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When it comes to living a productive, healthy life, sometimes little things can make a big difference. Here are 10 of my favorite simple changes that take minimal effort, but can help establish those good habits we all want to have.
1. Get a real alarm clock.
Many people now use their smart phones as their alarm clocks. There are several problems with this strategy. First, it means you keep your smart phone in your bedroom, which means it’s easy to scroll around before bed (instead of reading, spending time with your partner, or going to sleep already). Second, the iPhone has a very easy snooze feature, which makes it tempting to hit snooze. This is basically never a good idea. Snooze sleep is lousy sleep, and burns up willpower over what is a foregone conclusion. You will get up eventually! Finally, when you do get up and turn off the alarm, you have your smart phone in your hand, which makes it easy to start the day with emails and other such things that should happen later. If you get a dumb alarm clock that you put across the room, and that you have to reset to snooze, you’ll probably just get up, and you won’t spend the morning in reaction mode.
2. Give yourself a bed time.
Mornings are relatively regimented for people, but evenings are all over the map. Giving yourself a bedtime gives you a framework for the evening that ensures enough sleep. You can stay up later — you are a grown up, after all — but then you need to justify to yourself why you’re doing it, acknowledging that the time you are blowing past is the time you should go to bed to feel best in the morning. My bedtime is 10:30 p.m. I need a bare minimum of 6.5 hours of sleep, and I like to have 7.5. Since the 2-year-old gets up somewhere between 5-6 a.m., a 10:30 p.m. bedtime ensures the next day doesn’t fall apart.
3. Track books and workouts.
When I ask people what they’d like to spend more time doing, the most popular answers (by far!) are exercising and reading. Since what gets measured gets done, I recommend keeping logs of these two activities. I have a running log and a log of books read, and I really enjoy seeing both lists get longer. The reading log in particular inspires me to ask what I will read next.
4. Write tomorrow’s to-do list right before quitting time.
We tend to have more focus and motivation in the morning, so if you know what your most important tasks are for any given day, and roughly when you’ll do them, you can spend your energy on execution, rather than deciding what deserves your attention (and mistaking your inbox for your priority list). Making a list for tomorrow is a good way to wind down any given workday. Even if something is undone, you know when it will get done, which can help you relax at night.
5. Use airplane mode.
In my recent time perception survey, which will become part of Off the Clock, one of the most shocking discoveries was the gap in phone checks per hour between people who feel relaxed about time, and people who feel anxious. I think a lot of phone checking is unconscious. You’re somewhat bored, so you pull it out, or you want to see what time it is, and next thing you know you’ve gone on an Instagram bender. Putting the phone in “airplane” mode solves all those problems. You still have it if you need to make a call or check email, and you can see the time, but you have to make a conscious choice to connect. Usually it isn’t worth it.
6. Keep a bottle of water on your desk.
I realize the literature on drinking x, y, or z glasses of water per day is mixed. However, keeping a water bottle on your desk does a few good things. First, you’ll probably drink less soda or juice because your stomach has only so much liquid capacity, and second, the process of refilling the bottle and going to the restroom will force you to stand up and move every hour or two during the day, and the literature on too much sitting is more compelling.
7. Use your calendar for reminders.
Many things in life must be thought of at non-obvious times. You admire your neighbor’s lovely tulips in April, but the bulbs must be planted in the fall. Unfortunately, there is no obvious trigger in October to think to do that. So, when you think of it in April, put it on your calendar in October to think about it then. My daughter’s birthday is in October, and she recently asked for something for it. I have no idea if she’ll still like that toy then, but I put a note on my calendar 10 days before her birthday, so when I’m thinking about what I want to get her, I’ll have that suggestion, which I never would have remembered otherwise.
8. Keep sunscreen by your toothbrush.
Most people remember to brush their teeth in the morning. Far fewer people remember to put sunscreen on their faces, hands, necks, and other exposed skin. Putting the bottle right there by the sink makes it easier to take 20 seconds to make it happen.
9. Make fruits and veggies easy.
Is a pre-made salad more expensive than a head of lettuce? Of course, and pre-cut pineapple is pricier than getting a whole pineapple. But if the lettuce and the pineapple go bad without you eating them, because every time you look in the fridge and see them it looks like a lot of work, then you haven’t saved money. Go ahead and buy the easier versions. Brian Wansink’s research suggests keeping produce on your shelves in the fridge, rather than in the drawers. You’re not trying to preserve it longer. You’re trying to see it so you eat it.
10. Reach out to one person daily.
Networking is one of those things we all know we should do, but feel meh about, possibly because it implies cocktail parties where you talk to people who are constantly looking over your shoulder trying to find someone more important to talk to. Yuck. So, a different approach, recommended by networking expert Molly Beck: reach out to one person daily. Send an email to someone you want to renew ties with (former colleague, old friend), or create ties with (new person you just met, person who wrote an interesting article in your field). One person a day is totally doable, especially since you could repeat people. This takes less than 10 minutes, but over time it builds a really powerful network
If you like this article, check out Laura Vanderkam’s podcast, Before Breakfast. In each bite-sized, daily episode, host Laura Vanderkam shares a time management strategy or an answer to a listener’s schedule question. How can listeners make the most of their time, both at work and at home? The mission is to give listeners practical tools to feel less busy and get more done.