Small actions to help you live better every day
Chances are good that, at some point in your life, you tried to change your behavior. You probably relied on willpower to stay focused, and chances are also good that you failed and ended up back where you started.
If you are unlucky, you blamed yourself, which only produces shame -- and that is a rabbit hole with no end in sight.
There’s lots of advice out there on how to build better habits and be more productive, which implies that we’ll also become more successful. Success is usually measured in terms of money, prestige or power. All we need is self-discipline to morph into a superhero.
You, too, can be a superhero who wakes up at 5 a.m. with a 100-watt smile on your face as you down a chia seed-kale-avocado smoothie before a three-hour workout. You move forward with an insatiable drive to beat yourself up until you accomplish your goals in life.
For the rest of us humans, who recognize that the above scenario actually resembles self-hatred more than a formula to help you live a better life, there are easier ways to live better every day. In fact, tiny and nearly imperceptible changes can make a huge difference over time.
James Clear writes about the compound interest of self-improvement. Much like money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of our daily habits and activities multiply as we repeat them. They might not deliver a huge punch on any given day, but their impact over time can be enormous.
Start so small you don’t realize you’re doing it. Here are nine easy things that will help you live better every day:
1. Work In 90-minute Intervals
Researchers have discovered that people have daily cycles when they’re awake. Called ultradian rhythms, they involve alternating periods of high-frequency brain activity (about 90 minutes) followed by lower-frequency brain activity (about 20 minutes).
The brain is a resource hog; it consumes more energy than any other organ in your body, using up to 20% of your body’s fuel. When you work hard, and beyond the optimal 90 minutes, your brain detects this and downshifts, which you perceive as fatigue or inability to concentrate. Once your brain has had time to get its act together, about 20 minutes later, the fog lifts and you’re ready to go again.
How to make it work for you: You might be tempted to be a superhero and plow through an entire day with stopping or taking a break, but if you’re human, then you recognize something called “afternoon slump.” You can try to push through the day without taking a break, but you’re not doing your productivity any good. Take a 20-minute break every 90 minutes.
2. Read more
Science shows that reading doesn't just fill our brain with information; it also changes the way our brain works for the better. Reading isn't just a way to cram facts into your brain; it's also a way to rewire how your brain works in general.
There are other benefits as well -- a growing body of scientific literature shows that reading fiction is basically an empathy workout. By nudging us to take the perspective of characters very different from ourselves, it boosts our emotional intelligence, or EQ.
Deep reading, the kind that happens when you curl up with a good book for hours, helps build up our ability to focus and grasp complicated and sophisticated ideas.
How to make it work for you: Don’t skim a book when you read. Read every word and ponder the meaning of the passages because this rewires how your brain works in general. It strengthens your ability to think through complex problems.
But that’s not all.
3. Fill your home with books
A study featuring data from 31 countries suggests that the advantages of growing up in a book-filled home can be measured well into adulthood. The bigger the childhood home library, the better children performed as adults in literacy, math and processing information -- all skills useful to be a successful leader and entrepreneur.
A large library also means you’re likely to encourage the intellectual growth of your children. When surrounded with books, people stay intellectually hungry and perpetually curious. As Jeff Bezos says, a key sign of intelligence is the willingness to change your mind, something that only happens if you're willing to admit that your current thinking may not be the best thinking.
How to make it work for you: The ideal number of books in a home library was found to be around 80. Rest easy: New research reveals that you don’t need to read every book in your home library. And it doesn’t matter whether they are printed or ebooks.
4. Turn off mobile devices at the dinner table
Whether you’re a family of one or 10, let the screens go dark at the dinner table. If you eat by yourself, take the time to be mindful and give your taste buds the chance to enjoy your food. Mindfulness gives our busy brains a time to rest from being “on it” the rest of the day. Studies also show that attentive eating is likely to balance food intake.
If you eat with others, this is an excellent time to catch up on the day’s activities. If you need a reminder to shut off your smartphone when sharing a meal, you probably already know you have a problem.
How to make it work for you: Try to encourage meaningful conversations. Don’t ask, “How was your day?” Instead ask, “What was the best part of your day?”
5. Exercise your brain
Your brain isn’t a muscle, but it needs exercise for a different reason. When we exercise, it increases your heart rate which pumps more oxygen into the brain. This helps release hormones that allow for the growth of brain cells. Exercise also increases growth factors in the brain, which make it easier for the brain to grow new neural connections.
The same anti-depressant effect associated with a “runner’s high” has been correlated with a drop in stress hormones, as well.
How to make it work for you: Yes, getting out there and exercising your butt will make you smarter.
6. Balance on one leg when brushing your teeth
We’ve known the benefits of yoga for people of all ages for quite some time. As we age, balance becomes more and more important. For younger people, it’s easy to overlook something as simple as balance until we have an accident or experience an injury.
If we can balance on one foot, it can do a lot to help keep us on both feet over time. Experts in sports medicine say that balance training helps awareness of the body’s position in space, which allows us to walk in the dark without losing our balance and to distinguish the brake from the accelerator without looking at our feet.
How to make it work for you: Stand on one leg while brushing your teeth, or try it whenever waiting in a line.
7. Spend time in prayer and meditation
Even if you’re under the delusion that you are your own God, there are benefits of prayer and meditation. Both prayer and meditation are highly effective in lowering our reaction to trauma and negative events. When we pray, we activate neural pathways to release feel-good hormones like melatonin, serotonin and oxytocin.
Since they activate deeper parts of the brain, other parts of the brain involved with “taking action” are deactivated. So, it’s pretty simple -- when we’re praying, we can’t be kicking in walls.
A study found that long-term meditators had better-preserved brains than non-meditators as they aged. Participants who’d been meditating for an average of 20 years had more grey-matter volume throughout the brain.
How to make it work for you: Prayer and meditation don’t need to be a time-consuming task. Make it a habit to spend a few minutes a day. Eventually, you will feel a difference mentally and physically.
8. Maintain relationships
We’re all busy, and it can be hard to stay in touch with people with whom your relationship is important. Work and personal life can overwhelm us, causing us to forget about people who matter. They are our greatest gift.
How to make it work for you: Choose your friends well because you’re stuck with family. It takes time and effort, but when you keep in touch with people who love and support you, it not only makes them happy, it also continues to strengthen the relationship.
9. Give your eyes a break
The American Academy of Ophthalmology explains that while looking at digital devices all day won’t damage your eyesight, it can cause strain and other side effects. Humans normally blink around 15 times each minute. When staring at screens, this number decreases to a half or third of that frequency. That can lead to dry, irritated and tired eyes.
Give your eyes (and mind) a break and focus on nature. Whether it’s a cat, dog, plant, tree or flower, immerse yourself for a period of time by reflecting on one of God’s creations.
How to make it work for you: Use the 20-20-20 rule. Basically, every 20 minutes spent using a screen, you should try to look away at something that is 20 feet away from you for a total of 20 seconds.
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LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years. She exposed foreign spies and recruited them to work for the U.S. government. As an FBI agent, she developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty, and deception. Get Quy's new book, “Secrets of a Strong Mind (second edition): How To Build Inner Strength To Overcome Life’s Obstacles" as well as “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths." Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.