Tuesday, January 14, 2014

A friend and five lessons learned

This post is addressed to, and inspired by, a very dear friend of mine. She is a kind, thoughtful, intelligent and creative person, who gives far more of herself than anyone has any right to ask, and she has consistently been a far better friend to me than I have been to her.

This lovely friend of mine is grappling with a major personal challenge. Owing to a number of factors which I won’t go into, but which are absolutely and in no way her fault, she is caught in a tangled web of self doubt, self criticism and perhaps even self hatred. She knows she needs to get out of this web, but that is a lot easier said than done. I can tell her how wonderful a person she is until pigs fly, but this is not a journey I can make for her, it is entirely hers. 

While she is in an unusually difficult position, I think to some extent we all want to change ourselves and our lives in some ways. Break bad habits, break bad relationships, do the thousand and one things we always dream of doing but never really believe we can. We sort of half believe that, in fact, we could get up at 5am and run 10km and come home, renovate the bathroom, still be at work by 8 etc. Whether it’s a sport thing (I’ll get fit), a diet thing (I’ll eat healthier), a work thing (I’ll be more dedicated), a craft thing (I’ll finish all my projects), a homemaking thing (I’ll clean the whole house top to bottom)… 

We’re all caught between thinking we can do everything and thinking we can’t do anything, so we end up doing nothing and feeling like failures. At least speaking for myself, I have generally found that I think to myself that I should go for a long run and get some exercise, but feel discouraged or defeated before I even put on my shoes and end up rewatching an old tv programme on my laptop eating crisps or chocolate. And it seems normal when you’re there, even though from the outside it’s easy to suggest that maybe going for a walk would be a good halfway point. 

What I’ve found is working for me (at least at the moment, and life is always a three-steps-forward-two-steps-back business for me) is setting infinitesimally tiny goals. My goal today – the entire day – is to take the rubbish out. My goal for today is to write a letter. My goal for today is to not eat the croissants provided at work. (That one always fails). It’s easier to set a goal to do something than not do something (easier to eat a piece of fruit than not eat a biscuit, even if eating the fruit then helps me not eat the biscuit…) 

I don’t want to tell my friend that I know how she can ‘fix’ the tangled mess she finds herself in. What works for me won’t necessarily work for her. And I do know how effing frustrating it is for people to roll out their tips and tricks and make it sound so easy, when I know it isn’t. 

But this blog is really about a journey to try to shape a life more deliberately and intentionally, and there are a number of things that have helped me with my journey so far. I haven’t really seen much discussion of self-discipline on simple living blogs, but I think it’s the foundation of my simple living journey in many ways because the ideas, projects, crafts that are here would still all be in my head without it. It’s something I’m still working on, every day, so this post is as much a reminder to myself as a very long-winded and beating-about-the-bush way of saying to my friend: I can’t fix it, but maybe some of this will help?

1. Set small, easy goals
Really, really, really tiny. Today I will go for a two-minute walk in my lunchbreak. Today I will eat an apple. It doesn’t feel daunting. Try to keep the goals positive – I will – rather than negative – I won’t. Plan when you will fit it into your day, ideally with a cue (I will eat an apple when I get home from work/with my lunch/when I finish checking my emails). Minimise the effort involved – make sure you don’t need to go out to buy something. If you need something, prepare it in advance and take it with you. Make sure it doesn't depend on other people.

2. Choose the path of least temptation 
My office is essentially built like a square with the middle missing. From the kitchen to my desk, there are two possible routes. When I’ve made a cup of tea, I tell you, it’s a hell of a lot easier to decide to walk back along the route that doesn’t have a biscuit tin than it is to walk past the biscuit tin without taking a biscuit. Try to build your day to avoid temptation. Always stop in at the bakery? Walk a different route, or along the other side of the road. Always end up going straight home instead of to the swimming pool? Take a bus that doesn’t stop near your house.

3. Be your own cheerleader 
What mental messages are you sending yourself? Even if you tell yourself that you can, is there still a negative voice saying ‘you won’t do it anyway’? Squash that voice. Go on. Shove it out the door. And turn the lock. Or if you can’t, drown it out. While you are doing your small challenge, or preparing to do it, talk to yourself – or sing, or recite, whatever helps. When I go out for a run (and run isn’t quite accurate, it’s lots of walking with intermittent jogging), I am constantly saying (more like shouting) to myself: You’re nearly halfway! You’re already nearly halfway! You can do this! Think how good it will feel when you finish! Think how wonderful it will feel all the rest of the day, the rest of the week! You’re making yourself fitter and stronger! You’re building your willpower and your self-discipline every second that you keep going! Look, you’re still going! You can do this! (etc…) And I’m finding that very gradually the voice that says ‘wouldn’t you rather be watching Downton Abbey with a slice of cake?’ is getting quieter and easier to ignore. 

4. Feel pride in even the smallest achievement 
Even if your goal was to eat an apple, feel good when you do it. Setting a goal and delivering on it should feel good, regardless of the goal. And the positive feedback loop helps motivate the next goal. Even if that is only eating a pear. Treat yourself (in some way that doesn’t undo the progress you’ve made). One of my treats is to take a long soak in a hot lavender bath with one of my favourite books. If you plan on repeating or building on your small goal, track it. An excel spreadsheet, a pretty notebook, a scrap of paper pinned to the wall – so you can look at it and think: Yes! I did that every day this week! 

5. Forgive yourself and keep going 
If – WHEN – you slip up, because we all do, don’t beat yourself up. Don’t feel bad. Don’t let one slip ruin a good week. Remind yourself that to fall, dust yourself off and face up once again to the challenge is something that has always been difficult, and is a theme handled in many classic stories. Remember this example from The Horse and his Boy
“In other words," it continued, "you can't ride. That's a drawback. I'll have to teach you as we go along. If you can't ride, can you fall?"

"I suppose anyone can fall," said Shasta.

"I mean can you fall and get up again without crying and mount again and fall again and yet not be afraid of falling?"


  1. I agree , Nickie. When we have an unbelievable cooking mess in the kitchen or some huge life event we have to deal with ... the only way to tackle it is do one little thing at a time. I think everyone has been in a position where they are looking at the whole thing and become totally overwhelmed and then of course, completely frozen. I am now off to tackle the huge mess in the kitchen ,but I won't see the huge mess....I will just start with unpacking the dishwasher and go from there.

    1. Thanks for stopping by! It's nice to hear that we all end up stuck in the same quicksand. I hope the empty dishwasher heartens you to tackle the next job.

  2. A wonderful post. And yes you are right Simple living involves exactly the same steps. Each little step towards simple living can have it's set backs. Like wanting to cook your meals from scratch when you are used to take away or packaged food. Just choosing one meal a week to make from scratch is a really good start. I know it's been a long journey for me but once each step becomes habit you can move onto the next!

    1. Exactly! When you're at the beginning, trying to form those habits for the first time is so very very hard, when you're so used to just going with the flow and not taking control of your life and environment. But each step makes the next one a little easier...

  3. <3 I don't agree that I have been a better friend - that's silly. Here you are doing this, and what have I done lately? Thank you for thinking of me, and for the kind words.

    I feel a little better today. Choir helps. I don't think I've ever been part of a group (of more than, say, five people) as welcoming and inclusive as choir. It's amazing to turn up every week and have people who are happy to see me and people who don't find it convincing when I try to say I'm 'fine'.

    Your advice is very sensible, and a lot of it is quite similar to the way CBT therapists teach people to challenge cognitivie distortions. (Your 'going for a run or sitting watching TV instead of going for a walk' example is textbook 'all or nothing' thinking and it's very hard to get out of.)

    Sadly, I think some of it is a little advanved, even as easy as it seems. I don't know how to feel proud of myself for small achievements. I don't even really know how to feel proud of myself for big achievements. I think the last thing I felt proud of myself for was getting a 7 in IB English and even that was mostly luck rather than hard work. I really feel like I don't ever do anything that is hard, I just give up. Though the truth is probably closer to the 'pride' part of my brain being underdeveloped. Expect a post on Sunday where I attempt to convince myself that I do, in fact, do something sometimes.

    1. We'll have to agree to disagree, I do very much think that over the years you have been there for me and I haven't always been there for you.

      I wonder if you can outsource the positive feedback? Share the progress with me or Giles or another friend who will say well done? Would that help at all? And yes, I think you definitely need to exercise your self-congratulatory and pride muscles, as you massively underuse them! Ready? Aaaaand... stretch! "Well done for having the dedication to go to a choir regularly and reliably." (I've never managed it. I always start going to groups and never keep it up...)

      I look forward to your post acknowledging that you actually do an awful lot, and have really come a hugely long way. You may not be proud of yourself (yet) but I am proud of you! :) x



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