Happy New Year! I hope that 2012 got off to a good start for you. I’ve never been one for New Year’s Resolutions, simply because the date seems so arbitrary. I prefer to make changes throughout the year as I think of them, and January 1 is no different from any other day in that regard. One difference is with financial goals – it’s handy for us to start over on January 1 each year with those, simply because accounts like IRAs have annual maximum contribution amounts, and we like to get going as soon as possible when the new year starts. For most things though, we make changes as we go and focus on our goals throughout the year.
But I know that the new year inspires a lot of people to make changes, and I get that. It’s a new beginning, a blank slate for the year you want to create. And in keeping with that, I thought I’d share some of our favorite habits that help to keep our life happy and smooth.
Notice I said “habits” and not resolutions or fads or quick-fixes. Resolutions have a dismal success rate, simply because people tend to make big plans and then let them go by the wayside soon after (ever visit a gym the first week in January and then the first week in April? Notice a difference?). Fads and quick-fix solutions are similar – if it’s not a sustainable, long-term change in habits, it’s not going to stick. Not only will it not succeed, but it will probably set you back even further because you’ll be dealing not only with the original problem, but also with the sense of failure that goes along with not succeeding at sticking to whatever resolutions you set for yourself.
So with that out of the way, let’s talk about my favorite habits:
- Make your bed every morning. I started doing this around the time I turned 32. These days, I can’t believe that I spent so many years with a bed that was only made about two days a week. It takes about 30 seconds each morning to make the bed, and it changes everything. It makes the room feel clean and put-together. It makes me feel ready for the day. It makes me much more likely to keep the rest of the room (and the whole house!) tidy, since the bed looks nice. Honestly, if you’re not already making your bed everyday, this is an easy habit to establish because it takes so little time. I’m not talking about hospital corners here. Just pull the sheet up, pull the comforter or blanket up, and put the pillows where they belong, either under or on top of the comforter. Done. I’m serious about it taking 30 seconds.
- Exercise every day. How much is up to you. If you don’t exercise at all right now, five minutes a day will make a difference. And I’m not saying go out and lift weights for two hours a day – moderation is important, as is “active rest” (which means that even on a rest day, you still go for a walk, for example). I honestly believe that some sort of activity or exercise every single day is far better for setting the exercise habit than scheduling a specific workout Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, for example. Things that we do everyday get etched into our brains more permanently and become habits faster and easier than things we only do sporadically. So commit to at least some exercise every day. Walking counts. So does five minutes of push ups on your living room floor. So does a game of basketball with your kids at the park. Do whatever you want. Make it fun. Tailor it to the equipment and gear you already have (or do bodyweight exercises that don’t require any equipment at all – no excuses!). Don’t worry about finding just the right plan or just the right shoes or just the right gear. Improvise. Did I already say make it fun? I’m repeating it because it’s so important. I remember taking a kick boxing class at the gym several years ago. I hated every minute of it. Same thing with a step aerobics class that I took when I was in college. If I had based my opinions on exercise on what I thought of the step aerobics class, I’d have quit right then. But instead I found all sorts of exercise that I love. Personally, I much prefer solitary sports and things that require strength, flexibility and endurance rather than teamwork or coordination. Someone else might have exactly the opposite preferences and would be much better suited to daily pick-up basketball games. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you do something every day. For the last 8 months, I’ve been using Bodyrock.tv for my workout inspiration, and I love it. It only takes 10 – 15 minutes most days. It’s free and you can do it in your living room (hooray for not trying to find space in a crowded gym right now!).
- Eat right. Skip the fads. Skip the drastic elimination diets or anything that calls for dramatically different eating patterns for 30 days or something like that. Sure they’ll probably “work” in the short term, but what happens when you’re allowed to go back to eating something other than celery and yogurt? Different eating habits work for different people. Meat, dairy and grains are controversial subjects in the discussion about healthy eating. So do what feels best for you. There are some non-grey areas though: sugar, processed food and soft drinks come to mind. I would say that the more you limit (or eliminate all together) those, the better off you’ll be. Prepare your own food. It doesn’t have to be fancy or take a long time, but eat stuff that doesn’t come out of a box or a can. Oh She Glows has amazing recipes almost every day, and they’re pretty much always a hit when I make them. Her site appeals to me because it’s vegan and she cooks everything from scratch, but that won’t be for everyone. Search around a bit. Find a cooking site that inspires you. Subscribe to the feed so that the new recipes show up in your inbox. Create a way to save the ones that you want to try and to keep track of the ones that get rave reviews. I have a simple Google Docs sheet where I put links to recipes that we love. I’ve been using it for about a year, and it’s become a great resource. I can scroll through it and be reminded of recipes I’d have otherwise forgotten about, and it always provides ample inspiration for what meals I’m going to make in the coming week. We never have “what to make for dinner?” dilemmas anymore.
- Spend less than you earn. This is another one that has become cliche because it gets tossed around so much. How exactly do you do it, especially if you’ve never done it before? It’s all about habits, and spending is one area where computers and automation have made it very easy to stick with a goal. Set up an online savings account. Don’t spend so long comparing interest rates that you stress yourself out and abandon the whole idea. Just get it done. Then schedule an automatic contribution to the account – even $50 or $100 a month adds up over a few years. The key is to not touch the money once it’s in the account, unless it’s a bona fide emergency. The definition of that will be different for different people, but I’d say that the more strict you are with what counts as an emergency, the better off you’ll be, and the faster your emergency fund will grow. If you have trouble with charging more on your credit card than you can pay off each month (without touching that emergency fund!), you might want to consider ditching the credit cards. Personally, we put everything on a credit card and pay it off every month. We’ve been doing that for years, and it’s the method that works for us. Our American Express card puts 2% of our spending into an IRA, and we don’t pay any fees or interest charges. It works for us, but that doesn’t mean it will work for everyone. Switch to a cash-only method if you find yourself unable to pay off your card in full each month.
- Start saving for your future, beyond the basic emergency fund. Again, automation makes this easy. If you have access to a retirement plan through your employer, make sure that you’re contributing enough to get the maximum employer match. Beyond that, if you can contribute the maximum allowable amount, go for it. You can also set up an IRA on your own and arrange to have contributions made automatically throughout the year (Optimize.com has some good tools you can use to make sure you’re making the most of your savings). You’ll thank yourself some day.
- Slow down. Actively work to reduce the amount of commitments you have and the amount of time you spend multi-tasking. Are there things in your weekly schedule that you do because you feel like you should, but they aren’t really adding anything of importance to your life? Try cutting them out and see how you feel.
- Try going without TV for a while. This is one area where you might want to do a 30 day challenge or something like that. Put your TV in the garage or somewhere else out of sight for a month and see how it goes. If you’re unhappy with the arrangement at the end of the month, by all means move the TV back where it was. But you might surprise yourself and find that you love all the extra time you have in the evenings. Netflix and all the other online streaming programs make it easy to catch up on your favorite TV shows (without any commercials so an hour-long show only takes about 40 minutes), and you can always watch movies on your computer too. We got rid of our TV a few years ago, it was definitely a good decision. My husband listens to football games on the radio while he works on our basement, and we use a laptop for Netflix. The monthly fee for Netflix is a fraction of what it would cost to have cable TV, and we never feel like we’re missing anything. Again, this might seem like something that you’d hate, but you won’t know until you give it a try.
- Stop buying stuff for a while. 30 days, six months, a year – whatever feels good to you. You have enough shoes. And clothes. And kitchen gadgets. And furniture. Truthfully, most of us (including my own family) have far more than we need, and should probably be getting rid of stuff in addition to not buying more stuff. But we can at least start by stemming the flow of clutter into our homes. Don’t shop for fun. Don’t open catalogs that come in the mail (and ask to be taken off their mailing lists so that no more arrive). If you browse around in a store or page through a catalog, you’ll definitely find stuff you want. Whether you need it is a whole different story, but wanting things we don’t have tends to lead to dissatisfaction. And we don’t want any of that.
- HAVE FUN! Focus on things that make you happy. Find pleasure in small stuff. Don’t wait for the weekend or for your vacation or for a special day… just enjoy today. Remind yourself of all that you have to be grateful for. Don’t compare yourself or your life with others (remember, when we do that, we usually don’t know the whole story and we’re comparing our strengths to their weaknesses or vice versa). Tell your loved ones how much they mean to you. Smile. Hold the door for someone. Shovel your neighbor’s sidewalk. Be kind without expecting anything in return. Tell yourself it’s going to be a great day. Then make yourself right.
Here’s to a great 2012!