Every day is rife with challenges both big and small. It’s easy to get caught in a rut and keep spinning your wheels without getting anywhere. You find yourself tired, irritable and feeling empty. You don’t have the energy to do the things you love, and your bad habits seem to have multiplied faster than the clutter in your glove compartment. You’re feeling wrung out or frazzled. Something has to change.
When you are feeling beaten down or overwhelmed, self-help is often at the bottom of the priority list, but taking some time to focus on yourself is sometimes the best remedy for stress. Similarly, self-help is usually put on the back burner when you are flying high and filled with success, but taking care of yourself will help you stay at that high point in life for a longer period of time. So whether you’re at the end of your rope, stuck in a rut or on top of the world, here are 12 self-help tips that will take you to the next level.
Start the Morning Right
How we start our mornings has a huge impact on the rest of our day. Anyone who has had a morning go terribly wrong knows how difficult it is to get back on track in the afternoon. Imagine a morning where your alarm didn’t go off, you were out of coffee, you didn’t have time to shower or eat breakfast, you tripped over the cat on your way out the door, you were trapped in rush hour traffic in front of a man with road rage and you were late to work. Now, exactly how productive do you think you would be that afternoon? The honest answer is probably “not very.” Thankfully, most of us don’t have to deal with many mornings that are quite that bad, but a lot of us start our day on a low note before we even get out of bed. Thousands of people sleep with their phone on their nightstand or under their pillow. The excuse is that the phone acts as an alarm, but if you keep your phone right next to the bed, you might well be scrolling through Facebook each morning before you have stopped being horizontal.
For a productive day, start your day by saying the Serenity prayer or with a few minutes of quiet meditation instead of hunting to see who liked your Instagram post. A calmer, more focused morning will go a long way towards helping you keep your cool during the afternoon.
Take a look at your kitchen counter, your desk or your office. What is sitting on it? If you are like most people, you have at least one surface at home or at work where you have no idea what is piled on top of it. You also probably have clothes you never wear, extra electronics cords you never use and little odds and ends you saved “just in case.” Get rid of all of them. A cluttered space is more likely to make you stressed or irritated, and the odds are you have clutter laying around because your actual storage space is filled with things you don’t need. Take a rainy weekend and go through your home or office. If you find items you didn’t know you had, donate them to a local Mercy House or shelter. If you didn’t know you had it, you don’t need it. The same is true of clothes or “just in case” objects you haven’t touched in ages. With the obvious exception of holiday decorations, get rid of anything you haven’t used in the last 12 months. If you haven’t used it this year, you are unlikely to need it next year.
Getting rid of clutter not only cleans your space up visually, it also removes other stresses. There are few things more frustrating than being unable to find something you really need. When you are organized, you know where you put everything. Similarly, if you get rid of the clothes you don’t wear, it will be much easier to get ready in the morning.
This seems like an odd piece of advice, but play is important to adults as well as children. Play helps us relax and often increases our creativity. Take the time to do things you enjoy even if they don’t serve an immediately apparent practical purpose. If you enjoy painting, let yourself do a watercolor piece instead of forcing yourself to channel that creativity into repainting a wall. If you like to dance, turn on some music and dance around your living room. Make it a point to do something that makes you happy every day, especially if it is something that is not “practical.” Everyone needs downtime, and spending a few minutes on something you love will help you recharge and leave you better prepared to face the daily grind.
Keep Setting Goals
Everyone likes feeling accomplished or successful. Everyone also has a skill they wish to learn or improve. Put them together, and you have the importance of setting goals. Constantly setting new goals helps you keep striving for more and helps you keep the momentum generated from a success. Take a moment to think about something you would like to do or like to learn. Maybe you want to take a SCUBA diving class or pay off your debts. Write down your goal, and start working towards it. Make it a point to write down your progress or your mistakes. What gets measured is what we deem to be important. So keep track of anything and everything that assists or prevents you from reaching your goal.
Remember Why You Started
We all have that one habit we struggle to break or that one goal we just can’t seem to attain. Maybe you want to lose 10 pounds but always cave and eat the donuts your coworker buys. Maybe you always wanted to become a morning person but can’t stop yourself from hitting the snooze button. For those stubborn moments of self-sabotage, think about why you started trying to break or form a habit. If you wanted to get up earlier because you have been late to work, remind yourself of that when you go to hit the snooze button in the morning. If you started dieting because you want to feel comfortable in shorts during the summer, remind yourself of that when you go to eat another slice of pizza. It takes practice to get into the habit of thinking about your “why.” If reminding yourself why you started still isn’t enough to break those bad habits, you might need a better “why.”
Don’t Take it Personally
This is so much easier said than done, but there is little that will more completely transform your life. Not taking things personally takes a lot of practice, but the reward is a life where you are no longer bothered by your snappish co-worker, by the cursing of the man with road rage behind you or by your father-in-laws pointed remarks.
To stop taking things personally, you have to slow down. You have to learn to take advantage of the moment between when they act and when you act. That pause gives you a chance to decide if you will react or respond. If you react you are going with the knee-jerk-first-thought-in-your-head action. You take their snarky comment personally and either snarl right back or walk away from the conversation feeling attacked. If you respond, you have taken that pause and used it. You take a moment to think about why the person might have said something petty, and you remind yourself that their meanness is not about you. You let go of the how-dare-you-say-that-about-me instinct and respond with a level, calm comment. It takes a lot of practice, and you will react rather than respond when you first start, but not taking the world personally lifts a massive weight off your chest.
Take Care of Your Body
You can meditate until your legs fall off from disuse, but your mind will still be clouded and sluggish if you don’t take care of your body. Now, taking care of your body doesn’t mean you have to become a health guru or that you need to eat nothing but organic kale. Our bodies are evolved to be relatively low maintenance.
Taking care of your body can be an all-consuming task or an extremely minor lifestyle change, it’s up to you. If you want to look like a bodybuilder or underwear model, then you will have to follow a rigid exercise routine and diet plan. If you just want your jeans to fit again, you don’t have to make major changes. Drink a bare minimum of two liters of water a day and avoid heavily processed foods. You don’t have to go completely all-natural or organic. Just cut back on the potato chips and store bought cookies. Also, exercise every day. It can be as simple as walking around the block when you get home from work as long as you do something every day that gets you moving.
Don’t skip meals, either. Get up early enough to eat breakfast in the morning and avoid skipping lunch. If you miss a meal, you are far more likely to make poor food choices later in the day. If you are never hungry in the morning, you don’t have to eat a huge breakfast but have at least a banana to give your body the fuel it needs.
Find a Spiritual Connection
Connecting to the wider world brings a sense of peace to your life and forces you to slow down for at least a few minutes. Whether you start a Bible study, attend a synagogue or join a local coven, tapping into your spiritual side gives you a unique boost of energy. Most people who start regularly putting time into some sort of spiritual or religious development find an increase sense of purpose, strength, motivation and peace in their lives. Churches, mosques and temples are also a great way to meet people who share similar values.
Giving back to your community will help you feel like you are making a difference in the world. People tend to derive a great deal of satisfaction from helping others, and working with the less fortunate individuals in your area can help you appreciate what you have.
Volunteer opportunities are available beyond traditional soup kitchens as well. Animal shelters are almost always in need of volunteers, and organizations like Big Brothers, Big Sisters or events like Relay for Life rely on volunteers. Take the time to find a cause you are passionate about and donate some of your time. Organize a K9’s For Warriors color run or a community yard sale that donates its proceeds to St. Jude. Donating time, instead of money, lets you truly connect to the cause you are supporting, meet people who share your passion and let you see how you are making at least a small difference in the world.
Scientists have proven that it is impossible to be grateful and stressed at the same time. The odds are good that you have a lot that is causing you stress but also many reasons to feel gratitude. Take some time every day to think about the reasons you have to be grateful. Keep a gratitude journal and list all the reasons you have to be grateful before you go to bed. List five things you are grateful for at lunch or as you make coffee in the morning, and yes, coffee can be one of those things.
Gratitude has an interesting snowball effect. The more you focus on what you are grateful for, the more reasons you find to show gratitude. This cycle builds to keep you in a grateful state of mind all day and helps combat depression and anxiety better than simple optimism.
It’s extraordinary how often this is forgotten. Starting as young as middle school, we find ourselves in a self-destructive competition to see who got the least amount of sleep. This awful contest continues into the adult world where sleep deprivation is equated to work ethic. In reality, however, losing sleep doesn’t mean you are working harder. It means you are destroying your mind and body. Seven to nine hours of sleep is essential to keep both the mind and the body in working order. If you’ve ever spent a week skimping on sleep, you probably remember having little energy, being unable to focus and eating poorly. You also might not remember much of that week at all, because while we are sleeping, our brain is hard at work storing our memories. If you don’t sleep, you don’t remember. It’s that simple. Sleep is also when our bodies flush naturally occurring toxins from our brains. If you miss enough sleep, you can start suffering from brain inflammation.
Very few people are willing to form good sleeping habits despite their simplicity. If you want a good night’s sleep, turn off your electronics at least 30 minutes before bed and read a book. The bright light of a screen keeps your body from producing melatonin, an essential hormone for sleep. Reading a book, however, involves lower light and makes your eyes tired. Tired eyes trick your brain into thinking you are sleepier than you actually are and helps you fall asleep faster. For long term sleep health, develop a bedtime routine and turn the lights out at a similar time each night. Your body will fall into a rhythm that makes it easier to go to bed at night and get up in the morning feeling rested.
Self-help doesn’t have to involve a massive overhaul of your life. A change as small as going to bed 15 minutes earlier can make a world of difference. Think about what you want to change and develop a plan to break or make that habit. Then, stick to it. Taking it to the next level is that hard and that simple at the same time.