It’s that time of year when most people start to work on “resolutions” for next year. But don’t wait until January 1 to put those resolutions into action. Significant, life-improving change takes a long time – and the time to start is always right now.
I should know.
Perhaps because of a perennially low sense of self-esteem (probably deserved), I’ve been working on improving myself ever since Sister Christopher, my Grade 1 teacher, rubbed a wad of chewing gum into my hair as punishment for chewing it in class. (“That will teach you! And now maybe your parents will give you a proper crew cut!”)
So – and not to brag – when it comes to self-improvement, you have to agree: I got an early start.
Alas, we cannot become smarter, more skillful, more disciplined, or happier simply by choosing to be so. But the good news is (and you won’t hear this anywhere else – for the time being) that all of the psychological benefits of positive change come to you the moment you start changing. They are not dependent on the goal.
Another bonus: Studies show that the best way to change is through small, repeated actions.
Here are 10 “small” actions you can take every day that will make your life better:
- Smile while brushing your teeth–Because when you smile, the world smiles with you. And because smiling will put you in a good mood. Recent neurobiological studies have shown that the physical act of smiling, even for as little a minute, stimulates endorphins.
- Life is difficult… get ready for it with a minute of yoga-like stretching followed by a minute of moderate to vigorous exercise– Another beneficial first-thing-in-the-morning routine. Do this to get your muscles stretched and flushed with blood. Do this to get your heart pumping. Do this to remind yourself that if you want to accomplish more you have to be willing to live through discomfort.
- Make your first conversation of the day a good one– Use that morning energy to brighten up your first conversation. Whether it’s with your spouse, a friend, a colleague, or a stranger on the bus.
- Don’t stop with that first conversation –Every conversation matters, so keep going. All day. Think about it. How many conversations do you have each day? (I’m talking about both personal conversations and also electronic ones.) A dozen? Two dozen? More? Every single one of them matters – even the briefest. Every single one of them is a small chance to make your life – and the life of others – better or worse. We cannot always control the topic of our conversations. Nor the outcomes. But we can control how we enter into them. So make it a habit to say something hopeful or complimentary or sympathetic before saying anything else.
- Learn something new– There’s a lot more to good communication than vocabulary, but a broad and colorful lexicon is a very useful social tool. I spend a minute or so learning a new word every day. This is easier than it may seem. There are lots of apps that will send you a new word each day. I use three and choose one to log into my journal.
- Learn something else– I’ve been learning a new word a day for about 20 years. (Don’t quiz me!) Recently, I thought it might be fun to expand into trivia. I searched and was happy to find that there are, as for vocabulary, apps that dish out a new and interesting fact each day. I’m signed up to four of them: “Cool Facts,” “Weird Facts,” “Human Body,” and “Facts.” Some days it’s hard to pick just one for my journal.
- And keep learning– There is a reason that smart people like quotations. The good ones sum up insights and observations that help us understand and appreciate… well, just about everything. Spend a couple of minutes each day finding and contemplating an engaging quotation. There are apps available to help you, but I haven’t found one I love. So what I do is pick a topic, usually having something to do with my work or my writing. Then I do a Google search for a quotation, pick my favorite, and spend a minute thinking about it.
- Give your body a break – I’m a writer and a business consultant, and that means spending at least 8 hours a day in front of a keyboard. Our bodies were not built to be in a seated position for that length of time. In fact, I’ve read that it is as unhealthy as smoking cigarettes. Forty years ago, Gene Schwartz (a direct advertising legend) solved this problem by setting an egg timer for 33 minutes when he sat down to work. When it rang, he got up and took a break. Then he sat down and re-set the egg timer. What I do is a bit more anal: I set my timer (an app called “Focus”) for 28 minutes and then for two minutes. During that two-minute period, I stretch or do calisthenics. Sometimes I’ll step outside. So if I’m working for eight hours straight, I will have taken 15 two-minute breaks.
- Be a good listener–This may be the best advice I’ve ever gotten about persuasion. Before you tell someone what you think, ask him what he thinks. Then restate what you heard as precisely as you can. This is a habit I’m just beginning to work on, but I can already see what a difference it makes when I want to get someone to understand my point of view.
- Plan ahead… way ahead– I used to plan my day first thing in the morning. Now I do the preliminary planning the night before. I don’t plan the whole day, but I do identify the two or three things that are my top priorities. I write them down. Then I forget about them. Of course what happens is that they remain in my unconscious, and I wake up with ideas I would not have had otherwise.