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.
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.
I recently wrote about spoon theory, which is one of those concepts which everyone on the internet seems to be talking about when I arrive late to the party. Like bullet journaling and WhatsApp. Last week, I briefly chatted about spoon theory with a friend who blogs about her experience of MS, and she pointed out that you can overinvest spoons. You think you are setting yourself up for success by investing more spoons in activities which should lead to long-term gains in spoons, but the returns diminish and you don’t get your stainless steel dividends.
This got me thinking and led to some interesting questions…
How many spoons should you invest?
If you get 12 spoons on an average day, what should be your investment strategy? It’s probably impossible to invest all of your spoons, but if you tried to do so, you would neglect your current needs. You need to do things which are necessary for your health and wellbeing today, which includes taking care of basics like eating proper meals and activities which bring immediate pleasure, like reading or chatting with a friend. If you don’t address your current needs, your spoons will deplete at a faster rate than you receive any dividends.
So imagine you can take care of your basic needs with 6 spoons. Should you invest the remaining 6? It seems sensible, since it could lead to a lot more spoons in the future. However, it also means you aren’t making the most of the spoons you have today by enjoying what you can spend them on. Imagine you have £150 of disposable income after paying your bills for a given month. Would you put it all into a savings account? No, because it would make you utterly miserable. It’s the same with spoons: you need to find a balance between saving and investing.
Personally, if I had 6 spoons left over, I would try to invest half and spend half on activities that make me happy. Spending 2 and investing 4 could work, but would be pushing it. Spending 4 and investing 2 is also a good option. I would keep a similar balance if I had more spoons, for example, if I had a really good day and there were 12 spoons left over, I would try to invest 6 and spend 6.
While this seems like a simple strategy, as with many issues concerning long-term illness, it raises some complicated questions…
Which activities count as investments?
You may enjoy many of the activities which give you more spoons in the long-term. Walking, for example, is something I find pleasurable and which improves my energy and mental health in the long-term. Activities like this are a mixture of spending and investment. It’s a bit like buying something you intend to use and enjoy in the short-term, but will sell for profit at a later date – like a classic car or limited edition fashion item. You have to decide what percentage of the spoons you spend on these activities count as investment.
This can vary on a daily basis. Some days, walking feels like more of a chore (usually when it’s raining), so instead of being 50% investment, it’s more like 75%. Other days (often in late spring sunshine), walking feels like more of a leisure activity and only 25% investment. As I keep saying in blog posts, finding what works for you will be down to trial and error.
Assessing the investment value of various activities requires being honest with yourself. Don’t kid yourself that specific activities are investments if you haven’t experienced any returns. You can still enjoy these activities, but as pleasurable pastimes. Conversely, some activities seem like they should bring more short-term enjoyment than they do and are actually more of an investment. For me, this includes social activities – I feel like I should enjoy them more than I do, because “normal” people seem to, but anxiety prevents me. Some social activities are more of an investment in my support network and confidence than pleasurable experiences – even if I have fun while participating in them.
If this all seems complicated, it’s because it is! Living with long-term mental illness can make even the simplest things complicated. In terms of spending spoons, it’s like investing in a wildly fluctuating market every day.
Are bigger investments better than smaller ones?
Different activities, including investment activities, require different numbers of spoons. This is a basic tenet of spoon theory. But when it comes to investing, is it better to choose a single activity which uses all the spoons you have available for investment, or should you spread your spoons over a few different activities?
Financial advisers would tell you that it’s generally better to have a diverse portfolio, which seems to favour spreading your spoons over more activities, but some high-spoon activities offer very high returns. I try to balance variety with investment in a couple of high-spoon activities. The variety may not be apparent on any given day, but I try to include several different activities over any given week.
My go-to high-spoon investment is exercise. It helps me feel better than anything else I’ve discovered so far and improves my mood in the short-term, as well as increasing my fitness and energy in the long-term. I invest in exercise most days, so I try to invest my remaining spoons in low-spoon activities like meditation and using my SAD lamp. Other low-spoon activities include listening to music, texting friends, reading and drawing.
High-spoon investment activities are useful tools, but carry a higher risk when you spend more spoons on them. Over-exercising, for example, can lead to exhaustion and injury – which means you get no dividends and will have fewer spoons each day for several weeks afterwards. Finding a balance is vital.
What can you do if you overinvest?
Prevention is obviously better than cure, but if it’s too late, you can take steps to recover and ensure you don’t overinvest again. First, consider what went wrong. Did you overinvest in a single high-spoon activity? Did you invest too many of your spoons without spending enough? Did you neglect your daily needs in favour of investing spoons? Don’t beat yourself up; try to understand what happened and why.
Secondly, take care of your current needs. You may need to sleep more, cut back on work or rely on others for more support. Figure out how you can do whatever you need to feel better right now. Spend all of your spoons on basic needs or enjoyable activities – hold off investing for a while.
When you begin to feel better, learn from your mistake and start investing slowly – one or two spoons a day, maximum. Sometimes it can feel so good to recover from a bad episode that you want to rush into action, but that will lead to an all-or-nothing cycle, which is unhealthy at best and can be extremely damaging. Also focus on activities which are a mixture of investment and short-term gains, like gentle walks or eating healthy, delicious meals.
Avoiding overinvestment can be difficult.
When you have a long-term condition, especially if you are ambitious, it feels like everyone else is sprinting ahead and you’re stuck in the slow lane. It’s tempting to push yourself too hard, especially when your health improves and you feel better than during worse episodes. Even when you know holding back is sensible and necessary, it can feel like you are making excuses not to pursue your goals at full throttle.
Thinking about spoon theory has given me a useful framework which helps me manage my mental health better. It was created in order to explain the impact of chronic illness to people who don’t understand what it’s like to experience long-term health problems, but it can also clarify the way you think about your own health. Using spoon analogies enable me to treat myself with more compassion and less judgement.
I think it makes me appreciate the spoons I have more, too. I wish I didn’t have to think about how many spoons I have every day, but I’m grateful when I have more spoons than I had at my lowest points.
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.”
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!
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.
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.
We all know the importance of “big” methods of managing mental health, such as medication and exercise, but it’s easy to overlook the impact of “small” coping strategies. Mini self-care strategies typically take little time and effort, but make a significant impact. But because they seem so small, their importance is easy to downplay — you figure skipping them won’t really matter, ignoring the cumulative effect.
Acknowledging the importance of mini strategies is the first step.
It took me ages to figure out that the gaps in my journal were not only a symptom of my mental health declining, but also a contributing factor. When I write in my journal regularly, I feel better. Even if it’s just a few lines.Now I recognise how journalling helps me manage my mental illness, I know I need to prioritise it.
Observing patterns in your mental health is an effective way of working out which mini strategies work best for you. You can also experiment, trying new strategies and noting changes in your symptoms. Consider the impact of all your activities — even if it seems unlikely they affect your mental health.
Find ways of fitting mini strategies into your life.
Some people respond well to putting tasks on their to-do list (or must-do list), or scheduling them in their planner/calendar. Writing it down reminds you that these mini strategies are important and you should make time for them. However, some people can feel pressured by doing this, which may negate the benefits of the strategies.
The best way of making time for mini self-care strategies is to build them into your routine and make them a habit. For example, I write in my journal when I go to bed — it has become part of my routine, just like brushing my teeth. Piggybacking tasks onto established habits is very effective and easy to implement.
What counts as a mini self-care strategy?
Anything which makes you feel better in the long term and which can be done in a short amount of time. Note that these tasks could take much longer, if you choose, but it’s possible for them to have an advantageous effect in 5-10 minutes per day. Obviously, this will vary from person to person, but here are some examples:
• Listening to music
• Texting/calling a friend
Remember to do what works for you.
Perhaps your mini self-care strategies seem a little strange — or completely crazy — but it doesn’t matter, as long as they work for you. The crucial issue is developing the self-awareness to observe what works over a number of days or weeks; sometimes it will feel like your mini strategies aren’t helping, especially if your mental health symptoms fluctuate a lot, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t working in the long term. Stick with it and make notes.
Also keep track of how you feel before, during and after activities which you wouldn’t necessarily associate with self-care. I find that spot of decluttering is beneficial, for instance, although I wouldn’t consider tidying an activity I enjoy — at least, not while I’m doing it!
Don’t underestimate the effect of returning to activities you haven’t done for several weeks or months. Many of my self-care tasks were neglected over winter, when physical illness took its toll and caused a deterioration in my mental health, and I was surprised at how effective simple, little activites were in helping me feel better.
As always, there will be some trial and error involved to find what works for you. But once you find effective strategies, they are vital components in your self-care toolkit.
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.
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!
The other week, I said something in a counselling session that I’ve been thinking about a lot since I said it: “I feel like I have to take a jump off a cliff just to move forward one single step.”
I’m not sure whether needing to do something “big” in order to make any progress is a good thing. It puts me under a lot of pressure and “big” things are often expensive. However, when the other option is to stay stuck, being able to take that jump off a cliff is vital.
Jumping off a cliff requires a lot of motivation and a huge potential reward.
It’s a dangerous situation and failure can be catastrophic. If I hit the metaphorical rocks, my mental health would probably be affected in a very negative way. The same goes for smaller risks, which is why I often find it easier to take bigger risks — when the reward is small, it’s not worth putting my mental health on the line.
I know this is hard for people to get their heads around and I don’t claim to fully understand why I think like this, but I do. If I’m going to take any risk, there needs to be a good reason — preferably several reasons. There needs to be the possibility of achieving a massive goal and/or improving my life significantly. Usually, there also needs to be a push as well as a pull: the idea of never taking this particular risk is worse than trying and failing.
Logically, this means that failure doesn’t matter.
If the absolute worst option is to never take the risk, to never try to achieve the goal, then failure is the lesser of two evils. Following the argument through, it also means I shouldn’t be afraid of failure because it’s not the worst outcome.
For me, this is not the case: emotion overpowers logic.
I’m terrified of failure. I’m scared of not living up to my expectations and of disappointing other people. But my biggest fear is never trying to achieve anything worthwhile; giving up on my dreams and settling for a life which will never be fulfilling.
I’m hoping my Machu Picchu trek will be a success, but I think I’m beginning to appreciate the fact that I’m trying to achieve an important goal.
Note that I cannot (yet) feel proud of myself — but this acknowledgement is improvement! I talked about letting go of the fantasies surrounding my Machu Picchu challenge in my last post, and of being disappointed not to live up to these fantasies, but I guess they don’t matter as much as my trying to achieve them. I would love it if everything had gone my way, but it didn’t and instead of giving up, I’m still giving it my best shot.
Sidenote:I will be within £180 of my £1000 fundraising goal when I add pledged donations, so this is one fantasy which might come to fruition. If you would like to sponsor me to show your support for my challenge and human rights, please visit www.justgiving.com/fundraising/HayleyNJones You can do so anonymously and/or without publicising the amount. Every pound is appreciated. It would mean a lot to me personally to hit my original target and will help Amnesty International do more of their amazing work.
I can make more sense of my situation when I consider my reactions to a hypothetical third party: I would have more respect for someone who says “I tried to trek to Machu Picchu, but it didn’t work out and I failed” than someone who says “I always wanted to trek to Machu Picchu, but never tried.”
As much as I want to be able to say “I did it!” I would rather be the former hypothetical person than the latter. Anyone can have dreams and goals, but working towards them is what matters — ask any writer who has encountered someone who says “I always wanted to write a novel” and is expected to sympathise!
So here’s my big jump…
I fly to Peru tomorrow. I hope I land in open ocean, rather than on the rocks, but I’m glad I’m jumping — whatever happens.
Knowing when you need extra help is a crucial part of self-care, although it can be difficult.
Learning to recognise when a worsening of symptoms becomes a need for extra help and support is vital for long-term mental health management. However, it can also feel like admitting failure. When your symptoms have improved, a decline in your mental health can feel like it’s your fault — that you have done something wrong which has caused your symptoms to get worse.
Everything feels darker and you are trapped into the “old” pattern of mental illness you thought you had come through.
The logical part of your mind knows this is wrong and nobody is to blame for their mental health problems, but the messed-up parts of your mind constantly tell you the same old myths: it’s your fault, you fucked up, you are doomed to be miserable forever.
You may try to ignore the situation, but it’s important to get help sooner rather than later.
I speak from experience. Over the past 3/4 months, my mental health has declined. This came after a fantastic summer during which I did things that were previously impossible for me (going to jive classes, for example) and felt well enough to stop taking medication after over a decade.
I came up with excuses for not going to my GP: I was stressed out because major renovations had turned my home (and life) upside down. I felt more depressed because I had been hit with one virus after another. These excuses were true, but my assumption that things would go back to normal when the workmen left and I regained my physical health were not.
I wasn’t coping and by delaying getting help, I suffered more and my mental health got worse.
I finally went to my GP on Monday. He is referring me to an organisation which offers counselling, which I believe will be most beneficial for me right now. I told him I would prefer not to go back on antidepressants at the moment, but I would never rule them out as a possible treatment. He was brilliant and accepted my insight into my own mental health — I had been a little wary of feeling pressured to take medication again without trying counselling on its own first, but that turned out not to be an issue.
If you aren’t so lucky and your GP pressures you to try a course of treatment which you feel isn’t right for you, remember you are entitled to a second opinion. However, it’s also worth examining your reluctance to follow the suggested course of treatment — some people resist medication, for instance, because they believe myths perpetuated by the media. Do some research, always asking whether your sources have an agenda which is at odds to your wellbeing, and make an informed decision.
Self-intervention, like self-care, is different for everyone.
For me, self-intervention was about recognising that I needed professional help and would benefit from counselling, which I hope I will receive. For other people, it might mean enlisting the support of family or friends, altering their lifestyle or adopting more self-care strategies. It could mean something entirely different, which I might not consider.
It’s about recognising when your mental health has dipped enough that you need extra strategies in place to prevent it from getting worse.
Ideally, this will lead to an improvement of symptoms, but the initial reason for self-intervention is to stop the situation declining further. The signs that you have reached this point vary depending on your recent mental health history and self-knowledge. Symptoms which may not concern one person, may be very worrying to another.
For example, I wasn’t concerned by a slight increase in my depression, because I know it gets worse in winter. However, while my low mood was normal for me, the increase in anxiety to the point where I was having panic attacks more often is a red flag. For someone else, the increase in depression could be a red flag whereas if they were already regularly experiencing panic attacks (as I did in the past), an increase in their frequency might be considered a small change.
Knowing your red flags is important in managing your mental health.
If you don’t have a high level of self-knowledge and self-awareness, keeping a record of your symptoms is helpful. I try to do this when my mental health problems get worse because whereas I normally have a high degree of self-awareness, this gets skewed by anxiety and depression: I tend to think things are fine until they get so bad I can’t deny it any longer. By keeping notes on my mental health, I could have noticed the worsening of symptoms before things got so bad.
Like so many things related to mental health, this is easier said than done, but keeping even a rudimentary record of symptoms can be useful.
Self-intervention is needed because many mental health symptoms aren’t noticed by other people.
There are plenty of reasons why other people might not recognise your symptoms worsening:
• A lot of symptoms are internal. Negative thinking, headaches, low mood, etc. aren’t always apparent on the outside, especially if they are not expressed.
• It can be difficult to distinguish when an already-present symptom is getting worse. If someone knows you experience a specific symptom, such as feeling nervous around other people, they may think all signs of this are normal for you and can’t tell when it’s worse or better.
• Nobody is with you 100% of the time. Many symptoms are most apparent when you are alone and many may not seem concerning when glimpsed by someone who doesn’t realise how frequent they are. Under-eating or over-eating, for example, are often secretive behaviours and might not worry people who only see you displaying the behaviour over a limited period of time, such as your working hours. They don’t know whether this continues when you get home, or whether these behaviours are balanced out by other ones.
• People might not know if something is a symptom of mental illness. There is a lot of ignorance around mental health and some symptoms might seem unconcerning to people who consider them merely quirks. Some symptoms might be considered normal by some people, such as dismissing a persistently low mood as pessimism or chronic under-eating as a low appetite.
Even if other people do realise your mental health is deteriorating, they might not know how to tell you.
They may assume you already realise or that you would feel uncomfortable if they brought it up. They might tell themselves it’s none of their business or that you might get better without their intervention. These assumptions may or may not be correct — the point is that you cannot rely on someone else to recognise your red flags and tell you to get help.
This means you have to make an effort to recognise your own red flags early, so that you can take action and get the help you need.
It’s better to plan self-intervention before it’s needed.
When you are relatively well, it’s the best time to make decisions abot what to do if your mental health declines. Don’t wait until worsening symptoms cloud your judgement.
I wish I had a clear plan in place. It would have made things easier and enabled me to get help sooner.
I had some vague ideas about what it would take for me to go back to my GP, but nothing written down. There was no list I could refer to, which would probably have convinced me to see the doctor when my symptoms got worse, rather than a few months later. This is something I plan to change.
While so much of self-managing your mental health is about focusing on positive change, having contingency plans is essential. If you have close friends and family members you trust, you can ask them to help. For example, you may ask them to flag up when you are displaying certain symptoms, such as withdrawing from social events. You can also indicate the kinds of treatment you would prefer in various situations, so they can help you get the treatment which is best for you.
I wish my mental health had continued its upward trajectory, but it hasn’t and self-intervention was necessary to prevent my health from deteriorating further. It’s a potent reminder that mental illness is not linear and for many of us, self-care involves preparing for episodes of worse mental health — perhaps for the rest of our lives.
Everyone seems to be talking about New Year’s Resolutions at the beginning of the year, whether they are setting their own or mocking other people for making them. The same stuff gets churned out year after year, as if achieving goals can be addressed with a one-size-fits-all mentality – yet year after year, most people fail to achieve their goals.
I believe the most effective approach is a personal one. Instead of listening to whatever guru is currently on television, turn to the premier expert on you: yourself.
Figure out what YOU want
A lot of noise gets created by the media, social media, advertising, your family and friends, etc. We are bombarded with a lot of messages about what we “should” want: a thin body, a romantic relationship, children, a big house, a fancy car, designer clothes, luxury holidays… These things are sold as solutions to our problems and all too often, we accept that at face value because it’s easy and seems to work for everyone else.
You need to step back and question these assumptions. Why do you want any of the above? How would it change your life? How would it make you feel? Might there be different effects to the ones shown in glossy magazine images?
Pinpoint what you ultimately want, rather than thinking a certain goal equates to happiness. If you would like a new relationship, for example, how would you like to feel in that relationship? Supported, cherished, secure? Consider whether other things could be more effective in helping you achieve those feelings. I’m not saying you shouldn’t want a relationship or anything else listed above; I’m saying you need to work out why you want it and keep an open mind as to how you might achieve that why.
If questioning yourself doesn’t change your mind, that’s great! It means you want to achieve your goal for the right reasons and have clarified the specifics. For instance, if companionship is a priority for you in a relationship, you may not want to pursue a relationship with someone who works away for months at a time. You have a clearer vision.
However, if you have changed your mind about what you want, that’s great too! Don’t be afraid to search away from the beaten track. Who cares if other people don’t understand why you are choosing a specific goal? As long as it makes you happy, it’s all that matters. Besides, quirkier goals are usually more fun!
Do your research
Has anyone achieved your goal? For most goals, the answer is yes. Seek these people out, online and real life. Find out how they succeeded and what they wish had happened in a different way. Ask for advice. Gather all the information you can at first, then select what is most relevant to you and your situation.
If your goal has never been achieved by anyone (gold star for you!), research people who have achieved similar goals. In fact, a lot of information and inspiration can be gleaned from reading about successes which appear different to what you want to achieve. Whatever your goal, factors like determination and confidence are bound to be issues.
It can help to divide your research into practical aspects and mental/emotional considerations. While there may be overlapping, it is helpful to organise your material this way because practicalities and mental/emotional concerns require different approaches. Further subdivisions can also be useful, as tackling your goal in smaller chunks makes it more manageable.
Play to your strengths
What works best for you? What are your skills? Which of your personality traits can be characterised as strengths? How have you achieved goals in the past?
All of these things can help you tailor how you approach your goal to your own needs and idiosyncrasies. For example, if you struggle to get up in the morning, perhaps early runs aren’t the best strategy for you to get fit – exercising later in the day would suit you better and make you more likely to stick with your goal. The idea is to incorporate your goal into your life as seamlessly as possible – it doesn’t mean achieving your goal will be easy, but it will make things a little easier and increase the chances of achieving your goal.
Refer to your research: have other people used strategies which might work well for you? How have people with similar lifestyles or personalities achieved their goals? Are there any deal-breakers which you will need to fulfil in order to avoid failure?
Define what success means to you
How will you know when you have achieved your goal? The answer is obvious for some goals, like running a marathon, but can be open to interpretation with other goals. For example, if your goal is to lose weight, what indicates success? A certain number on the scales? A clothing size? Define what you want.
If your goal is more difficult to measure, you may need to create your own subjective scale. For instance, if you want to simply be happier, how will you know? Our moods fluctuate and memories of emotional states are unreliable. Perhaps you could measure your happiness by the number of times you have had fun over a week. Or you could use a scale of one to ten to rate your level of satisfaction with different areas of your life.
It’s up to you how you define and measure your goal – just choose a mechanism which works for you.
Don’t be afraid to experiment and re-evaluate
Finding what works for you is reliant on trial and error. Don’t waste time playing it safe – if a strategy intrigues you, try it out as an experiment for a certain period of time. You have nothing to lose by trying something different for a week or two, but you could gain a lot if the strategy works well.
A word of caution: the time period of your experimentations depends on your goal and the new strategy you are trying out. Changing your diet for 3 days, for example, is not helpful in finding out whether it can sustain long-term weight loss. On the other hand, it may be long enough to establish that a new sleep routine works for you. Don’t give up your experiments too early – unless they are having a significant detrimental effect.
Make notes on what you try and the results. It’s useful to be able to refer back to them weeks or months later, when you might be facing a plateau in reaching your goal and need to assess why previous strategies you have used did or didn’t work. Keeping a record of your experimentations also helps capture ideas on what you could try in future – sometimes strategies which didn’t work at the beginning of the year can be ideal later on.
Track your progress
A major reason for defining your goal and how to measure your success is so that you can record your progress. This helps keep you motivated and accountable. It stops you from carrying on regardless of whether your efforts are producing results.
Decide how often you want to track your progress. Weekly check-ins work well, because they keep your goal at the forefront of you mind, but fortnightly or monthly records might be more appropriate – it depends on your goal. Use a timescale which suits you, as long as you track your progress regularly.
Use a method of recording your progress which suits you. A gorgeous notebook might motivate you to take the time to detail your success, or using a smartphone app might provide a hassle-free and convenient way to track progress. Whatever method you use, keeping it simple will probably help you stick at it.
I know I’m pointing out the obvious, but people often overlook the fact that most success is due to consistency. Hard work and determination go a long way. There are no shortcuts to achieving any goal that’s worth achieving – otherwise everyone would be doing it easily.
Sure, factors like luck can play a part, but even if you get a lucky break, you need to be ready for it. You need to have done the grunt work behind the scenes so that when a record producer asks to hear your demo tape, you can place a professional quality showcase of your talents straight into his hands. Some people might get quite far on charm and no substance, but they are rare and would go much further if they backed it up with other skills.
If you quit, the only person you are hurting is you. The world doesn’t care that you could have been the next great scientific genius or whatever – they will only care if you stick with your goal and produce great work.
Everyone has potential – but realising that potential is rare.
Choose to be one of the few who reach their potential, or at least a good percentage of their potential. Strive towards your goals and when you get knocked back, keep going. You can do it.
This is Part Three of Your Christmas Survival Guide. For Part One, click here and for Part Two, click here.
Focus on the good stuff
I love lots of things about Christmas, but it’s easy to lose sight of them when I’m feeling bad. I find it helpful to think about what I can enjoy when my mental health prevents me from doing a lot of the stuff people associate with Christmas, like parties. I love making lists, so it’s my go-to tactic, but I think making a list of Christmas activities I love is very helpful. I like being able to refer to a list when my thoughts are all over the place and I’m liable to forget about the things I can enjoy.
It’s easy to think Christmas is all about the big things, but a lot of the things I love are small. Drinking champagne (or prosecco, or cava…), listening to Christmas songs, playing board games, watching my dog open his presents, making gingerbread (and eating it!), watching musicals and Christmas films, putting up the decorations, reading ghost stories, etc. They are also accessible, meaning I can do most of them when my symptoms of mental illness are bad (though not when they are at their worst) and I don’t need lots of money or anything to enjoy them.
When you make your own list of things you love to do during the festive season (which don’t have to be Christmassy, by the way), consider scheduling some of them. Scheduling activities can provide some structure, which you may be lacking since Christmas disrupts your usual routine. It gives you something to look forward to, especially if you space them out before and after Christmas Day itself.
Don’t let other people dictate what you enjoy or how you spend your time. Think about what pleases you – it could be choir concerts, shopping, pantomimes, drinking whisky, making wreaths… Anything which brings out the best of Christmas for you. It’s easy to get caught up in the negative aspects of Christmas when you have mental health problems, but there is also a lot to enjoy.
Remember it’s temporary
“This too shall pass” is a powerful phrase and it’s true. Christmas will be over by early January. Even if the hullabaloo starts in November, that’s 2 months: it’s finite. Do what you need to get through it and keep telling yourself it will pass.
Look ahead to the New Year, if you can. What would you like to do? What goals would you like to achieve? I like to make lists (again!). Try focusing on your favourite time of year (I love late spring/early summer) and how you can enjoy it all the more. If you find Christmastime unbearable, use any distraction you can find (assuming it’s not harmful) to get you through.
Also remember that the way you currently feel will pass. It’s hard to believe, but repeating “this too shall pass” can bring great comfort.
While some or all of these strategies may help, nobody can dictate what works for you and the only way you can find out is by trying different approaches.
Think about what has worked for you in the past, but also keep an open mind. Different things can work at different times, so try things which you have dismissed in the past. For example, exercise is now one of the main ways I manage my mental health, but I used to find it next to impossible to do and didn’t notice any good effects when I forced myself to exercise.
Experimenting can be a great way of coping in itself. It provides some distraction from your thoughts and feelings. You are being proactive and focusing on finding solutions, which cultivates optimism.
Do some research – look online and find out how other people cope with Christmas and/or their mental health problems in general. Read self-help and psychology books. Try to understand the biochemical and cognitive functions behind your symptoms. Challenge yourself to find as many options as you can. Have fun trying the craziest suggestions you can find.
Don’t beat yourself up if you feel unable to do something – or anything. Experimenting is as much about finding out what doesn’t work for you as it is about finding what works.
Remind yourself you are not alone
One of the greatest advantages of the internet is that you can connect to other people without having to go outside or actually meet them. Read blogs about people in similar situations to yourself. Participate in mental health forums. Visit websites about mental health. Simply reminding yourself that other people find Christmas difficult can help you feel less isolated and more able to cope.
Talk to friends and family if you can, whether in person or via phone calls, text messages, email, Skype, etc. You don’t have to talk about your mental health, although it can be useful if you can – just chatting about trivial things helps you reconnect. Don’t forget that pets are great company, too. Spending time with animals is beneficial for your mental health and talking to a pet is often better than talking to a friend, since you have no fear of being judged.
Don’t forget that if you need someone to talk to, you can call the Samaritans on 116 123 (in the UK) or visit Samaritans.org
To read Your Christmas Survival Guide Part One, click here.
To read Your Christmas Survival Guide Part Two, click here.