A Year of Challenges

Habits are a powerful tool for success, whatever that means to you. Through habits you can manage how you spend your time, how you eat, when you exercise, whether you floss, and myriad other little things which add up to bring you closer to being the person you want to be.

I stopped using a paper day planner quite a few years, but in 2016 I used a different kind of planner, not to keep track of day to day events, but to keep track of my goals.

The Ink+Volt Volt planner, designed by Kate Matsudaira (who wrote one of the chapters in The Architecture of Open Source Applications) includes pages to track yearly, montly, and weekly goals. But what I'm going to write about here is the Monthly Challenge page, which allows you to set yourself a new daily challenge each month, write down why you want to do the thing, plan to do it, and track your success.

These are the challenges I set myself for 2016, and what I learned from them.

January: A daily food journal

In 2015 I read The Diet Fix by Dr Yoni Freedhoff, and I was pursuaded that I could lose some weight if I put my mind to following his advice. One of the cornerstones of Dr Freedhoff's advice is to track (like, weigh, measure, and write down) everything you eat. I used the January challenge to do that.

The challenge went quite well; I succeeded for 25 days out of 31. However, the exercise pursuaded me that I don't care enough about losing weight to do this every day for the rest of my life. (That's another cornerstore of Freedhoff's system: whatever you do, you better be happy doing it forever, because as soon as you stop the weight will come back.)

Monthly challenges can be useful for figuring out what you don't want to do.

February: Cut out sugar

I know my body doesn't need sugar. I know eating sugar does all kinds of stupid things to my body. I have tried to cut out sugar before and seldom made it for more than a day, let alone a month. But I tried it again in February (the shortest month).

Something about this challenge worked for me — I was successful for 18 days out of 29. (Maybe more; I forgot to log four days). I didn't feel terrifically better, though, so I was happy to put this habit behind me at the end of the month. (I do love sugar.) But I will definitely do this challenge again. Maybe next February!

March: Write every day

Sometime in 2015 I decided to not beat myself up about not writing: it was something I thought I "should" do but never did, and that made me feel guilty and sad. It was good to lift that dead weight and allow myself to not write.

Then in 2016 I realized I did want to write — that writing is important to me and I should make it a priority. (What I want to write, and for whom, is still up in the air, but that is beyond the scope of this blog post.)

This challenge was moderately successful. I succeeded on 18 days out of 31, which isn't stellar, but I learned a few things, like that it's easier to write when the children are at school. (I didn't write much on weekends or over March break.)

April: Stay on top of housework

April's challenge was two-pronged: to fold and put away clean laundry every day, and to prep fruit and veg every week.

Laundry is my housekeeping nemesis. (The only reason I have only one nemesis is that I have a housekeeper who handles bathrooms and floors, and a robot vacuum cleaner.) I don't mind stuffing clothes into machines, or hanging them up, but once they're clean and dry I am helpless. The clean clothes sit around the house in those blue Ikea bags for days. Sometimes weeks!

Another housekeeperly thing I suck at is feeding myself and my family fruit and vegetables. I figured if I take time on the weekend to clean and cut up some produce, it would be easier to snack on or cook with.

This time I learned that I really only have to fold laundry on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday — the other days I'm not doing laundry, or I do the girls' laundry which they theoretically (!) fold themselves. I also learned that I often don't have time or energy during the weekend to cut up produce — or I'm not motivated to make time, even with this challenge to pursuade me.

I bailed on this challenge around the 18th because I was very busy with work and because I got sick. I have since gotten into a routine of folding all the laundry on Sunday morning, when I seem to have time to do it, the bedroom is nice and sunny, and there's usually something interesting on the radio.

The fruit and veg thing? I'm still working on that.

May: Look after myself

May's challenge was multifaceted, with a self-care focus:

  • eat extra fruit and veg
  • take fiber and fish oil supplements
  • work out and stretch
  • eat minimal sugar
  • eat minimal junk food
  • keep track of what I eat
  • go to bed early

It was a weird and oversized challenge, but none of those things seemed big enough to be a standalone challenge, and I they all seemed too urgent to put off to another month. I decided that if I did four or more of those seven things I would give myself a check for that day.

I ended up giving myself 15 checks out of the 27 days I kept track. (I don't know what happened to those other four days.) In retrospect this challenge had far too many moving parts, some of which were ill-defined (What is "minimal sugar"? What is "junk"?), and no particular plan for how to succeed. Good intentions, poor execution.

June: No complaining

One of my aims for 2016 was to get a grip on the anxiety and unhappiness which troubled me in 2015. Part of that, for me, is not dwelling on unpleasant thoughts. Also, sometimes I find myself getting caught up in recreational complaining, but that's not the kind of person I want to be.

My challenge for June was to focus on the positive both in my own thoughts and when talking to others.

We spent two weeks of June on holiday in England, which could have been a blessing or a curse for this challenge. Sometimes travel throws you a curveball or two, which can be upsetting if you have a particular idea of how your trip was going to go. Fortunately I'm a robust and good-natured traveller: I don't get motion sick, I can sleep anywhere, and when things go wrong I figure it's part of the adventure.

As a result, I did well with this challenge; I certainly kept it in mind through the month. However, I didn't track it, so I don't have hard numbers. (One of the habits it has taken me almost a year to acquire is that of taking stock at the end of the day, and noting whether I met my challenge.)

July: Write every day

Here we are again, writing every day. One of the lessons I learned all-too-recently is that there's no shame in trying again. And again. And again. I love to write but I'm still working on figuring out how it fits into my life. Until I work that out, the occasional monthly challenge forces me to at least do the thing — make room for it.

My focus for July was what I call therapy writing, that three-pages/750-words/morning-pages mental dump that various writing and wellness experts advise. I'm still not sure how much value that practice is for me, but I'm still in the throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks phase of my writing practice, so what the hell.

And I met the challenge 24 days out of 31.

August: Take care of my body

August's challenge was another multi-pronged one: fiber, fruit and veg, and no food after 8:00 pm.

Among many genetic blessings, my father bequeathed me a troublesome digestive tract. It's high maintenance and usually doesn't work as one might hope. One thing that helps, no matter what's going on in the lower reaches, is a daily dose of fiber supplement. Oddly enough, I nevertheless have trouble remembering to take it every day, so I made it a challenge.

August is peak fruit month in Ontario (unless you love apples) so I wanted to take advantage of the peaches, cherries, and other treats — as well as, you know, get nutrients and stuff. I set myself a goal of eating (don't laugh) four kinds of fruit or veg every day. My plan was to set out four fruits every morning so they would be easy to grab, to eat two fruits before lunchtime and one veg with lunch, and to write down all the fruit and veg I ate.

And finally, I was having trouble with acid reflux, which is such a gross, old-person-sounding condition I'm not even going to talk about it, except to say that I find it helpful if I don't eat for three hours before bedtime. (It turns out everything I eat after 8:00 pm is unalloyed junk anyway, so this is a win all 'round.)

Like all my multi-pronged challenges, this was hard to keep track of. Looking back I don't know how often I succeeded at which of these tasks.

September: Manage my time

September, the Other New Year, follows two months of unscheduled summer bliss. When my kids are off school, I'm off work, and we spend our days sleeping in, hanging around, and having adventures. September brings a return to school, work, and structure. I devoted the month's challenge to getting back into gear.

I created a weekday routine which made time for going to the gym, writing, working, housework, spending time with the children, and a decent bedtime. My challenge was to stick to that schedule and keep track of my daily use of time so I could identify trouble spots and refine the schedule if necessary.

This was a successful challenge: I only missed two days, apart from an eight-day stretch where I didn't note whether I was successful or not. (!)

October: 16:8 Intermittent Fasting

Ever since I read about intermittent fasting [paywall] in New Scientist in 2012 I've thought about giving it a try. The variation called 16:8 intermittent fasting involves not eating for sixteen hours, and then eating normally (or whatever) for the other eight. With the success of my attempt to not eat after 8:00 pm, I was halfway there: eight o'clock plus 16 hours is noon, so basically that's just skipping breakfast.

This challenge was an experiment: I wanted to see how fasting felt, whether it changed my energy level, and whether I could do it.

I met this challenge 22 days out of 31. I realized pretty soon that it was no fun on the weekend, when the kids are home and we have pancakes and stuff, but it's pretty straightforward on weekdays. And lunch tastes really good when you've waited sixteen hours for it!

November: Yes to gym, no to Starbucks

More healthy living in November, and another multi-faceted challenge: to go to the gym every day, waking up early if necessary; to avoid going to Starbucks; and to try 5:2 intermittent fasting.

I go to the gym most days, but when I go after the girls leave for school at 8:45, I'm not done working out and showering until 10:30 or 11:00. If I go before everyone is awake, I can be showered and at my desk at 9:30. My goal was to go to the gym every day, early on weekdays.

I had gotten into the habit of going for a latte at Starbucks almost every time I left the house, and I wanted to break that habit.

And finally I wanted to try the other popular IF method, where you don't eat at all (or not more than a couple hundred calories) for two full days (not consecutive) out of seven.

November's results were mixed. I did great on the Starbucks challenge — I only went twice, once because Blake was paying and once because I was waiting for Delphine somewhere and Starbucks was the only place to stay warm.

I made it to the gym 21 days out of 30, which is pretty good.

But the intermittent fasting was a disaster. I didn't make it past 2:00 pm on the first day, partly because I had a headache which I couldn't medicate without food. The second time I tried was not much better: I felt so miserable and hungry and headachy by midafternoon that I bailed without remorse.

A few days into the month I got sick with a rotten cold and a good dollop of anxiety, so I quit that part of the challenge — 5:2 intermittent fasting is not for me!

December: Write every day

Another writing challenge! Like the other March and July writing challenges, this one is quite amorphous: I just want to write something, anything, every day. This blog post counts!

At some point I want my writing practice to become more structured — I want to work on improving, and I want to work towards writing something specific. But for now I'm happy to just write every day, to stay in the habit of it and reap the benefits of putting my thoughts into words.

It's only the 23rd, but so far I have written on 18 days this month.

I looked over my journal from 2015 a couple of days ago, and I realized I only started setting goals in a deliberate way about a year ago. Setting goals is so natural to me, and so effective, that it seems amazing that I only just started. I learned a lot from my year of challenges, and I will apply those lessons next year. And I bet at least one of my challenges will be "write every day".