A personal article from Clara, she shares how to stop the “self-destructive, self-improvement” cycle and make 2022 your best year yet.
Image description: This image depicts the same shaped figure several times over. However, the little bodies depicted are split in half by those with and those without angle wings. The 'regular bodies' stand stagnant either facing or turned away from the viewer. While the angelic bodies twist, turn, and fly freely. What splits the two differences in bodies apart is the two figures at the bottom of the image, who stand at look at what we assume is their reflection. Like our New Year's resolution, the angelic bodies are idyllic. Their joy and excitement looks appealing in comparison to the regularity of normal life.
How to actually change your life (for the better) in 2022! Theoretically.
We all do it. We all, in our (perhaps drunken) New Year’s Eve enthusiasm, think to ourselves, at the stroke of midnight, ‘Finally, this will be my year’. We have hopes, dreams and goals for the new year, and expect that, as if by magic, the passing of time will usher in a shiny new us, ready to run a marathon or win Bake Off or win a Nobel Prize (I don’t know, dream big, I guess). But for those of us who wake up with a sore head, that new us can wait until the next day. Or actually the day after that, probably, because we need to recover from the holiday season. Or perhaps next week, when we might have more time, right? But by that time - about now, if you’re reading this on publication day - the magic of the New Year has worn off, and it’s the middle of January and everything is boring again, and we forget what goals we even wrote down in the first place, if at all. Suddenly, it’s June and nothing has changed. Oh well, there’s always next year, isn’t there?
This year I decided things would be different. It has to be said, I am easily swept into all the new year new me self-improvement productivity mania but I’m being serious when I say that I just knew that this year, 2022, would be different. It kind of had to be.
Every year, until now, I’ve written out goals with the intention of becoming the Best Human on Earth and every year I have - shockingly - failed. Previously, my lists, usually of about 10 goals, have been full of numbers; read 50 books, lose X kilograms*, run 10k, and so on and so forth. Each goal fits neatly into a nice little checkbox, which I can either successfully tick off, or disappointingly leave blank on December 31st. Out of my list of 10, I usually check off four or five goals every year. What a brag. Whatever I succeeded at, I decided I was amazing and that there was no room to improve. Whatever I failed at, I decided I was an idiot and I should just try again the next year. Take running, for example. I think a 10k run has been a goal of mine for about five years. I’ve never managed it (yet). I couldn’t even run 5k two years ago. I was literally starting from nothing, aiming for a goal that, for me, was completely stratospheric and getting annoyed at myself when I, unsurprisingly, couldn’t do it. My self worth was so attached to quantifiable metrics that it kind of became a quantifiable metric itself, which always measured quite close to zero. There was a gap between what I was doing and who I was being and what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be. Like standing on one cliff edge and being absolutely determined I could reach the other side with no training, no equipment and no plan. No surprise then, that every time I tried to build and cross a rickety bridge built from impossible checkbox goals, I failed and fell off into the chasm of no self-love, no self-worth and no self-trust. And every year I would try again, in the exact same way with the exact same goals, just with a little less self belief and - logically - be disappointed when I failed again. Something really was not working and I just could not see it. I was stuck in what Meadow DeVor calls a ‘worthlessness cycle’, in her audiobook The Worthy Project, repeating the same actions that came from a place of worthlessness and propelling myself down a self-destructive spiral under the guise of self-improvement. Ah. Like I said, things had to be different this year. I don’t know about you but I don’t really fancy tunnelling below rock bottom if I don't have to.
So, after an embarrassingly long time scrolling mindlessly through TikTok one evening, I bought Atomic Habits by James Clear. It’s a book you’ve almost definitely seen a thousand times on TikTok if you’re as deep into all the aesthetic self-improvement, that girl videos as I was. See, I told you, I’m easily influenced.
In Atomic Habits, James explains that your life right now is a reflection of your habits right now. Before, my bad habits were self-destructive and my good habits didn’t really have anything to do with the goals I wanted to achieve. Every year, I wanted to run 10K but would I actually even go and run 5K? No, I couldn’t. 1K? No, I genuinely couldn’t. I was trying to run 10K without actually being the kind of person who runs. I could read 30 books a year though! That is what was wrong. I had too much misdirected ambition and too little plan to actually achieve anything outside of my comfort zone that I wanted to. Plus, I was spending literally hundreds of hours scrolling through thousands of videos of a thousand different girls living my ‘dream life’, wishing desperately to be like them, rather than just taking action in my own life.
I wasn’t being the kind of person who could achieve the goals I set out for myself. Maybe you aren’t either, if you’re reading this, and you are more desperate for advice than you might want to admit. We’ve all been there. Stuck in the loop of self-destructive ‘self-improvement’. Let’s take things easier on ourselves this year, okay? Here’s how:
What kind of person do you want to be?
That’s the central question we should consider before we pursue any new goal, says James. What kind of person did I want to be, apart from a better one? I want to be healthier, a runner, more of a reader, a better writer, a better artist, I could go on. I thought I could achieve each of these statuses once and for all, by filling a checkbox and crossing a metaphorical finish line, after which point I would have succeeded! Goal complete! Nowhere to go from here! My logic is flawed, I’ll give you that. James explains that, actually, new goals are only achievable through new habits, which make us 1% better every day. It is only by putting on our running shoes that we become a runner, and I wasn’t even doing that. I was watching other girls on tiktok put theirs on instead and wondering why I couldn’t run like them.
So, this year, finally, I made a plan. And I deleted TikTok.
According to James, certain habits form and become certain identities, so it’s important that you figure out the identity you want first and the habits second. Revolutionary, right?
I’m a mindmap person, but you could definitely apply these ideas to any kind of plan you want. I made six mindmaps - each with an accompanying vision board, obviously - one for each key area of my life (like health, friends, mindset, etc.) and off each stick I wrote “I’m the kind of person who…” and the attribute I want to possess or expand this year, some of which I already have and some of which are more of a challenge. For each of these attributes, I wrote down what that kind of person would do, or how they would act. Stemming from those, I figured out the tiny positive habits I need to incorporate into my routine in order to embody those qualities and therefore, the kind of person I wanted to be; the kind of person I thought I could only be by overachieving and the kind of person I never became by underachieving each year. The key is to make your new habits easier to do than your old ones, and they need to be very specific. My old goals ‘be healthier’ and ‘cook more’ is now ‘choose one new recipe from the Deliciously Ella app every day’, the goal ‘read more’ is now ‘read 10 pages every day’ and the goal ‘be a better artist’ is now ‘draw something three times a week’. Turns out, the key is to start small and build the foundations, rather than trying to build an entire house with no idea how to even lay a brick. Who even knew?
I’m also neurotic, so I’ve put all of these habits - around 25 of them - into a tracking spreadsheet with some lovely conditional formatting, and timetabled them daily into my Google Calendar (I really do promise I’m not boring - James does tell us to do that in the book.) Now, each habit is conducive to the kind of person I want to be, rather than the girl wishing for something different but doing nothing about it. Tracking my habits keeps me accountable, and the spreadsheet is a visual representation of the progress I’m making, which keeps me motivated and, more importantly, disciplined. Previously, I would get bored of a new routine in about 36 hours and dissatisfied by lack of instant progress, because I was going too hard too fast, so I would almost instantly give up. James recommends habit stacking for those tasks that no matter what, you just can’t seem to muster up enough motivation to tackle. For me, making my bed is easy, but keep my room tidy, uhhh, just ask my flatmates. So, under Jame’s instruction I have stacked these two habits together. I can only check off making my bed and tidying my room when I have done both. They’re not two separate habits, they have to be completed together. I can only scratch that instant gratification itch when I pair something easier with something harder. I believe that is what they call a ‘Life Hack’. And so far, it's working.
I accept, now, that progress won't be made in a few giant leaps, rather lots of very small steps.
For the first time, I have no quantifiable or countable goals. Of course, I have things I want to achieve this year, like getting a first in my degree and getting into my dream masters programme (speaking it into existence) or running a half marathon for charity (or maybe I should start with a 10K?) but I’ve realised that doing those things doesn’t require one intense effort one time. And, apart from in the half marathon, there is no finish line. Like, ever. You have to keep showing up for yourself, consistently. This is how we enter into our ‘worthy cycle’, according to Meadow. If our daily choices reflect the self-love, trust and worth that we deserve, then we can only be successful, because our actions are rooted in self-compassion rather than self-contempt. As James says, “the quality of our lives depends on the quality of our habits”.
In theory: good habits -> good days -> good life.
It’s definitely simple, but I’d be naive to think it’s going to be easy. I’m a sucker for instant gratification, and tiny healthy happy habits aren’t the ideal source of that. But that’s the whole point, so I’m going to give it a good go. Not to be dramatic, but I think Atomic Habits might have changed my life. I literally only finished it the other day so I’ll have to update you after my mid-year review, which I’ve scheduled for June, by the way.
Decide what kind of person you want to be.
Do what they would do. Every day.
So, theoretically, 2022 will be my year, because every single day will be my day, because I’m making it that way. And I hope it will be yours too.
*Please, if you have a weight loss target this year, get rid of it. Love you!
Visual explanation of my mind map:
Further Reading & Listening:
Atomic Habits, James Clear (2018)
The Worthy Project, Meadow DeVor (2020)
Podcast Episode: Brené with James Clear on Atomic Habits, Dare to Lead with Brené Brown (15 Nov 2021)