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January habit: mindfulness

The first in my series of 12 #2017habits

· Mindfulness,Entrepreneurship,Habits

This article was originally published on my blog at Wantrepreneur on 9 December 2016.

***End of January update*** This article is in two halves: my thoughts before taking on the challenge and my thoughts at the end of the month. Scroll down to find out how I got on!

The first habit I’ve decided to cultivate as part of #2017habits is mindfulness.

Mindfulness is not something I know very much about at all, and it isn’t something I ever thought I would find myself doing. I tend to be a reasonably self-aware person, and I find myself naturally reflecting on situations even whilst they’re in progress, so in the past, I have thought that mindfulness wasn’t for me, as I already have that stuff under control.

However, there have been some really big changes in my life in 2016, which have made me rethink this.

In November 2015, I was in a pit of despair, unsure what to do with my life or where I was heading. I couldn’t see a way out of the unhappiness I had fallen into, and couldn’t even remember or imagine what it was like to be happy.

Over the course of 2016, all this changed. I quit my corporate job, joined a startup programme with an organization called Escape the City, learnt how to build a business; started building a business, moved abroad, learnt to sail, made so many new and amazing friends I can’t even start to count them; brought in my first bit of revenue as a non-employed person, and I’m about to embark on the roadtrip of a lifetime in Australia.

Honestly, right now, I can honestly say I’ve never been more excited about life. Sometimes I can’t sleep because I’m so excited about an idea I’m working on, or about what tomorrow holds.

However, despite having made all these positive changes, and feeling good about them, they are still changes, and have required significant energy and resilience to implement. The lifestyle of an entrepreneur, being my own boss and being responsible for how I spend my time in a way that’s different from anything I’ve ever done before, is a massive change. I’ve had to radically rethink my view of the world, and I’ve discovered I need certain habits and routines to be able to optimise myself as I transition from the mentality of a corporate employee (albeit a very outward-looking and forward-thinking one – as many are) to the mindset of an independent entrepreneur.

Mental resilience has always been a challenge for me. I’m naturally extremely sensitive to other people’s feelings and intentions, and I get hurt very easily (even though I might not show it). I overreact to off-the-cuff comments, and resilience has been something I’ve always needed to work on. It will probably always be a challenge for me.

However, now that I’m the boss, resilience becomes even more important, if I’m to run a successful business. Anything that can optimise me as a person; give me mental strength, resolve, and confidence, has suddenly become exceptionally important, and has a direct impact on my ability to generate revenue. Whereas investing in my own personal development in the past seemed frivolous, it now seems like a necessity. And whereas going out for a meal with my friends in the past might have seemed like a nice diversion, is actually now far more important than it was in the past. Anything that keeps me grounded is now essential for the running of my business.

So, here mindfulness comes in.

I don’t know very much about mindfulness, but I do know that a lot of people swear by it. However, I have to be completely honest and say that even a few months ago, when I was beginning to change my thinking around work/life balance, I would not even entertain the fact that mindfulness would be helpful to me – I saw it as something that other people do and not something that I needed. I’m not sure exactly what’s changed over the past two months, but I’m sure it has something to do with the 15 minutes of yoga I’ve been doing.

Yoga has been such a powerful habit for me; it’s what prompted me to start #2017habits, and I know there are elements of mindfulness and meditation within the yoga practices I’ve been doing, so I’d love to be able to build on these, especially in situations where I’ve struggled with what course of action to take with my business.

So I’m willing to give mindfulness a go. Apart from anything, I’m curious to see whether it will actually do anything for me, but I’m excited to think that it might also change my life and the way I view myself, or have an impact similar to the one that yoga did.

However, one possible – nay probable – outcome of this experiment that I’m prepared to accept is that some of the 12 habits I choose to develop over the course of this year just don’t stick. This challenge isn’t about succeeding with each one; it’s about trying out each habit with proper care and attention, for just one month, and then deciding what to do with that new-found self-awareness and habit at the end of the time. I’m sure of these habits will stick and others may not. Both outcomes are fine. I’m going to give each of my habits as good a chance to succeed as is possible, and we’ll see what happens at the end.

So, that’s a brief overview of why I think mindfulness is important, and why I’ve chosen it as the first of the 12 habits I want to develop. Wish me luck!

***End of January update***

I have now been cultivating this habit of mindfulness for nearly a whole month. Tomorrow is the last day of January, and could be the last day I decide to consciously pursue and develop this new habit. I wanted to leave a note on this post to share how I got on with developing this habit, and as a record for myself on how I found the first month of this twelve-month challenge.

I chose mindfulness as the first habit this year for several reasons. On a very practical level, I knew I would be travelling for the first few days of January, so I needed the habit to be one that was very 'portable', and that didn't rely on me accessing a gym, or any special equipment, as that would have been quite hard when I was on a plane and in airports, etc. I also chose it because I wanted to be reasonably confident that I would be able to stick with the habit without too much effort. This is just the first of twelve challenges this year for me, and I didn't want to fail at the first hurdle by not managing to complete the habit every day, or not giving this habit the best shot I possibly could. There were selfish reasons for that, but there was also the additional pressure of wanting to provide a good example for others who had valiantly agreed to develop their own new habits at the same time.

I also believed that, if I could learn more about mindfulness over the course of the first month of 2017, I would be better equipped to continue with my entrepreneurial journey. I didn't know much about mindfulness at the start of the month (and, to be fair, I still don't know much, even though I've learnt a lot), and I hoped it might prove one of these exponential habits that would secure my daily routine and lead me to greater personal success and fulfilment.

So, I chose mindfulness, naively thinking that this would be a habit I wouldn't have to try too hard to adopt, and I was pretty confident I could stick with every day. How naive I was in thinking this would be easy!

The first few days of the challenge, I was in Australia at the tail-end of the longest holiday of my life. I'd been there for three weeks, had a wonderful time and was really relaxed. The first few days of mindfulness I completed each day with the use of the Headspace app, before I went to bed. I was sleeping well anyway and wasn't stressed, there was no great pressure to be anywhere at a particular time and I really enjoyed the mindfulness practice. It was easy.

Then came the travelling. Sitting on a plane for 20 hours was a great place to complete my mindfulness practice for the day: what else was I going to do? In fact, due to the time zones I flew through during the space of 36 hours, I even ended up doing two mindfulness sessions in one day. It was going great!

Getting back home to Europe and dealing with jetlag was a real challenge. For the next couple of days, I struggled to stay awake through the whole of the mindfulness sessions with Headspace, and that kind of put me off kilter. However, the jetlag didn't last more than three days and soon I was back on European time.

The biggest challenge of the month was in the week that followed, when I was travelling in the UK. Every night for a week I was in a different city, each night staying with a different friend. I had no routine, and was having to get up really early every day in order to get to meetings or catch a plane or a train. Each night, I wanted to spend the time catching up with old friends and didn't want to leave to go to bed in order to do my mindfulness practice. However, one really useful thing that happened during my week in the UK was that I was able to meet with Amy and Roya, and learn more from them about their own mindfulness habits. I really enjoyed talking to them, and it was so clear to me that there is benefit to be had. However, I was really questioning whether I had the patience to be one of 'those people' for whom mindfulness had value. I respect Roya, Amy and Jo greatly and wanted to see what they saw in mindfulness, but I felt so far away from feeling the positive effects of a practice, and I was beginning to wonder whether mindfulness was something I could continue at the end of the month.

During this time, I found I had to crowbar my mindfulness practice into the day, and there were a few days where I simply didn't manage it. On top of all that, I came down with a really nasty cold. For me, when I get sick, the first thing that goes is my resolve. I tend to hibernate inwardly and just concentrate on getting through the day; my thoughts are much less about personal growth!

After my travels, I returned home to Munich and concentrated on getting well. I took it easy for a few days, and just about scraped by with my mindfulness practice. I stuck with it, but by this stage I was really questioning the effectiveness of the exercise. I hadn't noticed any difference, and it just felt like another task that I was inflicting on myself, in an already busy schedule. I stuck with it out of sheer stubbornness, and in order not to let others in the group down, but my heart really wasn't in it.

Things continued like that for the rest of the following week. I wrote up the interviews I had done with Roya, Amy and Jo, and read and re-read their comments. I went over and over our conversations in my head, not for any particular reason; they just kept swirling round and round and coming to the fore of my consciousness.

Then I did my first ever Facebook live session on 23 January, and I was relieved to be able to share with others how hard I was finding this challenge. I have really needed the guidance and support of community on this challenge, so that was a really cathartic moment!

Without intending it to be so, that was a bit of a turning point for me. Having resigned myself to the fact that this challenge is hard, and just allowing myself to be OK with that, stopped me from expecting anything from the mindfulness that I was doing each day.

And then, a weird thing happened. All of a sudden, I started craving mindfulness. I started looking forward to the daily sessions and noticing microscopic benefits, in the way I approached conversations, or reacted in different situations.

Having said at the start of this challenge that habit development is made much easier if you pick a fixed place and time to develop the habit, it took me almost a full month to figure out the best time for me to do this myself. I had experimented with making mindfulness part of my morning routine, but it didn't ever sit quite right with me. In the mornings, my energy is reasonably high and I want to be making progress on my business. I want to be writing and moving, and I like to follow those impulses. I was finding it really hard to practice mindfulness at that time. So without even consciously doing so, I moved my mindfulness practice to the end of the day. For the past few days, I have been completing a mindfulness practice just before I go to sleep at night. And somehow, this feels good to me. And it certainly feels more sustainable than it has at any other point this month.

So I didn't ever expect to be able to say this, but I'm in a good place with mindfulness right now. I've learnt a huge amount over the course of the past month and understand that I'm at the start of my journey in learning about mindfulness and meditation. To my surprise, it's become something that I value and I am going to continue my mindfulness practice after the end of the month.

And this is exactly why I started #2017habits in the first place. I'm not going to put pressure on myself to continue every habit I try over the course of this year on an ongoing basis. (Although if they're all useful and sustainable, maybe I will!) But mindfulness has begun to reveal to me that there are treasures to be found in pursuing this, and I want to learn more.

I suppose that's really what this challenge is all about, after all: it's about going beyond what you're comfortable with and continuing regardless.

#2017habits is a challenging I'm taking on for the whole of 2017. Each month, I will be developing a new habit. To find out more about #2017habits, click here. To find out about my habit for February, click here. To see the complete list of habits I'm developed so far and am planning to develop in future, click here.

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