Take Back Your Life in Ten Steps

Harvard Business Review

You're smart, hard-working and good at what you do, but the truth is you also too often feel your life is just a relentless set of demands you have to meet, and too rarely a source of satisfaction. You long to feel more in control of your days, but the reality is you're frequently racing just to keep up.

This is the story I hear over and over at every level in organizations, from first line managers all the way up to CEOs in large companies. I'm convinced it doesn't have to be this way, and that the solution has to do with deeply embedding a series of simple practices into your life.

I have ten in mind, but it's not realistic to add them all at once, assuming there are a number you don't currently do. Instead, I hope to lead you on a journey in which you add them one at a time, sequentially, over the coming months. You don't have to do all of them for your life to work really well, and even small changes will often deliver disproportionately large results. At the same time, it's likely that the more of these you eventually add, the better and more in charge of your life you'll feel.

Each month, starting in February, I'm going to offer a deeper dive blog here at HBR.org and a webinar on the Energy Project website about why each of the behaviors I describe below matter so much. (Here's a link to the first webinar, February 12.) I'll also offer very specific suggestions on how to build that behavior into your life, by ritualizing it, so you eventually do it automatically, without using much will or discipline, much the way you now brush your teeth at night, or show up for scheduled meetings during the day.

The suggestions are in order from the most basic and fundamental, to the highest level.

1. Get sufficient sleep every night. Sleep is often the single most undervalued behavior in our lives and the one with the most immediate power to improve our experience in every waking moment. If you sleep in the 6-6½ hour range, like the average American, just one more hour of sleep a night will leave you feeling more physically energized, emotionally resilient, and mentally clear.

2. Move more. It's not only good for your heart's health, but also for your mental health. Do some form of exercise that significantly raises your heart rate for 30 minutes at least four times a week and move frequently during the day.

3. Eat less, more often. Food is fuel. Lean proteins and complex carbohydrates are high-octane fuel. You're best off when you keep feeding your internal furnace in small doses throughout the day, beginning with breakfast.

4. Renew more. Human beings aren't designed to work continuously. We're meant instead to move between spending and renewing energy. Ideally, take a break every 90 minutes, even if only to spend a minute or two breathing deeply.

5. Invest in those you love. The greatest gift you can give is your absorbed attention. Better to be fully present with someone for an hour than physically present, but distracted, for multiple hours.

6. Give thanks. We're far quicker to notice what's wrong in our lives than we are what's right. At least once a week, hand write and mail a note of appreciation to someone who deserves it, telling the person precisely what you're grateful for.

7. Do the most important thing first. Early in the morning, you're likely to have the most energy, and the fewest distractions. Start your workday by focusing without interruption, for 60 to 90 minutes, on the most important and/or challenging task you can accomplish that day.

8. Practice reflection. We're so preoccupied with the urgent that we rarely take time to think about what it is we're doing. Set aside 15 to 30 minutes at the end of each work day (or in the evening) to reflect quietly and without interruption on what you learned that day, and what your highest priorities are for the following day.

9. Keep learning. Our brains work better if we challenge them, and life becomes more interesting when we do. Reading books is a simple and surefire way to learn and grow, but so is building a daily practice around learning a new language, a sport, a musical instrument, or around how to write code, fix a car, or draw.

10. Give back. Take at least one hour a week to put your own needs aside and devote that time instead to adding value to the world at large. One hour a week is very little time, but it's a start — and it's also more than most of us regularly give.

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