How to set resolutions

So you’ve designed your ideal day, and now you’re staring down the gap between where you are and where you want to be. What to do?

(If you haven’t already designed your ideal day, find my how-to guide here.)

Step 1: Break it down.

Suppose your ideal day includes an outdoor run in the morning, gardening and healthy cooking in the afternoon, and time to draw and paint in the evening.

Whoa there! That’s a lot to add into your daily life all at once — especially if you have a full-time job or other obligations that take up a significant portion of your day.

I recommend breaking down your ideal day and handling one “block” at a time. For my own Ideal Day Project, I’m breaking down my day into morning, afternoon, and evening.

First, I’ll devise ways to incorporate some aspects of my ideal morning into my current routine. (The trick is to figure out how to get started now, even if that means taking very small steps. It’s tempting to defer making changes until some imaginary less-busy or more-convenient time in the future, but all too often that time never comes.)

Only once I’ve made my morning-inspired changes will I tackle the afternoon, and I’ll save the evening for last. 

Step 2: Identify themes.

beautiful day

Do a close reading of the block you’ve chosen to tackle first. What themes do you notice? What values or priorities do the details of your day support

For example:

  • That outdoor run might indicate that physical health, access to nature, and stress relief are important themes for you.
  • A desire to paint could show that you value creativity, self-expression, and (don’t forget this one!) alone time.
  • If your ideal house is serene and sparsely decorated, with white walls and nearly empty cupboards, you might identify simplicity and non-consumerism as takeaway themes.

Step 3: Set resolutions.

Take each of the themes you identified in Step 2 and decide on one thing you can do as part of your daily routine to honor that theme.

For example, if you value simplicity but your apartment is clutter heaven, with lipsticks falling out of the medicine cabinet every time you open it,* you might resolve to spend 15 minutes each day going through a shelf, cupboard, or closet. Work on one area at a time, weeding out things you don’t need, and when the kitchen timer goes off, you can quit for the day with a clean conscience.

If you want to spend more time outdoors but haven’t taken a hike for five years, resolve to drink your first cup of coffee on your porch or at a window. Just five or ten minutes in the morning, if you spend them the way you really want to spend them, can reset the tone of your day. And maybe this Saturday afternoon you’ll find yourself wanting to head out for a walk instead of watching five episodes of Veronica Mars on Netflix.*

Parting advice.

rose

Choose resolutions that are so unbelievably manageable that they can be done daily.

If I resolve to run five miles three days a week, I end up procrastinating on Monday and Tuesday, thinking up something better to do on Wednesday, coming up with excuses on Thursday and Friday, and giving up by the time the weekend rolls around. And then, maybe because I associate it with failure, I sure as heck don’t feel like running the next week.

But if I resolve to do some kind of exercise — walking, pilates videos on YouTube, dancing in public to embarrass my long-suffering boyfriend — for fifteen minutes every single day, I can’t procrastinate and I don’t have to muster a lot of willpower or make excuses.

Even better: meeting my goal on Monday gives me the momentum to do it on Tuesday, and meeting my goal on Tuesday gives me the momentum to do it on Wednesday. By the time I get to Thursday, I don’t want to break my three-day streak, and I find I feel like exercising for half an hour or full hour anyway.

Streaks are important. And if you’re going to celebrate them, you need to record them. Make a spreadsheet. Get an app (My Wonderful Goals is a popular one). But if you keep track of your resolutions and whether you meet them each day in a way that you can review at a glance, you’ll feel motivated to break bad streaks and maintain good ones.

True story: I started playing the violin at age 5. I liked the idea of playing the violin, but I hated to practice. Yes, hide-under-my-sister’s-bed-where-my-parents-couldn’t-reach-me hate.

One day, my parents brought me a notebook with a big grid pattern printed on the pages. Every day I practiced, they explained, I could put a sticker in one of the boxes, and once I had put 70 stickers in a row, I could drag my parents (also long-suffering) to the store and pick out a Polly Pocket. But if I missed a day, my streak would be broken, and I would have to start—no!—back at square zero.

Well, friends, it worked: I practiced every day, and I still have the Polly Pockets to prove it. So get yourself a sticker book, and start building a bridge between your average day and your ideal one.

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In my next post, I’ll share my ideal morning and tell you how I’ve followed the steps above to identify themes and set resolutions. But in the meantime, I’d love to hear about your progress and the changes you’re making!

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* Yes, I’ve been there.

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False choices: On not second-guessing yourself

I’m going to be honest: My ideal day looks very different from my average day. My current routine includes a 2.5-hour commute, a job that I enjoy but that doesn’t satisfy my creative impulses (writing), and more hairstyling, makeup applications, TV watching, procrastinating, complaining, clutter, and downright negativity than I’d like to admit.

Until now, this disparity frustrated and discouraged me. I balked at making any changes–even easy ones–because I was trapping myself in false choices.

In the name of being rational, I was talking myself out of positive changes. I hamstrung myself before I even let myself move past square one.

Do you recognize any of the following?

  • I’m a realist, not an escapist. 
  • I want to learn to be happy with what I have, not spend my time wishing things were different.
  • If I’m going to pursue the career I really want, I need to leave my current job.

flower sidewalk

Gretchen Rubin explains how to recognize and sidestep false choices in her book The Happiness Project and in her lovely blog. She suggests that our minds invent false choices because they reduce “a bewildering array of options” into a “few simple possibilities.”

We create false choices in order to give ourselves an easy out. It’s easy to say, “Sure, I’d love to be an artist, but I have to stick to my real job.” If there’s a disparity between our dream career and our current career, it’s really, really hard to spend nights and weekends doing what sustains us–what we want to do–and then figure out how to make some income from it.

But once we realize that the hard choices we’ve created for ourselves–either I marry this guy or I’ll be single forever–don’t really exist, new possibilities open up. They may well be bewildering, but they exist. We can have our cake and eat it too.

I know what I want to do. I want to figure out–day by day–how to make time for what I really want to do. I want to stay grateful for all the good things in my life but not let myself get complacent or ignore the daily things I can do to improve my happiness, productivity, and creativity. I intend to do fantastic work at my job, and there’s no getting out of that 2.5-hour commute, but maybe I can use that time more productively. And maybe I can come home and write and create and throw dinner parties and spend time with the people I love, having conversations I’ll remember forty years from now.

Every time I feel as if I have to choose between work and play, relaxation and productivity, gratitude and the desire for change, I’ll remind myself: false choice! And I’ll move on with my  not-at-all-bad day.

How to design your ideal day

If I could ask everyone I meet to try just one thing, it would be this:

Sit in a quiet place. Take a pen (or a pencil, but no erasing allowed!) and a clean sheet of paper. Now imagine your ideal day — in fine strokes, in clear and loving detail, hour by hour.

Take it step by step: What time do you wake up? What do you see outside your window? Where do you live? What do you eat for breakfast? What do you do before work? What is your work? When 10 am rolls by, what are you doing?

You can structure your day as a schedule, or you can organize it into bullets or paragraphs, but make sure you’re writing it down! This is your life, your ideal life, and if you’re going to realize it, you need to know what it is. You need to have a record.

There’s a world of difference between just thinking this through and actually writing it down. Writing helps you break away from the usual grooves of your brain, the tired tracks you travel every day without realizing it.

I would know. My ideal day shocked me. It didn’t look anything like my current life, or even like any ideal life I had imagined before. But I knew it was right. I knew I had discovered something important, something I had to revisit.

Enough about me. Turn back to your paper, back to your ideal day. Where do you work — at home, or in an office? What is the atmosphere like? What do you do for lunch? When do you go home?

Do you stop anywhere on the way home? Do you see friends, or hit the gym, or pick up flowers and groceries for a party you’re throwing? Do you wander around a yarn store, or mentor a junior colleague or a high school student?

If it ever seems as if there aren’t enough hours to do everything, remember that this is your ideal day. Free yourself from any sense of what you should do and think about what you’d really want to do. Now cut out the rest.

Imagine walking through your ideal home. How big is it? How does it make you feel? Who lives there with you, and who visits you there?

What occupies your after-work hours: cooking romantic dinners, eating out with friends, creative pursuits? Reading in a quiet study, or reading in bed with your children? And (never underestimate the importance of this!) what time do you go to bed?

Just try it. Imagine your ideal day, a day that you would be happy to experience five days a week for a few years. Of course lives change, vacations happen, and no two days are really the same. The goal is to design a routine that wouldn’t feel routine. A day that would excite and sustain you, rather than stress you out or fray your edges or just fly by.

ideal day

A word about money: don’t worry about it too much just yet. Does anyone want to shop at Saks every single day for years, or lounge forever on the beach, sipping pina coladas? I doubt it. Chances are that your ideal day includes activities that could provide you with income (teaching, consulting, entrepreneurship), even if it doesn’t include a typical office job.

Now you have it: your ideal day. As I mentioned, mine floored me. It seemed right, but I had no idea how to start working toward it. So I closed the notebook and put it on a shelf for a few months. Sometimes I told myself that I didn’t really want the day I’d imagined, that I wasn’t really sure what I wanted, that it was too late now regardless. But I think that’s just fear.

I’ve read that people overestimate what can be achieved in a single day and underestimate what can be achieved over time. So I’ve decided to break my ideal day down into a few themes and set daily resolutions that will bring my current life more in line with the life I want to lead.

I don’t want to cultivate dissatisfaction with my current life, and I don’t want to make radical or unsustainable changes, but I do want to live in line with my passions and my values, and this project is my way of working toward that goal. Even if things don’t quite work out how I expected, even if I end up wanting something different instead, I’m looking forward to moving forward.

ideal day sunset