20 Things Every 20-Something Should Do to Start Adulting Like a Pro

Most people still don’t have their stuff together…

Photo by Mikail Duran on Unsplash

Plan Your Ideal Future

Most people go through life in a completely reactive way.

They say when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. But what if you wanted sweet tea?

If you really want to succeed in life, the very first step is being honest with yourself about what you really want and writing it down.

My favorite way to do this is with an exercise called The 10-Year Plan for a Remarkable Life. If you are like everyone else, chances are that you vastly overestimate what can be accomplished in a single day and vastly underestimate what you can accomplish over time with consistent effort.

Do things that scare you

It used to be the case that our comfort zone and our safety zone were more or less the same thing.

That uncomfortable feeling you got when you encountered a snarling bear was because you were in immediate physical danger.

Life is pretty safe now. The most dangerous thing we do is driving, and even that’s pretty safe. Yet we’re all completely comfortable with driving and uncomfortable with far safer activities like public speaking.

The comfort zone is no longer a reliable indicator of the safety zone.

If you want to level up, you’re going to need to do things that scare the living daylights out of you.

If what you wanted could be found in your comfort zone, you’d already have it.

Practice in Public

I’m not a good writer.

That’s a big problem considering the fact that I’m writing a post for people to actually read at this very moment.

So what’s the solution? Refuse to share my work until I become a “good” writer (whatever that means)?

And who decides whether or not I’m a “good” writer? Is there just one objective standard or do different people have different opinions?

There are lots of people — and I’m not making this up — who think J.K. Rowling is a bad writer.

She could have hid from the critics. She could have held her writing back until it was good enough for everyone to sing its praises.

I’m sure glad she didn’t.

I get that mastery is important, but you get there whether you practice in private or in public. Having the courage to practice in public gives you a head start in connecting with the people you want your work to impact.

There’s no contest here. Practice in public.

Having the courage to connect matters.

Spend less than you earn and invest the difference

In case you missed it, that was the entire foundation of personal finance in less than 10 words:

Spend less than you earn and invest the difference.

Of course there’s three parts to it: Spend less, earn more, and invest.

You should get really good at all three.

Spending less reminds you that there is more to life than consumerism. It also protects you from risk, since a cheaper lifestyle is easier to fund.

Earning more gives you confidence in your own ability to provide value. It also sets you up for future success since along the way you pick up useful knowledge and skills.

Investing lets your money work for you.

I’ve written about all three components. Here are some examples:

Develop healthy movement habits

Most adults are sedentary and immobile.

Your body wasn’t designed to sit in a chair for eight hours every day at work only to come home and sit on the couch for another three.

You body was made to move, so start moving.

Go on walks. Stretch. Lift weights. Do yoga, gymnastics, Pilates, anything.

Get comfortable moving your body intentionally and through full ranges of motion.

Somewhere along the way I lost the ability to squat and keep my heels on the ground. This isn’t normal.

If you look at little kids, they squat all the time. My kids can squat for 20+ minutes while reading a book.

If you don’t use it, you might lose it.

Develop healthy eating habits

This might be the most controversial thing that I say in this post but it might also be the most important:

Quality is more important than quantity here.

High quality = real food

Meat, vegetables, legumes, fruit, dairy, eggs, etc. Real food is healthy and delicious. It takes a little effort to store and prepare, but it is a joy to eat and does the body good.

Low quality = processed food

Anything not on the list above. Anything making a health claim. Nearly everything from the middle aisles of the grocery store. Anything that comes in a box. Anything that is made from any of the 61+ names that are given to sugar on ingredient labels. Anything made from refined corn or soy. Vegetable oil and other industrial oils. Almost anything that you get when eating out.

In case you didn’t know, chronic disease is your biggest enemy in living a long, fulfilling, pain-free life.

A high-sugar, low-fiber diet is a recipe for debilitating disease over the course of decades.

A low-sugar, high-fiber diet is the key to health and vitality.

I’m not saying you should never eat junk food, I’m asking you to set sensible limits for yourself:

  • Soda on Saturdays
  • Try to prepare at least 75% of meals at home using real ingredients
  • Eat at places that offer real food (like Chipotle 😃)
  • Limit your exposure to what author Michael Pollan calls “edible food-like substances”
  • etc
You can set your own limits, but eating like everyone else will make you as fat and sick as everyone else.

Become insanely curious

One reason that people often struggle with the advice “follow your passion” is because “passion” is a nebulous term.

At any given moment your passion may be hard to pin down, and even if it weren’t, it might change in a few years anyway.

An easier approach is to follow your curiosity.

What do you really want to learn about?

Following your curiosity leads to intrinsic motivation: you really want to be doing the things that you are doing.

Extrinsic motivation like money and fame only gets you so far. Intrinsic motivation is the engine that keeps on churning.

Master the Art of Rest

Your muscles can’t grow without rest.

Your brain can’t learn without rest.

Your body can’t heal without rest.

Your mind can’t make unexpected connections without rest.

Notice a pattern here?

Rest is as vital to work as work is.

Let me repeat that, because it might be counter-intuitive:

Rest is as vital to work as work is.

Rest enables work, and work gives meaning to rest. All work with no rest leads to burnout and serious limitations on your productivity and creativity. All rest and no work makes you soft, bored, and ironically, “restless.”

It’s critical that the time you devote to rest is not sucked up by mindless activities like scrolling through a news feed.

You need to make sure you give your mind time to wander.

Go for a walk.

Sit and think.

Pull out a journal and start writing your thoughts down.

Learn how to rest. Your work will thank you.

Learn How to Listen

Everyone wants to talk and no one wants to listen.

Do the world a favor and become an active listener.

Start by paying attention to your physical posture in conversation:

Shoulders

Square your shoulders to the person you are talking to. A person’s shoulders indicate their level of interest in the conversation. If your shoulders are turned away, it looks like you are trying to get away.

Open Posture

A closed posture such as having your arms folded indicates an attempt to be guarded and not vulnerable.

Lean In

This indicates attentiveness and interest.

Eye Contact

You don’t exactly need to look right into their eyes if it makes you uncomfortable, but your eyes should in general be finding the other person’s face.

Pay attention to the other person’s eyes. If they are constantly looking away, it indicates distraction. If they are looking down it is often shame or guilt.

Relax

Take a deep breath and relax your muscles. Tenseness hinders conversation.

Seek to understand

Once you’ve mastered the posture, it’s time to move on to the harder stuff.

In conversation, you’re not just looking for information, you’re looking to connect.

Your goal should be to draw the other person out with good questions.

Keep in mind, you don’t just want what’s in their head, but what’s on their heart as well. Try and work to figure out where they are at emotionally.

Here are a couple generic questions that you can use as conversation starters:

  • What are some childhood memories you hope you never forget?
  • What are some of the things that make you laugh?

Learn How to Sell

Ultimately there’s only one way to make money: selling.

You can sell a product, you can sell a service, you can sell an asset, you can sell someone else’s product, service, or asset, but you have to sell something.

Most people end up selling their time to a corporation.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with selling your time, but at some point in life you’re likely going to end up valuing time more than money.

A smart approach is to invest your time into creating something you can sell besides time.

Become a Lifelong Learner

You’re either growing or you’re dying.

By the time you’re an adult, you’ve stopped physically growing. You had better not stop mentally growing just because you’re done with school.

Reading here on Medium is a great start to becoming a lifelong learner. Let me give you two other methods that I love:

Podcasts

Most multi-tasking is a myth because it involves switching between to tasks that require the same attentional resources.

Audio is a rare exception. You can listen to audio while doing something else. I listen to podcasts all the time.

Right off the bat I have two to recommend:

And of course, if you’re interested, I’m starting my own:

Books

Here’s why books are amazing: it probably takes somewhere between 8–10 hours to read an average sized book. But it probably took the author years to write it.

Heck, if you factor in the life experience that put them in a position to write the book, it’s not an exaggeration to say that some books were decades in the making.

With the investment of a few bucks and 8–10 hours of attention you can get the best insights from decades of intense learning.

If that’s not a bargain I don’t know what is.

And if you get a book from the library, there’s no monetary cost at all, just the time cost of actually reading the book.

Learn to Laugh at Yourself

You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to be fooled. You’re going to make lots of awkward first attempts.

Enjoy the ride.

We all want prestige and respect and so we all want to avoid being laughed at, but what if you just embraced it?

Life is funny. You’re kind of awkward. Laughter feels good. What’s the downside here?

Be Prolific

In his excellent book Atomic Habits, James Clear mentions that one of the most common questions about habits is how long it takes to form a one.

Here’s the thing though: it’s not about time, it’s about the number of attempts.

You have to put in the reps.

It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been trying to be a writer, it matters how much you’ve written.

You should create as much as you can.

Most people are consumers, not contributors.

You can be different. Consume less, create more.

Learn How to Lead

It’s easy to be a follower and hard to be a leader.

Especially since you’ve received 12+ years of indoctrination of how to be a follower (we call it “school”).

You don’t need a formal title to be a leader, you just the need the courage to stand up and say “follow me.”

Leadership is hard because there is no map, and you are responsible for getting everyone to the destination.

We are always going to need people courageous enough to lead.

Learn How to Solve Interesting Problems

In school, you learned how to look at a well-defined question and give the “correct” answer.

In real life there may or may not be a correct answer, and the question is almost certainly not going to be well defined — at least not at first.

That’s where we need you.

To untangle complicated issues. To get to the heart of the matter. To come up with a workable solution. To point the way towards better solution. To find the people who can help.

Learn How to Cook

I get it, take-out is easier and more convenient.

It’s also more expensive, less healthy, and reinforces a hurried lifestyle that’s stressing you out.

Learn the joy of preparing your own meal. Take the time to have a better connection with the food that you eat.

“I made this” is one of life’s great joys, and it’s doubly pleasurable in the case of food since you get to consume your own creation.

Steal Like an Artist

“What is originality? Undetected plagiarism.” -William Ralph Inge

In the short, delightful, book Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon helpfully reminds us that the way we find our own style is by imitating our heroes.

He points out that Conan O’Brien became Conan O’Brien as he tried to imitate David Letterman, who was trying to imitate Johnny Carson, who was trying to imitate Jack Benny.

Go out and emulate your heroes. Take inspiration from others and give credit back to them. Remix the best ideas you’ve encountered to find something unique to say.

Steal like an artist.

Marry Well

You don’t have to get married, but marrying the right person can be a huge win in life.

Bestselling author Ryan Holiday makes a really good point here:

For all the productivity and success advice out there, I’ve never really seen someone come out and say: “Find yourself a spouse who complements and supports you and makes you better.” — Ryan Holiday

Life is crazy and chaotic enough. It’s nice to have someone who sticks with you for better or for worse.

Again, as Holiday says:

“the best way to navigate the public world is to master and find contentment in the private one.”

Start a Journal

Your brain is a factory, not a warehouse.

It can be incredibly helpful to get your thoughts out of your head and onto paper.

For me, one of the biggest benefits of journaling has been my daily gratitude practice. Every morning, I list three things that I am grateful for. At the end of the year, I have more than 1,000 things that I am grateful for that I can look back on when I need a reminder that although life can be tough, it is good.

Here’s a video I did last year where I showed what my journaling practice looks like:

Develop a Morning Routine

Here’s the thing about habits: they are easier to form when you stack them on top of existing habits.

Well, here’s a habit that you already have: you wake up every day.

The reason that morning routines are so popular is that there is a built-in cue that can trigger you to action.

A morning routine can help facilitate a number of habits that you want to include in your life.

My morning routine consists of reading, praying, journaling, exercising, writing, and making the bed.

Think about the power of this statement: I don’t do any of these things because I feel like it in the moment, I do them because I wake up.

As the father of American Psychology, William James said:

The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation.

Personally, I prefer to wake up early. I know there is a lot of pushback against this idea and I certainly don’t presume to claim it is right for everyone, but as Tim Ferriss has said, “it’s easier to concentrate when the rest of the world is asleep.”

Getting up earlier can be a “keystone habit,” a habit that allows other healthy habits to fall into place.

Final Thoughts

What your life is like 10 years from now is going to be influenced by what you are doing today.

Building positive habits will bring you positive results.

The results won’t come for a while, but in the beginning only your direction really matters.

Set yourself a proper course, maintain a steady pace, and strap in for the long haul.