating the alignment of your goals with your values, or assessing whether your daily activities correspond to your broader aspirations is much more difficult. So how do you check the alignment of your choices before you approve and – metaphorically – send them to print?
There’s no quick-fix list for checking that your choices are coherent with your bigger-picture life plan, but I do have a few techniques that can offer help open up a path towards insight.
Know your value
Before you can decide whether something honours your values, you have to know what your values are! But how do you know what you value? One really effective way of identifying some of your values is to think about what makes you angry. Most times, when something makes your blood boil, it’s because one of your key values is being disrespected. If my husband gets furious when a car overtakes us on a curve at warp speed, it’s not because his masculine pride is wounded. It’s because protecting his family is right at the top of his values list. In films, when the “good” guys don’t triumph (you know those films where, right at the end, in a sly twist, you realise that the chap you’ve been told to root for and that the lawyer managed to get off was actually guilty all along?), my husband is always incandescent with rage. The disrespected value is, of course, his sense of justice.
So ask yourself: what makes me angry and what value is not being honoured in that situation? You can also think about your proudest moments, the moments when you felt most fully alive. What was going on? What value was being celebrated? If getting your degree is in the top five, maybe you value education and learning. If the relay race you lost horribly at school is actually a sparkling memory for you, maybe you cherish the teamwork it took to take part in the first place.
Try on your decision like a coat
This technique is great both for testing alignment and ending indecision. To see whether an action or a choice feels right and “aligned”, image that you have already made your decision. For example, you’re hesitating about leaving the amateur choir you have been singing with for a few years. Decide to leave and draft the email to the choirmaster with your resignation, then go to bed and sleep on it. How do you feel when you wake up? Relieved? Strong? Joyful? Or do you wake up terrified that Gmail has experienced a glitch and sent your draft email out automatically? Try on a decision the way you would a new coat and see how it fits. If you experience discomfort, consider what that tells you. Maybe it simply means that the decision is good but hard to execute, or maybe it means that it’s not the right path for you.
Don’t be afraid to say no
Sometimes honouring your values means saying no or that you’ve changed your mind, or that something no longer works for you. That’s hard, but ultimately liberating. When my daughter started school, in a fit of perfect-mother zeal I joined what us Brits refer to as the PTA (Parent-Teacher Association). Unsurprisingly, some of my top values are my children, education, and making a contribution. I quickly realised that the reality of PTA work in France is very different from what I saw my mother doing when I was at school in the UK and that the activities undertaken – while not harmful or unpleasant – didn’t hit the spot in terms of any of my values. The day I left, I felt rather guilty and embarrassed but I could practically feel the alignment return to my body. Now, the time I could have spent fielding Whatsapp messages (seriously, hundreds per week) and reading meeting minutes is used playing Kapla with my son, reading with my daughter, and doing pro bono coaching work (my children, education, making a contribution – tick, tick, tick).
Beware conflicting values
It’s impossible to honour all of your values all of the time. Maybe you value health and fitness but also security, which to you means having a minimum amount of savings in the bank. Joining a gym honours the first value but does nothing to help with the second. Sometimes you have to choose which value is most important here and now. So perhaps you decide that you can maintain your fitness by jogging in the park while keeping your bank balance healthy too. Perhaps you conclude that supervised weight training and cardio is really what you need to avoid certain issues that run in your family and you splash out on the gym but trim your budget elsewhere. Much heartache can occur when you try to honour conflicting values all at the same time (just ask any working parent!) so be mindful of what your values are and which you are honouring with each decision and why.
If you’re looking to find greater alignment in your life and make day-to-day choices that serve your higher purpose and long-term life plan, supportive and encouraging coaching can help you identify your values and honour them. Contact me for your free introductory coaching session to find out how working together can help you build a life lived with purpose and on purpose.
Of late, my family has been enjoying our first small but successful crop of tulips, grape hyacinths and narcissi. They have provided a joyful burst of colour in some slightly bare patches of the garden and offered a much-needed springtime boost while the rest of our plants take their time unfurling and emerging. Whilst we were taking our morning tea outside recently (yes, I binged on Bridgerton during the latest lockdown and have decided that I no longer drink but “take” my tea), my husband commented that he had no recollection of me planting those bulbs. “Of course not,” I answered, “I did it way back in October just after we pruned everything else back”.
Planting bulbs is a funny thing to do, isn’t it? Just as the rest of the garden is shedding leaves and retreating for the winter, it’s time to plant bulbs that will sit in the frozen ground for months before pushing their way up to the light almost half a year later. It’s actually an incredible metaphor for hope. We put these vulnerable little plants in the ground as the weather – and sometimes our mood – begins to feel bleak, in the hope that, come spring, they will flourish – daffodils trumpeting triumphant over the dark days; the crocus bursting forth to celebrate renewal and rebirth.
All about the now
Our enjoyment of the long-awaited patches of colour provided by spring flowers is particularly relevant today, in a society where instant gratification has become the norm. I recently ordered a coat stand for our entranceway and was shocked – outraged! – appalled! to discover we would have to wait four whole weeks for delivery. Meanwhile, the foot rest I bought for my desk arrived in just 48 hours. Now, that’s more like it, I thought to myself. But that kind of quick fix, no-sooner-thought-than-bought, make the call – get it done result is so rarely how life works. In my experience, more often than not, the real rewards we reap in our lives come from the tiny seeds we planted months, maybe years ago, in the hope that one day they would bear fruit.
Playing the long game
Online shopping notwithstanding, very few of the actions we implement in our lives are immediately rewarding. Not only do most of them require some degree of patience, but many also depend on repetition and consistency. My choice of a salad over a burger this evening will not register on the scales tomorrow morning. But making that choice consistently, day after day, will result in weight loss over time. The same can be said for the efforts of parenting. Taking the time to foster a love of reading in your child, teach them about different religions, or let them help with household chores (even when it actually slows you down) can often feel like a drop in the ocean and you sometimes wonder how much is really going in. But wait a while, and you’ll see that all those choices have planted seeds that will grow into trees of literacy, tolerance, and a sense of responsibility.
Four years ago I spoke at a conference on self-care and wellbeing. I came home and told my husband, “Well, that was fun, but I don’t know if anything with come of it”. Nothing much did, really, until a month ago when a man I met that day contacted me to start coaching sessions as he finally felt ready to start working towards a more fulfilling life. Now, that’s a real example of playing the long game!
You gotta have faith
I have to admit that I had to – as the French characteristically dramatically put it – me faire violence (do violence to myself) when I decided to plant those bulbs last autumn. I really had to force myself. It was cold, I was lockdown-weary, and I wasn’t convinced the on-sale bulbs I’d bought looked that healthy and would actually sprout at all. But now, as I sit in the garden surrounded by flaming red tulips and nodding narcissi, I am so pleased I found some motivation that day, even when I felt the result was uncertain. Looking at them reminds me that often in life, we have to take action and just have faith that – maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow (and maybe not even soon or for the rest of our lives) – but that at some point what we do will pay off. Because the explanation for a successful, fulfilling life is the same as for a colourful, flower-filled garden: it’s blooming because I planted the seeds necessary to make it that way.`
If you’re looking to re-landscape your life, plant the seeds of some life changes, or maybe pull out a few old weeds that are holding you back, coaching can help you target your actions and accelerate change. Contact me for your free introductory coaching session to find out how working together can help you build a life lived with purpose and on purpose.
It’s hard to take a leap of faith and say “yes” to life, but sometimes you have to kiss a few frogs and risk meeting some toads if you are to have a chance of creating the life you want and achieving your heart’s desire. Because it only takes one frog turning into a prince to make you glad you puckered up.
As the mother of a three-year-old boy and a nearly six-year-old girl, my day-to-day conversations are currently dominated by three main things. These are: the different species of dinosaurs and their relative strength (as in, “Mummy, T-Rex verses stegosaurus – who would win?”); how much chocolate it is acceptable to consume in a given 24-hour period; and my efforts to correct the often awful messages fairy tales send to children, girls in particular.
Recently, I was reading The Frog Prince to my daughter when she turned to me and asked a characteristically perceptive question: “Mummy, what would have happened if she hadn’t kissed the frog?” There ensued a discussion about keeping promises and doing the right thing (You’ll recollect that the princess promises to eat and sleep with the prince if he dives into the well to get her ball but then balks at the idea when faced with his green chops puckering up for a goodnight kiss.) nuanced by a child-friendly but extremely clear explanation of the meaning of ongoing consent.
What is it like to kiss a frog?
After I had seized on this very teachable moment, my thoughts naturally turned to other meanings one could infer from the metaphor of kissing a frog. I say naturally because “you have to kiss a lot of frogs to meet a single prince” is advice I often give to my intercultural coaching clients. When you arrive in a new city or country and are looking to make friends and network, I tell them, you have to kiss frogs. By that I mean that you should accept any invitation you receive (within the bounds of safe conduct, of course – meeting in a public place, etc.). You chat to a friendly woman at a book shop, and she suggests you grab coffee the next day. Colleagues from a different part of the company ask you to join them for lunch in the canteen. A neighbour suggests you meet her sister-in-law because she’s an ex-pat from your home country (If you’re British this invariably becomes: “In fact, maybe you know one another – it is a small island after all!”). Back home, these kinds of random meetings are unusual, perhaps even unheard of, but in ex-pat circles, they are gold!
I met two of my best friends this way. The first I met at the Christmas party of a colleague I barely knew. We got chatting, and she mentioned that being new to Paris she had no idea what to do on New Year’s Eve. I invited her to my party. My other closest buddy was the Paris newbie she met the day after we talked – she brought her to my party, and the three of us have been true blue ever since. I tell clients they have to kiss a few frogs because, while perhaps nine times out of 10, you’ll come away from the coffee/drink/party/mother-and-baby group disappointed and glad it’s over, you only need one of those “frogs” to turn into a “prince” and you have yourself a friend, or maybe even the beginnings of – whisper it – a group.
Frogs aren’t just for ex-pats
This wisdom isn’t just applicable to ex-pats seeking to create a life and build a network, however. To me, the bigger idea of kissing a frog is about taking a leap of faith. It’s about doing something that seems unlikely to result in anything useful but, well – you never know! It’s about saying yes to coffee with that nice lady at your yoga class, even if you aren’t sure you have anything in common other than flexibility. It’s about joining the PTA to meet new people, even if you end up leaving after the first year. And, beyond making contacts, it’s also about sending that email to a prospect, even if it is a long shot. Or visiting yet another potential dream house even when the last 10 have turned out to be four dodgy walls and a leaky roof. Or taking a class to learn a new skill, applying for a job that seems way out of your league, offering to volunteer…
When I first had my daughter, I was keen to take her to baby groups. I had her future bilingualism on my mind 24/ 7 and became convinced that a baby rhyme time group was absolutely essential to her English-speaking success. (Madness, I know, but in my defence I had just left my job, had a baby and moved house in the space of a month – I was so sleep deprived I often forgot my husband’s name.) I asked the local librarian if such a thing existed. She told me that nothing did as they had no-one to run it… Do you see where I’m going with this tale? For the next two years I spent one Saturday morning a month singing “The wheels on the bus” and “If you’re happy and you know it” at our local English-language Rhyme Time. I never once regretted kissing the frog that day and replying to the librarian “I could run it!”, and I know she never regretted kissing her own frog and saying “OK, let’s do it!” as, even though I no longer lead the singing, the group exists to this day.
What if you don’t kiss the frog?
Yes, some of the frogs you kiss will turn out to be utter toads. But when that happens, most of the time the only thing you’ll have lost is some time and perhaps the price of a cappuccino. But if you never kiss any frogs, if you never take a chance, you stand to lose a lot more. You’ve got to play the odds, though. The more frogs you kiss, the more likely you are to have one turn into a prince. Some of the best people I have in my life, and some of the best things I’ve done, have come from frog-kissing moments where I had the option to play it safe and instead I chose to say “yes” to invitations, to opportunity, to life.
At a time when connection and contacts are in short supply, I remind myself almost daily of the importance of seizing opportunity when it presents itself and of creating it when it fails to knock. Because, for me, the truly frightening answer to my daughter’s question, “Mummy, what would have happened if she hadn’t kissed the frog?” is not “She wouldn’t have met the prince”. No, in the real world, the answer to “What happens if you never kiss the frog?” is “Nothing ever happens at all”.
One last thing, just for info: of course the T-Rex would win hands-down, every time; and regarding chocolate, I find no better wisdom than a quotation I once read attributed to Miss Piggy: “Never eat more than you can lift”.
If you’re looking to add some magic to your life, encouraging, empowering support from a qualified coach can help you find the courage to kiss that frog and take a leap of faith into a life lived with purpose and on purpose. Contact me for your free introductory coaching session to see how you can upgrade your life.
If you’re trying to establish healthy new habits, it can help to hold yourself accountable using a home-made habit tracker. I tried one out for a month and learned some valuable lessons in the process.
As a former nail-biter, I speak from experience when I say that it is hard to break a habit. However, this month I learned that it can be just as hard to form a new habit. In January, I made a list of some healthy things I wanted to do for myself this year. Drink a litre of water per day, for example. Do yoga every day. Get on the cross-trainer twice a week. Integrate a gratitude practice into my day. Actually use and not just stock those little interdental brushes. I was full of superb intentions.
However, as February loomed large, I looked at my list and was forced to observe that I had done almost none of the above. So, uniting two of my passions – taking action and making lists – I created a habit tracker, put it on my kitchen noticeboard, and got busy.
What’s a habit tracker?
Well, as you can see from the image above, it’s basically a list associated to a calendar. (Funny story about lists. As we’re leaving for the market the other day, my five-year-old daughter asks, “Mummy, you haven’t made a list of what we need – shall I do it?” My gobsmacked and slightly horrified husband looks at me and gasps, “You’ve created a mini-you!” while I just beamed with pride.)
Back to the tracker. On the vertical axis, you list the (presumably good) habits you want to form. Across the top, you write out the days of the month. At the end of each day, you colour in the corresponding boxes to show whether you did or did not manage to maintain your new habit. I kept it simple with red for “didn’t do it” and green for “achieved!” but you can add more nuance with, say, blue for “half done” or perhaps yellow for “I tried but due to circumstances beyond my control (children/work/act of God) I didn’t manage it”. Some people add an extra element by tracking their mood or physical feelings each day, which helps them notice the impact of maintaining their chosen habits.
And the point is?
For me, the first objective of the habit tracker was to provide me with an accessible visual reminder of the habits I wanted to build. It also made me hold myself accountable. As a Good Student who likes getting gold stars on wall charts (Oh my goodness. New plan. Next month, I’m actually buying little gold star stickers. Can’t believe I didn’t think of that before!), it made me feel uncomfortable and dissatisfied when I had to colour a box in red. Not enough to damage self-esteem or motivation, but enough to make me want to do better the next day.
So, what did I learn?
I realised a number of things about myself during this process, and also a number of things about the art of creating good habits. Here are my – watch out! corp-speak coming up – key learnings and takeaways.
- How many matters
My habit list grew during the month and I ended up tracking 15 habits. For me, this was just about manageable, but I think that any more would have been too much. I’m sure many would say one at a time is best, perhaps three maximum, but I’m inclined to think you have to find what works for you. It may take a couple of tries to figure out how many habits you are comfortable working on at one time. But don’t worry, the idea is to acquire new habits and make them second nature, so you can start tracking new ones!
- Mix it up
One thing that helped me track so many habits was that they varied in nature. Some were physical (water, yoga, flossing); some were social (call, write or email a friend every day); others were mental or spiritual (create a gratitude practice). This also ensured I continued working on myself in a holistic way without getting too caught up with just one aspect of my being.
- Every day is easier than every week
I included a couple of weekly goals in my habit tracker and it just didn’t work for me. Firstly, it’s simply easier to commit to doing something every day than every week. Every week opens the door to “I’ll do that one tomorrow”, whereas with every day, there’s no way out. I think a weekly habit tracker could work, but if I were going to do that again, I’d keep it separate from my daily one and consult it at a different time.
- Tracking is not enough – you need a plan
Simply making and hanging your colourful chart will not put in place the good behaviours you’re seeking. You need to make a plan. Flossing’s a no-brainer for me (do it every night before brushing), but drinking water was harder. My cunning plan – which worked quite well – was to fill a litre bottle every morning and make sure I emptied it by the end of the day. I also decided to have a glass of that water while waiting for the kettle to boil each time I made tea. On the other hand, I did not make a concrete plan for how I was going to cultivate more gratitude, and I have to say that’s the habit that I really didn’t manage to create. Needless to say it’s on my March list.
- It helps to hitch new habits to the wagons of old ones
It can really help to attach a new habit to an existing one. I never go to bed without brushing my teeth, for example, so it was relatively easy to add flossing to my nightly ritual. I am a total tea addict, so drinking a glass of water for every mug of tea also worked well. To help anchor the gratitude habit, I’m currently considering a few methods: one is listing the things I’m thankful for while drying my hair, others are: while I walk to school to collect my daughter, while in the shower, and while tidying up the small regional branch of Toys R Us that is our sitting room at the end of the day.
6. It takes more than a month
Studies have shown that it takes a little over two months (66 days in fact) to create a new habit. I’ll be able to report my thoughts on that at the end of March, but for the moment, the one thing I can say for sure is that it takes time. Creating a new habit takes discipline and control, but above all it takes perseverance. It’s easy to lose motivation, especially if you have a series of days coloured red on your habit tracker. But the keys to getting into a habit are the same as getting out of one: take one day at a time and keep trying – even if that means picking yourself up, dusting yourself off and starting all over again every morning.
7. You have to care
If you keep trying and trying, but a new habit just doesn’t seem to stick, ask yourself how committed you really are. I included “eat one piece of fruit per day” on mine and, after over a month, I’ve only managed a handful of times. So, I’m wondering how strongly I really feel about the habit. I know it would be good for me, but I eat loads of veg, so I’m not sure it would make as big a difference to my life as my daily litre of water. Ask yourself where the idea for the new habit is coming from, too. Is this something you really believe in and want to establish, or is it an example of you should-ing on yourself or making someone else’s priority your problem? Remember that, like the tracker itself, good habits are there to serve you. Make sure you keep a firm handle on the master-servant relationship when it comes to both.
One last thing. Newsflash: it turns out water really is important. Who’da thunk it, eh? It appears that when I drink my daily litre, I’m far less tired, less inclined to snack, and my skin looks better. I believe some people have been wise to the virtues of this miracle substance for some time, but apparently I had to learn for myself to believe the reports of its life-enhancing properties…
If you’re finding it hard to give up an old habit or put in place some new ones, I can help. Compassionate, zero-judgement support from a qualified coach can make a huge difference when you’re looking to change any part of your life that isn’t currently working for you. Contact me for your free introductory coaching session to see how you can upgrade to a life lived with purpose and on purpose.