10 tiny tweaks that will change your life

IMG_3123When 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.

Photo: Tulip. Did you remember to plant your bulbs last fall? 

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17 thoughts on “10 tiny tweaks that will change your life

  1. This is probably the best listicle I’ve ever read. I already do a few of those things and am on my way to ordering a real alarm clock.

  2. I have always had a proper alarm clock. The only time l use the alarm on my phone is when l have a morning exam to attend. I have my phone plugged in and set at a power point across the room so that l have to get out of bed to actually turn it of which then in turn has served its purpose of getting me up to get going to the exam. As for the drink bottle, l am one those people who forgets to drink enough so l have bright red drinking bottle which holds l think about 800ml which l drink out of through out the day. It is the only way that l remember to drink enough.

  3. I love these tips and would love to see some alarm clock recommendations. It would be fun to get one that’s cool-looking rather than just functional.

  4. I got my electric kettle on a timer that turns on right before the alarm. Get up, go to the bathroom, then hot water’s ready to pour myself a nice cup of tea. Great way to start the day for my non-morning person self.

  5. Love these. I bought an alarm clock about a month ago and it really has helped. At night, I put my phone to charge in the kitchen, next to a big glass of water with my gym bag ready to go. In the morning it’s like the fairies came in the night and got my day off to a good start for me.
    I don’t spring for the pre-cut veggies but if I’m too tired to work in the evening I watch TV while I chop carrots and apples etc, or prepare hard-boiled eggs and Aidell’s sausages – great to have a fridge full of healthy snacks (or often, lazy lunches).

  6. Fantastic and useful post, Laura! It’s amazing how little tricks like this can add up to make life easier and more productive. I already do several of these, but my old alarm clock died a few months ago and I’ve been using my phone…guess, it’s time to go buy a new one!

  7. Strong endorsement of #1. I’ve been having real trouble with my sleep — mainly trouble waking up in the mornings — and at one point I tried using an iPad app to track my sleep cycles. The problem was it required I keep my iPad not just next to my bed but in bed with me!

    One question that came to mind when you mentioned Brian Wansink — I’m curious what your reaction has been to questions raised over his lab’s research? Not to imply that you were wrong to cite him; more, your work involves a lot of drawing from relatively new studies in psychology and behavioral economics, and it could be that a particular consensus at the time that you write A has changed by the time you write B. How do you balance getting potentially useful information to readers quickly with keeping abreast of potential self-corrections or debates in the research? (I’m a graduate student who right now is having a very hard time getting anything resembling statistical significance out of her dissertation research, and having doubts that said statistical significance will make for actually useful work, so this has been on my mind lately.)

    1. @Jessica- interesting question – I hadn’t seen the issues on Wansink’s work. I know that there is potentially a lot of fuzzy research out there. Getting results with statistical significance becomes so important that people are tempted to look at huge troves of data and find anything significant (which might still be noise) and report that. But then it might not be replicable.

      As for me and what I write about other people’s research, I think if it looks like BS or is one small study then I would try to say as such. If I’ve seen multiple studies pointing different ways (as with drinking water) I’d try to say as such too. I forget who said that statistical significance is the start of the conversation, not the end, but it’s a good point.

  8. I really like that “connect with one person per day” rule. You’ve written about that before, but I’d always thought of it in the business/networking sense. It could also prompt a person to maintain her social circle. It’s so easy to get sucked into the busyness of family life and not reach out to friends for awhile. Connecting with one person every day keeps the circle closer.

  9. Excellent post, Laura! It is amazing how little things can increase your energy. I will definitively buy a real alarm clock and put the airplane mode late in the evening. Thank you.

  10. I also really like that “one person a day” suggestion. I am an introvert with a social job (teaching) and social kids, so I’ve been wondering lately what I can do to maintain my friendships without overwhelming myself. I do use my phone as my alarm, but I put it in the bathroom, so it is nowhere near me as I sleep, and I have to get up out of bed to turn it off. This is a recent switch for me when I realized I kept hitting snooze on my decades old clock radio!

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