My Happiness Project

Bluebird image from Gretchen Rubin's Happiness ProjectI’ve started a Happiness Project.  This has nothing to do with the new year, by the way, although it might have something to do with winter.   I’ve had a stretch of a scary bad time, so I figured it was time to recruit my natural list-making and determination selves for some change.

I pulled out Gretchen Rubin’s popular The Happiness Project for reference, and ended up reading it again.  It seemed more enlightening this time, and I found useful things that I didn’t remember seeing the first time.  For one thing, I’m married now, which makes a lot of her tips and experience in her marriage more relevant.

My husband has this amazing facility for change.  It seems that all it takes for him to make lasting behavioural changes is to notice and decide he wants to change it.  Much later I’ll notice that he doesn’t do that thing anymore.  He doesn’t write down intentions, make daily review sheets or success charts.  This amazes me, because I can’t imagine doing such a thing without paperwork.  This is where The Happiness Project really sings to me.  The whole plan is detailed and ultra-specific, she values the organization of physical environment to support goals, and everything revolves around a list.

That’s no exaggeration.   The book is really a riot of lists upon lists nested in lists, a perfect comfort for a certain type of person who’s into that, like me.  For example:  Resolutions (for example Sing in the Morning, Pursue a Passion), 12 Commandments (like Identify the Problem and Enjoy the Process), Secrets of Adulthood (like People actually prefer that you buy wedding gifts off their registry,  and If you can’t find something, clean up), True Rules (such as Whenever possible, choose vegetables), and Four Splendid Truths (The days are long, but the years are short).  Since they’re all sort of rules, intentions, or resolutions, they get confusing, barring the Splendid Truths, which are more philosophic Principles of happiness.  In fact, now there are 8 Splendid Truths.

Also, as she discovers over her year, the most important key to success was her Daily Resolution Chart.  I’ve known that for a while.  Reminding oneself of the goal, and some act of acknowledging when you succeed (like checking off a list, or writing down “celebrations”) tells a deeper part of your mind that that is what you want; that is the direction you want to change.  Then your sub-mind can easily create more of it.

I found that during the project design phase, I found that the things I wanted to do sifted into two categories:  vague intentions, such as to be nicer, say no less, and be healthy; and completable goals, like write a book.   In the second category, you know when you’ve done it.  The challenge is to distill the first category into measurable quanta, or “action items”.  The old standards about goals- make them specific, measurable, reasonable, etc – are very important, otherwise there is no clarity about whether or not you’ve accomplished the goal.  Also, without bringing an idea from notion to action, it stays indefinitely out there in the realm of “someday intention”.

Designing a happiness project is no joke.  It takes some time, rather proving that clarity of intention is a vital step, and a process in itself.  I started with  borrowing a few ideas from the book and choosing the most important of my own to “action”. Of course, I already had ample lists of dreams, intentions and hopes to draw from.  In fact, they are all currently organized in one place, which gives me great joy.

Here are some of my Intentions:
Maintain my friendships by writing letters and remembering birthdays (off to a bad start already)
Notice the shoulds (and do the Work).  Every “should” is a message and a signal to be addressed.
Be nicer.  I make no effort to be nice, in general.
Nurture my marriage.
Cultivate discipline.
Improve health.
Eliminate backlog.
Get plenty of sleep and wake up early.
Find more time.
Write when I feel the urge.
These are the vague ones.  The category two goals are ready-made (I don’t care to share them) and only waiting for attention.  They don’t need to be teased out into actionable, achievable increments.

Right away, I knew that this wasn’t going to be a year-long serial plan, like Gretchen’s.  She took one one specific focus for one month at a time, stacking the next month’s activities onto the previously established ones.  That has some advantages, because you can get a habit well ingrained in a month and be ready to take on another.  Not for me, though.  I’ve never had that long a view, and I couldn’t sideline anything to focus on another without anxiety.  So I have to figure out a way to fit all the things that need regular attention into a much shorter time frame.  I chose a week by week plan, with some projects, by priority, the focus of any given week, and once they’re complete or in motion, the next comes in to replace to stack on.  Then there are the minor daily things.  Not minor, in the big picture, but actions that don’t take long in themselves.  Like flossing, or exercising.  Do something every day, and it becomes who you are.  Good or bad.  Read, get angry, and write daily, and eventually you are a well-read angry writer.

However, I looked at my various lists with a critical eye and immediately saw the thing standing in the way:  backlog.  I carry a list of things I’ve wanted to do and especially projects I started but didn’t complete, and that list stops me from starting new things.  I’m not finished the old things.  I think of something to blog about, and at best I make a note, because I “really” need to be catching up on all those other posts I haven’t posted.  It extends as far as books and movies I’ve carried around for years that I want to “catch up on”, and is continually holding me back from new growth and new ideas.  Obviously, the backlog is the place to start.  First I culled the lists to things that I still do want to do, and let go of the things that I only once wanted to do.  I made an incremental plan for clearing that backlog of projects, books, movies, etc, and although it is projected to take 11 weeks, that’s 11 weeks, compared to the years that some of those things have weighed on my lists and my mind.  11 weeks is a whole lot sooner than never, at the current rate.  I am prepared to do the grind work of finishing, which I also know will be rewarding in the completion.

Most motivating is imagining the freedom of being able to have an idea and begin it.  Now.  Instead of sadly shoving it off to a wait list.

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