Why setting intentions might be better than making New Year’s Resolutions

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Even before Christmas, social media channels were alive with thoughts of New Year’s Resolutions.

Review of the Year

Certainly, the period between Christmas and New Year is often a good point to kick back, reflect on the past 12 months and anticipate the year to come. And many of us consider the start of a new calendar year a good point to establish new habits, change old ones or strengthen our resolve to achieve particular goals.

Types of New Year’s Resolutions

New Year’s Resolutions tend to fall into a number of discrete categories. Some are about improving physical wellbeing (e.g. to eat more healthily, lose weight, take more exercise or quit smoking). Others are more career-oriented or are about relationships, spirituality or experiences. It’s no accident that post-Christmas advertising space is filled with advertisements for slimming programmes, diet foods or nicotine replacements. We’ve all seen them.

However, the majority of us who set New Year’s Resolutions find it difficult to keep them and, instead of sustaining success, we find that our ‘get up and go’ has soon got up and gone.

When New Year’s Resolutions don’t work

So, what’s to be done?

I’ve been thinking about this for a little while and I reckon there might be a different way. Instead of going all out on a concrete ‘all or nothing’ resolution, I wonder if setting an intention might be a gentler, kinder way to move towards a desired state?

For me, an intention suggests something fluid, dynamic and ongoing, whereas a resolution seems, to me, all or nothing.

Setting an intention

Setting an intention is deliberate, but rather than being a rigid absolute, it’s about moving towards a goal (continually and repeatedly). So, if you falter, you get right back onto whatever it is you’re trying to achieve.

To reduce sugar

For me, I have a sweet tooth and, in theory, love the idea of quitting sugar as a New Year’s Resolution. The trouble is, this can be a very difficult thing to do when social situations throughout the year often revolve around food in the form of sweet treats (mince pie, anyone?).

Instead, I like the idea of setting an intention to reduce my overall sugar intake, rather than eliminating sugar as an absolute goal. So, yesterday, I experimented a little.

It was Boxing Day morning and we had stayed over at my parents’ home, following a lovely day together for Christmas Day. Mum offered croissants for breakfast but, instead of slathering mine with jam, I had a little butter on my pastry along with my decaff’ latte and enjoyed the naturally sweet taste and texture of this holiday treat.

Likewise, following our return home some hours later, we enjoyed a late lunch at The Almanack, one of Kenilworth’s best-loved and much-frequented gastropubs. Normally, I would have ordered dessert after my main course (I normally eschew a starter because they are too filling) but, instead, opted for an espresso macchiato as the ‘full stop’ to a very enjoyable meal. As you can tell, I’m not giving up coffee any time soon!

To get more exercise

Similarly, you might want to take more exercise, but would baulk at resolving to run 10 miles per week by the end of the month. Instead, set an intention to put on your trainers and step outside the door. You don’t have to wait until 1 January either. What happens after that is up to you, but it’s a move in the right direction.

Some people find it easier and more empowering to embark upon a new activity with someone who can act as an accountability partner. For others, thinking about their future self might be enough to motivate themselves towards a healthier, fitter self. Consider – honestly – what might work for you and set an intention to move towards this new goal.

Resolutions come with a health warning

Whatever we decide, we do need to be careful about the goals we pursue.

In the introduction to her book America the Anxious: Why Our Search for Happiness is Driving Us Crazy and How to Find It For Real, Ruth Whippman cites a University of California, Berkeley study in which participants were asked to rate how highly they valued happiness as an explicit goal and also how happy they were with their lives.

As Whippman writes, the ones who rated happiness as a distinct personal ambition were less happy in their lives in general and were more likely to experience symptoms of dissatisfaction and even depression.

This reminds me of Robert Lustig’s most recent book, which I wrote about here. Don’t confuse pleasure with happiness, says Lustig. It’s easy to conflate the two.

My intentions for 2018

So, I’m going to set my intentions around moving towards a small number of achievable goals, rather than proclaiming a New Year’s Resolution on 1 January 2018. Indeed, I like the idea of experimenting and I might well enjoy a few simple living experiments in the coming year.

But don’t forget, it doesn’t have to be complicated. Keep it simple. As Leo Babauta says, “Simplicity boils down to two steps: Identify the essential. Eliminate the rest.” That might help us stay focussed on what’s important.

Happy New Year!


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Christmas commitments

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This Christmas, I will…

Mend a quarrel
Dismiss suspicion
Seek out an old friend
Share good news
Encourage someone
Listen
Apologise if I’ve been wrong
Be patient and understanding
Re-examine my demands on others
Think first of others
Show appreciation
Be kind
Be gentle
Laugh more
Express gratitude
Welcome a stranger
Gladden the heart of a child

(Author Unknown)

Happy Christmas!

Thank you for being a part of my minimalism journey and for all your support and comments during the year. A very happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year 2018. See you on the other side!

Catherine x

The myth of work life balance

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In June, I was invited to lead a session on ‘work life balance’ for the department in which I work. This was prompted by the results of an organisation-wide staff survey, which showed that this theme was something that staff felt was an area for improvement.

It was great to be able to draw on some of the learning I’d done in my own time – as part of my own journey towards greater simplicity – to help others.

This week, I delivered a further session for colleagues in another part of the organisation.

As the lead up to Christmas is a particularly busy time of year, I thought I’d share my insights here. You may not have time to read the whole post now, but why not pick it up over the holidays, as you reflect on the year that’s just gone by?

Work life balance: Myth or Reality?

In this week’s presentation, I began by asserting that the idea of balance is actually somewhat unhelpful. Achieving perfect equilibrium suggests (in fact) stagnation or stasis. It could be argued that if you’re existing in a state of perfect balance, how will you ever move forward?

In our discussion, I drew on the Marcus Buckingham’s 2009 research in which thousands of women* were polled with the following 5 questions:

1.  How often do you get to do things you really like to do?

2.  How often do you find yourself actively looking forward to the day ahead

3.  How often do you get so involved in what you’re doing you lose track of time

4.  How often do you feel invigorated at the end of a long, busy day

5.  How often do you feel an emotional high in your life?

In depth interviews then followed with those who could respond “every day” to four of the five.

The answers

Instead of some magic formulae, the women in Buckingham’s study who were happiest didn’t aim to achieve balance at all. Rather, they intentionally focussed on the areas of their life that mattered most at any particular time.

These women deliberately threw things out of balance, giving whatever needed their attention their full focus. This reminded me of one of Greg McKeown’s key messages in his book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less:

“What’s important now?”

What this means in reality

So, what does this mean in reality?

Think back to a time when you were planning some really important event, such as a wedding, a work event or some other significant occasion. The chances are, you’ll have naturally ’tilted’ towards that particular activity, allowing other things to take a back seat (even if only in your head). This is a perfect example of tilting or ‘leaning in’ to whatever is important in the present moment.

Tilting can work, even on a day-to-day basis. Imagine you’re leaving work to go to two events (one after the other), as I did on Monday evening. This means cutting yourself some slack when it comes to what you’re going to eat when you get home. Here’s where my 5 Ingredients recipes come in.

Perhaps there are times when you’re needed more by family members such as children or elderly parents (or both)? Again, when this happens, you’ll tilt towards family life more during that period, perhaps putting career development aspirations or even work itself on hold. At the very least, you might make ‘work’ less prominent in your life.

Strategies and Mindsets

As the intentional removal of anything that doesn’t add value to your life, minimalism can help this mental shift.

Back in summer 2016, I was working full-time; still running my teenager to school every morning in the car; had significant non-work commitments and was feeling a strong sense of obligation, as I was pulled in all directions.

18 months on, I have significantly simplified my life, which included systematizing how things run at home; decluttering and paring back my personal space; and reconsidering with my family how we wanted to spend our time.

I now enjoy monthly commitments, rather than myriad ones each week. And our teen now gets the bus to and from school (I can’t tell you what a different that has made to my morning commute).

The biggest single benefit?

In my presentation this week, one of the participants asked me what I felt was the biggest single benefit of doing all of this.

My answer was this: adopting a minimalist mindset has enabled me to have a greater amount of flexibility.

In the last month, my family hosted two Chinese homestay students (visiting PhD students from Capital Normal University in Beijing). This enriching experience was really enjoyable and I would never have been able to do this had my weekly routine not changed.

You’d think this would be difficult in the run up to Christmas, but we involved our guests in the small things we enjoyed during the last few weeks and we were all the better for it.

How do you respond to expectations?

One area I brought up in my presentation was a word about how we respond to expectations, both inner and outer.

This key question, as you will be aware, is the focus of Gretchen Rubin’s latest book, The Four Tendencies.

I think this is a very good question to ask when you’re considering the thorny question of work life balance.

To draw on Rubin’s work, I spoke about the four main personality types, which are as follows:

Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations.

They find it easy to meet deadlines and, for example, keep New Years resolutions. Task oriented, they like to meet expectations (either their own or those of others). This is great if you need someone who’ll follow the rules. Whilst at times they might be too driven by the ‘gold star’, they find it easy to create and maintain good habits.

Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense. I have two questioners in my team. They make fantastic colleagues, because their natural curiosity means that you need a clear and strong rationale when explaining something or when asking them to deliver on a particular task.

Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike. Rebels, Rubin says, are motivated by present desire. But they are likely to resist outer expectations. Rebels thrive when they can be disruptive.

Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves.

As the biggest group in Rubin’s study, Obligers are the people who volunteer, who help, and who deliver for others. People pleasers, they inevitably make time for others but not always for themselves. The secret is external accountability; if someone else expects it, they show up. The risk? They feel overwhelmed and may experience ‘Obliger rebellion’.

So, it helps to understand yourself when it comes to your own tendency. Are you more likely to say yes to an external expecatation? If so, how will this impact on your sense of equilibrium?

Take Rubin’s quiz here.

Technology has to come into it

When was the last time you assessed your technology habits, unplugged or a while or allowed your creativity to be ‘jump started’?

In the first podcast of the new season of their By the Book Podcast, Jolenta Greenberg and Kristen Meinzer discussed an interesting book, whose key thesis is that our relationship with distraction is stopping us from living our fullest life.

Bored

In Bored and Brilliant: How time Spent Doing Nothing Changes Everything, Manoush Zomorodi reminds us to “Take a Fake-ation” to give ourselves time away from digital devices.

Here’s where we create space in our lives to enable us to feel less busy, less stressed, less overwhelmed.

A digital detox can be a useful way to help us find a sense of perspective, if not absolute balance. Your best ideas can come to you when you allow your brain a chance to do its own thing.

That said, certain tools can help avoid a sense of overwhelm and I use them frequently. Evernote is my ‘go to’ external brain whilst Producteev helps me remember what I don’t want to forget….

Twitter friends weigh in!

Earlier this week, Twitter friends joined the conversation when I asked, “What’s your trick to ensure work life balance or do you prefer ‘tilting’ and deliberately throwing things off balance?”

Rachel from The Daisy Pages said, “For me it’s spending less money, then I don’t have to work so hard and can spend more time doing things that I really enjoy 😊.”

Shaun replied, “Rationing device use in this 24/7 officeless age!” Good point, Shaun!

Nick suggested that, “… balancing is what you try to do when your work is not compatible with your life.” Uh oh. Recognise that one, anyone?

And Rae (raeritchie.com) provided her perspective that chimed very well with my own thinking. She said, “I think balance is okay if we think about it over a period of time. It’s unlikely to be continually in equilibrium – more shifting between different points.”

What about you?

So, what about you? Do you agree that the idea of work life balance is unhelpful? Or do you try to achieve a sense of equilibrium by closely guarding your time? By saying no? Or by deploying other techniques?

Do let me know by replying to this post, below!

(*On the Buckingham study, I am unclear as to why this study focussed on women only, but I would wager that the very same questions could also be posed to men.)


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The Life Energy Experiment – One Year On

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A little over a year ago, I conducted a simple experiment. The essence of it was simple and you can read my rules here.

The Life Energy Experiment

The experiment invites you to consider how much ‘life energy’ (or time in paid work) you have to devote to pay for something you want to buy?

As Henry David Thoreau put it, “The cost of a thing is the amount of one’s life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long term.”

As a rule of thumb, I used my gross hourly rate, but if you were going to be 100% accurate, you’d use your net hourly rate (less the cost of getting to work and other work-related costs such as clothing). That really focuses the mind.

Some examples

Imagine your gross hourly rate is £10 per hour (for easy maths) and you work a standard 7.5 hour day. I know that’s a simple way to view this, but let’s take it as an example. You can work out your own figures.

See how much of your life you’d have to devote to earning the money needed just to buy the following things:

  • Take-out pizza from Domino’s – £9.99 = 1 hour of your working day and just moments to consume!
  • New (full-price) coat from Zara – £99.99 = 10 hours of effort (so more than the average working day)
  • Your family’s weekly shop from mid-range supermarket – £120 = 12 hours of paid work (or 1.6 days’ effort)
  • A tank of fuel for a small car – £39.50 = 4 hours of work or half a day in the office! I know that I could get a monthly pass for the bus for just £5 more….

What about things you don’t really need?

Once you’ve started viewing your expenditure through the lens of the Life Energy Experiment, you might hesitate a little as your finger lingers over the ‘Buy it Now’ button.

You might look for ways to achieve the same goals (or to get what you’d like) in other ways:

  • Buying second-hand
  • Borrowing
  • Finding a substitute

Think about the Life Energy Experiment

So, think about the Life Energy Experiment as you go about your Christmas shopping this year.

For me, it’s definitely changed the way I view how I shop and what I choose to buy. And, as Amy from More Time Than Money says, there are times when you look at something and can simply proclaim, “This can stay money!”


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Letting go and new traditions

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We have said farewell to ‘meteorological autumn’ and, to borrow a well-sung phrase, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

A day off

I took a rare day off earlier this week to spend the day with my mum. We went out for a spot of lunch at Carluccios (thanks, Mum!) and we did some intentional shopping (me: 4 eggcups and my Secret Santa present; she: some napkins and something to drink from Marks and Spencer).

Mum and I commented that we rarely spent time together like this and resolved to do it more often.

Conspicuous Christmas

We got chatting about Christmas, since the shops are already trimmed to perfection (see above!) and the inevitable mountain of ‘themed merchandise no-one actually needs’ was clearly in evidence.

Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy gift giving but when Christmas seems to equal ‘conspicuous consumption’, my heart sinks a little.

Happily, here in the UK, we don’t forget the ‘reason for the season’ plus we still enjoy a great many Christmas traditions. Children visit Santa; schools enjoy festive fairs and nativity plays; and we love the ceremonial switching of the lights in our home town.

Holiday traditions

Some traditions, however, seem to be waning a little. Do you send Christmas cards, for example? Mum reminded me, “You haven’t sent cards for years!” That’s not strictly true, but I don’t always send cards, especially as the postage is now prohibitively expensive.

For me, it’s fine to let go of traditions, expectations or social mores that no longer serve us. Some things we love and invest time on them, such as dressing our Christmas tree. Other things, we can let go.

Before completing this post, I listened to Gretchen Rubin and Liz Craft’s Happier podcast. Like me, they were considering holiday habits they loved to embrace, whilst admitting that there were a number of traditions they’d happily let go. Check out episode 145 to listen.

Letting go

Here’s my personal list of ‘let go’ items:

  • Home-made mince pies (we don’t eat them; I certainly don’t want to make them!)
  • Sending Christmas cards
  • Bought gifts for grown ups
  • Keepsakes
  • Going Christmas shopping

New traditions

Instead, this year, I’ve decided to embrace some new ‘traditions’ of my own:

  • Gingerbread biscuits (to share, to eat, to hang on the tree)
  • e-cards plus a donation to charity
  • Home-made gifts – watch out adults!
  • Consumables
  • Buying online (for our teenager’s gifts, which are experiences and consumables – yay!)

Since it’s only the start of December, we need to pace ourselves so that by the time the holidays are truly here, we can enjoy them and not collapse in an exhausted heap.

So, I’d encourage you to let go. Perhaps just one thing – one obligation or long-standing tradition that you might secretly (or not so secretly!) wish to relinquish. What will it be?


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