In about six months I’ll be turning thirty years old and although age is just a number and it’s all pretty arbitrary at the end of the day, I think this milestone is inspiring some reflection. Looking back, my twenties have gone alarmingly quickly and I’m reliably informed by my elders that time only seems to speed up as you get older.
It’s not that my twenties were particularly bad: I graduated from university, met my partner of 9 years, travelled around New Zealand, learned a lot from working several different jobs, met life-long friends, moved house twice, started a business and that’s just off the top of my head.
I also lost my dad to cancer, suffered some fairly debilitating mental health issues, struggled financially and spent a good amount of time feeling lost and uncertain about my future.
They say life is all about ups and downs so I guess I must be doing it right!
So the thirty year milestone is inspiring me to try and ensure that my next decade is better than my last and I’ve been spending plenty of time thinking about how to give myself the best chance of succeeding at this goal.
With that in mind, I have for the last month been asking myself three questions every single day. These three questions are based on my experience, and that of people much smarter than me, that making lasting changes in ones life comes down to the small, everyday habits we develop rather than big, one-off efforts.
These questions are designed to force me into small habits that have big long-term pay offs despite small upfront daily costs. So enough of my waffling, here are the questions:
- Have I moved my body?
- Have I taken time to be calm and quiet?
- Have I done one thing to move me closer to a goal?
Let’s look at these in a little more detail.
- Have I moved my body?
I know, I know, exercise is good for you. Tell me something I don’t know right? But here’s the question, are you actually doing any?
I’ve recently started going to the gym again with the relaxing of lockdown restrictions in the UK after well over a year off for obvious reasons. This isn’t the first time I’ve taken time away from regular exercise and whenever I return to it, I am quite literally amazed by the difference in how I feel. It’s not just that I feel a bit better and have a little more energy; the magnitude of the difference is shocking.
Over the past few months I have noticed a steady increase in small nagging pains, back discomfort, lower energy levels and needing more sleep. All of these have vanished within four weeks of returning to a regular schedule of weightlifting (my exercise weapon of choice) at the gym. Aches and stiffness that have bothered me for months are gone and my back and joints are feeling actively stronger.
Not only have I noticed these physical benefits but my mood is improved, I am feeling more confident and I am able to ride the wave of extra energy and the post-workout endorphin high to motivate me in other areas of my life too.
You’ll notice the question isn’t “Have I done any weightlifting today”. Simply “Have I moved”. None of this is to say that anyone need specifically do weightlifting. It’s just a subtle reminder for me to do something that involves moving my body every single day, whether it’s a full training session at the gym, a walk, some yoga or even just some stretches on days I’m feeling particularly unmotivated or beaten up.
I will however put in a little shameless plug for weightlifting here as it offers such a wide variety of benefits like increased bone density and strength, more efficient nutrient partitioning (where your body allocates its resources of fats, carbohydrates and proteins), increased muscular strength, improved balance (particularly in older people) and better mobility just to name a few.
Not only does exercise have some wonderful short term benefits but is also associated with greater longevity, better markers of health in old age and even increased brain function as we age.
So, have you moved your body today?
2. Have I taken time to be calm and quiet?
If the first question is about looking after physical health, this one is definitely about looking after mental health.
In all the hectic rush of modern life be it work commitments, family, kids, hustle culture or any of the other sources of distraction and stress that solicit our attention, it’s not easy to take time to quiet the internal noise and retreat inwardly.
It’s also something that for many people does not come naturally and might be entirely unfamiliar or even uncomfortable but it’s also something that I personally have found to have some very powerful if hard-to-put-your-finger-on benefits.
I should stress first of all that taking time to be calm and quiet does not necessarily mean meditation or something similar. It certainly can do and meditation is one tool I personally use to tick this particular box but it can also be anything that allows you to shut out psychological noise and stress even if just for a few minutes.
This could be going for a walk, spending some time around nature or even something more seemingly mundane like performing a mindless task that allows your mind to just relax and enjoy having something easy and simple to do for a few minutes.
The other day I cleaned my car and used this as my calm and quiet time. It’s not a task that takes a great deal of concentration or effort but is mildly cathartic in its own way and my mind could enjoy just not doing anything in particular.
So often in our day to day lives there’s so much to do. There are so many things pulling us this direction and that and making demands on our time and mental and emotional resources that it can feel hugely enjoyable to take time for yourself where you just don’t do very much of anything. There can even be a slight sense of euphoria to taking this time and reveling in just being and not doing.
Personally I find this a more difficult task than exercising daily and I think that has something to do with a) it being a subtler form of self-care and b) being inundated with influences from media, advertising, culture, work, school and well, more or less everywhere, that we must always be doing something.
Productivity is king these days. When we feel like we’re not being productive we can end up feeling guilty and entering into a dysfunctional loop of always needing to be doing something which in turn exhausts us making less able to do things, which makes us feel guilty so we try to do more, which exhausts us and… you get the picture.
I won’t claim to understand exactly how taking time to be calm and quiet affects my brain on a psychological level. What I can say with confidence however is that I notice a dramatic difference in my sense of well-being, mental health and ironically enough, productivity, when I take at least a little time to be calm and quiet every day.
3. Have I done one thing to move me closer to a goal?
Now this one might feel like it flies in the face of question number two, particularly in regards to feeling the pressure of productivity. So I want to be very clear on quite how low I personally set the bar for moving me closer to a goal.
An example perhaps.
I have always said I would like to learn another language (my native one being English). I think I’ve probably been saying this since I was about fifteen years old and as mentioned earlier, I’m almost thirty now…
So when I made the commitment to ask myself these three questions every day, learning a new language was the first goal that popped into my head when thinking of what I can do to satisfy this last question.
So what did I do to count towards my one thing for the day? Have my first lesson? Learn my first phrase? Speak to a stranger in a different language? Nope, I sent an email. Yep that’s it, sent an email to a local tutor enquiring about prices and availability and happily ticked question three off my list for that day.
Some people claim they thrive under intense pressure and this inspires and pushes them to achieve their goals. I am very much not one of those people. For me, achieving a goal but at the heavy price of stress and worsening mental health is just not that much of an achievement. My approach is almost the opposite: to do as little as I can whilst still moving towards a goal (in fact in the example above, the next few emails back and forth with the tutor served me up several days worth of ‘one things’).
The good thing about this question is you can of course set your own bar as to what constitutes your one thing for that day. If you thrive on pressure or have loftier goals than I do then set it high and go for it. If you’re like me and slow and steady wins the race then be as liberal as you need to be with your definitions.
The great thing about making this a daily habit is that even on the very low-bar end of the scale, that’s 365 ‘things’ you’ve done every year to move closer to a goal and I don’t care how small those things are; that’s a lot of things.
What are your thoughts on all this? Do you like my questions? Would you exclude any? Include any more? Let me know.