This year, I set bold intentions for my writing, photography, and living well. I’ve spent much of my life in the hustle lane. Along the way, I stressed over deadlines, my role in affecting change in organizations, and balancing my extended family’s drama with my own sanity. 

Stress can kill you—literally, or at least play havoc on your health. I knew I needed a better path, and I know myself well. Even as a child, I planned and set little goals for myself. I didn’t call it that, but I would plan which books I wanted to read and give my dolls tasks for the day.

How could I balance that inner drive, an insatiable hunger to keep learning, while maintaining a sense of peace and joy each day?

How did I get here?

I needed a plan.

In December, Shaunta Grimes wrote about a strategy for planning her work. She had divided the year into 12 themes to support the habits she hoped to establish or improve. Each theme also included a book for deeper learning and insight. The focus on themes would add structure and intentionality to her year’s work.

Plodding along the past several months convinced me that I needed to give myself some direction with concrete actions. Talking about what I want to accomplish doesn’t translate into the work without identifying small steps to maintain momentum.

While I didn’t follow Shaunta’s plan, I morphed the idea into what would work for me. As I identified my themes, I selected books to read, fiction and non-fiction, that would teach, inspire, or illuminate new perspectives. The plan would guide, not constrain, and the themes would provide a framework around which to write, explore, and enjoy every day.

I chose several habits I wanted to nurture throughout the year. Some were not new, but I wanted to stretch my reach into the world. I make kindness a priority and find it easy with my family and friends, but what about those other people who drop into my life? What about the friends that I haven’t spoken to in years? My efforts in kindness had plenty of room for growth.

What I said I would do.

My first theme—words—set the stage for me to focus on my writing practice by committing to 500-800 words per day. Not a stretch goal for sure, but I needed space to explore where I wanted my writing to take me. I had been floundering, listless, and unsure of how or if my words had a place in the universe.

Three books started my journey. I chose Ursula LeGuin’s Steering the Craft, Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose, and a short but powerful book by David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking. Since I have always wanted to write books for children, I picked up one by Ann Whitford Paul on Writing Picture Books.

I also wanted to take one photograph every day, practice music for 20 minutes, and take time to write notes to the people I care about or want to reconnect with. Then, make time for exercise, checking on family and friends. My days would be full.

The last day of the month seemed like the appropriate time to reflect and hold myself accountable for the past 30 days.

So, how did I do?

What I did.

The days rolled one onto another, but I managed to read all the books on my list and continued reading Barack Obama’s, A Promised Land. I pulled out all the children’s books we had and bought more to read and examine the genre. Marveling at the lessons these writers planted in so few words, my inspiration soared.

I signed up for classes to hone my skill in writing for children. For the first time, I found adventure in using paper, pens, pencils, erasers at my first attempts at drawing. I created elephants, mice, bees, and lamps. Could I become an illustrator?

Every day, I wrote snippets for Twitter and left my heart on the pages of my journal. I read, studied, stared at the clouds, and captured the grey, cold days with my camera. The first draft of a picture book story sits on my desk—that proverbially shitty first draft.

Did I do everything I planned? No, but I did a lot. And I had fun. My days had a sense of purpose without the frantic pursuit of illusory goals. 

Regrets waste time and energy, but I caught myself wishing I approached my days more playfully long before now. Our society places extraordinary pressure on us to achieve more, to have more, to be more. Sometimes, more lies within us, and it’s more than enough.

What about all the things that didn’t find their way into my days? All the music and acts of kindness? The results may not have met the high standard I projected, but they sprinkled my days with moments of pleasure. Spending a few moments tackling Bach or Mozart with fingers that can still stumble across the keys. The music sounding less than perfect, but no less inspiring.

Simple interactions with those who loaded my car with groceries or take out dinners gave me a chance to speak kindly. I smiled (behind a mask) and asked others about their day. We shared tiny moments of humanity.

How do I hold myself accountable now and every day?

Ask questions. Act. Reflect. 

Start the day with: “What can you do today to be better than yesterday?

During the day: “Am I smiling? Not a Cheshire cat smile, but a deep down, live my best life smile.

End the day: “What did I do for myself? What did I do for others? For what am I most grateful?”

Likely, I will look at what I can focus on tomorrow, but I want to make certain that I lived today as my best before I do that.

What’s next?

The words of Eleanor Roosevelt steer my course.

In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.

Albert Einstein nudges.

Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.

And, Mary Oliver whispers in my ear.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

I have more to read. Many stories waiting to be told, and much to see and do as I search for better every day.

How about you?

And always—

Be kind. Be brave. Be you.