12 Things I Learned from My Year of Monthly Challenges

In the last 12 months, I learned how to meditate, sew, and play the guitar.

I gave up gluten, dairy, and sugar, wrote a (horrible) novel, and held a fifteen minute plank.

I experimented with lucid dreaming, cold showers, and the Law of Attraction.

I organized my life (and my digital assets too), hacked the perfect night of sleep, and dove into the dangers and myths behind our wireless devices.

I’ve documented each success, challenge, frustration and failure every Thursday on this blog, often wondering – how do these eclectic experiments fit together? What’s the common thread?

I suppose it boils down to a deep rooted desire to make sense of this funny thing called human behavior. To understand why we do the things we do, and why struggle never fails to chase those who seek to change, grow and pursue their goals.

And so, on the one year anniversary of Hackerella, I’ve come up with a list of 12 things I’ve learned after 12 months of challenges. They’re insights and reflections on my quest to find happiness, fulfillment, calm, adventure and success, and what it means to go out there and try.

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12 Things I Learned From 12 Monthly Challenges

1. Dream big, but set specific goals along the way

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Dreams and goals – they’re two words often confused. Dreams have no limits. They’re meant to be as big and wild as the imagination allows, like my semi-delusional dream of wanting to write the next bestselling literary sensation. Goals, on the other hand, require parameters, and the successful ones are specific (sew two nightgowns) and time bound (30 days) so that it can be broken down into a manageable series of action items. So, while no great novel will emerge from my deft fingers any time soon, I’ll be tackling smaller goals – short stories and character profiles, terrible chapters, and then not so terrible chapters. The dream sounds impossible. The goals- not so much.

2. Food matters – make it a priority

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Food was my first challenge, and a topic that has long intrigued and conflicted me. Warm chocolate croissants, Margherita pizza, apple pie with vanilla ice cream – that’s my heaven. I should be able to enjoy these things. But having spent the better part of the past year researching and experimenting with nutrition and supplements, there’s no denying that food’s effect on the body are powerful and noticeable. I function better and I’m nicer, sharper, calmer, happier and allergy-free when when I adhere to a diet that consists of colorful vegetables, healthy fats, high quality protein and lots of water (90% of the time, I do indulge on occasion). And as this process evolves, I’d like to think that my body and my brain will thank me for the investment, ten, twenty, and fifty years from now.

3. Meditation works

Meditation

It’s funny how something as simple as sitting and breathing has such powerful benefits — like reducing stress, enhancing creativity and problem solving abilities, and even improving relationships, and yet so many of us dismiss the idea of meditation because of it’s boring, frustrating and difficult to quantify nature. Incorporating some form of mindfulness into our everyday lives whether it be through traditional meditation, or other activities like walking, biking, playing an instrument, learning something new (may I recommend sewing?) or yoga, is a worthwhile investment of our time as it forces the mind into a state of presence and away from our natural tendency to ruminate on life’s problems and stresses.

4. Don’t discount the power of your subconscious – it might just give you the answers you’re looking for

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I dabble in unconventional and oddball practices like the Law of Attraction, energy healing, and lucid dreaming, and as someone who just experienced her first lucid dream (I flew, it was amazing), I’m eager to consciously unearth the things (and the possibilities that come with it) buried in my subconscious. Imagine being able to access a state where we think more creatively, make confident decisions, trust our intuition, shift our mindsets, and make sense of the random fragments of information our minds process each day. With an open mind and some practice and patience, it can be done.

5. New habits are incredibly difficult to form and we can’t rely on willpower to get there

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Jerry Seinfeld once said that the best advice he had to offer to young comics was to get a large wall calendar, a big red marker and, for each day that you complete your joke-writing task, draw a big red X over that day.

After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain. – Jerry Seinfeld

In other words, keep the streak alive because results will come not from talent or luck or smarts, but from the consistent, daily actions that transform into habits. And it’s the habits that will carry us when willpower is lacking. It’s why I make every effort to rely on routine, schedules, and strategic environmental design, and it’s why I proactively plan for the inevitable bad/weak/lazy days – because I know that in the battle between myself and my willpower, I don’t stand a chance.

6. We are capable of doing really hard things

Planking challenge

I held a 15 minute plank. I learned how to sew. I wrote a novel. I can survive without bread and pasta. It’s an empowering feeling, to know that I can accomplish the hard things I set out to do. People tell me all the time – that’s too hard, I could never do that. And they’re right. It is hard. But the hard part isn’t the actual work – the leg lifts, the typing, the meal planning and the like. That’s all fairly straightforward. No, what’s hard is pushing past the voice in our head that whispers to us “it’s too hard, it can’t be done” so often and so convincingly that every part of us believes it, and going for it anyway.

7. Embrace the unexpected, unfamiliar and not knowing 

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I’ve grown to take comfort in the uncertain, exploratory, and unconventional nature of what I do each month. “I don’t know” are uncomfortable words to admit and it’s almost easier to force a solution or opinion on something we don’t fully comprehend. But life doesn’t require definitive answers all the time. Things will come up. Priorities will shift. Minds will change. Learn to embrace it.

Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves…Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. – Ranier Maria Rilke

8. Ask for help

piano teacher

As much as I love tinkering my way through each challenge, I’ve wasted entirely too much time trying to figure things out on my own, when I could have progressed more quickly had I sought help, taken a class, or hired a teacher. There’s a reason why top athletes, business people, and musicians seek out the best coaches and mentors – so they can dissect performance, ask questions, and understand the principles and tactics behind every success. So while uncertainty is certainly a noble starting point, the real question becomes – what am I going to do about it?

9. When in doubt, turn to a book

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World class performers, billionaires, superstars, and people the top of their game often credit their accomplishments to their voracious appetite for books. It’s one of the best ways I know to stay inspired and enthusiastic, be entertained, and learn new ideas, philosophies and tools. Besides, anything you set out to learn about, any question you want answered, someone has dedicated a years of their life to that very topic, so why not take advantage of that!

Here are some of my favorite (nonfiction) books that I’ve read this past year:

10. Take care of yourself first 

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Selflessness has become a badge of honor, where the idea of everyone and everything before ourselves is the norm, admirable even. Perhaps it should be the other way around. Perhaps we should put some things, namely our health and sanity, first. I am finally making diet, exercise, sleep and stress a priority, and I do my best (not always successfully) to keep them in balance. So if it means signing my kids up for one fewer activity or taking a week off from blogging so I can have some time to myself – so be it. It makes me a better parent, wife, friend, worker and person in general. I like myself more. And I’m better equipped to handle whatever comes my way.

11. Anything worthwhile will take a long time

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I stole this from Maria Popova of BrainPickings (who stole it from Debbie Millman) and it’s stuck with me as I’ve wiggled and waggled my way though the year. I’m an impatient information and technology addict who loves living in a world of total accessibility and instant gratification, so it pains me to admit that there are no silver bullets or overnight successes. Meaningful projects take time to blossom. This website (and my unwritten book for that matter) will grow and improve and evolve over the months and years to come, slow and steady and with lots of love and attention.

12. Hold yourself to a higher standard

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It comes down to this: life is a culmination of the thousands of decisions we make every day. It’s the one thing we have complete control over – the ability to choose.

Each month I choose what to tackle. I decide how far to push myself, and I typically hold back. I make it just a little easier, even though I know I have a lot more to give.

We can only live up to the standards we set for ourselves, so perhaps, now, it’s time to raise my game. It’s time to choose bigger challenges and attempt more interesting things.

I know now what a challenge entails. I’ve dipped my toes in the water, experimented with topics, tested my limits, experienced success and failure and frustration and doubt. I’ve gotten healthy and adopted new habits and mindsets and strategies for learning, planning and executing on the things I attempt to tackle.

I can do this. I’m ready.

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