“Be at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let every new year find you a better man.”
― Benjamin Franklin
One of the things we all do when faced with the new year is to reflect on how this one is gone and use the information to make better choices going forward. But so often, these reflections remain just thoughts.
To really make next year different, you need to back these reflections up with real change. Identify what’s going wrong in your life, and do something different.
If your life has been off the rails for some time and you would like to put it back together, these changes are a great place to start.
Things You Should Start Doing
1. Start waking up early
Waking up early is one of the best ways I’ve changed my life in the past few years.
- It exposes me to more sunlight every day because I wake up with the sun and go to sleep shortly after nightfall.
- It gives me access to a beautiful few hours of the day where the sun is up, the air is fresh, and there are not many people out in the world yet.
- Everyone awake at that hour seems to be more kind. I worry about getting robbed when I walk home at 10 PM, but I don’t worry when I’m out walking at 7 AM.
- It gives me access to a few hours every day when my housemates are not up yet and I’m guaranteed to be able to get at least a little work done.
Before you say “Well, you’re just a morning person!”, know that for a long time I wasn’t a morning person. All through high school and college, my preferred time to wake up was 11 AM and my preferred time to go to bed was 2 AM, right after a hyper-productive writing session between 10 PM and 1 AM in the middle of the night.
What changed me into a morning person was a couple of things at once. I moved into a van, which exposed me a lot more to morning sunlight and temperature variations throughout the day, and that put my body seriously in tune with nature. I also spent a few months living with my grandparents, and my beloved grandparents wake up earlier than 5 AM, so at their house, waking up at 8 AM made me feel like I’d already missed half the morning.
Last but not least, what made me a morning person was brute force. I set an alarm for 6 AM every morning, and when it went off, I rolled out of bed and into my writing chair, no matter how little I wanted to write that day. That precious hour between waking up and having to get ready for work was responsible for my most successful period of writing to date.
I know no studies on productivity have found any conclusive link between the time you wake up and how productive you are, but I think you should give it a try. It only takes a few weeks to make yourself a morning person, but the benefits last a lifetime.
2. Start cooking at home
Digestive issues are on the rise in America. More people than ever complain of gas pain, indigestion, bloating, and all those other lovely symptoms you see listed on a pharmaceutical commercial. There are a lot of reasons for this, nearly none of which I’m qualified to talk about, but the one I am qualified to talk about is how pre-prepared meals are making it worse.
Pre-prepared meals have lots of ingredients home cooking doesn’t have because they have to be kept fresh in storage, like salt compounds, starchy thickeners, and everything else you see on food labels with a name like a chemical. These preservatives aren’t necessarily toxic to the human body, but they aren’t exactly healthy either. They’re what’s responsible for your indigestion.
Don’t believe me? Commit to eating only fresh food you cook at home for a week. Nothing pre-prepared, either from a restaurant or from a box from your freezer. You’ll find your body and mind operate a lot better, even if you make no other healthful changes to your diet.
Cooking sound like a pain in the ass? Don’t have enough time for it? Get an instant pot. I know, everyone talks about their instant pot, but there’s a reason for that. I f*cking hate cooking, and the instant pot enables me to avoid cooking. I just dump a bunch of stuff in my instant pot, wait like fifteen minutes, and out comes a delicious meal. The only cleanup is the pot inside the instant pot, the cutting board I used to cut my ingredients, and my dinner plate. Easy peasy.
3. Start doing high-intensity exercise
Exercise is the number one thing I do for my health. If I had to pick only one monthly subscription I could keep for the rest of my life, it would be a gym membership. My gym membership is vital to my overall health.
Benefits of my gym membership include, in no specific order:
- Helping me treat my crippling bowel disease. I don’t know why, but the more weightlifting I do in a month, the better my stomach digests food. If I don’t lift, I can barely stomach rice and bananas. If I lift three times a week, I can eat a wide range of food.
- Eliminating my migraines. Again, don’t know why, but as long as I keep up a habit of weightlifting, I don’t get painful neck aches that I need opiates to treat and I don’t get migraines that last for 12 hours. Regular weightlifting makes me nearly pain-free.
- Making me immune to hangovers. Related to point #1, I practically don’t get hangovers if I’m weightlifting. Without weightlifting, I’m so prone to hangovers I have to abstain from alcohol entirely. With weightlifting, I can drink as much as I want and wake up the next day ready to go.¹
- Filling me with energy. When I’m in the habit of lifting regularly, I wake up quickly and am able to keep going my entire day. Even collapsing onto the couch at the end of the day is more satisfying. When I’m not lifting regularly, I tire very easily and often find I’d rather spend the entire day sitting on my couch in vague discomfort.
- Putting the rest of my life in order. When I’m lifting regularly, many of the other parts of my life seem to fall into place. I stay on top of my to-do list, I participate more in therapy, I cook more at home, so on and so forth. When I’m not lifting, these other parts of my life fall into disarray.
- It makes me strong enough to function. Without weightlifting, I’m one of the weakest people on the planet, but with weightlifting, I’m strong enough to lift boxes up the stairs, carry heavy bags of groceries, and otherwise function without assistance.
- And of course, it makes me look good. Who can complain about that?
As much as I love picking things up and putting them back down again, I don’t think these benefits are solely the purview of weightlifting. Any intense exercise, from rock climbing to calisthenics, is likely to give you the same benefits. Swimming is a great option for people who have chronic pain, joint issues, bodyweight that restricts movement, or other physical realities that limit mobility.
Find the high-intensity exercise that works for you, whatever that may be, and make it a habit.
4. Start meditating
Meditating is fascinating. It makes my life so much better when I’m in the habit of meditating, but when I’m not in the habit of meditating, it’s easy to justify not doing so. After all, it’s just sitting on a fancy cushion for five or ten minutes. What’s the big deal?
The big deal is that regularly meditating creates this fascinating experience where, throughout your day, you’ll suddenly “space in.” It’s the opposite of spacing out; instead of going or being somewhere else mentally, you’ll suddenly find yourself fully in the present moment. If you’re with people, it will feel like you’ve opened your eyes while everyone else is asleep.
This ability to become present changes the way you experience your life. You can call upon it when you’re viewing beautiful scenery, enjoying professional success, or playing with your children. It makes the sweetest moments of life that much more sweet.
You gain access to this penetrating insight by meditating for a mere five or ten minutes every day. Such a small commitment for such a magical experience.
5. Start tidying up your home
We all know we should clean our house or put our stuff away or maybe make some changes so our space is a more pleasant one in which to live. But this year, you should make a more permanent change than just rearranging stuff you’re going to rearrange again. You should tidy up.
Effective tidying involves only three essential actions. All you need to do is take the time to examine every item you own, decide whether or not you want to keep it, then choose where to put what you keep. Designate a place for each thing.
— Marie Kondo
Tidying up, the act of taking time to mindfully decide which possessions bring value to your life and which do not, truly does have the life-changing magic Kondo claims it does.
The act of tidying up is the act of separating who you really are from the lies and delusions you’ve told yourself about who you are through the act of buying things you don’t want. You’re forced to confront you never use that art set because you never paint, you never wear that jacket because it isn’t as cool as you hoped it would be, and you own three thousand staplers because you aren’t doing what it takes to keep track of them.
Once you confront these personal lies told through stuff, your life begins to clear up. You stop fueling the fantasy that you will become a painter and allow yourself to focus on what you truly love. You stop throwing away money on clothes you’ll never wear because you appreciate clothes don’t make you who you are. You start keeping track of tools because you experience first-hand the cost of all those replacements.
Tidying up has created magical changes in my own life. Tidying up enabled me to thrive in much smaller spaces than I used to need, allowing me to save hundreds on rent and live a more flexible and carefree life. Tidying up helped me let go of business books and tools I would never use and say goodbye to sentimental items that weren’t bringing me any joy. Tidying up helped me let go of the delusion that clothes are meant to do anything more than be functional and comfortable. Most importantly, tidying up made space for the things I love, like watercolor paints & other art supplies, guided introspection journals, and camping gear.
Before tidying up, my home was a random collection of stuff I’d accumulated, and it made me feel stressed and behind the curve. Now everything I own is special to me. Nothing fills me with more gratitude than looking around my home and loving everything I see. This is the feeling of joy.
Most Americans feel very far away from the feeling of joy, but you can have it next week. All you have to do is tidy up.
6. Start reading books
A large part of my recent success has been the direct result of reading around 75 books every year for the past 3 years. It’s hard to overstate the kind of intellectual growth you experience when you regularly read nonfiction.
In addition to learning lots of dead useful knowledge about whatever you choose to read about, the very act of reading books with well-argued conclusions teaches you how to reach a well-argued conclusion. You start to be able to naturally see through the bullshit people sell you, whether it’s the bullshit of a used-car salesman or the bullshit of a presidential campaign. You find within yourself the ability to rationally look past the emotional hype and see what’s really going on beneath the surface without even trying.
Then, of course, there’s the knowledge you gain. If you read about money, you learn financial rules and principles that will set you up for lifelong wealth no matter your income level. If you read about how to start a business, you learn entrepreneurial skills that will continue to serve you whether you continue with traditional employment or strike out on your own. If you read psychology and self-help, you learn valuable interpersonal skills that give you a more joyful and stable experience in a tragic and unstable world.
Whatever benefit you want out of life, you can have, if you are willing to find a book that will teach you.
There’s a reason I’m recommending books (and audiobooks) as opposed to podcasts, YouTube videos, and other short-form content. The reason is that short-form content is what is often referred to as infotainment. It seems educational, but in reality, it’s designed to give you an entertainment experience packaged as education.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be entertained. But infotainment deludes you into believing you’re getting educated and entertained at the same time, which often isn’t the case. The superficial treatment infotainment gives a subject in three to ten minutes is often a mockery of the real depth and complexity of the subject being used to entertain you.
If you want to start understanding the world at the next level, pick up some books and don’t put them down.
7. Start seeing a therapist
Christ, I cannot count how many people I’ve met who need a dose of therapy.
You don’t need to be mentally ill to benefit from seeing a therapist. Unless you’ve already seen a therapist to do the difficult work of unpacking your childhood and building a better emotional life for yourself, you need to see a therapist and start.
We all have a childhood, and we are all affected by ours. The only question is whether we’re conscious of it or not.
We are all also adversely affected by traumatic incidents in our life, whether we realize it or not.
People often think of trauma as violence, like fighting in open combat, getting assaulted, or getting raped. We think of people who suffer rape without developing PTSD as “strong” and we think of people who develop PTSD from something mild like abdominal surgery as “weak.”
But, what constitutes true trauma actually has nothing to do with the “severity” of the incident. The risk factors for PTSD are not the “severity” of the traumatic event itself, they are factors like…²
- Were you expecting it?
- How old were you when it happened?
- Were or are you predisposed to mental illness?
- Were you able to access loving care immediately after the trauma?
- Did your social group stand behind you and support you in your grief, or did they ostracize and blame you?
The authors of The Body Keeps the Score use a study involving children exposed to 9/11 to illustrate this point. Children who were in or around the towers who survived and went home to their families that night did not develop PTSD. Children who ended up as orphans or spent days trapped in the rubble did. The difference was not the severity of the trauma, but their access to familial support in the immediate aftermath.
Even on Medium, I’ve read multiple stories of people who ended up with PTSD diagnoses after abdominal surgery in foreign countries. Their surgeries were performed suddenly after their appendix ruptured by surprise, and the foreign doctors speaking quickly in a strange language while they were wheeled around immobile on a hospital bed created a deeply intimidating environment. After their surgery, they were discharged promptly, left alone to recover in a foreign country where they didn’t speak the language, and had no one to support them. They went on to develop PTSD.
On the other hand, you can suffer something terrible like wartime tragedy or sexual violence — but if you’re able to immediately go home (or to a safe place), access loving care from people you are close to, get sympathy from your peer group, and be supported by a system of authority that is on your side, you may suffer little to no psychological damage.³
Most people don’t have PTSD, but most people have suffered some kind of traumatic event in their life without peer support or psychological safety. And most people haven’t gotten the therapy required to resolve that trauma. As a result, they act out their trauma in their lives, subtly or overtly, until they either confront the effects of it or they run out of time.
You can’t know what effect your past may be having until you visit a therapist to talk about it. Don’t waste any more time being led around by your psychology. Start therapy now.
Things You Should Stop Doing
One of the unfortunate realities of life is that we all have the same 24 hours in a day. If you want to start doing great things with your life, like reading plenty of books and getting great exercise, some things are going to have to go.
8. Stop watching so much TV
The average American adult watches over 5 hours of TV per day.
Guys, this is insane. And terrible for you.
Here is an incomplete list of all the things you can do with 5 hours a day:
- Paint an entire painting.
- Earn at least $50.
- Spend a full day at the gym, including travel time, and eat a meal afterward.
- Meal plan, go to the grocery store, and meal prep for the next two weeks.
- Write at least two Medium articles.
- Tidy up an entire Marie Kondo tidying category.
- Read several hundred pages of a book.
- Visit your parents who live an hour or two away.
- Plan a surprise for your significant other.
We’re collectively wasting that amount of time every day.
Imagine what you could do with your life with five extra hours every day. You could lose all that weight, tidy up your house, and finish the first draft of your novel, all in the same year.
Don’t get me wrong, I like to unwind by watching a TV series with my boyfriend. I’ve been known to deal with stress by rewatching Supernatural episodes over and over (I’ve probably seen that entire show five times now). But there’s a big difference between “watching an hour or two of TV occasionally” and “collapsing on the couch after work and zoning out until bedtime.”
I’m not saying you should give up television entirely. But if you’re following more than a handful of shows, if one of your main conversation topics is the merits of various Netflix specials, or if you sit on the couch so much there’s an indent where you usually place your butt, you’re watching too much TV.
9. Stop using social media so much
The longer I go without social media, the more convinced I am it’s a scourge on the world. Deleting all my social media accounts has brought me nothing but peace and prosperity.
I’m not proposing you quit social media entirely, mostly because I know that’s too tough a pill for most people to swallow. But here are some reasons you should seriously scale back:
- Much like television use, social media use has ballooned to huge proportions. People use social media for over two hours per day. What can you do with an extra two hours per day?
- Social media is an emotional drain. Most of what you see there makes you feel angry and depressed. It doesn’t open your mind to the beauty and possibility of life, it closes you off. You begin to see even close friends and loved ones in a negative light because of what they post on social media.
- Social media makes you feel bad about yourself. Whether you’re consciously aware of it or not, you are comparing yourself to every beautiful person and fabulous setting you see when you scroll. Social comparison is a fact of life for social creatures like humans. Problem is, comparisons on social media always leave you falling short.
- Social media makes you long for an experience of life that doesn’t even exist. The beautiful vacation locations don’t look like that in real life, the mansions are not that fabulous in person, and the cars are not that impressively fast. Digital technology makes these things look better in photos than they do in real life.
People tell me they rely on Facebook Messenger to contact people around the world, they rely on Instagram for inspiration and whatnot, and they rely on Twitter for networking. Okay, if you say so. But you can cut your social media use by 90% and still get these benefits.
For instance, you do not have to be able to check your Facebook notifications at any moment. You can delete the Facebook app, keep Messenger, and preserve your ability to contact all your friends while freeing yourself from doomscrolling. You can block yourself from Twitter for all but a fifteen-minute window per day when you check your feed and your notifications. You can schedule checking your Instagram feed instead of letting it metastasize into every spare moment you have.
Making these changes will free your spare moments for meditation, reading books, enjoying the food you eat, and a zillion other things more worthwhile than some digital fantasy.
10. Stop making excuses for yourself
- “I can’t start my blog right now because I’m busy with school.”
- “I can’t travel right now because I don’t have enough money.”
- “I can’t find a partner because nobody likes people like me.”
For every problem in life, there is an excuse — a valid, reasonable, and totally understandable excuse. And for every problem in life, there is a solution out there that doesn’t care about your excuses.
It’s true that there is much about the world outside of our zone of control, but we humans have a tendency to overestimate what is in that zone. When you scale out your time frame to a period of years or decades, we are capable of massive change, both at a personal and societal level.
There are people who not only start a blog while they’re busy with school but who also maintain two jobs and take care of their sick parents. There are people who visit multiple nations a year on an income of less than $8,000 a year. Hell, there’s a man with no legs who summited Mount Everest.
People’s natural inclination when they face challenges is to dwell on how hard something is. Well-meaning friends who sympathize with you unwittingly make it worse, pulling you away from a can-do attitude into a can’t-do one. But all of us, when called upon, have extraordinary ability to face challenges.
The first step to calling upon this ability, to achieving the incredible, is believing you can. That means you stop saying “I can’t do this” and say “I will find a way.”
Making these changes won’t transform your life immediately. You have to make them one at a time, of course, and be prepared to stick to them for a few months before seeing any progress. It took me several years before I was able to implement all the changes on this list with any degree of consistency. But even making just one of these changes will make room in your life for something better.
If you’re tired of the way life has been and you’re looking for something more, start by making these changes. Create space in your life for something better.
“Cheers to a new year, and another chance for us to get it right.”
― Oprah Winfrey
1: Not that I do this often. Alcohol is a poison and it’s also a substance I don’t enjoy all that much. But I will enjoy a drink occasionally, and weightlifting makes it so I don’t have to worry about the next day.
2: This is an affiliate link.
3: That’s wildly unlikely, of course, because our legal system offers virtually no support to sexual assault victims, and peer groups are far more likely to be suspicious and call the victim a slut than they are supportive, but one can dream.