Writing has taught me a lot about myself. As I’ve developed characters inside and out, I’ve unexpectedly spent time considering who I am, who I want to be, and what traits I need to develop to become her. I still have much to learn and change in myself, but I’m making strides. Here are ten actions that have propelled me forward on my long and arduous journey to the best version of myself. I hope they can help someone else as well.
1. Spend Calm, Composed Time Discovering Who You Are, and Who You Want to Be
There are many ways to ponder effectively. Whether through prayer, meditation, or striking up a conversation with a trusted friend, spend intentional time discovering how to process your thoughts in a stress-free, honest way. Don’t pressure yourself to be perfect. Accept that you’re not. Just like a good fictional character is good because she possesses and endeavors to overcome a unique set of inner demons, so are good people. Having weaknesses is human nature. Recognizing them, setting goals, and working to overcome them are divine characteristics.
Before voicing an opinion or taking an official stance on an issue, assess what you really think about it. Talk it out with yourself or loved ones. It’s easy to regurgitate popular rhetoric, especially when the alternative may lead to being shamed or shunned. But why would anyone want to surround herself with people who would shame or shun her for an opinion?
Be truthful about your observations of the world. This will weed out venomous relationships and strengthen the rest.
2. Love Your Story and Cease Comparing It
Consider the thousands of stories you’ve heard. Jo March and Harry Potter are both powerful protagonists, but for very different reasons. Imagine if they loved themselves less because they aren’t the other. What would their stories lose?
You are the protagonist of your story. We each get one. Our time is precious because it’s limited. There’s no room for pettiness, arrogance, or spite in our stories. Experience the glorious, the awe-striking, the subtly celestial. Learn and grow from the humility of roses. Savor the delicious and share the lovely. Though it often feels our lives are happening to us, we all have the power to tell the story of our lives.
If something needs changing, change it. We miss way too many unexplored, fantastically scenic roads following others down paths on which we don’t belong. Especially considering the people being followed more often than not have no idea where they’re headed.
3. Set One Goal Until It’s Habitual
I’m both a chronic goal-setter and a sporadic sloth. I make lists, calendars, and schedules better than any professional planner. I lay out exactly what needs to happen to reach my dream life. My weeklong, six-month, and year plans are so meticulous they’d launch a motivated person into unimaginable prosperity.
But a goal of mine is nothing more than a mayfly; it brews for two years somewhere in the junk drawer of my brain in a state of larvae developing its wings, then upon hatching, it mates quickly with my pen before falling, fatigued, back into the depths of my subconscious to die. Twenty-four hours is an abundant lifespan for my goals.
Always—always—I’m too tired to get up at six the next morning to begin my new, energetic life. It doesn’t help that insomnia is most aggressive on nights preceding an important event. Furthermore, the utterly haphazard motivation from the previous day abandons me to the desolate truth that I’m not willing to sacrifice what I want in the moment (sleep and burritos) for what I want in the long run. I’m so bad at it that sacrifice isn’t even on this list. And it’s not like I can lie; I order hot wings and a salted pretzel three times a week. Does that sound like someone qualified to preach about sacrifice?
The key to goal setting for wretches like me is to pick one thing—just one!—that minimal effort can improve. Then work on it until its habitual, until you no longer think about it, until it’s part of you.
Just as a marathon is completed one step at a time, getting from who you are today to who you want to be is best done one simple change at a time.
I’m talking super simple—so simple it doesn’t seem like an actual goal.
A quick example is to stop touching your phone in the restroom. It stays in another room or in your pocket. (Or, if you’re my mom, your bra.) See if your story improves. Improvement may be as simple as saving an extra seven minutes and embarking on fewer hemorrhoid-related side quests.
Another example is to limit social media to fifteen minutes a day. Set an alarm. Once it goes off, no more social media for the day. This wouldn’t apply to, say, an online marketing job. Just personal social media. Spend your free time doing other things. See how your story improves.
Another example is to stop eating after a certain (realistic) hour each night. Brush and floss at a designated time and put nothing else in your mouth except maybe water. Similar goals can be set for electronic devices—cell phones, TV, etc.
Maybe your goal is to schedule ten minutes to stretch each morning. Perhaps it’s to drink eight ounces of water before every meal. Or write down one reason every day why it would be beneficial to forgive someone toward whom you hold a grudge. Forgiveness itself is a lofty goal; writing down one reason each day that forgiveness is important is simple.
Maybe you’ll download a language learning app and spend ten minutes a day learning a new phrase. Maybe you want to be more outgoing, or get back in the dating game (both huge undertakings), so, to get started, you’ll ask a stranger an interesting question once a week.
It can be as easy as washing your face before bed or telling a family member you love them every night. Whatever you choose, start today. And don’t set another personal goal until you’ve mastered this one. Remember, make it achievable! Don’t say you’re going to stop cussing; eliminate undesirable words from your vocabulary one at a time.
4. Balance Your Personal and Professional Lives
As a businesswoman, I’ve often prioritized work over family events, important celebrations with close friends, or date night with my husband. I’ve deeply regretted applying my time that way, often voicing in retrospect what I’d pay for a second chance at a missed moment.
However, as a social person, I’ve also prioritized indulgent get-togethers, meaningless outings, and frivolous spending over meeting professional targets. I always regret letting go of a dream because I didn’t make space in my story.
Work hard. Love hard. Be part of the moments that matter to your loved ones and yourself. Even important tasks shouldn’t take priority over essential tasks. Does your spouse need you? Be there! Can’t find time to finish writing the song that keeps you up at night? Schedule the time! Life is fleeting. We all have regrets. But we can make better decisions each day to minimize their impact on our relationship with ourselves.
5. Laugh at Everything—Especially the Awful Stuff
Laughter diminishes adversity’s power.
Horrible things happen in this world. Many of them overwhelm and debilitate us. The easiest way I’ve found to break the chains of despair is to laugh as often as I can.
I used to consider many forms of humor, and many comedians in particular, inappropriate and crass. It wasn’t until I found myself in the darkest gloom that I experienced the liberation limitless laughter offers. Listening to standup specials or reading funny jokes helped my helpless nights. Humor is now my favorite artform.
As a deeply religious person, it would be dishonest to attribute the restoration of lost hope to anything but sacred experiences. However, I know religious experiences aren’t universal.
Laughter, however, is. And it’s the next best thing. Even more awesome, it’s free. And it’s contagious so it’s easy to give.
I comprehend now that people laugh about horrendous things because it abolishes the power those things have over them and over the human family. By laughing at our hardships, we take back the power they stole.
6. Internalize that Others’ Behavior is Their Choice, Not Yours, and Vice Versa
This is the hardest one. And there are so many aspects to it. Hopefully I do it justice.
First off, if you don’t like someone else’s behavior, the only thing to do is choose to not mirror it. The less individuals behave offensively and obnoxiously, the less offensive and obnoxious behavior happens. We each decide how to behave, independent of others. And because positivity and joy are much like laughter in contagion, negative behavior typically dilutes when alone in an ocean of positivity. Trying to force others to change rarely leads to anything but fighting.
And for the love, we do not need more fighting in our world.
When a person observes that choosing better behavior leads to increased joy, they often do so on their own. It needs to be their choice. The hardest part is accepting that it’s still their choice even if they choose to perpetuate behavior of which you disapprove.
This is true for behavior you find offensive, and in cases of wishing your loved ones would make better choices for their personal lives. Support them, be in their corner, but understand that they will choose whom to date, whom to marry, where to live, their line of work, and how they will treat their own body. It’s excruciating to see a loved one suffer, especially when the answer is clear. But we must learn to accept that suffering is their choice.
The opposite is also true. Our behavior is our choice. We can’t blame anyone for the way we behave. Not our parents, our siblings, our significant other, our children, our neighbors, or even deity. At some point in our lives, we all must accept the truth that our behavior is on us. If your relationship makes you miserable, fix it or leave it. Choosing to stay in a miserable, unchanging relationship is choosing misery. It’s our choice. You can’t make him change; he can’t make you stay. If you stay and he doesn’t change, you’ve chosen your situation.
Keep in mind that communication is required for every successful relationship. Do your best to communicate clearly, rationally, and unemotionally. Allow others to communicate imperfectly, just as you hope they’ll do for you. Assume the best of intentions and give them several chances to prove their words.
Before making life-changing decisions, ask yourself, and answer honestly, “Have I done my best?” Answering that question truthfully helps make the impossible decisions.
The beautiful thing about recognizing sovereignty in your own behavior is that it means every day, every hour, every minute is a chance at a better choice. Just because you’ve chosen 10 years of negativity and bitterness doesn’t mean you can’t have 50 years of peace and joy. The old cliché that today is the first day of the rest of your life remains true. Your story can have shocking twists and surprise subplot endings any time you decide it’s what you want.
Did you grow up in a family with terrible sleeping habits? Shock yourself by establishing a healthy sleep routine. See how your story improves!
It’s up to you.
7. Don’t Limit Yourself to Current Trends; They’ll Change as They Always Have
Trends are social plagues. They appear, infect a population, destroy lives, and disappear.
Don’t live your life according to trends. Live it according to principle, belief, discipline, and ultimate end goals. Free yourself from the tangled web of knowing and exemplifying the latest fads and crazes.
Future generations will make fun of what society considers cool today.
Pop stars and politicians should be, at most, tiny little side characters in your story, barely more than specs of leaves in distant trees on the background horizon. They should not occupy positions of power, influence, or decision-making in your life. Don’t let them tell you what to care about. Care about what you care about.
If you’re a politician or public figure yourself, don’t ride trendy waves. Make new, better waves of principle, belief, discipline, and goals rooted in the good of humanity rather than popularity or power, both of which can be flipped off easier than a light switch.
8. Simplicity is Synonymous to Beauty
If there is one concept that has remained true throughout my life, it’s that simplicity is truly beautiful. It’s true when cleaning and decorating my home, planning events, giving gifts, gardening, scheduling, relationships, my career, my choice of vehicle, in storytelling, music, traveling, studying, really every aspect of life.
When in doubt, simplify.
Is your closet stuffed and chaotic? Simplify. Keep what you wear regularly. Get rid of the rest. Do you never find a moment to gather your thoughts? Simplify. No amount of success is worth the deterioration of your mental health. Cancel kids’ practices, outings with friends, whatever you must to maintain your sanity, and the overall health of your family.
Is your lifestyle too expensive for your income? Simplify! Rock your natural lashes and nails. Let your hair grow an extra two months between cuts. Let the gray show through. Liberate yourself from the world’s demands. There’s not much it can demand to which you can’t respond, “No.”
Simplicity is most beautiful in the way we react to pain.
Grudges are far too heavy to lug around. Simplify by freeing them in the wild and focusing on your happiness. Jealousy is far too prickly to hold. Leave it in the weeds where it belongs. Depression isn’t something you carry, it’s more like a clingy raincloud. When the sunshine doesn’t break through, simplify. Don’t fight it. Let the droplets water your garden. Empathy and compassion always need nurturing.
Professional pilot and world-renowned ecclesiastic leader, Dieter Uchtdorf, counsels: “What do you suppose pilots do when they encounter turbulence? A student pilot may think that increasing speed is a good strategy because it will get them through the turbulence faster. But that may be the wrong thing to do. Professional pilots understand that there is an optimum turbulence penetration speed that will minimize the negative effects of turbulence. And most the time that would mean to reduce your speed. The same principle applies also to speed bumps on a road.”
If I understand correctly, he’s far more eloquently stating that in times of trouble, we should simplify.
9. Five Years, Twenty Years, Death
Near the end of my novel Sins of Our Mothers, the protagonist, Lyratelle, says, “All of us will die. We don’t know how, or when, but we know we’ll eventually find ourselves at our journey’s end. Whether we believe in life after this one, or only in death, we face it—be it with acceptance or spite.”
This may not be a healthy activity, but I frequently lay awake at night, thinking about death. I’ve always been hyperaware of my own mortality and the fact that everyone and everything experiences death. One afternoon, I walked into my home in tears and cried to my husband that the freshly-planted flower by the porch wad dead. The fact that its life was so short completely broke me.
It’s true we don’t know how or when we’ll die, but as long as we’re striving to live our best life, death should be peaceful.
Where do you see yourself in five years? What small things do you hope to have changed? What huge changes do you anticipate?
What about twenty years? Will you speak a new language by then? Will you finally have that chicken farm you’ve always wanted? Or have other things taken precedence?
Who will be there to send you off at death? Are you nurturing those relationships?
In considering these questions, also consider how much you value material wealth. How much wealth would you part with to restore a broken relationship that matters to you? What would you pay to know you’ll be the person you want to be in twenty years? Sometimes, instead of making money to spend it, it’s better to spend that time on our lives. The monetary outcome is the same, but the inward outcome is far greater.
I’ve always found it significant that a person doesn’t need a degree or certificate, or even permission, to be a runner. They just have to run. I think life is the same. Approval from outside sources doesn’t determine who you are. Just being that person is proof enough.
10. Sit with Your Imperfections, Be Still; Everything in Its Season
The beauty of winter is the most symbolic visual for life.
Life is, indeed, hard. It’s often a relentless hailstorm of failure, disappointment, and uncertainty. It falls all at once, often for so long it’s nearly impossible to remember the feeling of sunlight. But there’s not a storm in earth’s history that hasn’t ended. Yes, the enormous ones leave paths of devastation. And yet, the sun comes out anyway, lighting and warming the earth for its inhabitants.
Few things take my breath away like looking over a sparkling silver ocean of freshly fallen snow. It’s impossible to imagine a colorless scene being so lovely without seeing it. The brown of rooftops, the green of pine trees, the yellow grass, gray sidewalks, black asphalt of the streets, the fences dividing neighbors’ properties, even the blue of the sky, everything vanishes beneath the singular color of the snow, pressed into subtle bumps like frozen ripples glimpsed from a wintery beach.
Snowy nights are light like evening. Snowy mornings are bright and inviting, though snow itself is nature’s grave—a clear sign that your little piece of earth has died.
Snowfall feels like nature’s way of saying, “Be still; everything in its season.”
I struggle to coexist with my imperfections. I’m still learning that they’re lessons I need to learn rather than diseases I can’t shake. It helps to be calm, to sit with them, to get to know and understand them.
It’s hard to be an adult and feel like you don’t have your life together. Especially when you know so many your age, or younger, who seem to have “made” it. They have the house, the yard, the kids, the well-trained dog, the body that bounces back after pregnancy, the impressive career, the countless stamps in their passport, and the respect and admiration of their peers.
The thing is, if we were supposed to have maxed out by thirty, that’s when we’d shrivel up hunched over and die. Every phase is a phase. Many a problematic youth has become a successful adult. Many a successful adult has thrown their life away for addictions. Many an addict has become a religious leader. Many religious leaders have fallen. Many fallen souls have healed to tell stories of redemption. Many powerful people are crushed by the weight of unanswerable questions a child might consider simple riddles.
And all of those people could also be one woman looking back on her life.
Life isn’t about progressing to adulthood; it’s about progressing until the end. What emptiness would you feel knowing you’ll never know who you would’ve become tomorrow? Again, stop comparing! Your story is yours. It’s not anyone else’s to tell. If you’re unhappy with it, change it. What does your character need to do to level up?