Beginning in 2015, I began publishing a list of ways to improve your life. Last year, as 2019 debuted, I published, “19 ways to improve your life.” The year before that, I published “18 ways to improve your life.” You get the idea. The tradition continues this year, with the addition of No. 20. And, just like last year, I’ve added bits and pieces to some of the 19 earlier items.
New Year’s resolutions often lose their power so quickly and completely that they have become cliché. But there are real, easily achieved ways to positively impact your life beginning this first week of January.
Here’s your cheat sheet of 20 for 2020. They aren’t in any particular order, so you can pick any one to start with.
If you complete just five, you’ll notice a demonstrable improvement in your existence. But if you get through nine of them, you could remake your life.
1. Try to recall one dream you had as a kid – whether it was being a poet or a rock drummer or a multimillionaire stock trader – and take just a single step in that direction. So often, the ideas we had as children were good ones, and we abandoned them out of fear. The step in the direction of your childhood dream can be very modest – signing up for a symposium on poetry, scheduling a single drum lesson, or buying a DVD on stock trading. Even just telling two people about your quiet dream can move it forward. Frozen dreams have a way of thawing out rapidly when you warm them just a tiny bit.
You’ve got to expect that your dream might well wrestle with you to remain just a fantasy. We resist our dreams because fully embracing them provokes anxiety – like jumping onto a raft that will take you down thrilling, but heart-stopping rapids. Your dream could argue that you should put it off until later, or that it’s entirely irrational, or that you don’t have the energy or the time or the money to pursue it. Don’t expect to feel great taking the first step in the direction of your dream. Take that step, in spite of your anxiety.
2. Think of your life story, going all the way back to infancy, as an autobiographical book that you can hold in your hands. Now, imagine which page or paragraph you are tempted to tear out and remove from the story. That page or paragraph might be the one that makes you feel profoundly sad or powerless or guilty or ashamed. Next, share it with someone who knows you well but has never heard about that event or phase in your life. Being willing to disclose the events in life we want to turn a blind eye to takes away the power those events have over us.
You can’t be loved unconditionally, especially by yourself, if you think some part of you or what you lived through is too dark to bring into the light.
3. Give a meaningful gift to a friend of yours on a random day – not his birthday or her anniversary or Christmas. Giving gifts on those days is fine, but that isn’t the same as an unexpected, unscheduled gift. Those are the ones that feel riskier to give and have more power to bond you to others who receive them. And that’s because they’re real and independent expressions of friendship, affection, admiration or love.
Giving gifts has an interesting side effect; you’ll feel wealthier, even though you’ve just spent a little money. Why? Because human beings either feel bountiful or barren. Giving of yourself doesn’t deplete you. It fills you up.
4. Send handwritten notes to three people you admire most in the world, no matter how powerful or famous, tell them sincerely exactly why you admire them and ask to meet for 10 minutes. There’s a real chance one of them will take you up on the offer. And that one meeting could change you, because great energy is contagious and being in the company of it can stay with you.
Very few people actually reach out, personally, for help from those who can give it the most. Do you know why? They worry they’ll be rejected or made fun of. But think about it. If you have no attachment to the outcome of your note-writing campaign, if you understand from the get-go that you may receive no replies to your three notes, then there’s really no risk. Here’s another hint: You could send out 50 of them. Or 100. And there’s no rational reason not to.
5. Give some amount (no matter how small) to the charity you care most about. As I said above, giving is a miracle, because it helps others while also telling your unconscious mind that yours is a life of abundance, not scarcity. And that invites more treasures into your existence. Here’s one I just gave to, which I happen to know is completely legit and does great work, the Warrior Reunion Foundation Here’s another one I’m giving to today: www.barnsanctuary.org.
6. Stop telling yourself you love people just because you grew up with them. This is a big one, but a really important one. Did your parents and siblings earn your love by unconditionally loving you as a child? If so, great. But if you’ve been wishing that had been the case and have felt unwilling to let the dream of having had unconditionally loving parents or siblings slip away, then loosen your grip. If the people you grew up with weren’t focused on helping you stay true to yourself, then admit it to yourself. You might stop unconsciously recruiting people just like them into your life.
Here’s the key question: Who has loved you and who has been attached to you? Loving you requires the intent to know you as an individual and to honor and foster your uniqueness. Attachment can feel very powerful, but it is closer to owning you than celebrating you.
7. Schedule an initial life coaching, counseling or psychotherapy session. These are the gold standard ways to begin to get to become the person you were always meant to be. In a world of distractions and depersonalization, these are professions reliably focused on restoring your connection to your true self and your full potential. Hopefully, that first session will convince you of the power of teaming up with a coach or counselor to change your life, and you’ll schedule more. No one with the financial ability to do so should deny himself or herself that transformational opportunity.
One caveat: Not every coach, counselor or psychotherapist would be a good fit for you. Some aren’t a good fit for anyone, because they aren’t very talented. If your first session leaves you cold, try scheduling one more with someone else. The first counselor I went to wasn’t worth my time or my money. The second one utterly changed my life.
8. Get angry about something unfair, say so out loud and don’t stand for it. Anger gets a really bad rap in our culture; it’s accused of everything from destroying people spiritually to causing heart attacks. But suppressed anger can be more toxic. When you’re offended by something you hear about in the news or you see unfolding in your personal life, try saying so, in no uncertain terms, when you’re asked about it – or maybe even if you aren’t. For those of you who have been living lives of quiet frustration, letting yourselves be very direct and very mad about something that sincerely outrages you can start to crack the shell that has your most powerful self inside it.
Here’s one of my favorite Bible verses: Am I therefore become your enemy, because I tell you the truth? Galatians 4:16 King James Version (KJV)
9. Take two minutes to think about life as a labyrinth. Mazes are built to frustrate people and get them lost. They’re full of dead ends designed to make people give up and call for helicopters to pluck them out. Not so with labyrinths. Labyrinths may wind this way and that way. They may take you far from where you thought you were heading. But they always, always lead to the center. And that’s what life is like. Keep walking, keep your faith and life will take you where you are supposed to go. The turn toward the center could be just a few steps away, when you least expect it.
Now, keep this in mind, too: You don’t get to choose the day or week or year that turn toward the center happens. It could be tomorrow or it could be many tomorrows from now. The point is to know that it is coming, not to know when.
10. Try praying, at least once. If you haven’t prayed ever or haven’t prayed lately, you’ll discover that the act of praying for what you care deeply about has the effect of reminding you what that thing or those things really are. It also has the effect of reminding you that there is a great power in the universe that you are a part of. There’s something interesting about praying; even people who say they don’t believe in God are loathe to pray for the opposite of what they really want. How come? Is it because that, underneath all that cynicism, they actually do believe? I recently completed my graduate certificate in pastoral counseling at Liberty University. The power of prayer has never been clearer to me.
11. Read “Franny and Zooey” by J.D. Salinger, “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield, “Self-Creation” by the great psychologist George Weinberg (used copies available online), “Blue Dog” by George Rodrigue, “Fear God and Take Your Own Part,” by Theodore Roosevelt, “Zen or the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Pirsig, or “The Betrayal of the Self” by Arno Gruen (or, even better, all seven). These seven volumes have the power to transform people, and I keep handing them out to patients and friends (along with – please forgive the narcissism – my book, “Living the Truth”). If you’re really short on time or intention, just read the Afterword to a later edition of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”
12. Buy one piece of original art. It doesn’t need to be expensive. It just needs to appeal to you. Why? Because art is the antidote to our sometimes sterile, technologically driven culture. It makes humanity go viral in a way that YouTube can’t. It also confirms your connection to things that can’t be measured – like your personal vision of beauty. A good alternative is to create a piece of art. Just be sure to buy yourself the proper brushes or paints or glue or wood to create it. That will be a signal to yourself that you value what you are manifesting.
13. Watch the movie “Miracle,” with Kurt Russell. This film about the 1980 U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team defeating Russia’s team is so good, it can convince you to take on the next great challenge in your life. I don’t know anyone who has watched it and been unaffected by it. Also watch the closing argument by Paul Newman at the end of the film “The Verdict,” the scene of Sylvester Stallone and Talia Shire on the beach in “Rocky III,” the monologue by Al Pacino toward the end of the film “The Scent of a Woman” and any performance of “God Bless the USA” by Lee Greenwood. They can help make you a better person. No kidding.
14. Tell your romantic partner one thing you would find exciting that you have not yet told that person. In my experience as a therapist, I’ve found that people can remain strangers to one another, in terms of passion, even after 10 or 20 years of marriage. We keep secrets. Let one out. You can write it down and pass it to your partner as a note, like we did back in grade school, before cell phones. See what happens. Take the risk.
15. Stand up for someone else. You’ll have the opportunity this year. I promise. Maybe in your home. Maybe in your neighborhood. Maybe at work. Maybe online. Defending someone will reassure that person and empower you.
16. Take 20 minutes to pretend that you are speaking to yourself, from the heart, as though you are your own ideal parent. You can do this out loud, if you have the stage presence, or silently. An ideal parent is empathetic, but honest in assessing his or her child and giving that child advice. Sit yourself down, get very quiet and, then, tell yourself – with the same care you would summon for a son or daughter – two things you really admire about yourself and one very limiting, very disappointing thing about yourself you really wish you would try to change, because it could limit the whole rest of your life. That one thing should be so on-target and so necessary that it has the power to make you angry, make you anxious, bring you to tears or bring you to your knees. Focusing longer (say, 15 minutes) on the admirable qualities is something you’d do for your kid, to take the sting out of the next 5 minutes, so do that for yourself. And keep in mind that 20 minutes is a long time. You’ll be tempted to avoid it or shorten it. But you shouldn’t.
17. If you are a parent, resolve to mimic a habit I stumbled upon when my kids were younger. It really helps me stay balanced during times that might otherwise cause me lots of stress. Here it is: Whenever I get a phone call or an email or a text from someone telling me a project of mine or a goal or a relationship has hit a rough patch, I tell myself silently: “Yeah, well this isn’t like a pediatrician calling me.” What I mean is that, short of bad news about a child of mine, coming from a pediatrician (or, if your kids are older, like mine, an internal medicine doctor), nothing can really rock me. Because all of us parents know exactly how much time we would have for what seem like the big problems of our day or our week, if the phone rang, and a doctor on the other end said something like, “Can I ask where you are? Because I’ve seen your son, and I have something serious to talk with you about. I’d like you to come in.” I’d have no time for all my other so-called problems, and neither would you. So, things are actually better than we actually realize, most all of the time.
18. Remind yourself that neither you, nor I, nor anyone else is assured of another New Year’s Eve. I know that may sound morbid, but it’s also true. This could be your last year. It could be my last year. Don’t deny that fact, embrace it. Try waking up as many days as you can thinking to yourself, “If I can leave a bit of a positive mark today, I will.” Maybe it will be as simple as listening a little longer to someone than you might be inclined to. Maybe it will be complimenting someone who deserves it. Maybe it will be calling an old friend to tell her you were thinking of her. We are all a series of thousands of actions. Every single one of them matters. And there’s no way of knowing when we won’t have another chance to add to the list.
19. Write out a thoughtful, healing, motivating message to yourself and read it every morning. Your journey through life is an ongoing one, but it also begins anew each waking day. Reminding yourself of the grand roadmap you intend to travel can create a silent and powerful narrative that plays at the back of your mind, coaxing you toward higher self-esteem—and your dreams.
20. Think of one person you respect or like a whole lot, whom you’ve lost touch with. Get back in touch, by the end of the day on January 8. That gives you a week to reach out—by email or text or, even better, by writing a letter or calling on the phone. Chances are that the person you select is someone you’re “supposed” to be back in touch with. Why? Because you’ll have chosen him or her, and the universe is a lot less random than you might think. One other thing: Let the person know that he or she was your first choice of 2020—of everyone possible—to reconnect with.
So, there are your 20 keys to making 2020 a transformational year. As I did last year, I give them to you with the certain knowledge that you still have, inside you, all the wonderful potential you did the very first day you were born. You haven’t lost one bit of it. It’s all there, just waiting for you to discover it.
Don’t delay. Start on the list today, and by this time next year, God willing, you’ll be ready for the 21 steps for 2021. Life is like that: a never-ending process of self-improvement.
–Keith Ablow, MD