In November 2017 I started washing my face. Ok I had always possessed a bottle of Neutrogena cleanser and moisturizer, but I found out that there’s a difference between a retinoid and retinol, and I paid attention to words like hyaluronic acid and vitamin C, not the kind you chew.

I started small with a bottle of toner and a pack of round cotton pads, then I added serums and acids. After a few months, I realized I stuck to a routine in the morning and evening. There were many things I did not do – wake up early, go to bed early, clean the kitchen before sleep, reading before bed, and on and on – but  every morning before I left the house I washed my face, and before I went to sleep I did it all over again plus a retinoid.

There was this small voice inside of me saying, You did it, you stuck to a routine. (The voice did not sound like Rachel Hollis’ just in case you think this post is about her or her book – it is not.) That was almost a year-and-a-half ago, but it was the first domino. The first habit that started the rest of them.

I’m no habit guru, and this blog isn’t a productivity blog. But I think you are a person in a middle space of life, navigating transitions and tensions, looking for stories of hope. And that’s where this story about finding helpful routines fits in my own life and hopefully yours.

Would you think I’m crazy if I told you that my life has more clarity and discipline in it because I started washing my face?

Well, it does.

And I think it could for you, too. Your small change may not be washing your face – it could be a slight adjustment in what you drink or eat, it could be a shopping habit, practicing piano, an evening walk, new ability to focus because of the Deep Work Challenge, meal planning, not checking work emails at home. Perhaps it could be something equally small, an “insignificant” part of your daily life like washing your face, but small changes have profound impacts.

The easiest routines I’ve built into my life in the past year-and-a-half somehow all tagged on to the face washing.

A year after I started washing my face with new dedication, I went back to one of my neglected journals. I call it a prayer journal, a place where I put the week’s worries and doubts. I started writing a gratitude list next to my weekly list of anxieties, and I did it every night before I went to sleep (it’s a similar practice to the Daily Examen).  I washed my face, and whatever time I went to sleep at night, I pulled the journal out and made a list of what I was grateful for in the day. Soon I started going to bed earlier. Not because I thought I should but because I wanted to. In February I started turning my phone off at 8pm, changing into pyjamas, washing my face, reading a book in bed, and writing my gratitude list. Now I’m offline an hour before I go to bed, a practice I’ve desired for years.

I feel peaceful when I go to sleep, I feel well when I wake up in the morning. You may read this and think it sounds ridiculous, but we all get to set the boundaries around what our lives look like. What would it look like for you to spend your time with intention in the evenings and mornings?

Don’t waste your time wondering why your life isn’t the way you want it to be.  You get to decide what works for you – you get to set the boundaries around the final hours of your day so that you end up with an evening that will work for you and the people in your life. Yes, you may have to negotiate with a spouse, kids or friends, but please do it.

(My Deep Work tools, I set them out every night on the kitchen counter and use them first thing when I get up to write in the morning.)

I’m on day four of the 21-Day Deep Work Challenge now, and there’s one thing I needed to make this work: Basic routines. Have you been joining the challenge? How has it been for you?

Whenever we want to make a change in our life – however big or small – there are supporting actions around it that need to adjust or change as well. When I started washing my face, it was not just about buying a product to use. It was also about making the time at both ends of my day to wash my face. I had to get up a smidgen earlier to make school drop offs work and use vitamin c on my face. It was a tiny adjustment because I only added one piece at a time, but those tiny adjustments one at a time took me in a new direction.

Here are a few questions to think about as you go about making Deep Work a lifestyle for you:

Where does Deep Work fit in your daily life? 

What needs to get moved around to make Deep Work happen?

Who do you need to talk to about helping you make this happen? 

Where do you need to take on more responsibility to free your time for Deep Work?

Where do you need to let go of responsibilities to free your time for Deep Work?

What is your face washing habit (the small thing you can do daily that may become an anchor point for future habits)? 

Now it’s your turn: How’s your Deep Work practice going? Are you encountering resistance? What helpful routines could you add to your life to help you stick to your deep work plans or just life plans in general? 

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February is almost finished, and I’m still thinking about goals.  Here are a few things I’ve learned after eight weeks of 2018.

The domino effect: intentionality in one area leads to change in other areas.

Some of the small steps I take in other goals have led to other changes in my life, changes I wasn’t even thinking about. Here was my one, real parenting goal for the year: Smile at my kids. It’s simple and actionable, and only I am responsible for it. But making myself smile more at my kids helped me spend more real, playing time with them. It meant we got outside more. I felt more naturally inclined toward encouraging them. I helped my attitude. I think I feel happier and more content. One tiny goal is doing so much more in my life and relationships than I could have imagined.

The easiest goals to accomplish are the ones most clearly broken down.

My big project in January was finishing the kids’ playroom. I wrote down a detailed task list, and systematically assigned those tasks to weeks and days and powered through them. It was concrete. It was clear. It was relatively easy to accomplish. Some goals (see the next point) are less concrete, which makes it harder to work through in the same way. I still think the key is turning those bigger goals into tiny, bite-sized pieces, actionable in a day.

Resistance is real.

It’s what comes after you’ve chipped away at parts of your goal, but you still aren’t “there” yet. I’ve felt resistance most acutely with some of the bigger picture goals for 2018. I broke them down into smaller chunks, I attacked the chunks, and then I heard the questions. Who do you think you are? Why do you think this is going to work? Why should anyone listen to you about this? Dealing with these resistance voices has been the hardest part of working toward my goals this year. For any of your goals that require months or years of work, learn to expect resistance. And develop your plan for how to deal with it. I’m still struggling with this one, but my simplest plan is this: Keep doing the work.

The 80-20 principle.

I’m not trying to “not do this” or “do this” every day, for the whole year. I’m aiming for 80% of the time, and the grace to not do anything all the time has made it easier for me to push for the things I want.

I can only do one thing at a time.

January was my playroom month. As much as I tried to work toward writing goals, most of my capacity went to the playroom. I still did a few writing things on the side, but I can see now that I am just a one-thing person. Not everyone is like this, but for me to get through my days in a good way, I need to remember this and not make myself focus on more than one thing. You get to decide what works for you in what way it works for you.

Now it’s your turn: How are your goals working in 2018? Are you finding it easy to follow through? What’s working for you? 

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I skipped making resolutions and goals for 2016. When the year started, I was overwhelmed by our move to Australia and setting up a house yet again. I didn’t have brain space to know what I wanted to do for the year, but I knew what I wanted for January. I wanted my family and I to stop reflexively grabbing McDonalds while we were out, and I wanted to wake up before the boys.

Maybe you’re in the same place, frustrated by the list of big goals but wanting to seize your life and change? Small goals are for the rest of us, the ones whose dreams mock us from the sidelines, the ones who yearn for change but know they can’t just shove everything to one side. We do it bit by bit, piece by piece, and we believe that each piece is making a difference.

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Here are three small changes that have made a bit difference in the past weeks.

1 Simple meal planning. I cook the same food now week after week after week. What this means is that I have essentially the same grocery list, and I use up all of my ingredients because what doesn’t get finished can be re-used on the same recipe the next week (hi there, anchovies). So I save time when it comes to planning meals for the week and writing shopping lists, and I’ve also started memorising the recipes, so I can cook them fast and make adjustments as I wish. I try to cook double so that dinners become our lunches, and I keep it very simple like Mexican for Monday, stir fry for Tuesday, soup for Wednesday, salad for Thursday, curry for Friday.

These are a few of the recipes that have been making our rotations:

Italian Wedding Soup from Edie Wadsworth

Simple 5-Ingredient Falafel and Winter Bliss Bowl (because it’s winter in Australia!!) from Pinch of Yum

Warm Spiced Cauliflower Salad with Chickpeas and Pomegranates from Nigella Lawson

2 Maintaining my bedroom. I’m happy to report that two months after redoing our master bedroom, it is still a clean, neat and beautiful space. And I still make the bed every morning. Knowing that no matter what happens to the rest of our house, I have one space that is visually peaceful, makes a huge difference to me during the day. Everyone is different, and I’ve noticed that a mess is a stress trigger for me, but I have kids. And I want our kids to have the freedom to create in messy spaces. I won’t be a mother who is forever nagging or requiring completely neat living rooms and dining tables. It has been great to reclaim our bedroom for ourselves and for order.

3 Phone boundaries. I’m still struggling through this one, but the little changes do make a difference. I’ve made these rules for myself:

I can use the phone before 7am (when the boys wake up), but after that it goes away.

I can use it for fun for 30 minutes in the middle of the day.

The phone goes away from 5pm until the boys’ bedtime (6:30-7pm).

At 8pm, the phone is turned off and put away.

I turn the phone off from Saturday evening to Sunday evening as we celebrate Sabbath.

I bought an alarm clock, so the phone is also not with me is in a drawer in the living room and not next to my bed. I use the phone for calls and texting during the day of course, but I get no notifications on my phone for social media, and this is what I wanted to curb. I love Instagram, but I don’t want to be “on” it at random points in the day, only when I want to be there, and only for a purpose. No more mindless scrolling. Or less mindless scrolling anyway.

There you have it. Now tell me, what small changes are making a big impact in your life?