My journey began 12 months ago so this seems an auspicious time to reflect. I hope something here will resonate if you are starting on this path or already well on the way.
A change of job prompted me to begin. Before then, I allowed my employer’s training catalogue plus opportunities to learn from global colleagues cater to my self-improvement needs. Moving to a much smaller company (where opportunities to both add value and learn from others were more limited than I expected), I took ownership of my own personal and professional development.
You don’t need to wait for a life change like a new job or a calendar milestone – you are free to decide that today will be the day I make one small step.
To start I adopted one habit then built on that a step at a time. That habit and the follow-ons are described later but first I outline the framework I used.
I decided I needed 3 things:
I narrowed it down to 4 themes or ‘Pillars’ to focus on and planned possible activities and tasks for each:
This allowed me to aim for balance in allocating time to each. By putting them in list format, I had a simple visual indicator of whether I was tending more towards some areas rather than others (which is not a bad thing – not all may need equal attention). In the cases where something mapped to more than one pillar, I picked the pillar it felt more at home in.
Activities and tasks could be either tangible (exercise, cook something, do something at work or outside, journal keeping), online (research, blogs, podcasts) or reading books.
I found a “trialling” mindset to be valuable at this stage. If I adopted a new habit I tested it for 4 to 6 weeks after which I would either jettison it, modify it or keep it.
I did try a further categorisation of each item into “Read” “Test” “Review” “Do” (inspired by Deming’s Plan Do Check Act cycle) but quickly felt this was too much, I was overthinking and over-complicating (nothing new there!).
I time-boxed 3 hours every 2nd Sunday and for the first 3 months while planning, researching and shaping what I was going to do and how to do it, I did these sessions in my local coffee shop. As I got into the thick of it and out of the initial planning mode, I retired instead to my spare room but the name I first gave this quality time has stuck for me – even now I often refer to this time as a “Starbucks Session”.
To determine my direction, I first needed to define my values. As a complement to my values list, I also developed a personal mission statement. Finally, to guide how I implement my decisions and choices, I figured a set of principles would be useful.
I derived my values by narrowing down from two sets of lists found online. The 1% Better blog post on this topic was helpful. I ended up with 5 and in their current incarnation, they are:
My mission statement is currently:
My principles remain in draft format at the time of writing. I will write these to enable me to fulfil my mission statement and adhere to my values.
My notes on what that list might look like are as follows:
You will notice that values, mission statement and principles become more verbose and descriptive. There should be some natural overlap between them also.
A word here on goals. We are often encouraged to set SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-Bound). I also discovered value in having longer-term goals that are not entirely SMART. This type of goal may be impossible to completely define at this stage and may demand some blue-sky thinking. At a minimum, your goals should be ART (trusting the SM to come in time) and remember that for visionary goals you need to be open-minded on what is Achievable. Don’t be afraid to have a stretch target that you cannot quite see how to reach yet.
The Starting Point
I had failed to establish a meditation practice on two previous occasions. The first was before the advent of apps, the latter following a recommendation on a course I did at work.
Now, I looked again at meditation and saw that it could be the launching pad for everything I was trying to achieve (even though I did not know precisely what this was yet!). The promise of having the mental space to better consider the impact of what I choose to do, how I think and how I make decisions was very appealing.
I reasoned that the worst that could happen was that I would gain some valuable “me time” every day. What I discovered was that, contrary to my expectations, my daily practice began to bear fruit after only a couple of weeks. It was the tip of the tip of the iceberg but rewarding enough to persevere with a guided meditation practice.
The Next Steps
Adopting one positive habit has a domino effect – you will find yourself wanting to add another once you establish that first one.
I saw the seeds of my next habit in the improvement opportunity of my first. A lot of the self-improvement texts talk about the merits of a morning routine. I saw that this would ensure I do my meditation at an optimal time plus give me a window to add something else.
Over time I started to rise earlier and earlier, setting the alarm for 6 a.m. and eventually getting it back to 5 a.m. (well, 5.05 to be accurate). The next addition was diet-related, dusting off the blender to make a healthy early morning smoothie. I stuck with the same recipe daily, finding that doing the same over and over again helped break down any mental resistance – I did not need to think about what to buy or how to make it, just do it.
It’s at this stage that a significant step change occurred. I had a meditation practice and a morning routine. I had also started journaling – using the Bullet Journal method – allowing me to reflect, to plan future activities and to record any inspirational quotes or writings I noticed. Exercise was missing. I found the “Couch to 5k” protocol and started following that 3 times/week. I found it well-paced and being time-based rather than distance-based meant I could slow down if necessary. Like meditation, running had failed to stick on previous attempts but now became ingrained.
I struggle to say which activity has had the most impact – meditation or exercise. There are mental health benefits to exercise along with the feeling of reward when running towards a glowing sunset on a Friday evening at the start of a weekend. I endorse the use of positive language here – exercise is something you get to do (i.e. a reward or benefit), not something you have to do.
Meditation has given me a toolkit to manage life’s opportunities and issues, a toolkit that will grow over time. I see it as a foundational practice for me now.
Throughout all this (meditation, morning routine, exercise, Sunday morning reading/reflection sessions) I found the encouragement and learnings from podcasts invaluable. I built up a stable of regulars to which I return, including of course 1% Better. Joining a community like the ROTG Slack community with its monthly challenges and supportive membership has also been a great help to maintain a “What else can I do?” mindset.
Progress has not been perfect – meditation has not been daily, I replaced the smoothie with overnight oats (which did not stick, no pun intended) and family life means my bi-weekly time blocking does not always happen. On the plus side, I now know I have a mindset that is fixed on this course, flexible to adapt to circumstances and recognising of the rewards it can bring.
When progress is slow, I remind myself of what I have done and that it is an ongoing way of life with natural ebbs and flows (and not a short-term project).
Here’s to the next 12 months.
About The Author
Mike Hanafin works as a technology project manager, with grey hair gathered in both the software and life sciences industries. When not asking checking questions like “What value am I bringing to my role?”, Mike is finding joy in his ongoing self-improvement mission (whose ultimate goal is to maintain a healthy work-life balance by dissolving the work-life distinction) and inching out of his introvert comfort zone (which has mood lighting and a copious supply of fiction and jazz). Always wanting to write but never getting to it, Mike is making an early/late New Year’s Resolution to share more of what he has learned (and has yet to learn).
If you’re interested in having being a guest post on the blog page or submitting some learnings for a community focused podcast episode, get in touch directly with me – [email protected] or sign up to the growing 1% Better community on Slack – Link to this here
Right now, this very moment, as I write this, I’m fighting off a very strong temptation to begin this final piece of the Dry 2018 Post Series with an inspirational quote (from someone way more inspirational than me) with the key word ‘impossible.’ How else do articles start these days anyway? Especially ones that cover such a mammoth challenge as an Irish person giving up alcohol for a year.
A part of me really wants to go with the famous Mandela quote “it always seems impossible until it’s done.” Another part prefers the one from Audrey Hepburn “nothing is impossible, the word itself says “I’m possible”, and yet another tiny voice in me is championing one from a book I recently read by Yogananda Paramhansa with “nothing is impossible unless you think it is”. But no, I’m not going to go there. That would be way too predictable.
Why ‘impossible’? Well, 12 months ago, giving up drink for a full year did seem a little like that. Not just to me. Many that know me thought it too. And maybe a little bit outrageous. The Questions coming at me were “Why deprive yourself of it?” or “You work hard so why not have a few now and then?” followed by reassuring encouragement of “It’s not as if there was a problem with it. Enjoy it.”
To be fair, while I sensed deep down it wasn’t impossible, to go through a full calendar year without having any Alcohol was a bit daunting. Even if I had become a much more occasional drinker in the last number of years, giving up that glass of Red on a Friday night after a busy work week, or asking for diet Coke instead of a Beer when out for a Meal or at a work gathering was not going to be easy.
Thankfully, as the first few months flew by, I realized this task was far from unsurmountable. Like any Big Goal, if you chunk it up into smaller pieces, it becomes very manageable. So, an elaborate quote stating the ‘impossible’ doesn’t seem apt. As the year progressed, I noticed other words coming up that were more fitting. Words like ‘choice’, ‘options’, ‘simplicity’, ‘commitment’, and ‘freedom’. By removing the choice, and making the commitment, the freedom came, and life became simpler. I’m still working on how to make that into a profound quote to inspire but maybe this could work:
“Simplicity and Freedom comes when you commit to the choice” – Rob O’Donohue (various times during 2018)
Ok, not in the Mandela or Hepburn league but it’s one I’ve gone back to a number of times this year. I’ve noticed too that this approach can be applied to other Big Goals too.
So, as I finalize this post now, early in 2019 and reflect back, what are some big learnings that stand out?
Are you familiar with Pavlov’s Dog– the experiment that became famous over 100 years ago by Ivan Pavlov. He studied the behaviour of Dogs and developed a theory of classical conditioning. It explains how people associate two stimuli in their minds and react to one of them as though it was the other. Every time, after the right conditioning, Pavlov’s Dog heard a bell, it would salivate more expecting food.
For the longest time, when something momentous happened, something exciting, important, and worth celebrating, associating a few beers or a night out with it was the norm. Getting a promotion, completing a marathon, a holiday away, watching an Arsenal match, and so on. All would bring on a Pavlovian response within. Instead of salivating expecting food, it would be a signal to get the Beers in! I’d been conditioned that way.
During the year, one of the biggest ‘A-ha’s’ has been how this conditioning has begun to alter. I’ve been reprogramming myself to associate the excitement with a different response. Maybe that was to go for a nice meal, or to the cinema. Or do nothing at all and just enjoy the moment. It’s been an eye opener as I look back. Breaking habits can be tough, yet reconditioning is possible. Leading to a better outcome. And thankfully, no Dogs were harmed in this year-long experiment.
“You must feel great?” – asked by many all year!
My short answer is yes, absolutely, but not in ways you might expect. Physically, I’d feel ok a couple of days after a big night out. So that’s not been hugely noticeable. In fact, I’ve probably had more head colds this year than I’ve had in the last decade combined. The real improvements have been more Emotionally & Mentally. Having zero hangovers during the year has been amazing. It allowed me to stick to my routine and get more done. It also allowed me to do nothing more often too. I haven’t created more time, I’ve just been able to put it to better use. The Inner Critic, my Gremlin in my head, that lovely voice that’s always been there to give me a hard time after a night out. Well, he’s had a bad year. A quieter one for sure. I now find myself having the ‘Fear’ (which was explained in a previous post here) only when I think about actually having the Fear!
I’ve often compared my life in my twenties, when my social life was full on, to a game of Snakes and Ladders (for those millennials, it was a physical board game popular a long time ago – forgive me if it still is). I’d manage to make great progress up the board, ladder by ladder, skilfully navigating the many snakes there to set me back. But always before too long, the snake’s charm would be too much to escape. The snake here would be the alcohol of course. Or maybe it’s that Gremlin again enticing me into places where it knew I’d regret later. Either way, it led to a fall. Back down the board. Setting me back. This year, while there have been temptations, I’ve managed to navigate my way up the board much more mindfully.
“I personally believe that the majority of people who have down moments in their lives, they can actually trace it back, quite often, to alcohol. Perhaps the only days of my life that I feel lethargic is instead of having two glasses at night time I had five or six”. – Richard Branson
Dealing with downers!
I vividly recall hearing the above from Richard Branson in a podcast with Tim Ferriss in late 2017. It was around that time I was thinking about cutting out the booze totally and his words stayed with me since. As I reflect back on the years when I did drink, while alcohol been a catalyst for many great nights, I can relate to Sir Branson’s experiences. I’d safely say that 99% of the nights/days where I’ve felt very low have come very soon after alcohol. Combine that with a pre-disposition to overthinking, giving myself a hard time, and a lean towards anxiety and you have a dangerous mix.
Over the course of 2018, and none more so than in the last 8 weeks of the year, I’ve had to face tough times and deal with very real-life situations. It was difficult to look for positives, be optimistic, and try to reign in that very disruptive and over active critic in my mind. Difficult but manageable. I have no doubt, if I ever added a hangover to that mix, I’d have been in a different darker place altogether. So, from that perspective, my Mood, Emotional Agility and levels of Grit have improved this year thanks to less time on the rollercoaster that accompanies booze.
Other Hidden Benefits