About two years ago, I was in the zone.

  • I was settled in my job, secure in the knowledge that what I was doing was important and that I was qualified and capable of contributing to that mission.
  • I had a daily reflective writing practice that helped me to process my work and family life so that my introversion could be an advantage and not a source of overt crankiness.
  • I was exercising regularly and was comfortable and happy in my completely amazing, if flawed, body.

I remember thinking “Boy, am I glad to be here!  It’s so nice to be past all that anxiety and worry, to have tapped into my potential while being satisfied with where I am!  What a relief to be done with that other way of being!”

Fast forward to now:

  • I am unsettled in my job. I’ve been looking for a new challenge and applying for and interviewing for jobs is hard on your ego. It’s causing me a lot of anxiety.
  • I have gotten so deep into blogging and doing workshops that I’ve lost my own reflective writing practice. I’m starting to be cranky with my kids again, saying things like “Can you just give me some space!” when they are trying to tell me about their day (mother of the year!).
  • I haven’t exercised regularly in a while. My back has started to hurt and I’m definitely missing the benefits of time alone with my thoughts.

Clearly, this is not the first time I’ve been in this place.  In fact, as I look back on the past 15 years, I see that this is my cycle.  I’ve learned what works for me to support mental health and overall happiness: I need time to myself, a writing practice, exercise (though this was discovered only lately).

Does that mean that I always do this?  No.  It does not.

I talk a lot about the process of beginning something new, about how important it is to get started and learn your way in.  But taking on something new, whether it’s a new job, habit, or hobby doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

You are a system; a system built on personality traits, life experiences and preferences, that interacts with a home and work context and is shaped by the expectations and affordances of the environment in which you find yourself.  That system (ie, the nuances of your life) can either support your change or it can render your change almost impossible.

When you find yourself (as I do now) having to exert a lot of self control to keep your life moving in the direction you’ve set, you would be well served to look critically at the system that is your life. As I look at mine, I realize that I’ve lost all of the routines that kept me feeling motivated and confident.  I’m not doing any reflective writing and I’m barely exercising. As a result, I’m struggling.

I’ve been cycling through these challenges for 15 years and it’s not a huge surprise to be back here needing to rebuild and reinstate these rituals.

The design company IDEO talks about what they call “The Failure U” which works to normalize the cyclical nature of success and failure (though in the image they call failure “insight” which is, frankly, much more accurate).

Ideo failure U

They describe a project that gets under way in a burst of hope and energy.  Everyone is confident and excited!

“We can do this!” they cheer!

Then the project get’s underway and the work begins to slog. People aren’t agreeing on where to go next, new ideas aren’t flowing.  People begin to worry about the project and about their job.

“What happens if we fail?” they ask.

When you stick with it, you inevitably hit on an idea that turns the tide and takes you out of the murky middle.  You start to make progress and things begin to feel lighter.  Joy, excitement and commitment come back into your work.  Typically, this is around the time that the product launches and the project ends.

This is a great metaphor for starting something new in your own life as well. You WILL hit a low point, that’s just how it goes. The thing about real life, however, is that you don’t “launch and end” your life.  You keep going and before you know it you’re back in the murky middle, struggling against the same roadblocks and leaving behind critical self care that you know undergirds your success… again.

The psychology of personal improvement

The good news is that we aren’t starting from scratch this time.  Do you notice how the peak excitement from the first round is about even with the murky middle the second time around? This is because you get to begin again with all the knowledge that you accrued last time.

When you become a student of your change you are concretely discovering WHAT you need to have in place and HOW you can successfully put them there.

For example:

I need to get up an hour before my kids and do my reflective writing practice.  To get me started, I need to buy a new notebook, set up my morning writing spot, and re-establish the habit of religiously setting up the coffee maker the night before.  If I do these things, the reflective writing practice will fall back into its place.

Create Your Own Luck

I need to schedule a time to exercise.  My husband and I have a calendar where each week (hypothetically) we sit down and review with each other the details of our commute and plan when we will each exercise.  Then, when it’s the time to exercise no one is surprised that the other is gone and all that guilt about leaving the family to do something for yourself is assuaged.  It works… and yet, we haven’t done it for weeks and weeks.  The summer schedule has been wonky with vacations and camps and maybe because of that we’ve just ignored this part of our routine, but we’ve both suffered.  We must re-instate this piece of the support system so that exercise can fall back into its place.

So that’s my plan for this week. I’m going to bring back what I know works.  Exciting things are afoot and I want to feel motivated and excited by them instead of very tired and overwhelmed.

What do you need to bring back to support your change?  Tell me in the comments or on the Facebook page!

About the author

Dr. Amanda Crowell is a cognitive psychologist and business coach who helps accidental entrepreneurs get more clients and have a bigger impact. She is the author of Great Work, the host of the Unleashing Your Great Work podcast, and the creator of the Great Work Journals. Amanda's TEDx talk has received almost two million views and has been featured on TED's Ideas blog and Ted Shorts. Her ideas have also been featured on NPR, Al Jazeera, The Wall Street Journal, Quartz, and Thrive Global.