On mindsets, mind shifts and wins
A 10-year (ish) retrospective of self-reflection and improvement
Why this post
This post is a retrospective of various self-improvement wins from the last 10+ years, and how they’ve impacted my life.
It’s long and primarily a personal exercise, but I’ve written it in such a way that it may provide value to others.
How to read this post
Scan down the red topic headings and read if it resonates with you!
Alternatively, skip to a section:
- Personal (8 items)
- Environment (7 items)
- Organisation (6 items)
- People (6 items)
- Skills (6 items)
- Future (10 items)
Well-being and happiness
No real introduction needed here, save to say the small things impact the big things.
Managing social anxiety
For most of my adult life I had no idea that I suffered from social anxiety, especially as I’m sociable, outgoing and fairly confident. But the tells were there; I’d get dizzy spells, couldn’t think of anything worthwhile to say, feel the need to just-get-out, or occasionally lose my temper and I wouldn’t know why.
Social anxiety is a diagnosed (opens new window) mental health condition, and when I heard about it in the media, suddenly those past situations and feelings made complete sense.
These days, I’m properly equipped to recognise the tells and take preventative measures to avoid the worst of it.
Stopping biting my nails
I’ve bitten my nails my whole life and always hated the fact I couldn’t stop and I couldn’t help myself.
But a couple of years ago I managed to stop overnight, and aside from a few slip-ups I now have perfect nails that I don’t feel the need to bite. It was such a momentous change and huge victory for me, that I wrote about it here.
I should have taken it when my Mum died (but I was too young) and I should have taken it in prior relationships (but I was shortsighted). When I eventually looked into it, Perfectionist Me wanted the right therapist but Workaholic Me was too busy anyway. The breakthrough finally came by simply arranging a call with my girlfriend’s therapist (opens new window).
Therapy really wasn’t what I thought it would be; rather than talking about my mother, it was much more about my framing of the world, and how it created a narrow criteria both for me to be happy and for loved ones to operate in.
Getting help to adjust your world view so that you may lead a freer and happier life is really a wonderful gift!
Leaving my phone alone
Like most other humans I’m not immune from the dopamine hit of checking your phone.
But I’ve learned to recognise the signs – such as needing to check for updates, suddenly having to look something up, or scrolling for the next story / article / video / comment – and now channel that energy elsewhere.
I won’t check my phone in company, won’t scroll social media whilst watching a film, will be mindful of involuntarily checking, and if I realise I’m simply wasting time on it, will find something better to do.
Taking regular walks
I’ve always worked from home, and talking regular walks is a key part of my regime.
Getting out for a walk, being in the fresh air, surrounded by trees and having time to think is critical to making breakthroughs and being happier and more productive. Generally I’ll just walk and think, but sometimes will take my second laptop or a book, and hit a coffeeshop to do B-level work such as reading or writing.
Diet and health
Food is a surprisingly complex subject for many people, and it’s an area I have been guilty in recent years of neglecting.
Overhauling my diet
A couple of years ago I realised I was increasingly living off biscuits, toast and ready-made food, and it was showing.
I signed up to Mindful Chef (opens new window) to avoid fatigue around decision making, and also to Noom (opens new window) to lose some weight and educate myself on nutrition. Three months of tracking foods, reading about nutrition, understanding healthy snacking, and I had the hang of it.
These days I’m still with Mindful Chef and I make much better choices when hitting the supermarket.
Planning meals and snacks
This year I’m trying Keto (opens new window), a low-carb, high-protein diet that switches your body into a natural fat burning mode.
Reaching and staying in a state called ketosis requires significant planning as even small amounts of carbohydrate or sugar (found in all processed food) will kick you out of ketosis and you have to start again.
Being forced to count carbs of every ingredient, find keno-friendly recipes, plan all meals and shopping, and create every meal from scratch has been a surprisingly brilliant exercise in not taking food – or my body – for granted.
Giving up alcohol
A few years ago, I suffered a couple of years of psoriasis, which depending the day was quite apparent on my face.
After 18 months on various medication, shampoos and creams, I moved to cut alcohol completely. I went three months without a drink, which – because I had an outcome to focus on – wasn’t the big deal I thought it would be.
As it turned out my self-imposed prohibition had no effect, but at least cocktails are back on the list for me!
If you work from home, know that your home environment has a direct effect on your well-being and productivity. These small changes had a big effect for me.
Making the bed every day
I’d seen the make your bed (opens new window) video on social media, but it struck me as just another barrier to getting on with my day. However, I decided to try it a few years ago and it’s been the trigger for a whole host of positive changes.
It takes literally 30 seconds to go round each corner and pull things straight. And because the room feels significantly tidier, it seems no bother to hang up those clothes, or take away those cups you left on the side.
As the video says, one small action leads to another, and not just the bed but the room is now perfect, and when you return at night it feels more like a hotel room than a bedroom, all thanks to those 30 seconds of commitment.
Doing things as they need to be done
I used to be a “just in time” kind of person; why do today what you can put off till tomorrow?
But years of doing things last minute have proved what a trap it is; not looking nice at social events because I didn’t do the laundry, having to frantically clean up when someone comes round, not eating properly because there’s nothing in the fridge, missing a meeting because I didn’t put it in the calendar; the list is endless.
The mind shift for me was; you’re going to have to do it anyway, so you may as well do it without the stress. And doing it sooner rather than later gives you more options and makes life more pleasant too.
Keeping the house neat and tidy
This really is just a function of the previous two points, but life is so much nicer with everything done.
I manage this by doing bits of jobs as I go along. Making a cup of tea? Empty one shelf of the dishwasher. Waiting for toast to pop up? Wipe down the worktops or put some cups in the cupboard. Finished a sandwich? Put the plate in the dishwasher. Going to the kitchen? Take the dirty cups with you. Washing on the racks dried? Take 60 seconds to fold it, and take it upstairs when you leave.
Once you adopt this mindset it’s super-simple to stay on top of things and the results speak for themselves.
Making sure I never run out
Running out of something just as you need it is a huge pain; milk, tea, olive oil, toothpaste, toilet roll 😬
The irony is, you generally know before you’re going to run out, so running out is a totally avoidable problem. These days I either always have two of something, or update the shopping list when it’s close to running out (never after!).
Possessions are not a big thing for me (if there was a fire I’d just grab my laptop) but here’s what makes my life better:
Fostering a minimalist attitude
One of the best things I ever did was to realise that possessions are a trap.
I don’t buy anything I don’t need, I research items so they are fit for purpose, I make things last for as long as I can. I regularly review what I own and ruthlessly recycle or donate. When I travel I pack both light and smart; staying fleet of foot lets you move fast, think less and have more time for the things that count.
Making the most of music
I’d say it’s fair that I organise a significant amount of my time around music.
Using YouTube (opens new window), MixCloud (opens new window), SoundCloud (opens new window) but mainly Spotify (opens new window) across in-ear (opens new window) and over-ear (opens new window) noise-cancelling headphones, via my Android, MacBook, Google Home (“Hey Google, play my Beautiful Film Scores (opens new window) playlist”) and soon Sonos (opens new window) systems. Spotify’s recommendations on-point; once it knows what you like Discover Weekly (opens new window) will consistently put great music in front of you. The key is liking tracks and curating playlists you love (organise them on Spotify Desktop (opens new window)) and identify live music using Shazam (opens new window) on your phone (I have a shortcut on my home screen).
I love being alone with my thoughts, but I’m most likely a lifetime Spotify member.
Going all-in on Google Home
I have Google Home (opens new window) in most rooms now, and I can ask her (it) anything at any time.
She (it) answers questions (time, temperature, directions, morning alarms, the news, questions), manages cooking timers (ask for a “20-minute chicken timer”!), Spotify, videos, etc, etc. Being on the Google ecosystem, you can pick up a partially-watched YouTube video whilst you cook, or transfer music to the lounge speaker when you eat.
The voice UI can occasionally be frustrating (you can always cast from your phone) but overall it’s a big yes from me.
Perhaps not-so-strangely, getting older has been the catalyst for being far more mindful of time.
I used to be that person who would always “have to get back to you” but found rather than giving me freedom the swirling soup of “maybes” was a constant source of stress; events would come out of nowhere, and I had an increasing sense of being seen as unreliable and under-prepared.
These days I make decisions at the time; it’s less stress overall, and everyone knows where they are.
Putting things in the calendar
I used to always agree to appointments or social engagements without checking or adding them to my calendar. Of course this resulted in double booking or missing many of them, which was often annoying and/or embarrassing.
These days I lean completely on my calendar, which is synced across mobile and desktop, so no more excuses!
Being on time
Years ago, I would be late for almost everything. Ironically it was a function of not wanting to waste time; why set off early to have to wait around, when you could be filling that time productively?
Ultimately the stress and shame of almost always being late without any reasonable excuse caught up with me, and I realised that a) working backwards to calculate travel and preparation time, and b) finding useful things to do as you travel meant you could respect both parties’ time and remain productive without any of the stress and bullshit.
I could delve far more deeply into this subject, but here’s three tangible wins I can share.
Being mindful about everything
The biggest catalyst for change in recent years has been becoming mindful (opens new window). Before you think it’s some hippy-dippy meditative practice only; it isn’t. For me, it’s simply looking honestly and openly at any outcome or potential blind spot (i.e. everything on this page) and thinking through what I might do to improve things.
Mindfulness is a fantastic process to identify the cognitive dissonance (opens new window) that can keep you stuck in the same old patterns, and the better you get at it, the easier literally everything in your life becomes (including being mindful!).
Better email management
Over the last few years I’ve completely nailed my email management.
It consists of:
- Using separate email accounts for personal and subscriptions; so important emails always get my attention
- Using FastMail (opens new window) as my email provider; the UI is miles better than Outlook and Gmail, and I never get any spam
- A rule to move email from myself to a “Personal Notes” folder, so I can easily save content from my phone
- Practicing Inbox zero (opens new window); life is so much easier with a process to prevent email overload
- Archiving (opens new window) old emails; yes it’s an actual thing, and is built into most email clients
Having enough money
Freelance income can be sporadic, but these days I’ve nailed the balance between earning, spending and saving.
Going overdrawn used to be a constant source of stress, and overdraft charges are punishing (opens new window) (if you don’t know yours, check). Earning enough money is key, as is building up a buffer of savings. Pay yourself the minimum for tax purposes, then get into a habit of regular transfer top-ups to be taken as low-tax dividends.
Talking to others
You can’t always account for others, but you can be responsible for yourself.
Removing emotion from email
Being the detail oriented type, if email turned sour I would double-down on detail. Unfortunately detail would lead to logic, logic to blame, and blame to emotion, and that would rarely work in my favour.
A friend in HR advised me to “stick to the facts” which can only be done by removing the emotion. The trick is to detach yourself from the outcome, and emails become much simpler (and shorter!). If it can’t be done in a short email, then perhaps consider a phone call where it can be more intuitive to get to the point.
Saying my piece then moving on
I used to be one for bringing things up again and again if I felt they they weren’t being understood. The thing is, they probably were; it’s just that human beings don’t like admitting mistakes and certainly don’t like being reminded.
Often there’s no need to labour the point or go in all guns blazing, it’s possible to briefly mention something; they’re probably well-aware, you just need to give them a little time. Most of the time I manage this; sometimes, not.
Being straight and taking ownership
I don’t know when I realised it, but being up-front is a lot easier than making excuses (see cognitive dissonance (opens new window)).
The key thing about accepting you’re wrong is it’s much easier to move to a position to make improvements. Sure, it may sting, but flex that muscle and you’ll become the kind of person who takes responsibility and doesn’t deflect.
Note: this doesn’t work if surrounded by wankers; if that’s the case, quit whilst behind and find better company.
Being mindful of avoidable conflict
Perhaps I could phrase this better, but I’ve become hyper-aware that folks rarely change their minds (opens new window).
The level of polarisation around Brexit, BLM, Covid 19, politics, climate change, trans rights, etc is huge, and to put a dog in each and every fight is exhausting. Rather than stumble clumsily in, I’ll take the time to learn about something privately, and consider the various views. I try to replace reaction with reflection, frustration with patience, and opinions with questions; it’s genuinely useful to see something from another’s perspective.
The downside is I engage far less, but life is infinitely more peaceful.
Making it count for those who matter the most.
Chatting with my Dad every few days
I want my Dad to feel valued and appreciated, so I make sure we speak as often as possible. Sometimes it’s just to check in, sometimes he might bend my ear, other times we chew the fat. If it’s around dinner time we may have a whisky or two, and a laugh or maybe put the world to rights!
He won’t be around forever and I don’t want to feel like we wasted time when he’s going – or indeed, gone.
Being open to love
I’ve had my heart broken enough times over the years, to have it fairly desensitised to, and cautious of, love. Until about a year ago I was quite happy to be alone and in fact considered it an advantage.
But after three years of casually dating my (eternally patient) girlfriend, I finally agreed to her requests to open my heart and now we’re officially official, moved in together, and planning a future. I certainly didn’t see that coming 😆
Learning something outside my regular “tech” domain is simply enjoyable in itself.
It has always frustrated me that as a supposedly detail-oriented programmer, accountancy is anathema to me.
However, I finally decided to grasp that nettle, and am reading several books on bookkeeping, accounts and taxation, and I now understand why it seems so alien to non-accountants (hint: different language and logic!).
As a supposed “Indie Hacker” I can build a brilliant app but have no clue of the mechanics of entrepreneurship.
In 2020, I enrolled in LBS’s online Entrepreneurial Edge (opens new window) course. Those three months got me up to speed with core marketing and business and concepts, from positioning to proposition, from market to industry, from unit economics to business models, right through to cashflow analysis and funding.
Logic and bias
Simply-put, humans are prone to flawed logic and mental shortcuts (opens new window), with such little awareness of it that it feels normal. It happens every day and an understanding of at least the common (opens new window) ones is useful in daily life, media consumption, personal relationships, and to aid critical thinking so that you’re neither perpetrator or victim.
Getting better at something just because I like it.
When I hit into my late thirties I realised that not only was my wardrobe not making me happy, but I didn’t know what to do about it. It seemed like fashionable people knew what to wear, but it wasn’t something for guys like me.
But the solution (like any new skill) was to simply to immerse myself and learn the basics!
Here are my top tips to improve your style:
- Commit to setting aside some time to develop your sartorial knowledge
- Use Google (opens new window), Pintrest (opens new window) and blogs (opens new window) to familiarise yourself with available looks (opens new window)
- Learn the basics (opens new window) of style (opens new window), colour (opens new window), fit, etc to understand how looks are put together
- Explore capsule wardrobes (opens new window) to create a variety of outfits (opens new window) from a few key items
- Take inspiration via notes, photos, or just ask(!) well-dressed men you see in the street, magazines or TV
- Have courage to try new styles and colours (but skip what you know you’ll never wear)
- Ditch old clothes that are no longer working for you or your new wardrobe
- Be happy to up your budget for long-lasting and quality items (remember this is an investment in you)
- Dress to suit your age, body type, social life, career and budget
- Remember it’s an ongoing experiment, so be happy to iterate and make mistakes
One last thing to note; you’ll read a lot of advice around wearing suits, sports jackets, etc. If that’s not you, ignore it; dressing well is about feeling comfortable in yourself, not pretending to be something you’re not.
In 2015 I had a burger in a Parisian restaurant that was like nothing I had ever eaten; the juiciest medium-rare patty, the most perfect, imaginative toppings, an outstanding brioche bun, and it came together effortlessly.
About 3 years later the same thing happened in Spain, and I thought “maybe I could recreate this?”. Six months of experimenting with buns, beef, timings, toppings and sauces, and I finally managed to nail it. Nom, nom, nom!
But here’s the thing; cocktails are not actually that hard to make! You just need the right spirits, glasses and ice, plus a few choice ingredients. My hallway now boats a cute little cocktail cabinet, with an assortment of pretty bottles and tools, and the freezer has the right selection of ice, so the bar is potentially always open.
You can skip this section if you want, but here’s what’s in my sights for 2023…
Become more action oriented
I’ve always been detail-oriented, and though I believe it’s great for quality, it does have an impact on shipping; time this year to redress that balance.
Develop a robust daily routine
As much as I want to find and stick to a routine, I’ve not managed it up till now. This year I want to find a way to squeeze in a bit of everything, but do it in a way which is practical and sustainable.
Learn to love regular exercise
Exercise as has always seemed like something to get in the way of / fit round everything else, but I’m getting to the age where the metrics don’t stack up any more. I started a 12 week bodyweight program in Feb, and hoping to for it to be the change I need.
Invest in my personal finances
Same as health, the older one gets the more the window closes on ones options, so with Personal Finance for Dummies (opens new window) at hand, it’s time to level up my financial-fu and get to grips with the mechanisms of money.
Learn the basics of negotiation
I’m not sure where in my life I need to negotiate right now, but I think it would be a useful set of skills (opens new window) to have.
Implement a reliable backup routine
Every time I research computer backups, it seems like too much work, inferior software, unsuitable practices, and I just put off the decision for another couple of years, saving to an external hard drive when I remember.
Improve my office setup
The single bedroom in my flat makes for a fine study, but I wonder if it could be nicer or perhaps even sexy (opens new window)?
Read or write something every day
I’m actually managing to write articles right now, and have one of those book summary (opens new window) apps, so there is progress.
Get into drawing
I would love to try this architectural drawing (opens new window) course this year; I miss the skill of draftsmanship
Get into AI art
If you got here then well done! It was a lot to read, unless you scanned (recommended!).
It’s funny to consider the person described above is in these exact ways different to the person I used to be. I got there by realising that anything is learnable; the key was mindfulness, honesty, and application, and the journey doesn’t end here.
(Image thanks to Vecteezy (opens new window))