It’s New Year’s again, and time to drag out the usual lists: New Year’s resolutions, what worked and didn’t work in 2017, goals for 2018, and so on. I’m not down on lists: I’ve made a fair number of them over the years, and they can be very useful to help organize and keep yourself on track.
What I think is needed, though, is something more than a list, something that will help improve your chances of success in the New Year. I’d like to propose a month-by-month plan and a process for 2018 that will give you a road map for increasing your personal freedom throughout the year, no matter what other lists you make.
The foundation for your 2018 plan is your Five Freedoms: Physical, Mental, Spiritual, Social, and Financial. Each month, you’ll focus on important components of The Five Freedoms, so that by the end of the year, you’ll have adopted positive habits that will create more freedom in every area of your life.
You can, of course, personalize the list, focusing on those areas where you feel you need to make more progress, or which resonate more with you and your other lists (goals, resolutions, and so on). The important thing is to focus on one thing at a time, make progress, create good habits, and build on those habits as the year progresses to create a life of freedom, happiness, and accomplishment.
A quick note on habit formation before starting: depending on which studies you read, habits take somewhere between 16 and 30 days to form. I’m going to err on the side of caution here, and say that each month you should aim to build habits by repeating behaviors for 30 days, following the 30/30/1 rule: spend at least 30 minutes each day, for 30 days, on the number 1 habit you want to build for that month (Robin Sharma likes to elongate this time-frame, with his 90/90/1 rule: spend the first 90 minutes of each day, for the next 90 days, on your number 1 priority). The shorter time-frame allows you to build more good habits throughout the year, and allows you to shift your focus over time as your priorities evolve.
Let’s get going!
The Five Freedoms begin with physical preparation. Way back around 100CE, the Roman rhetorician and satirist Juvenal said it best: mens sana in corpore sano, a sound mind in a sound body. A healthy, strong, and able body is key to a healthy mind, and numerous studies over the past 20 years have shown the link between sleep, physical activity, hydration, and nutrition on the one hand, and a calm, peaceful, happy, focused, and productive state of mind on the other.
In January, focus on laying the physical foundation for a great New Year:
- Get 8 hours of sleep a night (less if it works for you)
- Drink 8, 8-ounce glasses of water per day
- Eat nutritious, healthy foods: stay away from processed sugars, simple carbohydrates, and artificial ingredients (Drew Ramsey’s The Happiness Diet is a great guide to constructing a healthy diet that’s higher in protein, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats, and lower in sugars and simple carbohydrates)
- Be active: move vigorously every day for at least 30 minutes (always consult your doctor before beginning a regimen of physical exercise!): jogging, bicycling, swimming, even simple walking on a regular basis increases muscle, decreases fat, and increases blood flow to the brain
You can work on just one of these foundational elements of physical freedom, or all four; you will have an entire year to develop all these habits, so pick at least one for January and do it for at least 30 consecutive days. James Clear, the author and photographer who studies habits, has created an excellent “habit guide” to help you get started. In a nutshell, his guidance is to start simple, make small improvements, break bigger habits into smaller pieces to make more progress, get back on track when you slip, and be patient as you continue to build your good habits over time. You can also hop on to one of the online wellness programs out there to get a jump-start; The Whole Life Challenge is a great 6-week program designed to help you feel better by implementing 7 Daily Habits including exercise, stretching, hydration, and reflection.
As you begin to build a solid physical foundation for our personal freedom, you will become calmer, happier, and more focused – all important components of mental freedom. To really jump-start your mental freedom, layer on a meditation practice in February to increase clarity and focus.
Meditation has been practiced in many different forms by many different cultures over many millennia. It is at once extraordinarily simple to get started, but also can take a lifetime to master. The good news is that even a beginner will see results from a meditation practice within 30 days.
Perhaps the simplest way to begin is with a straightforward “mindfulness” meditation, focusing on your breathing for 10 minutes. To begin, sit in a comfortable chair with your hands at your side or in your lap, with eyes closed. Prepare by relaxing your neck, shoulders, torso, arms, and legs, feeling the chair underneath supporting you as you relax. Then, bring your attention to your breathing: with every in-breath, focus on your lungs filling with air and think of yourself breathing in calmness, relaxation, and focus. With every out-breath, focus on your lungs emptying of air and think of yourself breathing out anxiety, stress, and chaos. At the end of 10 minutes, slowly open your eyes and take a deep, cleansing breath.
For a more in-depth “body scan” mindfulness meditation, check out Mindful.org’s site. There are many additional resources, including apps for your smartphone, that can help you begin and stay on track with a daily meditation practice (Headspace and Insight Timer are two of my favorite apps). I personally practice Transcendental Meditation, a twice-daily 20-minute mantra-based meditation; for more information on TM, and the location of the TM center nearest to you, check out https://www.tm.org; in addition, TM’s many benefits are rigorously presented by Dr. Norman Rosenthal, MD in his book, Super Mind.
There’s an old saying that March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb; that’s a good metaphor for establishing a calmer, gentler you by the end of the month, and a good image to keep in mind as you work on your fourth freedom this month, spirituality.
Spirituality is distinct from religiosity. Whether you are a practicing Catholic, a skeptical agnostic, or a convinced atheist, you can cultivate the spiritual aspect of your life distinct from any belief in a deity (Sam Harris has an excellent book on the topic, titled Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion). Spirituality is all about establishing your connection to every living thing on earth, belonging to something larger than yourself, and creating meaning for yourself. There are two practices that will help you get in touch with your spiritual side and develop a deeper connection with the world around you:
- Gratitude: thinking every day about the things in your life that you are grateful for
- Kindness: being kind to other living creatures (people, pets, and anything that respirates, conscious or not)
Each morning, practice listing three things in your life that you are grateful for (you can write them down or you can just think about them), whether trivial or profound. After just a few days of this practice, it will seem churlish of you to be a whiny, selfish complainer about even major problems in your life, as you realize just how much you have to be grateful for. And every day, perform at least one kind act toward another living creature, starting with the humans in your life who mean the most to you – your immediate family and closest friends. These acts of kindness don’t need to be monumental: far from it. You can start merely by thanking your significant other for making dinner, or one of your kids for getting their homework done without complaining. Kindness breeds kindness, and you will find after a few days that the people in your life will reciprocate, creating a virtuous spiral that will make everyone feel a little more connected to the people around them, and a little happier, too.
The return of warmer weather in the early days of spring is a great time to re-engage with other people after a long winter hibernation. Hence, April a good month to focus on social freedom, the 4th of our five freedoms. The core idea of social freedom is two-fold: one, to remove from your personal network all those people who are a negative influence on you (nay-sayers, those who don’t support you or actively get in the way of your progress by belittling you or throwing roadblocks in your way, people with bad habits that you may actively trying to overcome yourself, and so on), and two, to include in your personal network those people who will be positive influences on you and who will support you actively as you seek to make a better life for yourself.
I’m well aware of how difficult this can be; social pressures can be daunting, especially those exerted by long-time friends, acquaintances, and family members. For those people you can’t easily escape, there is a solution: practice not taking anything they do or say personally. From Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations to Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements, this is a time-tested method for reducing and eliminating the effects of negative people in your life, especially when you can’t physically, socially, financially, or emotionally remove yourself from them outright (or at least not right away).
So, for the 30 days of April, focus on two things:
- Not taking anything personally (it helps to remember that how people act towards you and what they say to you is all about their own self-perception and has nothing to do with you – so, why should you take it seriously?)
- Figuring out who the negative influences in your life are and removing them from your social circle
The first is a practice you can begin immediately and will help immeasurably with the second.
It may seem curious or frustrating to push off working on financial freedom until five months into the New Year; over the years, I have come to believe that, while financial freedom is certainly important (it is one of the foundational Five Freedoms, after all), it cannot be fully developed unless you have made at least some progress in physical, mental, spiritual, and social freedom. Why? Because part of financial freedom is realizing that there are many important things that money cannot buy, and that too much of a focus on money and the things that money buys can actually be an impediment to developing your personal freedom.
Rather than focusing on earning more money in May, I’d like to suggest focusing simply on spending less by eliminating thoughtless, automatic buying. David Bach of Finish Rich fame calls this the “latte factor” – automatic, periodic buying of small items that add up over the course of a year into significant sums.
This month, think about your automatic spending habits – what is your “latte factor,” the one (or two or three) small things that you spend money on every day or every week? Pick one (or more) of these and eliminate them from your life for the next 30 days. You’ll probably find that you don’t miss whatever it is you were wasting your money on, and that there are other items you can cut out, too, over the months ahead – make a game of it and see if you cut out one more silly spending item each month.
Continuing the theme of financial freedom, June’s focus is on the other side of the “latte factor” – saving the additional small amounts that are now available to you because you are curtailing your thoughtless, automatic buying. These small amounts can add up quickly: that latte can add up to $4.00 every day. Multiply that by 365 days, and you’ve got $1,460 – enough for a start on an emergency fund (everyone should have at least 3 to 6 months of expenses stashed away in such a fund, just in case).
How much did you save in May by eliminating some automatic spending? Take that amount and commit to saving it in June, too, and make that saving automatic by setting up a recurring transfer from your everyday checking account into a separate savings account (check out who’s paying the highest rates at http://www.bankrate.com). Now, instead of automatically spending $120 every month on latte, you’ll be automatically saving $120 every month; if you continue the habit of finding additional spending items you can curtail in the months ahead, you can increase the amount of your automatic savings and watch your bank balance grow.
Ah, July; summer is in full swing and the weekends are filled with barbecues, family outings, and outdoor frolics (for those of you who frolic). It’s a great time to follow the season and get outside for more healthy physical activity. There are dozens of ways to add an activity that gets you outside more often:
- Walking, jogging, or running
- Swimming in a pond, lake, river, or ocean
This month, try out a new outdoor activity for 30 days (or dust off an old one you haven’t done in a while) and add more physical freedom to your summer; for some ideas, check out this Huffington Post article on 50 fun summer activities (that may also help you burn some calories).
August is typically a month for vacations, for R&R in the hot summer sun, and for cramming in every remaining fun thing you thought you had all that time for back in June; September (and school) are right around the corner, so it’s time to make that last-ditch effort for summer fun before the usual routine starts again.
Rather than make August a haphazard, do-it-all-before-school month, I’d like you to focus on the synergy among three freedoms: physical, social, and financial. Why not use the opportunity of the last full summer month to catch up with family and friends doing fun, physically active outdoor activities that cost little or no money? That’s a trifecta if ever there was one, and focusing this month on how you can really leverage any remaining summer down-time to the utmost is a terrific practice in getting the most out of your time and creating more personal freedom. As you create this habit of synergizing physical, social, and financial freedom over the next 30 days, you will find yourself becoming more creative and discovering even more ways to combine the three. Some suggestions to get you started are:
- Hiking with family and friends on the weekends in local state parks less than two hours’ drive from where you live (you want to be able to get out and back in a day so you can avoid the expense of staying in a hotel or motel overnight).
- Camping staycations with family in your own backyard: many people love the idea of camping but can’t stand the long drives, sleeping on rocks and trees in the woods, or the thought of wild animals creeping around their tents at night, so why not set up a tent in your own yard (or a friend’s yard), and hang out within walking distance of indoor plumbing?
- Bike touring in the areas immediately surrounding where you live: you can easily dust off the old 10-speed, fill up a couple of water bottles, and pack some food into a small backpack as you explore local roads. At a leisurely pace of 7 to 10 miles per hour, you can easily make 15 miles before lunch, then head back home. String together a few days of this, and you’ve got your own budget bike tour with no hotel or guide expenses, just great fun and physical activity with family and friends at very low cost.
You get the idea: focus on creating fun, outdoor, physically active trips for yourself, friends, and family close to home using stuff you’ve already got (your own two feet and a backpack will do to start), and over the next 30 days you’ll develop the habit of finding and creating synergies among physical, social, and financial freedom that will last the rest of the year and beyond.
September is traditionally back-to-school month; from years in the education factories of our youths, we are trained to feel a certain nostalgia for the classroom in September (or a certain terror, depending on whether or not you enjoyed school). This is a good month to work on mental freedom by focusing and fostering our innate desire and ability to learn new things.
You habit for September is spending at least one hour each day learning something new. You can spend that one hour on something different each day, or string together 30 hours on something that takes a more focused effort, like learning a language. The internet is the world’s greatest facilitator of learning, so finding something new to learn each day is a breeze. Some examples and resources to get you started are:
- Learn a language in as little as 5 minutes a day, for free, with Duolingo
- Take a course in almost anything, for free, with Coursera
- Watch a TED talk, for free, and hear amazing speakers share their insights about almost anything you can think of
- Learn how to learn better by taking a free intro session from Jim Kwik
Google and YouTube are resources that will enable you to find instruction on just about anything you’d like, with just a quick search – so make the next 30 days an adventure in learning, open yourself up to new ideas and inspirations, and develop a life-long learning habit.
As the weather begins to turn, focus on physical freedom and how you can stay active and outdoors in the colder months by preparing now. Your focus for the 31 days of October is to acclimate yourself to daily physical activity outdoors as the temperatures drop and your thoughts turn to curling up on the couch with a hot chocolate. Get outside for at least 15 to 20 minutes every day, expose yourself to natural sunlight (in a recent blog post, I talk about the importance of getting outside and getting sunlight, especially in the cold, dark winter months; read it here ), move vigorously, and you’ll develop a critical habit to thriving, not just surviving, until the spring finally arrives. Some tips for enjoying outdoor activities during the colder months:
- Make sure to dress appropriately: more thin layers are better than fewer, heavier layers. If it’s raining, wear a raincoat or shell and waterproof shoes; if it’s snowing, make sure you have a warm hat and gloves. Remember, there’s really no such thing as bad weather, just poor clothing choices – if you’re outside and you’re not comfortable, you need to wear more appropriate clothing.
- Pick an activity you have enjoyed during the warmer months, like walking or hiking. These types of activities often carry over to the winter months with only minor modifications in clothing and can be equally enjoyable.
- Take plenty of water and snacks with you. Even if it’s cold outside, you’ll still need to replace fluids lost through perspiration and you’ll still need to eat to maintain energy and bodily warmth.
- Try something new. Bicycling is certainly not going to be viable if there’s a foot of snow on the ground, but snowshoeing or cross-country skiing are a blast if you’ve never tried them before, and equipment can be rented inexpensively by the hour or the day from outfitters like REI, which also offer courses.
Develop the habit of getting outside for physical activity as the weather gets colder, and you’ll be rewarded with greater calm, happiness, and focus – and a trimmer waist – during the coldest months of the year.
With Thanksgiving arriving toward the end of the month, November is naturally a great time for focusing on spiritual freedom and social freedom:
- Giving thanks (of course) and feeling connectedness (as we did back in March with our focus on gratitude and kindness)
- Making an active effort to get together with people we enjoy who are positive influences in our life
- Sharing abundance with those less fortunate
For the 30 days of November, focus on one of the above for at least 30 minutes, whether by reconnecting with people you’ve fallen out of touch with, reaching out to new positive influences you’d like to have in your network, or performing a random act of kindness for a complete stranger. Practice gratitude on a daily basis for all that you have. When Thanksgiving rolls around, you’ll be ready to celebrate it meaningfully and truly be in the right frame of mind to carry that practice forward with you for months and years to come.
Is it that time of the year already? My, how these past twelve months have flown by! December is a great time to focus on the spiritual practice of reflection, writing down your thoughts each day about how the day went, what we learned, and how we can improve.
One simple way of doing this is to create a daily “joy journal,” and write down each day 3 things that brought you joy (and why), and 3 things that diminished your joy (and why). As you write, reflect on how you can get more of the things that bring you joy into your life each day, and how you can remove the things that actively detract from your joy each day. Are you doing everything you can each day to manage your activities to maximize joy? Why not? What’s holding you back? Writing down these reflections each day for the 31 days of December will give you tremendous insight into how you can make small improvements in your day-to-day activities that will greatly increase your personal freedom and happiness over the next 365 days and beyond – did anyone say Happy New Year?