It is probably the most cliché thing to start a blog post by saying 2020 was a hard year for everyone involved, but it is unfortunately the truth (and relevant to what I want to talk about). As hard and terrifying as living through a global pandemic, there was a small silver lining in that people were abruptly confronted with all the little ways their lifestyles weren’t working for them. I know I wasn’t alone in realizing that I needed to make some big changes in my life moving forward. What was harder for me was figuring out how to actually affect those changes in a meaningful way.
I want to start by painting you a picture of where I was at in early 2020. A few years prior, I’d worked myself into a burnout so bad that it honestly felt like the complete obliteration of the self. After a couple of years in therapy and on SSRIs, I was on much better footing, mental health wise. The rest of my life was still in tatters. Recovery is not an easy thing, and often a lot falls to the wayside, like chores, hobbies and personal relationships. And that’s assuming I had good habits to begin with (I did not). So in 2020 I was stuck at home, unemployed, and needing to learn how to be more of a functioning adult.
If the first step in making changes to your life is admitting you need to, then the second step is (like most things) jumping on Google to find out what the steps after that are. On this subject, you’ll be presented with a veritable feast of advice from sage bloggers across the spectrum, all offering easy tips and motivational poster worthy one-liners. You can easily lose yourself reading about the 7 habits of successful people, or why doing push-ups every day will change your life, or the virtues of drinking gallons of water a day, or whatever fad advice is this week. I definitely fell into that trap, only instead of helping, I ended up feeling increasingly insecure and awful about myself.
It took me a while to really figure out why that is. In the meantime, I decided to stop reading articles and mostly disregard all the advice given. (This is not to say there aren’t any nuggets of truth to be found, more that none of it felt right for me.) Maybe it’s because I’m a particularly stubborn person when it comes to being told what I’m supposed to do, but I started seeing better results when I muddled through on my own. Sometimes the trick is to just do the work.
The things I learned about building new habits were largely not the things I had read about in a plethora of self-help blogging. The two most important things were to start small and be consistent. A big trap I fell into (and that I think most people fall into) is this idea that you have to jump head first into everything all in one go if you want to see results. It doesn’t work that way, and you’re just setting yourself up for failure. You have to build your way up to meaningful change. Which leads me to the second thing I learned:
Set yourself reasonable goals and celebrate every milestone on the way. We all have what Emily Nagoski, PhD refers to as our happy little monitors. This is the part of our brains that is concerned with goal setting and rewarding us for meeting our goals with those lovely happy chemicals. It is incredibly common for people to set impossible goals, which can lead to a cycle of disappointment. The best way to combat this is to get very real with yourself. Figure out what your ideal is, but then figure out what you can realistically achieve where you are right now. Once you establish your current baseline, you can chart out how to get yourself up to your ideal incrementally. This is where starting small comes in. If your goal is to run 5 miles every day, you’re more likely to achieve your goal if you start out at half a mile and consistently show up and keep pushing a few steps further on each run.
Lastly, I learned that you really need to find a way to hold yourself accountable. Personally, I found bullet journaling to be the most helpful, but it’s not the only way. There are lots of habit tracking apps out there, or you can set up a spreadsheet to track your progress, or find a friend who has similar goals and undertake the journey together. Whatever works for you as long as it helps you stay consistent.
None of these things are particularly ground-breaking or earth-shattering. So how come none of the self-help blogs I’d turned to actually said any of this? My guess is you’re not going to buy their e-books or sign up for their newsletters and webinars if they just give it away like that. The self-help industry is incredibly lucrative because it’s mainly frequented by desperate and unhappy people who are desperate for an easy solution to a better life. And let’s face it, what’s easier than opening your wallet? It’s a grift, even if well-intentioned. There is no magic bullet except showing up every day and putting the work in.