Tidy up with purpose and not out of compulsion

We often tidy up because we are fed up with the way things are and we need to make a change. But we’d better approach our home and belongings with a sense of purpose.

A few weeks ago, on a Tuesday evening, I placed my dinner on the table and set up my tablet to watch an episode or two on Netflix. I had a new series suggestion, Tidying up with Marie Kondo. “Oh, no, no, no,” I thought to myself. “I can’t watch this, or I’ll turn into the tidying monster again.”

The perfectionist at home

When I lived by myself, everything had a specific place, and things were, almost always, in their exact place. I had a shelf for all my spices, and they were all arranged in rows, with the labels facing precisely forward. When friends came to visit, they marveled at my tidy, organized closets, cupboards, and shelves. They also thought I was a little crazy.

But more importantly, when something wasn’t in its right place, it made me stressed. I couldn’t let it go, and it gave me an unpleasant, gnawing feeling, like it was pulling me to fix it. And, inevitably, fix it I did. Every evening, I was organizing my clothes or cleaning the kitchen counters.

I was operating from the flawed belief that once everything is tidied up perfectly, I will finally be content and at ease. But that never actually happened. When I was done cleaning or organizing for the day, I tried not to look around for fear that I’d see something which had to be “fixed.” Because I was compulsively reacting to things that bothered me, I had to immediately eliminate the thing making me uneasy. There was no space to step back and let it go.

My spices were way more organized than this.
Image credits: Pixabay (CC0 license)

Exposure therapy

When my husband (then boyfriend) moved in with me, I experienced mild shock for a few months. I knew I couldn’t ask him to live by my unreasonable standards because I realized they weren’t helpful. But the fact that things were not in the way I liked them really bothered me.

I now understand that I was basically going through exposure therapy. I was being faced with the things that caused me stress, and little by little, their strength over me subsided. I didn’t have to fix things right away because even if things were not perfect, that was okay. Nowadays we have a reasonably tidy home, unbearably messy according to my previous standards but reasonably organized according to my current ones.

I still sometimes get annoyed by a messy pile of boxes or clothes, but I no longer react to the compulsive pull to fix it immediately. Instead, I can say, “Hey, I don’t like that pile over there, can you please take care of it?” and sooner or later, he’ll do it. Or, if it’s something I need to take care of it, I’ll set aside time on my calendar when I can tackle the issue.

The intentional approach to tidying & organizing

The goal is not to feed the compulsory need to tidy up immediately. Instead, the idea is to reflect purposefully on what we’d like and how we can make that happen.

I appreciate that about Marie Kondo’s method: she encourages people to think about what they want to keep and what they don’t, how they want to make use of their space and how they want their home to feel. It’s not about being super strict and keeping everything perfect all the time; rather, it’s about treating our home and our possessions with intention.

In the end, I am watching Tidying up with Marie Kondo. It has inspired me to clean out/organize a couple of areas of our home, but the effect has been very different from before. Instead of turning into the “fixing monster,” I’m much gentler to our home and to myself. My guiding goal is to make the space more pleasant, cozy, and usable instead of needing to eliminate and make it good enough, as though it wasn’t good enough already. And, most of all, I am grateful for such a wonderful home.

What do you think about tidying up? Do you have a tidying monster within, or are you quite content with how things are? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

My efforts were recognized even though I didn’t expect it

Yesterday, I won the PhD Award of the Donders Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging (DCCN) for 2018. The prize recognizes someone who has contributed to the DCCN to make it a more vibrant, pleasant, and inspiring place. I was surprised and very, very happy.

Me after receiving the award and a beautiful bouquet of tulips. Yay!

Two days ago, on Wednesday, I received an email from Tildie Stijns, the secret organizational force behind the DCCN: “Are you coming to the DCCN centre meeting tomorrow?”

I was confused. Why did she care if I’d be at the centre meeting? I responded that I couldn’t go because I had a writing course at that time.

“But you must go! It’s important.” said Tildie. Well, if Tildie says something, you do it. So I went to the centre meeting on Thursday.

Receiving the award

My friends Lieke and Patricia were convinced that I’d get the DCCN PhD award. I didn’t dare believe it because I’d be disappointed if it turned out that wasn’t the case. They spent the whole lunch break making fun of how cautious I was.

At the centre meeting, I realized I was getting the award when Peter Hagoort said, “The person we’re giving the award to this year has done a number of things, among which organizing a time management course.” There is no other way, I thought, it’s me!

From then on I was just happy. It felt so good to receive the award, and my friends and colleagues congratulated me afterwards, clearly happy for me. Coincidentally, my supervisors, Eelke Spaak and Floris de Lange, were sitting next to me during the meeting and also expressed their congratulations. I was beaming the whole time, my face warm and flushed.

Appreciated and surprised

The truth is that I was genuinely surprised that I received the award. What had I done to be of service to the centre? Peter Hagoort mentioned the Organization Bootcamp (which is starting today! more on that soon), contributing to Donders Wonders and leading it during the summer, and performing a monologue about ethics in science (you can read it here).

But I had done all those things simply because I thought it would be cool to do them. I hadn’t done them thinking, “Hmm, this would be good to do, so I can get the DCCN PhD award.” I guess that’s exactly the point.

I hadn’t expected people to appreciate the things I did. It wasn’t necessary; I did what I did because I enjoyed it. And then it was even sweeter when the recognition came, and I really appreciated it.

Thanks to many people

When I told my mom about the award in the evening, she said, “Wow, this Donders place is such a great place to work. They even pay attention to these things.”

And she’s right. I’d like to thank many people: the DCCN directorate for giving me the award, the award committee for picking me, and the colleagues who nominated me for, well, nominating me. And my friends and family for being by my side and sharing my nervousness as well as my joy. The Donders is such a great place to work (and live 😉 )!

Excitement

I’m off now, today’s a big day… I barely slept last night because the first session of the bootcamp is taking place in the afternoon, and I still need to practice my talk (never believe me if I say I always stick to my schedule!).

Then in the evening, we have the Donders Karaoke!!! Oh, I can’t wait! I was warming up my vocal cords in the shower this morning, so hopefully the neighbors enjoyed the performance. As the lady living below me once said, “I really enjoy your singing. Are you a soprano?” Oh, the embarrassment in that moment… 😀

And in the weekend, I’ll plan how to enjoy my prize! The award is a fancy dinner in a restaurant of my choice, so I’ll be checking out all the cool restaurants in the area. Woohoo!

The simple secret of discipline: Avoid tempting situations

We are often told that discipline is the answer to our problems. With a little more discipline, we can achieve our goals and avoid temptations. Just try a little bit harder, have a little bit more willpower, have a little more self control. But that’s not how it works.

We grossly overestimate the contribution of willpower. Willpower is not a constant; it may be strong at one moment and then wane when we’re tired or stressed. If we leave our actions up to willpower, we will at some point disappoint ourselves.

I often hear the assumption that disciplined people have more willpower and somehow have the superhuman ability to stick to their values or priorities. I don’t think that’s true and, if anything, it only contributes a tiny bit to what discipline actually is.

In reality, disciplined people know themselves and know when their willpower fails. If they are tired, they will spend a long time on social media, unable to look away. If they go to a fast food restaurant, they will end up ordering fast food. They are aware of their tendencies and don’t leave it up to willpower to make the choice they consider “better” or “right.”

By choosing the situation you place yourself in, you choose the possible actions.
Photo by Tyler Lastovich from Pexels

Disciplined people often avoid putting themselves in tempting situations. They know that the only way to resist is to avoid the setting altogether, so they avoid the tempting situation. If they want to spend less time on social media, they use a website blocker. If they want to eat less fast food, they go to restaurants that don’t serve fast food. It’s so much easier to avoid an unwanted action if the immediate environment prevents it.

I’m not saying that you should always avoid tempting situations. It all comes back to the mindful choice: if you consciously and purposefully choose to do something, by all means, go ahead. Just don’t let the situation decide for you.

When you want to avoid an action and you know your willpower may fail, it is so much easier to avoid the tempting situation altogether. This is the secret that disciplined people know.

Not all tempting actions lend themselves to simple solutions. But if you identify such a solution, then make sure you implement it. It will save you lots of frustration over inevitable lapses in willpower.

What kinds of tempting activities do you avoid? What actions would you like to prevent? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn. 

Discipline = making a mindful choice

We may think that disciplined people lack or suppress their desires. In fact, they still experience strong cravings, but they make a mindful choice.

When someone offers me cake at work and I decline, I usually get one of two typical reactions:

“Oh, live a little. Nothing bad will happen if you eat a piece of cake!”

I usually respond to this with:

“It’s not about living a little. It’s about what feels better to me and my body, and right now I’d feel better if I don’t eat the cake.”

And the other reaction is:

“Wow, how are you so disciplined? Do you never eat sweets? Do you not like sweets?”

These questions make me smile. In fact, I have a huge sweet tooth. I can eat way more cake, baklava, and chocolate than most people. When most people say, “Ah, this is too sweet for me, it’s making me sick,” that’s my favorite level of sweetness.

We often think that disciplined people don’t feel desires or cravings, or perhaps we think they suppress them. Disciplined people may appear cold inside, as though they’re more like robots who don’t know what it’s like to feel a strong human craving.

But, in fact, disciplined people do have desires and cravings, sometimes even more strongly than other people. Because these people’s cravings are so strong, they need to keep them in check.

When facing a desire or craving, the important thing is to make a clear, conscious choice about what we do next.
Image credit: JESHOOTS.com (Pexels license)

For instance, Philip, a friend of mine, comes from a family with a history of alcoholism. Philip doesn’t drink any alcohol. He told me that people often ask him how he’s able to have such self-control. He responds that it’s the opposite: he knows he doesn’t have the self-control to stop once he starts. That’s why he avoids alcohol altogether.

So is the only solution to abstain altogether? Avoid all tempting situations and things we desire?

For some people, abstaining from some substances (such as alcohol in the case of my friend Philip) works well. But that doesn’t have to be the case for all of us. (See the distinction between abstainers and moderators raised by Gretchen Rubin.)

I have a different solution in relation to my desire for sweets. I create specific implementation intentions: When X happens, I will do Y. When I am at work, I do not eat sweets. But on Friday evening, when I’m having dinner with a friend, I will have dessert. Or, on Saturday afternoon, when I go for tea with a friend, I will have a piece of cake.

These are planned exceptions. It means that I have thought about them in advance and decided what I’d like to do in that situation. When I do eat something sweet, I’m not reinforcing a mindless craving but rather I’m making a mindful choice. And I get more enjoyment out of it because it’s a conscious choice instead of an absent-minded reaction to a situation.

The characteristic that makes people disciplined is that they make a conscious, purposeful choice. It doesn’t actually matter which action they choose; whether they eat the cake or don’t eat the cake is not important. The crucial point is to make the choice with clarity and to be aware of the reasons that lead you to that choice.

Is there an area in your life where you purposefully choose what to do? Is there an area where you’d like to make more mindful choices? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

To improve an area of your life, track your habits

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you must have come across some blog posts telling you that the way to keep your New Year’s resolutions is to create habits (including my own). Let’s say you heed the message: what do you do?

Monitoring leads to awareness and thus improvement

Let’s start with the basics: If you don’t know how much (or how little) you’re engaging in an activity, you don’t know what you need to change. If you want to read more but you don’t know how much you’re currently reading, then it’s very difficult to influence the behavior effectively.

When you start tracking a behavior, you are often surprised in the beginning. I had the goal of reading more academic articles. When I started tracking this, I realized that in the month of November I only read one full article! A single one–and I am a scientist!

Excuses abound: I took vacation in November, then I had to catch up on work and on homework for my course, I was ill… But excuses are not the point. The question is: did it happen or not.

It is normal that some months the desired behavior will happen more than others. The goal is not to perfectly complete all your habits all the time. The point is to monitor how you’re doing and adjust as soon as you notice things aren’t going as you’d like them to.

Monitoring can help you know when you need to change your behavior.
Image credit: FOX (Pexels license)

Tracking allows you to flexibly adjust your actions

You might say, “What’s the point of tracking my habits then? I’ll keep doing what I’m doing, and I’ll probably turn out alright.” Yes, you probably will, but “alright” may not be what you wished for. If I hadn’t noticed that I only read one article in November, I wouldn’t have changed my behavior in December. Because I knew I was neglecting this area, I was able to compensate for it soon enough, reading three articles in December (even with Christmas, etc.).

If we neglect an area in our life for long enough, it will begin to suffer. For example, an employee’s work performance may begin to drop, a student may fall behind in class, or a relationship may deteriorate.

Fortunately, by simply bringing awareness to the different areas of our life, we can notice when something isn’t going well and adjust our actions in time.

Identify your main areas of life and the core habits

Start by identifying the main areas of your life. Tip: those are reflected in your priorities.

My main areas of life include: Well-being, Health, Partner, Family, Friends, Science, Writing, Learning, Finances, Home, Relaxing, and Purpose.

Then, identify the core habits that support each of those priorities or areas of life. These are the activities that really move you forward in a certain area of life. For example, my core habits for Health are the following:

And my core habits for Learning are the following:

Track your core habits

Once you’ve identified your core habits, you can begin to track them. You can do so on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. I personally have one google sheet for daily habits, one for weekly habits, and one for monthly habits. It takes me about two minutes per day (in the evening) to look them over and note the habits I’ve completed.

I’ve actually printed out these google sheets and put them on my coffee table in the living room. These days, I’m experiencing a powerful pull to doing things on paper, so I’m doing this on paper as well. It feels nicer to me, and it’s softer on my eyes than looking at a monitor yet again.

If you prefer to do this on your phone or tablet, there is a myriad of apps available. I used to use HabitHub, and it was great. You can use these tools to geek out on monthly averages and graphs. I thought I’d love that, but in fact I didn’t care about it too much.

Now with my google sheets (on paper!), I calculate the weekly average (once a week) and the monthly average (once a month). At my Monthly Review, I enter the score for each area into a digital spreadsheet, just so it can be saved and easily accessible throughout the rest of the year and beyond. And I’m done.

Each week, I become aware of where I did well and where I didn’t do so well. I no longer have to vaguely answer the question, “Did I take care of my health this week?” but instead I can look at the specific habits I have identified as important for my health and see how I did.

This allows me to rapidly adjust my behavior in the desired direction. Thus, I can avoid more serious issues that I could have seen coming.

Resources about habit tracking and identifying main areas of life

I’ve written more about habits in several blog posts that you can find here.

I adopted this type of habit tracking divided into areas of life from Chris Guillebeau and his google sheet. I have adapted it to suit my needs, but the main inspiration came from there.

I was first introduced to this idea by Brendon Burchard and his book High Performance Habits (the audiobook is available to listen to for free as episodes in his podcast). 

For more ideas on habit change, I can recommend two great books:

Do you track any habits? Are there any habits you’d like to track, and have you tried it? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Intention setting: Does it actually work?

“Before you go into a difficult situation, set an intention. How would you like to behave in that situation? How would you like to come across? Just put the intention out there, and it will happen.”

I’ve heard this type of advice many times, but the skeptic in me retaliates. “What do you mean that putting the intention out there will make it happen?” I agree that if I think about how I’d like to act, I’m more likely to behave that way. But that doesn’t seem particularly powerful. Surely it’s not such a big deal whether you take 10 seconds to think about how you’d like to approach a situation.

To set intentions or not to set intentions

Paradoxically, over the last few months, I felt like I was lacking intent in my actions. I would go from one activity to the next because I knew it had to be done, but I didn’t connect to why I was doing it.

This led me to think that I should try this intention setting thing. I tried it a couple of times but quickly forgot about it. After all, who has time to set intentions when there are things to do?!

The wake up call came when my husband tried setting intentions. I didn’t think he’d really do it, but apparently my love for structure is rubbing off on him, so he stuck with it! After a week of setting intentions, he said, “This intention thing really works!”

He usually does this three times a day: at the beginning of the work day, after lunch, and before dinner. First, he notes his current attitude. Then, he thinks about the thing he’s going to do next and sets an intention for how he’d like it to go. He says he’s able to focus much better and, as he works with people, that he’s able to serve people better.

By setting intentions, we gain clarity about why we’re doing something.
Image credit: Pixabay (License CC0)

I started setting intentions

Well, once I heard this, I had to catch up! If my husband was setting intentions, I had to be able to do it too!!

I decided to combine it with my hourly breaks: once I sit down at my desk after my break, I take a few deep breaths and notice how my body feels. Am I anxious or excited? Tired? Thinking?

Then, I think about what I’ll be working on for the next hour. What would I like the outcome to be? How would I like the work process to go? This whole check-in takes about a minute, and then I start working.

I mostly do this at work but not only. I also aim to do it at the start of each meal and also at the beginning of my workout. It really changes how I feel during the activity because instead of just going through the motions, I connect to my priorities, i.e., the “why” behind my actions.

The pros and cons of setting intentions

I really enjoy it when I set an intention for a block of time. When I sat down to write this blog post, I thought, “I’d like to write on a topic I’m passionate about, and I’d like to convey information well. Also, I’d like to have a calm, thoughtful writing process.” With such a clear intention in mind, getting to work is easy and pleasant.

The trouble is that I often forget to set an intention. Especially if my schedule is a bit irregular or I have limited time, intentions go out the window. There’s suddenly no space in my mind to take a step back and think about why I’m doing something. Instead, I need to do, do, do.

In essence, that’s the problem itself. I’d like to set intentions to avoid being mindless. It doesn’t work if I’m already mindless (because I’m stressed, for instance), so I don’t remember to set an intention, which means I don’t get clarity and don’t connect to my “why.” It’s a vicious cycle, and I don’t see how to break it besides to remember to set an intention.

This is my main question with relation to setting intentions: is it actually helpful, or is it just wishful thinking? Is it possible to also remember to set intentions when things are not going smoothly? And in those cases, does it help?

I will try it out for a month and then report back. I will track how consistently I set intentions on different days and see how that influences my mood and my work output. I’ll let you know in about a month, so stay tuned! 🙂

More info about setting intentions

I got the idea of setting intentions in this way from Brendon Burchard and his book High Performance Habits (the audiobook is available to listen to for free as episodes in his podcast). He discusses setting intentions as a way to improve Habit #1, Clarity.

If you also try setting intentions, let me know how it goes! Or are you doing something similar already? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

The Joy of the Annual Review

One of my favorite events of the year just took place: Are you thinking of New Year’s Eve? Well, you almost got it…

My eternal love goes to the Annual Review. This is the wonderful time of year when I look back on the year that just passed and then look forward to the year that is to come. It’s a time for reflection on the recent past and crafting of the future.

The structure of the Annual Review

The Annual Review consists of three main parts:

  1. What went well this year?
  2. What didn’t go so well this year?
  3. What would I like for next year?

Reflect on the past year

I make a list for each point. Often we forget many of the things we did over the course of a year, so I remind myself of what has happened over the past 12 months. I look through my calendar and at the outputs of my Monthly Reviews. I also look at my list of goals for 2018 which resulted from my previous Annual Review.

For instance, some things that went well for me this year were:

  • Publication of my first paper (yay!)
  • Completed a Dutch course
  • Completed three strength training programs
  • Completed my 2019 Reading Challenge
  • Got engaged (yay!!!)

There are also things that didn’t go so well for me, for example:

  • Didn’t meditate consistently every day (went off track sometimes)
  • Got stressed and didn’t see things in perspective at times

I should note that I add to both lists as I think of stuff. It’s helpful to first think about things that went well and then about things that didn’t go so well, but it’s also fine to add things to either list as they come up in your mind. After all, it’s an organic process.

Reflection is just like fireworks: glamorous and awesome.
Photo by
Javon Swaby from Pexels

Plan the upcoming year

Then, I move on to planning the upcoming year. Again, I look at the calendar and think about what I will do when, approximately, and how the year would unfold. Most importantly, I think about what I’d like to focus on at different times throughout the year (e.g., different work projects, quality time with family, skill development, or travel).

I make a list of the things I’d like to accomplish during the upcoming year. My list for 2019 contains, among others:

  • Write a paper for my second project (now completed)
  • Begin third project (new)
  • Give bootcamp on Personal Organization
  • Play the piano at least 3 times per week
  • Meditate every day, even if only for 1 minute
  • Get married!

Review your list once a month

Once you make your list, make sure you review it often, around once per month. I do this as a part of my Monthly Review, but you could also do it if you put your list above your desk or on your fridge door. In this way, you will come back to the goals you set for yourself, and they will actually be useful.

The first time I did an Annual Review (in 2014), I made a to do list for 2015, and guess when I looked at it? At my 2015 Annual Review. Needless to say, that wasn’t super useful. While I had accomplished many of the items on it, I had completely forgotten about others. That’s why I recommend checking the list more often.

Reflect and plan based on priorities

As a part of my Annual Review, I consider my priorities. I reflect on the extent to which I’ve acted according to my priorities during the past year. In thinking about the upcoming year, I consider what actions I can introduce or adapt to in order to better fit my priorities.

By breaking things down like this, you get much more concrete insights because the priorities are the different categories, or themes, of your life. If you wonder, “What would I like to improve next year?” this question may be too vague to prompt any meaningful insight. But if you ask, “How would I like to connect with my family more next year?” you may get much more specific, and thus useful, answers.

Concluding remarks

Reflect together with a friend

As an extra bonus, ask a close friend or significant other to join you in your Annual Review quest. While I’ve done this by myself in the past, this year I did it together with my fiancee. This turned out to be a lot of fun! We asked each other questions and in many ways enriched each other’s reflection and idea generation. It was very pleasant and eye-opening to reflect on the past year together with someone else.

Resources

I’m very grateful for information on the Annual Review by James Clear and Chris Guillebeau. Check out how they do their annual reviews for some slightly different implementations. James also includes a section called “What have I learned [from the past year]?” and Chris shares a cool spreadsheet where he tracks his progress towards his goals as the year progresses.

Until next year, my dear Annual Review…

And this is it for the annual review. While I wish I could do it more often because I enjoy this time of reflection so much, the annual review takes place once per year by definition. In the meantime, I’ll have to satisfy myself with mediocre Weekly Reviews and slightly special Monthly Reviews… *sigh*

If you have no idea what I’m talking about or would like to know more, you can check out my description of my Review System.

So, did you try to Annual Review? What insights did you reach? What are you planning for next year? And, most importantly, did you enjoy it?
Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

The practical guide to keeping your New Year’s resolutions

Have you set some New Year’s resolutions but are unsure of how to follow through? Make them into habits by following the practical steps below.

Champagne glasses, fireworks, smiling faces everywhere. The evening of December 31st can be a magical time when anything seems possible. Perhaps we even set some resolutions for the new year. At this celebratory time, they seem perfectly realistic and within reach.

Low-angle Photo of Fireworks

In the celebratory spirit of New Year’s Eve, everything seems possible.

But in order to keep our New Year’s resolutions, we need to make them into habits.

Image credit: Pexels (License)

Turn your New Year’s resolutions into habits

How do you follow through with your New Year’s resolutions? Habit formation, a big topic in behavior science, comes to the rescue. The best way to ensure an activity is done consistently is to create a habit.

To start a habit, create implementation intentions, which are simple but highly effective if-then planning statements:

When I finish eating lunch, then I will go for a 15-minute walk.

When I am eating breakfast, then I will read a book for 30 minutes.

This also works for specific time-dependent planning:

If it is Tuesday or Thursday at 17:00, then I will go to the gym and exercise.

Focus on one habit at a time

Importantly, don’t try to change too many things at once. In order to create lasting change, work on one habit at a time. Thus, pick one of your New Year’s resolutions and work on that first.

The rule of thumb is that you need to give yourself two weeks to practice a habit. If you stick to the habit 75% of the time during those two weeks, you can then add another habit.

Track your habits

You need to measure how consistently you’re doing a habit. In this way, you will be aware of your progress and you will also know when you’re ready to add another habit.

Create a simple chart where you record how often you complete your habit:

Make the habit very specific in order to remove any doubt about when you should do it. Every time you complete the activity, put a check mark. If you don’t do it, put a cross.

A chart filled out over two weeks could look like this:

In order to determine your performance, add the number of check marks (in this case, 11) and divide them by the number of days in two weeks (14).

In this case, the performance over the two weeks is 11/14 = 79%. Since that is above 75%, this person is ready to add another habit. If it were below 75%, this person would need to continue working on this habit for another two weeks.

Review your New Year’s resolutions (or habits)

Once you’ve established a habit (i.e., passed the 75% threshold), move on to your next New Year’s resolution and make a habit out of that. If you notice that you’re struggling with a habit you had established earlier, feel free to spend another two weeks on it.

Make sure you revisit your New Year’s resolutions once a month or so. You can have a simple list of resolutions/habits you’d like to keep and post it on your fridge door or save it on your phone. Alternatively, you can use an app such as Habit Hub to help keep track of your habits and monitor your progress.

Good luck! I hope these tips help you steer your New Year in the desired direction, so you can confidently keep any New Year’s resolution you choose. Let me know how it goes by commenting below or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

This blog post first appeared on Donders Wonders.

Set an intention for the holidays

The holidays are an awesome time for fun and excitement, but they can also be stressful and frustrating. Think about what you want out of this holiday season and discuss it with the people you’re spending the holidays with to make it happen.

Many of us look forward to the winter holidays each year, while yet others detest the December period. Whatever your attitude towards the season, you can get the most out of it if you know what you want.

What do you want for Christmas?

At the beginning of the holiday season (which is right about now), think about what’s important to you at this time of the year. You can write about this in your journal, ponder it while going for a walk, or reluctantly think about it while being tortured by Christmas music in the supermarket.

Do you want to…

  • Spend time with family?
  • Avoid getting annoyed with your partner/mother/father/aunt/parents-in-law/insert random relative here?
  • Eat your favorite Christmas-themed food?
  • Eat food that is aligned with certain health goals?
  • Get some movement?
  • Get enough sleep and rest?
  • Give nice gifts to people?
  • Do voluntary work?
  • Be left alone to watch movies?
  • Complete a reading challenge before December 31?
  • Take time to reflect on the past year?

Once you have identified what is most important to you during this holiday season, you can condense it to a phrase. In this way, it’s easy to remember. When you start to get pulled by someone else’s idea for what you should be doing, you can remind yourself of your intention and decide how to act.

Clarify in your own mind what you’d like this holiday season.

Image credits: Pexels (License CC0)

Ask the people close to you about their intentions

If you’re spending the holidays with other people, it would also be useful if you know what their intentions are. By knowing what each of you would like for the holiday season, you make it much easier for everybody to get what they want and for people to be less grumpy. In the end, that means that everyone enjoys the holidays more!

For instance, my mother and my brother will be visiting my boyfriend and me for the holidays. My intentions for this time are: spend time with my close people, get some rest, do some fun things (but not too many), and read. I know that my mom shares these interests, but I don’t think my brother does. He probably wants to stay up late and sleep late, which doesn’t match our intentions. And my boyfriend doesn’t like Christmas and also has to work during the holidays, so I don’t think he wants to do lots of fun things. Mostly he’d just like to rest.

So the way I see to combine everyone’s preferences is to, primarily, have enough time for rest (which also gives me time to read). We can do some fun things, but I shouldn’t try to pack too many activities into a few days. And I should also accept it if my brother and/or my boyfriend don’t want to join and not take it personally.

It really helps when everyone is honest about what they want. For instance, a couple of weeks ago, I proposed that my mom, my brother, and I go to a Christmas concert during their stay. I didn’t really want to go but thought it might be nice and fun for my mom. My brother didn’t really want to go. And then my mom also said that she’s been going to plenty of concerts recently, so she’d rather go for walks in nature parks. Perfect! That’s what I prefer as well.

Then I realized I’d really like to watch the new Fantastic Beasts movie in the cinema, and I asked the others whether they wanted to go. It turned out that everyone was up for it, so now we’re doing a simple, easy, fun thing together. What a nice outcome.

It really helps to first clarify in your own mind what you’d like out of the holiday season and then discuss that with the people you’ll be spending that time with. If everybody is clear about what they’d like, it’s much easier to find a way to make people happy.

What is your intention for the holidays? Do those align with how your close people want to spend this time? Let me know by commenting below or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

How to get yourself to do what you intended to do

When you make specific plans about when you’ll complete a desired activity, you’re much more likely to do it. But it’s one thing to plan it and another thing to actually complete it. How do you make sure you follow through with your plans?

Implementation intentions are examples of simple, explicit planning: “If situation X arises, then I will do Y.” I explained this in more detail here (point 1).

Specific plans are great, but how do you make sure you actually do them?

  • Put them on your calendar: Make an event on your calendar. When the time comes, do the activity. It doesn’t get much simpler than that, but it only works if you check your calendar and follow what it says.
  • Set reminders: You can add a reminder to your calendar event. Or you can add a separate reminder. Or you can create a note (e.g., in Google Keep) with a reminder. Alternatively, you can put post-it notes around the house or on your computer monitor. The problem with reminders is that they’re easy to ignore.
  • Set an alarm: An alarm is something you actually have to turn off. It requires an action from your side, or otherwise it will continue making noise. Alarms are more effective than reminders because even if you choose to ignore its message, you still have to physically do something such as press the ‘off’ button.
  • Name your intent clearly: When the alarm goes off to tell you to go to bed, for instance, you need to say out loud what you are going to do now:

“I am getting ready to go to bed. I will read for 15 minutes in bed.”

Or, alternatively, if you choose not to follow the intent of the alarm:

“I am staying here and continuing to look at social media.”

If you change your mind sometimes, that’s okay, but then state that clearly:

“I am staying here for 5 more minutes in order to finish my conversation with my brother. In five minutes, I will get up and get ready for bed.”

This may seem silly, but clearly naming what you are doing and what you are going to do incites action.

  • Track the time you spend on certain tasks: Monitor how long different activities take you. Once you have a realistic idea of how much time you spend on what, you can make purposeful, informed choices about what you do more of and what you do less of.
  • Set practical obstacles that prevent you from doing other (unwanted) things: For example, if you’re trying to limit your time on social media, install an app that limits the amount of time you can spend on those sites/apps.
  • Make it easy to follow through with your intentions: If you’d like to go to the gym, lay out your gym clothes from the day before. If you’re trying to have a healthy meal, make your food beforehand.

You can use one of these tips or combine several to make sure you follow through with your implementation intentions. For instance, now I’m reading before bed every night. I’m using several of these strategies: it’s on my calendar; I have an alarm on my phone to tell me to get into bed; I state my intent clearly; and I’ve put my kindle on my night stand, so it’s easy for me to read. Also, before I started this, I tracked the time I spent reading books for pleasure and was disappointed to see that I wasn’t making a lot of time for that. Now, I’m making some changes, and I’m quickly seeing the amount of time spent reading increase.

How do you make sure you complete the things you’d like to do? Or are there any activities you particularly struggle with? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.