Have you ever written a letter to yourself? As we approach the end of the school year, high school teachers across the country may be encouraging seniors to write a letter to their future self, perhaps giving advice or maybe a cautionary warning, and then later on in life we are supposed to read the letter and draw some kind of conclusion. It’s fun to read what a younger, more naive version of yourself may have considered to be profound and sage advice, and compare how things really turned out compared to what you predicted in your youth.
I wonder if the reverse could also be meaningful, and what our future selves would say if they could reach back to where we are now and give us advice. As a wellness coach, I often encourage my clients to look around and see what is written on their walls. When hindsight is 20/20 and we reflect after a catastrophe that the signs were “written on the walls”, it only makes sense that if we had taken the time to read what is written there, we could have saved ourselves a lot of time and headache.
Of course, we can’t predict the future, but we can draw a reasonable conclusion based on logic and common sense to determine whether our current situation is one that is likely to end well, or otherwise. The signs are there: a growing list of medications, a doctor advising a lifestyle change, chronic fatigue, increasing forgetfulness or a sense of overwhelm are all indications of a train running off the rails. How many of these signs are we passing in our daily lives, planning to do something about them when things calm down, and ultimately ignoring?
Reflect back on the life you have led up to this point. What advice would you give a younger version of yourself, knowing what you know now? Countless books have been written on the wisdom of the ages, and the lessons we learn over the course of a lifetime: don’t sweat the small stuff. Forgive early and often. Buy the accident policy!
And, of course, we listen and nod and reflect on this earned wisdom, and go on with our lives. The luxury of spending more time with family is easy for someone at the end of their life to suggest, when the practical application of that good advice is harder to achieve. Many things are easier said than done; many of the smartest, wisest choices seem possible “if only”. If only things were a little different, a little less hectic, a little less expensive, a little less inconvenient.
Those barriers are legitimate, but let’s put them to the side for a moment and pretend they are not there. Then, try some of these techniques for hearing the wisdom of your future self.
Just Ask For It. This idea might sound a little out there, but go with me. Close your eyes, connect with yourself, and listen. Listen for what your heart and soul are saying. Remember in “Dead Poet’s Society,” when Robin Williams’ character has the boys lean in towards to trophy case to hear the wisdom of the students who had come before them? Just like that. Be still, close your eyes, ask yourself for advice, and listen. And believe it.
Pretend You Are Not Yourself. If listening to yourself is too out there, then pretend you are giving advice to someone else. If a friend was headed on the path you are now, what advice would you want to give? What would you say, and what would you not say for fear of hurting their feelings? Tell that to yourself, in a kind way. And believe it.
Write Your Own Ending. I was amazed once by a story of a man who wrote his obituary in advance of his death, and didn’t like what it said. So, he tore it up and wrote a better one. Then, he lived that life. A slight shift in habits can change the course of an entire life cycle; write a few drafts and pick your favorite. Then, believe it!
Your future self is up ahead, trying to make eye contact with you and give you a significant look. Make eye contact. Read the writing on the walls of your life. What does it say? Will you believe it? Do you believe you can write something different?
I got a new car a few months ago, and I wasn’t very happy about it. My 2004 Subaru Forester and I had been together for thirteen years. It was dented and faded, it rattled and made weird noises, my Wakulla Springs bumper sticker was almost entirely worn off, and it was clearly missing non-essential parts that I had single-handedly ripped off on the side of the interstate so I could keep driving. But it was paid for, and it was cute, and it had a roof rack, which I never used but valued greatly. And I knew that car. We were a team. I could drive it with my eyes closed. (I did not do that.)
But I knew it was time for a change. Repairs were becoming more frequent, it was becoming inefficient, and after over a decade of me driving it, well, let’s just say it was tired. So I bit the bullet, and I do enjoy driving my new Prius. But I miss my clunky old car, and I do still think about it with nostalgia.
Changing habits is like that sometimes, isn’t it? We all have habits that we’ve lived with for years, and we know they need to change and that we will be happy with the outcome, but we’re cozy and comfortable. Even when we know they are destructive, expensive, unproductive, and sometimes dangerous, we stick with them because they’re what we know. There is risk in change, even when we have a reasonable expectation that the outcome will be good, even when the only real risk is the possibility of feeling weird and mildly inconvenienced.
Well guess what? No one ever said you couldn’t be wistful for the old days. Changing habits doesn’t necessarily mean closing a life door and pretending they never existed. You can change your health habits without saying goodbye. Consider these approaches to change that may ease your transition.
Just Press Pause. When ending one habit and beginning another feels overwhelming, don’t pressure yourself to cut ties. Just press pause. Press pause on the unproductive things you might do – being too sedentary, eating too much, wasting time – and reserve the option to go back to it later if the new habits don’t work out. I have not met anyone yet who wanted to go back to being sedentary, overeating, and feeling like they are wasting their time, but who knows, it could happen. Don’t worry about ending something. Just begin something else.
Let Yourself Mourn. If you are ready to close the door on a habit and never speak of it again, allow yourself time to mourn that loss. Yes, it is a loss! There is a “win” to everything we choose to do, whether or not it is a healthy one. When we choose to cook more instead of eating out, we lose the convenience of having someone else cook. Getting out of bed earlier to go exercise means losing the comfort and coziness of blankets and pillows. Even our destructive habits have an element of benefit to them, and it’s totally okay to acknowledge what you are giving up in order to gain something else. That’s fair. So be sad, and then get yourself together and keep on keeping on.
Connect With the Payoff. The grief won’t last long, I promise. It won’t be long before you like how your new habits make you feel, and the appeal of going back to old ones will fade. Acknowledge that, and connect with it. Write the reasons why you are happier in a notebook and refer to them from time to time. Jot down a challenge you encountered when reverting to old ways would have been easier but you persevered. Keep a record of the payoffs – a new size clothes, walking a flight of stairs without getting winded, getting off of medication – and read them. The more you connect with the benefit of your new choices, the less you will feel tempted to look back.
But if you do look back, that’s okay. I like heated seats, and better fuel economy, an ice-cold air conditioner, and a warranty. My new car is stylish and clean and great, and it was the right choice. But that doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes miss the old one. I’m not going back to it, but I can still remember.
Do you have an old habit that may be comfortable and easy and familiar, but you know needs to be upgraded for something smarter? Shop around this week. Take new habits on a test drive. And when you’re ready, press pause or trade in the old ones for something new. That new life smell is pretty sweet!
Imagine that I have a ball of yarn, and it represents time. On one side of me is a pile of unraveled yarn that we will pretend is the amount of time that has happened before us: the eons and millions of years that occurred before we got here. The people and the dinosaurs and the plate tectonics and everything that happened before us. On the other side of me is the remainder of the yarn, wound up into a ball, representing the time that is yet to come. And in the middle is me, holding taut a span of yarn about two feet long, and it represents the average human life span, which is seventy-nine years. One side is millions of year and one side is infinity and beyond and then we have seventy-nine years that we participate in. Got it?
Seventy-nine years is not very long, and obviously some of us get a lot more than that and others get much less. But you know, we don’t really even get all of it. We all know life is short, but when we break it down, it seems even shorter. At the beginning all we can do is kid stuff, and we have to obey grown-ups. Then there is a part right after that when we’re all idiots, and then there is a pretty decent span when we mostly have it together. But even then, what we’re really living for is retirement, when we can stop and do whatever we want. Then we get a few good years, and then we die.
That’s how a movement began to maximize this short life we have, and live your “best life.” Books and blogs and podcasts and magazines and television shows have been created to help us learn how to be our absolute best, and suck the marrow out of every day of life. Carpe diem! Bucket lists! Make the most of every moment! We chase this ideal throughout our lives, thinking that being the best version of ourselves will mean we lived life more fully, and that means we didn’t waste any of it. And I think that’s a really good way to miss your life, because we end up spending most of the short time we have trying to be our best self, our most self, and instead we should just be our favorite self.
Your favorite self might not be your best self. Your potential is unlimited, so who is to tell when you are at your best? We can always improve on what we’ve done, so striving to be our best, well, it seems kind of exhausting. Busy people like to say that good is the enemy of great but good is not the enemy of great. Good is fantastic, and good is really satisfying. Instead of living your best life, I invite you to live your favorite one. And here is why: when you are connected to something that brings you joy – the thing you wish could be your job, the work you would do for free – it cannot be hidden. You cannot pretend that you are not connected to it because you are beaming with joy, and that radiates to others in a really significant way.
When you are connected to a purpose, or a favorite thing, you infect others with the passion that you have, not the stuff you have done. You attract others with the joy that you have, not just your prettiest moments. Science shows that people who shape their lives around their purpose are more productive, less stressed out, less likely to engage in addictive behaviors, and more likely to increase their life span.
What was that? You heard me.
So how do you tell the difference between your best life and your favorite life? Here’s a clue: your best life has a much longer list of things to do, and your favorite life can be satisfied with much less. Here are some ideas that might help you discover it.
Catch yourself smiling. When you notice that you are smiling in a genuine, natural way, take some notes. What is making you smile? Look beyond what you see and see what it represents.
Ask others what you are good at. When you are asked to do or teach something, why are you the one they choose?
Listen to your rants. We all have something that gets us fired up. When you begin to rant and rave, listen to yourself. What are you advocating for? Why is that important enough for you to shout?
Then let the rest go. Cull the to-do list that is taking up your precious life and delete the optional items that are not connected to your purpose. Within reason, of course. You’ll be able to tell the difference between what to let go and what to keep, because the right things to let go will make you feel really good when they’re gone.
Life is short, and it is good. I hope that this week, you catch yourself smiling and it feels good enough to let the rest go.
About This Blog
Each week, I write the "Healthy Heather Blog" in the Tallahassee Democrat. It is republished here in case you are not a subscriber (what???). Sometimes it is really good and other times it is just okay. Thanks for reading it regardless of your opinion!