At the start of every year I sit down and think about the next 12 months. What’s important to me? What are my priorities? How do I achieve, grow, and find happiness in my life? This is the result of that process.

This is the third year now that I’ve made this process public. In 2014 I listed a bunch of goals under various categories like Personal Happiness, Adventure, and Creativity. In reviewing that year I listed some lessons, and the two that stand out now are ‘don’t try to do too much‘ and ‘concentrate on cornerstone habits‘.

I didn’t heed these lessons in 2015, as a quick browse through my list of goals for that year will tell you! Last year I changed the layout of my annual plan, trying to form habits by creating goals associated with certain habits like ‘being creative’. It didn’t work. There were too many goals and not enough structures in place to keep them manageable.

So this year I’m taking my advice from 2014. I’m sticking to the idea of forming cornerstone habits, and I’m going to concentrate on developing one (or at most two) habits each month, with the goal being to continue that habit throughout the rest of the year.

Research shows that it takes anywhere from 2 to 8 months for a new habit to stick, so I’ve front loaded the first half of the year with habits that are both the most important or foundational, and the most difficult. This also means that I’m forming these habits while I have the most energy (I start to flag towards the end of the year).

To do this took me about a whole day. I started by thinking about what I’d like to achieve, what I’d like to be better at, and the areas of my life that cause me frustration or personal disappointment, and then listing habits that would be potentially transformative. Then I looked at my calendar and shuffled things around until I had each new habit aligned well with what would be going on in my life at that time of year. It’s been a great process and is certainly a day well spent given the impact it will have on the rest of my year.

This is for my benefit, but I share it both as potential inspiration for others and to make me more accountable to sticking to my plans.

MY 12 NEW HABITS OF 2016

This post is long, so here are my 12 new habits of 2016, with links to jump to each section if don’t want to read through everything.

If you find any of this useful, let me know in the comments or link back to your own annual plan if you have one :)

JANUARY – MEDITATION

This month is a tricky one. I was leading an expedition for the first two weeks of January and will be on a 10 day vipassana retreat over the last two weeks. Since I’m writing this after the expedition and with just three days before the retreat, the potential for forming a new habit is slim, to say the least! So, I’ll cheat and call this a meditation month, since during those 10 days I’ll clock up to 100 hours of meditation practice I think it’s fair to call this my meditation month!

Rules – No rules. Just complete the vipassana retreat this time (no kidney stones please!)

Continuing Practice – At least 30 minutes a day in the morning, but aspiring to more than this, including the study and addition of other techniques such as loving kindness meditation and perhaps some of the vajrayana traditions.

FEBRUARY – NEARLY NO BOOZE, NO COFFEE

I’ve come to dislike my reliance on alcohol to make social situations easier, or to alleviate boredom or stress. We have a culture in the UK that teaches a lot of young people to associate good times, friendship, happiness, and self-confidence with alcohol. I know that my relationship with alcohol was formed during my late teens and early twenties – a time when most people are insecure and unsure of themselves, while also defining who they are going to be in adult life. I want to redefine that relationship.

I could have cheated and used January as a no booze month, but I’ll commit to a dry February on top of a practically dry January.

Why no coffee? I’m an abuser, it’s as simple as that. I have no control. My coffee habit negatively affects my work, my health, and my wallet. It’s not quite heroin, but it’s close.

Rules – one night a month of social or celebratory drinking if I fancy it, but no coffee at all.

Continuing Practice – Follow these habits for the rest of the year

MARCH – ROUTINES AND SCHEDULING

This will be my first full month of the year back in the UK, and so is the first real chance to work on setting and sticking to routines and schedules in my work and personal life. I have a pretty complicated work life and set myself a lot of personal goals, so I need these structures to make sure I’m staying focused and on target. To be a bit more specific:

Morning Routine – I’ll define this later, but it will include getting up early, meditation, some form of exercise, a proper breakfast (without coffee!), and probably some kind of work or creativity session.

Training Schedules – I’m planning on running a sub-3 hour marathon in May, and then possibly and ultra-marathon by the end of the year. I’m also planning on working very hard on my climbing. Both of these sports require proper conditioning and stretching, as well as rest. My tendency to over-train and injure myself needs to be tamed, as does my habit of missing sessions when I’m feeling lazy.

Work Schedules – Without proper scheduling I lapse into erratic and reactive work habits that make me stressed and likely to slip into other bad habits (like working late, skipping fun things or missing training). My work life is bloody complicated and I need to figure out some simple ways to keep on top of everything, and then learn to stick to them. I know that time spent planning and scheduling has a massive impact, so this is what I’ll concentrate on, but I’ll also incorporate things like a zero inbox approach to emails to maximise efficiency and reduce procrastination.

Rules – Stick to the programs!

Continuing Practice – The morning routine should be the same every day, except during travel or nights outside, so I’ll need to work on morning routines for other situations too. The schedules will change from month to month, but the act of scheduling and working to those schedules needs to become a solid habit.

APRIL – PERSONAL FINANCES

The start of the financial year seems like a good time to focus on this one. I’ll use something like YNAB to get to grips with my current finances and make a plan to reduce spending and increase saving. Then I’ll find a system to record and categorise all my spending, and schedule time to review this at the end of the month. I’ll try to put any non-essential spending desires into a cooling off zone, and review that at the end of the month as well, to see whether I still want to buy anything from that list.

Rules – Record all spending at time of purchase (especially cash purchases). No spending on non-essentials. Review at end of the month.

Continuing Practice – Stick with whatever tools I decide to use for the rest of the financial year. Keep the habits of recording spending, the end of month review and the time delay on non-essential purchases.

MAY – DIGITAL DETOX

This is mostly related to my smart phone, but also to my laptop. My phone has become a huge time wasting device and source of distraction. I browse, read the news, and check emails and my social media accounts much more that I would like to. The time I spend procrastinating on my phone far outweighs the time I spend using it productively, which makes it a net-negative feature in my life. Is it useful on a daily basis? Yes, especially when travelling. Given other preparations would it have ever been vital? No. So, I want to go without a smart phone for a month and see how that goes. I also want to have a month of very controlled computer time.

Rules – No smart phone, a maximum daily use limit for my laptop, no reading the news or mindless browsing, and only purposeful use of social media at set times.

Continuing Practice – To be decided at the end of this trial based on the experience.

JUNE – ADVENTURE

I have a 10 day adventure somewhere in Europe booked in to this month, and it’s also my birthday, which also happens to be summer solstice. So this is my month of adventure! I might even take the month off work and call it my walkabout month, but we’ll have to see about that nearer the time!

Rules – Sleep outside every night. Swim outside every day. Do something new or daring or scary every day.

Continuing Practice – Do this kind of stuff more often!

JULY – WRITING

In July I will be probably be back on the road, and I want to get back into the practice of writing during my travels. Knowing that I will record my thoughts and experiences at the end of the day makes me more engaged with wherever I happen to be, and helps me develop a skill that I have an undernourished talent for.

Rules – Write in a journal for at least an hour every day, either before bed or in the early morning. Try to write a poem a day as well.

Continuing Practice – I’m not sure yet. I know I want to write more, and I need to find a way to do this. That probably means sacrificing other areas of my work. I’m not ready to look at what those might be just now.

AUGUST – PHOTOGRAPHY

I’m a solid but pretty mediocre photographer. One of the reasons for that is a lack of focus. During this month I will pursue at least one photographic project that requires learning, research, and skill development, as well as the practice itself. Again, I’ll probably be on the road so I’ll decide what this project will be nearer the time.

Rules – Produce a body of work worthy of exhibition that also develops my photographic skill and knowledge of the subject. Work on this every day.

Continuing Practice – Probably something like the planning and scheduling of similar projects with clear outcomes.

SEPTEMBER – DE-CLUTTER

Phew! That’s a pretty serious year of habit forming! I know that I start to flag toward the end of the year, especially since I’ve normally just returned from a summer in the field and, as the new year starts to loom into view, I have to start preparing to head back into the field in a few months. So I’m keeping it easy for the rest of the year. This habit is about getting rid of stuff and tidying up my digital life.

Rules – Sell, donate, give away or throw out as much stuff as possible. Weigh, take photos, and boast heavily about how brilliant I am at getting rid of crap that I don’t need. Be utterly ruthless, and pay close attention to clothes, cables, and redundant outdoor gear. Also purge my inboxes, clear my desktop, get Evernote in beautiful order, and take care of any other digital cleansing that seems necessary.

Continuing Practice – I should probably make a monthly habit of digital tidying up, and a quarterly habit of purging stuff. Reducing stuff intake would also be smart!

OCTOBER – GENEROSITY

It’s Diwali at the end of the month and Christmas is getting near, so in October I want to concentrate on developing the habit of giving generously. This doesn’t necessarily mean giving gifts, but might include giving time, attention, praise, or love. It might also mean giving more to myself. This will take some thought, but will include introducing some new daily meditations, as well as preparing thoughtful, personal gifts (not rushing out and buying stuff at the last minute), and practising giving without any negative feelings such possessiveness, regret, or expectations of reward.

Rules – I’m not sure yet, except for the practice of meditating on this subject, but I think I will probably dedicate some time to a local cause (perhaps homelessness), give more time to my friends and loved ones, and practice giving my attention more fully to those I engage with.

Continuing Practice – obviously the goal is to build this into my character, but perhaps the process will show me how to continue developing this attitude of generosity, and maybe I will learn how to create space to be more generous with my time.

NOVEMBER – LOVING KINDNESS

Vipassana meditation focuses on developing insight into the true nature of reality: impermanence, suffering or un-satisfactoriness, and ‘no-self’, according to Theravada Buddhism. Having practised this I can say that it offers some profound insights, and in no way requires one to become a Buddhist or suddenly accept the idea of reincarnation in order to practice it. It’s why I’m going on a Vipassana retreat this month and will concentrate on this technique for most of the rest of the year.

But I’m also interested in the power of meditation to cultivate beneficial attitudes and behaviours. To rewire the brain it’s necessary to build new wires, and our brains build those wires through practice. We burn ourselves on something hot and our brains wire us up to be careful around hot things. We get hurt when we make ourselves vulnerable, and our brains wire us up to avoid behaviours which expose us to the world. In the same way, meditating on something such as feeling warmth and friendliness to all beings, even those who would cause us harm, wires us up to take this attitude into our day to day life.

Why develop an attitude of loving kindness? Well, because in the Buddhist tradition, which is where these meditations originate, this starts with learning to be kind and compassionate toward yourself, which has got to be a good thing! But beyond that, when you get down to genes and environmental influences and bad days and the very real possibility that free will doesn’t actually exist, then you see that people have very little, if any, control over what they do and how they behave. This is a powerful realisation, and if you accept it the only natural thing to do is to try to be forgiving, loving, kind, and compassionate to everyone, all the time.

Actually developing that quality is obviously pretty difficult, which is why sitting quietly and concentrating on friendly thoughts towards increasingly challenging subjects begins to rewire the brain so that, in time, we can bring this practice more and more into real life.

Rules – at least 30mins of loving kindness meditation everyday, and a concentrated effort to practice this throughout the day.

Continuing Practice – it might be that I add a loving kindness meditation to my day, perhaps as part of my morning meditation. Hopefully my reading around the subject between now and then will help me develop a better understanding of how to fully incorporate this practice into my life.

DECEMBER – REFLECTION AND GRATITUDE

The long and dark nights, Winter Solstice, the Christmas holidays and the New Year celebrations all make December a natural time for reflection. I want to develop the habit I’ve been forming over recent years of reflecting on the year. This might take the form of a personal retreat somewhere remote and solitary, but I’m unsure yet.

At the same time I think reflection offers a good opportunity to develop a sense of gratitude, and so in keeping with the previous two months, I will develop another meditation practice throughout December: one of practising gratitude. Gratitude and generosity are actually two sides of the same coin, and both are directly connected to the ideas of loving kindness.

Rules – to be decided but most likely a personal retreat, along with 30 mins of daily meditation on developing a sense of gratitude, and a strong commitment to incorporate this practice into my daily life.

Continuing Practice – as above, I need to read more around the subject of gratitude and keep experimenting with different meditation practices and techniques before answering this.

MAKING IT HAPPEN

At the end of each month I’ll reflect on how well my new habit training went and how I can continue the practice effectively for the rest f the year. Then I’ll make a detailed plan for the next monthly habit that might include tools, systems, routines, targets, and rewards or punishments. I’ll publish both the plans and the reflections on here as a way of sharing learning and holding my accountable.

I think the hardest part will be maintaining a habit into months two and three while other new habits are being formed, so I’ll also keep track of how well I’m sticking to each previous habit as a part of my monthly reflections. I’ll also do my best to make sure that these posts don’t become the only things being posted on this blog!

If you found this useful or have some feedback on this approach, let me know in the comments!


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