Near the end of 2017, I read a New York Times article that said the best way to cultivate self-control was gratitude. To give you an idea of how long this has been an area where I have needed work, I still remember the humiliating moment when my fourth grade teacher made me go up to her desk in front of my entire class and check the “needs improvement” box next to the “self-control” metric on my quarterly report card. Plus, what better way to work toward my goals than to work on my ability to work toward goals? As one of my resolutions for 2018, I committed to keeping a daily gratitude log.
Every day, I take a couple of minutes to reflect on my day and record at least five things I feel grateful for. Some days, this is easy; other days, it takes real mental gymnastics to come up with anything at all. It’s on those days that I’m especially grateful for this exercise, which, regardless of what it ends up doing for my self-control, I hope will make me a kinder person.
Each month, I plan to share an excerpt from my gratitude log here, one item per day. Here’s January:
01: Soft, warm covers and a nightgown that makes me feel like a princess.
02: If we were going to forget about a dozen hard-boiled eggs and leave them sitting out all day, at least they were unpeeled and it was a cold enough day that they were unlikely to spoil.
03: The return of The Amazing Race.
04: The bomb cyclone was not a cyclone of literal bombs set off by Trump and North Korea.
05: Rebecca reached out in response to my blog post and recommended a book about highly sensitive people that seems like it might be really helpful for me.
06: Well-written and well-imagined fanfiction for escapism.
07: The really long and excellent back rub Lawrence gave me today.
08: Well-timed traffic lights that let me get from home to the museum via the library in under 40 minutes.
09: Afternoon light.
10: A fridge full of delicious food from Chinatown.
12: The new parka I ordered for Lawrence fits him.
13: Hawaii was not in fact attacked by a ballistic missile, despite the false alarm.
14: My guild hall has a very functional snow ramp system now.
15: Cuddling on the bed with Lawrence and our stuffed elephants for family movie night.
16: We managed to buy Hamilton tickets for September.
17: Having sushi for the first time in four months.
18: My ability to deal with the disappointment of the package room closing early more calmly than the man I found there screaming furiously at the door and any passerby who would listen.
19: Two-factor authentication.
20: We survived one full year of President Trump.
21: Apart from some delays, our monthly walk went well: the route was interesting enough, the weather was pleasant, and we found a well-located diner with generous portions for lunch.
22: I was able to simplify my daily cleaning routine using advice from the time management book.
23: The wide sweeps of color streaking the winter sky after rain.
24: We finally made some progress on our thank you cards.
25: My group trip planning spreadsheet idea worked well, and I even got to play with conditional formatting.
26: That first hug with Lawrence after he gets home.
27: I finally found someone to take the last spot for tomorrow’s escape room.
28: A fun and hilarious conversation about the performance art of Tehching Hsieh.
29: The maintenance team that knocked on our door at 11pm because our downstairs neighbor reported water leaking from their ceiling didn’t find any problems in our apartment.
30: Mom brought us home-cooked turkey and tasty Icelandic chocolate.
31: The techniques from the time management book helped me figure out that I was feeling stressed because I had planned 22 hours of to-dos between noon and midnight and adjust accordingly.
Soon after we returned home from our honeymoon in the British Isles, we hosted a small Thanksgiving meal for a couple of close friends. Having picked up an afternoon tea habit while abroad, I naturally decided to make that the theme for our festivities. (And, yes, I see the irony of using a British custom for this distinctly American celebration!) The menu included tea we’d brought back from London, homemade scones, two kinds of jam, clotted cream, and, of course, an assortment of tea sandwiches. Salmon and cream cheese. Hummus and cucumber. Apple and brie. And egg salad.
The problem was that I had never made egg salad before. Because I didn’t like egg salad. Because it almost always contains mayonnaise and often contains mustard, two condiments that I dislike. (What can I say? I’m a picky eater.) But with a vegetarian and a pescatarian among our attendees, I wanted to make it work. I looked for egg salad recipes without mayo and found one that mentioned avocado as a substitute. From there, I improvised.
Luckily, it was a hit! Today, I made my egg salad again and documented the process to share with you. It’s extremely simple, and it’s delicious, if I do say so myself.
Here are the ingredients:
6 hard-boiled eggs
half a lime
whatever other spices you want to add, you not-picky, spice-loving person, you
Dice the eggs and avocado. (Note: this step is not actually necessary. I just wanted it to look pretty for the photo.)
Squeeze the juice of half a lime over the mixture. Salt, pepper, and spice to taste.
Mash everything together with a fork. Or a giant spork. I used a giant spork, personally. (Note: If you skipped the dicing, you might need to mash extra hard here.)
And that’s it! Eat it on tea sandwiches, on an artfully-sliced croissant, or just straight out of the bowl.
Suggested modifications: Double the recipe, because eggs come a dozen in a box, after all, and what are you going to do with half a lime? Besides, that way, you might have a chance of having leftovers.
We have several large, long-term organizing and decluttering projects ongoing in our home, but it can be easy to lose motivation and momentum when the end never feels in sight. Last month, I decided I wanted to tackle a smaller, more self-contained project, something that I could start and finish in a short amount of time while still making a visible impact. Our linen closet is the first thing you see when you walk into our bedroom, and it was just the scope I was looking for. With some simple decluttering, rearranging, and repurposing (and, okay, the indulgence of a few new organizational baskets), I was able to achieve the dramatic improvement between these before and after shots.
Here’s are the details, from the top down.
We used to keep a big red suitcase on the top shelf of our linen closet. It was a good fit for the space, but something we only use once every five years didn’t need to be front and center in an area we pass by many times daily. I found a more out-of-the-way home for the suitcase in a different closet and decided to use this shelf to store the tissue boxes and paper towel rolls we buy in bulk.
This shelf used to be full of old towels we rarely used, but now it’s home to two baskets. The smaller one holds spare toiletries and serves as a convenient, centralized place to look if we need a new bar of soap or an unopened bottle of shampoo. The larger basket holds a spare sheet for our bed and one spare pillowcase for each of the pillows on it. It does not hold the old sheets that only fit a bed we haven’t had since 2016; we took this opportunity to finally get rid of those.
This middle shelf of our linen closet was once crammed with assorted linens, but it now holds our newly-streamlined towel collection. We decluttered nearly all of our old towels, most of which were well over a decade old, and treated ourselves to a set of luxurious-yet-affordable new towels from Target. We now have a total of six wash cloths, six hand towels, and six bath sheets: two for each of us, and two for guests. It’s a perfect number. (And, yes, that’s a math pun!)
This shelf was home to some extra comforters, which we only use on the rare occasion when we host an overnight guest during the coldest days of winter. We relocated them to a different closet and made this a cleaning command center. The basket on the left holds all of our laundry supplies: mesh wash bags, soap nuts, wool dryer balls, our laundry room key. The basket on the right contains all the parts and extensions for our cordless vacuum, except that wand in front, of course.
The bottom shelf of our linen closet (also known as the floor) used to contain a plastic storage tub and a paper bag stuffed with paper bags. We moved the tub out of the way — I’ll be honest: sorting through its contents is still pending — and recycled the paper bags. We repurposed this space as a home for the bulk toilet paper that we buy 96 rolls at a time. I was pleasantly surprised that they all fit, with room to spare.
Front and Side
We used to keep our laundry cart in front of our linen closet, but that made it hard to reach the shelves. Instead, we moved the cart to a different area of our bedroom and gave its spot to this darling elephant hamper that we received as a wedding gift. The wreath of flowers on its head is actually the wreath of flowers I wore on my head during our wedding! The elephant holds all of our spare linens that we use infrequently but want to hold on to: some throw blankets, a sleeping bag, a few emergency towels, a picnic blanket. It’s roomy enough to meet our needs while encouraging us to be selective about what we keep.
The shelves in our linen closet narrow on one side, making the resulting space awkward to use. However, as I was reimagining this closet, I finally had the perfect brainstorm for how to make use of that space. I printed out some of my favorite photos from our honeymoon, placed them in 5″x7″ picture frames we had used to hold signs at our wedding, and put one on each shelf (arranged, much to Lawrence’s amusement, in order of elevation). I chose landscapes that featured greens and blues to connect the greens of our bedroom to the right with the blues of our bathroom to the left. By a happy coincidence, the frames even match the elephant hamper! I love the difference these photos made for this space. Now, every time I walk into our bedroom, I’m greeted with the welcoming sight of happy memories — and the relief of a well-organized space!
When we came home from Texas after ten days away, I found Lily, my peace lily, drooping in her pot.
I had left her in a baking dish full of water and pulled back the window blinds so that she could enjoy the sunlight in our absence, but the pan was dry and, with the heat shut off, the temperature in our apartment had dropped far below her temperate preferences. The stalks of her leaves folded sharply downward so that she resembled a spindly, pale green, many-legged spider.
I resigned myself to this evidence that I had not inherited my mother and her father’s green thumbs. Barely past the two month mark, my goal of keeping a plant alive and healthy for six months seemed sadly done for. Nevertheless, I watered her and turned on the heat and angled a small humidifier toward her leaves. By the next morning, she was already starting to perk back up. Two days later, her leaves were once again standing tall, their dark green color betraying little sign of her brush with neglect.
Peace lilies are supposed to be hardy plants. That’s one of the reasons I chose that species to start my new adventures in plant care-taking. Watching Lily rapidly un-shrivel and bloom in the days following our return, I found myself in the odd position of envying a plant. I want her resilience for myself.
On Christmas day, I burst into tears for some completely minor reason, startling my dad who started lecturing me about overreacting until my explanation that I cry practically every week gave him pause.
“I didn’t know you were so sensitive,” he said. “You don’t usually cry when we see you.” This, despite the fact that I had also burst into tears the previous Christmas. In case you haven’t guessed, I’m not very good at holidays.
“I cry all the time,” I tried to explain to him. “I broke down sobbing when I heard that Australia had voted in favor of marriage equality, and I’ve never even been to Australia.”
“I guess we just don’t see you for a full week most of the time,” he decided and let the matter drop.
I’m sensitive. It’s true. I flinch at sounds that don’t even register for Lawrence — and he’s no aural lightweight, painstakingly normalizing the volumes of mix CD tracks with barely-detectable fraction-of-a-decibel adjustments. My sister can tell you about the ordeal of trying to get a pencil liner or a mascara wand or (Heaven forbid!) a pair of false lashes near my eyes: I twitch and blink uncontrollably, leaving everything smeared and askew. My sensitivity to flavors in foods has made me the pickiest eater I know. I’m pretty sure I have a reputation among even my close friends for being particular and easy to offend. And I cry all the time.
The worst part, though, is how long it takes me to bounce back after something goes wrong. The aftertaste of a tense exchange can linger for hours. Arguments (and I’m very argumentative!) can make me feel off kilter for days. So it was probably inevitable that my two-for-one New Year’s Day birthday was going to include an argument, followed by a jag of crying, followed by long, wobbly hours wondering how to recover.
Finally, around eight or nine at night, I said to Lawrence, “Let’s just start over.” I know this sounds ridiculous, but I pretended it was morning, and I pretended to wake up to a fresh new birthday with no mistakes in it yet (to paraphrase my favorite literary heroine). I took a shower and got dressed, and we watched a movie and had cake, and by then night and morning were blurring back together. But still we had somehow managed to rescue this small sliver of cheer from an otherwise dreary day.
I’m sensitive. It’s true. But maybe my sensitivity is also the fuel for my imagination, which might be my richest tool for cultivating resilience. My plant needs light and water and warmth, and my soul needs the ability to imagine better, to imagine a reason worth striving and falling short and striving again. I hope each next age can bring me closer to that.
At the beginning of 2017, I decided I wanted to work on building two habits. I didn’t want to call them “resolutions” (too much pressure), and I definitely didn’t want to announce them publicly (even more pressure). Now that the year is over, though, I’m happy to report that 2017 was actually my best resolution-keeping year yet! Here’s how I did.
I took my first forays into meditation in 2016 and flirted with the practice on and off throughout the year. In 2017, I wanted to make it a more consistent presence in my life. I decided that I would start by meditating for 10 minutes a day in January (a duration that felt long at the time) and increase that time by 30 seconds each month.
I successfully kept up with this routine through travel to China (by meditating in my seat during the long haul flights), wedding planning, and even my wedding day itself, but after a long overnight journey, I collapsed exhausted into bed on the first day of our honeymoon and was asleep before I had meditated. After that, I decided to take the honeymoon off from meditating.
It was a choice that made sense given our pace of travel. It also had the unexpected side effect of reinforcing the benefit of this daily practice in my life. I found myself missing the ritual of sitting quietly in a dark room, listening to the ambient sounds playing on my meditation app, and letting my mind be still or at least free. After our honeymoon was over, I decided to start back up at 15 minutes a day, with no more duration increases. I’ve been doing that ever since: New Year’s Eve marked day 70.
While I didn’t follow my original prescription exactly, I still consider my meditation practice in 2017 a success. It’s a habit I’ve integrated into my life, and I experience its benefits every day.
I’ve been using a Fitbit to log my daily step count since 2011, but long gone were the days when I’d bounce around the living room at ten to midnight, racing the clock to hit 10000 steps. Toward the end of 2016, I noticed myself growing increasingly sedentary, and I wanted to change that in 2017.
I decided to do this by setting a daily step minimum: not a goal, which I might hit one day but miss the next, but a firm bar beneath which I would not allow myself to cross. I started in January with the extremely modest threshold of 1000 steps a day and increased this number by 1000 steps a month. I’m happy to report that I didn’t miss a single day all year. I paced the lengths of airport terminals, jogged in place in front of YouTube videos, arranged social gatherings that took the format of group walks, sometimes ran errands very inefficiently, and walked from the subway to my own wedding, but I did it.
I’ve taken at least 10000 steps a day every day since the beginning of October, without exception, and I took at least 12000 steps every single day in December. It’s also the first year since 2012 that my total step count for the year exceeded 3 million. I’m pretty proud of that.
Goodreads Reading Challenge
I deliberately set only two goals at the beginning of the year because I wanted it to be easy to keep my goals in mind every single day. It took me a while to realize that I was actually working toward a third goal as well. For the second year running, I participated in the Goodreads Reading Challenge with a target of 26 books, one book every two weeks. It’s a pace that feels good for me: not so many that reading becomes stressful, but not so few that the goal feels trivial. In 2017, I managed to hit my target exactly, finishing book number 26 (the one I started on Christmas Eve) on December 29.
Reading Books By Women
This last goal wasn’t one I planned for the year but one that found me along the way. At the end of 2016, when Lawrence and I were looking over the lists of books we had read that year, I observed that the vast majority of my books had been written by women, while the vast majority of his had been written by men. This was not deliberate — neither of us had given the slightest thought to the genders of the authors we read — but nevertheless this pattern emerged. I was intrigued but set that thought aside as I embarked on my reading for 2017.
When I was five or six books into the year, I noticed that all of the books I had read so far had been written by women and wondered if I could keep that up all year long. The answer, it turned out, was yes: all 26 new books I read in 2017 (plus the one that I reread and didn’t include in the count) were written by women. Was it hard? Not particularly, since (to paraphrase The Lion King) there’s more to read than can ever be read, but I do wonder if my 2018 reading will end up skewing more toward male authors as a result.
Lessons for the Future
In 2017, I gained two habits (and kept one old one) that enhance my daily life, but possibly more importantly, I learned about the process of working toward goals. I think these insights will help me to set myself up for more successes in the future, and I hope they’ll be able to do the same for you.
Inputs Over Outcomes
Many of us, myself included, use the terms “goal” and “resolution” interchangeably, but in 2017, I learned that there is an important difference between the two. A goal is an outcome you want to achieve, but a resolution should focus on the concrete steps you take to get there. It’s the difference between “I want to lose weight” and “I will exercise at least 5 days a week for at least 30 minutes each time,” between “I want to be published” and “I will submit my work.” A goal can be your motivation, but the best resolutions are plans of action.
The Things I Can Control
The reason why it helps to focus on inputs over outcomes when choosing resolutions is because inputs are within our control. If you pick a resolution that is entirely and exclusively in your hands, then you make yourself the key determinant of your success. Other factors might affect the outcome of a situation, but you can put in the work and celebrate your efforts for their own sakes.
A Habit of Success
I started off my daily steps habit by pledging to take at least 1000 steps per day in January. Now, I’m not saying it’s impossible to take fewer than 1000 steps in a day (I’ve done it before!), but it’s a pretty trivial target for most people. What’s the point of setting such a low bar to start? I wanted to make my target so easy that it would be hard to fail. I wanted to make sure my resolution felt approachable while I was getting used to it. I wanted to get myself in the habit of succeeding.
Once I was in the habit of succeeding, I then incrementally increased my target. Every month, I raised my target step count by 1000 steps, which was a small enough difference to feel achievable but a large enough difference to feel like I was continuing to push myself. A month turned out to be the perfect amount of time for the new increment to move from challenging to manageable without quite hitting easy. Just as I was about to get acclimated to each target, it would be time to move on to the next one and start the process again. These regular increments helped me to make and measure my progress.
What will I be working on in 2018? With a year of success under my belt, I feel less shy about sharing this time around: I plan to incrementally raise the duration of my daily meditation sessions from 15 minutes to 20, maintain an average step count above 10000 per day for the year by continuing to shoot for 12000 most days so that I can take the occasional rest day, and keep a daily gratitude log. For the third year in a row, I’ve set a goal of 26 books in the Goodreads Reading Challenge. I want to visit at least one new state and at least two new countries. And every month, I intend to savor one British-style afternoon tea at home, lead one walk in our monthly walk series, and write at least five posts for this blog. Starting with this one.