In my experience, life can be pretty complicated. Although most of us have plenty to manage in our day-to-day lives—jobs, relationships, family, exercise, sleep, you name it—there are really only a few things we truly have control over. I changed my life by identifying these variables and learning how to master them. And I think you can too.
Happiness and success (however you define either one) have a lot to do with each other. In fact, greater happiness has been found to lead to greater success. I think both can be achieved with some simple and straightforward habit hacking, or making small tweaks to your routine which, little by little, add up to major changes in how you’re living your life.
We make millions of little decisions all the time, and the result of each one is either net positive, net negative, or neutral. The more net positive decisions we can make (and the fewer net negative ones), the better. Net positive decisions—brushing your teeth before bed, eating healthy meals, and regularly going to the gym—help you feel good and bring you one step closer to your goals despite the effort they entail.
Net negative decisions, such as filling up on food that doesn’t make you feel good, skipping the nightly teeth-brushing, letting that downer friend cramp your style, or forgoing the gym—make it difficult to reach your goals because your decisions don't make you feel good, empowered, or confident. They take more out of you than they give, interfering with your energy levels, sapping your motivation, and clouding your focus.
Let go of all the stuff you can't control and start using your time to master what you can control.
While the healthier choice may seem harder, it pays off bigger. And you’ll be surprised by just how easy these choices can be once you make the effort. By learning how to master the seven things that are within our control, you will start to make more net positive decisions, fewer net negative ones, and find that empowering, positive behaviors become second nature. So let go of all the stuff you can't control and start using your time to master what you can control. Before you know it, you'll be living your best life ever!
1. Your Breath
Most people don't even think about their breathing (I myself used to talk for many seconds at a time and forget to breathe!). Breathing is obviously important, but so is the ability to focus on it. Can you feel your chest expand when you inhale, and get softer when you exhale? Where do you feel the rise and fall most? Breathing is the ultimate hack to relax and slow racing thoughts. As soon as you experience something unpleasant, just take a few deep breaths and focus not on how horrible the situation was, but on your breathing. When you focus on your breath, you can count “one” as you inhale, “two” as you exhale. When you get to 10, start over. I bet you'll start to feel better and more grounded immediately.
2. Your Self-Talk
We all have a voice in our heads. That voice can often be critical and get in the way of our happiness and success. Try to count the times you engage in negative self-talk each day. It may surprise you how often you criticize yourself. If you can learn to recognize this Debbie Downer of an inner voice and replace it with engouraging statements, your attitude will start to change. Try talking to yourself with compassion. For example, instead of telling yourself you’re not good enough, remind yourself that you are worthy of love and attention, or that it’s okay to make mistakes—we all do!
3. Your Gratitude
If you can practice being grateful on a daily basis, your happiness and productivity will increase. Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Emmons RA, McCullough ME. Journal of personality and social psychology, 2003, May.;84(2):0022-3514. Cultivating gratitude trains us to focus on hope, to remain inspired, and to be optimistic, lending us the courage and resilience to persevere in the face of setbacks (on top of giving us a mood boost that keeps us coasting).
4. Your Body Language
According to social psychologist Amy Cuddy, you can demonstrate power and confidence simply by changing the way you hold your body. For example, adopting a powerful stance—arms on your hips and feet planted wide, causing you to take up more space—increases testosterone and decreases the stress hormone cortisol. The result? This "power posing" will make you feel more confident. Think about this before you meet with a potential client, go to a job interview, or even just before you leave the house.
5. Your Mental and Physical Fitness
I don’t know about you, but I come up with my best ideas while I'm on the elliptical. Exercising is a chance to just listen to my music and think about nothing. It's glorious. You don't have to go to the gym, but we all ought to take 20 minutes out of our days to get up and move. Motion helps free your mind and body to better tap into your creative potential. Walking has literally been found to increase creativity. Getting in some movement will help creativity and also focus.
Giving your brain a workout is as easy as it is important for you to do. Whether you play Sudoku, do crossword puzzles, or read non-fiction books, your brain will feel the difference. You can get a similar benefit from meditation. Just 20 to 30 minutes has been shown to increase focus, reduce stress and anxiety, and even dial down physical pain. Effectiveness of a meditation-based stress reduction program in the treatment of anxiety disorders. Kabat-Zinn J, Massion AO, Kristeller J. The American journal of psychiatry, 1992, Jul.;149(7):0002-953X. The clinical use of mindfulness meditation for the self-regulation of chronic pain. Kabat-Zinn J, Lipworth L, Burney R. Journal of behavioral medicine, 1985, Oct.;8(2):0160-7715.
6. Your Diet
Even though it might taste great, junk food is a net negative. It makes your brain and body slow and sad. Consuming too much sugar has been linked to all kinds of medical conditions (including metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease), not to mention mood swings and crashes that kill productivity. Plus, processed foods have been proven to exacerbate, if not cause, chronic diseases like diabetes, obesity, and even breast cancer. Glycemic index: overview of implications in health and disease. Jenkins DJ, Kendall CW, Augustin LS. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 2002, Jul.;76(1):0002-9165. Sugar-sweetened beverages, weight gain, and incidence of type 2 diabetes in young and middle-aged women. Schulze MB, Manson JE, Ludwig DS. JAMA, 2004, Aug.;292(8):1538-3598.
Simple fixes like keeping a bag of carrots or a bowl of fruit handy help us pick up the healthier choice when we're depleted and hungry and reaching for the closest snack. Easy-to-whip-up, convenient-to-carry portable snacks can be delicious and nutritious.
7. Your Sleep
Sleep is critical for focus, concentration, job and academic performance, keeping your appetite under control, and a host of other positive health outcomes. In order to hack sleep, you have to set a routine. I'm asleep by 9 p.m. and I wake up to watch the sun rise. Watching the sun rise is beautiful, and it's a net positive that I’m grateful for. If your brain can't calm down while you're trying to fall asleep, tell yourself, “I'm proud of the work I accomplished today, I'm going to let my brain and body rest now." Or try other trusted get-to-sleep-ASAP methods, including cutting back on alcohol (since people who booze more sleep less). Alcohol and sleep I: effects on normal sleep. Ebrahim IO, Shapiro CM, Williams AJ. Alcoholism, clinical and experimental research, 2013, Jan.;37(4):1530-0277.
3 Tips to Achieve Your Goals
1. Visualize it.
Whatever it is you most want to be doing, you must be able to see yourself doing it. For most of us, the work we do while procrastinating is probably the work we should be doing for the rest of our lives. Practice visualizing this concept with your eyes closed for a few seconds. Where are you working? What's the room like? What's the temperature like? How's the lighting? How do you feel? Are you drinking a cup of coffee or a glass of water? What time of the day is it? The more senses you involve the better. Keep imagining this for yourself in order to increase the likelihood of these visions becoming reality.
2. Believe in it.
You have to believe that you already have everything you need to be successful. Remember: You don't need money to try out an idea. There are plenty of free and low-cost ways to get started with all kinds of projects—social media, blogging, smartphone apps, or fundraising sites, just to name a few. And when it comes to having the courage and can-do spirit to get going, well, that's something you already have in spades.
3. Talk it up.
Talk about what you do everywhere you go. You won't believe the people you stumble upon who are willing to help. Whatever pain you're healing or problem you're solving or project you’re launching, share your knowledge and experiences with everyone who can benefit from them. When you help as many people as you can, those people will connect you to all kinds of resources—everything you need to get started. Just let it happen, and smile as often as possible.
This post was written by Cat Goldberg, a Sarah Lawrence alum, San Francisco-based neuromarketer, and social media guru. When she's not hacking her brain or working on her fitness, she's exploring the Bay Area with her girlfriend and puppy. To learn more about Cat, visit BrainBuzz.
Originally published May 2014. Updated January 2016.