How to break a bad habit

I’ve been writing a lot about creating good habits and doing the activities you’d like to do in your life. But I was recently asked, “How do you break a bad habit?” I’m glad you asked.

When it comes to breaking a bad habit, the point is not to have superhuman discipline or to bully yourself into avoiding some behavior. You need to look for ways to make the habit you’d like to discontinue more difficult or less desirable. For practical tips on how to do this, I’ll be drawing from James Clear’s book Atomic Habits.

1. Make it invisible

Reduce your exposure to the cues of the habit. Change your environment, so it doesn’t attract your attention to the behavior you’d like to avoid.

If you’d like to check your phone less often while working, hide your phone from view and perhaps even put it on a high shelf, in a drawer, or in a different room.

If you’d like to spend less time on social media, remove the app shortcuts from the home page of your device.

If you’d like to eat less junk food, don’t leave it on the table but, rather, put it in a drawer or high up on a shelf where you can’t see it.

2. Make it difficult

A related strategy is to not only make something invisible but to also make it difficult. You can increase the number of steps you need to make to actually do the behavior.

If you’d like to watch less TV, put the remote control in a difficult-to-reach spot, in the closet, or even in the basement. Or you could unplug the TV, so it makes it that much more difficult to turn it on. It’s surprising how well this works because, apparently, that tiny extra effort to plug in the TV is enough to interrupt the automatic behavior of turning on the TV, and people remember that they didn’t actually want to be watching TV.

Some people go as far as to put their TV in the basement, but that seems a little extreme to me. I also know of someone who wanted to drink less beer, so he put his beer in the garage. In this way, if he really wanted to have a beer, he could, so he didn’t feel deprived, but he avoided the issue of opening a beer without actively deciding he wanted it.

Bringing this into the work context, if you want to avoid spending time on unimportant tasks or distractions, you can use website blockers. They can block your email, messaging platforms, news sites, and social media for a duration of time, making it more difficult for you to get distracted.

3. Make it undesirable

A more advanced way to break a bad habit is to make it unattractive on unsatisfying in some way. This can be a bit more difficult, but it’s very effective.

Reframing

You can reframe your mindset by highlighting the benefits of avoiding the bad habit. Spending less time on social media means you will have more time for reading or for your family. Eating out less often means you’ll have more money for quality food to cook at home or for other things you want to buy.

The main point about reframing is to turn something that feels limiting (e.g., reducing time on social media) into something that feels enriching (e.g., increasing reading time). In that way, instead of feeling deprived and like you’re limiting yourself, you can appreciate that you’re actively shaping your life and choosing how you’d like to live.

Accountability & Consequences

An accountability partner can help you avoid an undesirable habit. You can find a buddy, someone who’d also like to make the same change, or you can find someone who’s willing to ask you, on a regular basis, how it’s going with the habit you’re trying to break and to remind you of your motivation.

Some people even sign a habit contract or otherwise create consequences for themselves if they engage in the undesired habit. One person who wanted to avoid sleeping in set an embarrassing tweet to be published automatically if he didn’t wake up in time to cancel it. Many people make contracts with their training coaches where they need to pay money if they eat junk food at a time that wasn’t agreed upon beforehand.

I also came across this strategy for healing heartache. A friend of mine underwent a difficult breakup, and he couldn’t get over his ex for a long time. He made an agreement with his best friend that every time he mentioned his ex’s name, he’d give his friend five euros. If he really wanted to talk about her, he could, but it was in his interest not to do it all the time.

To be honest, I find the approaches that include punishment a bit too strict. I prefer to be intentional about habit change instead of being scared into behaving correctly. However, it works well for some people, so it is key to know yourself and pick a strategy that will help you achieve your goal. And if you don’t know yet what works for you, well, give these strategies a try!

For me, the best way to avoid an undesirable habit is to combine environment design (make it invisible and difficult) and to reframe the old habit. This combines the practical strategies of changing my surroundings and changing my mindset, setting me up for the best possible behavior change.

What works for you when you try to change an undesirable habit? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Featured image credits: Photo by GEORGE DESIPRIS from Pexels

Do it because you want to

I recently gave a bootcamp course on organization and time management, and it was really interesting to hear what people found the most useful.

Following through with planned activities is a common stumbling block. Generally, people love planning and creating a beautiful outline for their day or week. But often we don’t feel so motivated once it comes to actually doing the work, so we do something else instead, and our pretty planning falls apart.

One person, let’s call her Jenny, had a really interesting approach. She has tried multiple ways to organize herself in order to get herself to do the things she planned. But she never quite succeeded, and it made her feel like a failure.

As a part of the bootcamp course, I asked people to take Gretchen Rubin’s quiz about The Four Tendencies. This was an eye-opener for Jenny. She found out that she was a Rebel, somebody who resists both internal and external expectations. That meant it was difficult for her to get herself to do things. Even when she truly wanted to do something, putting it on the calendar made it feel like something she had to do instead of wanted to do, so she wouldn’t do it.

For Rebels, it’s important to do things on their own terms. They will do something when they feel like it or because it aligns with something that’s important to them or the person they want to be. No surprise, then, that Jenny didn’t want to do something that was being imposed on her (since that’s how she viewed it).

After we discussed this in our bootcamp, Jenny took a different approach. At the beginning of the day, she would take a look at her to-do list and see what tasks were important for today. Then, she’d start working on whichever one she felt like tackling at that moment.

Sometimes, Jenny felt like reading a book in the morning, so that’s what she did. She went to work around lunchtime when she actually felt like working and stayed there until late in the evening. (One of the perks about being a PhD student is that often we can work whenever we want to in the day.)

Jenny said that this new approach is changing her life. She works when she feels like it, and she’s actually getting a lot more done. Jenny loves her work, so when she’s given the freedom to do it because she enjoys it, she produces better work.

This is quite amazing to me because the uncertainty would kill me. “When will I work on this task? And will I have time to also do that other task? And how will I divide my time between all my tasks?” My mind would keep chattering on. But I’m not a Rebel, I’m an Upholder (somebody who enjoys sticking to a schedule), and the difference in strategies is striking.

But I can also relate to some aspects. Sometimes I schedule myself too full, and I get a little suffocated from all the expectations I’ve placed upon myself. In those cases, I can learn from Jenny: I can cut back on the things I’ve planned and give myself some space. When I do that, the things I enjoy doing come back to me, and I remember why I planned to do them in the first place. I chose to do them because I like them.

Would it help you to do something when you feel like it? Have you tried it? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Identify the problem with habits

Perhaps this sounds familiar: for the umpteenth time, you promise yourself that you will take up that new habit you’ve been meaning to do. And then, when the moment to do it comes, for some reason you don’t do it. What’s the problem?

When we want to adopt a new habit or face a challenge, we are usually proactive about it, which is a good thing. We think about what we need to do to make the thing happen. For instance, if you’re trying to meditate every day, you may schedule time in your day for it and tell yourself that you will sit quietly first thing in the morning.

But when you wake up the next day, something gets in the way, and you don’t end up meditating. It doesn’t matter, you say, I’ll do it tomorrow. The following day, you’re in a rush or you don’t feel well. Several days pass by, but you don’t go through with your well-intended plan.

This is a good moment to ask yourself: What’s the problem?

If you’re slightly introspective and honest with yourself, you will notice whether there is an underlying issue that is preventing you from doing the thing in question.

Let’s say you’ve been meaning to meditate, but it just isn’t happening. Perhaps the problem is that you don’t know how to meditate, so you feel lost and uncertain about the whole thing. If that’s the problem, then you could find a video on YouTube the previous evening that you’d like to meditate with in the morning.

Another possibility is that you may not really believe that it’s a worthwhile use of your time to do nothing for ten minutes. If that’s the case, you need to revisit your motivation: why are you trying to meditate in the first place? Or you can seek out a type of meditation (or visualization, or breathing technique) that you consider a good use of your time.

It could also be the case that the time you’ve set aside for meditation doesn’t work well for you. It sounds great to get up and meditate right away, but perhaps you’re still really tired at that time or, as is often the case for me, you’re too hungry. If timing is the problem, then you can look for a better moment in your day.

The important thing is to identify the problem. It’s a shame to give up an activity because you think it doesn’t work for you when, in fact, a practical, manageable issue is preventing you from doing it.

Next time you’re having trouble with a stubborn activity you’d like to take on, try this: identify the problem.

Have you tried this? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Identifying the problem at work

I am currently giving a bootcamp course on organization and time management at the Donders Institute where I work. About twenty researchers get together every Friday afternoon, and we discuss the tools and strategies we’re using to organize our days and tasks.

I usually give some suggestions or tools for people to try. One of the simplest but, it turns out, most helpful ideas so far has been to identify the problem. When you’re having trouble with something, try to honestly see what’s getting in the way.

I was surprised to hear how many people found this trick helpful. One person said she used it to successfully write a difficult part of her paper. She noticed that she was procrastinating writing, and usually she would have just avoided it for as long as possible. This time, she asked herself what was stopping her, and she realized she didn’t have all the necessary technical information to write the part about her methods. To address this, she contacted people who had that information and, once they gave her the necessary details, she continued with her writing.

Another person was struggling to read papers regularly. He even scheduled time on Fridays to read but always ended up doing something else instead. Through our discussions, he realized that he needed someone else to count on him to read that paper. He made an agreement with his supervisor that at their weekly meeting she would ask him about the paper he’d read that week. Knowing that his supervisor expected him to read the paper was the push he needed to read papers regularly.

Yet a third person was struggling with his data analysis. He often didn’t know how to proceed and how to do his analysis correctly. He realized that he wasn’t seeking out help when he needed it and was trying to be independent even when it was hurting his performance. He found a course he could take to give him the necessary expertise, and he also got in touch with a research group that has experts on that type of analysis. He hopes that these resources will help him to progress more quickly and correctly with his data analysis.

Identifying the problem is a small step, but it makes it possible to take exactly the right action for a specific issue.

Can you apply this to your work? Have you tried it? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

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.

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.