January Project: my quest to abandon the comfort zone.

For the past five months I’ve been conducting my own happiness project, as coined by Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project (see my book review in post 27/12/18), and I elected January to be the month of ‘trying new things’. Now, I’m a creature of routine and structure. I don’t like spontaneity. I don’t like surprises. I don’t like the concept of “free-wheeling”. I want EVERYTHING diarised. And yet, Buddhist writer Pema suggests that “we are killing the moment by controlling our experience. Doing this is setting ourselves up for failure, because sooner or later, we’re going to have an experience we can’t control” and we won’t be ready. Even the thought of there being a situation which I can’t control sends me into a tail-spin so I know I need to work on this – I needed this monthly project.

“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone”, according to Neale Donald Walsch, so I embarked upon my month with a lust for life and expecting miraculous personal growth. My proposed solution was to dedicate a month to trying new things which challenged my current reality and existing behaviours, yet diarised and planned. There was a method to my madness: I selected new things which supported my efforts in achieving my ’19 for 2019′ task list (see post 4/1/19), adhered to my values and contributed to my broader life goals, but were just a touch more ‘out there’ than I previously would have liked:

  1. Supplement my usual conditioner for an alternative from Lush, which means that the plastic is returnable and re-used as opposed to recycled/landfilled.
  2. Learn to play squash.
  3. Join a sober community.
  4. Join a new women’s network.
  5. Listen to new podcasts for inspiration and guidance in achieving some of my 19 for 2019.
  6. Start writing a blog and publishing content on LinkedIn.
  7. Join Instagram and figure out how it works.
  8. Adopt a new, weekly, personal timetable.
  9. Meet a friend’s friends.
  10. Give a food bank donation (copious amounts of tampons and sanitary towels – because poverty disproportionately impacts women).
  11. Learn how to do a session on the cable machines at the gym.
  12. Try indoor skiing.
  13. Cook from a new recipe.

Executive summary: I wish I could say that I had the most transformative experience during this month – in some ways I did – but, quite frankly, it was f*cking exhausting. Much of my list involved meeting new people (for instance, see post 20/1/19), and for an introvert this is extremely draining. I met incredible, inspirational people, and with each event I attended I was so pleased that I had gone. Each occasion provided me with validation that the world works in mysterious ways in bringing people into my life. I can see that there’s a balance to be had; I grow from meeting new people and hearing of their experiences, receiving their guidance, but that growth caps out once I’ve reached the brink of exhaustion. In diarising all these plans I omitted to plan in some me-time which has left me feeling sapped and ‘done’ despite the fact that the month is not yet over.

Hardest lesson: I was ill for the first week of January and similarly this made me realise the limitations of my strength and capability. I’m one of those people who hates being ill (ok, not many people love it), I resist giving in until the point at which I curl up in defeat with the grim reaper standing over me, and I cry “take me, I just don’t care anymore!”. I lost a whole weekend that I could have been out there trying new things. I felt annoyed with myself and my lack of progress, disgusted at my weakness. I didn’t get to try indoor skiing, I sacked off the new recipe and I didn’t even make it to the cable machine – I could just about sweat out my germs on the bike whilst carrying around my box of Kleenex. I learnt that I had limitations, my body had had enough, and for a period of time all I could do was operate in a very limited comfort zone of my apartment, pyjamas and scrambled eggs. And that’s ok. It’s about time I recognised when to show myself some compassion; this wasn’t a work or study deadline, it was my own project FOR FUN. And just because those items didn’t make it into January, doesn’t mean I can’t try them. It’s not a now or never scenario – I need to learn that operating at extremes isn’t sustainable…but it’s just such a hard lesson to learn, and re-learn.

A work in progress: I struggled to create a new timetable for myself; I tried and tested a few changes to my schedule (rest day on Tuesday so that I could focus on writing, evening training on Thursday to provide myself with a lie in). Nothing has quite stuck yet, due to being ill or away. I haven’t quite established a ‘normal’ week with my new priorities and goals. It’s a work in progress. And maybe there’s a lesson in this: that despite best efforts, it’s difficult to plan everything – sometimes we do have to go with the flow. Some weeks may only have four training sessions and that’s ok. The thing I realised, and probably emphasised my learnings about ‘flow’ (see post 10/1/19), is that we will naturally prioritise those things which provide most meaning to us – they become our compass – and so it’s incredibly futile to fight against the current by creating a new timetable which does not align with our purpose.

My biggest love: I started this blog and publishing articles on LinkedIn as a means of keeping up my writing post MA. I could no longer not write. Putting my writing out there into the universe has been a real departure from my introverted self – it was incredibly scary, and there were many times when I was tempted to delete it and forget it ever happened. But particularly at work, I’ve had a lot of women seek me out to say how much they value the writing and find inspiration in it – so once again, a circle of sisters is keeping me going. I’ve had the odd troll-like comment from a backwards, male, dinosaur (on LinkedIn), but otherwise it’s been positive. It’s given me a creative outlet and a coping mechanism that I hadn’t realised how much I needed until I was in full flow. While writing (and studying) has always been my thing, publicly presenting it was most definitely not. Yet in order to do this, I’ve also had to utilise social media and in doing so I’ve once again seen its highest value, and its tragic influences. It’s still a love/hate relationship that I have with it, but within a month I’ve been able to strike a balance that works for me.

Epiphany: Throughout the month I realised that ‘trying new things’ doesn’t need to be a huge event – it can just be tweaking the normal, or accompanying another task with a new one. For instance, on my walk from the station to my office (approx. 15 mins), I used to listen to music. I’ve now swapped this for podcasts, and usually motivating/thought-provoking ones that help me reframe my day, help me question what I want out of my day, my year, my life, and support me in working towards my goals. The journey to the office sometimes feels like I’m walking towards a life sentence, and I need to get out of my own echo chamber. Listening to other people’s perspectives on how they manage their days, or how they made their jump from the 9 to 5, gets me one step closer to a reality I want to live. It doesn’t take any additional effort on my part, it’s just a conscious decision to deviate from the norm and switch my brain on at a time when it’s usually operating on low power mode.

Little changes make an impact: Another learning from this month is that even when I’m time-poor I can still make an impact. While volunteering for a women’s charity is on my 19 for 2019 – it’s not likely to happen right now. But that doesn’t mean I can’t take some form of action and help women whilst doing my day to day – food shopping. Loading up my trolley with sanitary goods and ceremoniously putting them into the food bank box made my domestic chore more mindful. Again, it brought me out of low power mode to contemplate women who are struggling to support themselves (and their families) – for whom buying tampons is a luxury when it really shouldn’t be. It provided me with a sense of gratitude on a Friday night, at the end of my long working week. The fact that my fellow shoppers thought that I had some kind of “woman’s problem” or tampon fetish is something I can live with.

Review: No, it hasn’t been the easiest of months for many reasons but it was the kick up the bum that I needed, and in true Claire-style I didn’t do it by halves. Getting it out of the way in one month meant that I could see the light at the end of the tunnel; it made the mental shift easier to comprehend. I think these things will still take work, not least my ability to hit a squash ball. But of the 10 new things that I tried, I enjoyed them all enough to continue with them, which over the course of a year should bring some more balance into my routine of EAT, TRAIN, READ, EAT, WORK, EAT, READ, EAT, SLEEP, REPEAT. Perhaps it will gradually look more like EAT, TRAIN, READ, LISTEN TO PODCAST, EAT, WORK, EAT, READ, TALK TO PEOPLE, BUY TAMPONS, WRITE, SLEEP…or a variation thereof. I’m working on it.

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