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.
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?
Self-respect manifests itself in multiple ways – not least in the choices we make on a daily basis. Make sure the decisions you make for yourself are considerate, attentive and confident, and Grace Kelly-like poise and graciousness is well within reach.
As I sit down to write this month’s dose of my personal musings, I have a glass of full-bodied red wine, ripe blue cheese and fresh bread at my side, and Rear Window is playing on the television in the background. I mention these things not to complete the stereotype of life in France, nor to incite alcoholism and gluttony in readers through the power of suggestion. No, I mention them because all three exemplify the theme of this month’s ponderings: the concept of quality over quantity.
Never to settle
Quality over quantity is the resolution I made as I turned 33 recently. I decided that too often I settle. I settle in certain areas in my life in a way that I wouldn’t dream of doing in others. Before I met the Beloved, I rarely had long-term boyfriends as the minute I realised this wasn’t The One, I called things off; I aimed for the best university I could; I apply for the jobs I really want, even when I know 500 others candidates are also on the case. I consider myself someone who doesn’t settle. And yet… I’ll go and buy a pair of not-quite-right shoes that aren’t really the brown I wanted but hey ho. And then I’ll obviously have to buy another pair later on in the year because I have five outfits for which I have no suitable shoes. I’ll say yes to a drink after work with people I sort of get along with in a bid to extend my social circle. Then I’ll realise I no longer have a free evening that week to see some of my best friends. I’ll watch random rubbish on TV because there’s nothing else on and I can’t be bothered reading. Then I’ll curse the fact that I don’t have enough reading time and feel out of touch with current affairs.
Well, no more of that for me. And this evening typifies my new quality-over-quantity attitude.
You are what you eat
Firstly, let’s talk about the cheese. I have to admit that since I’ve been in France I have eaten a shocking amount of cheese. It’s just how we round off a meal here. But tonight I’m not just rounding off a meal. The bread and cheese is my meal. Because I didn’t really want anything else. In fact, all I wanted was blue cheese, some bread and glass of red. So that’s exactly what I’m having. I’m not settling for something else because it’s easier, or what I should have; I’m having a reasonable amount of exactly what I fancy. And yes, before you ask, it is indeed doing me good.
One perfect thing
Now, about that wine… When it comes to wine, I’m what the French call “bon public” – easily pleased! I like most wines but this one is truly marvellous. It’s rich, fruity and pretty potent. Quite often (and please don’t judge me) I’ll find one glass of wine easily leads to another and another (especially when drinking with a man who can really hold his liquor), which inevitably leads to exhaustion and a slight hangover. But not tonight. No. Tonight, I’m reining in the instinct to say, “Oh, that’s nice, I think I’ll have a top-up” because I know that I won’t appreciate the second glass as much as the first, and truly enjoying something speaks to the heart of my “quality not quantity” resolution.
What would Grace and Audrey do?
Finally, Rear Window. I love pretty much all Hitchcock films (the exception would have to be Marnie, which I find just too disturbing), and Rear Window is in my top 3. The huit clos-style setting, the charm of Jimmy Stewart, the totally relatable premise of fascination-with-neighbours-turns-sour, but mainly – oh yes – mainly for the exquisite Grace Kelly. Just watching her makes me want to sit up straighter, mind my manners, and generally be a better person. Watching Audrey Hepburn has the same effect on me. They both exude class, gentility, elegance and style. Would Grace buy a cheap, oddly fitting pair of ballet flats then get blisters within minutes? No. Would Audrey stop herself from getting the slightly dearer leather bag in favour of the cheaper imitation one only to buy another a week later because the strap broke already? I think we all know the answer to that one.
Grace and Audrey would rather have one pair of perfect shoes than a cupboard full of second-bests. Grace and Audrey would never try to cram three parties into one evening and end up offending hostesses and being late for all of them; no, they’d politely decline two, attend the most important of the three, bring a nice bottle, and probably send a handwritten thank-you note the next day. Grace and Audrey would buy the right size or have it altered to fit, they’d get the best quality they could afford, they’d make time for close friends and not be in a rush, they’d savour one glass of champagne rather than three glasses of wine they didn’t really want. They would treat every decision as a reflection of how much they respected themselves. As I turn 33, that’s how I plan to live my life too – making respectful choices for myself and asking, on a daily basis: “What would Grace and Audrey do?”
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.
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.