2016 was an incredible year for me. I got engaged, married, and was recognized for work in my field. I took my first yoga and meditation retreat and I spent more time with friends and family than I do in most years. But it was also one of the hardest years of my life. I hit all-time highs of stress and anxiety, to the point where I lost interest in many activities I normally love. In the spring I picked up Gretchen Rubin’s book, Better than Before, and began to intentionally exercise, rest, and create the foundational habits that would eventually get me out of my malaise.
I learned several things in the process and have used those to set the foundation for 2017. For one, Rubin’s framework helps you understand how to deal with habits and accountability. I discovered that I am in the Obliger category. (Take the quiz Here to find out your tendency). I am excellent with commitments to others, but terrible with commitments to myself. This explained why I’m terrible at going to the gym without a class scheduled, and why I will often move events and tasks that others ask of me in front of my own on my To-Do list.
Armed with this knowledge, I knew what worked and what didn’t work. I sought out professionals, apps, and other tools that would provide me the external accountability that I needed. To get in shape before my wedding (and through the New Year) I worked with a personal trainer. I began to use the Headspace application for meditation and made plans with friends when I wanted to stick to a commitment. I noticed that these worked much better than the habits I tried to build all on my own. I learned that (for me) if I want to build habits I have to create an external accountability structure around my goals.
I learned that trying to do things for more than 20 minutes at a time was a recipe for failure. Planning one-hour exercise sessions, 30 minute meditations, and other blocks of time every day did not work. It was sporadic and I usually fell apart after 10-15 day streaks.
So this year is the year of the tiny habit! Everything I want to accomplish, I am shrinking into less than 20 minute chunks. I have Headspace set to 10 minutes. I am keeping a 5 minute journal. I am creating habits around a 7 minute workout app and 20 minute yoga downloads. In one hour, I can accomplish all of the daily habits I want to build.
There is one more element I discovered that works well for me: Routines. I have always struggled to create a morning routine. It usually falls apart on the weekends or when I’m traveling. In the week leading up to New Year's Day I began working through routines. I started with an app called Marv that walks you through your morning routine. Although I loved that robot voice talking me through my morning, I needed something a little more subtle throughout the day. Now I am using an app called Routine although there are several available. I set the routine and it lines up a series of timers to keep me moving across each habit. Here is a sample of my routine:
Brush teeth (3 min)
7 min workout and 20 min yoga (30 min)
Meditate (10 min)
5 minute journal (5 min)
Side Room Tidy* (3 min)
Get Ready (20 min)
Make Bed (2 min)
Bed/Bathroom Tidy* (3 min)
Breakfast (10 min)
Main Room Tidy* (3 min)
Water Plants (5 min)
Pack work bag/lunch (5 min)
Total: 1 Hr, 40 minutes.
*Adding in tiny chores can help your place stay organized or even make progress on a chore without realizing it.
Having an evening routine really helps smooth out the morning routine, especially if you include picking out clothes for the next day, making sure lunch is easily accessible, and any other elements that can be moved from the morning to the night before. I also have a work routine set up that includes to-do lists, focused work, email management, and intermittent breaks.
As an Obliger, I realize and embrace the fact that I need external accountability in order to reach my goals. Even if that accountability is a robot or a computer program, I respond much better to an outside voice than to the one in my head. I can’t say whether I will stick to this excellent beginning-of-year habit, but I hope I do. It has helped me have grounded quiet time for reflection in the morning, to live in a clean and organized space, and to leave the house feeling at peace before the workday begins.
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