Day 18: Using Mindfulness to develop your life vision and mission

After yesterday’s activity, today we use blue sky thinking to create a vision and mission statement for yourself. Today has two activities to create the vision and mission: one “rational” one, one based on meditation. Depending on what type of person you are and if you are more emotional or thought driven, you can do either of them first. If you consider yourself more thought-driven and rational, then start with the first exercise. If you are more emotional, or indeed find the thought of rationally developing in a vision for yourself too challenging, you may find it easier to start with the meditation.

The min aim for today is to write two little sentences about you: a mission and a vision. Both should express similar aims, but are different. Let me quickly explain the difference: your mission is the ultimate end-state you would like to achieve. For example “urbangay’s mission is to enrich gay men’s lives through mindfulness” – ok, this may sound a bit lofty, but it captures the main aim.  The vision statement focuses more explicitly on how you are trying to achieve this lofty aim expressed in the mission. For example:
urbangay’s vision is to be the go-to resource to create powerful, personal change through mindfulness for gay men.
urbangay wants to build a safe space where gay men can learn about, develop, apply and put into practice mindfulness-based techniques for personal development in all aspects of their daily lives.
urbangay does this by educating, coaching and creating a community of connected individuals who learn and support each other in the process.

Some people find this activity challenging, as they relate often to very lofty visions – or try emulate too much a long-term business vision/mission. Remember, when you are completing this activity, that you are not fixed, and far more flexible than a large corporation.
On the other hand, don’t dismiss this activity as simply something big companies do: rather look at it as a tool that is used to (often) successfully focus large and complex organisations. So why not use it on you?
Importantly, don’t aim to create a very aspirational vision just because you think you have to. Your happiness is what counts, and you should think entirely what is right for you. There is no right or wrong vision: a vision of yourself living in a mountain retreat is just as valid as trying to make the world a better place. What’s right for you, is right for you. Nobody else can tell you that.

The first part I now describe is the rational activity to create the vision and mission.

Firstly, glance at the wall and lists created yesterday. Identify core values that drive your activities. These could be anything from charitable activities to a happier life through learning all there is to know about healthy vegan living. Basically, aim to take a helicopter perspective of the helicopter perspective from yesterday.
Aim to write a list of core values that guide your activities: these are the main emotional drivers. Simply put, the basic question you’re trying to answer is: “in an ideal world, what would make you jump out of bed full of energy every morning”.

In the second activity, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fS_Yb0PtpKQ . Use the guided meditation as a way to refine the ideas you generated in the first activity (careful, set an alarm at the end of the meditation, as it is a sleep meditation!). If you start with this activity, then mediate first, and use the first activity to refine your list.

In the next step, combine the list of values to a coherent vision: a few examples would be

The final step for today is to write a mission statement, e.g. how are you aiming to get there. Examples of this are

I hope these two exercises have been useful to you. I know they can be challenging for many people: taking a step back and looking at your life is never particularly easy. This is probably especially true when you feel actually relatively content with your life. In this case, it might be that these activities have clearly reinforced the life trajectory and the life plans you are on at the moment, which is brilliant news.
They may have, similarly, brought up a limited or a large number of areas where your future life needs a change of direction. In either case, you should have a pretty much clearer life vision now.

Again, try to keep the vision and mission statement clearly visible somewhere to remind you daily what it is that you wish to achieve. It can be particularly useful to keep it with the SWIPES lists, as you can then keep checking which activities should be prioritised from the nourishing activities contained in the lists. Of course, the vision/mission can also be a helpful reminder and source of motivation for completing depleting activities and recognising the greater purpose of these.

If you found these exercises helpful, or challenging, why don’t you share your thoughts below? It would be great to hear from you!

Day 17: Using meditation and mindfulness as guides: life choices

Yesterday you created lists of activities based on if you perceive them as either nourishing or depleting. That exercise should have helped you to delve into more detail of the here and now in your life, giving you a inventory of where you stand at this moment. Importantly, you should have been able to identify themes in your life: groups and types of activities that enrich you. Today, it is time to take a helicopter perspective: the aim for today is to try and look forward, taking some the nourishing themes with you going forward – and minimising the depleting activities. It may help you to write down the themes on post-it/self-adhesive notes for this exercise.

The guiding framework for this activity is the framework I wrote about a few months back, the SWIPES framework. The framework divides life in six different “areas”, all of which are important aspects to a happy and well-balanced life.

To complete today’s activity choose a blank wall if you are working with self-adhesive notes (if you don’t have notes, use a blank sheet of paper).
Imagine the wall to be a giant spreadsheet. To start label the columns by placing notes horizontally across the wall labelled
Social
Work
Intellectual
Physical
Emotional/Sexual
Spiritual

Now write each of the themes and major activities that you feel are nourishing for you on a note. Try and allocate these in the rows underneath the topic you find they fit best. For example, if running is a major activity for you, you should locate this under physical. Going to theatres or other arts events under intellectual, meditation under spiritual etc.
You may find some activities and themes fit in more than one category: no problem, simply put two notes – but mark these with a large X.
Take a look at the result: how balanced are you and your life?

In the next step, make a list of activities or themes you’d like to do. Try to strike a balance between realistic and reasonable: avoid unobtainable or unrealistic activities (something like life a life under a palm tree), rather focus on things you could, realistically achieve (more time at the beach).
Again, write them down on notes, marking them with a big G (for goals) and allocate these  to the categories.

In the next step, look at your categories: how balanced are your current activities? How your goals and your combined and current activities and goals?

You may find your placing great emphasis on one particular aspect of your life, e.g. work or emotional. This isn’t necessarily a problem if this is your intention, however, you should ask yourself if this is really what you want. Similarly, if you have parts of your life that are completely empty, ask yourself if this is a choice of yours. If you find imbalances address them by either including potential activities in that area, or alternatively by removing one or two notes/activities and placing them on a different part of the wall, where they form a “future” list.

After you have concluded this activity, if you can leave the notes on the wall for a few days, leave them there. You may find that you want to come back to them later and make some changes. Finally copy them down on a piece of paper: keep this piece of paper somewhere handy and visible, so that it reminds you of your ideas and choices.

I hope you found this activity useful to see a “helicopter” perspective of your life at present – and goals. Remember, this isn’t a fixed life plan, but simply a planning tool to help you take stock, balance and express goals. Let me know how you get on with this activity. I hope you find it nourishing to focus on your life and how to get more out of life. If you completed the activity, why don’t you use the comment function below to share how you’re getting on.

7 Tips for kickstarting the Best Year …ever – even if you gave up on your resolutions

So how has your start of the year been? Mine has been a bit rocky – and new year resolutions are awesome… but often turn out hard to keep (and some may turn out to be quite a stupid idea to begin with). However, there are a few things that can really make this year a happier, healthier and more fun year for you. So here are a few tips (mostly based on the urbangay happiness challenge).

  1. Learn a new language. Many language courses start in February (for example at many universities). That is an ideal way to rewire your brain to a completely different perspective, have mind-opening conversations – and travel like a local where the language is spoken. The other good thing is, once you signed up to classes it is quite hard to quit…
  2. If you don’t feel like learning a new language, you could just go easy(er) on yourself and pick up a new hobby: from stamp collecting to running, meditation or tantra. New skill – new you.
  3. Whatever you do… ditch your TV. OK, maybe keep a Netflix account for those emergencies of a Netflix and Chill date … but seriously: TV robs you of the time you could spend with friends, make new connections – or even have fun with your new hobby. And seriously, when was the last time you saw something actually worth watching on TV ?
  4. Avoid negative people. Yes… simple trick to make you more happy: avoid those that constantly bemoan the cold January, the state of the world economy or just the fact that the coffee they are drinking isn’t organic. Seriously, there is no better way to make your day worse than surrounding yourself with negativity. So… ditch the moaners. And say hello to people who realise it may be cold – but above all it is sunny!
  5. Start a challenge… OK, admittedly this backfired a bit on me. But starting a challenge is a great way to keep you motivated. And you can create a challenge on pretty much anything: from reading to running. Or whatever it is that you are doing. Think who can collect more stamps in 30 days… you or  your friend? – or can you both keep up with going fro three runs every week (btw… remember to join here!).
  6. Volunteer. I wrote about this before… it is really one of the best things to kick start a happier you: volunteer. Especially, when doing it regularly: it is also a great way to meet new people. So what are you waiting for?
  7.  Use To Do Lists. This one keeps you focused: First rule, write a To Do List before you go to bed for the next day. Like that you know exactly what to do the next day and get up with energy to “get things done”. Also, don’t forget, those lists can inspire some other areas of your life, like your sex life 😉 .

Do you have some more tips for a happy 2017? Why not share them below? Remember… whatever day it is, you can always kickstart a better year. 🙂 And, please, let me know how you get on!

Schedules… Good or bad?

I know that many people hate routine. In fact, I didn’t lie it at all… it seemed so uncreative, so “stuck” … I was ok to schedule runs (mornings, after getting up), but when thinking about scheduling creative activities, such as writing, it seemed like a completely stupid idea to me. If I’m honest, the result was not exactly very good: in fact, while I was usually pretty good at sticking to the scheduled activities (running, meetings and the teaching that I had to do as an academic), all other things “sort of happened” with a bit of luck. I know this is probably especially an issue for people who have a large degree of autonomy over their time (like academics, artists, writers or freelancers)… so I’m really intrigued to hear how you deal with it… so If you do have some good hints or tips, please share them below in the comments section!

When I started my career as an academic, I had a lot of teaching. This meant that pretty much all of my time was spent preparing and delivering the classes. I was also finishing my PhD. Of course, that was less structured, and so it took longer and happened more “on off” rather than at specific times. The biggest problem however was not that it took more time than it should have, but actually that it stopped me from enjoying much of my other time: I had a constant nagging feeling of “I should be writing”. This “I should be writing” continued even after the PhD (when writing articles and books) – and I’m pretty sure it is one of the most frustrating experiences of being an academic (or a writer, freelancer… you name it).

The real frustration for me was always that I often “drifted” through days with no scheduled activities… and then was really frustrated in the evening when I didn’t do what I wanted to have done. Even worse, once I then sat down and started to do things, I had lots of ideas. These ideas were great – but then it I kept on not acting on them, as actually I ran out of time again – or forgot them by the next time I actually sat down and did something.

Eventually I found out that the only way to overcome that problem was to overcome my resistance to scheduling… and also be easy with myself when it came to not quite making the schedule.

Of course now my schedule is even freer: Since moving and being a “free man”, I can basically schedule around as much as I want. But to be honest, that also makes the issue of actually scheduling a bit harder…  because now it has become super flexible, and that can be a challenge. Especially as I’m not just trying to have a nice and relaxing time, but actually want to do a lot of things.

The way I went about trying to cope with that flexibility was to actually make long lists of everything. They are great not only because I tend to be good at finding things out – but I’m even better at forgetting what I found! So I often spend a lot of time looking up the same information. Now things are a little easier: I can go back to my list of things or places, and slot them into my schedule. For example, I have a list of new places I want to explore for lunch (I know this sounds completely mad…. but… ). So when lunch time comes, I can look down the list and figure out where I want to eat that day. That gives me some flexibility, and at the same time, it also allows me to explore lots of new places.  I know this sounds all a bit anally retentive, but I’m noticing just how much time I actually have to do the things I wanted to do – rather than doing the things that are easy (or even just doing nothing).

So now, I’m doing the schedule for the next day every evening before having dinner/doing something… I have read often advice that says do it before bed, but actually I found that a little difficult. Often I would forget by the time I’m home, or it just seemed like something I could quickly do the next morning. Therefore, I decided to move the scheduling towards the end of the “working day” (of course, sometimes I will still read or do things in the evening that are on the schedule!) This timing actually has two purposes: Firstly, I can think through what needs to be done the next day and pick what I want from my lists where necessary while it is relatively fresh in my mind… and secondly it actually gives me something to look forward to the next day. Generally I try to schedule tasks I don’t really like in the morning, and then a few more fun tasks in the afternoon. That way, my day gets better as we go along… and I can look forward to what is coming.

To be honest, the one thing I’m still struggling a bit with figuring out how to stick to my schedule… Not just because it is often hard to attribute a specific time for something. But actually I think that is ok. In the end, I’m still happier to be able to stick to 80% of what I had planned, rather than do nothing and then regret it afterwards. And at the end of the week I can still see that usually I have made massive progress on most of the things I wanted to do – so that really is the most important thing. And then, yes, I can really kick back and relax … and without the nagging feeling of “I should be doing this or that”… because if that feeling comes, I just put the culprit activity on a list, and I know it will be dealt with at some stage later.

Gamify yourself

Making changes probably involves a  few (or maybe even a lot) of new habits, from a daily morning meditation, reading everyday, calling friends or running three times a week – or whatever else you may have chosen to adopt. The question is, how can you keep those little important habits fun, without them becoming an onerous chore?
One of the things I have learned from my life as an academic is that it often just takes little twists to turn behaviour from onerous to fun and easy – and one of the most powerful ones for this is a tool called Gamification. And no, you don’t have to be a serious gamer to apply this… Continue reading “Gamify yourself”

It’s complicated: Seven easy ways to embrace uncertainty

When making radical changes to your life, such as redesigning your life, it is pretty normal to think that things will be complicated, maybe even so complicated, that it is best not to proceed. Those challenges come both from moving out of your comfort zone as well may come from others who see you making changes they might want to make (but think they are too complicated to do). It is easy at this point to fall into the trap and abandon the plan, coming up with obstacles and focusing on all the negative aspects.

After I had “designed” my vision of my future, I was often tempted to abandon the ideas simply because things felt complicated (really falling at the first hurdle). That is not to say it will always be easy (it won’t), but remember, the result will ultimately be a what you really wanted, because you are moving ahead strategically and focusing on achieving the ultimate goal: your dream vision.

When “complicated” struck me, feeling like the road ahead was like a wild mountain road, with many curves and complications …. I used the following seven ways to overcome my thinking: immediately challenging the “too complicated” idea – and avoiding mentally making lists why it won’t work, will fail etc – and therefore focusing my ideas on achieving the outcome (rather than running the risk of sabotaging it).

Throughout the process I learned that the “ it is too complicated thinking” is part and parcel of making changes  – it is a sign of progress. The problem is, that if you give in to the “complicated”, you will stand still at best – or setting yourself up for self-sabotage at worst. So taking “complicated” at face value is probably the most severe mistake you can make – the only way forward is to “challenge the complicated”. And often, it turns our a lot less complicated than you think.

To challenge the “complicated” thinking, here is what worked for me:

– Is it rational or irrational?
Often I found asking this simple question stopped the complicated thinking in the tracks: Many thoughts about things being complicated were pretty irrational – or alternatively, I could do something to make sure the complication was contained. For example, one night I imaged how complicated it would be to go flat hunting when not really speaking the language. I’m not sure why this particular scenario played out on my mind, but that was what it was. Of course, I could quickly challenge this by remembering how I flat hunted when moving to Spain: at the time I didn’t speak any Spanish. But after a bit of work I secured one of the nicest flats I have ever lived in. The point is, of course, that the fear is irrational: many people move without speaking the language – but that doesn’t mean they can’t do it or end up living under a bridge – or, worst, should give up on their dream. But just to be on the safe side, the next day, I also decided to look for a Portuguese course. Of course, speaking the language at least a bit will also be hand in other areas. Most importantly though, I moved forward, and didn’t let the “it will be complicated” ruin my plan.

– Best and worse case scenario
Rationally sitting down and working out the worst case and best case scenario also proved very helpful for me: Simply weighing up the potential benefits of achieving even just the main parts of my vision vs the potential worst case scenario quickly alleviated any thinking of “this is too complicated”.
In my case, it was simply a case of thinking through what would happen: It was easy to dramatically think about it in terms of “total failure” at this point. Don’t! Remember to be rational: In the worst case scenario, I would have spent a year or two taking time “out”, learning a new language, making friends and living in a place I like – before doing something else. Doesn’t sound quite so bad now, does it?
In the best case scenario… I will achieve all my goals, make my vision reality and live the life I want to live. Taking it like that meant that even in the worst case scenario I was still gaining from making the changes – so there was really no need to hold back.

– Give yourself some easy wins
Remember the planning tips from the “Lists and SWIPES: Getting towards a clear vision and designing goals” post?  … here those plans came in particularly handy: Because the tools allowed me to visualise and work on “easy wins” first, which meant I started moving towards my goal, I managed to gain more confidence. In fact, some of those wins can really boost your confidence.
Here is an example of an easy win: One of the seemingly complicated problems was simply getting a bank account sorted. Not really complicated at all with hindsight – but I felt it was complicated. Mostly, because in Portugal you need a tax number to open it. This felt like a massive task: going to a tax office, registering etc etc … I don’t know about you, but I have a chronic fear of anything to do with tax offices, officials and that sort of thing (mostly unfounded, I know!). You can imagine how quickly this would have turned into a massive list to stop everything. Eventually, during my stay in July, I decided to take the issue, and after morning class went directly to the tax office to register. Of course, I had imagined it to be massively complicated, and having to deal with a grumpy tax inspector and so forth… but actually it wasn’t half as bad. I also challenged myself to do this in Portuguese to give myself an easy win: So I prepared what I would say, looked up the words I’d likely need before hand – and walked into the tax office to get the number. As you can imagine, none of my “complicated issues” actually came true: There wasn’t a massive queue, instead, I was in and out within 30 minutes. The person wasn’t a grumpy person, but a really friendly woman who loved the fact that I made an effort to speak Portuguese (even if that meant pointing and gesticulating at some points)… and actually, when I cam out I felt massively more confident: not just had I “beaten” my fear of officials, I also proved that I could do it in Portuguese!

– Remind yourself of the goal
Another strategy was to simply visualise the goal again… and ask myself the question: will this simple “complication” really stop me? Keeping fixated on the goal helped enormously to put things into perspective, especially when combined with one of the other tools above. Consulting the lists again, the vision and imagining the outcome, in full “technicolour” … how it would feel, smell and sound like when I succeeded quickly alleviated any “it is too complicated” feeling.

– Immerse yourself
It is generally true that what is different is often seen with suspicion. Even if that “different” happens to be what you really want. Just think of a dish you don’t know what it is: many people would rather forgo the chance that to taste it, than to try it. Obviously, moving to a different country means a lot of “unknown dishes” – and not just in a culinary sense. The strategy I came up with was simply to introduce more and more things from the “unknown” into my life: I started reading the English newspapers published in Portugal. I started to look for Portuguese restaurants… listen to Portuguese radio stations. All of these were simple steps that made the unknown much more familiar – even before I was there.

– Talk
I also benefited a lot by talking to other people about the plans I had made: it actually had effects on three levels: Firstly it helped to clarify my own vision as I was explaining it to my friends and family. Secondly, it meant that often I discovered how many people had friends or stories which contributed to helping me refine the ideas and options. One friend, for example, made a similar move a few years back: talking to him was really helpful. Thirdly, by talking about it, I meant that I was increasingly publicly committing myself to doing it – making it more difficult to stop the process.
Also remember to talk to other people openly about your plan – and what it means for them: For example, some of my friends appeared fearful that moving would mean I would never see them again. I immediately challenged that by inviting them to come and visit me in Lisbon. For others, the move meant potential delays: For example, I have some co-authors and my publisher who are waiting for manuscripts. Talking openly to them allowed us to establish a time plan together and put their mind to rest, that, although I’m moving, I will still follow through on my commitments.

– Allow yourself time, but don’t stand still
An other important point was to allow myself a balanced time frame: making major life changes doesn’t happen overnight. But equally they don’t happen if you put them off. Sometimes time works in your favour: for example, I needed to give four months notice to quit my job. That time helped me to immerse myself, and prepare for the move etc… It would maybe have been easy to stand still at this point and simply work out the notice period, then start the move in quiet and… you can imagine. The trick for me was to keep the pressure strong enough to keep me moving forward: that meant working out the notice period while intensifying the language learning, moving preparations and so forth. In the end, that meant I never stood still waiting for something to happen – but I was continually moving towards my goal.

In the end, these strategies worked miracles for me to avoid thinking “it is too complicated” – and simply retreating into my comfort zone. I hope they are helpful for you when you are making important changes to your life. Remember: it always feels easier to to the same thing over and over again, to stay in your comfort zone – and all else will always feel complicated. But in the end, you can’t win by standing still. Accepting that feeling of complication is key to getting ahead. In fact, there isn’t anything new that isn’t at least a bit “complicated”. So embrace complications … and you’ll see just how many complications are just like hot air.

Lists and SWIPES: Getting towards a clear vision and designing goals

After completing the “list task” from yesterday, I achieved both a clear vision of where I wanted to be – as well as a concise list of things I liked, I was good at – and what I was proud of/had achieved.
The next step now was to map this onto the SWIPES framework. To do this, I used a simple table, allowing me to write the main goal (or goals) from the vision I created in the previous step next to each of the SWIPES dimensions.

But, of course, the purpose of this exercise was not just to create another list, but to create the outline of a plan moving forward and identify potential ways how to move forward:
To do this, I started to “rank” each goal from the vision: I decided to do this by using the following questions for each goal:

  • How close am I at the moment?
  • How important is this to me?
  • What is my ability to generate change (quickly)?
  • How confident am I in achieving change?

The first two questions allowed me to look at areas that were far, far off: For example, I had this vision (ever since studying in Southern Europe) of returning to live there. This was obviously very far off the mark (I was living in London), but it was something that I decided was important to me. I also realised, that at my age I was probably just about young enough to still do it (other than maybe retire there) and would still have the chance of building a “new life” there. Once I figured that out, other areas became a bit more relative to this very important goal: I could start to figure out what impact such a move would have, and how I could make these other goals reality while also moving.

The purpose of the last two questions was to start identifying areas I can focus on of achieve quick hits: For example, I know I’m quite an outgoing person, I have generally the ability to create social networks quite quickly and I’m quite confident about this. This worked well with my “top” goal of moving to Southern Europe again – though at the same time wasn’t something I could do something about immediately. Rather, I would have to wait until I had moved, but in the meantime I could explore options and think of ways of making new friends (and keeping old ones) after moving. As you can see, the questions, and the table started to clarify necessary actions, almost a timeline, in other words: they brought the somewhat abstract vision I had developed in the previous “list steps” to live, and allowed me to plan ahead.

SWIPES also helped me to see that my current vision had no mention for spirituality: I occasionally used meditation before, especially at times when I was really stressed. But to be honest, I hadn’t been consistent with it, only used it on/off – and couldn’t really say much apart from that I quite liked it and found it relaxing. But it just never played a role in my life, let alone was anything I would do habitually.

The result of all of this was a very, very clear vision of how my ideal life would be: And this allowed me to almost see a clear path to this. Why is this so important? Well… you could argue from “The Secret” version of the world: I have a clear vision and the universe will deliver.
Maybe less spiritually, I now had a perfectly clear vision not only where I wanted to be, but also started to be able to identify how I could get there.
In other words: I had the foundations and a vision of the house… and now the hard work could begin building it. Amazingly though, thanks to the clarity I had gained out of the planning process, I knew that every step I would take could be measured easily against it being effective as a way to achieve my vision. Thus, I could minimise distraction and wasted energy – and fully focus on moving ahead.

Pre-SWIPES work: Listing all the good things

While the SWIPES areas (or rather dimensions) are useful to define broad areas of a balanced and happy life, the first challenge was to apply these and start designing a possible plan for change. This was, of course a deeply personal exercise. In this post I describe how I used the framework to design my person “reset” and “reboot” – of course, please bear in mind that this may be a quite different process for you – it may be more gradual, it may be more rapid – and of course, the actual goals and visions are likely to be very different.

The aim of this first exercise was to start “planning”: while it would have been easy to jump to individual actions (do more sports? Eat more veg? Read more?…), many of these Continue reading “Pre-SWIPES work: Listing all the good things”

Redesigning my life: the SWIPES framework

When I first took a closer look at my life I realised that the easiest way to achieve positive change was to divide life into several categories – those that were essential to designing a happy and healthy life. Using an approach of looking at life in categories has the advantage that I could quickly see where I was doing well, and where I needed to focus on.  It also helped me to create a life vision – and where I wanted to be vs where I was.

Coming from an academic background, my first step was, of course, to start reading what others had written about this. Unfortunately that wasn’t an easy task, as many people seem to have written about it – claiming some sort of research base – but often never seemed to have gone through rigorous testing, let alone peer-review. There is a whole Continue reading “Redesigning my life: the SWIPES framework”