Each month I take on a new challenge. These are simple in the sense that they don’t require much of a, if any, financial investment or a significant amount of time each day. The idea is to change up your routine, improve a skill or asset like learning new words and increasing muscle definition. Participation is not required, but encouraged!
READING 15 MINUTES A DAY
Reading has a ton of benefits such as improving vocabulary, writing and analytical skills, increasing empathy towards others (who knew?!), improving memory and focus, elevating mood, and – maybe more important now than ever in wake of the global pandemic – reducing stress. In fact, one study shows that reading for just six minutes a day can reduce stress levels by 68%. Well worth it. So my challenge to you is to crack open a book (or e-reader) and start reading!
Read for pleasure. Don’t feel obligated to read self-help or informational texts. Avoid media and news articles. This should be something you look forward to!
If this idea seems really challenging, start small with just 5 minutes and set a timer.
If reading at night on a device such as a tablet or phone use a blue shade or night shift adjustor to reduce the blue light emitted from the device.
I started tracking my days back in mid-January using Apple’s iCalendar. As someone not working in the traditional 9-5 sense I needed a way to make sure I was still making progress when it came to my personal growth and side projects. While stacking my playlist of educational videos, blog writing, and freelance design work I found that keeping tabs on all these activities created a motivational circle. I look forward to marking out my calendar for the day or week by setting self-made deadlines (and then budgeting my time accordingly so I can achieve them), keeping track of hours spent on client work, and making sure I build in enough personal time throughout my day. In return, looking back at a week filled with tasks and work I’ve done positively reinforces me to keep going when I’m not necessarily able to quantify my hard work. I’m often too hard on myself; sometimes I feel like I could be doing more or making better use of my spare time. When I have a day or week where I’m struggling to accomplish something or feel like I didn’t get much done I pull up my calendar and I’m quickly reminded of all the hard work I’ve been putting in and suddenly the guilt that usually comes with taking an hour break at 2:30pm on a Tuesday starts to fade and I can actually enjoy the downtime.
Make color-coded categories for each part of your life, for example, green is ‘Personal Time’ (reading, video-games, catching up with friends), orange is ‘Work’ (for me I had to break this up into ‘Freelance Design Work’ and ‘Blog Writing’), red is ‘Fitness & Health’ (maybe this is going to the gym or for a walk or meal prepping). You get the idea.
Work in quarter, or 15 minute, increments. Don’t worry about being too exact. If you spent 38 minutes on something round up to the next 15 minute mark for a total of 45 minutes.
Be specific with titles or notes. Instead of ‘Blog Writing’ I’ll put ‘Blog Writing – Visit to Warsaw Post’. Instead of ‘Client Design Work’ I’ll put ‘Design Work for John Smith’s Family Room’. It makes it easier to understand what you did each week and great if you’re freelancing and need to bill by the hour.
Use your discretion when it comes to personal time. Sometimes I’ll add in dinner dates with Timo or time for exploring the city, but not always. Usually personal time is organic and fosters out of a need or desire for it. You can’t always predict when the book you’re reading is too good to put down or those times when you spend an extra 30 minutes in the morning chatting and drinking coffee with your loved one. Enjoy those moments even if they’re not mapped out or cause you to push back unnecessary work by a few minutes. It’s worth it. But not everything has to be scheduled!
Don’t schedule too far out and be flexible. This is especially true for freelancers. Often I schedule my day the morning of, especially when I’m not working to meet deadlines. I focus first on the work I’m feeling inspired or motivated to do with the less desirable tasks, like filing taxes, reserved for the end of day or days when my workload is light.
Have you ever sat for 10 minutes and just let your thoughts wash over you? No distractions from others, no digital screens, no multitasking. Letting your mind be. Before you roll your eyes, I’m not necessarily talking about meditation, at least not in the sense where it requires you to abandon all thought. To be undistracted and disengaged with your thoughts is not realistic for most people. Nor is it necessary in my opinion. I believe many of the problems we have are rooted within this complex, over stimulated world we’ve created. A world where we don’t have the time and distance to digest our thoughts, to think without acting immediately, to sit and let them marinate while we try to better understand them or while we try to see all angles of the problem.
I recently started reading Stillness is Key by Ryan Holiday and it’s been rather eye opening how stillness has transcended individuals since the beginning of mankind. Holiday effortlessly tells easy to digest stories about what stillness means and how that might look different for different people. I highly recommend it.
In reading this book I felt compelled to adopt this practice for myself. While I don’t have a textbook approach to stillness, if one exists, I urge you to at least practice stillness in whatever capacity you chose. So, here’s my challenge to you. Let’s start February off with a focus on our thoughts by allowing the time and freedom from distraction they deserve. Begin the first day of the month with one minute of stillness. Two minutes on the second day, three minutes on the third, and so on. Work your way up to 29 minutes (30 for extra credit) by the end of the month.
Adopt your own form of stillness. In fact, call it whatever you want. Meditation, Quietness, Mindfulness. Step away from activities that require you to divide a lot of attention and resources. Choose one thing. Maybe it’s listening to music, going for a walk, journaling, sitting quietly, folding laundry or washing dishes in silence. Allow yourself to think and meander in thought. Be present.
Don’t push out the internal chatter. Embrace it. Acknowledge it. Engage with it. Ask questions. Try to understand where these thoughts are coming from. You might find that in the beginning a majority of your time in stillness is spent thinking about your to do list. That’s okay. Let it wash in. Take note. Then clear the clutter and move on.
Try to gradually build and practice stillness for the full time your set to do for that day (i.e. A 15 single minute session on the 15th of the month). If you find yourself unable to do so then break it up into smaller chunks throughout the day. Five minutes in the morning, five minutes after lunch and maybe five minutes before bedtime.
I personally love to practice stillness first thing in the morning before I do anything else. I spend a few minutes gathering my thoughts, listening to them and setting the tone for the day. I find peace and calmness in this practice that has a lasting effect throughout the day. By giving myself dedicated time for stillness, I’m able to remove any sense of urgency, doubt, and insecurity and focus on the present moment. I’m less distracted by negative thoughts, less distracted by the surrounding noise in this world and more focused on what matters to me.
TV OFF 1 HOUR BEFORE BED
We know blue light is bad for you, TV is bad for you, too much screen time is bad for you, blah blah blah. But most of us don’t really do any about it. Well, we are! Timo and I decided no TV at least one full hour before bed, which means powering down at 8:30p. We want to increase our reading and TV is usually the culprit of us not turning the pages. We will spend the one hour before bed powering ourselves down, reading and decompressing.
No other screens either! While the focus of the goal is to watch less TV and read more you should be powering down all devices.
You don’t have to read. Another nerdy, but awesome, hobby to get into is puzzling! Perfect nighttime activity. Or pay cards, listen to music. Or, ::gasp:: talk to each other!
30 MINUTE DEEP SQUAT HOLD
A deep squat, or to my yogi friends, Garland Pose, is a very simple, yet highly effective, hip opener, mobility and strength exercise. You can read more on the benefits here. This challenge starts off with attempting to hold a deep squat for one minute on the first day. That’s it. Easy, right? Not exactly. If you have limited mobility and strength this is going to be tougher than you think. On the second day hold the deep squat for two minutes. On the third day – three minutes, on the fourth – four minutes, and so on. The idea is to work your way up to 30 minutes by the end of month.
I want to put the disclaimer out there that it is not necessary to hold the deep squat for a solid 30 minutes straight. Take breaks. Five minutes in the morning, five minutes at lunch, five minutes after dinner. Just be sure that your total time in deep squat position is the same as the day of the challenge you’re on. If you’re on day 16, you should have done at least 16 minutes in deep squat – you can break it down into as many intervals as you want.
Here’s a quick video that shows you how to do a deep squat and assisted deep squat.
Do it while watching a TV show. It’s so easy to knock out when your distracted with TV. Just get it done!
Be mindful of your posture. Think of a string that pulls from your tail bone up your spine through the top of your head. The string should be fairly straight. Don’t arch your back. Engage your core.
NO ADDED SUGAR
This is a great challenge for October. Right before the slew of desserts, candy, and pastries that encompass the holidays. If you’re loving the results (which I know you will), hopefully the momentum can carry you into the new year.
The obvious gets kicked to the curb – sweets, candy, sodas and juices. But natural sugars like fruit, carrots, or anything else that come from the ground with sugar already in its genetic makeup can stay, AKA whole foods. Many people don’t realize how many everyday foods have added sugar like ketchup, pizza sauce, stir fry sauces, bread and yes, even salad dressings. It may not be realistic to permanently cut some of these things, especially salad dressing if it gets you to eat your veggies. But try! The challenge was tough at first. Creamer in my coffee is the only thing that gets me out of bed in the morning. And sugar withdrawals come with headaches and brain fog too. But when all was said and done I no longer craved sweets. I became more mindful of what I put into my body. I felt energized, clear-headed and and most importantly, I no longer experienced extreme blood sugar spikes when I was hungry. I was no longer hangry.
Read labels before buying. There are about 60 different names for sugar! About 75% of pre-packaged foods contain some form of added sugar – that’s insane. Read up on this here.
Plan ahead. Avoiding added sugars will force you to cook more and eat more whole foods, which is why I love the this challenge. It’s one simple rule to follow that can have huge benefits. Prepare for any upcoming trips or long work days where you can bring a healthy snack or meal that you made and can guarantee no added sugar.
Tag-team with a friend or significant other. Having someone to hold you accountable helps you through the really tough days. Openly talk about your struggles and successes along the way to keep you motivated.
If you must have a vice, pick one! Modify where you need to. If the only thing keeping you from doing this challenge is that you’re not ready to give up sriracha sauce or your hazelnut coffee creamer then don’t. I recommend choosing only one item and do not make exceptions for anything else. Getting 95% of the way is better than doing nothing!