Milestones are valuable tools.
They’re endpoints that aren’t real in the sense that a rock is real — there’s no physical law stating that the approximate end of a journey around the sun starting from an arbitrary point we happen to use as our commencement and completion of a calendar cycle must be celebrated in any particular way — but that doesn’t mean they can’t be useful, psychologically.
Just as birthdays don’t require anything of you but can still be good moments to check in and make changes, a new year, a moment in time during which you’re able to step away from your norms and assess how things are going, is an opportunity to spark revolutions in your life. Perhaps not explosive, groundbreaking, tell-all-your-friends-about-it changes, but rather regular revolutions that may end up being incredibly valuable, or which may simply be a nice change of pace or a stepping stone to something even more beneficial.
That in mind, here are some ideas that have helped me make iteration a daily habit, rather than a yearly exercise. None are hard-fast rules or concrete techniques, but all are worth considering and adjusting to align with your personal tastes and goals.
When it comes to your routines and rituals, make sure you have some idea of when you’ll stop, take stock, and figure out what’s working and what’s not.
Without this type of end date, it’s possible to lock-in intentional habits that aren’t beneficial, or perpetuate those that emerged unintentionally. When you initiate a new habit, set a date maybe a few weeks, maybe a few months in the future at which point you’ll check in and adjust that habit or replace it with a new one. For existing habits that you may or may not have intended to establish, set a date sometime soon to do the same. Take what you’ve learned from those habits and allow that to inform both their new iterations and how long you’ll try them out before again stopping to take stock.
It’s important to build novelty into your life even if you prefer the secure feeling of predictability most of the time.
When everything is routinized, your brain is more likely to go into autopilot mode and you’re less likely to soak up the details of your lifestyle: the visuals, tastes, sounds, textures, and tiny, fleeting thoughts that you would be more likely to store and remember if you were actively engaged.
It’s possible to stay engaged more of the time by developing your in-the-moment mental muscles. But until you’ve become a mindfulness master, a good way to trick your brain into allowing you to become more fully immersed is to sprinkle new and interesting things throughout your day. When you’re exposed to something novel, your brain turns on and searches for threats and opportunities, causing you to experience time in a different way; to take note of every moment.
It isn’t necessary to be completely mentally awake and alert all the time, but if you find yourself in that kind of waking fog, looking back on your week and unable to remember anything of note, the brain’s tendency to save energy by identifying patterns and autopiloting is worth knowing about and counteracting.
I find that building novelty into the framework of my routine helps: setting aside a few hours a week to visit a part of town I’ve never visited or deciding that twice a week I’ll eat lunch at a restaurant or food truck I’ve never eaten at before. You can decide to listen exclusively to unfamiliar music genres and artists on Tuesdays, or decide that one week out of every month you’ll take a different route to work each morning. There are an unlimited number of ways to break free of that repetition-fueled mental loop; you just have to recognize what’s happening and construct your lifestyle with some type of predictable unpredictability in mind.
A somewhat unusual habit I’ve found to be valuable in achieving this end is moving my furniture around when I deep-clean my home.
I tend to do a deep-clean about once a month, and when I do, as I work through my apartment and get everything back to factory settings, I also allow myself to experiment with the location and position of my furniture.
A few months ago I realized I could set up kind of a tea-service on my “standing desk” bistro table, freeing up some of the limited counter space in my kitchen while also making my tea preparation equipment more handy and visible, encouraging me to make greater use of it. I’ve also found as a result of this habit that by using my small filing cabinet as a side-table in my living room rather than as a bedside table in my bedroom, I could create a handy place to set my phone while I’m working (which positions it just out of view, making it less likely I’ll grab it to distract myself) while also ensuring all the tools contained within the filing cabinet are closer at hand when I need them.
Milestones of any kind are an excellent opportunity to reassess your goals and priorities.
What do you want out of life? What are your true priorities? Are you treating them as such, placing them before other goals in terms of how you spend your time and resources? Are those truly your priorities if you aren’t prioritizing them? Might you rearrange things to achieve them sooner or better? And if they are no longer your actual priorities, but rather the priorities held by a prior version of yourself, what do you want today? And how might you change your lifestyle to achieve those new goals that have been rattling around in the back of your mind but which have not yet been prioritized?
Taking some time to really consider this, to allow yourself to wonder if you’re running the wrong race, if you’re headed in the wrong direction, is important. It’s not comfortable, and it’s not uncommon to be mentally repelled by the concept, as it might require more work, more uncertainty, and a lot of change if it does turn out that some major pivot is required. But it’s valuable and worth the time invested. Give yourself that time to think revolutionary thoughts, and give yourself permission to act on what you learn from those thoughts.
Finally, there are numerous little tactical adjustments that can be made at regular intervals that I’ve personally found to be both immensely helpful and psychologically bolstering. I feel more prepared and secure and ready for anything as a result of performing them.
First, get your technological world under control.
Consider turning off the notifications on your phone and other devices, allowing only the most important through (and being honest with yourself about what’s actually important). Delete all the apps you don’t use, and simplify the tech that’s in view all day; there’s research that shows even knowing this stuff is around and seeing it sitting there can stress you out and distract you from other things.
It’s also a good idea to liberally unsubscribe from emails you don’t want to receive and which would otherwise clog your inbox, and to empty your inbox, deleting old messages you’ll never get around to, or at the very least archiving everything past a certain point and answering or deleting those that might still be actionable.
Back up your photos, back up your contacts (to some kind of physical medium like an external hard drive, and to the cloud; I use Dropbox but there are many good options these days). Consider getting a well-regarded VPN (I use Private Internet Access) for when you use public WiFi on your phone and laptop. Get a password manager (I use 1Password, but there are many good ones out there) and use it.
Prepare yourself in case your device or one of your online logins are stolen (here’s a good online security planner).
Ambitiously unfollow on social media; you can remain friends with someone on Facebook, for instance, while still removing them from your timeline. Declutter those networks and marvel at how much less stress is added to your plate each day.
Second, get your physical world under control.
Take note of how you feel, how your body is treating you, how your mind is functioning, and decide how you’d like to adjust or augment those conditions and capabilities. Establish realistic goals and move toward them. Establish habits and stick with them. Write your goals down and use what you know about yourself and what motivates you to stick with them (I like completing projects, for instance, so when I’m establishing a new workout routine I treat each 15–20 minute workout period as a project I need to complete as part of my work).
Take note of what makes you feel good, what makes you feel alive and awake and alert, what makes you feel happy and what makes you feel sad. Write these variables down and learn to recognize patterns over time. I have a little document on my computer where I note such things, and I write down such wisdom as “You feel better when you drink water regularly throughout the day” and “You feel best when you have no more than two drinks when you go out” and “If you ever feel really down or depressed, eating something and doing 100 jumping jacks seems to help.” Nothing surprising there, but they are things that I’ve noticed about myself and my optimal condition, and they are things I want to be able to remember in moments where perhaps I’m not feeling completely myself and up to recalling or problem-solving without a reminder.
Third, decide that you’re going to fill in your most pertinent knowledge- and skill-gaps.
What’s pertinent to different people, and where our gaps are located, will differ. But for me, this has meant spending the last year-and-a-half learning to cook, learning to maintain my car, and increasing my understanding of investing and other aspects of personal economics that I’ve always found to be boring, among other things.
We all have different lifestyles and priorities, but most people have something they could learn that would massively improve their life in some way, whether that means saving them gobs of money, providing them with a new, beloved hobby, or simply improving their sense of security and capability.
Does it take time to learn such skills and to educate yourself about such fundamental things? It can, yes. But in my experience it’s worth the time and resources invested, as these tend to be gaps that leave your foundation unstable if left unaddressed. Fill them in and everything becomes sturdier and more reliable, and you become a more well-rounded, capable person.
Last, decide to handle the millions of little things that are generally left unhandled.
This is kind of a blurry-seeming recommendation, I know, but what I’m talking about here are small changes to your life that could have an outsized impact on your day-to-day happiness and convenience.
It could mean fixing that leaky faucet you just never seem to get around to, but which torments you every night as you’re trying to get to sleep. It could mean making that phone call that you’ve been putting off for months, but which stresses you out any time you allow yourself to think about it. It could mean signing up for insurance, or replacing your aging computer, or cleaning the living room, or taking that load of possessions you’ve bagged up to Goodwill, or adding your regular tasks to your calendar, or taking the first step toward starting your own side-business.
The point is that we all have things like this: things that we set aside because they don’t seem as important as other things in the moment, but which we then habitualize setting aside, never actually handling them even though doing so would remove a psychological burden from our minds or a physical burden from our day. Maybe the actual improvement will be tiny, but chances are good that you’ll feel it in an outsized way.
It’s also worth noting that if you make a habit of handling these things when you notice them instead of waiting, you’ll probably feel more liberated and light as a consequence. Many of the things that drag us down are like tiny, barely noticeable scratches that become infected: if you handle them early it’s no big deal, but left to fester they can become serious, life-altering issues.
Again, there’s no real reason to only address these sorts of things on January 1, or on your birthday, or on holidays of any kind. But these dates on our calendars do tend to have a psychological pull to them, and there’s nothing wrong with using that borrowed torque to serve your own purposes.
Whether you decide to catalyze a tiny revolution on New Year’s Day or on some random Thursday in June, the benefits are still potentially massive, and your life all the more enjoyable as a consequence.