Resolving to be Carefree and Other Oxymorons

January resolutions chart

For me, January 2014 is all about building habits and integrating them into my life before I become consumed by my next project. I want to be on my way to having good, helpful, healthful framework in place so that when the craziness comes again I’ll be ready for it. The mental image I have is of a lattice of steel girders (the framework) being engulfed by a stream of liquid concrete (the project), which is being pumped in at a continuous and unrelenting rate (no doubt I owe this imagery to residual trauma from having advised clients in the construction industry for most of 2013 — or maybe I’ve just watched too many episodes of Grand Designs).

To build the framework I came up with a list of 54 resolutions for the New Year. These are 54 things I want to change about my life. The method I’m using to track my adherence to these resolutions is a mash-up of Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project monthly resolutions charts and Jerry Seinfeld’s productivity mantra “Don’t break the chain” which involves colouring in consecutive days of achievement on a calendar to create a visual chain that you don’t want to break. I’ve come up with a chart (pictured) that has my resolutions listed in the left-hand column and the days of the month numbered across the top. Pink is good (resolve held), blue is bad (must try harder). The last box in each column is divided by a diagonal line. I use this to sum-up my mental and physical wellbeing for each day.

What Kinds of Habits Am I Trying to Build?

If you made a chart it would likely be completely different to mine. There are things we all want to do more of (“floss”!) but apart from that everyone wants to get something different out of life and we all have our own idiosyncrasies to deal with.

My chart is split into three categories:

  • The way I am
  • The way I live
  • The things I do

You would think that “the way I am” would be the hardest thing to change but actually I’m finding the opposite is true. You can see from the chart that the highest concentration of pink is in the first section (“the way I am”). This section includes resolutions like “laugh & be silly”, “be positive”, “no regrets”, “don’t take things personally”. Those rows are mostly pink and when I think about them each night I don’t give a second thought to colouring in the boxes. So either I’m already really good at being those things or (more likely?) I’m hopeless at noticing my lapses in these categories. Either way, if the trend continues through January I’ll think about removing them for next month.

There are other aspects of the way I want to be, however, where the resolutions chart has been really helpful in keeping a certain phrase at the forefront of my mind. The repeated reflection of whether I am living up to these standards means that each maxim is readily accessible in my mind, and when life presents an opportunity to live in accordance with my self-imposed commandments I am more likely than before to act appropriately.

Examples of this kind of resolution are “don’t over-research” (seriously being put to the test while I am sourcing furniture and appliances for our renovation – a dishwasher bought over the phone in 10 minutes flat being my greatest achievement in this department), “talk to my family” (living with my family actually means I usually take less time to actually talk to them), and “ask for advice” (I think this is a symptom of the imposter syndrome I’ve suffered from since university, and which was surely exacerbated in my practice as a lawyer. It generally results in a preference for bullshitting and pretending you know what’s going on instead of asking for help).

I’ve found it much harder to adapt to my resolutions in the categories of “the way I live” and “the things I do” because these require an additional step and an extra layer of effort — I have to make space and time for these things in my life and plan for how I am going to make them happen. Until our flat is ready (we were meant to move in at the end of last Summer — the resolutions have also been good for controlling the RAGE I would otherwise feel about this setback) I have frustratingly little control over “the way I live” in areas that might otherwise seem trivial but actually have a big impact on my levels of happiness. A resolution as simple as “cook” is more blue than pink because I have to accept that it’s not my kitchen or fridge and I’m not free to do with them as I like. Ditto for “buy food at a market” and “eat < 250g meat per week”. “10 minute tidy before bed” is similarly pointless when all our stuff is “temporarily” (apparently one year counts as temporary) scattered in boxes, bags and random piles throughout the house.

But I have no excuse whatsoever for the chains of blue that sully the “floss”, “meditate”, “connect with a friend”, and “volunteer my time” rows. If I don’t find time to do these things now, when I’m not working and have relatively free reign over how I spend my days, then there’s not much hope for these ones. If the persistent blue streaks can’t act as a motivation for these resolutions I’ll have to reassess my commitment to achieving them at the end of the month.

“Make Light and Take it as it Comes”

The very first resolution on my chart is “make like and take it as it comes”. As I come back to this resolution every night I’m struck by the conflict inherent in my chosen system for building a better life. I want my life to be happy, light, fun and free, but I’m using a structured, systematic, and relatively inflexible method. And some of my resolutions consistently end up rubbing up against each other. “Get 8 hours sleep” does battle with “connect with a friend” and “be social”. “Reminisce” can sometimes conflict with “no regrets”. The question that I am left pondering is: will my means defeat my ends?

My provisional (and qualified) answer is: no, I don’t think so. But I think it requires a clear appraisal of what kind of role the chart is meant to serve. Last week I met Jana Bakunina, of Life Tonic and the Ladies Who Impress events, at Yumchaa in Soho — “meet someone new”; “discover somewhere new”; “be social”, “ask for advice” — and one of the many pearls of wisdom she shared with me was that one of the hardest things about coming out of the City was to lose the City mindset, in particular learning to let go and giving yourself permission to not finish something or to fail. If I learn to see the chart as a reflective log rather than a scoreboard then it is much more likely to serve its purpose as a tool for building a happier life. The streaks of blue are not failures, they are indicators and memory aids, revealing the truth about how I live and showing me that I don’t cook, have adventures, laugh at myself, and drink smoothies as much as I want to. The aim is not to achieve a month of pink. The point of the chart is to outsource to it my life goals so that I can get on with living.

What Progress Have I Made?

I’m half-way through my first month of resolutions so it’s a good point at which to reflect on how I think the exercise is going. I give myself gold stars for remembering to do the log every day. I do it every night before I go to bed and it takes less than 2 minutes.

The great thing about the chart is it speaks for itself. It shows that I’ve found that the hardest resolutions to be the ones where there is a choice of how to fulfill them. There is only one way to “walk for 20 mins” every day, but “make something” and “learn / do something new” require thought and planning. I’m starting to keep a list of places I want to explore and DIY projects I want to do so that when I come to planning my week I have a ready list of ideas for how to meet these resolutions.

There have also been some notable successes, where habits that have eluded me for years have seemingly effortlessly been adopted over the last two weeks. These have included “don’t over-research”, “say yes to activity”, “be considerate”, “don’t assign: do shit myself”, “be productive first thing in the morning”, and “go somewhere green once a week”.

As a case study in how my resolutions are impacting how I live my life, and how they can cascade throughout the day, “be productive first thing in the morning” saw Dan and I getting to Ikea at what felt like the crack of dawn on Saturday morning to order our kitchen. We felt like complete winners — we saw people who got there 5 minutes after us still waiting to see an adviser 2 hours later. “Don’t over-research” meant making snap decisions on countertops, colour palettes, configurations and fittings. Boom! When we accidentally went the wrong way as we headed out of Ikea I seized the moment to suggest that we make the most of having the car for the day and drive to Petersham Nurseries near Richmond (“go somewhere green”, “discover somewhere new”, “have an adventure”). That led to further accomplishments: a walk along the river (“walk for 20 mins”, “go outside”), photos sent to friends living abroad (“find & share a happy moment”), a beautiful orchid we bought for my mum (“be nice to my parents”).

I may have failed at “be positive” when both our iPhones died as we left the nursery and we got completely and utterly lost in central London, mostly due to my hopeless sense of direction, but with that day’s column awash with pink I can only sigh and reflect that nobody is perfect.


Love links, hate distractions. Now that you’re done, here are some internet bits to put this article in context:

For more on doing a little every day to reach your goals see this article.

For more on Jerry Seinfeld’s “Don’t break the chain” strategy see here. Various people have come up with stationary to implement this technique. See this calendar and t his monthly to-do list.

Check out Jana Bakunina’s great blog & newsletter Life Tonic (“a sip of inspiration to stimulate the mind”) and her Ladies Who Impress events.

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7 thoughts on “Resolving to be Carefree and Other Oxymorons

  1. I’d never heard of the “don’t break the chain” thing before, so thanks for sharing! It seems like a great system to keep you on track. I’ve had the same experience, where it can seem like an inherent conflict to plan to be more carefree/spontaneous. But I do really find that when I schedule some “me” time, or my new rule which is to not plan more than three things per weekend including Friday night (e.g. a morning coffee with a friend, a dinner etc), then I have more freedom to be spontaneous and I generally feel happier and have more fun. It’s all about putting the “gaps” into my schedule

    • That’s really interesting and something I think I will borrow for next month. I haven’t really left myself gaps, particularly with the novel-writing challenge, but I think it’s definitely an element that’s missing. Since this resolutions project is a work in progress I’m keeping a list of new resolutions, including “digital detox one day per week”. Maybe I could add “have unplanned time” to the list, or do you think this would have the same self-defeating effect as “be spontaneous”?

  2. Hi Michelle
    My daughter sent me your blog. Your career seems to have followed hers! I wouldn’t want to presume your age but you will know that between 28 – 31 many young professionals suffer a huge identity crisis :(
    I was a pushy mother wanting the best and I wish I had left well alone. My daughter is struggling to find a real sense of purpose now. Anyway, good for you. I did the same at 31 and set up my own business and never looked back.
    It’s part of psychological maturing but for most it turns out for the best. I am sure it will in your case as it will in my daughter’s. Just curious as to your parents reaction. Do they understand?
    Evangeline Black

  3. Hi Evangeline, thanks so much for your comment. I’ll admit to extreme cowardice in that although I have declared my intentions to the whole world and their dog, I have not explicitly discussed it with my parents. I think it’s safe to say that the process of my psychological maturing is not yet complete!

    I am, as you rightly guessed, in the middle of that sweet spot of crisis at the close of my 20’s when I am forced to confront the fact that I have a fair way to go before my life resembles anything like my daydreams. In a way my inability to ignore this fact has been a gift – I was incapable of continuing to bang my head agains the brick wall, I needed to change things up, which is what I’m trying to do. It’s certainly not easy as you may have found yourself at 31 but I feel that this may prove to have been a major turning point in my life and hopefully, as you say, for the better!

    I would love to hear more about your decision to change direction. What brought that about and how do you think that influenced your advice and guidance to your daughter? I know my parents had to deal with all manner of obstacles and challenges and I know as well that the smooth path they laid before me was specifically designed to help me avoid those issues, although inadvertently it may have contributed to me heading off in the wrong direction entirely.

    Thanks again and hope you keep reading!

    • Hi if you can disclose your private email I would be happy to talk to you. I’ve got experience from both sides of the fence. On the other hand you should have my email when I logged on.

  4. Hi
    In case this might help.
    I was teaching in a rough college up to aged 30 and didn’t fit in with the internal politics and toadying that went on. I got lucky. I was both a great trainer and an entrepreneur ( I told myself those things) and one day the HR Manager from Cadbury came to watch me train. Hey presto I landed a one year training contract and never looked back. I built an international client base – it doesn’t happen overnight, developed training materials I now sell on line and was always the best I could ever be. I worked hard at my craft and didn’t let anyone down. I did all this whilst being in the middle of some frightening and terrible circumstances which I can’t disclose publicly but it kept driving me on. Daughter no 1 was just 3 at the time. I continue to deliver training and write business books including for amazon kindle. I wanted said daughter to have a better chance than I did so off to Oxbridge, Law etc etc. She became desperately unhappy in London and I practically dragged her away. She had a sabbatical doing a higher degree in something totally different and something she really is committed to. Now she is contract working, and being a portfolio worker. No-one will remember you as a partner in a law firm but they will remember you if you do something to help others. Contract work for a bit then do voluntary work. Do a PhD ( my daughter is going to) in something that really floats your boat, write, portfolio work. Read Charles Handy – The Age of Unreason. Daughter No 2 went to Business School and is a social entrepreneur.
    Earn enough money to keep you going and fit it into your real life. By the time you are 32 this transition will be over and you will find your True Self. Read Carl Jung on Individuation. I just love 28 -32 year olds. I am thinking of setting up workshops to help them through. Would you like to join forces? Could be fun.

  5. Thank you so much for sharing this Evangeline, I know I won’t be the only one to benefit from your words. I’ll send you an email – I think many 28-32 year olds could definitely benefits from guidance on how to regain control of their lives and direction.

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