Coupling and Willpower: Make Life Easy for Yourself

It’s a new year. People often set new resolutions at the beginning of January in an effort to do better. I have not done that this year. I am instead currently working on seasonal planning, which means that instead of planning a whole year in advance, I plan the year in 3-4 different sections. I just don’t know what life will be like and what I need to work on beyond the next few months.

In addition to seasonal planning, I’ve been trying to focus my goals on processes instead of to-do lists. Changing my processes gets a lot more done than just adding everything to my to-do list.

When I’m focused on improving my processes, that means I’m trying to make good habits for myself. But new habits aren’t formed by willpower alone.

Willpower works more as a muscle, not a choice. If I try to change all of my habits all at once, I’m going to burn out quickly because I don’t have the strength to do that.

So instead of changing my behavior by pure willpower, I need to change my environment.

If I want to wake up early, I have to set an alarm that automatically goes if. If I want to go to bed earlier, I have my computer shut off the internet before bed. If I have the couch facing the TV, I watch more TV. I change the couch to face the windows, and I have less desire to stare at a screen.

I can put fruit on the counter to eat more fruit. I can fill up my extremely large water bottle in the morning so that I drink more water. And if I buy less cereal, we eat less cereal.

Often, our bad habits and negative behaviors are coupled along with a certain environment. When my house gets really messy, I often get depressed. Those things come together. So if I want to keep myself from depression, then I clean my house.

If you have goals to change your behavior, look around at your environment first. What parts of your environment are coupled with negative behaviors? What parts are couple with positive behaviors?

Instead of focusing on the goal-setting of what you want to accomplish, you also have to build your life to make it really easy to accomplish your goals. Good behaviors don’t come from strong discipline–they come from good environments.

Christmas

Last year after Christmas was over, I wrote a note to myself:

Make a few meaningful events instead of lots of things. Don’t feel guilty for not doing service every day. It’s okay. Gingerbread houses, snowflakes, and remember the nativity. It’s okay to do something once instead of every year. Christmas: Do dinner for lunch. We don’t like ham and potatoes. Frog eye salad is good, and maybe a random assortment of favorite things. Don’t do too much food. Go and do something together outside on Christmas, like sledding or hiking or sight seeing.

The note to myself has been helpful this year. I haven’t followed all of it, but reading it allowed me to approach the holidays with less guilt. I have been trying to have a Christmas season that works for us and our family, instead of just doing things because there is some sort of expectation.

I am looking at the note, “Don’t do too much food,” and realizing that I have planned for too much food again this year. At least the food doesn’t include potato casserole and ham, which was a yearly tradition that we didn’t even like.

But I have done a few meaningful events: we attempted gingerbread houses, we looked at Christmas lights, we had a virtual family party, and we completed a move-a-thon fundraiser. I have served other people and reached out to neighbors and friends, but I’ve been more flexible about it, which has opened up better opportunities.

Growing up, Christmas felt incredibly significant. And I was trying to always keep that feeling, but it ended up starting to feel very heavy. I don’t need Christmas time to be different and special and complicated.

Christmas is a time to focus on Jesus Christ, and that’s a simple thing. Christmas is best when it becomes simple–when Christmas isn’t about the abundance of trying to do everything, but about doing the most important things.

Christmas isn’t always the same. This year, I took my kids Christmas shopping (at an actual store). I bought a present for my husband (we haven’t exchanged presents for years). The pandemic means that parties have been virtual and events have been simplified. My decorations are haphazard. I haven’t really watched any Christmas movies. I’ve neglected presents I could have given.

I didn’t everything I wanted to do this year in the way I wanted to do it, but I don’t feel guilty about it. I’m just grateful for where I’m at.

Next year will look different too. And it probably won’t be particularly special. But life isn’t about creating significance through enthusiastic perfectionism, but seeing the significance in small moments.

When I free myself of burdensome expectations that are laced with guilt, I get a little closer to enjoying the holiday season how I really want to enjoy it: simple, fun, and better focused on Jesus Christ.

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The Sun Comes Out

In January, there was fog like I’ve never seen before. It stayed around for days, and the frost kept building and building on everything until it looked like snow.

It was beautiful. But I was so ready for the sun to come out.

It did come. The sun melted all the frost and that frost and fog were forgotten. Its beauty was mostly forgotten too, as the relief of the sunshine erased the heaviness of what had been.

And that’s my metaphor for the year. There was a pandemic, and in some ways, it was beautiful. But it was heavy too, and we are all waiting for the sun to come out again.

It will. Life will shift back to normal.

And we’ll look back at the photographs and we’ll remember that we’ve forgotten how beautiful it was–painful and heavy and beautiful all at once.

It’s the sort of thing you want to have experienced, but you never wish for it again in your life.

Let us not forget to look around at what is now, for even when the sun is darkened, the fog sits heavy in our hearts, and the frost begins to grow–even that is a moment that you can never have again. 

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Thoughts

A few weeks ago, I was weed whacking my yard. I sometimes got a little stuck at looking right in front of me, and I found that I had to look up and around to make sure I was going in the right direction. That’s a bit like life: I can get stuck in the day-to-day that I can forget to make sure I’m heading in the right direction and not missing anything important. (Also, it does not do any good to conserve string. It just makes the process last longer.)

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Finding happiness when life is hard is so much more satisfying than when life is easy

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When I seek to serve others and live as God would have me, things make sense. When I seek popularity and status and likes and followers and shares, I only find confusion. I do not need success; I simply need God.

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You don’t have to understand what Satan is trying to tell you.

 

 

 

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Technology: Pushing it out of your life

Like most people in the world today, sometimes I waste too much time on social media and other websites. They are designed be addictive, after all, and rabbit holes are encouraged in the never-ending display of suggested content.

But when I focus on getting rid of that wasted time, I usually fail. I have created some better habits. On my phone, for example, I don’t have any social media apps. I’ve also removed email and my web browser. The only notifications I have are for texts and calls. I also unfollow people, try to have screen-free time, have a blocking program on my computer (FocusMe), and use one site (AllSides.com) to check on news.

All those things aren’t enough. I still waste time on my computer and phone–it’s not a personal weakness as much as simply a really difficult problem.

But here is the one thing that has worked the very best: crowding out wasted time with doing good things. When I have free time, technology sucks it up like a vacuum. But when I have lots to do, technology gets pushed out of my life in favor of better things.

This week was very busy. I had to work on painting my house to get ready for winter and I had two papers to write for my classes in school. It’s also Halloween and I worked to spend time with my kids. When I planned to do many good things, I didn’t have time to waste.

Good habits are better formed by crowding out the bad habits in favor of something better. Focusing on my negative technology use and trying to eliminate it is focusing on the wrong thing–I should instead look at what that technology is preventing me from doing, and work on increasing good works in my life.

I want to read books and write and play games with my family and learn new things and serve others. When I plan for that in my life, my technology habits take care of themselves.

Beliefs

I recently read this article:

People say, “You should be true to your beliefs.” While that is true, you cannot be better than what you know. Most of us act based on our beliefs, especially what we believe to be in our self-interest. The problem is, we are sometimes wrong….

When we act badly, we may think we are bad, when in truth we are just wrong. The challenge is not so much closing the gap between our actions and our beliefs; rather, the challenge is closing the gap between our beliefs and the truth.

I’ve been stressed and worried at times. Lots of times. It’s easy to blame my circumstances, or to think that I am somehow not strong enough. I want to do better. I mean to do better. Then I don’t.

But my emotions and actions are not caused by my environment. They are caused by my beliefs. If I am to change my emotions and actions, then I must change my beliefs.

I often don’t analyze my own thoughts and beliefs, simply looking at my actions. I found myself discouraged, and focused so much on the discouragement that I felt hopeless to stop it. But when I looked at my beliefs, I was able to understand myself and the discouragement dissipated as my beliefs became a little bit closer to the truth.

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“Who Against Hope Believed in Hope”

There are many times in our life when we have circumstances that we don’t understand and are less than ideal. There are so many struggles we might have: mental health, temptation, addiction, or less than ideal family circumstances.

Why do we have to deal with those things? Where are the Lord’s blessings? Why is his timing so different from our own?

My husband works four hours away from where we live right now. He comes home for three days and then goes back to work for the other four. I am grateful that he has a job and that we get to spend as much time together as a family as we do. But every time he has to go back to work, it hurts. I just want him around.

This is the third time we’ve done this. The first time, he was in police academy for a few months. The second time was two years ago in the exact same situation, and it was so difficult that I gave up this house for a time and went back to living in the middle of nowhere and homeschooling my kids.

And we’re doing it again. And I don’t know when Dillon will get to live with us again, as there is a recession right now and the job market is difficult and I don’t see anything working out anytime soon. We’ve been job searching for over two years now (really, I don’t know if we ever stopped), and I don’t always have that much hope.

Hope

Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham; who is the father of us all,

(As it is written, I have made thee a father of many nations,) before him whom he believed, even God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were.

Who against hope believed in hope, that he might become the father of many nations, according to that which was spoken, So shall thy seed be.

And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sara’s womb:

He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God;

And being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform. (Romans 4:16-21)

Abraham was told he was going to be a father of many nations, and he was 100 years old and didn’t have any kids. It was simply an impossible promise. But Abraham believed in it anyway.

I can keep hoping. Because Heavenly Father has given me assurances, and He will bless me. I may not understand the timing, but I don’t have to ever give up.

Abraham never gave up hoping. So even if something seems absolutely impossible, we can always keep the faith that Heavenly Father will always give us the righteous desires of our hearts.

Hope can get you through the hours, the days, the months, the years, the decades. It never has to be extinguished. It never has to go away. There is no expiration date for the blessings the Lord has for us: they will always be there, and He will always love us.

A Better Way To Plan: Priorities and Processes

I woke up one morning and I made my list of everything that needed to happen that day. My biggest concern was my home renovation–there was a whole lot that I would have liked to get done before winter. I tried to create timelines and figure out how we could get it all done when I wanted to. The timelines never worked out right, and I found myself overwhelmed and stressed about the house. I wrote a to do list, but I had no motivation to complete it, so I did nothing.

My planning wasn’t working. I was sabotaging myself with it, and I needed a better way. And I think I found a better way.

First, this is what I need to get rid of:

  1. Yearly goal setting. It is usually too hard to plan out an entire year at a time. By the end of the year, I am always in a different place and my goals aren’t relevant anymore.
  2. Monthly goals. A month is usually too short to accomplish significant projects.
  3. Task-oriented planning with looming deadlines. Planning should include more than time-sensitive to-do lists. If that’s all I have, then I don’t really make any real personal progress. I get too attached to productivity, when most of my actual values are not related to being productive.
  4. Not allowing for flexibility. I’ve planned out days in 15-minute increments before. When I could follow that plan, it was awesome, but usually I need more flexibility than time stamping everything I need to do in a day. Like most people, I end up severely underestimating the time that something will take.

And now, this is my better way of planning:

Seasonal Planning

It’s pretty easy to divide up the calendar year into seasons or other sections, and life sort of falls nicely into those seasons (particularly if you and/or your kids are in school). I currently have my fall goals for September to December, and then I’ll set goals again from January to April, and then from May to August. (I could also do three-month periods instead of four-month periods, but the idea is still the same). Seasonal goals are less stressful for me because I have a longer time frame than with monthly planning and I’m able to think more about the structure of the projects I’m working on. And unlike year planning, I can usually forecast the next few months with some degree of accuracy.

Priorities and Values

I set productive goals (getting something done) and character goals (who I want to be). Character goals are important, but can be hard to quantify, and I actually still struggle with how to incorporate them into my planning.

But when I am planning, it is good to remember what I value and actually find important: my relationships with my Heavenly Father, my husband, my kids, other family members, and friends and neighbors. I also want to keep progressing and improving, becoming more patient and loving. My relationships suffer when I only focus on getting things done.

Then if I prioritize and order those productive goals, I can be more efficient by focusing on a few important things.

Usually I have a few different major projects in the seasonal planning, and then I can prioritize subtasks within those projects. I don’t like to have deadlines or a time frame, because I need more flexibility. I just need a general order of what to do next.

When I’m planning my week or my day, I look at the things that come next and write them down for easy reference. I write down more than what I think I can do in a week or a day–so I’m not trying to get everything done and checked off. I’m instead giving myself general guidance of what I could do.

Processes

Then I have to determine my processes. When and how am I going to work and when am I going to play? When can I work on relationships? What can I eliminate?

I’ve been inspired by Martin from Wintergatan Wednesday, and he has this awesome video that talked about internalized and externalized goals. There is a lot we can’t control. I can’t estimate how long something will take or what complications will come up.  My best goals can deal more with things that I can control.

It’s better to have a goal to write for an hour than to have a goal to finish a story or an essay. I try to focus more on those processes: what do I want my daily life to look like? How do I want to live?

This week, for example, I want to work on my house for a few hours every day (and each day is a bit different on when I can do it). This is my process that I can use in order to slowly achieve my prioritized list. I will also turn off computer from 4:00 to 8:00 so that I can focus on my kids.

Finding deep work

I’ve been reading Deep Work by Cal Newport, which has made me think about certain projects where I need to work more deeply instead of just trying to accomplish things without focus. My children constantly interrupt me. But I can use the rare, undistracted moments for deep and meaningful work. I remember there was one day when I took three hours and just worked on my school work while my husband was watching my kids. I loved focusing intensely, and I want to do more of that.

And sometimes I find it better to focus on a few big things and do those well instead of trying to do lots of little things.

Eliminating that which has no worth

If I want to focus, I have to learn to eliminate the things that don’t have any much worth in my life. Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism talks more about this. Distractions are mostly technology-related: YouTube, Netflix, Facebook, Instagram, random Google searches, etc. I really have to watch myself and it’s a process that I am still working on.

But when I get stressed out, I often want to numb my feelings by getting on my computer and letting those website determine what I think about. This isn’t always a bad thing, but I want more mental space in my life to listen and to think.

Leisure and thinking time

I need to have some more space and flexibility for the things that aren’t productive. I want to have time to do what I love, not just what I think I need to do, and time when I’m not constrained by goals and accomplishments, but I just get to exist.

My relationships need my time and attention. And I want to do things that are an end to themselves, not a means to some other end. I rarely have time to ponder and think, read a book just because, or sit outside and enjoy nature. I want more of that time where I am enjoying what I’m doing and who I am with.

Habits

I am trying to develop better habits in my life. The book Atomic Habits talks about focusing more on how you get things done and those processes than just thinking about what you want to get done. Good habits are way more productive than good to-do lists.

Other things that have helped:

  • Planning before I go to bed (instead of when I wake up in the morning) can be very helpful so that I wake up and know what I’m doing, instead of slowly wandering about my mornings.
  • I enjoy using my spiral-bound bullet journal to do my planning because it is so flexible.
  • There are many times I just need to shed my guilt and throw it away.

Putting it in action

So by focusing more on priorities and processes (instead of to-do lists), I don’t feel as overwhelmed. I feel like I’m could live up to my potential a lot better, because I’m looking at a bigger picture of how I want to live, not just what I want to do.

Here is how I have put it into action on planning my home renovation:

  1. I set seasonal goals of renovating the exterior of the house, renovating the bathroom, and then starting on framing and electrical. My plan is to work on the house every Friday and Saturday with my husband, as well as working on it a few hours every other day.
  2. I write a list of everything that needs to get done in the next stage and update it regularly. The list is grouped into basic categories.
  3. I prioritize this list. I worry about the order, not a timeline. This prioritization is a loose guideline, and I am often working on more than one thing at a time. But instead of trying to accomplish the whole project at once, I’m just working on what comes next.
  4. Then I figure out my processes to work on those tasks. Instead of writing what I want to accomplish in a week, I write down how I want to work in that week.
  5. Every Friday and Saturday, we work on the house. That’s all I have to do on those days. And then I plan other time throughout the week where I can work. I write down what comes next, but I won’t get all of it done. I’ve accomplished a goal for the week if I follow the process, not it I checked everything off.

I’m more free from the stress of always having to do and never doing enough. I start to actually live the way I want to live.

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Herd Behavior: Comfortable and Necessary

I don’t follow herd behavior. I think of myself as a creative and independent thinker. I don’t always go with the crowd and I do my own thing. You might think of yourself the same way.

Hah.

The truth is, we pretty much all just follow herd mentality most of the time.

When businesses started to open again after the shutdown, there was not a mask mandate where I lived. And every time I went somewhere, I looked around to see if people were wearing masks or not. If the majority of people seemed to be wearing masks, I would wear them too. If they weren’t, then I wouldn’t. I knew I should wear a mask, but I just didn’t want to feel awkward.

When the mask mandate happened, then everyone was wearing a mask and it was easy.

We follow herd behavior even when the information says otherwise.1 So we will literally know better, and then follow the crowd anyway. If everyone else is jumping off a cliff, chances are you will consider it for quite a while.

People standing on a cliff

Is this always a bad thing? Not necessarily, because usually the herd is not jumping off a cliff. Sometimes herd behavior is safe and comfortable. We end up feeling nicely invisible, fitting in and doing what other people think we should do.

But other times, we really need to act differently. Sometimes the herd is not doing what is right, and we know better.

Find Your Herd

Instead of trying to be independent thinkers and have the willpower to always stand out, we should instead simply surround ourselves with better herds. No matter how strong you think you’re are, the pull to fit in is very strong.

We are social creatures and we need the support of other people. There are so many uplifting groups out there, and we can often choose our friends and the people we spend time with. We can realize that the desire to fit in and be safe and normal can be a really good thing–as long as we are choosing where we fit in and what group we are going with.

When we better understand our own values, we should work to create herd behavior that follows those values. We can work to make the world a better place, by elevating and expanding those groups that want to do what is right.

1Study

Plan Your Endings

Plan your endings.

I woke up, feeling uncertain about the direction of my life. My to-list was very full: write a blog post, work on framing the back wall of my house my house, clean out my kitchen cabinets, read stories with my kids, talk with my husband, finish reading about econometrics, etc. I don’t have a career, but I have wanted a sort of clarity: should I focus on writing or economics or renovation or blogging or something else?

My main priority is to take care of my kids and my family, but then what do I do with my time (especially now that I actually have time without my kids)? How do I contribute to my community and the world?

As I thought over all the things I wanted to do, I realized that everything that I was thinking about was a project that would someday end.

I need to plan for those endings.

Looking back on my life, I am very satisfied with the projects that I started and finished, such as writing novels, , web design, or learning the piano and organ–I don’t do those things very much anymore, and I don’t feel any pressure to do so. They had an ending.

I am studying economics right now, but I will finish my current degree in December. My home renovation will eventually be completed. I will finish the book I am writing.

Instead of saying generalizations that I want to write or study or renovate, I feel a lot happier when I make it a more specific project with an ending: I am going to work on writing this specific book. I am going to renovate this house. I am going to get a degree.

Goals are so much more motivating when they have an ending to them.

Even when we think about long-term projects, like being in a career for years and years, eventually all of it will end.

Our biggest accomplishments and the things that we are most satisfied with eventually end, and that ending is the frosting on the cake and the wrapping on the present that made everything worth it. 

Because who we are is not what we do. I get so discouraged when I think about what I want to be when I grow up. So I change the question. I actually asked my son the other day, “What is one thing you want to do when you grow up?” He said he wanted to be a fireman. And that seemed like a good answer–he could be a volunteer firefighter, or work seasonally on wildfires–and it would end, and he would go and do something else.

Make Exit Plans

If you start a business, plan for the end. What happens at the end of it? Do you hope to sell it, for example? Pass it down in the family? Or maybe you realize it’s a temporary solution and eventually you’ll just have to close up shop and move on.

If you start a career, make an exit plan. When do you want to retire? What promotions or other job opportunities interest you? Is there any more education could you get? What other jobs are interesting to you?

What is your exit plan for vacations, hobbies, where you live, temporary relationships, leisure? When do you want it to end and how do you want it end?

What do you want the ending of your entire life to look like?

I don’t want to do one thing in life. I like doing lots and lots of things, and that’s okay. There are times when I will focus on just one thing for a time, and then it will end, and I can move to something else. I don’t have to live my entire life all at once. My identity does not need to be permanently categorizable.

What is the best work I can do in this temporary season of life–and where does it end?

trail dead end sign

Further reading:

Thoughts on writing

Finding Your Place