So you want to be happier, healthier, and more successful?
You don’t necessarily need to resolve to change your life at the New Year – you can do it any time. But faced with unlimited advice and little time to spare, it’s hard to know where to start.
The following 21-day self-improvement program is designed for busy people. It features a few habits that will make a big difference if you can get started with them, along with a bunch of tasks that most of us have probably been putting off for too long.
You can start on any Monday and should complete the actions on their specified day when possible. We recommend embarking on this challenge with at least one other person, so you’ll have more fun and keep each other in check.
The following slides go through the days and the science behind them in detail.
This is an updated version of a post. Drake Baer contributed to a previous version.
MONDAY, DAY 1: Floss your teeth. Do it every day for the rest of your life.
Believe it or not, as many as 60% of Americans don’t floss every day. Yet this core dental hygiene technique will clean your teeth and gums of plaque, protecting your teeth as you age and saving you on dental bills. Some studies have even found that flossing is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, and dementia.
If you are one of the people who don’t floss, make today the day you start doing it consistently.
How can you get in the habit?
Stanford psychologist B.J. Fogg is one of the foremost researchers on habit formation. The takeaway from all his work:Floss one tooth.
If you’re trying to form a habit, it can be helpful to start as small as possible, with a minimum viable habit. The point,Fogg emphasizes, is to insert the structure of the activity in your day, rather than doing it perfectly every time. This way of thinking works for all habits, and it works for flossing, too – though if you floss the whole mouth, you’ll be doing even better.
TUESDAY, DAY 2: Break a sweat. Do it every day for the rest of your life.
Even just a little bit of exercise has huge benefits. Research shows that running just five to 10 minutes a day can add years to your life, and if you establish that habit now, you can build on it.
A seven-minute workout using interval training could make a huge difference, too, and longer workouts are obviously great as well.
The key is finding a workout you can stick to. But there’s no shame in starting small.
WEDNESDAY, DAY 3: Write in a journal. Do it every day for the rest of this program.
Psychologists have been studying “expressive writing,” or journaling about difficult moments in your life, for a few decades. They’ve found that a few minutes journaling improves everything from your mood to immune system to sporting performance. Psychology researchers have repeatedly found that keeping a “gratitude journal” can improve well-being.
It works for work, too: A Harvard Business School study found that people who wrote about their jobs improved their performance by 23%.
“When people have the opportunity to reflect, they experience a boost in self-efficacy,” said HBS professor Francesca Gino. “They feel more confident that they can achieve things. As a result, they put more effort into what they’re doing and what they learn.”
So as a part of this life-improvement adventure, try reflecting on your day. You can also take the opportunity to look at the tasks that lie ahead and start making plans for the ones that require preparation.
If you find journaling to be useful, keep it up.
THURSDAY, DAY 4: Pick up a novel.
Let’s start in on something scarce in modern life: reading an actual novel.
Even though other researchers have pushed back on the idea that reading directly changes you, we’d argue it’s still worth picking up a novel.
Leaders ranging from Barack Obama to Bill Gates to Elon Musk all provide book recommendations, always including fiction they think could help readers better understand the world. In general, it’s a way of getting perspective on things – while also taking a break from the absorbing and distracting online world.
Reading the same book as a friend or partner will help keep you on track (as with every life-improvement strategy on this list), and you can get together to discuss it when you’re done. Then you’ll have the beginnings of a book club – assuming you keep reading, as you should.
FRIDAY, DAY 5: Go out to lunch with a colleague you don’t know well.
When you think of networking, you probably imagine grabbing a coffee or drink with a potential client, employer, or mentor for the benefit of your career. But you might be missing out on valuable relationships in your own office.
Rather than eating lunch at your desk or with a buddy, strike up a conversation with an acquaintance and see if they’d like to grab something to eat.
Corporate coach Beth Weissenberger of the Handel Group has worked with executives at companies like GE and the New York Times, teaching them how to navigate office politics for maximum productivity and success. Office politics shouldn’t mean gossiping and manipulation, Weissenberger said. They should be about building meaningful relationships with the people you’re surrounded by all day.
SATURDAY, DAY 6: Go to a museum.
Museum visits (besides being fun) come with a list of cognitive benefits that can help you become more creative, literate, and well-rounded.
After visiting an art museum, students show stronger critical thinking skills and are more socially tolerant. Adults show similar benefits.
Visiting a museum can also relieve mental fatigue and restore the ability to focus similar to the way that being outdoors can, according to research from the University of Queensland in Australia.
Plus, going to a museum is a novelty-seeking venture, which triggers your brain to be open to learning. Not only does this provide long lasting cognitive benefits, it’s also connected to one of the Big 5 personality traits – openness to experience. This is the trait most associated with creative achievement.
If you are a frequent museum-goer, try to pick one you haven’t been to before. If your last museum experience was a class field trip, go on your own or with a companion – and keep an open mind.
SUNDAY, DAY 7: Volunteer.
There are countless causes out there that could use your help, but if that isn’t enough motivation, there are also many ways volunteering will improve your life.
Engaging in generous behavior makes people feel good – as good as if their household income doubled, according to a study byHarvard Business School researchers.
The strong feeling you get from connecting with those you’re helping actually has a physical effect on your body. The oxytocin hormone our brain releases during moments of empathy lowers levels of the stress-causing cortisol hormone.
The good thing about all of these benefits is that when you start volunteering, you’ll probably like it enough to keep doing it regularly – thereby making the world a better place.
If you need some help finding a place where you can volunteer, check out Volunteer Match.
MONDAY, DAY 8: Start using a spending tracking app — or at least think about your budget.
Money is dangerously easy to spend, and if you’re not tracking it, you’ll spend it even faster.
In recent years, a handful of companies have built easy-to-use apps that take the “ugh” out of budgeting.
You Need a Budget can sync with your financial information and tries to incorporate all your spending to help you plan for the future. You can try it for free, though you’ll need to start paying for the service after 34 days.
Mint is fully free to use. Owned by Intuit, the makers of Quicken, Mint is a web and mobile app that gives you a complete overview of your finances – letting you connect your bank accounts, credit cards, and investments so that you can see the full picture in one place. Mint automatically categorizes your spending, though it’s not always accurate, so users generally need to review transactions to make sure everything is correct. You can also create manual categories to get a clearer analysis.
In general, the most helpful thing you can do for your finances is to stop and think about them for a few moments so you can figure our your priorities and seek out the answers to any questions you have.
TUESDAY, DAY 9: Get rid of any clothes that you haven’t worn in a full year.
You may love that pair of ripped jeans from college, but there’s no way you’re wearing them out of the house. Chances are they’re one of a dozen or more articles of clothing you don’t need anymore.
Let go of your emotional attachment and give these clothes people who might actually wear them. You can donate clothes to places like Goodwill, the Salvation Army, and Vietnam Veterans of America. (In the case of those ripped jeans, some organizations reuse fabric from torn clothes.)
If you have a particularly trendy item that you’d rather sell for some cash, this doesn’t have to be a purely altruistic activity. You can bring those items to a local second-hand store or check out sites like Tradesy, Twice, and Threadflip.
It’s also good for your home to get rid of clutter. Plus, you’ll make room for new clothes that you’ll like better.
WEDNESDAY, DAY 10: Get your email under control.
In 1946, Gertrude Stein wrote “Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.”
If only she knew what we face today.
But there are some tricks to getting your unread emails down to zero, or at least something more sustainable – though it’s going to take some work.
First, unsubscribe from the email newsletters you’ve signed up for that you don’t read – in most cases, you can do that with just one or two clicks at the bottom of each email.
Then if you want to get rid of everything, there are a few approaches.
For one, try to delete or archive everything you can – any old newsletter, deal, or receipt. Then answer any message that can be responded to in under five minutes. If there are things that will take longer to respond to, use a system. File those emails in a “respond later” folder, and schedule a time to do so. You could also use an app like Boomerang that can make an email pop up in your inbox again after a certain amount of time. You can also use that app to schedule emails to send later.
Going forward, try using filters to group important emails or automatically archive ones you don’t want to delete, like receipts, but don’t want in your inbox. You can also decide to limit how much you look at email and only check on a set timeframe, like once every hour or two. Then you may be better able to devote energy and concentration to the task.
Another valid approach is to simply accept that it’s impossible to read everything and ignore that notification box. But in that case, try to respond to the important messages as soon as they come in.
THURSDAY, DAY 11: Reach out to three people who you haven’t talked to recently.
There are three types of interpersonal ties: weak, strong, and absent.
The 1973 study “The Strength of Weak Ties” by Mark Granovetter of Johns Hopkins University found that the strong ties you share with close friends and family generally will not get you ahead. Instead, the most promising ties are the weak ones you share with acquaintances.
Even though the members of your inner circle may care about you deeply, they also tend to have access to the same people and information that you do.
So take some time to reconnect with three former friends or associates that you haven’t talked to in months or years. Not only will it feel good to get back in touch, but there’s a chance you’ll be helpful to one another.
It’s up to you whether to call or send an email or text message. If you’re unsure, email is probably the best choice as it represents a good compromise between efficiency and the potential for a meaningful message. Then you can always arrange a follow-up call or meeting.
FRIDAY, DAY 12: Go see a live show.
Steve Jobs used to say that the people with the most insight were those who had the biggest “bag of experiences.”
If you want to add to your bag, make an effort to see performing arts like classical music, theater, dance, or rock concerts.
Live shows are a way to tap directly into your local culture, and they’ve also been shown to have a noticeable effect on viewers. A2002 survey found that attending such events increases cultural understanding, facilitates a sense of connection to a community, and inspires personal creativity.
Go with friends or make it a date – then the performance will be a bonding experience, too.
SATURDAY, DAY 13: Go on a trip to somewhere you’ve never been before.
It’s time to get out of town.
Heading to previously unknown locales – even if that means the next town over – is fantastic for you neurological and psychological well-being. Travel is an opportunity to relax, learn, and try something new. Some research on aging shows that travelers can even experience stress reduction and cognitive benefits.
As philosopher Alain de Botton would say, travel expands us.
“It is not necessarily at home that we best encounter our true selves,” he wrote in “The Art of Travel.” “The furniture insists that we cannot change because it does not; the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we are in ordinary life, who may not be who we essentially are.”
SUNDAY, DAY 14: Make art.
If the cave paintings dotted around the world can tell us anything, it’s that humans and our Neanderthal predecessors have been making art for over 60,000 years.
But the visual arts aren’t just nice to look at. Decades of psychological research shows that making art has all sorts of benefits for people’s well-being.
The research suggests that creating visual art has these effects:
• Improved well-being by decreasing negative emotions and increasing positive ones
• Improvements in flow and spontaneity, expression of grief, positive identity, and social networks
• Reductions in distress and negative emotions
Literary arts offer similar benefits. As we’ve mentioned before, the act of writing improves well-being, reduces anxiety, and even boosts your immune system.
With that in mind, take a stab at creating some kind of artwork. It’s going to take some time – we’re asking for at least 90 minutes. If you have some sketching skills, you could draw a still life on your kitchen table. If you’re less practiced, use pastels to create some abstract art. If you’re prefer to stay linguistic, write a poem describing a scene you witnessed recently.
These don’t have to be “good” – what matters is that you create.
MONDAY, DAY 15: Think about the lifestyle you want in the future.
“4-Hour Workweek” author Tim Ferriss and other productivity nerds say the most effective way to make life plans is something called lifestyle design. Instead of focusing on the status you want to attain, it’s better to focus on the life you want to experience. Thinking about lifestyle design means considering the elements needed for us to flourish – like money, mobility, time, and relationships – and how we want those things to come together.
So take some time to envision the lifestyle you want in one year, five years, ten years. One simple way to do that brainstorming is to try something called the perfect day exercise. Here’s “The $US100 Startup” author Chris Guillebeau’s take:
In this classic exercise, you write out your idealized, perfect day in great detail, beginning from what time you get up and what you have for breakfast all the way through what you do for each hour of the day and who you talk to. The more detail you can add to the plan, the better.
Then you begin to make plans to adjust your life to get closer to the perfect day you’ve designed for yourself. If you take this exercise seriously, you may begin making more conscious decisions about how you spend your time and what you focus on. Even if you don’t make a lot of changes, you’ll learn a lot about yourself based on the information you acquire.
Grab a journal and plot out what your perfect days will look like at these points in your life.
By doing this, you’ll be better able to recognize opportunity when it knocks at your door.
TUESDAY, DAY 16: Take control of your online passwords.
This assignment may not be fun, but it’s important.
Passwords get stolen, databases get hacked. Being at risk of having your personal information stolen is not only a financial liability – it can result in the loss of irreplaceable information and photos.
Unfortunately, almost everyone fails to follow good advice on passwords: they put off updating passwords after data breaches, use the same passwords for multiple sites, or rely on overly simple passwords.
At the very least, you should take this occasion to change all your passwords and make sure you have two-step verification enabled for everything, with backup codes printed and stored in a secure location.
You just have to remember one “master password” and let the manager do the rest. Again, it won’t be fun to set up, but your life will be vastly easier and safer if you do.
WEDNESDAY, DAY 17: Make a financial plan for the future.
We all have things we want to accomplish in life, and, chances are, they won’t be cheap.
Even if you don’t have kids, it’s recommended that everyone have around six month’s worth of savings in case of an emergency. That’s on top of retirement savings, which at this point in time generally need to cover about 30 years of living expenses.
It’s time to think big. Get an idea of when your goals will become reality by listing:
– Your financial goals: These are major purchases or achievements like getting out of debt, buying a home, paying for a wedding, and taking that dream vacation.
– Your income: If you already have a budget, you should know your take-home pay. If not, look at your paychecks and add in any other income streams you may have.
– Your debts: Do you have credit card debt,student loans, a car loan, or a mortgage? These payments are obligations you must meet, so take them into account when planning how much money goes toward your goals.
Then get specific by adding deadlines to achieve these goals, taking into account your debt and income. How much will you need to put toward that goal per month in order to hit it?
If you need help thinking about these complicated matters, these are the five questions Business Insider senior editor and certified financial planner Lauren Lyons Cole says you should ask yourself.
THURSDAY, DAY 18: Rigorously update your LinkedIn page, resume, or professional website.
Updating and improving your LinkedIn profile or professional website not only prepares you for your next job but also forces you to examine your career objectively.
Take a look at your page right now and view it the way a recruiter would. First, make sure your photo is a quality portrait that presents you the way you want to look in your industry. If you’re going for a job on Wall Street, for example, you should be in formal wear; if you’re a Bay Area techie, it’s probably okay to appear in a nice t-shirt.
Your Summary section should give a clear and concise description of who you are and what you have to offer. Get rid of any large blocks of texts, making sure that everything is easy to scan.
If you aren’t a LinkedIn user and use a professional portfolio site instead, make sure it’s up to date, that links to any of your work are still valid, and you’re satisfied the information you’re presenting accurately represents you.
And while you’re at it, now is also a good time to update your résumé so that it’s current and organized in a clean and concise way.
And make sure your page isn’t boring. Use your personality in your writing and make sure you link to your relevant social media pages and websites, as well as any work you would like to share.
FRIDAY, DAY 19: Reach out to two people you admire but have never met.
You’d be surprised at the connections you can make with highly influential people just by sending the right email.
To be clear, don’t expect to set up a coffee date with Barack Obama anytime soon, but consider some of your favorite writers, entrepreneurs, artists, athletes – anyone influential that you would enjoy hearing from. You might have the best luck with someone who is currently out of the limelight, since they’ll have an inbox that isn’t flooded with media requests.
Personal finance author Ramit Sethi recommends sending an email that follows this format: Introduce yourself, reach a commonality (i.e. explain how has this person influenced you), and then ask a question.
Keep things concise, and be humble. And of course, make sure that whatever you ask can’t be answered with a simple Google search.
After you get in touch with this person – whether you get a single-line emailed response or a meeting over coffee – follow up with them.
Sethi says that refined networking skills separate the mediocre from the truly successful. The best $US100 you can spend in a year may be the coffees or lunches you by for those who can help you.
SATURDAY, DAY 20: Spend at least three hours in nature.
You’re almost there.
Your penultimate assignment is another that should be fun and also offers important benefits.
Go outside – a park will do, but if you can go on a hike, even better.
Spending time in nature lowers stress levels, restores mental energy, improves vision, and provides a creativity boost – along with much more.
For those reasons, psychiatrists in Japan are prescribing their patients shinrin yoku, or wilderness bathing.
Not only is going outside good for you, it should also be enjoyable. You can combine breaking a sweat and spending time with friends and do something that should leave you feeling happier afterward.
While outside, you can even take some time to reflect on the past few weeks of challenges and changes.
SUNDAY, DAY 21: Cook an ambitious dinner.
Take this final day to celebrate with friends and also practice a crucial skill.
Cooking at home “solves everything,” according to bestselling author and James Beard Foundation Leadership Award winner Mark Bittman. He wrote that people who eat at real food cooked at home eat significantly healthier meals and save money. Plus, research shows that food tastes better if you’ve worked to prepare it.
Make sure you cook “real food” – nothing processed or that comes prepared and just has to be heated up. That’s the best way to eat well, according to nutritionists and diet researchers. Healthy eating, of course, is one of the best ways to stay healthy.
As for what “ambitious” means, decide for yourself. If you never cook, cook; if you cook often, then cook an elaborate meal.
“It’s as varied and challenging and rewarding a task as exists,” Bittman wrote of cooking.
Eating dinner with friends is about as good a bonding experience as there is, too. Regale them with stories from the past three weeks of your self-improvement kick.
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