The Weekly Challenge is a column that tackles self-improvement seven days at a time.
Given that I've spent much of 2012 on a week-by-week quest for self-improvement, creating New Year's resolutions felt a little redundant. Name a skill or habit worth attempting/quitting/adopting/improving and chances are I've tried it at some point over the past eight months – which, when you think about it, sort of makes me an expert in the field. With that in mind, I spent the days leading up to New Year's Eve reflecting on the most effective and worthwhile weekly challenges, so that those of you still finetuning your 2013 marching orders might learn from my small successes. And I do mean small.
The whole point of the column is to turn that single insurmountable peak of personal perfection into a series of totally manageable molehills; it's meant to highlight the transformative power of a few simple tweaks. (Note the proper use of semicolon – Week 14).
The inaugural challenge was about the power of positive thinking, meaning that while we can't always control the events in our life, we can often control how we react to them. At the time I spoke to Louisa Jewell, the co-founder of the Canadian Positive Psychology Association, who told me about the time she lost her luggage on a trip to Italy. Her first reaction was to lose her you-know-what, but then she stepped back and considered the scenario – here she was on vacation in a beautiful country with a loved one to share the experience with – plus a credit card to buy a few new travel outfits … so what exactly was the tragedy? And then, of course, you can pull the thread further: Think about the people who will never go to Italy or never even get on an airplane, or the people who don't have a loved one with whom to share any sort of memories. I have gone back to this technique time and again and it almost always works.
Another small effort/high gains challenge was about addressing small tasks (the ones that take less than two minutes) as they arose rather than letting them congeal into a terrifying to-do list. I thought of this one as the "putting the lid back on the toothpaste" experiment, since my best friend's mom has always joked that this simple act is the key to personal organization. And she was right – after a week of putting away the dishes, submitting invoices, paying bills, returning e-mails, making my bed, sweeping the front porch, and on and on, I found that ball of anxiety that generally resides in my gut had shrunk from the size of a basketball to a baseball. If you're someone who has trouble maintaining a tidy home, this is the resolution for you. I still find myself invoking the two-minute rule several times a day, which is more than I can say for less enduring personal improvements like daily meditation (not for me) or the vow to stop swearing (no bleeping way!).
At this time of year, many people are signing up for gym memberships and committing to losing weight. On the one hand, this makes sense since we could all stand to be healthier, but on the other hand it speaks to our societal obsession with appearance and perfection. Twice I attempted to kick the vanity habit – once by swearing off makeup and another time by wearing the same outfit for a full week. I realize these aren't necessarily practical as resolutions, but if you're the type of person who won't leave the house without a blow dry or a cosmetic suit of armour, perhaps it's time to put down the mascara wand – you just might like it. I found the inability to dwell over appearance to be surprisingly freeing. I'm not saying I loved the feeling of arriving at a party as a washed-out, invisible-browed version of myself, but eventually you get out of your own head and get over it. These days I try not to wear makeup during the day. To date, no one else appears to have noticed.
The habits that have been hardest to keep up will be my resolutions for the coming year. I wish I could say I have continued to rise with the birds after the supremely productive week I spent waking at 6 a.m., but my snooze button knows otherwise. Same goes for my attempt to quit cabs cold turkey – I admit I went on a bit of a taxi bender over the holiday season. I could beat myself up about it, but instead I'm going to practice a little positive thinking and focus my energy on the future. And then I'm going to make my bed.
The next challenge
Judd Apatow's This is 40 depicts how long-term couples often take each other for granted. If this is you, try spending a week seeing your better half through rose-tinted glasses. No criticisms. At all. Let us know how it goes at fb.me/globelifestream.