We can’t always know which of our efforts will reap the most rewards, or which habits are worth sticking with when things get tough. By sharing what worked for me, I hope to make the decision that much easier for you.
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Some of these habits were harder to implement than others, but all have had an enormous impact on my life and my home. They’re in no particular order, but I do want to start with the first habit I consciously realised had changed my life.
Growing up I was quite pessimistic. Everything was worst-case-scenario, and I worried about so many things that would never come to pass.
Then, when I was about 21, I picked up “Mind Gym” (affiliate link) at the local library. I read it while Sam and I were on holiday in a little cottage in Kinvara, Galway. (Isn’t it funny how we always remember where we were when our lives were forever changed?)
The book contains some exercises for eliminating negative thoughts, encouraging readers to “prosecute” any pessimism by putting it on trial. I racked my brains to come up with a persistent negative thought I had and quickly landed on something I suspect a lot of Irish people believe – 'every time I set foot outside the house, it rains'.
Armed with information and insights from the book, I sought evidence to debunk my belief. (Is it any wonder I chose a legal career?)
And lo and behold, after taking a tally for just a few days, I realised how little it actually rained while I was out and about. (Why is it that the single negative thing sticks in our head, while positive thoughts easily slip away?)
From that moment on I stopped believing the universe was a bad place and now, when I find I’m slipping into negative thoughts, I put them to the test.
I’ve collected so much evidence at this stage that I feel confident that, no matter what I might worry about, it will all work out well in the end.
(But all bets are off when I hop on a plane. Then it’s impending doom all the way.)
If you haven’t read the book, I highly recommend it.
2. Choosing curiosity
There are plenty of things in life I fear (aforementioned planes being a big one) but, for the most part, I’ve chosen to let my curiosity take control.
When I’m unsure about something or fear the unknown, I focus on the learning opportunity.
I’ve done a lot of scary things in my time (hello, childbirth) but I’ve always benefited in some way from the experience. It’s made me stronger, more confident, more experienced, more knowledgeable… Even when my heart is pounding and my knees are knocking, I walk away a better person.
That’s why I try to face fear head on. I may be afraid of it, but my determination to defeat it and learn how to do a better job pushes me forward.
It’s why I keep getting on those cursed planes.
(But snakes? F*ck that.)
3. Getting up earlier
Let me preface this by saying that if you’re a mother of a young and/or sleepless child, or you work shifts, or have something else in your life that keeps you up nights, this advice doesn’t apply to you.
When I turned 34 I decided to take on a series of 30-day challenges over the course of a year in an attempt to level up my life by the time I hit 35. The first of those was waking earlier.
I’ll say right now that I’m a night owl so this wasn’t an easy change and, in truth, there are a lot of mornings where I still struggle with it. I also allow myself to sleep in on weekends (though this often ends up being just an extra half hour or so).
I still struggle to get to bed on time – my night owl tendencies suddenly trick me into thinking I’m not tired, despite spending the previous several hours yawning – but I do my best. And, as I said, I switch off the alarm on weekends so I can allow my body time to catch up on any sleep it missed during the week, and to wake naturally when I’m good and ready.
But, for the most part, I wake at 6.30 each morning. To some of you that will seem really early, and to others it won’t. It’s early for me. And it means I can get in a (very) quick workout and tick a task or two off my to-do list before I start into the school run routine with my daughter.
By the time she gets up, I’ve already managed to do something productive. I’m not rushing and racing to get us out the door, and whatever happens with the rest of my day, I know I at least started it on the right foot.
Before I read “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” (affiliate link) I’d been attempting to whittle away at my belongings. Sam and I had moved in together and the process confirmed for me that I had too much stuff. Things slid further along the “this is serious” scale when I was pregnant and had to clear out the spare room I’d been using as extra storage.
Fast forward to being introduced to the KonMari Method and I doubled down on my decluttering efforts.
Not only did I get rid of about 50% of my belongings, which gave me and my family a lot more breathing space, but the whole process had several positive knock-on effects. Our transatlantic move was a lot smoother with less stuff to pack and unpack, I could find things much faster, my productivity levels increased, the amount of cleaning and tidying required decreased, and I found myself much more appreciative of what I had.
To this day it remains one of the best things I’ve ever done.
5. Advance planning
I plan my weeks on a Sunday, and then tweak each day the evening before if necessary. The process allows me to get a good overview of how much I can achieve and what needs to change.
It also allows me to hit the ground running each morning. When I know exactly what I have to do, I’m not wasting those early morning hours trying to figure out what needs my focus first. And the quicker I can jump into a task, the quicker I can get it done. If I have to stop and think about it, I run out of motivation and enthusiasm mighty quickly.
And I don’t just do it for tasks – I also plan as many things in advance as I can, including what I’m going to wear. On the weekends I pick mine and my daughter’s outfits for the coming week. I can’t even tell you how much time this saves me in the morning.
Winging it has never worked well for me. By knowing exactly what I need to do and by when, I can dive right in and get the job done.
If you’re a productivity nerd like me and you haven’t already read David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” (affiliate link), I can’t recommend it enough. This book revolutionised my daily routine.
While I don’t stick to it strictly, the element that’s had the biggest impact on my life is mind-sweeping. In essence, it’s about emptying your head of thoughts as you go throughout your day, putting them down on paper instead.
I keep a notebook beside me on my desk and, in it, I jot down anything that occurs to me – an idea, a phone number, notes on a topic, a task I’ve just completed or one I want to do, something funny Scout said, the exercise I just did, how I feel, etc.
Not only does it free up a lot of mental bandwidth, it saves me from forgetting things (and from worrying I’m forgetting things), as well as being a great memory keeper of how I’ve spent my days.
Half productivity tool, half journal, my mind sweep notebook has had a huge impact on my life.
If you want to see a pretty comprehensive view of how I use it and how I plan in general, watch this video:
Setting a timer is one of the first things I recommend when people ask me for productivity tips. If you want to get more done, or just get off that starting block, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of racing against a clock.
This works twofold for me:
- I see that the things I think will take the longest can actually be completed pretty swiftly if I set my mind to them, making it easier to get stuck in next time, and
- I can easily spot if something is consistently taking longer than anticipated. That means I can adjust my to-do list to accommodate the extra time, and not continue to wonder why I didn’t accomplish everything I set out to that day.
For tasks that carry a larger mental load (like writing) or things I dread (like emptying the dishwasher or putting fresh sheets on the bed), a timer also gives me peace of mind that there’s a break in my near future. I don’t have to keep looking at the clock wondering when it’s time to down tools. Instead, I can focus on what’s in front of me, knowing that at any minute, the bell will ring and give me some blessed relief.
If you struggle to get things done, or there’s something you’ve been putting off, timers are the thing to fix that. Use a clock-timer, like the one on your phone, or just find a natural timer, like an ad break in your favourite TV show. Then race to get as much done as you can during that time.
When the timer stops, so do you.
Then rinse and repeat, and marvel how much you can get done in a day.
This should come as no surprise, given that I’ve already mentioned several books in this blog post, but regular reading is probably the best habit I’ve ever implemented.
I’ve been a reader for as long as I can remember. The first book I fell in love with was Roald Dahl’s “The BFG” (affiliate link). My mother brought it home for me after finding a copy lying in the street. (I still have it to this day, and it’s one of my most treasured possessions.)
In school, things began to change. (There’s nothing quite like being forced to read things that don’t appeal to you to turn you off books.) Before I finished up my final year, my English teacher (who was excellent, I might add, so I mean her no disrespect) passed around a list of books she thought everyone should read.
Being a bookworm (and a perfectionist), I made it my mission to read all of them… and promptly fell out of love with books.
I can still remember the one that did it – “The Handmaid’s Tale” (affiliate link). (I was in my teens at the time and haven’t re-read it since so I can’t say if maturity has improved my perception of it.)
Don’t get me wrong, it’s beautifully written and has a powerful message. But it was the first book I read that didn’t have an exciting climax. It just sort of… ended. As did my desire to read.
You see, I’ve always been a child at heart, and I grew up following the Famous Five on another adventure, or joining sweet Sophie as she was whisked away by a friendly giant. Now I was faced with a whole new world of “grown up” books that did little to excite the 6-year-old in me.
But just as I remember the book that dampened the flame, I also remember the one that rekindled it – “The Secret Scripture” (affiliate link).
My mother gifted it to me one Christmas and I reluctantly read it. It was a revelation! Here at last was a book that was beautifully written but also had a twist in the tail. Here was a story that swept me along and surprised me.
I finally realised that “grown up” books could be great too.
I still crave the action-filled tales of my childhood and, thankfully, I’ve found the adult version in psychological thrillers. But I still keep a stack of Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl books, because you can’t beat the classics. 😉
(Fun fact: My daughter Scout is named after the tiny heroine in Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” (affiliate link).)
And when it comes to non-fiction… Well, almost everything I know about living a better life, including all of the above, was gleaned from a book or blog post.
Reading is my greatest source of inspiration and relaxation.
My mother instilled the love of books in me, my English teacher (ironically) killed it, and my mother brought it back to life again.
And I’m so very glad and grateful she did.
You can follow me on Goodreads to see what I’m reading at any given time. I have a slightly ambitious goal of reading 100 books this year. I’ve also started a ‘book nook’ series here on the blog to keep track of what I’ve read and give a brief review.
If you’re looking for a great habit to get to grips with, I’d humbly recommend starting with any of the above. Each has changed my life in immeasurable ways and I know that, with a little discipline and determination, they can do the same for you.
What’s one positive change you’ve made in your life that’s had a massive impact?