A forty-day habit


I’m hanging out with the kid more, but I’m still instagramming it.

I’m two-thirds of the way through my #Flourish40 experiment. I’ve suffered systemic failures, and there hasn’t been a single clean sheet yet. So what on earth has gone right? Why am I doing this? Am I just being a, um, “douche”?*  

(*as suggested by a friend when I told him about #Flourish40. It’s never great being called a douche, especially when you’re nearly thirty-two, but it has made me develop a sort of douchey-litmus-test for what I’ve been doing and thinking, to keep my super douchey ideas and actions in check. A bit. So if you see an * in this post, you’ll see where I’m noting to myself that I might have strayed a little into douchedom. You may well argue that this paragraph alone warrants a *. And I am open to that.*)

Some stuff has gone right. Here are a few specific things I’ve learned in the last three and a bit weeks:

  • Final line from 'The Great Gatsby'

    Final line from ‘The Great Gatsby’

    The kid (and I) can do an awful lot of puzzles in an hour instead of watching Cbeebies.
  • A great online collaboration tool (such as Asana) cuts down on so much unnecessary email noise and clutter.
  • As does Twitter.
  • Reading books is better than I remembered.
  • Crochet is a seasonal pastime for me, and tis not the season.
  • After not calling people for about three years, I shouldn’t be surprised that not many friends [read: zero] are calling me back.
  • I’ve been double-checking and it is actually not possible to find the time to work and exercise and cook and sleep and play with the kid and kick back all in one day.
  • whiskeyWhiskey wins over wine.
  • Having a tidy desk makes me feel smug and productive.
  • Getting my inbox to zero is one thing.  Keeping it at zero is another thing entirely.
  • Black bean and chocolate cake is DELICIOUS.
  • Vegetarians get tired.
  • I can make a veggie burger, its bun and its ketchup from scratch. Hello, 100% homemade supper. Booooom.* [Where will this stop? Am I going to suddenly be raising chickens to make mayo? Experimenting with a little project versus getting obsessive.  Note to self. Watch yourself.]
  • Roller Derby is awesome to watch and tempting to join.

These of course are all specific to me and most likely of no help to anyone else. But there are a couple of things I’ve gleaned so far that I think do have wider relevance. Although maybe this is where the my-being-a-douche bit comes in.

The prospect of changing a habit is likely to be harder than actually changing it.

Take me and steak. I love steak. Rare steak. As in, any time it’s on the menu at any restaurant, I order it and I eat all of it. [Note, this is also something for me to cross-reference with my inability to budget]. So the prospect of not eating steak for six weeks? ANATHEMA. IM-FULL-STOP-POSSIBLE. Before the #Flourish40 kick-off, I had a week-long thought process that went a bit like this: Bud [husband] is considering going veggie for a bit? Okay. No, not okay. He’s been making artisanal salami for a living, for one thing. But also: what about me and steak? When can I eat steak? I can’t ever be veggie. What would I eat? A meal without meat does not constitute a meal. OXYMORON. Can’t do it. I really want a steak. Now. Maybe I have a problem? Still want steak. Maybe I should try to not eat steak? Steak. Steak.  But what if I set myself a short amount of time to not eat steak? Maybe it would be possible to not eat it. Like, it’s a game, for me. I like games. Perhaps as much as I like steak. I mean, I am competitive. And I’m perfectly happy being competitive against myself—it’s a win-win. Ahahahaa I am funny.* So here’s a game! Let’s play the I’m Not Going To Eat Steak (Or Any Other Meat) Game! For six weeks! F to the U to the N! That was my thinking. And I’ve totally not eaten steak. Or any other meat stuff. Weirdly, the hardest bit has been getting to that decision, getting to that place where I could actually say: I am not going to eat steak/meat for six weeks. Since then it’s felt a bit like a done deal. Decision made. Very little temptation. It’s been easy because something either is meat or it isn’t.  It’s clear cut.  I really thought it would be harder.

It is REALLY hard, as in distinctly-unnecessary-hard, to actually change about eleven habits at once.

I can play this game with other stuff too! I love telly and Twitter! A bit too much! Let’s play the I’m Not Going To Be On Screens Game! AWE-FULL-STOP-SOME. I’m good at getting over-excited by an idea and taking it to the point of delirium. I’m also good at either/or situations, as in I either eat steak or I do not. It’s when stuff is a little less clear cut that I run into difficulty. That, and having a lot of other F to the U to the N ideas that I am running simultaneously. I can allow myself to bring in valid sub-rules (as in “no screens pre-9am or post-6pm, except when I’m getting an early or late train or when Bud is out in the evening and it would be good to use that time to work, like right now) and basically game myself out of being a real-deal winner. There are people in the world who say that less is more. I am still not one of them.

It’s okay to set wildly ambitious goals and not achieve any of them.

I am competitive. I mentioned that. These days I’m also pretty good at being competitive about things that I have a strong likelihood of achieving, which reinforces my smugness, and my competitiveness. So it’s been good for me to aim to set myself a goal that I alone have the capability to achieve, but that I haven’t. And to watch myself as I go through that process of failing and how I manage that. And also not then getting too smug and competitive about what a good failure I’ve been. Because on the scale of one to dementing, that ranks in at about eleven.

I’ve found an elegant and persuasive quote to explain away my incessantly optimistic and overly ambitious nature. Thank you, Victor Frankl, for your lecture in 1972, where you speak following the tracks of Goethe:

“We have to be idealists in a way, because then we wind up as the true realists. If we take man as he is, we make him worse. But if we take man as he should be we make him capable of becoming what he can be.”

I love, love, love this. I highly recommend you watch the full (three minute) video here: 

Being successful at being a grown up involves learning how not to have a tantrum and how to keep on top of admin [my old adage], but it also involves how to budget your time and money [my new, less snappy adage].But budgeting in time for spontaneity is JUST WRONG.

That’s all I really have to say about that.

Attempting to change, to do stuff differently, works better when you have a bit of time to think about what you’re doing and to communicate your reflections.

This isn’t just an excuse to have lots of really long baths. Crucially, you need to find the time and space to put your thoughts out there, somewhere, to make sense of them and to develop your own narrative arc.* It helps makes things stick.narrative_arc

I think I might leave this post right here, at 4 and change…

Systemic failure

Clean Sheet Week 1

O! for good intentions. This week—the first of my #Flourish40 experiment—I have mostly learned how wildly optimistic and overly-ambitious I am.  My Clean Sheethas turned into a Catalogue of Failure. My name is Eugenie and I am not living up to the hype.

Which, of course, in this perma-sunny world of flourishing, is a good thing.  The much-needed cloud to rain down on the parched earth of intention.  And this would be a good moment for me to bang on about the importance of failure when it comes to building character, but then I would sound like a private-school headmaster, who is keen on creating headlines by telling everyone that he likes his students to fail but whose students’ sense of failure is padded in so much security that it’s all just another rich kid game.  I don’t know failure like some people know failure.  I take risks with my daily routine the way some grown-ups take risks with other people’s hedge funds. Aren’t we brave.

Boo shucks to you, genteel failure. And as for you, optimism, how are you feeling these days? Lots of people are a bit wary of you. Are you sensing that? I’m telling you: you’re a lot less popular than you once were. Those in camp pessimism have more reason to be cheerful: the negative and the despairing have been shown to have a much more accurate view of their lot. But of course, that’s not going to dampen optimism’s spirits, much.

Nor mine. For I confess that I am a hopeless optimist. I am always optimistic about how little time it might take me to get from A to B. I am always optimistic about how much work I can do in a day. I am always optimistic about being right. I am thus often late, often stressed and—very occasionally—wrong.

The first time I realised that I might be wrong was when I was 25. I was scuba diving, twelve feet underwater and suddenly unable to get any oxygen out of my tank. I thought that the tank was faulty until my diving buddy showed me that the tube had become detached from the tank. And it took a good few breathless seconds to appreciate that it was my bad attaching that had made it come loose. Nothing like not being able to breathe to deliver a moment of sharp, cold truth.

Like many people I am a functioning body dysmorphic, I often layer what I actually see in the mirror with a fatter or thinner outline, depending on how I am feeling, or how many clouds are obscuring the sun, or how much I like what I’m wearing. I don’t know what the psychological term is for being mind-dysmorphic is, but clearly I am still that too. I suppose they might call it something like being caught up in a fallacious subjective loop. I’m going to coin that one. Anyway: a bit like in When Harry Met Sally (aka my touchstone for pretty much any relational dilemma) when Harry tells Sally she’s the worst sort of girl because she thinks she’s not needy or demanding but she doesn’t realise how needy and demanding she actually is (I forgive all anti-feminist moments in that film because it’s just brilliant), a bit like that, I like to think that I’ve got a handle on who I am, what I think, how I purport myself etc etc, but really I don’t.

I do know that I have an appalling memory. Much to my mum’s frustration I barely remember a thing about my childhood (which I merrily explain away by it being simply idyllic—without rollercoasters, literal or emotional—which still doesn’t satisfy her).  My memory is so bad I now can’t remember why I was writing about having a bad memory. Oh yes, I recall. Because at some point some time in the past I was sitting somewhere, or possibly standing, maybe even reclining, and I was talking to someone, or perhaps a group of people, and we were talking about people’s behaviour (judging by the topic of conversation I’m going to hedge my bets and suggest I was a student) and I was banging on about motives. Motives, I said (and of course I paraphrase), are the most important things when it comes to considering people’s behaviour. In fact, I continued while stomping my fist (if that’s possible), motives are often more important than actions.

It’s a bit hazy to me now why motive was so important to me back then, although it is clear to me quite how pompous and egocentric I must have been.  The point is, I now think I was wrong. Which is big of me, I know. I have grown. Now I think: it’s what you do that matters, because that’s what impacts other people. What you think or what you intend, that’s just all about how you make yourself feel better or worse about what you or don’t do.

The conclusion? I was wildly optimistic and over-ambitious last week. It’s a micro-version of how I am in life. And however preachy and good my motive and intentions, they mean diddly squat if they don’t convert into positive action. And if I talk about motives a lot I just sound like a tosser.

So this leaves me with a choice about how to go about this next week of #Flourish40. The pessimist, action-oriented option: I reduce the number of goals I set for myself and actually make good on a higher percentage of them than I have done so far. The optimist, intention-oriented option: I stick with all the original goals and promise myself that I’ll try a bit harder on the ones I was rubbish at.

I think I’ll check my emails, go for a run and decide later.

Procrastination: I know I am right when I say that I have always been absolutely brilliant at it.