We tend to overestimate what we can do in a day or week and underestimate what we can do in a year.
Anyone who isn’t embarrassed by who they were last year probably isn’t learning enough.”
Alain de Botton
The end of the year is a convenient – if somewhat arbitrary – time to reflect. Sometimes it’s only by reviewing how much we’ve achieved that we can shake off that feeling of stagnation and revel in the power of steady, incremental progress. This is a fairly long and personal post about my year, but I hope it provides some encouragement that regular small steps in the right direction can produce remarkable change. Compound interest is powerful.
Looking back to the start of 2014, life as it is now seemed unreachable. I was seriously overworked, stressed, anxious and depressed. I was an emotional zombie, interspersed with the odd panic attack, and the people I loved bore the brunt of it. The majority of the stress and anxiety came from my changed work circumstances, but it didn’t help that on top of the biggest and most challenging role of my career, I was studying full time, moving house, and was about to get married. On the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, a commonly used measure of life stressors and illness risk, I scored 358, placing me square within the high-risk zone. It’s not really surprising that I was overwhelmed. I burned out. Quickly.
The pressure and anxiety kept growing until they were unbearable (alas, steady change in the wrong direction is also powerful). I felt helpless and trapped, my physical and mental health were deteriorating, and I wasn’t sleeping much, which of course made everything else harder. I remember one night, finally making it to play a game of oztag with my team. Oztag is generally a highlight of my week, a social interaction, my main source of flow states (more on that in a future post) and a chance to let off steam physically and mentally. I was so anxious about work, however, that I started having a panic attack halfway through the first half, subbed myself off the field, got in my car and drove home without a word to any of my teammates. It was one of a few critical moments that crystallised what life would be like if I didn’t try and move it in a different direction.
By the start of February, I’d begun a transition into a different work role. The next week, I got married. We went on a honeymoon to Tasmania, and for the first time in months, it felt like the pressure was subsiding. Bit by bit, things got easier. Around the massive life changes, I also made self-improvement a personal focus. I started reading more again. I thought a lot about happiness, health, balance and growth. I got fitter. I got stronger. Of course there were some speed bumps along the way, but they’re easier to manage when things are moving in the right direction.
12 months later, I have some sense of balance and freedom. I have gradually moulded my life into one that also allows me time to focus on my relationships, health, fitness, happiness, and being better. I’m still busy, working 40ish hours a week, studying and writing at the same time, but on my terms, which makes all the difference. Overall, 2014 has been a year of high highs and low lows, what Nassim Taleb might call a year of fat tails. Below are some of the key moments.
What went well in 2014
- I got married to the love of my life (after 11 years together)
- I finished my second degree (despite mixed feelings towards the cost/value of university, being a psychologist rightly requires some official qualifications)
- I changed my work circumstances, reducing my responsibility and greatly improving my freedom and mental health
- I worked hard on things I enjoyed
- I started this website
What didn’t go well in 2014
- Depression, anxiety, panic attacks – I barely survived January
- I was emotionally unavailable to help plan our wedding (my wife is a superhero)
- I couldn’t be there for the people I loved
- I dislocated my shoulder and partially tore my rotator cuff playing rugby, setting back strength, fitness and weight progress significantly
I’ll be writing a related post soon looking ahead to 2015.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear what your highs and lows of 2014 were in the comments.