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.
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.
1. Make them SMART. That’s Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely. SMART resolutions are clear and have criteria you can use to measure progress. They take into account your starting point and fit with your lifestyle and constraints. Lastly, they have a defined timeline with a target date.
2. Only make one or two. Human beings have limited amounts of willpower at their disposal. I know no-one capable of losing weight, giving up smoking, looking for a new job, and doing dry January all at the same time. Prioritise, then tackle your goals one (or two) at a time.
3. Set the goal, plan the action. It’s great to have a destination, it’s even better to have a roadmap. Don’t stop once you’ve decided on your goal – take the next step and work out the route you’ll need to take to get where you want to go.
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?”
Originally published on Running in Heels.