An intentional year seeking health brought profound learnings.
‘Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you,’ according to Anne Lamott.
We will all remember 2020 and the impact it had on us personally. Here’s what I discovered about myself and this thing called life, after unplugging for one year. At the age of 47.
Up until March 2020, I had worked for a dynamic business owner for 15 years. The first 11 were exhilarating: fast lanes, quick thinking and cross-cutting dimensions. Through the last four years, however, I had drifted into poorly matched roles. After a long heart-to-heart chat with my boss, an entrepreneur with a well-nourished spirit, I took up the option of a year’s sabbatical.
In a new country, I had lost my way, unsure where my strengths lay and ultimately what my purpose was. Work was the only relationship I knew or understood, so losing professional direction felt significant.
My health also needed attention. I was drinking every night. I had become the world’s worst sleeper, and this left me with little will for regular exercise. With a mediocre diet, midlife spread was starting to show.
Emotionally, I felt rudderless. Without realising, I had also slipped into intellectual boredom.
Finally, although I had a perfect selection of friends and family, they all lived in another country.
Health & Fitness
Since I felt I had come to a pretty unhealthy state, my fundamental focus was my health — on the physical, mental and emotional fronts.
Equipped with a fitness watch, yoga mat and new running shoes, I downloaded a running app as Step One into the physical fitness world. I also began each morning with at least three sun salutations and a chapter of Deepak Chopra’s ‘Seven Spiritual Laws of Success’.
As a cognitive boot camp, I signed up for a course with a business school, began writing in the evenings and took up Jim Kwik’s advice to read a book a week.
For my emotional state (the hardest of all), I spent a little time looking within. I tried group therapy online, which was enormously supportive, but also a little eerie after four decades of doing, thinking and behaving in the same habitual way. The words, ‘Do people ever really change…’ often taunted me as I began some of the ‘work’.
Here are my top take-aways broken down into the physical, mental and emotional components.
I enjoyed signing up for new and exciting challenges. From the ‘Couch to 5 km’, to introducing an array of healthy recipes, from quitting alcohol to tackling Wim Hoff’s two-minute cold shower challenge. Articles about Telomeres and Blue Zones became my new fixations.
Some more detail on the big-ticket items:
Moving: Exercise has never been a passion of mine, but I understand I need to move more. Every day. The fitness watch has been a fabulous motivator, encouraging me to get 150 minutes of moderate to intense exercise under my belt weekly.
And, after experimenting with and partaking in various challenges, I feel I have easy selections to include in my regime. I ‘enjoy’ long walks in the park, 5-km runs, cycles along the river and sometimes strength training in my lounge. A favourite is my morning ritual of sun salutations and stretches. It’s a time during which I set my intentions for the day and offer my gratitude. Tiring myself out physically has had a positive effect on my sleep.
Eating: I love food. It is my all-time favourite vice. If I can still enjoy my food whilst getting it to work for me, then I am rocking. What’s changed? My diet has more fibre (fruit and vegetables), seeds and protein, even if I’m still consuming a little too much sugar. Crumbs, that is hard to cut down!
I also discovered Hara Hachi Bu: eating until I am 80% full. With this method, I can still gain optimal joy in researching new and exciting recipes, just eating a little slower and a little less.
Drinking: I managed to quit alcohol completely for the year. Following the ‘One Year No Beer’ challenge really motivated me, and the benefits have been enormous! My days are clearer, my sleep better and moods brighter. My skin and hair are also very grateful!
Recently I reintroduced alcohol for special occasions — those fabulous Friday night dinners and the times I meet up with friends. But both the frequency and volume are down. It seems my liver is quite content with two glasses of wine these days as opposed to five.
Studying something that interested me was incredibly fulfilling. I inherited this quality from my mother: if I enjoy something, I retain the information. What a wonder to discover that my memory is better than I thought.
I began reading daily, at first to help with my sleep. Also, I hadn’t been a reader in my early days, so my ‘must read’ list was long. Jim Kwik’s challenge of reading 45 minutes a day was a great way to play catch up.
This was the tough one, and certainly the problem child. First, it was hard admitting to qualities I never saw in myself before.
Second, there isn’t a quick fix. I would sometimes feel a great sense of relief getting to the root cause of an unhelpful behaviour. But in the midst of celebrating the aha moment, a comment would hit me from left field (often from a family member), and I would revert to childlike, defensive habits.
The best I can tell you is that the process has encouraged me to see myself more honestly and properly invest in relationships. There’s been some maturation, but it remains a work in progress 😉
The Bigger Picture
Some of my lessons fall outside the above categories or reach across them.
Balance is key. I saw how unbalanced my life was. Work dominated it, and now I realise that didn’t increase my contribution to the company. While I still value work, I see it as part of a larger set of life dimensions.
Know what I am looking for. I have always just gone where life has taken me. From a young age, I didn’t have significant life goals. I believe Scott Dinsmore when he said, ‘If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you’ll never find it.’ I am a lot clearer now on what I want to get from and give to life.
Give everything my best shot. ‘Always do your best,’ is one of Don Miguel Ruiz’s Four Agreements. I’ve seldom done this. Because I ran about trying to please so many people and win their affirmation, my work, time and attention was often half-baked. I even left sentences unfinished, leaving the listener to patch the pieces together. I’ve recently discovered the joy and liberation of being able to honestly remind myself I’ve done my best.
Watch what I say and to whom. Honestly, word gets around. It has taken me 40+ years to learn this, and I still haven’t mastered it. I have a dangerous habit of sharing my opinions. When I am annoyed, I don’t care how much I vent or to whom. I want to be more thoughtful with what I say.
Keep it simple. As a young marketing executive years ago, I giggled over an older director walking to the chalkboard and in large letters writing ‘K-I-S-S’. He slowly emphasised each letter, smacking the chalk against the slate, ‘KEEP…IT…SIMPLE…STUPID!’ I felt so embarrassed and wanted to curl up and die for him. Yet 20 years later, I still think about and value it — both in communication and in life more broadly. Less drama. Less over-explaining.
Karma is a real thing. I’ll leave all the gory details for another article, but hear me when I say watch your thoughts, actions and deeds, ’cause they come back ten-fold.
Giving back. In the words of Tony Robbins, “The secret to living is giving!” It’s a wonderful place to get to when you can give back. This year I have loved my time with older folks, being present, listening to their stories and hopefully bringing joy and companionship to their days.
‘Did you find your bliss?’ I hear you ask. At the risk of sounding ‘Alchemist-y’, I had the fortunate experience of being reminded of what I was skilled at (and what I’m not). I had lost this perspective over the last few years, lost my way and my confidence. But it is there.
Balance and moderation are my two words going forward. If I can aim for a healthy balance — work, exercise, sleep, nutrition, learning, love (self-love included), laughter, connections — I think I can give this thing called life a good ol’ whirl and approach the second half of life with better grounding.
Sometimes in order to understand your life you need to jump off the hamster wheel for a bit of perspective. Maybe that’s what Anne Lamott meant about unplugging.