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Make the best of your life

07 November 2017

Find the path to personal fulfilment: experts’ tips for all areas of life, from doing what you want to relationships and relaxation. By Jo Carlowe.

Calming woodland walk
'We can gain a lot of satisfaction just by standing outdoors,' says natural navigator Tristan Gooley

1. What you need is motivation and confidence

You’ve got a million ideas, a bucket list of adventures, but you never quite get beyond the sofa. So start work on your confidence before you get out of bed in the morning. Dr Gary Wood, life coach and author of Unlock Your Confidence, recommends this simple daily stretching exercise.

‘From the bed, reach your arms upwards, palms open as though pushing up. Breathe in as you do this. Pause, form fists and pull down with a little resistance. As you do, breathe out. Repeat seven times. Now sit up and do the same again.

‘Get out of bed and repeat again. Now put the kettle on. As you wait for it to boil, write down three things you are looking forward to today.’

Stop putting off things you’d like to do

Wood describes procrastinating as, ‘getting locked in a dialogue between thoughts and feelings’ – he suggests trying a cognitive-behavioural fix.

‘The easiest way to alter perceptions is to take action. It gives us fresh input to consider rather than ruminating over the same thoughts and feelings.’

Start small

The secret, he says, is to tackle small goals first. ‘It could be a one-minute meditation or writing one line in a journal. It's best if it coincides with something you'd do anyway.’ For example, you could use your first glass of water of the day as your trigger.

‘The point is to make the change and commit to it. It's how we start to rebuild confidence, which, after all, is about the courage to take action.’

Focusing on bigger changes can overwhelm us. ‘The effort to do something seems far more hassle than not doing anything at all. We then find reasons to justify the actions, such as, “not enough time” or “what will others think?” I encourage my clients to commit to small acts of defiance against those negative attitudes.’

Keep a record

In times of self-doubt, fill out a journal. ‘Keeping a record of your progress can be a useful resource. It’s like collecting evidence to contradict negative thinking.’ Countering negative attitudes can have marvellous results. Wood has clients who have started degrees in their late sixties, resumed former childhood hobbies such as riding and dancing, decided to travel the world, or learnt new languages.

2. Improve your concentration

A steady supply of ‘fuel’ to the brain is the key to concentration and optimal mental performance, says practising doctor John Briffa, author of A Great Day at the Office.

Eat well

‘Of prime importance is maintaining a stable level of sugar in the bloodstream. Disruptive foods include starchy carbohydrates — bread, potato, rice, pasta and breakfast cereals. Much better are protein-rich foods, such as meat, fish and eggs, coupled with salad or vegetables. Full-fat Greek yogurt with some berries and nuts is a good breakfast option.’ This basic nutritional strategy will boost your energy levels.

Dr Briffa’s next tip, he acknowledges, sounds ‘slightly mad’. He advises ‘intermittent fasting’ — consuming food only within an allotted time slot, such as noon until 8pm.

‘Going from dinner to lunch without food basically forces the body to burn fat, which can accelerate weight loss. It also increases the amount of ketones, a byproduct of fat burning, which provide ready fuel for the body and brain. Those who employ intermittent fasting feel good on it, and enjoy stable levels of energy and concentration.’

Sleep well

Finally, Briffa advocates a good night’s sleep and recommends limiting evening alcohol and screen use. Booze disrupts REM sleep, linked to brain function and mood. Blue light from digital devices suppresses levels of melatonin, the hormone that controls our sleep-wake cycle.

3. Boost your productivity

Many of us suffer from imposter syndrome – that feeling you’ll be unmasked as the incompetent pretender that you really are. This ties into the notion that we have to be ‘best’ or ‘perfect’ in order to be ‘allowed’ to take part.

Good enough

Graham Allcott, founder of the Think Productive consultancy and author of How to be a Productivity Ninja, knocks this idea on the head. ‘Perfection is the enemy of done,’ he says. ‘Adopt a mindset of “good enough” rather than perfect. It’s about letting go – convincing yourself the house is tidy enough, or the email says what it needs to say, not everything you could say.’

Be specific

But this doesn’t mean being vague about goals. On the contrary, Allcott recommends clarity, including making very specific to-do-lists. ‘Most people’s to-do lists contain things like “garage”. What you need instead is something like “call the skip hire company and book a skip”. Defining actions help you picture them in your mind. Well defined is halfway to well done.’

Try the Pomodoro Technique

For bigger jobs, he recommends this time-management technique named after a tomato-shaped kitchen timer. ‘Set the timer to 25 minutes, and work in a dash until it ticks down to zero. Have a five-minute break, then repeat. Doing this through the day will help your brain to stay fresh. It’s counterintuitive to stop so soon when you first start using it, but it really works.’

‘There’s no secret sauce to increasing productivity,’ he says. ‘It’s more about changing your mindset and then doing the simple things consistently and well. The key is to stick with it. I’ve had clients get their email inbox to zero for the first time ever, then gone on to organise their whole house, office and even personal life.’

4. Be happier in relationships

Personal contentment is invariably wrapped up in our relationships with others. Eve Menezes Cunningham, author of 365 Ways to Feel Better: Self-Care Ideas for Embodied Wellbeing, and chair for the British Association of Counselling & Psychotherapy Coaching advises people to take notice of their body language when communication falters.

‘If you notice yourself shutting down when a familiar subject comes up again and your irritation flares, go against your instinct to turn away. Instead, open your heart to your loved one. Turn to face them. This won't always be appropriate but even pondering this open-hearted approach can begin to create some movement.’

Be open about being shy

Another common ‘body’ reaction is for our face muscles to freeze into an uninviting mask, when we’re feeling shy in unfamiliar social situations. Phillip Hodson, Britain’s ‘first agony uncle’ and BACP fellow, says it’s fine to open a conversation with: ‘I know nobody here — help!’ He also recommends using open-ended questions such as ‘What do you feel about X?’ rather than ‘Do you like X?’ to keep conversation flowing.

View your partner in a good light

It’s also never too late to change our communication patterns with our other halves. Scientists who studied the factors that make long-term relationships work, concluded the following: ‘Partners feel happier when their spouse or partner has a “shinier” view of them than they have of themselves.’

In other words, seeing your partner through rose-tinted specs, really does work. ‘You must put your partner first. Make the effort to see their point of view because if you “win”, the relationship will lose,’ says Hodson. ‘Remember your partner's strengths more than their weaknesses – be biased in their favour. Tease gently; boost when possible; be affectionate. Try to act "from love" since people really mean what they do, not what they say.’

5. The great outdoors is good for you

Exercise is a well-known energy booster. Even a brisk 15-minute walk will get your heart rate up and blood flowing to the brain. Numerous studies support both the physical and psychological benefits of time spent in the countryside.

Natural navigator Tristan Gooley, author of How to Connect with Nature, says recent research points to the benefits that come from breathing in the oils given off by conifers, ‘which can be enjoyed by simple “forest bathing”’, ie taking in the forest atmosphere.

He recommends we look at our existing interests to find the corresponding ‘bridge’ into nature. Food lovers, for example, might enjoy foraging; keen travellers could try natural navigation – using clues such as the direction of plant growth to serve as a compass, calendar or clock. 

‘We can gain a lot of satisfaction just by standing outdoors. The simple question, “Which way am I looking?” when answered using nature, prompts us to use our senses and opens up new ways of thinking.’

6. And finally, relax…

Visualisation can elevate mood, but few of us have time to meditate. The trick, according to life coach, Gary Wood, is to incorporate visualisation into our everyday activities. ‘Imagine light streaming from the shower head, clearing away negativity and giving you energy. Imagine a glass of water cleansing the inside of your body. Ironing can be a metaphor for smoothing out the wrinkles in your life…’ And when the day is done, conclude it in a positive way — write down three things for which you have been grateful.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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