Building a better life for free: Part 1

Make your dreams your to do list

I’m convinced that when it comes to a lot of worthwhile things in life, it all comes down to deciding what’s most important, having a defined plan, and making an effort, rather than spending a whole lot of money.

So, in the last few weeks and months I’ve been trying out all kinds of new free and cheap stuff to see what works and what doesn’t work along the way. There have been some important eye-openers, so I thought I’d share them with you.

Recent monthly goals and plans

For example, in October and November last year I got back to a decent level of fitness by using what I already had (exercise bike, weights, pilates ball, exercise mat, trainers), plus a home made schedule and, er, a stack of gumption. The goal was to get into shape for the party season, which was unusually motivating – I’d never set a goal like that before and was surprised at how it carried me along.

Confession: the motivation that came out of nowhere made me feel like a vain little bimbo, and I’d always exercised for health and stress-reduction reasons in the past. I mentally berated myself for being superficial most days during the project but, hey, the net effect was that I was far healthier by the end of it.

#1. Pick something that has personal meaning to you, rather than because it’s worthy or because received wisdom tells you it’s the right thing to do. Little things mean a lot, and it doesn’t have to be a grand scheme or have lofty ideals in order for it to work.

In December I read lots of reviews-of-the-year type articles and posts on other sites and realised that there were lots of interesting things I’d meant to see and do during 2014, such as visit certain exhibitions or go to festivals and other events, that I hadn’t made it to. That situation started off with regrets and self-blame, and I decided to resolve the problem. Dissatisfaction can be a great motivator – it isn’t all about ‘visualising a perfect life’ and thinking only happy thoughts.

#2. You don’t have to be relentlessly positive to create your desired changes. It helps some people but it isn’t compulsory, and if it feels fake to you then don’t buy into it.

So I made a big list of things for 2015 and am slowly ticking them off the list – no regrets in December 2015, I will be getting around to it now it’s written down and I have to walk past it every day. I stuck a ‘cool things I want to do’ chart on the wall of the office, so I don’t put off or forget to buy tickets or get out and visit those free events. Okay, I’ve had to allow a little budget for some of these, but last year’s pocket money fund is covering it fine.

I’m the kind of person who often looks askance at things like wall charts and tick lists, but there’s something very pleasing about this one. It’s more about things I’m looking forward to in the near future, and stating my intentions, rather than giving myself hollow-feeling gold stars…

#3. Stating your intentions is important. Writing them down creates focus as well as giving you a roadmap that you can refer back to if you lose your way.

Tasks broken down into specific tiny sub-tasks

January was a Jump Start month, and I tried something new and free / cheap every day. As usual that was about improving finances and chasing away the winter blues by keeping busy. Quite a few of you joined in with that, and it does work.

In February I gave this site a bit of a facelift and a few new plugins, all done on a shoestring with a 30-day schedule. That was part of a general attitude shift towards taking the old place a bit more seriously and making it easier for visitors to get around. There’s still some work to do, but I was happy with what I managed to achieve in the timeframe.

January and February were both time-bound activities with specific tasks to complete each day – part of the SMART way to make achievements (commonly described as Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound).

#4. The big picture of most large or complex projects can be so overwhelming that it’s tempting not to get started on them at all. Breaking them down into multiple bite-sized chunks lets you get started and finished much faster.

I broke with tradition and did the February activities as part of a group – it was an experiment in making myself accountable in a different way (i.e. not just keeping it to myself or mentioning it on here). I was surprised at how much it added to the general feeling of motivation.

This month I’ve been carrying out some major decluttering, which was for the purpose of streamlining everyday life and making our home nicer for when we have visitors. I’m a firm believer in making desired changes more convenient for yourself – adding organisational infrastructure during a declutter, even if it’s just a file or a shoebox, makes it so much easier to stop the clutter from coming back.

#5. Don’t declutter for the sake of it, decide in advance how you’ll be using the space once it’s clean and tidy. Then take extra steps to make sure it’s easy to maintain. 

Setting new good habits, getting away from old bad habits

Then I read and reviewed ‘Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives‘ by Gretchen Rubin after I’d already put most of these things into place, and realised a lot of what I’d been doing was about setting new habits, as well as creating goals and plans.

One of the sections of her book was about Core Habits, and she suggests that these need to be in place before other good habits can be brought in. The core is made up of sleep, food and drink, exercise and an uncluttered environment. So I figured I had better address sleep, the remaining one I hadn’t thought about, this month too.

I’ve gone with having a set bedtime for four nights per week, and a new strict ‘waking up and getting out of bed’ routine for the mornings. As I attend various evening events for fun, learning and work purposes, I thought I’d be setting myself up for failure if I had a set bedtime every single night – it’s important to be realistic when you’re making plans, and to understand and work around your own quirks and foibles.

If you think about it, having a reasonably early night is something that’s simple, free, and easy for most of us to achieve. It’s definitely not a situation that could be dramatically improved by throwing money at it. Yet most of us seem to end up a bit sleep deprived, and few have a thought-out sleep routine.

#6. Sometimes the simplest changes can make all the difference, and a subtle shift in everyday habits may be all that’s needed. Don’t discount an idea or action simply because it doesn’t look grand enough – plodding along quietly with something helpful can have a huge cumulative effect.

What’s coming up next?

I’ve been looking at making some changes in my working life, as I’ve been bobbling along in my comfort zone too much for the last two years or so, and letting things come to me rather than going out and making things happen. Time to shape my work more along the lines that I want it to go, and basically give myself a big kick up the bum.

A couple of weeks ago I entered a competition (I don’t enter a lot of comps, only things I really like the look of) and won a month of coaching. I think it was one of those occasions where the right thing turned up at the right time…and I’ll be writing more about that at a later date.

#7. Sometimes change is scary, but staying in your comfort zone is more harmful in the long run than taking the occasional risk.

Is motivation more important than money in building a good life? Do you have any examples of how you’ve made big changes without spending lots of cash?

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