September 8, 2015

The Autumn That Could Be

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By Vega Subramaniam

Last week’s New York Times article The Summer That Never Was got me to wondering how common author Tim Kreider’s experience is: his sense of foreboding and gloom, lost opportunities and lost time as autumn approaches. Pretty common, I’m guessing, based on a straw poll of my friends, and the fact that I felt that way once.

I don’t anymore, though.

To be sure, autumn has melancholy built into it. But there’s melancholy, and then there’s despair.

So that got me to wondering how invested people are in holding onto those bleak feelings. What if it were different? What if you were able to consistently meet the new season with contentment rather than despair?

What if how you spent the coming season meant that you could start each morning in 2016 confident that you’ll spend the time you have just as you want to?

It’s possible. I know this, because I got there. It wasn’t easy, but it is possible. Once you’ve committed to this, here are a few practices that have made all the difference in my life, and that I am convinced will help you shift into purposeful living:

  1. Define your values. There are a ton of exercises out there to help you do this. Here are three. When we have a sense that our activities are aligned with our values, we move more easily through our days. When we’re aware, consciously or subconsciously, that there’s a disconnect, it gnaws at us and fills us with unease. So once you’ve defined your values, then you might consider posting them somewhere visible. It’ll help you sit up straighter. And honestly, it’ll be a lot easier to stay off Facebook, and crack open a book, and call your mom, and do your push-ups, when you’ve got visible reminders that those activities align with your values.
  2. Define your mission. Leaving aside your goals and objectives and targets for a moment: what are you really here for? What do you want everyone you care about to say about you, to brag about you, to complain about you? There are websites to guide you through this, too.
  3. Identify the spheres of life that you need to attend to in order to thrive, that keep you in balance, that you need to nurture for your wellbeing. The Wheel of Life exercise is one option. You might surprise yourself with what you become aware of through this exercise.
  4. Give yourself a time reality check: plot out your typical weekday, week, and month. Notice how much of your time is already out of your immediate control, allotted to things like sleeping, hygiene, picking up kids, commuting, and caregiving. It’s a great comfort to notice how much we’re already living our values through our daily activities. It can also be a great comfort to notice how many hours are left. Found hours. Hours that, if you put your mind to it–and you will–could be spent any way you chose. Forget comfort. It’s hugely, hugely empowering.
  5. Identify up to three-ish goals for the year(-ish). But before we talk about that, it’s useful to reflect on previous successes, so you remember what’s worked for you in the past when you’ve started something new: what supports you created for yourself; how you overcame resistances. Now identify your current goals. You might know your goals already. You might find that goals emerge for you based on the previous exercises. Or you might struggle to narrow down the billion things you want to accomplish. Three has been found to be a good, realistic number of big projects a person can work on at any given time and still have hope of forward movement. And a year is not a magic number. You’re welcome to identify another more appropriate relatively short-term time unit for yourself.
  6. Set a structure that will move you toward your goals. Include what you’ll do when you wake up each morning to start the day on a positive note, your daily intentions, an accountability system, and some cheerleaders (of which you’ll be one). Here’s a list of some practices/principles that typically work for people and that science validates. I’ve tested each of them and I cannot stress highly enough how useful they are.
    • Start your morning on a positive note, maybe with 3 things you’re grateful for.
    • State your intentions for the day.
    • Set a daily routine.
    • Meditate every day. If you’re not a meditator, consider 15 minutes a day (or 5 minutes, or 3 minutes, whatever you can sustain for 30 or so days).
    • Build in opportunities for small successes, even micro successes, to give you momentum. If you don’t meditate at all, see if you can sit for 2 minutes a day for one week. If you don’t exercise at all, see if you can walk for 15 minutes once a week for a month. If you have a two-foot high pile of papers to file, file just the very top sheet every other day for 30 days.
    • Acknowledge yourself after each of your accomplishments, large and small.
    • Set up an accountability system that works for you — meaning it keeps you optimistic and experimenting and forward-thinking.
    • Collect a group of cheerleaders.
  7. Experiment. I’ll tell you now: you will face your demons. All the negative forces you’ve accumulated over the course of your life will tug you as hard as they can, back to the familiar habits that allow time to disappear until…despair. So, problem-solve. When you’ve tried to do something or tried to instill a new habit and it didn’t work the first (or second, or seventeenth) time, find another way to work on it. The set of habits you have now took you a lifetime to develop. It’s worth giving yourself time to change them and a break when you skip a day or come face to face with your own resistance.

Every morning, the world is shiny with possibilities. Imagine holding onto that feeling every evening as the sun sets. It is possible.

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