Me, Only Better: 6 Weeks to a Better Me
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Me, Only Better: 6 Weeks to a Better Me

Ordinarily I'm a self-improvement skeptic. But when everyone around me started sending not-so-subtle hints, I decided to suck it up and see if I could become a nicer, healthier, more organized person.

Yes, I am a Cancer -- a crab, in case you need reminding. And yes, we were in Maryland, on vacation. But those facts had nothing to do with why, after a week of my low-level grousing (How could we forget the sunscreen? Why is our hotel so far from the beach?), my husband presented me with a gift: a souvenir T-shirt featuring a cranky crustacean and the words, "Don't Bother Me, I'm Crabby."

I had to laugh at his 100-percent cotton intervention. One of the reasons I love Rob is that he accepts my imperfections. But in looking back, I realize that perhaps I'd allowed myself to grow a tad complacent about that. It's one thing to ask for patience with a passing dark mood. It's another to expect someone to coexist for weeks on end with a grouchy, messy, gossipy, slothful person whom even I don't like.

I resolved to enroll in a Better-Me Boot Camp: I'd choose six of my most disagreeable habits and devote a week to improving each. The goal? A nicer, more livable Sandy.

Week 1: Be More Grateful

Objectively, I lead a charmed life: wonderful husband, adorable 4-year-old, nice house. You'd think I'd count my blessings daily. But no. I'm too focused on how that same husband forgets wet laundry in the washer, the kid still can't write his name (unlike that little ginger-haired genius in his class), and the house needs a new roof. When I survey my kingdom, I'm much more likely to pick at the imperfections than revel in my many gifts. Why?

"Studies show that negatives -- what we don't have -- stay with us more than positives," explains Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, author of The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want. "It probably kept early humans from eating a poisonous plant twice, but it can really hijack your emotions." A proven antidote? Keeping a gratitude journal or writing gratitude letters. "You don't have to send them," says Lyubomirsky. "It's the writing that makes a difference."

I groaned at this hokey idea. But, grudgingly, I started typing out a nightly list, and lo and behold, I started to feel luckier, humbler, happier. My husband was another big winner: Noting his small favors -- the dinner waiting after work, the closet he'd painted, the credit card bill he'd paid (after I forgot) -- reminded me daily that the guy I married is greater than the sum of his wet laundry.

Chances for Long-Term Success: High
Experts say giving thanks also makes for more grateful kids, so now I've got my son counting his blessings every night at bedtime.

Week 2: Stop Swearing

Not all the items on my self-improvement task list were self-assigned. "You have one of the biggest potty-mouths of anyone I know," Rob announced (and this is someone who's been in the military for 15 years). We decided, for incentive, that I'd pay him $1 for every swear word I uttered for a week.

Forty-seven dollars later, I discovered that I swear not so much in frustration or anger but in illustration -- especially, it turns out, while telling stories to Rob. According to Tim Jay, PhD, author of Why We Curse, this "social swearing" is fundamentally different from "aggressive swearing" and is something people do to build camaraderie. "That explains why people who cuss regularly in front of friends or coworkers manage to control themselves in front of the boss," says Jay.

I admit: I had trouble letting go of my juicy, four-color descriptions. Sometimes I'd even catch myself in time -- then decide the $1 toll was worth it. A deeply religious friend who looks pained every time someone takes the Lord's name in vain advised me to replace cuss words one by one with innocuous ones, but "sugar" and "fudge" just didn't cut it for me. Meanwhile, Jay was something of a crusader for cussing, which didn't help my resolve. "It intensifies emotion in a way other language just can't," he said.

Chances for Long-Term Success: Low
Especially with an expert giving me permission to swear away!

Week 3: Curb My Spending

"Everyone thinks that having more money will make them happier," says Tom Rath, coauthor of Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements. "In fact, it's feeling in control of your finances that does it." He imparted this wisdom because I'd gone to him with a dilemma: I'd recently gotten a raise yet was feeling more financially pinched than ever. He suggested that feeling flush could be working against me, and when I (belatedly) took a spin through my expenditures I realized it was true: I'd been grabbing $8 sandwiches instead of toting leftovers and paying to park in a lot next to my office rather than parking for free a few blocks away. These modest indulgences apparently added up to more than my raise since I'd suffered a few overdrafts. Now I had to figure out how to act my wage.

The problem wasn't our household budget; it was that I'd stopped keeping track of how much I spend on the fly because longer work hours meant I didn't have time to check my accounts every night. Technology to the rescue: I downloaded an app that shows my bank balance on my smartphone. (I used USAA's, but Wesabe and ClearCheckbook offer others.) Neuroscientists have found that looking at negative financial information -- like an overly long credit card statement -- can light up an area of the brain that registers disgust. That held true for me: Now before buying anything I quickly check my balance -- and often end up opting out.

Chances for Long-Term Success: Medium high
Overspending upsets me, while my new smart-buying tactics make me feel oh so clever.

Week 4: Get Organized

I've read a million books about clutter-busting and virtually all of them start with one idea: Take time to get organized. Have I done that? Nope -- too disorganized. So I decided to devote a weekend to all the order-creating activities we're forever told to do. Productivity guru David Allen threw in this advice: "Make every item on your to-do list an immediate actionable step; otherwise it gets overwhelming." So, anticipating "Cook ratatouille" on my Sunday list, on Saturday morning I scribbled, "Rob to buy at Stop 'n' Shop: garlic, 4 shallots, 3 lbs tomatoes."

In making Saturday's list, I estimated how long each task would take -- then doubled it. In all, the following took me about an hour: I started an online family calendar, so I could keep better track of Rob's schedule and our son's school events; I cleaned up a corner of my bedroom where my work clothes discards had mounded, then carved out a different changing spot in the closet; I created a landing pad for mail on a table by the front door, with a shredder nearby; and I signed up for FlyLady, a free website offering a step-by-step, day-by-day plan that founder Marla Cilley says will lead to a tidy house in three months. (I wasn't deluded enough to think I could get my whole house neat in a weekend -- an impatience that is the downfall of most would-be perfectionists, according to Cilley.) Then I spent Sunday cooking up a storm and packing a week's worth of ready-to-grab lunches. The crowning touch? A "Forget your lunch?" note posted on the door to the garage.

These actions yielded immediate dividends: No more junk mail floating around the house; fewer wrinkled work pants and double-booked family weekends. It was so motivating that I entered a daylong organization binge every six weeks into my calendar.

Chances for Long-Term Success: Medium high
My heart's in it; the challenge will be keeping up the systems when life gets hectic.

Week 5: Gossip Less

Gossiping is part of being social: Experts say that even dolphins and baboons may do it. Still, I was doing more than my share of feeding the rumor mill. Discussing other parents' lives (or lack thereof -- zing!) is one thing, but whispering tales about my son's friends? Um, he's 4.

My first thought was to go cold turkey. But when I broke this to friends, they were having none of it. "The school's annual potluck is this week," one said firmly. "Afterward, we'll need to talk about it. A lot."

Trading dirt, it turns out, is as reciprocal as a gang initiation: "It creates loyalty partly because those involved now have something over each other," says John L. Locke, author of Duels and Duets: Why Men and Women Talk So Differently. In fact, people who don't gossip, studies have shown, tend to be distrusted or even to inspire anger -- a feeling familiar to any mom who's ever let her teen go to a party at someone's house only to find out later that "everybody knew" the parents were out of town.

So I decided to try another tack, opting to practice "positive gossip" -- which basically means extending the benefit of the doubt. When someone asked me, "Did you see the tantrum that kid threw at the potluck?" I'd respond, "Oh, yeah, my son had a huge one of those at their house last week," or "It was pretty late; maybe next year we should start earlier?" I'm no angel, though: The dad who insists on telling lame jokes at the playground, I decided, is still fair game.

Chances for Long-Term Success: Low
As you can see, I'm gossiping right now.

Week 6: Make Time for Me

It is a truth universally acknowledged that moms put themselves last. My son gets new clothes and haircuts four times as often as I do, because I attend to his needs but neglect my own. The problem? Every so often, the lack of "me time" turns me all resentful and I lash out at Rob or go on a spending spree because, well, no one else is taking care of me and I deserve a new pair of shoes, for #^@*'s sake. "I tell my husband, 'If I don't take time to make myself happy, I won't be as good a mother or as good at my job,'" says Lyubomirsky. How you spend that time makes a difference, too, according to research. Though I was jonesing to veg out in front of a Forensic Files marathon, experts say the truly refreshing activities are "intrinsic" -- that is, those that help you learn, connect with others, or contribute to the community.

So, yeah, I allowed myself a Sunday afternoon reality-TV gorge -- but didn't feel nearly as good afterward as I did when I spent the same amount of time planning the garden I want to put in our backyard. Best of all, this experiment gave me an excuse to have a week's worth of lunches with friends, some of whom I hadn't seen in months. I left smiling every time.

Chances for Long-Term Success: High
Sure, I sometimes feel guilty when I take time away from my family, but it's clear that I need it.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, March 2012.