“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” —Mary Oliver
Last year, as part of my personal resolution to pursue more minimalism in my life, I spent a decent amount of time reading books related to simplifying, optimizing and improving my habits and tasks. Two of those books were Greg McKeown’s Essentialism and Gretchen Rubin’s Better Than Before. Today, I’m sharing a few tips I learned from these two great books, but don’t consider this a substitute for reading them! If you truly want to change your habits and improve your quality of life, you absolutely should give them a read.
While I am far from having it all figured out, here are some strategies to help us all change our lives for the better, starting now!
Intentionality is without a doubt the main theme of both books. After all, we never really change our lives (for the better, at least) without trying to. The first step toward change is deciding you want to shift the way you’ve been doing things all along. Whether you’re making small adjustments or giving your life a major redirect, it all starts with intentionality to do so and the willingness to be disciplined through the process. You can’t passively change your habits.
Say “No” More Often
One of the biggest problems many of us have is that we’ve committed to too much, meaning we’re stretched thin and unable to do our best at anything. The entire premise of Essentialism is “the disciplined pursuit of less,” which, you guessed it, means saying “yes” to less things in order to excel at the things you really care about. We only have so much time, and by accepting the reality of trade-offs—and thus saying “no” to things we are on the fence about or that don’t fit into our goals—we free ourselves up to do our best in the areas that really matter.
Create Routines to Minimize Choices
“Do you want to go for a run or sit on the couch and watch Netflix?” Ask anyone that and they’ll probably choose the latter. We only have so much willpower and when we give ourselves choices like that, we set ourselves up for failure with healthy habits. Not only that, but there also exists a phenomenon psychologists call “decision fatigue”—the more choices we are forced to make, the more the quality of our decisions deteriorates. Both authors agree that allowing ourselves to make too many choices sets us up for disaster. Instead of leaving things up in the air, create routines to minimize choices and make it easier to follow through on healthy habits.
Rely On Cues
Every habit is made up of a cue, a routine and a reward. The cue is the trigger that leads you toward a certain action (like your alarm clock in the morning), the routine is the behavior (like checking social media), and the reward is what goes on in your brain that determines if this habit is something to remember for the future. So, if every habit follows that pattern, we really just need to adjust our response to our existing cues in order to make a change. Once you identify the cue, you can re-associate it with a better habit (for example, using your alarm clock cue in the morning to trigger you to put on your running gear rather than reach for your phone to check Instagram).
Understand Your Natural Tendencies
This is a major point Rubin makes in her book. The reality is, we are all built very differently and motivated by different things. We also have energy at different times of day (i.e. morning person or night person). Understanding how you’re motivated and when you’re at your best helps you form and stick with better habits. If you’re naturally a night owl, forcing yourself to get up even earlier in the morning to squeeze in extra work or go for a jog is a habit that’s not likely to stick.
Get Enough Sleep
Both authors strongly agree on this point—the secret to habits, good routines and overall better life is (surprise, surprise) being as well-rested as possible. Being short on sleep makes us susceptible to bad choices and really weakens our willpower and resolves to keep up good routines. While staying up late with friends or binge-watching Netflix every once in awhile is perfectly fine, making a habit of prioritizing sleep is the key to success! Better sleep equals better choices.
Give Yourself Grace
As a perfectionist myself, I can easily get stuck in black-and-white thinking. If I’m in a good running routine, for example, and then skip a few days, I feel as if I’ve failed. But Rubin argues that what we do most days is more important than what we do once in awhile. She says, “People who feel less guilt and who show compassion toward themselves in the face of failure are better able to regain self-control, while people who feel deeply guilty and full of self-blame struggle more. Instead of viewing our stumbles as evidence that we’re weak or undisciplined or lazy, we can see our stumbles as part of the habit-formation process.” We’ll all fail at some point, and the key to continuing on a good path is giving ourselves grace and getting right back on track without beating ourselves up about it.