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.
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 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 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 create low self-esteem or damage 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 for how you are going to establish these habits. 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.
- 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.
What if shifting your focus from having a good day to making the most of your day could liberate you to enjoy even the dreariest of chore-filled days?
Every morning, as I see my children off to school and the childminder’s house, I give them the same three things: a hug, a kiss, and a cheery instruction to “have a great day” or “enjoy the day”. However, one morning last week, something changed. I had hurt my back so my husband was taking the kids in, and as I was – with some difficulty – leaning into the car to kiss them goodbye, I said: “Make the most of your day, guys!”
Make the most of your day. Now, there’s an interesting idea.
As I went back into my house in search of ibuprofen and a hot water bottle, I got to thinking about what I had –involuntarily – said to my children, and the bigger message I had conveyed.
Now, thanks to the American movie industry and the proliferation of Starbucks, we are all quite used to hearing and being told to have a nice day. Or a good day. Or a great day. We’re forever wishing each other enjoyable days. But here I was talking about something else, something greater than a great day. The French have a handy verb for this idea: profiter. Take advantage. Make the most of. Get the best out of. Extract all you can. Seize opportunity. The boys of the dead poets’ society got the idea – carpe diem and all that. But what does it really mean to do that – to make the most of the day? What does that look like? And how do our words make a difference?
The different shades of making the most
For me, making the most of my day means something very different depending on the day of the week. I do paid work four days a week, so on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, it can simply mean doing what I need to earn enough to pay the bills. But, given my profession, it can also mean feeling like I have truly served my coaching clients by being fully present for them and supporting their journey. Or it can mean attending a networking event and talking to as many people as possible, being courageous and working the room. Some days it might mean getting through the pile of administrative tasks that are par for the course when you run a business. Making the most of a work day means, in essence, extracting everything from it that can serve either my clients or my business.
I spend Wednesdays with my children, so those days are very different. Making the most of the day might mean ensuring I take the time to practice reading with my daughter. Or forgetting about the laundry and spending some quality time on Lego and puzzles. It might also mean finding the stamina to get through multiple two-year-old tantrums without losing my temper or my mind. And let’s face it, it might also mean using the children’s nap time to catch up on some sleep myself.
Be here now
Now, while I love my work, and I adore my children, quite a few of the activities listed above are not what I would consider fun, nice or enjoyable. Business admin gives me a knot in my stomach for fear I’ll screw up and bring down the full force of the French trésor publique on me. Equally, networking is something of a necessary evil, Lego has its limits, and I don’t think hating tantrums makes me unique amongst parents! And yet all of those things count, for me, as part of making the most of the day. There are even times when the best use of your time is actually doing something specifically unpleasant – like undergoing a painful but necessary medical procedure, or having a difficult but valuable conversation with a friend who has hurt you.
Making the most of the day has a notion of being about a longer-term goal than having a nice day. It’s about doing something today that will serve you tomorrow, or next week. It’s about being here now, facing what has to be done with at least a smidge of enthusiasm rather than tackling tasks begrudgingly, all the time wishing you could be somewhere else, doing something else. It’s also about making the most important use of your time: there are days when resting really is the most productive thing you can do.
Perspective on the message
So, what’s the bigger picture here? Am I reading too much into a few words we casually toss to our children, partners, colleagues and – in France – anyone we meet and speak to all day (the French “bonne journée” upon leaving the bakery is sacrosanct)? I don’t think so. I think it’s subtle but the words we use have meaning and they shape how we see the world. By telling my daughter to have a good/fun/nice day, I’m telling her that life is supposed to be good/fun/nice, and if her day isn’t those things, that she has somehow failed, or that life has failed to live up to her expectations.
The truth is: not all parts of life are fun. In fact, some of the most fulfilling, enriching and rewarding life experiences we’ll ever have are quite the opposite. (Childbirth, anyone? Therapy? Running a marathon?) Of course, a lot of the time, when we say “have a good day”, our actual intention is somewhere closer to “make the most of the day”, but linguistic precision is important. By consciously changing our mindset to seeking to make the most of the day, rather than enjoy it, we accept that not every day will be joyful but that doesn’t diminish its value. This in turn can help us see even a very challenging, enraging or saddening day as useful and instructive or as contributing to a long-term goal.
A sprinkling of sugary joy along the way
The cherry on the cake, of course, is making the most of the day with the right attitude and intention. I might spend the day cleaning the house – useful, necessary – but if I can do it while listening to music and dancing as I hoover, maybe I can turn it into a fun one too. Mary Poppins knew it years ago: you might have to clean the kids’ bedroom, or go on a long drive, or do admin and pay bills but in every job that must be done, there can be an element of fun. For me, letting go of the belief that every day should be fun enables me to accept the day for what it is, and by aiming to make the most of it I often find a sprinkling of enjoyment emerges even amidst the nastiest of tasks.
Except for managing the two-year-old’s tantrums. There’s not enough sugar in the world to make that medicine go down.
If you’re finding it hard working out how to make the most of your day, your week or your life at the moment, you’re not alone. I can help you figure out where you want to be and how you can get there – hopefully with some joy and fun along the way. Contact me for your free introductory coaching session to see how you can get more out of a life lived with purpose and on purpose.
Making the New Year mindful
New Year’s resolutions might give you the chills, but there are lots of other practices and rituals you can use to ensure you step into the new year mindfully and with intention.
It has been said that April is the cruellest month. However, with all due respect to T. S. Eliot, I would suggest that January is the hottest contender for the title of Bleakest Month of the Year. Where I live, it’s the coldest time of year with some of the longest nights. Even for people in the southern hemisphere, it has to be rough. The festivities are over, and the next holiday to look forward to is St Valentine’s Day, and for many that’s the ultimate anti-uplift. Unless you actually have a dinner date with Chris Hemsworth on 14 February, it certainly doesn’t pack enough of a punch to make up for having to take down decorations and sorrowfully finish the last bite of pudding. With that in mind, doesn’t the tradition of making often draconian and self-depriving resolutions at the beginning of this somewhat dreary month seem faintly ridiculous, indeed almost inhuman?
Now, I’m a resolution-maker. I’m a coach, it’s like a professional requirement. However, many people find the whole business stressful and see it as a direct path to disappointment, which is a shame as the turn of the year can be a natural and uplifting cue both to look back and plan forward. So, if you want to use the beginning of a new year to reflect on the one gone by, or to turn a page and enjoy a fresh start without actually making resolutions, here are a few turn-of-the-year rituals I enjoy that you might like to try.
Year-end stock take
In the no-man’s land between Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve, I like to sit down and write a list of my achievements over the past year. Reminiscing over the high points of the year is a real mood boost. It might be a little harder than usual this year, but that’s all the more reason to spend time actively seeking out the good. Remember to include the little things as well as the big: everything from repainting a wall to redecorating the whole house, reading some good books to teaching your child to read, doing some yoga online to running 10K. Simply keeping up with mortgage payments and doing your job. It all counts. What did you achieve this year?
Look for learning
Another uplifting ritual is to take a moment to think back over the year and list the things you have learnt. It might be something about what makes you tick or what you need to be happy. Or a new life skill, like sewing. Or maybe you’ve read the newspapers more this year and finally have a good grasp of your county’s political machinations. What did you learn this year?
Visualise the year ahead
Now, shifting your mental gaze to the year to come, close your eyes and imagine the year. I see it as a giant planner with gold stars on the big dates like birthdays and anniversaries. Now imagine yourself entering the year. What does it feel like? What colour and flavour does it have? This simple exercise helps me feel like I’m going into the new year more mindfully. I’m stepping into it, paying attention – not just being swept along by the inexorable march of time. What do you envisage for the next 12 months?
Set your intention
Rather than setting a resolution to give something up or change something you do, try setting an intention for your being in the coming year. Complete the sentence: “Next year, I will be…”. Healthy. Patient. Kinder. Calmer. More grateful. Think of your intention as an over-arching theme for the year that will drive all your decisions. Only once you’re decided how you want to be (and therefore feel) can you align your actions and decide what you want to do. How do you want to be this year?
List positive goals
Another great alternative to negatively-worded resolutions (I will eat less chocolate. I will not smoke. I will stop shouting at the kids.), is creating a list of positive goals. I will eat one bar of chocolate per week. In January, I will only smoke on weekdays (And in February, I will only smoke four days a week, etc.). It has often been said that our subconscious mind cannot process negatives. I say “don’t think of an elephant” – what’s the first thing you think of? I say “drink no wine” and I find myself reaching for the corkscrew. Whether you believe that not, it is true that positive statements of intent are more motivating than negative ones. So express what you want, not what you don’t want. What do you want to do this year?
Make a plan
A goal without a plan is just an idea. Once you’ve set your intention, written down your goals, or done whatever you need to do to step into the new year mindfully, ask yourself: what do I need to do to ensure that in 365 days’ time, this is a reality? Write down every tiny step you need to take to get there: from asking your partner to watch the kids next Saturday while you buy running shoes to making a doctor’s appointment for a pre-training medical. Now, read the first task on the list and Do. It. Now. Maybe your goal is to learn a foreign language. Or perhaps you want to write a book. Or find a new job. The second you finish downloading that vocab-builder app, digging out your old laptop, or asking your best friend to help you re-do your CV, you’ve already taken the first step to achieving your goal! How are you going to make it happen this year?