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November & December

So a while back I took a leaf out of my guru Gretchen Rubin’s book Happier at Home, and assigned myself twelve areas of my life that I wanted to focus on.  How could I make these areas of my life better or add to my happiness?

I love Gretchen’s approach; she doesn’t take ‘health’ and decide to radically change her diet and assign herself a gruelling exercise regime.  Instead she focuses on a few practical things that could make that area of her life better.  Check her book out, I thoroughly recommend it, and it might just change your life.

In November the area I chose to focus on was Spirituality .  I am a practising Christian, and my faith is a very big deal in my life.  But God can get a bit left out at times when life with my two tots gets crazy, so I wanted to carve out more time to spend with God.

My goals were to:

  • memorise a scripture a week
  • prepare for Advent
  • read a couple of Christian books
  • have daily devotions

I didn’t think these goals were too lofty, but I bombed out of two of them.

Daily devotions are not a problem – I actually managed to cement this into my morning routine well before this monthly challenge began.  I read Scripture and a devotional over breakfast each morning, and often spend my exercise time in prayer.  D and I pray together every night since the day we married, and it’s a lovely way to end the day.

I was more prepared for Advent than I’ve ever been, thanks to running an Advent study at my church.  I ran the study throughout November, rather than December because my study was all about going into the Christmas period mindfully and trying to eschew the consumerist spectacle that it has become.  I made the resources for the study myself, which meant I had zero time to read any Christian books, but I probably read the equivalent of a couple books while doing research for my study, so I’m gonna call it a win.

I failed to memorise a scripture per week, but then I have trouble remembering my own phone number so perhaps it was a silly goal in the first place.

In December I kicked my monthly challenge’s butt.  This was my ‘family traditions’ month.  I decided what I wanted to do with my tots to celebrate Christmas, and had a good think about what else I want to hold as special days with my family throughout the year (Waitangi Day, Matariki, Easter and Parihaka Day to name a few…).

My goals for December were:

  • Teach the children Christmas carols and the Christmas story
  • Prepare them for St Nicholas Day and Advent
  • Make presents with the children for them to give away
  • Donate a gift to a child in need
  • Decorate the house

We ended up decorating the house super-early as Sausage missed being in our town’s Christmas parade due to illness.  She had a great time helping me decorate the tree, and I got my hands on some not-too-cheesy fake greenery to decorate our mantelpiece with.

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My MIL found a great Christmas carol CD which I pretty much played on repeat for the whole month (fortunately I love carols, I know it’s akin to torture for some people).  Sausage knows most of them by heart (she will recite Away In A Manager whether you want her to or not), and I suspect Chip knows them all too, if he could say more than one word at a time.

Sausage really ‘got’ the Nativity story this year, and that the point of Christmas was to celebrate Jesus’ birthday.  Both kids LOVED lighting Advent candles – so much that we have carried on and are having candlelit dinners each night now!  You can read more here for specifics about Advent with toddlers.

Chip was too little, but Sausage made biscuits which we gave away to friends and family, and she chose a gift that a charitable organisation here ensures goes to a child in need.  Some lucky girl woke up to Elsa and Anna dolls, which Sausage picked out and willingly handed over.

So far I have found some monthly challenges easier than others (January is possessions…) and am looking forward to cracking on with the next challenges.

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Taking it one month at a time

A few weeks ago I mentioned taking a morning off by myself to do some thinking.

As I was turning 40 I wanted to reflect on my life so far, and ponder what the next forty years might bring.  I also needed that uninterrupted, creative time to prepare for my next project.

My current guru is Gretchen Rubin, the author of The Happiness Project.  She’s basically an introverted, more pedantic version of myself, and her entertaining books have given me much food for thought.  Her book Happier at Home charts her year of experimenting with making changes around her ‘home’ in her pursuit of happiness.  She picks a certain area to focus on for a month, and then drills down into three or four specific activities that she will do to enhance that area of her life.  For example, one month she focuses on her children, and they agree to give each other warm greetings and farewells each day.  She also takes her oldest daughter out on an afternoon adventure once a week.  In another month she goes through all her possessions to see if they are ‘her’ or not, and in another month she focuses on connection with her wider family, so they experiment with how best to regularly communicate with each other.

The idea is for the month not to be an onerous list of tasks, but rather a handful of opportunities to enhance what you already have.  Choosing two or three specific tasks to focus on seems achievable to me, and certainly none of the things Gretchen does are out of the realm of regular people.  She does not have a month devoted to buying a whole new wardrobe of clothes that are ‘her’, nor does she have a month travelling to exotic locales in order to appreciate what she has at home more.

Happier at Home is a very interesting read, as even though Gretchen has a strong sense of ‘self’, it takes her some considerable experimentation and detective work to figure out what ‘being Gretchen is’, and what truly makes her happy.  As a people-pleasing chameleon, I do not have this strong sense of self (which may sound crazy to those of you who do, and will resonate with others who are like me), and so embarking on this sort of project myself seems like a fun and hopefully edifying experience.

As I sat under a shady tree overlooking a lake, I scribbled down my ideas and came up with the twelve areas that I will focus on over the next year.  I’ll be blogging about it retrospectively each month so you can follow along.  The areas I’ve chosen are:

August: Marriage.  What little things can I do to enhance our marriage?  Our marriage is pretty solid, but I thought of several nice things I could do for D over this month.

September: My health.  I put this area early as I am currently so rundown that I keep getting sick.  I’m going to up my fruit and vegetable intake so I’m getting the full whack of vitamins, get outside as much as possible, exercise daily, and guard my sleep to see if it makes any difference after a month.

October: Family.  This month I intend to focus on doing some fun things with my immediate family, and also with my wider family who have been quite neglected during all the sickness in our house.

November: Spirituality.  I’m a Christian and sometimes God gets a little lost in the busyness of my daily life.  This month I plan to memorise a scripture each week, and throw in a couple more things to prepare myself for Advent.

December: Traditions.  This is the perfect month to create new family traditions around Christmas, and I will be setting aside some time to brainstorm with D about some other traditions we might create throughout 2016 (and scheduling them in!).

January: Possessions.  January is the perfect month to have a good clean-out.  I will be going through all my possessions and getting rid of anything that no longer serves me.  I will also be creating a playroom for my children, and an office for me out of spaces that are currently used for other things.

February: Exercise.  This month I will try out some new forms of exercise to see if anything grabs me e.g. crossfit.  I will also be trying out things that I used to love as a kid, like roller-skating, dancing and horse riding.

March: Children.  This month I will be focusing on saying ‘yes’ more to my children and forgetting about the housework, and spending more one-on-one time with them.

April: Purpose. This is a big one.  Why am I here?  What am I supposed to be doing?  There is a particular area that I have been intending to study, but is this the best use of my talents?  During this month I will be seeking guidance from others and doing a lot of praying about it.

May: Household.  How can I make my life easier?  Are there any ‘hacks’ I could try to streamline my long list of chores to be done?

June: Hobbies.  I am not a hugely crafty person, so apart from writing, and loving movies, I don’t really have any hobbies.  This month I will try out a couple of potential hobbies to see if they are for me.

July: Community. This month I will focus on making the area I live in just a smidge better and more connected.  I plan do things like to hold a midwinter Christmas party with my neighbours, and introduce myself to neighbours down the street that I haven’t met yet.

So how did I do with my marriage challenge for August?

It went spectacularly badly.

I thought I’d start off with an easy challenge.  I could happily think of a dozen things I could do to enhance my marriage.  Our marriage is not in trouble – far from it – but almost everything I had planned didn’t happen because of sickness!!!

I had a list of things I wanted to do for or with my husband, and instead spent August either caring for sick children or being sick myself.

My husband is soooooo tired and worn out, I knew he’d appreciate a weekend away on his own (he’s an introvert).  I picked a weekend and encouraged him to go for it.  D was incredibly grateful and appreciative of the chance to get away.  The afternoon D was meant to leave, Chip started projectile-vomiting everywhere.  D kindly decided he couldn’t possibly leave me alone with the kids if it was a contagious gastro-bug (it was).  ‘How about you go next Thursday?’ I offered. ‘That will give the kids plenty of time to get better’.  So D changed the dates.  Just as he was about to walk out the door on Thursday, Chip started vomiting again.  D sighed and said ‘How about we just forget this weekend away of mine until the Winter from Hell has passed?’  He’s a good man, that D.

I had a few nice surprises planned that never eventuated because I was ill, but D and I did manage to get a weekend away before I came down with yet another illness(!).  We had a lovely time, and it was a good reminder to schedule in breaks for just the two of us as much as practically possible.

August was a total dud.  So much so that I am going to repeat marriage month again in October (along with family) to give it a fair go.  I won’t go into any more detail yet as I want D to be surprised, but I do have some pretty cool things up my sleeve.  Fingers crossed that D gets his weekend away in October!  D had no idea that I was focusing on our marriage over August, but now he has a little heads-up.  🙂

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Habits: Out with the old, in with the new

I happened to catch an interview on Radio New Zealand the other week which really pricked up my antennae.  It was an interview with Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, talking about her new book Better than Before.  The Happiness Project has sold over 1.5 million copies and struck a chord with people all over the globe.  It follows Gretchen’s pursuit to discover what truly makes her happy, and contains a lot of scientific research and wisdom on how to increase your own happiness.  She followed that up with the engaging Happier at Home, which charts Gretchen’s experiments to improve several aspects of her life related to her home, including her possessions, her marriage, her children and wider family, her engagement with her community.

In this interview with Kathryn Ryan (if you are really interested I would listen to it now as I don’t know how long Radio NZ keeps their podcasts online for), Gretchen talks about how creating new habits truly can transform our lives.  Gretchen argues that if there is something about yourself that you don’t like and want to change, one of the most effective ways to create a lasting change is to form a new habit.  A change needs to become that ingrained if it is going to stick long-term.

Gretchen states that our habits are the building blocks of our lives, and are so ingrained that we rarely think about them.  Most of us don’t think ‘Shall I brush my teeth today?’  We just do it as part of our daily routine.  Therefore she argues that our habits can be the most effective scaffolding for creating a you that is better than the old you.

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Want to create healthier habits? image credit

She goes on to say that in order to successfully create a new habit (like giving up sugar), you must understand how your personality affects the way in which you form habits, because habit formation is not a one-size-fits-all thing.  In her research she discovered that most of us fall into one of four groups: Upholders, Questioners, Obligers and Rebels.  You can take a quiz here to find out what you are.  For example, a questioner has to be convinced that changing something about themselves by forming a certain habit really is the best thing for them.  I am an obliger, meaning I often overlook my needs for that of others, so forming a new habit which benefits myself is tricky.  If we don’t get our strategies right, new habits just won’t stick.

What I love about Gretchen’s work is that she is PRACTICAL.  I have read much about habit formation in my time, and none of it makes as much sense to me as her work does.  There are a lot of myths out there (like it only takes 21 days to form a new habit), and Gretchen has sifted through it all.   She has some great-yet-simple strategies for the different personality types e.g. say if you are an obliger like me and you want to exercise more – exercise with a friend who will be miffed if you don’t show up, because it is the accountability to someone else that is the key ingredient here.  If you want to know more, buy the book!

She also talked about ‘abstainers’ versus ‘moderators’.  Moderators are the sort of people who can have a block of chocolate in their desk and eat a square or two a day.  Abstainers are people like me, who would scoff the lot straight away, so they find it EASIER to just abstain from chocolate altogether.  What this means is that if you are struggling to give up sugar (or carbs, or alcohol, or whatever) it might be because you are an abstainer.  Having sugar in the house, or indulging in it here and there is not the best strategy for you.

Obviously what she said resonated with me.  Completely abstaining from sugar has worked for me far better than only having a bit here and there.  Saying no to offers of treats from well-meaning friends and family is much easier for me than eating it and dealing with the horrible consequences (feeling tired, spike in appetite, craving more sugar etc.).

Anyway, after listening to the podcast D and I talked about some things about ourselves that we’d like to change, and how we might do it, armed with this new knowledge.  D is an obliger too (although with very strong questioner tendencies) and wants to cut down his use of his smartphone.  He has enlisted me to call him out whenever I see him using it either too much, or at an inappropriate time, i.e. while the kids want to play with him.  In turn, as my accountability person, I have enlisted D’s help to ensure I get out of bed early each morning to exercise.  As I am an abstainer I have also decided to exercise every day, so that longer lie-ins are just not an option.  Hopefully exercise first thing in the morning will be just something that I do, just like brushing my teeth.

Having recently read Happier at Home, I have been inspired to launch a similar project.  I will be posting more detail on this soon.  If you have some bad habits that you’d like to replace for healthier ones, I highly recommend having a read of Gretchen’s website and books.

What ‘new habit’ strategies have worked for you in the past?