Hell’s bells, what a year we’ve had. Is there anyone out there who honestly wouldn’t like to reset 2020? Nope, didn’t think so. And September, with its ‘back to school’ feel, is the perfect time for a reboot.
‘September brings that feeling of freshly sharpened pencils and notebooks full of blank pages ready to be filled,’ says behaviour change expert Dr Heather McKee. ‘It’s a great time to capitalise on that industrious energy to make some changes. None of us can control what’s going to happen over the rest of the year, but we can future-proof our lives so we’re in the best possible position to cope.’
Dr Mckee is just one of the experts we’ve enlisted to help you with a seven-day life audit, designed to bolster your resilience in key areas so that you’ll be better equipped to ride out the pandemic roller-coaster and stay focused on what matters.
DAY 1: HOW CAN I BE HAPPIER?
‘Keeping a journal is a great way of keeping things in perspective,’ says psychotherapist Richard Nicholls. ‘Moving your thoughts on to paper helps you separate yourself from them and feel calmer.’ Research has even shown that journalling has similar benefits to counselling. ‘If you’ve ever written an email or text to someone then not sent it, you’ve already used this process,’ says Nicholls. You can then occasionally look back over your journal to see how far you’ve come.
TRY THIS: Simply grab a notepad and pen and get writing (an electronic device doesn’t seem to have quite the same effect). Don’t worry about spelling and grammar, the point is to get your feelings down and dump everything that’s in your head on the page. But journalling isn’t about wallowing in self-pity; instead, it should be a means of finding alternative ways of viewing things. Write down what made you unhappy and what lay behind that feeling, for instance. Then look for an alternative way of viewing it. Write about how you’d prefer to feel if it happened again. Or ask yourself: ‘How do I feel right now?’ Actually write the words: ‘Today I feel…’ Write quickly. Pick specific days of the week to journal and stick to them.
DAY 2: HOW CAN I IMPROVE MY FINANCES?
The Covid-19 pandemic has been wake-up call for so many of us who live from pay cheque to pay cheque. Dr Nikki Ramskill, aka The Female Money Doctor, suggests we use this moment to ‘future-proof ’ our finances.
If you’re still working, start to build up an emergency fund, aiming (eventually) to put aside £1,000 for unexpected costs, like emergency dental work, or a broken boiler. Experts recommend saving 20% of your monthly income, between a pension and other savings, such as ISAs. ‘Yes, retirement seems a long way off, but could you live on the Government pension of £175 a week?’ says Dr Ramskill. ‘Think of your pension as your “freedom fund”, the thing you are going to rely on, which will free you up from work.’ And don’t worry if that sounds like a very tall order. Start with 1% and build up from there.
TRY THIS: If you have debts, as many of us do, streamline your finances by using Ramskill’s traffic-light system. Go through all your transactions from August (print out a statement if you find this easier) and take a highlighter to them. Use a green highlighter for everything you CANNOT stop paying – mortgage/rent, electricity bills, etc. Use a yellow/orange highlighter for things you’d be willing to stop for a short period of time: gym memberships, TV subscriptions. Then use a pink/red highlighter for everything that you can stop spending on immediately to release savings – subscription boxes, cloud storage for photos you don’t use, random amounts of money spent on shopping without planning, flower delivery. If you need to save money, be ruthless. Remember, this doesn’t have to be forever; you can reintroduce things later.
DAY 3: HOW CAN I DEVELOP HEALTHIER HABITS?
Countless studies show that those who track their habits are much more likely to achieve long-term success. Say, for example, you want to stop mindless snacking. Keep track of your eating habits over the next few days.
‘Most of us quickly forget unplanned snacks,’ says behaviour change expert Dr Heather McKee. ‘The odd handful of Doritos here, a couple of biscuits there. I’m not a fan of counting calories, but they can quickly add up. The average person lapses 5-10 times a week and the average lapse is around 150 calories (a handful of crisps, or two biscuits). That’s an extra 840-1,500 calories a week.’
TRY THIS: There are two separate elements to this. First is emotional tracking, second is nutritional tracking. ‘Track the different emotions that come up for you; are they resulting in unhealthy coping behaviours, such as overeating?’ says Dr McKee. ‘Or are your triggers more environmental, for example seeing the cheese/chocolate/ beer when you open the fridge?’
Track three weekdays and one weekend day. Note the time of day you were tempted, why you were tempted (eg, boredom, stress, environment), and what the temptation was (eg, beer, chocolate, taking an extra portion of something). At the end of the week, take a moment to reflect. Did any patterns emerge?
Don’t rely on willpower. ‘It’s better to build an environment or daily routine that replaces a bad habit with a healthier one,’ says McKee. ‘If you eat when you’re tired or stressed, what can you do instead that could give you a similar “reward”? Could you make a cup of tea, go for a walk, or call a friend?’
DAY 4: HOW CAN I STRENGTHEN MY FRIENDSHIPS?
‘Our happiness is directly linked to the quality of our closest relationships,’ says Stanford University behaviour scientist Brian Jeffrey Fogg. ‘We need at least one close friend, but can only manage about six close relationships.’ So focus on quality over quantity. What can we do to strengthen the quality of relationships? ‘Tell that person what you appreciate about them,’ says Fogg. ‘It’s tempting to talk about all the bad stuff at the moment, but try to say something positive and uplifting; that way they will want to be close to you.’ If you feel that some of your friendships have drifted through the pandemic, make a real effort to get back in touch.
TRY THIS: Fogg suggests playing the following text game to reconnect. Get out your phone and scroll back through your text/WhatsApp history. ‘Scroll all the way back to December to find a friend you haven’t connected with in a while. Check in with your emotional reaction until you find someone who makes you feel: “I really want to reconnect with this person” – notice what it was about them that makes you want to reconnect. Then send them a brief text. Something like “I was just thinking about you” or “How are you doing?” Pick three friends this way.’If they respond, arrange to call or FaceTime. ‘The human voice carries our personality and will bring you closer than texting,’ says Fogg.
DAY 5: CAN I IMPROVE MY LUCK?
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if luck was always on your side, if chance opportunities fell in your lap left, right and centre? Well, according to Dr Christian Busch, author of a new book, The Serendipity Mindset, luck is a skill we can all learn, we just need to ‘expect the unexpected’ and look for silver linings.
We can even ‘seed’ more lucky encounters. When meeting someone new, ‘Instead of the usual autopilot questions, such as“What do you do?”, try asking, “What did you find most interesting about…?”’ says Dr Busch. ‘Dig deeper with a couple of “why’s?” or “how comes?”; these will open up the conversation and might lead to intriguing – and often serendipitous – outcomes.’
TRY THIS: Grab a notepad. Now, whenever something unexpected happens – a train is delayed, a work project is cancelled, your friend is late to the picnic so you end up chatting to someone you don’t know – ask yourself, ‘What’s the upside here?’ At the end of the week, look over your ‘lucky notebook’. How do you feel about these opportunities? Listen to your gut. Cross out those that no longer excite you and ask what you can do about the rest. It’s not too late to send that new acquaintance from the picnic, say, an email about their exciting new business. ‘Send a non-pitchy message about what excited you and how you’d like to be involved – be precise,’ says Busch. You can create opportunities by speaking to new people. Every time you go to an event or jump on a group conference call, pick a colour and challenge yourself to speak to a person who is wearing it. Work your way through the rainbow.
DAY 6: HOW DO I GET NOTICED AT WORK?
‘I would caution against setting yourself the tricky goal of “getting noticed” at this time,’ advises Viv Groskop, author of Lift As You Climb. ‘That’s a huge pressure to put on yourself in an uncertain climate. That said, you can easily improve how you come across on screen communications, especially if you’re starting to get jaded or you have a lot of these screen meetings to get through.’ Aim to have more meaningful interactions but be kind to yourself – with the recession and many of us still working from home, this is a tough working environment for those of us still lucky to have a job.
TRY THIS: The best practical tip for Zoom? ‘We connect best on video- conferencing platforms when we look directly into the camera rather than looking at the screen,’ says Groskop. ‘Make sure the camera is pointing down at you slightly by raising up your screen (rest it on a pile of books) and tilt it slightly forward. Listen carefully and look at the camera instead of staring at the screen. Don’t stare and look vacant, though; imagine someone you love or who inspires you behind the camera. Zoom seems like a video communication tool but it actually works best if you use it for listening: a lot of the visual cues are dispiriting – people looking away, not making eye contact, looking down to make notes.’
Practise listening hard on video conferencing calls as if you were on an audio call: it makes a massive difference to your ability to concentrate. The visuals use up a lot our emotional bandwidth without contributing much in the form of meaningful interaction (other than being able to see your colleague’s new haircut).
DAY 7: HOW CAN I GIVE MY LIFE MORE MEANING?
Meaning is a fundamental human need. But we’re often so caught up in the-day-to-day of life that we rarely step back and think about what really matters to us. Or whether we’re living by someone else’s values. If you’ve lost your job, or are currently furloughed, this could be a good moment to think what you want out of life and to consider a new direction.
TRY THIS: The Passion Test by Chris and Janet Attwood. You start by filling in the blanks 15 times for the following statement: ‘When my life is ideal, I am _.’ The word(s) you choose to fill in the blank must include a verb. For example: When my life is ideal, I am doing great creative work, enjoying close friendships, exploring a new country – or whatever it is that lights you up.
Once you’ve created 15 statements, identifythetopfivechoices.Todo this, you compare statements 1 and 2 to identify which is most important. Take the winner of that comparison and decide whether it’s more or less important than statement 3 and so on.
Once you’ve identified your top five passions, create an action plan and start designing your life to include more of what matters to you. A life with purpose is a life well-lived.