20 Habits That Don’t Improve My Life: A Mini-Manifesto

KnowThyselfThe high-stress times often give us the most cause to think about our lives. I’m finding that to be particularly true right now, as I’m six months pregnant, moving in less than two weeks, behind in work and stuck at home. Truly, a recipe for serenity.

I’m almost 30 years old, and although I have plenty to show for it and don’t want to sound ungrateful, I consistently rediscover that my projections for the future are not as realistic as I’d like to think. I.e. “Life is going to be so awesome then! Then it will all make sense! Then I’ll stop making stupid mistakes! Then I’ll find the stability/freedom from drama/inner peace/self-love I crave!”

Well … yes and no. Every passing day brings me closer to my dreams: having children, starting a blog, working full-time as a writer. But through it all, I seem to be the same old me, putting on the same old emotional hats, and a lot of them just don’t fit. Recently I did a thorough inventory of these behaviors and emotions to come up with a list of habits that don’t improve my life. A mini-manifesto, if you will. Suffice it to say, it was … long.

1. Regretting Choices I Didn’t Make

Everywhere I look, it seems like someone or something wants to remind me of a choice I failed to make. I could have been a graphic designer. I could have been a travel guide. I could have been a web developer. Well, I’m not. Probably for a reason. We can’t really do it all, and it’s time for me to accept that.

2. Wishing I Were Someone Else

Other people’s lives look so dang glorious. Their hair is perfect, their children are perfect, their cars are perfect, their careers are perfect. In the pictures, at least. Even those who make a living off shouting self-deprecatingly from the rooftops — “See?! I’m not perfect either!” — seem perfect to me. But they aren’t. And if I let them feel bad about me, well, that’s on … me.

3. Judging Others’ Happiness

If it makes them happy, who the hell am I?

4. Gossiping

Although some research indicates that gossip may actually aid social interactions by reinforcing good behavior and ostracizing people who misbehave, for the most part it isn’t a good road to go down. Do I do it? Sure. Should I? Well, let’s just say that most of the time I do, I don’t feel better afterward. In fact, I often feel worse, having spent so much time focusing on negative emotions and engaging in behavior that doesn’t really get me anywhere.

5. Putting Tasks Off

It never feels better. It never feels better. It never feels better.

6. Sticking My Head in the Sand

So, so often I choose to waste time and energy trying to pretend nothing is happening. Of course, I know it’s happening, because I’m spending the time and energy trying to convince myself otherwise. Hmm. I’ve learned the hard way that it’s better to make the phone call, have the conversation, pay the bill or otherwise deal. Problems rarely go away or become not-problems. Sadly.

7. Spend Too Much Money

Spending too much money is one of my worst habits, and I tend to indulge it in every area of life: food, clothes, household goods, craft supplies, gifts for other people. I’ve heard tell that other people have problems with chronic underbuying, but that sure ain’t me. I’ve learned the hard way that spending doesn’t make me happy in a lasting why unless the item itself will continue to add to my life.

8. Railing Against Authority

I dislike authority, but unfortunately, some form or other will always be present in my life. As I get older and more autonomous with work, I find myself at the mercy of fewer and fewer outside authorities, but I’m not exempt. I still have editors. I still have friends and family who expect me to behave in socially acceptable ways. The police can still stop me pretty much on a whim. Instead of hating this, I’m trying hard to see others’ points of view.

9. Wishing I Were a Different Person

This is subtly different from wishing I were someone else. Instead of wanting to emulate another’s life, I simply want different qualities in my own. I wish I were budget-conscious. I wish I got up and did my hair every morning. I wish I didn’t have to control my temper. Guess what? Too bad. Might as well accept who I am, and find the workarounds.

10. Feeling Ashamed

In limited situations, shame is a useful emotion. It’s one I’ve genuinely earned a number of times. But sadly, like many others, I feel it so much more often than is really warranted. Shame creeps on me for many reasons, eroding my faith in myself and limiting my ability to chase my dreams. Why let it? Now when I feel ashamed, I spend a minute trying to figure out whether it’s justified. If it isn’t, pffft, I’m moving on!

11. Pursuing the Wrong Dreams

Perhaps if I had learned this lesson earlier, I would have fewer degrees. Alas. The fact is, it’s okay to have lots of dreams, but if I spend all my time going after the ones that won’t really make me happy … well, isn’t the outcome obvious? When it really comes down to it, I want very specific things out of life, and I have to content myself with who I really am. Spreading myself too thin not only isn’t effective, it takes away from what I really do what.

12. Failing to Exercise

This is just obvious. And true. And obvious.

13. Nursing Negative Feelings

It feels good to spend a lot of time harping on all the things that feel bad. So … many … things. And yet, does it really? Am I really any happier when I spend an hour thinking about how someone wronged me? Does it really give me clarity, peace, happiness? Sometimes I genuinely need to vent or make a decision, but most of the time I’m just nursing a grudge instead of adding beauty or love to the world.

14. Failing to Follow Through

I start so many endeavors with the highest of ambitions, but they tend to fade as time wears on. Sometimes this is a good thing: I’m really not meant to do karate or drink kombucha. I can accept that. But sometimes I genuinely disappoint myself as well as, I have to assume, others. Following through is very important to me, yet I consistently leave projects unfinished. This behavior never makes me happy, and I’m working hard to nip it in the bud.

15. Setting Unrealistic Goals

Of course, if I want to follow through, I need to set reasonable goals. For instance, I’m continually telling myself I’ll stop eating sugar. But … but … I really love donuts. And chocolate. And donuts. So why do I keep setting this goal? It’s unrealistic and silly. That doesn’t mean I can’t stand to work on my relationship with sweets, but it probably isn’t ever going to work to tell myself not to eat them at all. Rather, accepting how much I love them is more likely to give me the strength to figure out how to manage them.

16. Hating When It’s Hard

Why? Why do I spend so much time grinding my teeth and wishing for something easier when it just won’t make a difference? The thing about easy is it isn’t even particularly rewarding. It doesn’t help you sleep at night, doesn’t give you a feeling of satisfaction at the end of a long day, and doesn’t particularly impress other people. When I want easy, I try to remind my brain that it isn’t in control: I am. And I like hard.

17. Thinking I’m Owed Anything

We all know the world owes us nothing. We all choose to forget it. Enough said.

18. Giving Up On Challenges

Funny thing about challenges: they often don’t start out that way. For me, at least, a challenge begins life as a soft, cloudy dream that just sounds so awesome. Before I know it, I’m away on some project or endeavor that too quickly becomes tiresome and difficult. Does that mean I’d be any less pleased with the end result? Probably not. But I give up because the in-between time sucks, and I’d rather not be there. Mistake.

19. Forgetting to Ask For Help

I often don’t ask for help because I’m embarrassed or prideful. But sometimes I just forget. I look at the people around me who ask for a lot more than I do, and I’ll be honest, I judge them for being weak or leaning too heavily on others. But you know what? They get more help. And no one seems to resent them. Rather, people like being asked for help or advice! So clearly I’m the one missing out.

20. Spending Time With the Wrong People

I’m happy to say this is one that I’ve gotten a lot better at, and my social life now reflects the people and places I’m willing to devote my time to. However, it’s starting to become clear to me that there are some people I love very deeply whom I sometimes still shouldn’t spend time with, depending on the situation. My party-loving friends don’t help me get work done. Mild acquaintances don’t make good companions when I’m feeling low and really need to open up. And my parents, so loving, sometimes aren’t a great place to turn when I don’t want to talk.

These lessons have been hard for me to learn, and none of them are single-repetition cases. Rather, I’ve learned them over and over again, forgotten them, and relearned. (Then, it will shock you to know, re-forgotten.) But I’m trying.

What about you? Do you have habits you just don’t seem to break no matter what?

Notes on the Habit of Following Through

VioletBasket Very little in life just happens. That’s why it’s baffling to me that, despite understanding this maxim very well, I fail to follow through on so much. I’m not even talking about things I have to do: I regularly put off things I want to do. Why? What does this say about me?

Sometimes I feel like I’ve spent my whole life intending to make certain dreams come true, and then watching the Big Bang Theory in my underwear instead. I hate this about myself. So I did some research, trying to figure out why I possess a fatal lack of follow-through.

Well, according to a Harvard study entitled Making the Best Laid Plans Better: How PlanMaking Increases FollowThrough, some plans just suck. In fact, some plans aren’t even plans.

If you really want to follow through on something, you should:

* Want to do it

* Make a concrete plan of action

* State it publicly

* Think about how to overcome the obstacles

Your plan will also work best if you have not already made a competing plan, if you are naturally forgetful, if you have time limitations and if there are specific moments during which your plan will be most effective.

Of course, these strategies don’t comprise a cure-all, but I had the opportunity to test them today, with good results. I’d been wanting to take some pictures of my daughter for a while, and snow presented the perfect opportunity. But when I work up late this morning feeling blah, I almost didn’t do it. Luckily, I’d already made the plans. Basket: check. Coat: check. Camera: check. Plans: CHECK. Plus I’m super forgetful, the snow wasn’t going to last, and all I had to do was actually take the darn pictures.

Guess what? I actually did. Now I have a bunch of bright, colorful, snowy pictures in my photo library that weren’t there this morning! Note to self: make more plans.

Blue-Chairs-Teal-FenceYellowedConiferPinkCarnation

Why It Feels Like You Can Never Catch Up With Your Dreams

800px-Marathon_RunnersMy dreams are constant and yet constantly changing.

How can that be? you ask. Well, it’s tricky. Life isn’t like a marathon, with one easily definable target: the finish line. Many of my larger, unspecified dreams (“be a writer” or “be healthy”) contain nested within them smaller, more achievable goals. This aligns with all the research about goal-setting, but leaves me open to the feeling, even once I achieve these smaller goals, that I haven’t really gotten what I came for. Yes, I have a blog. Yes, I’ve written several book manuscripts. Yes, my day job consists entirely of crafting the written word. So have I achieved my dream? Am I a “writer”? Sometimes I say yes; often it feels like no.

I recently read the executive summary for Brian Tracy’s Goals! How to Get Everything You Want – Faster Than You Ever Thought Possible. The book looks fantastic, all about setting realistic goals aligned with who you truly are and what you really want out of life.

I took his advice and wrote down specific, measurable, metrics-based goals for what I’d like to accomplish the end of 2014. The exact weight I’d like to be six months after I push out this baby. The precise monetary target I’d like to hit by December 31. The number of products I aim to post on the Etsy shop I want to open at Thanksgiving. These are great goals, easily measured and totally achievable.

So what’s the problem? Well, on the one hand, there isn’t one. I will probably achieve these things, and they will give me a feeling of accomplishment.

On the other hand, I will look at the scale when I hit my goal weight and think: I still don’t like my hair.

I will peruse my bank statements and realize: I wish it had been more.

When I open my online shop, I’ll have about two seconds of gratification before I wonder: Where are the customers?

These thoughts are okay. They drive me to do better, push on, keep accomplishing and bettering myself. If I didn’t have these thoughts, my dreams would grow stale and pass by the wayside and I’d be left with nothing but a few past accomplishments that lose their flavor very quickly.

Yet this type of thinking poses a danger as well, limiting my ability to enjoy successes as they come and live in the present. I must be wary ingratitude for all that I have and all I can do if I put my mind to it. These are incredible gifts, and spending a year using them to better myself is an opportunity I am incredibly blessed to have. It’s important to fight the tendency to dismiss the now in favor of a never-really-much-better future. Now is incredible, and really, it’s all we have.

5 Ways to Pursue Your Dreams Effectively

Wishing_Well_at_Luray_CavernsI spent a lot of time in my childhood visiting my father in Virginia, where I frequented Luray Caverns and this famous underground wishing well on several occasions. The wishing well, I’ve come to realize, is a great metaphor for our brains: we spend a lot of time tossing dreams in, but often only a little time afterward trying to make them come true.

Indeed, sometimes it’s hard to define when our good intentions and plans for the future cross over from the realm of positive, real effort to indulgence in sweet daydreams about what we might like to accomplish.

After all, as humans, we are very, very good at fooling ourselves. As I wrote about here, even announcing our intentions to do something can give us a false sense of accomplishment that convinces us it’s okay to “relax our efforts” about a daunting challenge we’ve only recently undertaken or haven’t even started yet. Why this should be is as yet an unsolved mystery, but I’ve realized I have to guard very, very carefully against this kind of thinking. With that in mind, I’ve been lately researching what other writers and bloggers have to say on the subject, and have come up with a list of things you can do to protect yourself against false progress and really get stuff done.

1. Go On A Date With Your Dreams

I wrote about this in this post, and I really don’t think there’s any better place to start figuring out how to get what you want. Because the thing is, if you try to convince yourself you want something that you really don’t, you’re not going to get very far. If you have a long-held dream you’ve never started, or are failing at one you’ve been pursuing for a while, it’s time to ask if that dream is for you. Is medical school right for you? Should you be planning this wedding? Do you really want to be a size 2, or would a plan to involve fresh veggies in every meal accomplish your health dreams just as well? I’m not saying your dreams are false, because usually they aren’t. I’m just saying you ought to make sure.

2. Break Tasks Down Into Their Smallest Components

If you want to repaint your dining room set but putting “repaint dining room set” on your To Do List has so far yielded little result, you need to break the task down further. What do you need to start? Sandpaper? Primer? Paint? Topcoat? TIME? Make a plan for how you’re going to get all of these things, and put real, measurable actions on your list instead of broad dreams. For instance, you might list “ask Mom about taking the kids” and “research paint colors at Home Depot.” These steps are as small as they can be, and therefore much less daunting.

3. Utilize Your Resources Effectively

Lots of people fail because they aren’t turning to the right places for help. I know I’m guilty of this: I want to write about lifestyle, dreams, goals, careers and happiness … but somehow I’ve spent my whole life trying to convince myself I’m a science writer, a food writer, a culture writer. Well, I’m not. Therefore I need to pick up books and read blogs related to the things I’m actually driven to write about, and engage with the people who actually want to hear what I have to say. Nothing else will work. Stop telling your fashion-oriented friends you want to be an economist and expecting them to care. Your vegan best friend probably isn’t going to be much help getting your bacon waffle stand off the ground. Find your people, find the places and things that will help you succeed instead of forcing the preexisting supports in your life to become something else.

4. Cut Yourself a Break

Again, I’m very guilty of not doing this. I’m all or nothing, either in it to win it or super unmotivated. Unfortunately, no one ever got anywhere spending all their time on reruns and giant bowls of noodles, but LOTS of successful people achieved by doing these things once in a while. Now I try to take a healthier approach, working until I really can’t anymore, and then taking a break. And then getting right back up and going at it once more.

5. Know Yourself

It’s taken me a long time to figure out that I do NOT benefit from telling my plans to people. When I do, I get paralyzed: I start worrying about showing them the final product, or even the work-in-progress, and anxiety roots deeply and firmly. So when I’m starting something new these days, I tend to keep mum. However, you may be part of the large tribe of people who benefit from outside motivation and the threat of embarrassment when you fail, so telling people may be the best way for you to pursue your dreams. It’s all about what works for you.

Male and Female Dreams

Cuddling_CoupleIn our society, women are much more comfortable talking about their dreams. Certainly they’re more comfortable labeling them “dreams.” If men do talk about what they want in life, the word used is usually “goals.”

“Dream,” after all, is very femmy. It doesn’t help that the word is forever and inextricably linked with our nighttime wanderings, but it’s more than that. You see it in the self-help section. You see it in the blogosphere. You hear it at the coffee shop. While men might want to make things happen, achieve, accomplish, dreaming is largely for women.

Why?

I was so curious about this I spent some quality Internet time trying to get to the bottom of it and came across a few interesting things. According to TIME Magazine, men and women do have similar goals in life: they largely agree on the importance of physical health, financial security, career fulfillment and children. The largest divide concerned religion: whereas 58 percent of men valued it highly, 68 percent of women did. Still, across the spectrum, dreams matched up pretty squarely.

According to the Daily Mail, men and women generally hope to accomplish their life goals before the age of 40. (Which is interesting when you think about it. I do this too, but seeing it in print highlights the silliness of calling something a “life goal” when you can reasonably assume to live twice as long as the time you’re giving yourself to do it in.) Some small differences did emerge: men rank marriage fifth on their list of goals, women rank it third. Their ideal ages for having families, achieving financial security and having successful careers differed by only two years in each case. Mostly, it seems, men and women are on the same page.

So why does it seem to me as those guys are so often left out of the conversation? Are they? Am I just missing the venues in which they’re conversing, or does it take surveys to reveal what men aren’t revealing on their own? I don’t have the answers yet, but I think asking the questions is a good start.

Go On A Date With Your Dreams

Young_RomanceThat’s right! I’m advocating you date your dreams. Think about it: what could go wrong? Dating your dreams is even better than dating real people, after all, because you don’t have to hold back your questions. So go ahead. Ask them how old they really are. How many people they’ve slept with. If they’re into commitment.

Why do such a strange personal inventory?

Well, how often do you allow something into your life that you know nothing about? Not very often, right? Not men or women. Not friends. Not animals or work projects. Even simple things, like food or furniture, are in your home because you thought about them, weighed pros and cons, matched them up with lifestyle or preexisting home goods, and brought them on in.

So why do we so often allow our dreams to dictate how we feel and live, without really thinking about what they mean or whether we want them in our lives? A lot of the time they’re just there, something that struck us and we decided to hold on to.

I’m not saying this is bad. When I was five years old, I decided to write a book, and that dream is still with me today. I cherish it, work toward it and love it. It makes me feel good about myself. It makes me me.

But other goals or aspirations aren’t as well thought out. It took me a surprisingly long time to let go of the idea of being accepted by everyone, and of having lots of friends. Neither of these things describe me. I don’t have the personality for it and I don’t particularly want to put in the work. It’s hard to have a lot of friends, after all, when you’d rather spend Friday night with the fireplace and your dog. Don’t get me wrong: I have friendships I cherish dearly, that have been with me more than half my life, that I work my butt off for and sacrifice for. Just not many. I had to let that dream go.

Just like I’ve let go of the idea of working in an office environment. I like office clothes. I like communal coffee breaks. I like morning meetings. (I do.) But I don’t want that life, not really. And so I’ve let go of the idea of working with other people on the day to day. Not that I don’t collaborate, or get ideas, or give ideas or love to talk; I’m just not cut out to be someone else’s employee.

We pass through life thinking we want things and finding out, over and over again, that we don’t really want those things after all. Or perhaps they even conflict. In Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney point out that people often actually have conflicting goals, such as spending more time on work AND more time on family. Hmm …

The solution? Introspection. Go on a date with your dreams! Get to know them. Ask them questions. Tell them about you. See where the good fits are, and find the flaws. What doesn’t work now may never work, or may just need some help. If you talk it through, hash it out, have a few drinks, you may just discover things you never knew.

How Gratitude Helps You Strive

Reaching Goals

As I woke up this morning, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of well-being. Gratitude for all the things in life that make me lucky: a healthy family, a good home, plenty to eat, happy pets and work I enjoy.

Perhaps ironically, these are the same factors that put me squarely in the middle of a surge of people made less happy, or at least more anxious, by the fact that they have unfulfilled dreams.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, people are straining and striving to achieve creative goals in heretofore unheard-of numbers. More and more, in fact, are deciding to go after our dreams and passions, to respond to the inner urges that drive us and the inner voices that tell us: We can be more.

See, when we’re hungry and just trying to feed our families, or running away from bad guys, or trying to figure out whether the next hurricane will take our home, we don’t have much time to “reach our potential.” But modern life has helped to ameliorate many of these issues, especially here in America.

According to Daniel H. Pink’s A Whole New Mind

  • Two-thirds of Americans now own the homes they live in
  • There are more cars than licensed drivers on American roads, which means on average if you can drive, you have your own car
  • Storage units are booming …
  • … and so is the amount of stuff we throw away

In other words, most of us now live in moderate comfort and have plenty of stuff. Our kids eat, we are more or less employed and we have soft beds. Not everyone, of course, but many people no longer have to worry about these things. Freeing the mind up for more creative endeavors.

Which is a good thing in principle, but can often lead to fulfillment anxiety, when we start asking questions about our life’s meaning, its purpose, whether we’re living it right.

This can be stressful, but why let it? Stress moves us in the wrong direction. It makes us eat maple bars and watch reruns instead of updating our blogs or starting that baking business. So I’ve made a decision. Next time I feel freaked out about not building Rome in a day, I will remind myself how lucky I am to have these fears.

They are, after all, a blessing.