Changing Routines

I have come to realise that daily habits and routines make the most difference to my mental health. Big events have an impact of course, for better or worse, but the accumulative effect of the hundreds of tasks and mini-tasks I perform every day is greater. Which is why a drastic change to my daily routine has led to a recent improvement in my anxiety and depression.

Autumn sunrise

I started getting up at 5am.

Typing that sentence feels weird. I am not a “morning person”. I don’t bounce out of bed full of energy and joy, ready to meet the world. In fact, most of the times I had seen 5am in the past were a result of insomnia and/or staying up late.

I always thought of myself as a night owl; working late at night was normal for me, especially when writing fiction. On a good day, I only hit snooze once or twice when my alarm went off at 8am. If I dragged myself out of bed before 9am, I was doing well.

However, I kept reading that getting up early was a Good Thing. Loads of very successful people credited an early start for making them more productive. I began to wonder if it would work for me.

Then, one Tuesday about 6 weeks ago, I accidentally woke up early. I think it was around 5:45am. I was thirsty, so I decided to get up and go downstairs to have a drink. My brother later said “why didn’t you do what I do and drink water in the bathroom, then go back to bed?” I’m not sure of the answer. I suppose reading about the benefits of an early start made me think “I’m awake now, it’s an opportunity to experiment,” but it was subconscious.

I liked being up early, so I set my alarm for 5:30am the next day, then at 5am a few days later. I have been getting up at 5am since — yes, even on weekends.

 

Getting up early means I start my day with an achievement.

I always felt a bit crap rolling out of bed somewhere between 8am and 9:30am. If I overslept for longer, I felt like more of a failure. I was wasting a large chunk of my day dozing — my sleep quality was generally poor, but hearing my parents and brother leave the house in the mornings disturbed my sleep patterns even more, so I never felt well-rested.

It wasn’t an ideal start to the day and I never felt properly awake until noon. Anxiety and/or depression often cause me to procrastinate, so I would often reach mid afternoon without having done anything constructive. This feels crap, too, so the anxiety and depression would worsen and I’d be lucky to get anything done.

Now, getting up early is an achievement. I feel like I’m embracing the day, instead of hiding away from it until I summon the motivation to get out of bed. My mum and I have recently begun walking the dogs early as well, so that’s another item ticked off the to-do list before 7am. It sets me up for a more productive day.

 

It initiates an upward spiral.

When you have a long term mental illness, a lot tends to depend on momentum. When you are having a good episode and feel better, it’s easier to do more things which can improve your mental health. On the flip side, it’s easy to get into a downward spiral where you feel progressively worse and therefore are less able to do anything, let alone adopt positive coping strategies.

Getting up early helps me to initiate an upward spiral at the start of every day. Achieving this one, tiny goal makes my other goals seem achievable. It means I’m more likely to put on my SAD lamp, meditate, so yoga, write, read… All of those self-care activities which seem simple when you feel well, but are easy to neglect when you feel crap.

It’s important to note that I still don’t bounce out of bed. I don’t press snooze anymore, but it takes some effort to get up. I find it relatively easy only because it’s worth the effort.

I feel awake by 7am nowadays, which means I take less time to wake up, but I’m certainly not energetic and focused at 5am. I try to use the time to plan my day and do those simple self-care activities I mentioned. I think this makes a big difference to my mood, because I used to switch the television on as soon as I got up — often in the hope that it would distract me from symptoms of anxiety and depression.

The first hour after I get up gives me the opportunity to “check in” on how I feel and decide what I want to achieve over the course of the day. If I feel more anxious or depressed, I know I need to cut myself some slack and prioritise self-care. If I feel pretty good, I can prioritise work tasks and medium to long term goals.

 

My routine is still a work in progress.

Getting up at 5am has shaken up my whole routine and helped me make improvements, but it’s very much an experiment and there are areas in which I need to make more effort to change. I’m gradually building better habits, partly motivated by considering who I want to be, but there are many habits I need to tweak, transform or drop altogether.

The biggest change has been my mindset: I feel more ready to face the world. Even if most of the world seems to be asleep when I wake up!

 

The Hard Slog

I try to do something towards one of my goals every day. I split my big goals into small chunks, just as everyone advises and I try to hold myself accountable. But it’s bloody hard to stay motivated sometimes.

Winding lane

Having no clear pathway causes self-doubt.

With some goals, you don’t know what will work for you. You can predict what might work, based on how other people have achieved similar goals, but there is an inherent lack of certainty. This gives rise to self-doubt and a lack of confidence, which makes it difficult to keep focused.

It’s easier when there is a clear structure to follow, such as a course syllabus or training plan. You can try to create your own structure (which I do), but maintaining confidence in an untested plan is challenging.

 

Progress can be excruciatingly slow.

You may have a clear pathway to your goal, but when you are progressing so slowly it feels like you aren’t moving, it’s easy to give up. You think you should be moving faster. Other people are moving faster, you believe, so you are failing compared to them. You try to focus on yourself without comparing the inside of your life to the outside of other people’s, but it’s tough.

The only way to get through this feeling is to ensure you really want to achieve your goals. When you want something badly enough, you can bear more than you realise.

 

A lack of milestones and/or external success can be dispiriting.

I know you shouldn’t rely on external validation, but small successes are great confidence boosters and reassure you that you are on the right path. When it’s been a while since someone has acknowledged your progress, your motivation suffers. When it feels like ages since you last hit a milestone, it’s hard to keep going.

The answer, of course, is to concentrate on the intrinsic rewards of whatever you are doing to work towards your goals. Enjoy the process, the journey. The cynic in me thinks that would be easier if success was guaranteed, but experience tells me this is a good strategy. There are immediate benefits to activities like writing and exercise, for example, though they are steps towards a bigger goal.

 

Usually, the best option is to keep going.

If you are passionate about your goals, the idea of quitting is unbearable. The only option is to keep going. It’s hard work, you feel shit a lot of the time and you often convince yourself you will never achieve anything, but it’s better than giving up.

However, that doesn’t mean you should beat yourself up when you fall short of your hopes and expectations. Working towards a significant goal is worthwhile. It doesn’t matter if your progress is slow or if days pass without taking steps towards your goals. Just keep going.

Who Do You Want To Be?

Decision making can be difficult, especially when complicated by mental health issues. I can spend hours weighing up pros and cons, finding logical arguments for and against all possibilities. Sometimes it’s helpful; mostly, it leaves me stressed and confused. In Originals, Adam Grant discusses how some people take an alternative approach to making decisions, instead of weighing up the consequences: “Rather than looking outward in an attempt to predict the outcome, you run inward to your identity. You base the decision on who you are – or who you want to be.”

Sunrise sky

When I read this, I realised I have started to make decisions using this approach – but not consistently. I trekked to Machu Picchu because I want to be the type of person who pursues her dreams. I’m starting a part-time Psychology BSc next month because I want to be someone who has a comprehensive grounding in the subject, using my knowledge to engage with other people who have mental health problems in more effective ways. However, these are “big” decisions within a limited timeframe (though hopefully with long-term effects). What if I applied this philosophy to different kinds of decisions?

Creating Habits Based On Who You Want To Be

I have started to think more about my daily routine and how, in an ideal world, I would live my life on a daily basis. It’s tempting to fall into “if only…” thinking when you do this: “if only I had more money, I would exercise more.” “If only I had a better home, I would bounce out of bed earlier in the morning.” “If only I had more time, I would write more.” You can easily convince yourself that your “if only…”s are absolute truths, but on closer examination, they are excuses.

You can find ways around most obstacles – if you prioritise finding solutions. Sure, doing everything you want might be easier if you had more time, money, support, etc., but not necessarily. If you don’t think an activity is important enough to prioritise it right now, chances are you never will. You will use your extra time and money to do other things; perhaps things you already do and don’t consider particularly important, like shopping and watching television.

I realised I could think of hundreds of excuses, many of them based on my mental health problems and lack of money, but what’s the point? I would be avoiding improving my life. It makes no sense.

So I examined the habits I would like to adopt, without giving myself permission to make excuses, and discovered something interesting: I could adopt most of them right now. Nothing is stopping me from getting up earlier, spending a larger proportion of my time writing or exercising. Nothing is stopping me from doing more yoga or eating more healthily. I could moan about how much easier it would be if I had a big house with a gym, personal trainer and private chef, but what would that achieve?

Asking myself “who do I want to be?” every day is helping me to adopt better habits. I have been getting up at 5am for the past month, having believed I was a cast-iron night owl for years, and am more active than ever before. Writing more and eating healthily are works in progress, with the former more successful than the latter. I feel better for changing my habits and more focused on my goals.

 

Should You Keep Who You Want To Be Realistic?

Asking yourself who you want to be is powerful and most people aren’t ambitious enough in their goals, but I do think it’s useful to keep the vision of who you want to be rooted in yourself as you are. Trying to act like a completely different person can be intimidating and demotivating. You should believe your goals are possible – even if others disagree.

For example, I don’t think it would be helpful to envision my ideal self as someone with perfect mental health (assuming there could ever be such a thing!), because mental illness will always be a big part of my life. Even if I manage to recover completely, the years I have spent mentally ill have had a huge impact – in positive ways, as well as negative. Instead, I want to be someone who manages her mental health as effectively as she can, with help and support from others as needed.

On the other hand, plenty of people use superheroes as role models and are inspired rather than deterred. It may be impossible to emulate their heroes in every way, but they have fun trying and focus on goals they can achieve, such as adopting a similar attitude or prioritising values they share. As I often find myself saying, you need to find what works for you. Trial and error takes time and energy, but it’s worth the effort.

The key is to choose a version of yourself who inspires you to take action. If you’re constantly thinking in the back of your mind “I could never be like that”, you’re undermining your goals. If who you want to be is similar to who you are right now, consider whether you are selling yourself short by not setting big enough goals. It’s fine to be content with your life – if this is you, congratulations! – but many people tell themselves they’re content because it’s easier than taking action.

 

So, Who Do You Want To Be?

What would you do, if you could do anything? What attitude would you have? How would you spend your days? Who would you spend time with? What would you contribute to the world?

It’s easy to ignore these kinds of questions, but have a go at answering them – you might surprise yourself. If the answers seem strange or too difficult to achieve, don’t dismiss them. Write them down and keep hold of them. Think about them. Read about people who have achieved similar goals. Review your answers after a month or two and check your immediate reaction: do you feel excited, amused or scared? Or apathetic? Having an instinctive emotional reaction – even if it’s negative – is a sign that you should consider your goals.

Asking who you want to be also highlights what you don’t care about – which may surprise you. You might realise that some of your hobbies aren’t as enjoyable or rewarding as you thought. You may discover your current career goals are based on what you thought you should do, not what you want to do. You may reconsider aspects of your life which never seemed to be an issue before.

Asking who you want to be can be a way of resetting your compass. You might be on the right path, or you could decide to make a detour. It helps you reassess your situation, figuring out which changes to prioritise and appreciating what already works for you. Try it and see what happens!

The Waiting Game

Ever noticed how most of us play destructive games which prevent us from achieving our goals and living the life we want? The waiting game is a classic example. We want to do something, but we tell ourselves we won’t do it or start working towards it until we are less stressed/thinner/richer/more experienced. We wait for a better time.

Blue owl timer
His name is Owen. Owen The Owl.

Except the better time never comes.

We keep making excuses. When we have some time we could use to pursue our goals, we decide to wait until we have more time. When we have enough money to make a start, we decide it’s better to wait until we have enough money to finish. When we feel a little more confident, we tell ourselves it’s better to wait until we feel very confident.

Are we really waiting for a magical time when everything in our lives is perfect? Judging from our behaviour, yes. It’s ridiculous, but it’s true,

I’m an expert at the waiting game. Having mental health issues creates a whole new level of excuses: I’ll wait until my anxiety is better, until I go at least 2 weeks without a bad day, until I’m less dissatisfied with life. And yes, I am aware that waiting until you are less dissatisfied with your life before you make changes is utter nonsense!

 

The answer is to stop playing.

All versions of the waiting game are destructive. You trick yourself into thinking you are making things easier/better, but you are only preventing yourself from achieving what you want. There will never be a “better” time. Life will always throw obstacles your way, no matter how well you prepare or how carefully you plan your timing.

Mental illness is unpredictable, so I have learnt this lesson over and over again: what seems like a “better” time can quickly change and what seems like a “worse” time can become better within an instant.

You can’t predict the obstacles you will face, but you can plan for them – to a degree.

There is an important distinction between achieving your goal and working towards it: the latter is about laying the groundwork, preparing to the best of your ability so your chances of success are optimal. This can include learning or honing skills, saving money, improving fitness, networking…anything which is pertinent to your goal. Note: preparing to the best of your ability does not mean over-preparing, using research and learning new skills as an excuse not to take action. You need to strike a balance.

 

Putting your life on hold doesn’t work.

Believe me, I tried for years. It made all of my problems worse, especially my mental health. You need to do what you can, when you can. You need to chase your dreams because the life you want is not going to land in your lap.

Working towards your goals will look different for everyone, depending on individual circumstances and your personal goals. How you work towards your goals will also vary over time, especially if you have mental health problems. Sometimes working towards my goals involves very small steps which seem trivial to other people, such as going for a walk on my own or putting £10 in my savings account. Sometimes my long-term goals have to take a backseat while I prioritise my immediate mental health. It can be frustrating when that happens, but it’s part of achieving my goals while managing my mental health problems.

Does this sound easy? It’s not. It’s simple in theory, but continually working towards your goals is hard work. You will probably struggle with confidence, procrastination and self-doubt at many points. There will be days when you think it’s not worth trying to achieve any goals.

So why continue? Because the alternative is worse. Living an aimless life, reacting to all the crap the universe throws at you, is harder than being proactive and trying to create a better life. It leads only to misery.

 

Not waiting doesn’t mean being impulsive.

I emphasise working towards your goals because it involves a great degree of thought and taking responsibility for your actions. Picking arbitrary goals which mean nothing to you personally is pointless. Risking your future happiness by getting into debt without careful consideration in order to achieve a goal isn’t a good idea. Not discussing your goals with your partner (if you have one) is selfish and stupid. Working towards your goals means you figure out as much as you can, gathering support and avoiding potential pitfalls.

As I write this, it occurs to me that most worthwhile goals cannot be achieved through a single act of impulsivity. Even if you sign up for something on an impulse, you still need to follow through. Anyone can enter a marathon, but if you want to complete it, you need to train.

However, setting a goal into motion on what seems like an impulse can be driven by your intuition. Decisions based on gut feelings are often the best ones, because they have a strong connection to your core values and passions. Your actions may seem impulsive, but set you on a path towards what you really want.

 

Trusting your intuition is a learning process.

I have acted against my intuition many times, choosing the “safe” or “sensible” option – and I have regretted it every time. Conversely, when I trust my instincts – even when I think I must be crazy – I make the best decisions of my life.

I still experience self-doubt when I trust my intuition, but underlying those layers of doubt is an unassailable feeling that I’m doing the right thing for me. I know I’m meant to do whatever I have chosen. My decision may have unexpected consequences, but I’m certain I’m on the right path.

When I act on impulse, on the other hand, I have an underlying feeling of dread, shame or guilt. I know, deep down, that I’m making the wrong decision and letting myself down. I get this feeling when I buy junk food or expensive shoes I don’t need. I also experience it when I make excuses for not working towards my goals and seizing opportunities.

We usually associate impulsive, thoughtless decisions with irresponsible actions, but they can also result in avoiding action.

Every time you make an excuse not to take the next step towards your goal, you are acting on impulse. When you procrastinate instead of being proactive, you are acting on impulse. When you choose television or browsing the internet (guilty!) over working towards your goals, you are acting on impulse.

Your intuition, however, will indicate the best course – which is unlikely to be watching television for hours on end.

 

Defeat the waiting game with your intuition.

What does your ideal life look like? I can’t promise you will achieve it, but you can definitely work towards incorporating elements of it into your actual life. You know, deep down, what you need to do.

What grabs your attention when you are chatting to people or browsing online? What makes you think “I wish I could do that”? Who do you envy or admire? Where would you like to live? How would you like to fill your days? What are your passions?

Finding the answers to these questions is an adventure in itself – especially as they may change over time. Look inside yourself and ask what feels right for you.

Again, I’m not saying you can get everything you want. All of us will have to compromise at some point, because our resources (time, money, skills) are limited. You might not get what you want – but you can certainly get closer to it.

Another version of the waiting game is thinking in black and white terms: “if I can’t guarantee I will get everything I want, I won’t try to do anything.” You deny yourself success because you are afraid of uncertainty; you prefer the certainty of remaining where you are now, even if you are unhappy and dissatisfied with your life. I used to think like that, wanting things to be perfect and viewing anything less as inadequate, but it’s no way to live. Perfectionism is soul-destroying and stops you from doing the things which would make you happier, if not completely happy.

Trusting your intuition and moving towards the life you want is bloody difficult, but I believe it’s worth the effort. My life is far from perfect (laughably so, in fact), yet I am happier than I have ever been. I’m working towards my goals and – regardless of the outcome – that feels good.

Striding Forward

I have a confession: a few months ago, I enrolled on a Psychology BSc with the Open University. I didn’t tell many people because I wasn’t sure whether I’d get a student loan, which is the only way I can afford the course. Today, I learnt that I will receive a student loan and will be able to study.

Mountain pathI’m delighted – I have wanted to study Psychology for a while, but didn’t think I would ever be able to do so. I found out by accident that I could be eligible for a part time student loan in some STEM subjects (I already have a student loan from my Film Studies BA) and hardly dared to believe my application would be accepted. The plan is to complete the degree over the next 5 years, which is a slightly scary prospect but preferable to waiting even longer!

I hope to use my studies to help other people with mental health problems to achieve their goals and create a better life. I’m not sure exactly how I will do this, but having a formal education in Psychology will provide me with opportunities I would not otherwise have. I also intend to use what I learn to improve this blog and (hopefully) inspire people through my writing.

I feel like I’m on the right path and striding forward, towards whatever the future will bring. I’m not sure exactly where I’m going, but I’m following my passions.

Lessons from Machu Picchu

It’s just over 2 months since I completed my trek to Machu Picchu and I’ve only begun processing the experience. It still feels a little unreal, like a bizarre dream – only one which everyone knows about! I have been trying to make sense of it all and some lessons have emerged…

Machu Picchu view
  1. You get to decide what your goals are, but not how you achieve them.

If you had told me what I would have to battle in order to reach Machu Picchu, I doubt I would have tackled the challenge. I faced physical illness, a decline in my mental health and bereavement – and that was during the preparation. The trek itself brought the joys of constant rain, altitude sickness, a throat infection and panic attacks. It was worth it in the end, but I wouldn’t have chosen to go through any of those additional challenges.

I thought my toughest difficulties would be improving my physical fitness and social anxiety. These were factors in making the trek one of the biggest challenges of my life, but they were overshadowed by the ones mentioned above. Everyone knows that life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans (which is a phrase I always hear as John Lennon sings it, though I know he probably wasn’t the first to say it), but sometimes life throws so much crap at you that you think there must be a sadistic god somewhere, having a laugh as he hurls misfortunes your way.

Yet I still achieved my goal. I achieved it because I wanted it more than almost anything else in my life.

You get to define what you want out of life and the only way you will get what you want is by defining it; goals give you a target, something to drive towards. You don’t get to dictate exactly how you get what you want, because there will always be obstacles flung in your path, but you can try one way and change course when needed. As long as you keep trying, there is a chance you will get there in the end.

 

Peru mountain home
  1. Your limits are further away than you realise.

I felt like I was being pushed to my limit many times during both the trek itself and my preparations. On the last day of the trek, getting derailed every few minutes by panic attacks as I climbed the 3000 (apparently) steps to the Sun Gate, I thought I would never get there. I stumbled along, feeling utterly wretched. Yet I didn’t reach my limit – I wasn’t even as close as I’d felt at the time.

I was walking. Very slowly, but I was upright. If I had been close to my limit, I would have been crawling. And yes, I would have crawled before I quit.

I was stronger than I realised, though I felt weak. I think this is something I need to apply to the rest of my life, especially during worse episodes of mental illness. I think most people would be surprised at what they can achieve – if only they would set themselves bigger goals. Myself included.

 

  1. Most people want you to succeed.

Sure, there are some nasty, petty people in this world who take pleasure in other people’s failures and miseries, but the majority want others to do well. I have received a lot of support, encouragement and congratulations over the past year – some of it from unexpected sources. People like seeing others achieve their goals; especially when doing so helps others.

This makes a lot of sense: people are in a better position to help others when they are successful. By supporting others in achieving their goals, you might be helping yourself (and others) in the long run. Unfortunately, some people have a win-lose mentality, whereby they see someone else’s success as their own failure. This is nonsense in most circumstances, when people are not competing directly for a limited reward, but it’s an attitude to which some people cling. They view life as an individual race, not a team game.

Seeing others succeed can also inspire and motivate you. From the moment I signed up for the trek, I hoped that my experience would inspire other people – especially those with mental health problems – to follow their dreams. I have since found out that at least one person has done so as a result of seeing me achieve my goal, which makes every single moment of struggle and despair well worth the effort.

 

Winay Wayna ruins
  1. You can help yourself and others – there’s no need to choose.

Following on from my previous lesson, achieving your own goals can help others – even if the link isn’t apparent. I thought of my goal of trekking to Machu Picchu as inherently selfish, despite the fact that I was self-funding and raising money for Amnesty International, because I wanted first and foremost to do it for myself. I hoped to inspire others, but my main motivation was to prove to myself that I could realise a long-held dream.

I think this was symptomatic of my own version of the win-lose mentality. While my “winning” didn’t necessitate another person’s loss, I thought of the trek as an individual pursuit. In reality, it was a team game.

The obvious teammates were my fellow trekkers, guides and our group’s doctor, without whom I wouldn’t have reached my goal. We cheered each other on through the most miserable moments, when we were cold and soaked through, denied even a decent view by fog/low cloud.

Everyone’s support was incredible. There were so many kindnesses. My roommate lent me fresh socks and carried my bag and walking poles up the monkey steps near the end of the trek. Team B (who know who they are!), kept my spirits up when I wanted to collapse on the bloody mountain and stay there. My success is their success.

However, I also had a great support team at home. My parents lent me money, enabling the whole challenge. My dad drove me to Heathrow and back (partly as my birthday present, to be fair), so I wouldn’t have to deal with the added stress of coping with public transport. My mum walked miles – literally – up hills to help me train. My friends kept encouraging me through the darkest moments, when I didn’t know whether I could carry on living, let alone training. Again, my success is their success.

I also realised that everyone I just mentioned (and more besides) took pleasure in my success. Just as I am glad when my friends and family achieve their goals. There might not have been an obvious or direct link which benefits others, but that doesn’t mean others didn’t benefit in some small way.

In fact, assuming your goals don’t cause direct harm to others, I would go so far as to say that achieving your goals always benefits other people – if only because you are showing them it’s possible.

 

Machu Picchu view
  1. Every step is significant, though most of them feel insignificant.

As long as you are moving forward, you are getting closer to your goal. It might not feel like you are progressing fast enough, or like you are progressing at all, but taking any action is a vital step. Again, this is something I need to apply to my life in general – I often feel frustrated because I’m not achieving my goals as quickly as I’d like. Of course, if your goal involves walking to a destination, there is a clear path (or at least direction) which will lead you there. For less tangible goals, you need to keep faith that you will reach your destination as long as you keep taking action.

When I was trekking to Machu Picchu, the majority of my steps felt insignificant. Having a clear path and destination, not to mention guides, didn’t stop my mental battles from hindering my progress. Blind faith didn’t keep me going – stubbornness did.

You have to apply the same determination to working towards your goals, regardless of how insignificant each step seems. The only other option is giving up, which is the one sure way to failure. I think individual steps will always tend to feel insignificant and it’s only in hindsight that you can see how fully they contribute to achieving your goals. It’s part of the challenge, to keep taking action when it feels pointless.

 

As I said, I’m still processing everything.

These are the initial lessons I have learnt, but I feel like the challenge has changed me in ways that I’m yet to notice or appreciate. The changes aren’t exactly what I expected either – sure, I have more confidence and am determined to achieve more goals, but I am still dealing with anxiety and depression so they get in the way. I wasn’t anticipating a dramatic transformation, but part of me is disappointed that I didn’t get one.

I guess the main change is that I trust my intuition more. My instinct told me that trekking to Machu Picchu would be one of the best decisions I have ever made (as much as I dreaded it might turn out to be the worst) and I believe that’s true. It was an incredible experience. Trusting my intuition more has also brought me closer to my core values, making me think more deeply about how I want to live my life.

I guess I have to wait and see what the long-term effects of my Machu Picchu challenge will be. Perhaps the dramatic transformation will manifest in the future…

On/Off Course

The most frustrating thing about trying to achieve goals, especially when you have mental health problems, is the inevitable drifting off course. Life throws obstacles in your path and you have to work your way around them or wait until you can pass. When this happens, it’s difficult to know whether you are still heading in the right direction.

 

Off course

It’s easy to lose sight of the path.

When you are working towards long-term goals, the single steps in between now and reaching your goal seem insignificant. You know, on a logical level, that every step is important, but they don’t feel important when you are taking them. You feel like you’re constantly walking and getting nowhere.

It’s easier to stop walking.

This isn’t always a conscious decision: your path can get so littered with obstacles and distractions that you don’t know which way to turn. You start wondering whether all of these challenges mean you’re not meant to follow this path, that you should choose a different goal.

 

You need to look for compasses.

Just as you can look to the sun and landmarks to check your position when hiking, you need to look for signs you are on the right path when working towards your goal. Instead of using an actual compass, you have to use symbolic compasses like your values and passions to check your direction.

I know that sounds a little mystical and perhaps a bit woo-woo, but I refuse to apologise for having a hippie streak!

Knowing your compasses helps a lot. There are questionnaires you can take to determine your core values, but in my experience most people are aware of what they prioritise (or would like to prioritise) in their lives. My personal values include creativity and self-expression, having a strong sense of social responsibility and being compassionate. Manifestations of these core values have been present throughout my life, from writing stories based heavily on Enid Blyton books as a child and taking part in sponsored walks, to writing, blogging and volunteering for a mental health charity today.

Look at your own life and consider what has brought you the most happiness, satisfaction and meaning.

 

When you have found your compasses, you need to check them.

I find this difficult. I forget to check my compasses on a daily basis, allowing myself to get distracted by whatever life throws at me and being reactive instead of proactive. One of the ways counselling is helping me at the moment is by giving me the opportunity to stand back and check my compasses, reassuring me that I’m on the right path and travelling in the right direction.

I think I’m getting better though — I recognise the simple activities which calm me, bring me pleasure and allow me to take stock. Meditation, yoga, walking, running and journaling all fall into this category. I also know which activities bring the most value to my life, such as volunteering and blogging about mental health. The more I focus on these activities, the happier (and more confident) I feel about my life and my goals.

There are no maps for living (unless you create your own, but that’s a different blog post!), but there are compasses — we all have them and can use them to plot our course. What are your compasses?

The Must-Do List

I came across the idea of writing a must-do list in a fun and practical book I read recently, Get Your Shit Together by Sarah Knight. It’s simple: write your to-do list, featuring everything you need or want to do, then prioritise it and choose 2/3 top priority tasks each day to put on a separate must-do list.

Must-do list

How to use the must-do list.

Using the must-do list is simple in theory: you must get these tasks done today, no matter what, before tackling anything else on your to-do list. These are your top priorities.

If you have a clear demarcation between different areas of your life, such as work and home, you can make separate must-do lists for each one. However, be aware that having more than a couple of must-do lists will defeat the object and make the strategy less effective. It may also be a good idea to keep your work must-do (and to-do) list at work, to help maintain focus.

Personally, I combine work and everything else onto a single to-do list, from which I create a single must-do list each day. I work from home and my hours are variable, since I work around my mental health problems, so there is little distinction between my home and work life.

The tasks on the list should be small and specific — even if they are part of a larger project. Split large tasks into smaller ones until you have manageable chunks.

 

The must-do list forces you to focus.

You are faced with your top 2/3 priorities in small, manageable chunks and can ignore everything else on your to-do list. This is why it’s important to make a separate list, so you don’t get distracted by lower priority tasks as you consult your to-do list.

Many of us are guilty of procrastinating through busyness. We convince ourselves we are being productive because we are crossing items off our to-do list, yet high priority tasks are left unfinished while less important ones are completed. You then have the perfect excuse to claim you have no time to complete high priority tasks, because the crossed-off items on your to-do list provide evidence. You can ignore the fact that you wasted hours doing busywork instead of working on a major project.

The must-do list cuts through this bullshit. It makes you hyper-aware of your priorities and splits your goals into small tasks, so you are less likely to feel overwhelmed or intimidated by the important stuff.

 

The must-do list helps you realise you have plenty of time and space to tackle your priorities.

You don’t need to panic about how you can fit in everything on your to-do list, because you are not trying to fit in everything. You only have to fit in your top priorities. This enables you to approach your most important tasks with a clear mind.

You can focus on what is most important to you and accomplish what you want.

 

Must-do lists improve productivity.

Once you complete your top priorities, you can tackle the next ones on your to-do list. By doing this, you are getting ahead and have the security of knowing the most important tasks are done.

Compare this approach to the conventional to-do list: you get distracted by minor tasks which you do because they take little time, not considering how those “insignificant” 10-20 minutes here and there soon add up to hours. This leaves you with inadequate time to tackle the most important tasks, so you fall behind and if you manage to work on your priorities, you are forced to rush. You figure it might be better to leave those tasks, which also tend to be the ones requiring the most energy and concentration, until tomorrow — when you add more items to your to-do list and start the whole process over again, playing catch up and racing without getting anywhere.

The ridiculous thing is, it’s easy to make time for lower priority tasks at the end of the day, whereas doing them first swamps your whole day. The must-do list approach also leaves you in a better frame of mind to tackle those lower priority tasks: you are less stressed and frazzled, because you know you have taken care of your priorities. You feel a sense of achievement and satisfaction, which motivates you to complete a few more tasks instead of slumping in front of the TV all evening.

 

Must-do lists may seem counterintuitive, but they work.

I decided to try the approach because my chronic procrastination often meant I did nothing important for days, using my time and energy to complete meaningless tasks which I told myself “needed” to be done. I figured it would be better to get a couple of high priority tasks done, rather than several low priority tasks.

I discovered that writing a must-do list was far more effective than I had anticipated. Not only am I completing high priority tasks, but I’m also getting through many medium and low priority tasks.

Must-do lists have a huge psychological effect, setting you up to succeed. To-do lists, while useful, offer too many pitfalls which could lead to failure. Even when you prioritise to-do lists, you are faced with the distraction of other tasks on the list — a separate must-do list avoids this, while still providing you with the security of a to-do list.

The to-do list is a crucial part of this system, because it collates everything you need to remember. Trying to make must-do lists without the foundation of a to-do list doesn’t work. You can’t prioritise effectively unless you consider everything you need/want to do and trying to remember non-priorities creates a distraction. When you put everything on a to-do list, you don’t need to think about anything but your must-do list.

It’s early days, but I’m very impressed with the must-do list system. I’m more productive than I have been for months and less stressed. Give it a try — you might surprise yourself!

Living Option B

It’s inevitable that our plans go awry sooner or later, but for some of us the changes are so dramatic they throw our life off course.

Machu Picchu
My Option B looks like this. Sometimes.

This week, I read a book called Option B, which is co-written by Sheryl Sandberg. Sheryl is one of the world’s most prominent businesswomen and COO of Facebook. In 2015, her life was turned upside down when her husband, Dave, died suddenly at the age of 47. Option B is about how Sheryl learned to cope. Her cowriter, Adam Grant, is an author and academic with a PhD in organisational psychology. The book combines personal experience with psychological research and suggestions for how social and political changes could support people in difficult situations.

While bereavement is the book’s focal point, it addresses a range of issues and its lessons can be applied to a range of traumatic experiences. I found a lot of ideas to help me manage my mental health and the issues surrounding long term mental illness, but the main message I got from the book is: how do I kick the shit out of Option B?

The concept is simple: Option A would have been wonderful, but it’s not what happened. You are stuck with Option B, so how do you make the best of it?

For me, my Option A would have been a life unaffected by mental illness. Unlike many people, I never really lived this option for any period of time because my mental health problems began when I was a teenager. I have never held a job which wasn’t affected by my mental health. I have never lived independently. I have never met my friends in a pub without fighting anxiety. Sometimes I feel sorry for myself; I know it’s neither attractive nor helpful, but I wish I had gotten to live Option A.

But I got stuck with Option B: long term anxiety, depression and borderline personality disorder.

There are two broad options when you are living Option B. You can bemoan the fact that Option A is lost to you and waste your life wishing it were different. Or you can find ways to cope with Option B. Find moments of joy, even if lasting happiness seems impossible. Achieve goals, though simple tasks may seem impossible.

Strange as it sounds, I’m not sure I would have achieved many of my life goals if I weren’t stuck with Option B. I don’t think I would have done a Creative Writing MA or trekked to Machu Picchu. If life had been comfortable for me, I wouldn’t have found the motivation to stretch myself. If I had enjoyed the mundane success of a steady job and “normal” life, I doubt I would have found the courage to face failure in order to fulfil my biggest dreams.

Living Option B often means regarding things from a different perspective.

In the past, I have fallen into the habit of thinking “What can I do? I can’t even walk into a shop on my own.” I set myself up for failure and paralysed my progress by approaching the problem from a position of weakness. I answered my question with what seemed like the only choice: I can’t do anything. I struggle with normal things, let alone “proper” goals.

A more empowering perspective is to think “This is what I want to do – how could I do it?” This is how I try to approach my big goals, the dreams I really want to chase. It engages the part of your brain which wants to solve problems, because it presents a specific dilemma.

Disclaimer: being able to come up with options doesn’t mean any of them are easier. In fact, many are extremely difficult to follow – even when you know they are the best options. However, simply being aware of options is a huge step forward.

When you feel paralysed by anxiety (or any illness, situation or emotion), you are stuck in your current circumstances and can’t see a way out. Thinking about what you want and following potential paths to achieving your goals lets a little light in; it may not throw open a door straight in front of you, but it creates a chink of light which demarcates an exit. You can use that light to negotiate your way out, even if you have to overcome many obstacles to do so.

More Option Bs will keep cropping up.

Even when you are already living Option B, life can toss more shit your way. Problems can often cause other problems, such as long term illness resulting in debt because it limits your ability to earn. Sometimes your situation seems to be improving, then it takes a nosedive. None of this is inevitable, but it happens a lot.

Maintaining a positive attitude when living Option B is bloody difficult, but it makes your life a lot easier.

The book discusses ways to challenge thoughts which are personal, pervasive and permanent. This is based on the work of Martin Seligman, pioneer of positive psychology and a hero of mine. He discovered that people are less able to overcome adversity when they blame themselves (personal), believe everything in their lives will be negatively influenced (pervasive) and believe the results will last forever (permanent). It’s easy to get trapped into this way of thinking, even when you can acknowledge that it’s not helpful.

I’m guilty of being aware of these patterns of thinking, but not being consistent enough in challenging them. I know the theory, but struggle to apply it in practice. The problem with living Option B is that there is a huge source of adversity which does seem personal, pervasive and permanent. Mental illness, in particular, feels like it’s your fault/is punishing you personally, can affect all areas of your life and feels permanent when you have experienced it for many years. How can you challenge something so monolithic?

The answer appears to be: by chipping away at it. The obvious starting point is that nobody is to blame for their mental illness. Sure, maybe certain behaviours, thoughts and coping strategies contribute to the development and progression of mental illness, but nobody chooses it. We all do our best as we battle through and sometimes our ways of coping aren’t the best options, but seem to be the only or easiest options to which we have access at the time. Besides, sometimes people can do everything “right” and still become mentally ill.

We can chip away at pervasiveness and permanence by considering the fluctuations of mental illness. I have bad days, for sure, but I also have good days. My mental health also affects my life in different ways at different times: when my depression recedes, I often find more energy and motivation to exercise or work on my writing. When my anxiety improves, I can get out more, be more sociable and submit more of my work. Again, this chipping away might not seem like much progress, but it’s the chink of light which lets you know there is hope.

Acknowledging that you are living Option B can be refreshing.

It takes the pressure off. You realise comparing your Option B to other people’s Option A is futile. You aren’t constantly chasing after Option A, once you acknowledge that Option A is no longer available. Instead, you can focus on turning Option B into a happy, successful and fulfilling life.

I can’t turn back time and prevent my mental illness. I can’t magically transform myself into someone who managed to move out of her parents’ house in her early 20s and has held down a full time job for 10 years. But I can work on building a satisfying career which will hopefully enable me to earn a living one day. I can strive to achieve my goals and find moments of joy amongst the pain and despair of mental illness. I can learn coping strategies and manage my mental illness so that it causes me less pain and despair. I can chase my dreams and try to inspire other people to see the hope in their lives.

And that, my friends, is what I think the book means when it mentions kicking the shit out of Option B!

Did It!

Last week, I completed a trek through the Lares Valley in Peru, then to Machu Picchu.

It had been a dream of mine for many years – so long that I’m not sure how old I was when I first read or heard about Machu Picchu. It holds a lot of spiritual significance for many people, including myself, though articulating this attraction is difficult. All I know is, since I found out about the “lost” city I have had a strong desire to not only visit it, but to make a sort of pilgrimage.

Machu Picchu

Trekking through the Andes was tougher than I’d anticipated.

I trained as best I could, but there are factors which are difficult to prepare for, like altitude. I got altitude sickness: periods of breathlessness and/or light-headedness, plus a near-constant nausea. I wasn’t affected as badly as some people in my group, but suffering for several days in a row takes its toll.

I was also exhausted, because in addition to the physical challenge, anxiety uses a lot of energy. I’m not used to being around strangers for such a large proportion of the day. I struggle to sleep in unfamiliar places and I wasn’t eating much, because of the nausea. I had hoped the physical exertion would lead to good sleep, but that wasn’t the case – I just got more tired as I kept waking up throughout the night.

Then there was the throat infection… After feeling fine for the acclimatisation trek and the first day of trekking, the second day brought a chesty cough and a general feeling of weakness and lethargy. Our group had its own doctor, Dr Evelyn, who examined me after lunch and pronounced that I had an infection. She prescribed a 3 day course of antibiotics. I felt crap the next day (and needed oxygen over lunch, as my levels had dipped too low) and was still ill as I made my way to Machu Picchu on day 4, adding stomach cramps to my problems.

Oh, yes – I forgot to mention that for the first 3 days of trekking, it was pouring with rain. Our clothes got soaked and we couldn’t dry them properly overnight, because we were camping in tents with no source of heat. It was incredibly uncomfortable.

 

Stubbornness got me through.

Call it grit or determination if you like, but I have been told it’s stubbornness throughout my life and I’m now proud to be stubborn. I said I would reach Machu Picchu or die trying and I meant it – as long as I could put one foot in front of the other and drag myself along on my walking poles, I would. There were times when I thought I would collapse and fail in my endeavours, but my exhausted body was powered by my desire to complete the challenge and somehow kept going.

Every time I hit a milestone, I felt elated. Even when the milestone was a rock three feet away. I couldn’t believe I was still walking, still striving towards my goal.

In many ways, the trek was an extension of my training. I had so much shit thrown at me during my preparation for the challenge that a bit more didn’t make any difference. I knew I could fight through depression, physical illness and anxiety, so I fought through exhaustion, physical illness and anxiety.

 

My fellow trekkers expressed admiration for my determination, believing it would have been easy for me to give up – but giving up was never an option.

Giving up would have been more difficult than continuing, because it would mean letting myself down and admitting that I might never achieve any of my dreams. As long as I was able, I would keep going. If I had broken my leg and was physically unable to carry on, I would have to accept that setback. If I had collapsed, ditto. But as long as I had a choice, I wasn’t going to give up.

I want to show people – especially people with mental health problems – that dreams are worth pursuing. Even when it feels like you will never achieve your goals. While Machu Picchu was my destination, the journey taught me a lot: most importantly, that I’m stronger (mentally and physically) than I believe.

I also learnt how valuable it is to have other people supporting me. While they may have had their doubts, they expressed nothing but encouragement. My fellow trekkers were facing their own challenges, yet they always had the time and energy to reassure me. Likewise, the guides and Dr Evelyn went above and beyond their duty to keep me going. I couldn’t have reached Machu Picchu without every single one of them.

 

Realising my dream was awesome.

I hope fulfilling this long-held goal will be a springboard into a happier life, but it’s pretty amazing in itself. The challenge was unlike any other I have attempted, involving facing many fears and anxieties. When I reached the sun gate at Machu Picchu, following a very difficult morning during which my progress was slow, the main emotion I felt was gratitude.

I was thankful to have had the opportunity to follow my dream, although it took a lot of hard work. I was grateful for the sponsorship which raised over £1000 (if you count gift aid) for Amnesty International, supporting human rights. More than anything, I was glad that I was able to complete the challenge and that all the setbacks and problems I faced were overcome.

The Incas appeared to have a strong, pagan sense of spiritualty. They felt a deep connection to Mother Earth. I share this perspective and trekking through the Peruvian landscape reinforced my beliefs. The Andes offered many points of contrast and comparison to more familiar landscapes. Parts of the trek reminded me of Dartmoor, with its granite rocks and rolling river – yet, when I looked up, I saw mountaintops shrouded in cloud. It reminded me that no matter how alien a place seems, there are points of familiarity, whether in nature or people. Everything is connected.

And I’m connected, too. For the first time in years, I feel like I have a place in the world.