How sailing lessons, music, and homemade mac-and-cheese can transform your life in 2015
The best New Year’s inspiration comes in bite-sized packages. You can’t lose 30 pounds, reorganize your home office, update your résumé, join 20 LinkedIn groups, learn project management, become fluent in French, and help resolve world poverty between now and December 31, 2015.
But, hey, you can warm up your office space with a painting, plant, or rug.
You can adopt a more curious attitude toward problems at work.
You can cook dinner at home more often.
You can stretch your “reading perimeter.”
You can add music to your next staff meeting.
With this column, we share 10 ideas for 2015 that may inspire you in the year ahead — and celebrate the adventure of making manageable and satisfying change.
- Think like a child. That’s a prescription from “Freakonomics” authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner in their new book, Think Like a Freak, and a related podcast. They illustrate their point with a magician who performs a simple disappearing-reappearing handkerchief trick for middle-school kids. By watching with a different level or curiosity, the kids quickly figured out the sleight-of-hand. “When a kid watches… they’re asking a question at every second,” said magician Matt Stone. “Their brains are always awake.” Think about your life. What project or responsibility would benefit from open, child-like curiosity?
- Travel lighter through life. So many resolutions challenge us to pare back the stuff in our lives – whether it’s old clothes, kitchenware, or vintage electronics gathering dust in the basement. One impediment is often: who might make good use of things we no longer need? Beyond well-known community agencies that accept donations in good condition are lesser-known organizations like refugee-resettlement agencies, transitional programs for the homeless, and community ministries. Craigslist offers free postings of free stuff – from old rabbit hutches to exercise bikes to leftover building supplies. Old cell phones can be recycled, and an EPA website tells how to donate other consumer electronics as well. Career-development organizations like Dress For Success may welcome office-appropriate attire. If you are debating the merits of selling stuff, rather than donating, Consumer Reports offers advice. What is one closet, drawer, or area of your life you can streamline?
- Create your ‘pretirement’ zone. If you are 40 or older, start thinking today about the horizon you face in your work life – what our team member Merrell calls “pretirement.” What do you want to do when you leave your current full-time work world? How will you prepare? What courses could you take? What experiences should you have? Commit yourself to exploration, experimentation, and rejuvenation. For Merrell, after a 20-year career at GE, this included coursework and certification in new skills like executive assessment and coaching. One student enrolled in a recent TWC facilitator-training class to purposefully add to his “pretirement” skillset. A career as a professional photographer has been a fulfilling next step for a friend who left a corporate job. And a lawyer who loves to bake has already designed a logo for a bread business that’s on his horizon. In the meantime, he teaches evening cooking courses and travels to places like the International Biscuit Festival and cooking classes in Italy. Embrace your outside-work passions, too – from adventurous bicycling vacations to camps that can jumpstart long-time interests like music, crafts, or sailing. This year, what’s a new skill or experience that will move you toward the next chapter?
- Data-fy you. If you haven’t already joined the “quantified self” movement, it’s time to choose one thing to track in your daily life that fits your personal goals for a healthier life. My Fitbit keeps me motivated to exercise four or five times a week with the benchmark of 10,000 steps daily. It measures my pace, estimates calories burned, and sparks my competitive spirit by letting me compare my track record with friends online. Sleep, heart rate, mood, blood pressure – devices measure all those and more.
- Cook dinner at home more. How would you like to cut your risk of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease? Improve your entire household’s health? Create stronger family ties? Pass on a legacy of life skills to your children? Whether we hate to cook or think we are too busy, now’s the time to reclaim the simple ritual of preparing food. Get advice from author Michael Pollan, a home-cooking evangelist who advocates engaging kids to help chop, slice, and stir their way to meals with more fruits and vegetables and less sugar and fat. New York Times food writer Mark Bittman offers a low-stress road map to family dinners and a list of 101 recipes to prepare in 10 minutes or less. If you are a fan of chef Jamie Oliver, check out his popular TED talk on cooking at home. In 2015, what’s one easy recipe you can add to your dinner lineup?
- The joy of quitting. In another Freakonomics podcast, Stephen Dubner explores the upside of leaving an unfulfilling activity, relationship, or work responsibility. “‘Sunk cost’ is about the past – it’s the time, or money, or sweat equity that you’ve put into something, which makes it hard to abandon. ‘Opportunity cost’ is about the future. It means that for every hour or dollar you spend on one thing, you’re giving up the opportunity to spend that hour or dollar on something else that might make your life better.” Where are you putting “bad time after good?” Can you find one or two things — a recurring meeting, a project going nowhere, a stale book club, or fantasy football league – that you can quit?
- Use music intentionally and creatively at work. To create a mood for a meeting or energize your team for a deadline, nothing beats the right beats. You may reach beyond your personal playlist. Whether you use Spotify, Pandora, or other music services, it’s a snap to create a mood that’s upbeat, serene, or relevant. For a meeting for 90 leaders in the local food movement, our facilitators chose an Avett Brothers Pandora channel with a folk/bluegrass/rock sound to set the tone. High-energy music – especially Pharrell – is a top pick in my daughter’s Chicago office. Look over this Fast Company article on music and productivity, complete with playlists. One headline-grabbing Spotify list in recent years was designed by Notre Dame professors for the last papal conclave. What music is powering your work life?
- What are you missing? Too many of us are guilty of failing to notice things that matter, says psychologist Daniel Goleman. Distracted by information overload and multiple agendas, we fail to cultivate the self-awareness and self-control to stay attentive. “The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice and because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change, until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.” What are situations in which you are not paying enough attention – a project team, a breakfast group, a lunch meeting? Start noticing there.
- Time for an office makeover? Creativity, concentration, and collaboration are shaped by the spaces where we work. So it’s no surprise the topic made the cover of a recent Harvard Business Review. Two ideas for the new year: in your own space, shake it up a little. Chill it down to a clean, minimal look with fewer distractions. Or warm it up with personal touches like photos, plants, artwork, a rug, a footstool, a clock or a lamp from home. For inspiration, check out a few New York Times Workspace columns that take you into executive offices – for example, a VP at Sur La Table, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera and the founder of a financial website. For fun, check out these stunning offices from around the world and these photos of great home offices. Our second tip: for consultants and others who may work from home, it could pay off to join the “co-working” movement and rent a cubicle or room in a business center where you share conference space, a kitchen and camaraderie. After a decade of co-working space growth around the world, studies show 72 percent of co-workers forecasted an increase in income, 75 percent reported an increase in productivity, and 92 percent saw their social networks grow. How can you change one or two things about your workspace to set the stage for greater success in 2015?
- Read a book that stretches you. Some recommendations: “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena,” by Anthony Marra, introduces you to human drama in a Chechen village. “The True American,” by Anand Giridharadas, the story of a Bangladesh immigrant targeted by a vigilante, also took me to a place I couldn’t have imagined. “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” by New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast is a book-length memoir from an only child of aging parents. “A History of the World in 6 Glasses” by Tom Standage slurps through beverages from coffee to Coke to provide lively social history. In The Accidental Superpower,” Peter Zeihan – an author we loved at the 2014 Idea Festival – describes the geographic and demographic advantages that will sustain the United States in the coming 50 years. So as this year draws to a close, what’s on your “stretch” reading list?
Final thoughts for 2015
I spent an afternoon recently putting my backyard garden to bed for the winter. As I cut off dead blossoms and spread mulch, I thought about parallels in our lives.
Like my wisteria and perennials, we all have seasons of high energy and accomplishment, and other periods when things slow down.
And just as the garden is rich with underground activity while it looks bare, the latest cognitive research suggests that there’s a lot going on when our minds take a break.
So our holiday wish for you: appreciate the quiet moments in life as they present themselves. May you feel restored and renewed in the year ahead.