What if, instead of being motivated by guilt and shame, we leverage our worst habits to serve us better? By being intelligently, purposely lazier; less mindful, disorganised, slower (and with a bit of self-compassion), we might actually be more successful, productive and happier – but on our own terms. Here’s how.
Make Peace with Your Body
Most of the body positivity movement is well intentioned – what’s not to like about being encouraged to love our bodies whatever they look like? “But body positivity was a movement created by fat and black women as a space to celebrate themselves because they didn’t see themselves represented,” says Chrissy King, activist and founder of the Body Liberation project. “And it’s been co-opted by thinner, straight white women emphasising a little bit of cellulite or fat rolls and saying, ‘I love myself anyway’. That was never the point of the movement.”
As well as marginalising the founders, the visual dominance of women who are very close to the Europeanised beauty ideal can be painful and frustrating for those who live in bodies much further from it, as well as for anyone with severe body image issues. “The idea that you’re going to love your body is too far of a place to jump to,” King says. “[Body positivity] is setting some people up for failure.” Body neutrality is more achievable. “I can look in the mirror and just be at peace with my body,” says King. “I can learn not to say I look gross, or ugly. I can say this is the body I’m living in today, and I’m going to work towards being neutral about it.”
Body liberation takes things a step further: “If you live in a black body, a trans body or a disabled body, you can love yourself with all your heart, but that doesn’t mean that you’re not going to face systemic oppression in the world because of your body. Body liberation is about asking: can I come to a place of acceptance and love for my own body, and work towards dismantling the systems of oppression that make it difficult for all of us to be able to do so?”
Be Brilliantly Lazy
Kendra Adachi, podcast host and author of The Lazy Genius Way, is a productivity expert who isn’t necessarily into making people more productive. Instead, she’s interested in helping us figure out exactly which things in our lives matter to us (rather than to anyone else), how to do them well, and then being lazy (although cleverly so) about all the others – whether that’s laundry, morning routines or cooking (her next book is The Lazy Genius Kitchen). We should organise our lives in ways that reflect what’s genuinely important to us, she says – rather than to our parents, colleagues friends or neighbours – and let other, often very visible, things go, even when that’s socially uncomfortable. For example, for Adachi, it was accepting that she wouldn’t be the kind of mother who volunteered in her young children’s school, but could be the kind who donated money and materials; and realising that was just as valid.
Learn to Love Negative Emotions
When your cat dies and someone breezily says, “Never mind, you can get a new cat,” that’s toxic positivity. “Two things go wrong with toxic positivity,” says Robert Biswas-Diener, positive psychologist and author of The Upside of Your Dark Side. “One is relational – when your friend comes to you wanting support, what they want and what you offer has to match, but often it doesn’t.” When we try to cheer someone up who actually just wants to be heard, “toxic positivity feels invalidating”. We’ve all felt this – when a parent or partner wants to solve our problem instead of letting us talk about it.
They want to fix things in part because they can’t bear being near difficult feelings, and this is the second problem with toxic positivity: it often masks a distrust of uncomfortable or unpleasant emotions. “But there are a million good things about emotions – including negative ones such as fear, jealousy, anger, guilt and sadness. They are how we navigate the social world. [But] because people don’t spend any time tolerating negative emotions – they turn on Netflix or grab a bottle of wine – they get out of touch with them, and they parent their children to be out of touch with them, too.
“But if you suppress one emotion, you suppress them all,” Biswas-Diener says. Learning to feel difficult emotions makes it easier when things go wrong in future; we won’t be blindsided by both events and our own reactions to them. If you’ve never had to navigate sadness, anger or fear, it’s almost impossible to be resilient.
For Biswas-Diener, this changed how he parented: instead of soothing and rescuing when things went wrong for his son, he affirmed his son’s anger or disappointment, meaning he grew up skilled at dealing with difficult feelings. We can do the same by giving ourselves permission to feel uncomfortable things such as sadness or anxiety, giving them time and space to occur, rather than always chasing them away with busyness, booze or digital distraction.
Be Moderately Disorganised
According to the book A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder, “neatness and organisation can exact a high price”. While absolute chaos isn’t helpful, messy systems are often more robust and flexible, according to authors David H Freedman and Eric Abrahamson, who believe that constantly keeping everything shipshape can be an unnecessary waste of time or money. “Moderately disorganised people, institutions and systems frequently turn out to be more efficient, resilient, creative and effective than highly organised ones,” they say. We’ve been socialised into thinking that being well organised is an unequivocal good, without ever asking whether that’s really true.
Freedman and Abrahamson point out that Albert Einstein’s desk – among many others – was always in “stupendous disarray”, so next time someone officious tells you to tidy up your desk (or your sock drawer), remind them that if one of the greatest thinkers of all time thrived in a semi-shambles, then so can you.
Be Less Mindful
“Traditionally, meditation was never thought of as something to create a moment of calm in the middle of crisis,” says Dr Julieta Galante, a neuroscience researcher at Cambridge University, who studies the upsides and downsides of mindfulness and meditation. “That is a western repurposing of it.”
Mindfulness is not a mental health panacea – despite new Nice guidance suggesting that mindfulness should be recommended before medication for depression. Research suggests up to 25% of meditators experience negative effects, including anxiety, panic attacks, disrupted sleep and emotional or physical dissociation – exactly what we’re led to believe can be improved by mindfulness. Galante likens meditation to a drug with generally positive results for most people, but for which potential side-effects and interactions should be listed, rather than something anyone can start, via an app, with no trained support to fall back on if things go wrong. Which is not to say that mindfulness is bad, but it won’t make life better for everyone who tries it.
Instead, be more mindless. “You don’t want to be mindful every single second,” says Biswas-Diener, who also studies mindfulness. “Sometimes you want to jam out to some tunes while you’re driving, rather than notice every colour and smell. Daydreams, fantasies, those insights that you get in the shower, those are all from mindlessness.”
“We now have a century of research that shows overwork is counterproductive,” says Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, a four-day week campaigner and author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less. “It makes us less productive, less happy, increases the risks of burnout and of chronic disease; it negatively affects company performance, whether you are working in a factory, for the NHS or in a police station; you’re more likely to cut corners and to overlook small but crucial details that later on snowball into gigantic problems.” The only bits of the labour industry for which shorter working hours don’t make sense are, he says, “nonprofits trying to save the world or hedge funds trying to destroy the world, who have an essentially infinite labour source of 22-year-olds whose greed you can satisfy, whose idealism you can weaponise or whose ambition you can appeal to. For the rest of us, working less, but better, makes an awful lot of sense for economies and societies generally.”
Love Your Clutter
“I’m someone who collects a lot of stuff,” says the maximalist designer Bethan Laura Wood, who wears and makes fantastically layered and colourful patterns. “For some people, my home, which has a lot of objects in it, feels uncomfortable. I find being in a space with less stuff in it uncomfortable – so it’s about what brings joy to you.” Wood believes we should declutter only if we really want to. “Don’t feel bad if you take all your stuff down, dust it, decide you like everything and put it all back.”
In fact, there’s even a branch of psychology that examines the connection between our stuff, our identity and our sense of home. “Our possessions can take on a value that far exceeds their physical properties,” says psychologist Dr Christian Jarrett, author of Be Who You Want – Unlocking the Science of Personality Change. “We imbue our belongings with meaning. They become extensions of ourselves, or of the people who once owned them, connecting us to our past or loved ones. It would be unfair to expect yourself to dispose of your stuff without incurring emotional cost.” In other words, we don’t need to feel guilty about not doing a Marie Kondo and throwing our treasured clutter away. One of the pleasures of an invitation to someone’s home is seeing their mix of precious and incidental objects, telling the story of their life.
“The pursuit of meaning is not fundamentally a bad thing,” says Wendy Syfret, author of The Sunny Nihilist: How a Meaningless Life Can Make You Truly Happy. “If you want to spend your whole life in a monastery, or pursuing enlightenment, good for you. But meaning has become so intensely commodified that now everything around us has to have meaning: your job has to be meaningful, your relationship has to be groundbreaking and every single consumer product is presented as life-changing – I saw a pack of tampons the other day that said, ‘This box is a revolution.’” When looked at this way, it’s obvious that meaning is a construct – and if absolutely everything is meaningful, then, arguably, nothing is.
“[This] creates an incredible vortex of pressure that no one can live up to,” says Syfret, who wants to help us realise our own insignificance, but cheerfully. For Syfret and other optimistic nihilists, nihilism is about being free from pressure rather than hopelessness or being selfish, and actually powers her activism.
“People tell us we should care about things to get us to invest ourselves in them – particularly work, and often as a way to get us to work harder for less money. So when we’re offered meaning – which is not the same as quantifiable value [tampons are valuable, not meaningful] – let’s ask: what is the intention of the person that’s giving me this message? Is this actually a message that’s trying to coercively control me?”
“Before you try diets or gruelling exercise programmes, spend one week treating yourself and your body the way that you would want the person you love most to speak to themselves,” says Shahroo Izadi, a behaviour change expert and author of The Last Diet, about how to improve our relationships with food and our body. “You may well notice that you are much softer with yourself, you forgive yourself quickly, you’re compassionate and you take a much more holistic approach to the way you treat your body.”
Many of Izadi’s clients focus on the outcome – weight loss – as opposed to adjusting their behaviour. “People assume that the result will be enough to teach them a whole set of new skills. I often tell them to imagine they’ve already lost weight, and that their task is keeping it off and still enjoying their life. That’s when they start realising that the way to keep off lost weight in the long term is to move away from the all-or-nothing, I’ve-blown-it mentality and to not moralise their food choices. Because blame, shame and guilt are so often the feelings that people need comfort from – and their comfort is food.”
What can we do to create a healthier relationship with food? Have a conversation with yourself, Izadi says. “For many of us, it isn’t until we do some internal inquiry that we realise diets and other unhelpful nutritional ‘rules’ have left us feeling guilty after [eating] what we’ve been taught to consider are ‘bad’ food choices.” This is not how we deserve to experience food, she says. “For those who want to stop comfort eating or eating to change uncomfortable feelings (such as shame and guilt), it’s completely counterproductive. Start gently factchecking, debating with and attempting to soften that voice.”
Embrace Being Single
“Women get in touch with me every day saying, ‘Oh, you look so happy. Should I leave my husband?’” says Helen Thorn, one half of the Scummy Mummies comedy duo and author of Get Divorced: Be Happy. “Now, I can’t make that decision for you, but I can tell you that divorce is the best thing that ever happened to me. I’m having a lovely time, all of the time. I mean, I wouldn’t recommend your husband having an affair, but you know, that’s OK.”
Thorn is not against marriage. “And I’m not anti-love.” But now that’s she’s divorced and a single parent, she is more clear-sighted about how, sometimes, people succumb to pressure to be in a couple, or to stay in a relationship for the sake of children. “Being single was the thing that I feared the most. It was absolutely the thing that I thought would break me. But love comes in many forms. The happiness that I thought marriage would give me, the completeness, the satisfaction, is what I’ve got from being single. I’ve got everything I need.”
She says life (and parenting) is easier and involves less compromise than when she was married. “Romance is lovely when it works, but it’s as hard as being single in many ways. I’ve created this life for myself where I’m happy – and now I don’t have to worry about someone complaining about how I cook my pasta.”
Use Your Anger for Good
“In the next 365 days, there will definitely be anger,” says Professor David Lebel, who studies the effects of so-called negative emotions at the Joseph M Katz Graduate School of Business. “The question is how you’re going to handle it. There are times when anger is functional, and there are times when it’s not. There’s a big difference between in-the-moment anger, and using that anger at some future time. So, do you explode at a work meeting? Or do you think, ‘What that person said is upsetting. I’m going to address it, but not now.’ You can’t really tell anger to go away, because it’s too strong – it’s high energy, it’s not comfortable and it’s going to take some time to be calm.”
Anger is useful, Lebel says. “Its function is to change a situation – something is disrupted, that’s why you feel anger. So the first step is just labelling it: ‘I’m angry about this.’ If you don’t know what you’re angry about, you can’t really make it functional. Then I tell people to draw on that anger in future – not to match the intensity, but to supply energy [when you do speak up], moving away from reactionary blow-ups and towards more proactive responses.”
Using anger positively means harnessing it for good, such as improving diversity at work, or helping your partner and child navigate the fallout from a nasty row, rather than wading in while it’s happening, taking sides and intensifying a conflict.
“I’m a very ambitious, organised, successful person,” says Sarah Knight, author of the bestselling No Fucks Given books and You Do You, an alternative self-help series about putting yourself first and giving less of a damn about other people’s expectations of your behaviour. Knight moved to the Dominican Republic after realising that her job in publishing was forcing her not to be herself, and giving her severe panic attacks. “People look at what I do, and the whole No Fucks Given ethos, and they think, ‘She has no direction, no commitments, no limitations.’ But that’s actually not true, and part of the reason is that I don’t live the way culture and society tells me that I have to. A very big part of what I do is reminding people that it’s OK to pull back, it’s OK to say no, it’s OK to say that’s not important to me. You get to decide, in your career, in your marriage, in your art, as a parent. You’re allowed to decide that you don’t give a fuck about being organised, you’re allowed to decide you don’t give a fuck about being slender, you don’t give a fuck about getting a promotion. You don’t have to measure yourself against anybody else’s standards.”
“Rest is good for us cognitively and physically,” says Claudia Hammond, author of The Art of Rest, psychology lecturer and presenter of All in the Mind, on Radio 4. “The key is to find what feels truly restful to you, and not feel guilty about it,” she says. “Many people find sitting on the sofa doing nothing quite hard. You don’t need to buy expensive candles to put around the bath before it can feel restful; you don’t have to have a spa weekend. Some find walking or even running restful – they can’t rest until they’ve exhausted their body, they can’t clear their mind.” Hammond recommends activities that occupy your hands but let your mind wander, such as jigsaws or gardening, listening – really listening – to music, spending empty time alone (by choice) and giving yourself permission to not achieve anything in particular.
Why do we feel so bad about resting? “It’s a cultural issue – we’re taught at school not to doodle or stare out of the window, and as adults busyness has status; there are experiments that demonstrate that we think busy people are more organised and more successful.”
Read a Book (and Watch Telly)
Guardian TV critic Lucy Mangan has never been caught up in self-improvement. “I’m resistant and stubborn about people making me do stuff, especially now I’m older,” says the writer, whose new novel is called Are We Having Fun Yet? “I’m not about to give in to people who say I should have a side hustle or improve myself.”
In the face of a million well-publicised hobby options – macrame! netball! pottery! – it’s easy to forget that you don’t have to have a skills-based sideline in order to be a fully realised human. You could just read a book. “All the reasons we encourage children to read don’t disappear as we get older. It still increases empathy and gives us the ability to recognise and articulate our own interior world (and television is in the same direction of travel, even if it doesn’t go quite so far),” Mangan says.
What should we pick up, if we’ve fallen out of the habit? “Something joyful such as Wodehouse, or warm and lovely like Maeve Binchy. But don’t go looking for something you think you should read. If I catch you looking at the Booker long list, I’ll smack you in the face.”
Ignore People (for Longer)
Many of us already know we should use our phones less, but the thing that sucks us back in is often what feels like an urgent need to reply to people. The pressure is all in our heads, according to Emma Gannon, whose new book is called (Dis)Connected: How to Stay Human in an Online World. “We think other people care more than they do,” she says. Many of the people she spoke to for the book were scared of turning off their notifications. “We’re frightened that we’re going to miss out, and that no one will notice we’ve gone. We moan about notifications, but [many of us] don’t turn them off because we like them and they make us feel busy and important.” And of course, the more we respond, the more we get back in response. Gannon recommends “retraining” the people in our texts, DMs and inboxes not to expect quick responses. “We behave as if replying is a task we can complete, but we can never, ever, ever finish it. So step away.”
Stay Away from Resolutions
“Approaching yourself with as much kindness as possible, with as much love as possible, is really, as far as I can see, our only choice, especially now,” says Jeffrey Marsh. Marsh is an activist whose life-affirming videos have been watched over a billion times, and author of the bestselling How to Be You, part memoir of growing up non-binary in rural Pennsylvania, part manifesto for global self-acceptance. “If you hate your guts into losing 20 pounds, will you end up 20 pounds lighter? Maybe, maybe not. But what you will have practised is hating your guts.”
How do we learn self-kindness? “To me, the essential question is: will I be able to be kind to myself? Self-hate is the engine that drives most people’s resolutions. It’s easy to say, ‘I’m going to lose 20 pounds.’ It is unfamiliar to say, ‘I’m going to deeply love myself, no matter what.’ It may be the hardest thing to learn in one’s lifetime, but it can also be the most loving, beautiful, fun and exciting process of one’s life.”