Better Habits Challenge

12 Steps to Zen: #12 Temperament

When I resolved to change my habits and ways of thinking at the end of 2014, it totally seemed doable. I’d had a good run in my first five months of parenting (seasoned parents I can hear you laughing from here), I’d managed to keep at my deadlines and the various obstacles on my path to wellness – the house build, my new blog, my book etc – didn’t seem that daunting. But I’ve always been a little slow to catch on to things, and dare I say it, a little naive.

Fast forward two or three months and early into 2015 I am feeling completely differently. The house build is still going nowhere (again, I’m building with family, which brings with it a whole host of pros, cons and delays), work for my husband and I seems crazy, and even though I am still committing to moving as frequently as possible, it seems that everything in my everyday is eating at my resolve, threatening my undoing.

February was going to be my time for mental change: I had chosen to focus on meditation, because I figured that by being more mindful of what I was doing in each present moment, I could better complete each task and breeze through the rest of the changes with ease. But I didn’t commit to it, and February passed without me meditating for more than three whole minutes in the entire month.

As February began winding down, I realised that maybe this was meant to be. When I planned out my Better Habits Challenge, I put meditation second and put temperament all the way at the end, but as March approached that I had subconsciously been working on my temperament for much of February, without even knowing it.

I had forced myself to be hopeful of good triumphing over evil when week in, week out I was bombarded with negative news stories. I lost heart over race-related deaths in the US, feared the spread of the IS threat, pained over Boko Haram’s burning of thousands of people, lamented the attacks on European Jews and cried over the genocide of the Arab World’s Christians, something that has been ongoing for years but has recently amplified with the growth of IS. The beheading of 21 Copts on the Libyan shore – the bloodied aftermath I accidentally caught on uncensored Arabic news in my parents’ home – weakened me for days and I would spend nights whispering to my husband in the dark, fearing for my daughter’s freedom when she was our age: it seemed that the world I had grown up in had taken a massive turn for the worst.

Needless to say, I hit a bit of a slump. Although I have always had a positive nature, this time things felt really different. I knew had to get myself out of the slump for my daughter’s sake, but I also had to stop and think every time I complained about one of my problems, which were minuscule in comparison to the real problems experienced on a daily basis all around the world.

Ere go, working on my temperament. How would I find the delicate balance between being aware of my privileges and also sympathetic to the plights of other people? How could I remain hopeful – which was the essence of life as far as I was concerned – when it felt like everything around me was crumbling?

It felt like it would take a lot of energy to keep me at my normal, optimistic demeanor. Especially because that other ‘good’ in my life – my writing – seemed to be falling to pieces too. And I didn’t know how to deal with that because it was my bread and butter and something that put joy into my life when I felt like there was no joy left. It was only recently that I realised that I could sum up what I do perfectly, and I loved that summation: I’m a storyteller. I write stories, I read them, and I share them. In different formats and on very different mediums but whether they’re pictures or blog posts or interviews or fiction books, they’re all stories.

And not all stories are blemish free. There’s drama and complications and resolutions and antagonists. And the characters just keep on being.

So maybe all it takes for me to get to that mental zen of temperament is reminding myself that I am just a character in this big, wide world of drama and complications and antagonists, and that I too, will just have to keep on being.

There won’t be resolutions for everyone, but I’m here in the story, so I might as well make the most of it.

Which in the spirit of story telling and story sharing makes me a little curious: how do you deal with the big bad woes of the world?






12 Steps to Zen: #1 Movement

I’ve never really been a particularly active person. I suck at team sports, have zero coordination, and I’d rather lay on a couch watching reruns and reading books than being outside, where the sun gets into my eyes and where there are people and where I have to wear pants.

To make it worse, I have shamefully been fat on the inside for a very long time, and even though I always ate lots of sweets and desserts, my diet took a turn for the worst post-baby. I hadn’t had soft drinks more than twice a year since I was about 14 and all of a sudden I was drinking them, eating less fruit and vegetables, and a lot more takeaway. And I was consuming the same amounts of sweet treats as I did before, but there was no incidental activity to help burn them off. I spent a lot of time indoors holding a baby in my lap, feeding her a bottle while sitting on the couch, responding to emails from my desk chair and watching lots of TV in bed. I was still thin, but I wasn’t healthy. I lived a very sedentary lifestyle, and I knew that it would eventually catch up with me.

It was also affecting my marriage. My husband doesn’t let a thing get in the way of his workouts, and he has a body that shows it. But no matter how many times I spun the ‘it’s what’s on the inside that counts’ line, he wouldn’t buy it. This wasn’t about the way that I looked, this was about treating my body right. Every two days he would ask me to exercise, and every two days I would either start a fight, or make up some excuse about it. And on the off chance where I would join him, I would spend the entire time swearing, threatening divorce or ‘chucking’ tantrums. I’d never done any interaction with him without a hefty dose of drama on the side, and exercise was no exception.

I’d never done any interaction without a hefty dose of drama on the side, and exercise was no exception.

But in my bid to start doing things better this year. I knew I had to change. And so ‘movement’ became my theme for January. I figured it was important to start the year off with a bit of a spark and nothing sparks quite like a strong and able body. I also figured that I would need all the endorphins possible to get me through January, which involved two weddings, book edits, a blog relaunch, a return to work and two freelance deadlines.

Despite all the unhealthy habits I waffled on about above, I loved to walk. My walks, though occasional, were idea churners, internal dialogues that relieved me of stressors, avenues for calm in an otherwise constant life. But to my husband, they weren’t enough. I needed to do more.

Leo Babauta’s 52 Changes, which was the premise for this challenge, said that as well as regular exercise, strength training is ideal. It boosts strength and confidence, physical appearance, health and focus. A female friend gave me more reason to do it (in laywoman’s terms): strength training makes you strong enough to hold onto heavier things (erm, babies and groceries, at once), hold on to things for longer, increases your stamina and improves posture and balance – all things which I desperately needed to improve on.

With Leo’s theories about making small changes as opposed to big ones cemented in my mind, and the desire to fit back into the non-stretchy versions of my existing trousers and jeans, I followed my husband outside one night and did one workout. It took forever, my legs killed for days after, and I hated him for pushing me to do weight levels and repetitions that had me REALLY struggling. It wasn’t a resounding success, but it brought a little peace to our relationship because I was making an effort, and I was a little proud of myself.

my legs killed for days after, and I hated him for pushing me to do weight levels and repetitions that had me REALLY struggling.

The problem though: it was bloody hard. It required a level of commitment that’s bigger and deeper than walking. You have to push yourself to newer limits, often hurting yourself in the process. Anyone who has had to sit down after a day of doing legs can attest to this. But the sense of accomplishment post-session is amazing. It almost makes it worth it.

Two days after, Husband had me do an upper body workout. I failed miserably at chin-ups and cheated a little bit when he wasn’t looking, but I did my time. Two days after that, I did a circuit in the backyard. He wanted me to go six times and I wanted to do three. I think I did five rounds of the circuit before using the baby as an excuse and stopping. But I had put in the effort.

And then something strange happened. The next day, I had no time to do exercise and Husband worked all day and well into the evening. I was in bed when he came home, writing notes. He didn’t bug me to move so I didn’t. The day after was a super-busy one. I ran around all day buying things for a get together we were having and preparing dinner. I ate. I bathed my daughter and put her down for a nap.

It was then that I had a flashback to one of Sarah Wilson’s posts, in which she wrote that the importance of exercise was just to move. And I suddenly noticed a massive urge to move. I just needed to get up and have that pump going through my body. I put on my runners and did a brisk walk and at some points jog for exactly 20 minutes. That’s all I set out to do. But when I got home, it didn’t feel like enough. I had more in me. So I did this, and although it took longer than eight minutes, I worked up a sweat and those two little things, which took up less than 35 minutes of my time, put me on a high.

I set out to move knowing that’s all I needed to…No daunting weight-loss goal, no set program, no big expectations

It felt great. Better than anything else I had felt in ages. And all it took was the word ‘move’. I did what I could, and nothing more, and worked my way up. I set out to move knowing that’s all I needed to. There was no daunting weight-loss goal, there was no set program, there were no big expectations. No pressure. I just let my body determine what it wanted and needed, and went from there.

In the process, I got a little closer to my goal for ‘betterness’.

And I liked it.

12 Steps to Zen: A challenge for 2015

It’s time to find my zen. I’m not Buddhist, so I am not chasing what the word actually means, but I am searching for some relative calm amid the storm that is my everyday life. Late last year, I discovered Zen Habits, a blog with a premise of living simpler, and being more productive in all facets of life as a result. I was immediately drawn to it: I waste time, despise clutter but find myself constantly battling it, and am in desperate need of focus. So I’ve decided to see how I fare with Leo’s advice: in addition to reading his blog, I’m challenging myself to adapt as many of his 52 changes as I possibly can into my everyday life, in an attempt to see if they will cure this lacklustre attitude I seem to have to everything at the moment.

To the outsider, I might seem crazy. What lacklustre attitude? What lack of focus? After all, I am a girl whose instagram is a show reel of lovely outings and pretty purchases, and my CV boasts a decent set of achievements including a published book and a past job teaching at University level. It’s not my intention to sound conceited: if I want to make a change, I have to look at myself with honest – good and bad bits included. But no matter how things look on the show reel, they’re not as shiny on the inside. We’re told that we are the sum of our own stories, so, after some significant reflection, I’ve decided it’s time I steer my story in a different direction.

After some significant reflection, I’ve decided it’s time I steer my story in a different direction.

I didn’t always feel this way. I was 21 years old when I finished my Masters degree with Merit at my dream University, graduating on my 22nd Birthday with a Distinction average on my transcript and a ticket to Europe in my travel wallet. I had a decent job that I’d planned to come back to, a gorgeous boyfriend who had also just graduated, and I was saving up to buy an investment property. Things were sweet, and I was happy. Life was complete bliss.

When I returned from my trip however, I was a little depressed. And as time went on, I realised it wasn’t just post-travel blues. I quit my job because I wasn’t challenged by it, and decided to freelance while starting an online mag with my friend Liv. But I never gave either pursuit the attention it deserved – I just could not focus. So I tried something else: I got another job, and decided to pursue further education as a research student. I enrolled in a doctoral program, and started working on a thesis. But I couldn’t focus on that either.

Then I got made redundant. I was glad. My job drove me insane. I was bored by it, and by then, I was officially diagnosed as clinically depressed. ‘It’s common in creatives,’ I was told, but knowing my condition wasn’t a rarity certainly didn’t help when I had thoughts of ending it all. To top it off, I came from a Middle-Eastern culture, where people still thought mental illness was taboo. I was told that I had nothing to be ‘sad’ about, I needed to just get over it. So I trudged along.

Over the next couple of years, the depression went away. I got married a few months shy of my 25th birthday. I travelled some more. Things got better. But nothing was ever the same again. I wasn’t the same person anymore. It was like the depression had taken my focus away completely. It took years to write my book, I never focused on my blog, and I would treat every other project I started with gross abandon – no matter the time or money invested into it, no matter how successful it was getting. I eventually dropped out of my research degree and thought I was fine with it, and I didn’t pursue the grand marketing ideas I had to promote my first book. If things weren’t going right, it’s because I made a half-arsed attempt at them.

It was like the depression had taken my focus away completely.

After having my baby, I realised I am not fine with a lot of the stuff that has happened over the last few years. Don’t get me wrong, I know I am incredibly blessed. I have a decent perspective on things. But that perspective has also given me the opportunity to acknowledge that things could get better if I actively try to improve them. That I could probably focus on those things that I want to achieve if I put some effort in.

Now that I am a mother, I might not go back to uni for a long time, if ever. But I can do other things. I could implement a routine for my mornings, exercise more, learn to meditate, make something of my blog, learn a new skill, tick more things off my bucket list. But to do all that, I have to stop myself from sinking into the quick sand that is modern life. Filling my life with both tangible and digital stuff. It’s no secret that there are a billion things competing for our attention, but are those things worth it?

It’s no secret that there are a billion things competing for our attention, but are those things worth it?

In my early months of instagramming, I took a photo of a page in Kerrie Hess’ book Shoe String Chic: 101 ways to life the fashionably luxe life for less. I was already an investment shopper, but I was really impressed that she outlined that Parisian women have enviable closets because they buy less, choosing instead to spend more money per item. That passage transformed my thinking – first towards my closet, and then towards my entire life. I wanted to pare back my lifestyle, because I wanted to make sure that the things that I did have in my life were the most important, and more importantly, that I was giving them adequate attention. I didn’t want any more half-arsed attitudes to anything.

Which brings me back to Leo’s advice: I’ve decided to set myself a challenge. I’m going to try make some changes in my life over the course of this year. I’ve purchased Leo’s e-book, 52 changes*, and have slowly set about amalgamating them for the sake of brevity, relevance to my life, and potential for change. My aim is to use the 52 Changes book, as well as the general inspiration behind his blog and others to break my resolutions down into 12 achievable blocks of change for the coming year, which I will blog about here.

As I write this, I am decidedly focused. I hope that focus doesn’t waver, but by sharing my journey here, there’s some accountability to it all. If I lose, I’m the only one to suffer, but if I manage to do at least some of it, I might one day have hope of re-experiencing the bliss of that 22 year old girl, proud as punch on her graduation day, the world at her feet and a whole lot of sparkle in her eye – confident of her direction and steadfast in her dreams.


Feel like joining me in the challenge?

I’d love to share this journey with you, as I feel like we could all learn from one another and how we have fared with our changes. You can pick some or all the changes, and follow along right here on the blog (I’d love your suggestions and feedback in the comments). If you want to take it to social media, tag me and use the hashtag #12stepswithSarah to keep me (and anyone else) updated on how you’re faring. I’ve pasted my 12 changes below – please remember that they are personal adaptations of my own goals as well as some inspired by Leo’s 52 Changes. 

  1. Movement
  2. Mindfulness
  3. Hydration
  4. Unprocrastination
  5. Finance
  6. Nutrition
  7. Appearance
  8. Minimalism
  9. Challenges
  10. Resilience
  11. Routine
  12. Temperament

* This blog series did start out as 52 changes. Four weeks into January I realised it was too big a challenge for me to take on (the realities of things tend to dawn on me much later than they do on everyone else) and I decided 12, do-able chunks of change were far more realistic for me in my currently time-poor routine.This way, I could at least spend long enough each change to transition it to a habit (as per the 21-days to make a habit rule).  I’ve since amended my post to reflect the above.