Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Does bibliotherapy actually work? (My two-years-on take)

When I started Tolstoy Therapy in 2012, I hadn’t yet heard of bibliotherapy. I launched the website to share my own brand of using books to feel better, and while I shared these ideas publicly, they were mostly for my own benefit. I never really thought about writing for others or having an audience.

When I did find out about bibliotherapy, it made complete sense to me. Yet putting a name to it doesn't really change much. So many of us use books as a therapeutic tool without needing to put a name to it. It’s simply one of many benefits of spending time in a good book.

If we look at some of the research, there are dozens of benefits claimed to be associated with bibliotherapy. Experts suggest that reading reduces stress levels by 67%, which most of us readers would probably agree with – it's one of our favourite ways to unwind for a reason. There are also studies suggesting we mimic the behaviour of our favourite characters, which is probably the area of research that's of most interest to me.

In my own informal, very unscientific and unqualified experience, bibliotherapy has been a great success. The books I've read have contributed so much to the huge personal changes I've undergone in the last few years, especially after I started making a more conscious effort to choose the right book for the right time.

I used books to…

As with many approaches to wellbeing, bibliotherapy needs to be accompanied by others too. In my case, these were EMDR therapy, building my confidence by travelling alonemoving away from my home village, and accepting that I was never going to be like most people. 

The latter made life a lot easier, especially in terms of overcoming my last major echoes of social anxiety. But, like many truths, it’s usually not enough just to hear them once – whether from yourself or others – and feel immediately better. You need to truly believe it. And follow a path to the point of understanding in your head. That tends to take some time. But you get there, especially when stars suddenly align and you find your courage. 

Here are some of my favourite articles I've published on bibliotherapy:

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Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Salute the life you didn't choose with help from Cheryl Strayed

One of the biggest changes of my last five years came during EMDR therapy, when my therapist asked me to imagine my ten-year-old self. He then asked me to tell her she was safe and had a good life ahead of her.

This all sounds like generic therapy stuff, but I think it really was a turning point. I had been stuck in the past, holding onto my old ideas of who I was and wasn't. It was then that I finally understood it was possible to break away and start afresh.

Every younger me seems like a different person now. Like a room of unfamiliar faces who occasionally stop by.

I don't want to say goodbye to them, I just want to look back fondly and pass on regards. To know how far I've come and how much was inside them all along. I'm proud of each younger me, but I know they are behind me for happy reasons. So if they show up, I can give a friendly wave and moment of acknowledgement. But then keep moving forward on my way.

This journey has been made all the better with some help from Cheryl Strayed's Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Someone Who's Been There. Here are the pieces of wisdom I wanted to share with you.

1. Salute the life you didn't choose from the shore

“I'll never know, and neither will you, of the life you don't choose. We'll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn't carry us. There's nothing to do but salute it from the shore.”

2. Continue to be bold and courageous

"This is who I am even if you’ll crucify me for it".

3. Do everything you can to avoid regret

"Do not reach the era of child-rearing and real jobs with a guitar case full of crushing regret for all the things you wished you’d done in your youth. I know too many people who didn’t do those things. They all end up mingy, addled, shrink-wrapped versions of the people they intended to be".

4. Read in your twenties... and keep reading

"go to a bookstore and buy ten books of poetry and read them each five times. Why? Because the truth is inside."

5. Sometimes, your choice is to build something better or let go

"Most things will be okay eventually, but not everything will be. Sometimes you’ll put up a good fight and lose. Sometimes you’ll hold on really hard and realize there is no choice but to let go."

6. Think about the future you

"I make lists. I attempt to analyze the situation from the perspective of my “best self”—the one that’s generous, reasonable, forgiving, loving, big hearted, and grateful."

"I think really hard about what I’ll wish I did a year from now. I map out the consequences of the various actions I could take. I ask what my motivations are, what my desires are, what my fears are, what I have to lose, and what I have to gain. I move toward the light, even if it’s a hard direction in which to move. I trust myself. I keep the faith. I mess up sometimes."

7. Make life lists

"Write down everything you don’t know about your future life—which is everything, of course—but use your imagination. What are the thoughts and images that come to mind when you picture yourself at twice the age you are now?"

"What is a good life? Write “good life” and list everything that you associate with a good life, then rank that list in order of importance. Have the most meaningful things in your life come to you as a result of ease or struggle? What scares you about sacrifice? What scares you about not sacrificing?"

"The sketches of your real life and your sister life are right there before you and you get to decide what to do. One is the life you’ll have; the other is the one you won’t. Switch them around in your head and see how it feels."

8. P.S. Your English degree isn't pointless

"I hope when people ask what you’re going to do with your English and/or creative writing degree you’ll say: Continue my bookish examination of the contradictions and complexities of human motivation and desire; or maybe just: Carry it with me, as I do everything that matters. And then smile very serenely until they say, Oh."

And finally, "know that all those stories, poems, plays, and novels are a part of you now and that they are bigger than you and they will always be".

You can get more sage snippets in Cheryl Strayed's great selection of quotes and wisdom, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Someone Who's Been There. After reading her bestselling Wild,  I went down a Cheryl Strayed rabbit hole with Tiny Beautiful Things and then Brave Enough: A Mini Instruction Manual for the Soul. I read the latter from a Copenhagen coffee shop, on my way back home after wandering around Greenland. It was a perfect choice.

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Monday, 28 November 2016

How to make your head the best possible place to spend time in (featuring Stoicism, Sherlock, and mindfulness)

Do you ever get told to get out your own head? To stop thinking? Yeah. It's a real challenge to stop overthinking on command. But I think we can reframe the solution. Instead of trying to stop thinking, we could focus on making our minds the best possible place to spend time in.

It all goes back over 1800 years ago to the Stoics, when Marcus Aurelius was Roman Emperor.

This is the man who wrote in his Meditations:

"Men seek retreats for themselves, houses in the country, sea-shores, and mountains; and thou too art wont to desire such things very much. But this is altogether a mark of the most common sort of men, for it is in thy power whenever thou shalt choose to retire into thyself. For nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does a man retire than into his own soul."

It is from Marcus Aurelius that I – and so many others – have learned how to adjust the mind's base state and maintain a deeper sense of tranquillity. With some conscious upkeep, this can provide both a retreat to seek out when we need it most and a more mindful way of approaching life's trials.

Here's what I've learned from Marcus Aurelius on making our mind a more rejuvenating place to be. The soul becomes "dyed with the colour of its thoughts”, after all.

Furnish your mind how you want it

In A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the first Sherlock Holmes story, Holmes says to Watson: "I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose".

This is a great description of the Holmesian mind palace, but I think it can also apply more broadly to the housekeeping we do in our minds.

I think of it this way. Your mind is the room you spend most time in. And the only interior designer or housekeeper it will ever have is you.

Stimulus goes in and it's up to you what you make of it. You decide if an external event is going to leave you calm and collected, propel you towards anxiety, or make you want to retreat into bed for the rest of the day.

Sometimes we make the right decisions. But often we jump to conclusions and get thrown in different directions by situations outside of our control. We lose control of the traffic and it soon becomes gridlock in there.

Redirecting incoming traffic and having quiet, sunny roads to drive down is a choice we can make at any time. It's about getting our authority back and deciding what's allowed in. Once we've done this once, we can do it again. And again. Until it becomes a habit and our go-to way of being.

"You have power over your mind - not outside events", wrote Marcus Aurelius, "realize this, and you will find strength”.

Our aim isn't to become Marcus Aurelius in sixty-six days, it's to exert just enough willpower to stop and briefly ponder whether something is in or out of our control.

Do this once, then once more, and keep going until it becomes a part of our mental furniture.

The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts. You decide what goes in.

Have time to enjoy the room

Once you have a lovely new room in your house, you sit and enjoy it. Pour a cup of tea and admire the beautifully decorated walls, the framed pictures, the furniture. You enjoy how comfortable and warm it is sitting there.

Pretty quickly though, it loses its appeal as something new and exciting. But if you keep it well-kept and clean, perhaps with a renovation or small change every so often, it remains a relaxing place to sit down and chill.

Why don't we do the same with our minds?

Take some time to look inwards. This might just be a few minutes of sitting quietly and focusing on the breath. I try and do this a few times a day, just to check in and see how my body is feeling.

I also sometimes like to bring up fond memories, beautiful mountain top views I've seen around the world, and thoughts of favourite places. This has a good way of filling me with happy and calm sensations.

You could also have some guided meditation or mindfulness, perhaps with the help of Headspace, Buddhify, or the Calm app. I find the Calm "body scan" exercise to be really useful – you can choose how long you want it to last so it best fits with your day. Although the idea of meditation is to be both relaxed and awake, I'm guilty of breaking the rules (guidelines?) and do it before falling asleep. I do try and check in when I'm feeling fresher as well, though.

Check in and make repairs

I really gained a lot from reading Search Inside Yourself: Increase Productivity, Creativity and Happiness by Chade Meng Tan. It's full of mindfulness and meditation exercises and handy tips to keep in mind as you become more present.

One idea I like: when meditating and unsure of your posture, try sitting like a majestic mountain. The idea is to think of your favourite mountain, say Mount Fuji or Mount Kilimanjaro, and then pretend to be that mountain when you sit. Also, don't raise the bar too high for your meditation practice: "I may be the laziest mindfulness instructor in the world because I tell my students all they need to commit to is one mindful breath a day. Just one. Breathe in and breathe out mindfully, and your commitment for the day is fulfilled; everything else is a bonus".

We can also help ourselves out by getting rid of the clutter. It's way too easy for us to use our minds as a sort of filing cabinet, holding everything we might possibly need to remember. Even if we do an exceptional job at this, it's tiring. It depletes our willpower and mental energy that could be spent on creative tasks or problem-solving.

To tidy up our mental clutter, David Allen advises in Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity and in his GTD system that we need to get things out of our mind. Anything that works for you goes – it could be on paper or in an app, it just needs to be externalised. Once you have it written down (and even better if it goes into a system with deadlines and priorities, so you know it'll be taken care of), you can commit your mind to more important things.

Use your mind as your best tool for a happy life

Where the head goes, the body follows. How we anticipate and interpret events dictates how our body will prepare or react. We need the right perspective to ensure the right actions.

One final bit of wisdom from Marcus Aurelius: “Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself in your way of thinking.”

Recommended books:

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

Search Inside Yourself: Increase Productivity, Creativity and Happiness by Chade Meng Tan

The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living by Ryan Holiday

The Obstacle is the Way: The Ancient Art of Turning Adversity to Advantage by Ryan Holiday

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Sunday, 27 November 2016

On living like Thoreau (or creating your modern version of Walden)

Since I first read Walden, Henry David Thoreau's account of his decision to live deliberately, I've dreamt a little of staging my own retreat into the woods. Like many an introverted, nature-loving bookworm has, I'm sure.

More than once I've googled modern-day walden to see what comes up (not too much, it seems, although "The Terror and Tedium of Living Like Thoreau" is worth a read). So, after Google disappointed slightly, I decided to put my brain to use.

What does my own modern-day Walden look like? Am I already living it? Are there any small choices I can make to bring it closer?

During my pondering, it quickly became clear that a lot of my choices in the last few years have brought me closer to my personal Walden. I had already incorporated my favourite parts of the book into my life.

I wonder, how might my life today be different if I had read different books? How has the life I've created today been inspired by those I have read? Or have they just helped me to define what I should prioritise? Whatever the reason, I'm glad of it.

Here's an exploration of my personal Walden and the building blocks of choices and priorities that it consists of.

- - - - -

I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. – Walden

1. Being in nature

Friluftsliv is a Norwegian word that often makes its way onto those beautiful words that can't be translated lists. It means, or so I'm told, living in tune with nature.

I don't quite live in the woods, and I think that would probably be one step too far, but I do live in a very small Swiss town with plenty of trees around. And lots of hiking routes (albeit ones I should make more consistent use of). Being able to look outside and see the colours of the season change, snow gather on the mountains, and cow bells jingle nearby is a real pleasure.

I want to read more books about people who escape from the hustle and bustle to actually live in the woods – successfully. Alexander Armstrong in his autobiographical Land of the Midnight Sun: My Arctic Adventures describes his brief stay with one couple doing the whole works (building the cabin, hunting for food, making jam) in Canada, but I haven't come across many similar stories in non-fiction.

We need the tonic of wildness...At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. ― Walden

2. Having everything I need

I arrived in Switzerland in August 2015 with my everyday backpack and a hand luggage suitcase. I'm trying to keep my belongings to a minimum, but mostly to keep clutter out. It's easier said than done, but I like everything I own to have some sort of meaning to me.

When I head out on an adventure, be it to the mountains or to the Arctic Circle, it's usually just the same bag on my back. It's funny how the same things tend to suffice for a day or so or two weeks.

All men want, not something to do with, but something to do, or rather something to be. – Walden

3. Keeping a small library

Rather surprisingly, this is where my own modern Walden falls slightly short. I hardly have any real books here with me in Switzerland – I usually read them on my Kindle instead.

No matter how much I love proper books, I don't want to end up with hundreds of books over here: it's just too heavy and not at all portable. Maybe Thoreau would agree with me on this. But I would like to bring some of my real favourite books over here. I do miss those.

Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations. ― Walden

Books I have here in Switzerland:

Penguin Little Black Classics –

Others on my kitchen bookshelf –

4. Oh, peace and quiet

Complete silence is something I long for during my day at work. My office is open plan, packed with people, and full of noise and distractions. Coming home, the only noise I hear is what I create. That and a few cowbells and occasional alphorn practice somewhere in the town.

It's blissful. And it means that when I sit down to write in the mornings and some evenings, there are hardly any distractions to deal with. Any barrier I come up against is usually in my head. And there's a good cup of coffee to help with that.

I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. ― Walden

5. Being able to sit back and look at the sky

I love how my windows show such a wide expanse of sky. It's beautiful to watch how it changes across a day, a month, and a season.

"People who are exposed to natural scenes aren't just happier or more comfortable; the very building blocks of their physiological well-being also respond positively." – Adam Alter, The Atlantic: "How Nature Resets Our Minds and Bodies"

6. And a healthy dose of the sublime

It's not just the sky that I find myself monitoring day by day, it's the mountains too. I look at them first thing in the morning and see what the visibility is like, what colour the sky is around them, what clouds are surrounding them. How much snow is there? How bright is the light shining on them?

I wonder if living in a mountain town might guarantee a slowly developing friendship with the local mountains; one with constant check-ins and curious and kind looks out of the window.

The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man's abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring. I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace. – Walden

What's your Walden?

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Saturday, 26 November 2016

Exploring the world with Tennyson to overcome anxiety: "for my purpose holds to sail beyond the sunset"

It can be very easy to stay in your own corner of the world, especially after building a life there that can't just be picked up and moved. But when courage calls you, it's often a signal for you to act on it.

During more transient times of our lives, this could mean packing a backpack and moving abroad. But a smaller scale adventure can be just as revitalising.

In June 2015, I had just finished my exams and was forced to think about what to do next. I hadn't yet applied for any graduate jobs (whether due to surprisingly good self-knowledge or just plain laziness). I had, however, booked a flight to Norway.

I'm still not entirely sure how I got to that decision. I just felt it was the right time. It was my moment to get a bit uncomfortable and start seeing the world.

So I flew to Oslo, took the train across Norway to Bergen, and then went on to Stockholm, Copenhagen, Hamburg, and Berlin. I was on the road for just over two weeks (I've since got much better at slow travel).

Sometimes it's just the right moment to go

I'd never travelled properly on my own before. I had lived in Barcelona for eight months of my degree, but during that time I never travelled outside the city with others, let alone on my own.

I had very little experience of proper solo exploration and being entirely out of my comfort zone. Changing that was one of the best decisions I've ever made.

Not only did my trip boost my confidence (and give me interesting things to talk about), it helped me get over the last echoes of the anxiety I'd been caught up in over the last few years.

Yes, I had improved my wellbeing an enormous amount through EMDR therapy and, of course, bibliotherapy, but I felt like I was still only 95% there. I needed a final push. And travel gave me that.

The Zion Church in Ilulissat, Greenland at 2 am. "For my purpose holds/To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths/Of all the western stars, until I die..." – Ulysses", Lord Alfred Tennyson

I was drawn to the top of the world map, up close to Iceland where I'd visited in 2006 and always longed to return to. I even spent some time trying to get to know the fascinating language and sagas over the last few years.

I decided this time to try something new; to see if I loved the rest of the north as much as Iceland.

I also needed to just get out and explore the world then. I'm so glad I listened to that urge when I did.

After my trip, I didn't end up finding a job and moving above the Arctic Circle (although I did wander around Greenland this summer to stay in touch with it).

I did, however, move to another beautiful place, Switzerland, in August 2015. And I'm still here, albeit in a different town from where I started (I wanted to downsize to an even smaller town, where it suits me better).

Hiking not far from where I live down to Lauterbrunnen, the beautiful Swiss valley that inspired Tolkien to create Rivendell.

If I didn't act on my courage, I know I'd be living at home, commuting with the other unhappy commuters to London every morning at six, and ascending the corporate ladder one unhappy rung at a time. Just like my friends are doing.

I know this makes many people happy - anything can make someone happy - but I know my friends aren't happy. And I know I wouldn't be.

In many ways I have it easy: I made the jump when it was easiest, just after I finished university and when I could go in any direction I chose. I just needed that little bit of courage. Which, thank you universe, came to me. And now I couldn't be happier.

I believe we each keep on getting such moments of courage, though. And it's up to us whether we want to act on them or not.

There are excellent moments to set off and explore the world, and there are bad ones. But I'm convinced that it's not always a bad time.

Kayaking between icebergs under the midnight sun in Ilulissat, Greenland on a solo trip in June 2016.

I still think of Lord Alfred Tennyson's "Ulysses", the poem which I described in 2012 as giving me the courage to separate myself from my past and keep moving forwards.

I still know it word for word (and I often recite it in my head to help me drift off to sleep), and I'd like to celebrate this section of the final stanza:

Come, my friends,

'T is not too late to seek a newer world.

Push off, and sitting well in order smite

The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars, until I die...

I hope it helps you to also realise what your "purpose holds" and shed light on what you're best served by seeking next.

Read the full poem –

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match'd with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees; all times I have enjoy'd
Greatly, have suffer'd greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Thro' scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour'd of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy,
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!
As tho' to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the scepter and the isle—
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro' soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil'd, and wrought, and thought with me—
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

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Friday, 25 November 2016

Designing a life that makes you as happy as possible

I’m proud of the life I’ve designed for myself. “Designed” might seem a bit too moulded (how much can we really control?) but I think it’s the right word.

This piece is about how I’ve created the best framework for my life, creativity, and wellbeing by making the right choices available to me. It’s about doing what we can to design and manufacture our perfect day and letting the universe take care of the rest.

Of course, books were my chief companion in my own life design adventure, especially these pieces of non-fiction:

“Designers don’t agonize. They don’t dream about what could have been. They don’t spin their wheels. And they don’t waste their futures by hoping for a better past. Life designers see the adventure in whatever life they are currently building and living into. This is how you choose happiness.” – Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans

After a year or so of conscious and unconscious life design choices, here's what I'm doing now to make my day-to-day as joyful as possible. Will it change? Almost certainly. But for now, I'm very glad about the decisions I've made. 

I moved to the mountains

All hail the freedom of being unmarried, childless, and having a Swiss work permit. I know this isn’t something that everyone can do, but what’s your version? What can you do? 

When I’m done with work, I come back to my own peace and quiet in a town in a Swiss valley with a population of 4,000.

I have time and space to sit and read, think, and write. I have plants I like, tea I enjoy brewing, and a few favourite books.

I pay more rent than I perhaps should, but I maintain that it’s a good deal. Having my ideal living space adds so much to my base levels of calm and happiness.

“Mountains, according to the angle of view, the season, the time of day, the beholder's frame of mind, or any one thing, can effectively change their appearance. Thus, it is essential to recognize that we can never know more than one side, one small aspect of a mountain.” ― A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami

I changed my approach to habits

Read: Your own instruction manual (or favourite novel – that might also work)

Next up: habits. I started reading Gretchen Rubin’s Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, but it didn’t do much for me. I didn’t like how everyone had to be a certain Type with a Capital Letter. I decided to take habits into my own hands instead and I’ve done alright.

What I’ve found for me is that everything has to slot together. If I just want to build a habit of spending half an hour on Duolingo every day, it doesn’t happen. But if I slot it in after a habit I’ve already formed, it does.

For me, a “first comes X, then Y and Z” approach works for building habits. For a maximum for 3 tasks slotted together as a group. For instance, in the morning I get up (1), brush my teeth (2), and then turn on my laptop to settle down for some writing time (3).

The view from my dining room table of the Swiss Alps is better entertainment than any television.

I designed my day with happiness-bringing habits

The habit that adds the most to my happiness is something that I knew was important since I was sixteen. Waking up between five and six o’clock in the morning to do my most important work: creative, thoughtful work that has nothing to do with my 9 to 5. 

Despite knowing how much I love early mornings, I’ve kept straying from the habit and have only just nudged myself back. As soon as I did get back to it, I knew I needed to keep myself here. Even if it means telling people I love that I can’t speak to them after 9pm because I need to wind down for bed. And not letting my routine slip when staying with friends or going on trips.

One of the main incentives to get back into my early rising - and using the time to get back into writing - was reading The One Thing by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan. I’d heard about the book three or four years ago and dismissed it a bit as same-old personal development, but it really is good. One of the top books I’ve read in 2016, in fact. 

Read it and keep asking: “What's the ONE Thing you can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” You can see my book notes over on my other website.

"Instead of a to-do list, you need a success list—a list that is purposefully created around extraordinary results". – The One Thing by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan

Now that I'm almost done consolidating my morning writing habit, I’m thinking about what habit is up next. Meditation, perhaps? I know that’s also good for me. It’s just so easy to let it slip without having a habit in place.

I let myself be me (even in unsociable quantities)

Read: Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

"Faking it never works. If you don’t believe me, read Richard Wright. Read Charlotte Brontë. Read Joy Harjo. Read Toni Morrison. Read William Trevor. Read the entire Western canon." – Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

Another way I’m designing a happy life is to just be me. It goes without saying that I’m not a huge fan of socialising. I cherish my alone time. And sometimes I can come across as a bit rude. But as long as I'm happy, I cultivate my important relationships, and I approach life kindheartedly, I think it’s ok. 

If you listen to the people who say you’re the sum of those you spend the most time with, then I must be becoming more of a peace-seeking, occasionally adventuring bookworm every day that I hide out in my house. Ahem.

Staying at work to drink cheap alcohol doesn’t add to my happiness. Nor does it let me live the life I want to be living, or create the things I want to create.

One of my main guiding pillars is to create useful things and share what I know. I know this gives my day-to-day most meaning, rather than trying to be someone I’m not to please people who aren’t close to me.

I put my creative work where it belongs

Read: The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp
The ONE Thing by Gary Keller
Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

“Do whatever brings you to life, then. Follow your own fascinations, obsessions, and compulsions. Trust them. Create whatever causes a revolution in your heart.” ― Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

It is first thing in the morning when I do the work that makes me feel happiest and most useful. There’s little that makes me more unsatisfied than focusing solely on my job: waking up, going to work, working my ass off, coming home, and going to sleep. Especially when I feel that my work isn’t always valued fully.

I’ve found that for me, it’s crucial that I put my creativity and writing ahead of my job and give it the time and attention it deserves. I tried writing in the evenings, but I don’t have the time or energy. But now, with my early rising habit, by the time I leave for my “proper job” at 8 am I feel like I’ve had a productive day already. My “own work” is done, and my best energy supplies have contributed to something I can really feel proud of. That makes me feel incredibly happy and leads to truly brilliant days.

Find out when your willpower and commitments are most conducive to working on your projects. For you, it might be working in the evenings or during your lunch break. And protect that time with steel reinforcements. Guard it with your life. Otherwise the rest - that other stuff outside your control - becomes your life.

What would your perfect day look like?

What decisions have you made lately to make your day more fulfilling? What about less stressful? Are there any small changes and tweaks that come to mind which could make a big difference when done habitually?

To help you with your own life design projects and ongoing tweaks, the Myers Ideal Day exercise is also a useful tool to set aside an hour to do. It asks questions such as:

  • If your life could be anything you wanted it to be, what would it be right now(Where would you live? Who would your friends be?)
  • How would you spend your time, if you could do anything you wanted?
  • Would you work? If so, what would you do? If not, what would you do?
  • What do you want to learn? To know? To be? What else would be a part of your perfect life?

The PDF seems to have been taken down from online, but there seem to be a few similar versions online. Here's a good post by Tiny Buddha for starters. To say the obvious yet unhelpful, it's also easy enough to get started without the aid of the internet. You know yourself and what's important to you better than anyone else. Well, and there are also the books cited at the top of this piece.

For me, I found it most helpful to ask these questions:
  • In my perfect day, when would I wake up? Where? What would I do in the first hour after waking?
  • What would my perfect evening look like? When would I fall asleep? How long would I spend winding down and how would I do it?
  • In my ideal day, what creative work would I do every day without fail? What else would be non-negotiable?

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