21 Ways to Improve Your Day

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Noticeboard covered with hundreds of yellow post-it to-do notes on it

Lessons in time-management, health and happiness from some of the world’s top lifestyle gurus

A few simple steps can break bad habits and poor patterns of behaviour and make your life better

1. Do it now

Work-life balance expert David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology includes his simple two-minute rule: the moment you know you have to do something (such as when you receive an email that requires some sort of action), if it will take less than two minutes, do it now. If not, delegate it if you can, or put it on a to-do list.

2. Just say no

Try it: say 'no' to pointless commitments that you know will waste your energy, time, or motivation. One of the easiest ways to free up more precious time is just to avoid agreeing to do things that weigh you down. 

3. Practise willpower

For years, the old-fashioned, even Victorian, value of willpower was disparaged by psychologists, who argued that people are largely driven by unconscious forces beyond their control. But it may yet be that improving willpower is the surest way to a better life – so says psychologist and author Roy F Baumeister in his book Willpower. Based on years of psychological research, he says self-control is the most important factor in achieving what you want – handy when you consider that studies show people spend a fifth of their waking hours resisting desires (food/sex/checking Facebook/wanting to buy something)

'Willpower, like a muscle, becomes fatigued from overuse but can also be strengthened over the long term through exercise,' says the Baumeister.

4. Be mindful

Interest in mindfulness has been growing steadily in recent years and it is increasingly being used in boardrooms, schools, prisons and hospitals around the world. So…what is it, exactly? Mindfulness teacher and stress management consultant Jane O'Donnell (janeodstressmanagement.com) explains, 'Mindfulness is just being present in the moment. It is the practice of deliberately focusing one’s attention on the present moment, exactly as it is, and accepting it without judgement.' As she points out, the use of mindfulness as a way to reconnect to our happiness is not new. Marcus Aurelius (Emperor of Rome from 161-180AD), wrote, 'When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.' 

5. Take a nap

If it’s difficult for you to get uninterrupted sleep at night, consider making up the deficit with daytime naps. Even just 10 minutes of sleep during the mid-afternoon slump can refresh and motivate you.

6. Breathe deep

It sounds obvious, but make sure you breathe properly, filling your lungs with fresh air whenever possible. Shallow breathing doesn’t always deliver enough oxygen to keep you performing at your optimum level. Breathe with your whole body. Feel your abdomen rise and fall. Notice how your spine relaxes.

7. Set an intention

Begin the day with a positive mindset. Set the alarm 10 minutes earlier and set an intention for the day ahead before getting out of bed. Hang an inspirational quote in your bedroom or bathroom so it’s the first thing you see each morning. Jeff Sanders, author of The 5am Miracle: Dominate Your Day Before Breakfast recommends getting up at 5am in order to Get More Done, and he advises people to have a written plan for each day. 

1. Plan: Map out each day before it begins.

2. Execute: Make tangible progress through focused blocks of time on your grandest goals. 

3. Review: Every week, fully review what you did and what you will do next.

8. Think positively

Napoleon Hill sold millions of copies of Think And Grow Rich by telling readers to decide how much money they wanted, then write down the figure on a piece of paper and ‘believe yourself in possession of the money'. 'Believe it, achieve it,’ is also the tenet of the Law Of Attraction movement, which states that you are more likely to bring positive things into your life if you focus on positivity. Surround yourself with positive people, read positive affirmations, etc. Perhaps the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu was the first proponent of this belief when he said, 'Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions…'

9. Laugh every day

The secret to a long and healthy life? Be happy, or at least make your body believe you’re happy. Laughter coach Amanda Bate explains that the body can’t tell the difference between a fake smile and a real one – but releases the same feel-good endorphins, which in turn combat stress and unhappiness. So 'fake it fake it ‘til you make it'. Smile at people you encounter to spread the happiness (sincerely, not in a creepy way, obvs).

10. Give a little…or a lot

Gift-giving in any form is (usually) appreciated, but random ‘just because’ gifts are always the best, so send someone a bunch of flowers or text someone you haven’t seen for a while and say you’re thinking of them. It’ll make you feel good as well as them. And when you meet someone, don’t think, ‘What can they do for me?’ but rather, ‘What can I do for them?’ Helping people is the best way to make them want to help you, too. Everybody wins.

11. Practise gratitude

Take a minute every night before you sleep to be grateful for things you’ve done or experienced every day, and give thanks aloud – or write them down in a gratitude diary. 'Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others,' said Roman philosopher, politician and orator, Marcus Tullius Cicero (107-43BC). Practising gratitude has proven health benefits for body and mind.

12. Tidy up more

You’ve heard the maxim ‘Tidy house, tidy mind’ and it’s not nonsense. Neuroscientists at Princeton University Neuroscience Institute proved that a tidy, organised and serene environment at work and at home had hugely positive effects on people’s productivity levels. The benefits of a tidy workspace and home are twofold: you can better focus on the tasks at hand and you achieve more because there are fewer distractions.

13. Tame technology 

People now check email or social media many times a day, losing focus from the task in hand. Turn off email notifications and stick to a regular email time: once in the morning and once in the afternoon, if possible. The same with social media. Everything will still be there when you’re ready for it. Make a regular effort to organise your cloud-based or desktop folders. Use labels in Gmail or folders in Outlook for all your emails.  

14. Desk job

Along with keeping your online workspace organised, keep your office organised too. Have a designated time (like Friday afternoon) to get rid of old papers. File receipts and invoices in a filing cabinet or folder. Having an uncluttered work area improves focus and makes you feel happier.

15. Drink more water

Yes, it’s something we all know we should do, and some people carry a bottle of water with them everywhere, but did you know that drinking eight to 10 glasses of water per day can improve your cognitive performance by as much as 30 per cent?

A study in The American Journal of Epidemiology found that people who drank more than five glasses of water a day were 41 per cent less likely to die from a heart attack than those who drank less than two a day. Even mild dehydration affects your capacity to think clearly and makes your more fatigued.

16 Throw stuff away

Japanese organising consultant (yes, it’s a thing) Marie Kondo struck a chord with millions of people with her bestselling book The Life-changing Magic of Tidying. Suddenly everyone was talking about the joy of purging clothes and ‘vertical folding’. Her system rests on the basic principle that all the things you own should ‘bring you joy’. Everything: books, clothes, plants, mementoes – if they don’t bring you joy, get rid. Minimalism isn’t just a design choice. Studies have shown that living with only the things you need around you makes you happier and more motivated. Discard the things you don’t need. (Bonus: donating things to charity helps others and makes you feel good as you are contributing to society.)

17. Buy less

Take a more minimalist approach to shopping. When you are about to buy something, ask yourself if you really need it. If you’re not sure, wait a couple of days and if you still feel like you want to buy it, go for it. You’ll often find the desire has waned. And in the same vein…

18. Don’t hoard

Just because something is free doesn’t make it a reason to slip it into your pocket or take it home. Have you got magazines or newspapers stashed somewhere waiting for you to read them, months later? Chuck them in the recycling.

19. Get chunky

Try a time management system called the Pomodoro Technique developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s), which breaks your time into manageable ‘chunks’. For 25 minutes (set a timer), turn off all distractions and work on just one thing. After your first 'pomodoro' you take a five-minute break, then repeat the process. After four pomodoros, take a longer break, say 15-30 minutes, then start again. Cirillo encourages a low-tech approach, with an egg timer, paper and pencil, but there are a number of apps now which encourage similar ways of working.

20. Set specific goals

Reduce procrastination by being more detailed about the process that needs to occur in order to get a particular job done. By defining exactly what needs doing, a job is much more likely to get done than a sweeping statement (i.e, ‘delete all my spam emails’ rather than ‘organise my PC better’).  

21. Body talk

Your body language has a massive effect on how people perceive and communicate with you. Tips to improve yours include: 1) stand tall (imagine a golden thread is pulling the crown of your head into the clouds); 2) smile when you meet someone and ensure you make eye contact when shaking hands – firmly, no wet fish please; 3) make your ‘resting face’ a happy rather than grumpy face; 4) project confidence.