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11 Ways to Change Your Life, and Make It Stick

These expert-generated tips can help you approach your time, relationships, mental health, and passion projects with more confidence and efficiency this year.

Eddie Guy, used with permission.
Eddie Guy, used with permission.

The new year promises to deliver a fresh array of plans and obligations, on top of all the challenges carried over from the year past. But there's hope: These expert-generated tips can help you approach your time, relationships, mental health, and passion projects with more confidence and efficiency. You may even wind up with a few moments of peace.

Start Seeing—and Sharing—Your Invisible Labor

In theory, after work and sleep, we should have about eight hours a day for ourselves. (Set aside for the moment the troubling reality that many of us may spend more than eight hours working and fewer than eight sleeping—something else to work on this year.) It’s not surprising that you should want to defend that time as fiercely as you can. But powerful forces are allied against you: your partner, your kids, and your parents, as well as chores, bills, mail, and social media. Even if you welcome some of these demands, they can still be daunting. What’s worse, too few of us even acknowledge the toll these responsibilities take. It’s time for a closer look.

Take Back Your Time

If you do most of your “household management,” with responsibility for meals, shopping, and repairs; if you are the default contact for schools and sitters, the go-to person for cleaners and contractors, and, on top of it all, the resident social coordinator, then you probably carry a heavy, and unfair, burden of “cognitive labor.”

Researchers have been slow to recognize the scope of cognitive labor because it is by its nature invisible—sometimes even to the person doing it. And while the average family’s division of labor has crept closer to equity, women still do significantly more.

Since cognitive labor tends to be accomplished in the background of your mind while you do something else, it’s also impossible to track in hours. In in-depth interviews with dozens of families, though, Harvard sociologist Allison Daminger found most of this work to be underacknowledged and underappreciated by partners who simply don’t see it.

Lacking awareness of how much energy they devote to it, cognitive laborers deprive themselves of the satisfaction of completing concrete tasks. Instead, they are likely to plow ahead until they end up drained, with all of the associated psychological, occupational, and health consequences.
If you find yourself dreading another year of enduring in silence, try these steps:

  1. Track the full scope of your cognitive labor during an average week. Be mindful of everything you do in the background while trying to accomplish other tasks or to relax, and put it on paper.
  2. Acknowledge to yourself how much you are doing. And then use that understanding to become more flexible and accept any shortcomings with self-compassion.
  3. Share your log with your partner and talk about dividing labor more equitably. When a partner understands how much you do, he or she should want to help. Each of you can take on roles you prefer and are good at.
  4. Sequester time when you focus on only one (other) thing, such as exercise or work, catching your mind if it swerves back into cognitive labor, and returning it to the task at hand. You should eventually become better able to focus without distraction.
  5. Research practical solutions to lighten the load. There may be apps to create grocery lists or schedule carpools, or maybe it’s time to just let others figure out what’s for dinner.

—Jelena Kecmanovic, Ph.D.

Break It Down

Another concept related to cognitive labor is “life admin,” as in “laundry admin,” “insurance admin,” and, if you’re especially unlucky, “lost luggage admin.” Parents in particular struggle mightily with “kidmin,” which can feel like the cloud of dust that follows Pigpen in the Peanuts cartoons.

Admin is complicated, as is our relationship to it. But some simple strategies can help. One is to borrow from something we love. When faced with a daunting admin task—say, planning a children’s party or hiring a health aide for a parent—aim to adopt the same approach that you take when doing something you enjoy or, at least, appreciate, like going to a yoga class or practicing music.

Just do it . With exercise, showing up and starting is often hard, but finishing usually leads to a wave of done-it satisfaction. With that in mind, push yourself to start the admin project, knowing that will make the end visible.

Trust the process . When you’re resisting a task, remind yourself that you’ve been here before and that you have methods that work. You don’t have to meet every health aide in the region; have faith in your instincts to be able to identify the right person. (And if you haven’t been here before, get help from someone who has—another admin strategy.)

Calendar it . Don’t fall prey to the trap of assuming you’ll somehow improvise a plan in the interstices of everything else you do. Admin is often invisible. Putting it on the calendar helps you, and those around you, see that it’s real. Sitting down to do admin in a planned window can make it far less frustrating than trying to squeeze it in.

Picture it . Seeing the steps of an admin task as corresponding to the steps of something you like can help you relate to it as manageable, like the poses in a yoga class or the movements of a piece of music. Pick a thing you love or find easy to do, apply it to your most vexing admin, and see what you can accomplish.

—Elizabeth Emens, JD, Ph.D.

Timetable for Change

  • Today: Commit to spending a full hour focused on something, anything, that’s unrelated to your routine cognitive labor.
  • This Month: Talk to your partner, children, or relatives about how you can better share your domestic tasks going forward.
  • This Year: Compare your cognitive labor list at the end of the year with the one from the start and confirm that you’ve reduced it.
Eddie Guy, used with permission.
Eddie Guy, used with permission.

An Essential Mental Health Check-In

Every year, you schedule appointments with your physician and dentist to make sure your body and teeth are strong and healthy. Doesn’t your mental health merit the same attention? Although an annual psychological checkup may not be feasible for everyone in the current health-care system, individuals should still feel empowered to explore their mental well-being. A self-exam like the one below is not an official diagnostic tool and in no way substitutes for professional assessment or treatment. But considering a wide-ranging set of questions can provide a framework in which to take inventory of your inner life, providing the opportunity to probe, reflect, and grow.

How Are You Doing?

For each of these items, ask yourself if the statements describe your life, or if they don’t. If your answers to half or more are negative, it may be time to schedule a formal check-in with a mental health care provider.

  1. Mood. I have days when I feel down, but over the past year, I haven’t experienced a period of depressed mood that lasted longer than two weeks or negatively affected my work or relationships. There’s enough going on in my life to keep me absorbed, and I have interests or hobbies I engage in regularly.
  2. Relationships. I have people who care about me and people whom I care about and can depend on. I express my love to the people closest to me. I have at least one person with whom I feel I can share my most personal thoughts and feelings. If I have a significant other, we enjoy each other’s company far more than we argue or disagree.
  3. Professional and Financial Stability. I feel like a contributing member of society. I am either engaged in full-time work, provide care for children, or am retired but remain active. I find my work interesting enough and reasonably fulfilling. My workplace is not physically or emotionally toxic. I do not have excessive debt, or if I do, I am following a plan to pay it off. I neither feel panicked about finances nor spend money recklessly.
  4. Substance Use. I believe my alcohol or drug use is under control, and others in my life would agree. In the past year, my drinking or drug use hasn’t increased significantly, nor have I tried to cut down but failed. I haven’t suffered any negative repercussions, such as arrests, work absences, injuries, or relationship conflicts from substance use in the past year.
  5. Temper. My temper is usually under control. I don’t use physical aggression to intimidate others. People don’t often tell me to calm down or think of me as hot-headed. I don’t hold grudges or plot revenge against those who have wronged me. I don’t feel as if people are out to get me.
  6. Physical Health. My health is adequate. I have had a physical with blood work in the past year, I follow my doctor’s advice, and I take medications as prescribed. I walk at least 30 minutes a day, four days a week. I mostly eat food that is healthy and limit junk food. I don’t binge or unduly restrict my intake. I do not suffer from symptoms for which doctors cannot find a cause.
  7. Sleep. I do not have difficulty falling or staying asleep, and I get at least seven hours more nights than not. I sleep fairly regular hours given the requirements of my job or childcare responsibilities and don’t have frequent nightmares.
  8. Self-Care. I am able to relax and take it easy. I know family and friends are generally more important than work, and my actions reflect that. I take an hour a day to relax and do things I enjoy. I spend a full day not working at least once a week.
  9. Purpose. I feel as if there must be some sort of purpose to my life, even if I am not sure what it might be. I am not frightened about the future or tortured by the past. I am able to enjoy being with people and doing things in the moment, and I notice the beauty in the world.
  10. Goals. I don’t feel as if time is running out to do the things I want to do. If I want to, but haven’t yet committed to a life partner, had children, or launched a career, I feel those goals are within reach. I do my best to be a good spouse, parent, and/or child.
  11. Suicidality. I am glad to be alive. In the past year, I have not had more than a fleeting thought about suicide. I know there are people who care about me and that they and others would be worse off without me. I look forward to certain experiences and want to keep experiencing them.
  12. Warnings. In the past year, no one has suggested that I seek mental health treatment, and my partner has not suggested entering couples counseling.

—Glenn Sullivan, Ph.D.

When to Take a Mental Health Day

If you had a cold, you might decide to power through your workday. But if you had the flu, you’d likely stay home and rest—and no one would call you “weak”; more likely, coworkers would thank you for not coming in. Mental health should get the same respect. We’re too often told to “get over it” when we struggle with anxiety, depression, or similar concerns. But if you don’t proactively address your mental health, you won’t be able to perform at your best. Here’s how to tell if it might be time for a mental health day:

  1. When you’re distracted by something you need to address. If an unfinished task is leading to anxiety, a day off to complete it can address your stress, provide a sense of control, and help you focus more fully when you’re back at work.
  2. When you’ve been neglecting yourself. If you have not had time to recharge recently, an opportunity to practice self-care may help you perform better.
  3. When you need to attend mental health-related appointments. If you need to visit your doctor, adjust your medication, or schedule an appointment with a therapist, taking a day off can be instrumental.

—Amy Morin, LCSW

Timetable for Change

  • Today: Make sure you have scheduled all of your essential health checkups for the year—medical, dental, and specialists—and if not, schedule them.
  • This Month: Devote a block of time without distractions to a mental health check-in like the one above and think about which areas you might need to improve on.
  • This Year: Be attentive to your stress and exhaustion levels and, if you believe it’s merited, see how taking a mental health day makes you feel.
Eddie Guy, used with permission.
Eddie Guy, used with permission.

Meet Your Partner All Over Again

Your partner is no longer the person you first met; he or she is at this moment changing right before your eyes. Be thankful for that: It would be a nightmare if nothing ever changed and you were still with the exact same person to whom you committed yourself all those years ago. Research tells us that partners in the healthiest relationships are always getting reacquainted, checking in regularly because they’re interested in each other’s lives and evolution. Staying connected doesn’t take a lot of time; the healthiest couples may connect just a couple of times a day, but five minutes of genuine presence and loving attentive interest can make a world of difference. ¶ When’s the last time you gave your partner five full minutes of undiluted attention? Or the last time you were genuinely and enthusiastically curious about who your partner is becoming? People change; that’s undeniable. Even the things about your partner that you could have sworn would never change will change. The same is true of you. Committing to checking in with each other, checking up on your relationship, and getting to know each other again and again is a proven standard of relationship success and an estimable goal for the new year.

—James Cordova, Ph.D.

You Can’t Do It Alone

A good deal of recent relationship research has argued for the importance of gratitude in successful long-term relationships. But couples who maintain a consistent division of household and relationship tasks may be deprived of the boost of positivity received from a partner’s expression of gratitude, because when you routinely take care of something, it becomes your “job.” And when something is your job, it fosters less gratitude from your partner.

Gratitude is the antidote to expectations and the resentment they generate. When someone’s actions, even sweet romantic ones, become the status quo, a partner may notice only when they don’t happen.

Being appreciated not only feels good, it also motivates you to do more. One study found that partners who felt appreciated for their efforts actually reported being more satisfied with their relationships the more they did.

Take time in the months ahead to think of all the big things, and especially the little things, that your partner routinely does for you or your family and commit to expressing your genuine gratitude for them. Saying thank you every day isn’t necessary, but aspire to express it enough that it feels impactful for your partner. Even better: Don’t just thank each other for what you do, but for who you are. Gratitude tends to be reciprocated, and so—while resisting expectations—you may be pleased to find your partner expressing appreciation as well, promoting good feelings all around.

—Amie Gordon, Ph.D.

Don’t Stop Believing

Once you’ve chosen a person to commit to, how sure are you that your relationship will succeed over the long haul? One key, research shows, may be having faith that you can make it. A recent study found that the belief that you’re in a relationship that will last may influence its quality and prospects. When you believe you have the skills to navigate whatever obstacles might come your way, you can generate momentum that helps this belief become your reality.

Following are the items researchers from the University of Alberta used to gauge partners’ confidence in their relationship skills. As an element of your own relationship checkup this year, rate your confidence in each category on a scale from 1 to 7, and ask your partner to do the same. Differing scores should not be seen as different levels of faith in your connection: The scale is a measure of the confidence each of you has in your own relationship skills, so lower scores can help identify areas you may want to try to bolster in the year ahead. Pinpointing your strengths and weaknesses can be an important step toward building confidence and raising your chances of staying together long-term.

  • I feel good about our prospects to make this relationship work for a lifetime.
  • I am very confident when I think of our future together.
  • I believe we can handle whatever conflicts arise in the future.
  • We have the skills a couple needs to make a marriage last.
  • We can handle anything that comes our way.

— Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D.

Reboot Your Sex Life

It’s a fact: Long-term partners tend to talk less and less to each other about sex as their relationship progresses, even if one or both are dissatisfied with the amount or type of sex they have. People tend to avoid the discussion because they think it could spark a conflict that could pose an existential threat to their relationship; because they are reluctant to hurt the feelings of a partner about whose welfare they care deeply; or because they fear disapproval if they reveal desires a partner may find shameful.

These are real concerns, but it’s at least as possible that both partners may be ready for a discussion about their sex lives and that both may be looking for a path back to the primal passion they felt at the start of their relationship. It’s easier to become stuck in negative assumptions about age- or status-appropriate expectations and sexual decline than to fully inhabit our body and its sensations.

Great sex tends to feel instinctive, not intellectual. Attempting to rediscover raw passion in a long-term relationship can make us feel exceedingly vulnerable. Yet for many happy long-term couples, primal sex is an essential element. Instead of silently blaming a partner for an uninteresting sex life or living with disappointment, give yourself permission to access your deepest sexual self and to ask the partner you love to join you. Consider these steps:

  • Talk about it first. Without a discussion, your partner may feel threatened by your unilateral increased intensity.
  • To express your desire, get in tune with it. Many of us spend more time dissociating from our bodies than listening to them. Instead, begin to practice embodiment, an ongoing process of bringing your awareness away from your thoughts and toward physical sensation.
  • Allow your sexual self to be your guide. This is a challenge; many of us associate our primal sexual nature with shame and may have been taught to hide this part of ourselves. But don’t forfeit the possibility of great sex just to avoid the risk of internalized shame.
  • If your partner is on board, make sure you’re ready to tolerate and embrace their sexual intensity. Don’t giggle, make jokes, or talk baby talk; that will only reduce the chances that a partner will be willing to show that side of themselves again.

—Marianne Brandon, Ph.D.

Timetable for Change

  • Today: Take five minutes to check in with your partner about his or her life and goals, with an ear toward discovering how he or she is growing and changing.
  • This Month: Take the test of confidence in your relationship skills, along with your partner, then talk about each of your strengths and weaknesses and how they make your connection work.
  • This Year: Think about what, if anything, could improve your sex life, talk to your partner about it, and plan how to make changes that work for both of you.
Eddie Guy, used with permission.
Eddie Guy, used with permission.

Pursue Your Passion Without Distraction

“Show me your schedule, and I’ll show you your priorities,” says executive coach Doug Holt. What part of your life best reflects your values: Your family? Serving others? Your faith? Many people’s daily calendars reveal an entirely different set of commitments. If that applies to you—if you find yourself driving home with thoughts like, How can I get through the evening routine with my family as quickly as possible so I can get back to my work?—then it’s time to align your life with what you truly care about.

“You have to take accountability,” says Holt, an advocate of “radical honesty.” You are where you are because of your choices and the actions you’ve taken.” As a cognitive behavioral therapist, I often ask people to track how they spend their time, and as we review their records together, patterns emerge: Are there wasted hours in the day? Does all of their time go toward things that are urgent, and none toward what’s truly important to them? Are their days filled with activities that are neither satisfying nor fun? The data don’t lie, and they tend to shock a lot of people.

If your calendar doesn’t reflect your values, if it doesn’t make room for the family life you know you want to have, or the creative life you always promised yourself you’d lead, take steps toward your core life goals.

The hardest things to accomplish in life tend to be those without deadlines, and the hardest part of those tasks tends to be starting them. You may not be ready to put a deadline on writing a novel, learning to snowboard, or traveling to Italy, but you can start dedicating real blocks of time to those projects and see where they go. If we wait until we’ve finished “everything else,” there will always be something more pressing to do. Instead, start reserving time for your passions and defend that time as if your life depended on it—because, in truth, it does.

—Seth Gillihan, Ph.D.

Unplug From Everything (Once a Week)

Even if accomplishing your passion project will require the use of computer screens, you may find that you actually complete it faster and more efficiently when you build a weekly “Tech Shabbat” into your calendar—a full day in which you avoid the use of all screens and focus on activities that rely on the power of human interaction or the mind-body connection, as opposed to the constant distraction of a mind-machine meld.

As I write in my book, 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week , rest itself becomes the technology—the tool—that balances the encroachment of other technologies. By setting off a day for rest and reflection without screens, we can understand ourselves without the distraction of…everything else. If we are online all the time and available to everyone with no time for quality rest, deep thinking, or real-world connecting, we aren’t operating at our most efficient level. Unplugging becomes a tool that returns the power to us. It’s good for our health, for our thoughts, and for far-reaching ideas. These are the things that 24/6 allows space and time for. While we rest, our bodies and minds accomplish much more than we realize.

If we don’t wind down, we’ll never truly wake up. So, look at the calendar and pick a day you can try to stick with every week. Make a list of the things you want to accomplish on your Tech Shabbat and plan how you’ll do them, or, if what you really need is rest, plan nothing. Make sure you have printouts of important phone numbers, addresses, or directions that you’ll need for the day so you won’t be tempted to check your phone. And tell your relatives, friends, and coworkers of your plan. Better yet, invite them to join you.

—Tiffany Shlain

Fill Your Bucket List

A bucket list should be your ultimate inventory of everything you want to achieve, do, see, feel, and experience—and if you don’t have one already, start one this year. Such a list can help you gain clarity and focus on what you most want from life, especially if it’s about accomplishments, creativity, and connections, and not just travel dreams.

Before the year starts to get away from you, take out a pen and paper, or open a new document on your computer, and start writing down what comes to mind as you consider these questions. You may be amazed at how quickly you populate your list and how eager you are to get started.

  • What’s the one crazy idea you’ve always wanted to get off the ground?
  • What would you do if you had unlimited time, money, and resources?
  • What skills do you want to pick up?
  • Whom do you most want to meet?
  • What is the most important thing you can contribute to the world?
  • What do you need to do to give your life meaning?

—Moses Ma

Timetable for Change

  • Today: Look over your calendar from the past year and start to think about how the year ahead could better reflect your core values.
  • This Month: Plan your first Tech Shabbat, ideally with your family’s cooperation.
  • This Year: Write out your bucket list and start to commit dedicated blocks of time to getting at least one of those projects off the ground.

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