2014 might have been the best year of my life. That's saying a lot; I've had a lot of years that I really enjoyed. But this year I published a novel, regained control over my health, refocused my priorities, spent more time on activities I enjoy, and massively improved my cooking and cleaning habits. Oh, and we had a child in 2014 who is now eight months old.
Here's how I did it.
1. Start a Journal For, Well, Everything
The first step to making life happen is planning for it. This is a tough one for me as I generally hate planning stuff out, and I know I'm not alone. But it's a bit like eating your vegetables - everyone knows they should do it and it'd totally make their lives better if they did, but most of us, well, don't.
The key, I've found, is to write down everything. If it's important for me to do, it's going into my planner. If you're a skeptic, try keeping a journal of your time for a few days: If you wake up at 8:18, write down 8:18 - Woke up. If you spend two minutes in the bathroom, "write 8:18-8:20 - took a piss." If you sit down to pay your bills online for half an hour, write it down. Make lunch? Write it down. Do chores? Write it down. And make sure you write down every single time you take a break to check Facebook or Twitter for "just a minute."
Most people are horrified to see just how inefficient their lives are. And they probably should be.
It's like with dieting: Research shows that people who write down every single thing they eat - every meal, every snack, even sip of orange juice from the fridge when you stop in the kitchen to put away dishes - along with the calorie content, have a much greater success rate at losing weight. Why? Because people generally have no concept of how much they eat and drink and how many calories is in the stuff they consume. We know, but we don't know. Our brains don't process it. Writing it all down forces you to realize the action you are (or, more commonly, aren't) taking.
There's no joke here - the Bullet Journal is Super Effective.
Turns out, that works with just about everything. No need to get fancy: I've had the most success with the analog system the Bullet Journal. Simple, easy, and infinitely customizable.
2. Set Goals
Make yourself a list of goals for the next six months. Why six months? Because the further away your realization date is, the easier it is to procrastinate. No, you're not going to write that entire trilogy you've always wanted to write in six months - but you might be able to write that first book. No, you won't be able to lose 100 pounds in six months - but you might be able to lose 30.
Dreams are not goals. "Win the lottery" isn't a goal. "Earn a million dollars at my job" isn't for most people, either. Write down ONLY things which are achievable and that have concrete steps you can take to accomplish.
Then, at the beginning of each month, write down smaller goals which will advance your six month goals. Six months is still way too much time to allow for procrastination. So if you want to finish that novel, maybe you'll get the first three chapters done this month. If you want to lose 30 pounds in six months, you'll lose five this month, and so on.
Then, when you're writing out your to do list for the day in your handy-dandy notebook, write something "to do" for each thing on your list that will move you toward those goals. Buy a new keyboard so you can start writing. Start your outline. Go to the gym. Cook a healthy dinner. Whatever your goal for the month is, put something on your to-do list that moves you toward that goal.
3. Put Work Before Play
Now that you've got your to-do list, it's time to get to work. And by get to work, I mean not goofing off. That's been the biggest change for me in the last six months: If there's something left undone on my to-do list for the day, I don't check Facebook. I don't check e-mail. I don't pick up the phone. I don't go out for coffee with friends. That stuff can wait, I'm busy.
Learning to take this approach is one of the biggest steps toward success a person can make. The reasoning behind it is simple: Figure out that which is most important to you, and then spend your time doing that instead of doing trivial stuff. Ask someone what they want out of life and they might say "learn to play the guitar." But then the guitar stays in the case while they watch reruns of How I Met Your Mother. The important thing will be left undone while something forgettable will take its place.
I wish the HIMYM finale was forgettable, anyway.
You'll be astounded how much extra time you have on your hands if you spend it doing the things you want to do instead of the things you default to doing without thinking.
4. Acknowledge When You're Making Excuses
Look, everyone needs to relax. The key is relaxing with a sense of purpose instead of a sense of guilt. My wife and I watch Brooklyn Nine-Nine on a regular basis. There's nothing wrong with that (unless you don't want to watch the funniest show on TV). But I schedule it in. I acknowledge, "right now, I want to be watching television instead of writing a novel, hanging out with friends, reading a book, or doing chores. This thing I am doing right now is exactly what I want to be doing, and I am okay with that."
It's surprising how difficult that is for some people, but it's a real game changer. It sets aside time for relaxation, keeps me focused and less likely to procrastinate when I'm not relaxing, and makes the experience itself much more enjoyable when I'm not feeling anxious about leaving something else undone.
Relaxing is fine. Just admit that it's what you want to be doing, and do it with a clear conscience. If you can't, go take care of what's bothering you and come back to your relaxation of choice when you can actually enjoy it.
5. Don't Let Setbacks Become Failures
This is my favorite time of the year to be at the gym. It's my favorite time because January 1 is the magical date when everyone in the world digs up their headbands and leg warmers (or whatever it is that people wear if it's not 1985) and swears that damn it, this is the year I'm really getting into shape. Then, I get to go back to the gym day after day and watch it slowly decline from packed on January 1 to "business as usual" by about January 10.
Why? Because people are way better at making plans than keeping them, and most people, upon seeing that something has not gone according to plan, throw the whole thing out.
Resist that temptation. You're not going to get to the gym every day this year. You're not going to write every day. You aren't going to practice the guitar, or cook healthy, or do anything you plan to do, 100% of the time. Sorry. People just don't work that way.
Pictured: Every gym everywhere on every day that isn't the first week of January.
When you do skip a day in your journal, or spend the day binge watching Tru Blood instead of cleaning the house, or whatever your vice of choice is, you now have one goal and one goal only: containment.
Do not let your perceived lapse in judgement leak into the next day, or the next meal, or the next whatever it is. Let one mistake be one mistake. They'll happen, and that's okay. But don't let one day of oversleeping turn into a year of wondering why you bought a gym membership if you never go. Make it your number one priority the following day to continue on the course you were prior to taking the day off. One mistake is not a justifiable excuse for making a second.
So, that's what I did in 2014, and what I'll be doing this year as well. Hopefully you find the year just as fruitful as I will.