Written By Tom Hayes

It’s around this time of year that everyone likes to make resolutions. Lose weight. Quit smoking. Go to the gym. It’s also around this time of year that people start to panic – that they’re unable to achieve the goals they have set themselves. Mess up a new year’s resolution and it might seem like you’ve blown it for the year, leading to feelings of failure, defeat or wondering “why bother?”

There may be some people in the world who make ambitious new year’s resolutions, achieve them by March then spend the rest of the year heartily patting themselves on the back (just because I’ve never met these people doesn’t mean they don’t exist). If you’re one of those people, you can stop reading here and head off to your nearest back-patting convention.

I’m writing more for the people for whom one, perhaps small, failure (“I didn’t go for a run this morning”) can lead to a slightly bigger failure (“I’m unfit anyway, why not have a fry-up?”) which eventually spirals downward into disaster (“What’s so wrong with getting my fry-up in a pub then staying there all day…?”).

My M.O. had always been to drink. Drink to celebrate. Drink because I’m bored. Drink to drown sorrows. Drink to forget.

With an attitude like that, it doesn’t take a great deal to slide into a loop of self-destruction. Start losing jobs. Friends. Relationships. Of course, each problem only helped to exacerbate the situation. More drink was consumed. Clearly, a new coping method was required.

I needed something to keep me occupied day by day. Give me a sense of achievement. Something that could improve my mood…

A lot of what I’m going to write about may seem obvious. Some people probably practice these methods day in, day out. However, I’m hoping that some of you will find these methods useful. I certainly did.

Take some pens and paper and write down things in your life that are important to you. Things that make you happy. It’s best to keep these things simple at this stage. Avoid writing “trekking across the Australian outback” for reasons that will become apparent in a minute.

“I enjoy experimenting in the kitchen.”

“I enjoy DIY.”

“I like running.”

Once you have your list of things that make you happy, we can have a look at refining these into tasks you can complete in a day. Maybe tasks you can complete every day.

I know that when you’re at your lowest, the very concept of doing anything at all seems insurmountable. This is why we start small.

Let’s use an example. We’ll call this example Frank. Frank likes DIY.

One of the things Frank had on his ‘happy list’ was enjoying DIY, so he decided to include “put up shelves” in his list of tasks for the day.

If you think about it, “put up shelves” is more of an umbrella title – there are a number of smaller tasks that can be derived from this one header. For example:

  • Sort out tools to ensure shelves can be put up without bodging it.
  •  Purchase items missing from tool kit (or get them back from people who have “borrowed” them).
  •  Ensure the space has been measured and that there is a mutual understanding throughout the household of exactly how many shelves are required and where they should go.
  • Purchase materials for shelves.
  • Cut materials to size.
  • Prepare tools.
  • Ready space.
  • Install shelves.

So, Frank now has a whole range of smaller tasks he can put on his list, aiming towards the overall goal of putting the shelves up.

Now depending on your confidence at the time, you can make these lists as detailed as you wish. More details mean more steps; more manageable tasks.

In Frank’s case, one of the steps was to come to a mutual agreement about the location and quantity of the shelves – literally, to have a conversation.

Have a conversation, task completed. Awesome.

The whole point of de-constructing these tasks is that once each segment is complete you get to tick it off the list. In my own life I’ve found lists indispensable. I get a great satisfaction from ticking something off or marking it green for ‘complete’. I’m sure I’m not alone in this. I was using fitness apps when I discovered that I’m a sucker for quantifying everything. I may not be the fastest around. But look at the numbers! Look at that sticker! That’s the biggest number yet! And so on.

As well as the intrinsic joy gained from ticking things off lists, it also helps defeat that age old horror of “What have I DONE with my day?!” Now you have concrete evidence that you have actually achieved something – albeit small things – and each of these little victories, drawn from your happy list, really start to add up.

Another advantage of small tasks is they make it easier to get into a flow. When confronted by the enormity of a whole year’s resolution, it becomes intimidating. Break that singular goal into a series of five minute tasks and suddenly it becomes more manageable. You can knock a load out in an hour and still have time for a cuppa.

Suddenly you feel more confident. Maybe some of those five minute tasks grow into more substantial, hour long tasks. You realise that you’re engaged and you’ve actually stayed focussed all day and completed a wealth of activities.

Again, awesome.

Returning to the original list – ‘What makes you happy?’ – I think there are a few caveats. It’s best not to include things that can be detrimental to your mood, given the wrong circumstances. In my case, I wouldn’t include ‘drinking with mates’. While enjoyable at the time, things run the risk of getting out of hand. It will certainly result in hangovers. I’m yet to meet anyone who is positive and totally focussed while hungover.

Second caveat: make sure you include something comfortable. Something you know you enjoy, you can do alone if necessary and doesn’t require any specialist equipment. You may love to ride your bike, but if you’re feeling low and it’s snowing it’s going to be a no go. Make sure you’ve got an allweather, get-out-of-jail-free card.

I would also recommend two further selection rules: firstly, include something active. You really can’t underestimate the benefit of having something physical in your day. It releases endorphins, helps your mind focus, it helps you sleep. I’ll leave it to someone with a better understanding of medical science to get into how all that works.

Finally I’d suggest including something new. I’m not suggesting you take up salsa dancing (unless you really want to). You might, however, check out a play. Listen to a free talk at a university. Join a community group. Getting involved in an environment away from your usual haunts will do wonders for your overall mood. Even reading an unusual book or listening to a different radio show or podcast can help.

So, work out a list of things that make you happy.

  • Include something comfortable
  • Something active
  • Something new

From this, work out a list of tasks that you can implement in your daily life.

Some days you’ll complete all the tasks – Great! Look at your happy list and see what other tasks can be created.

Some days you won’t complete your tasks. No worries! Tick off those you have done and carry the others over.

Some things are going to be daily tasks. Nothing helps getting something done better than making it routine. Just add them every day!

There’s nothing wrong with a new year’s resolution. I’d just rather advocate a new day’s resolution. The deadlines are shorter; tasks more manageable; should something go wrong you can always start again tomorrow. Manageable chunks. Checklists. Stickers. I imagine most of you will use a similar system in your working lives; well, it can work wonders in your day to day life as well.

If you’re not a fan of bits of paper there are a number of apps that you can use to help you with your daily lists. Personally, I use AnyDo (full disclosure: I do not work for AnyDo and I’m not using this article as one long advert). Of course, other alternatives are available.

Go get listing.


Author bio:

I’m Tom Hayes. Born in Cambridge in the ’80s; if I had to choose a song to best describe me I’d probably go for ‘A bit of a fixer-upper’ from Frozen.   

  I decided earlier this year that I should try more things. I’ve always had an enjoyment of writing but the concept of writing a blog just about me was always a little off-putting. 

  I’ve been really impressed by the Get It Out project and the work that Simon has put into it. When the call was out for contributions, I realised that finally I may have a reason to put fingers to keys. Having dealt with depression for some time now, in one form or another, I’ve accumulated some knowledge that I would love to share.   

  I’m also a massive bike geek so posts may occasionally attempt to present cycling as a solution to all the worlds problems. Just bear with me.