Changing or improving your life doesn’t have to be a long, frustrating, drawn-out process. I’m always in search of the smallest changes that yield the biggest returns, and below is my collection of quick tips that can make your life easier, more fulfilling, or just less of a pain in the ass.
Try one or two of these and tell me how great they worked.
Zack’s Not-So-Secret List of Simple Ways to Increase Happiness, Productivity, or General Awesomeness
1. Get rid of anything you haven’t worn in the past 2 months.
We both know that you should really donate everything you haven’t worn in the past two weeks, but I’ll cut you some slack. This isn’t about throwing away clothes you hate – it’s about getting rid of things that you don’t love. Having excess clothes that you’re never going to wear clogs up your closet, makes decision making more difficult, and serves as a constant reminder of unfinished business. Take two hours out of your weekend, tear everything out of your closet, put it in a big pile and start sorting. I’ll give you an allowance for three nostalgic t-shirts that you’ll never wear again (fraternity Beer Pong Championship shirt, etc).
When you’re done with that, think about the deep metaphor that you’ve just learned and apply it to other parts of your life. Shed yourself of activities, TV shows, people, work, and other obligations that you don’t love. You’ll feel lighter without a life that’s cluttered with fluff, and you’ll quickly fill those voids with meaningful things (you can think of me as a modern-day Mr. Miyagi, Daniel-san).
2. If something takes less than 2 minutes to do, do it immediately.
This is my favorite way to improve personal productivity. Whenever you encounter a task/obligation that requires less than 2 minutes of your time, just do it now. You’ll be amazed as how much this will reduce stress – both because you have less to remember and because you have a higher personal output.
3. Schedule a dinner with a group of 5 or more friends.
It’s actually scientifically proven that people who have dinner in groups of 5 or more at least once per week are happier than people who don’t. Planning an event yields more return than just the event itself – the anticipation of the event gives you something to look forward to. It takes less than 2 minutes to send an email, so you have to do this one right away.
4. Make a donation.
$5, $10, $50, $100. Whatever you can afford. If you don’t do this often, you’ll be surprised at how great it feels. I recommend checking out the charity first to see what percentage of your donation actually makes it to the end of the line – vs. being eaten up by big salaries, expensive fundraisers, and general wastefulness.
If you want some instant impact, give $20 to the next homeless person you see.
5. Practice saying “no.”
I had a friend in high school, Taylor, who had perfected the art of the “no.” When he didn’t want to do something, he’d look you in the face and respond, “I’d ’bout rather shoot myself in the face than do that.” I don’t recommend trying approach without a thick Southern accent, which has the magical power of making rude comments sound hilarious and acceptable.
Most people I know – myself included – get roped into doing things that they really don’t want to do. Saying “no” is liberating – stop giving automatic “yes” responses or, even worse, delaying the inevitable “no” by telling someone you’ll get back to them. If you aren’t instantly drawn to something, try a response like this: “I have plans that day, so I won’t be able to make it. If something changes, I’ll be sure to let you know.”
6. Stop sending open ended emails.
I used to send emails that said things like ”is that shirt available in black, red, or blue?” The other person responds with the answer and thus starts the email chain. Eliminate all this superfluous nonsense with a more comprehensive email that gives instructions for the reasonable contingencies: “I’m looking for a shirt in size medium. My favorite colors are black, red, and blue – in that order. If one of those is in-stock, please create an order, respond with the order number and your phone extension, and I will call you this evening with my credit card number and shipping information. If none are available, please let me know the estimated lead time and email me when it becomes available.” BAM. One and done.
Methods like this allow me to run two automated companies and only work a few hours per week.
7. Use self-scheduling software.
Most people waste an inordinate amount of time scheduling meetings, dinners, family get-togethers, dates, conference calls, and other events. Self-scheduling software, like TimeTrade, is all web-based and most offer free 30-day trials – they allow you to block off parts of your schedule for personal time, work, etc, and your friends/family/blind dates can choose available time slots. This eliminates all the back-and-forth of trying to find a time that works for both of you, and has the added bonus of making you look really important (you may want to consider exaggerating other exciting aspects of your life if a self-scheduling calendar is completely incongruent with your general image). In case you lead an underwhelming social life, be sure to block off a bunch of nights before sending a completely empty calendar to a potential date.
When you’re trying to get a group together, like for Tip #3, try a poll-based scheduling software like Doodle. This allows you to pick a few dates and ask a group of people which date works best.
8. Start one day per week off right.
Remember how much energy you had in high school? Yeah, well that’s because your parents cooked you decent food, you slept normal hours, and you didn’t drink your face off during the week (well, not as often as you do now, at least). Food and sleep are fuel for your body – put crude oil in your car and see how it runs.
Try doing this one day per week and you’ll be blown away at how great you feel – you’ll get more done on that day than the other days combined:
Get in bed at 9:30 and set your alarm for 6:30 – then leave your alarm clock or phone across the room so you actually wake up. In the morning, throw on some sweats and take a brisk 15 minute walk (if it’s cold out, watch Rocky IV the night before to prevent whining). Eat three eggs and have coffee or tea as normal – but leave out the toast, cereal, sugar, juice, and other garbage you usually consume in the morning.
9. Know your instrument.
A mentor said this to me and it stuck. The most incredible tool you’ll ever own is your body and, if you want to maximize your effectiveness, you should get to know it well. Most people have a “productivity zone” – a period of a few hours each day when your energy level is at its peak (mine is from 8:30-noon, give or take). I forget the exact statistics, so I’ll make something up: 9 of out 10 people in a Danish study showed a 200% increase in productivity when they worked on their most difficult tasks during their peak-energy hours.
But seriously, give it a try. It works. Spend your low-energy zones doing things you enjoy doing, like watching cat videos on YouTube or thinking about ways to kill your boss.
10. Do your work in order of descending difficulty.
If you start your day off with harvesting FarmVille crops or cruising Facebook to compare your social life to people you barely know, this one goes out to you. Start off with the most difficult task first. Most people start off by opening their email and responding to new messages. Responding to emails is easy, and it’s something that you have to do, so it should be left for low/no-energy periods. Tackle your most difficult item first and you’ll always be rewarded with an easier task to do next.
There’s an added bonus – if you only get one thing done per day, like I usually do, you actually have something to show for it.
I wish I could remember where I picked up each of these tips – I’d say most were somehow born from reading one of my favorite books, which I highly recommend checking out (disclosure: affiliate links):