October 18, 2016

A Year’s Collection of 30 Day Challenges to Help You Build Better Habits

That Will Help You Build Better Habits

Whether you recognize them or not, your success is a result of the habits you have formed over weeks or years of practice. These habits make you a stronger leader, a smarter manager, a kinder friend or a healthier body.

Building new habits is like building muscle; it takes consistent effort and many weeks before you can see the results. But hard work pays off, and as that muscle builds, you find those once-difficult tasks are easier because you are stronger.

The 30 Day Challenge page in your Volt Planner helps you identify and practice habit forming. It keeps you accountable for those first few difficult weeks until you are able to maintain the progress and focus your efforts on forming a new habit.

To get you started, we have come up with a full year of 30 Day Challenges to serve as inspiration. Browse through this collection, or send us a photo of your own 30 Day Challenge on instagram @inkandvolt or at hello@inkandvolt.com.


Collection of 30 Day Challenges

  1. Read more books
  2. Learn photography
  3. Be a better notetaker
  4. Eat less red meat (and no processed meat)
  5. Reduce sitting time
  6. Build an Instagram following
  7. Improve posture
  8. Reduce the clutter
  9. Meal prep breakfast and lunch for the week
  10. Write every day
  11. Develop a green thumb
  12. Be more grateful

Read more books

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I want to make this happen because: I love to read, but I often feel too busy. There are a million things on my to-do list and reading feels like a luxury I can’t afford. Sound familiar? But I’ve realized that reading is crucial to being better at my job. By reading more books, you are fostering a habit of continual learning. Whether or not the book pertains to the industry you work in, you are developing critical thinking skills, reducing work-day stress and expanding your vocabulary. Frequent reading can also improve your writing ability.

My plan of action is:

  • Read 20 pages a day. Twenty pages is kind of an arbitrary number, but it’s a good target goal because 20 pages means that you can finish reading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own in less than a week. The important thing is to set a goal and stick to it. My plan is to start my reading in the morning over breakfast (and wake up earlier if need be). Find a time you can dedicate to reading.
  • Use a reading tablet to keep books in one place. Although I love the physicality of a good book, a tablet makes it easy to store books in one place while I’m on the move. Since I travel so much for work, I love having an off-line library available at my fingertips. I take my tablet almost everywhere so that I can read while I wait in long queues or while I eat lunch.
  • Listen to audiobooks during hours spent commuting or exercising. I can usually finish a book every two weeks if I tune in during my 30 minute morning/evening commute. I’ve also come to realize that listening to audiobooks makes going for long runs more desirable. Exercise and smarts!
  • Create a reading list. If you only do one action item, choose this one. Just having a list helps motivate you to actually read the books you write down. There are plenty of reading lists online, but I like to write down book recommendations from friends or mentors with whom I share similar interests. These books come pre-vetted and are most likely to provide me with value.
  • Join/start a book club. Reading takes time. When life gets busy it can be hard to follow through with reading goals. Hold yourself accountable by reading with a small group (or even just one friend). Discussing the implications of the book will also elevate your understanding of important concepts and themes. Ask yourself what takeaways can you apply to your own life?
  • Get to know my local library. Libraries have some incredible resources you probably don’t know about. In addition to sponsoring book clubs and literary seminars, libraries often have a digital collection of e-books and audiobooks that you can access from home.

Take it a step further: Write down inspiring quotes from your favorite texts. Track these daily in the monthly calendar or write longer passages in the lined note pages.

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Learn photography

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I want to make this happen because: It’s a valuable skill to have and a hobby with endless possibilities. Maybe it’s for beautifying your personal instagram feed, or learning photography skills for work purposes. If you intend to do a lot of traveling, photography is a great skill to have so you can capture scenery, architecture, streets, food or people. You might want to learn photography so you can capture other special moments like a friend’s wedding, a birthday or the kids as they grow up. There are endless possibilities when it comes to what you can point and shoot on a camera.

My plan of action is: Because the field of photography is so vast, it’s important to identify your goals before you get started. Write them down, and be as specific as possible because your plan of action might be different for different goals. Here are a few resources that may inform how you proceed: Product photography guide, Instagram photography guide, Photography basics

  • Get the right gear. The type of photography you want to do may depend on the type of gear you have. Typically, DSLRs are what professional photographers use to take high quality photos. If you want to have full control over manual settings that adjust light and aperture, a DSLR is what you want, and if you are in the market to buy one, quora has a really wonderful guide. However, the built-in cameras on smartphones are getting more advanced every year. If you have a good understanding of composition (see below), you can still take beautiful photos with your iPhone. Other gear you might want: a tripod, which is especially helpful for product photography or for long exposures; Adobe Lightroom or a smartphone app for photo editing; a small white sweep for clean backdrops.
  • Learn how to use a different setting every week. No matter what kind of camera you have, become an expert at using it. By focusing on one new setting a week, you allow yourself time to practice and master the setting. If you have a DSLR, learn how to use your camera on manual setting by adjusting the aperture, ISO and shutter speed. This will give your photographs a professional feel, and you’ll be able to have greater control over the focus and feel you are trying to capture. If you are working with a smartphone, you can play with camera settings such as grid function (recommended for aligning your subject in the frame), iCloud sharing and HDR (short for high dynamic range), which blends the best part of three separate exposures into a single photo. Zooming, focusing and setting the white balance can also be done with the touch of your finger on a smartphone (although some features may require an extra app). For example, you can tap and hold a bright area of your frame to lock the focus and exposure of your photo. Selfie Tip: Instead of trying to hold the phone and press the on-screen capture button with one hand, press one of the volume buttons on the side of your iPhone to snap the photo when the camera is reversed to face you.
  • Practice a new element of composition every week. What distinguishes a really interesting photo from an meh photo is composition. Composition is the term we use to describe the placement of different objects and elements in a photo. Having control over the composition of your photo allows you to choose what kind of story you want to tell. Although there are no rules to art, understanding the basic principles is important if you are just starting out. Here are a few to start practicing now: rule of thirds, balancing elements, leading lines, symmetry and patterns, viewpoint, background, depth, framing, cropping and experimentation.
  • Take 30-50 photos every day. Not every shot you take is going to be beautiful. This is true even for professional photographers. But professionals know to take multiple photos of the same subject under different light settings and from different angles. By practicing different techniques, you’ll begin to see a pattern to what works best.
  • Follow famous photographers. Many professionals offer photography tips through blog or social media posts. In this way, your photography idols serve a mentorship role. Another way to improve your skills is to emulate a professional photographer’s unique style. If you’re struggling to understand how he or she captured a really dope shot, shoot them a message! Most artists on social media are very responsive to their followers.

Take it a step further: Print out and paste photographs you admire onto the inspiration pages in your Spark Notebook or Planner. This visual reminder of your goal will motivate you to follow your plan of action.

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Be a better notetaker

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I want to make this happen because: notetaking signals professionalism. It shows that you care about what the speaker is saying and that you are prepared to follow up on action items. Although digital notetaking has become more common in the workplace, taking notes on paper minimizes distractions, and doesn’t give anyone else reason to doubt that you are paying attention. Good notetaking also also improves memory. By writing things down by hand, you are linking neural pathways made through physical movement with important information you’ll want to remember. All of this will help you be better prepared for and after meetings so that when you look back to your notes days or weeks later, you’ll understand exactly what you were thinking at the time you were taking notes.

My plan of action is:

  • Write notes in the same place. It’s so embarrassing when you bring the wrong notebook or folder to a meeting. I keep all my notes in my Volt Planner with Notes so that I always know where to find them.
  • Always date my notes and include subject line. Another organizational tip that will help you quickly flip through your notes and locate exactly what you are looking for.
  • Try out different styles. There are lots of different note-taking styles that work better for some people (or for some situations). If you’ve only ever outlined your notes, try mapping or charting. If you want to keep your notes more organized, consider using the Cornell Method. You might be surprised to find that a new note-taking style can help you solve a problem you’re stuck on or help add some creativity to your usual brainstorming.
  • Write down only the most important information. This is particularly true when taking notes in meetings. Instead of writing down everything everyone said verbatim, force yourself to summarize into one bullet point. Not only is this method more efficient, but it improves your active listening, comprehension and long-term recall.
  • Develop an abbreviated shorthand. This action item helps to keep your notes lightweight, so you can spend more of your time listening and asking questions. Some standard abbreviations include: e.g. w/, f/u, etc.
  • Write down names. In meetings, who contributed which ideas? Getting into the habit of writing down names is helpful when you need to attribute credit. And giving credit where credit is due will make you many friends. 🙂
  • Read notes. Sometimes it is enough to just write down notes. Writing things down can help commit items to memory. However, reading your notes afterward is a good practice to make sure you actually follow up on action items you’ve committed yourself to.

Take it a step further: Read Kate’s Ultimate Guide to Notetaking to find the notetaking style that best suits you

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Eat less red meat (and no processed meat)

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I want to make this happen because: eating processed meat like hot dogs, ham and bacon raises the risk of colon cancer and that consuming other red meats “probably” raises the risk as well. Moreover, substituting lean protein for red meat has positive health consequences such as reducing cholesterol and saturated fat and increasing Omega-3 fatty acids that are waist trimming and heart healthy. You’ll also be cutting down on your water footprint because raising livestock for meat requires more water than you may think–about 1,799 gallons of water per one pound of beef, for example.

My plan of action is:

  • Enlist the support of friends or family. Dining should be a pleasurable experience, not a chore, so get others on board to celebrate a meatless meal.
  • Enact Meatless Mondays. If you’re used to eating meat at every meal, you may be surprised by how many dishes can be made vegetarian. Expand your meatless recipe repertoire by cooking a new vegetarian dish each week. Not only are there some incredibly tasty alternative proteins, but taking out meat means adding more vegetables, which is always a healthy move.
  • Double the ratio of veggies to meat. Even with lean meats, focus on the veggies you’re adding to the dish.
  • Add chopped mushroom to meat based pasta sauce. When cooked, mushrooms have a naturally rich, fatty flavor and a chewy texture, which makes them a great substitute or filler for traditional meat dishes. Stretch your beef father by adding half the amount you normally would and substituting the second half with mushrooms.
  • Throw thick slices of mushroom and eggplant on the grill instead of burgers. Again, mushrooms are a great burger substitute, but have you tried grilled eggplant? Soaked in marinade, it has all the tenderness, juice and flavor you want in a burger.
  • Make ahead different marinades. Chicken can be marinated ahead of time for week-day lunches. This super simple step can add a lot of variety into your meals.
  • More alternative proteins to try: fish, turkey, tofu, edamame (soy), eggs and beans

Take it a step further: Use the note pages or inspiration pages in your Volt Planner to record your favorite recipes

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Reduce sitting time

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I want to make this happen because: I sit too much at my job, in my commute and at home. Sitting for long periods of time reduces calories burn by 1 per minute, and it contributes to joint pain and stiffness. Some studies suggest that sitting also reduces productivity. However, sitting has become so second nature that we often don’t even realize we’re doing it. To break this cycle, you must start by becoming more aware of your sitting time. By making conscious decisions not to sit either by walking or standing more, you can lead a healthier lifestyle.

My plan of action is:

  • Stand at the kitchen counter–instead of using a stool–while eating breakfast
  • Stand during morning commutes on the bus
  • Set a reminder vibration on your Fitbit every 30 minutes to remind you to take a break from sitting. Review activity level summary at the end of each day for feedback
  • Install a sit-stand station at work (including a comfortable pad that will cushion your feet and back)
  • Add an extra 10 minutes to daily dog walking
  • Stand while talking on the phone
  • Practice mindful sitting
    • Making purposeful decisions to sit (as opposed to falling into habit)
    • Notice how your body feels when you sit for long periods of time

Take it a step further: Use an app to track and record your sitting time in the Weekly Outlook section at the end of each day. The numbers will keep you accountable to your goal.

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Build an Instagram following

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I want to make this happen because: a strong social media presence will attract new customers and engage existing customers. Instagram is a great social media to get behind because of the eye candy appeal. They say a picture’s worth a thousand words… Well, Instagram gives you both. Pairing on-brand photos with hilarious, helpful or otherwise valuable content can cultivate a personality that instills brand loyalty. And now that Facebook owns Instagram, it is easier than ever to promote your posts to a highly targeted audience.

My plan of action is:

  • Post regularly. If you’re not posting, your followers will lose interest. Although there is no magic number, if you’re not posting at least twice a week, Instagram may not be the right social media platform for you. And if it’s not, that’s okay–focus your efforts elsewhere. On the flip side, posting too often each day has the effect of spam. With Instagram Stories, you can snap as many posts or videos as you like and your audience can choose to watch or skip over as they see fit. Because your stories only last 24 hours, the pressure to snap only beautiful photos is lessened. In fact, Instagramers love seeing “behind the scenes” posts on stories, which make them feel closer to the brand.
  • Use 7 appropriate hashtags on every post. Make your images easy to find by pairing a mix of popular and brand-specific hashtags. The popular hashtags like #love and #tbt will get you more likes. To build a loyal following, however, you will need to dig a little deeper. What terms are most relevant to the content you are posting? We use hashtags like #productivity #leadership #entrepreneur #planner and #plannerlove because our audience is mostly business professionals and avid planner fans. These are the Instagrammers who are most likely to interact with and follow Ink + Volt. Sites like Webstagram and Iconosquare can help you discover brand-specific hashtags to mix in with the more popular ones. An Instagram caption filled with hashtags, however, can be a turn off since it’s impossible to read! The data seem to indicate that 11 hashtags offer the highest engagement for accounts with 1000 followers or less–perfect if your small business is just just starting out. I suggest experimenting with your hashtags to see what works best for you.
  • Develop your Instagram “voice.” It’s not enough to post a pretty picture. Your brand’s personality (or lack thereof) can impact who wants to follow you. Your personality can come across in the style of photo you post or in the caption you write. However, be consistent. You want your followers to see your photos and know instantly from which account they came. Check out Starbuck’s instagram account, for instance. Although the photos are all different, the bright colors, the playful feel and, of course, the featured beverage make you feel as though you are actually at Starbucks catching up with an old friend over macchiatos. Another account that uses very consistent images is Folded Pages Distillery. The book-themed photos are all taken from the same perspective and have a “busy” feel that intrigues, reminiscent of a one of those I Spy books, which makes them incredibly distinctive. Even if your images do not look the same, they can evoke a consistent emotional response. Take Positively Present’s instagram account for example. Her photos are always joyful and uplifting. Photos are not the only way to develop a consistent style. The content you post in your caption can also provide value. An Australian skincare line called Frank Body writes hilarious captions using tounge-in-cheek “babe” references and a second-person narrative style that really feels as though Frank is talking directly to you (and he likes what he sees!). Betty Rocker has a health and wellness instagram account where she provides recipes for nutritious meals and tutorials for strengthening exercises. At Ink + Volt, we hope to provide our followers with productivity tools and tricks, innovative ways to use the Volt Planner, and leadership inspiration. What kind of value can you offer your audience?
  • Interact with your followers every single time. Instagramers want to feel as though they have a relationship with each of the accounts they follow. The best way to develop a relationship is to respond to each comment, tag and message in a timely manner. When someone comments on your post, tag them in your response–even if it’s just a quick “thank you!” I also search our brand hashtags (e.g. #voltplanner #inkandvolt) to find customer photos of our products. Many of these photos are super creative, so I repost them on our feed with attribution given to the original poster. Sharing customer photos encourages more people to post, and it fosters a sense of community among your followers.  
  • Interact at least once with popular accounts in your niche. A good way to increase followers is to enlist the help of other accounts that target the same type of customer you do. For instance, we will sometimes reach out to Instagramers who are avid planners and have a large following (say, 10k or more) to do reviews of the Volt Planner. This ensures that our products are getting in front of the right audience and that the information about our planners is coming from a source that they trust. Another way to interact with popular accounts is through giveaways. You can quickly gain followers when one of the entry requirements is to follow both accounts.
  • Update your link each time you publish a new blog post. When you type a url into the body of your caption, it appears as plain text and won’t link to your website. Instagram does allows you to link to one website through your profile page. Most of the time, the url you choose will be your website’s landing page. However, it’s good to change it up from time to time, especially when you have a new blog post or article to share. If you announce the news on Instagram (and I would encourage you to do so!), update your link to one that will take your followers directly to the post they are hoping to see. That way, they are not having to navigate two or three pages deep to find what they are looking for.
  • Advertise through Facebook. To develop a large following fast, consider shelling out a few dollars to promote your post.

Something extra: Track basic analytics with the monthly calendar in your Spark Notebook. Write down the title of each Instagram photo in the daily box, according to when it was posted. At the end of each day (or at the end of the week), record how many likes your post received and how many new followers you gained. You might even record the different hashtags you used with each photo. Doing so can help identify a pattern over time, and you can tailor your images and message to align with what your followers want.

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Improve posture

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I want to make this happen because: desk jobs are hard on your body. When you sit in front of a computer screen for long periods of time, your head starts to jut out while you crane your neck up to look at the screen. Your hips may slide forward in your chair, so that your body begins to resemble the shape of a fishhook. Prolonged time spent in this position will cause pain and can limit the amount of oxygen your lungs can breathe in. Poor posture can have social consequences as well. Slouching is not considered to be professional and can give colleagues the wrong impression. Standing tall, however, exudes a confidence that is appealing to other people. [Disclaimer: I am not a physician or therapist. The exercises I’ve suggested in the plan of action are things that have worked for me. Please consult your doctor, chiropractor or physical therapist if you have a health condition that may be exacerbated by these exercises.]

My plan of action is:

  • Start with your feet. It’s a misconception that posture is related to only our back and upper body. In fact, good posture starts with our lower half. Notice how you’re standing. Are you leaning forward or backward? You should be standing with your weight equally distributed between both feet and evenly over the balls and heels of your feet.
  • Pretend your spine is suspended from a string. Imagine that string lifting you, slightly. Your hips, back and head should feel in alignment while your shoulders relax down to your sides. This pose should feel comfortable, and you may feel as though you’ve gained half an inch in height. Notice how your lungs open up, and your breathing becomes deeper. This is good posture, and this is how you want to feel. You do not want to feel as though your spine is fused to a rod. Your back naturally has some curvature to it, so straining it to be stick straight can be just as bad for the muscles in your back as slouching can be. The string visualization can help remind you to focus on keeping your spine in alignment while relaxing the rest of your body.
  • Set a reminder. It’s easy to slip back into bad posture when you don’t have a reminder to check in with your body. If you use a wearable fitness tracker, like a fitbit or jawbone, you can program the tracker’s app to set up automatic reminders. There are also very sophisticated apps for your computer or smartphone. And then there are the silly ones like when a cat mews at you from your phone every time you start to slouch. 😺 If you’d rather go analog, post a sticky note on your desk or write a reminder in your Volt Planner. Just make sure the reminder is in a place you will actually see and pay attention to.
  • Chin tucks. This was an exercise I was taught to do in middle school after my doctor noticed the heavy backpack I carried was causing me back pain. She showed me how to keep my back still while I pulled my head back (kind of like a rooster). To work correctly, you need to keep your chin down and look straight ahead. Although you can perform this stretch in your desk chair, for some people, it helps to stand against a wall. When you pull your chin back, you should feel the back of your head touch the wall. This exercise can provide immediate relief and should be done whenever you notice your head starting to jut forward over your keyboard. [video demonstration]
  • Standing chest stretch. This exercise aims to  strengthen the muscles in your back while opening up your chest. Stand facing a corner, and place both hands on either wall. Hands should be facing up (not pointed toward the corner). Lean your chest forward, past your elbows so that your scapulas squeeze together. Therapists recommend doing this 6 times a day or for 30 seconds. [video demonstration]
  • Pocket stretch. This is another stretch you can do from your chair over the course of the work day. Depress your shoulder by placing your hand underneath the seat of your chair, or down by your side. Turn your head toward the opposite side of your depressed shoulder and tilt your head down, as if you were looking at your pocket. Place the hand not by your side on top of your head. Do not press down, but hold it in place, letting the weight of your hand slightly deepen the stretch.
  • Take up yoga. Yoga will introduce you to more poses and stretches that will build the strength and body awareness to notice when you start to slouch. In addition to stretching your back, yoga helps strengthen your core–muscles that are crucial for maintaining good posture. Your hamstrings are also connected to muscles in your back, so forward folds done frequently in yoga sessions can help loosen lower body tightness. Notice what positions feel good, and do those exercises when you need relief at home.
  • Lighten your load. Carrying a heavy purse can wreak havoc on your posture. The weight pulls your body unevenly toward one side, throwing your spine out of alignment. A quick fix would be to switch to a backpack that distributes weight evenly between your shoulders. If that’s not an option, consider cutting back on what you need to carry with you. For instance, if you have your own computer at work, do you really need to bring your laptop too? Or can you use a sharing service like Google Docs or Dropbox?

Take it a step further: This is a fun one… How many Spark Notebooks can you carry on your head while walking? Challenge accepted 😉

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Reduce the clutter

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I want to make this happen because: Clutter breeds distraction, which hurts productivity. However, we often discount the power of our environment because it doesn’t seem like it directly impacts our work. In fact, taking the time to clean up a desk or reduce the number of tabs you keep open in your browser may seem to be a waste of time when you have pressing deadlines. This is not so. An organized desk will save you time when trying to locate paperwork, and a clean browser will help websites load faster.

In fact, studies have demonstrated a link between our environment and our behavior. While these findings do suggest that clutter can foster creativity, they also show a clear relationship between tidiness and smarter, healthier choices. Ultimately, you may decide to change up your environment based on your mood or the type of work you need to do. But you do want to prevent clutter from infiltrating every aspect of your environment and ensconcing itself into the physical, digital and mental spaces of your life. For instance, you can have a cluttered workspace, a messy home, a junky car, a busy desktop, an overflowing inbox, an unorganized schedule, a disorganized mind. Controlling the chaos in at least a few of these domains will help you avoid feeling overwhelmed.

My plan of action is: to figure out in what realm you have accumulated the most clutter: physical, digital or mental? Then, employ at least three of the following strategies to reduce the clutter. If you’ve mastered these before the end of the month, try adding a couple more strategies to your plan of action. Then breathe.

Physical

  • The KonMari method. The decluttering method has gone viral this year! The basic principle for reducing clutter, Marie Kon explains in her book, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying, is to hold up each item you possess and ask yourself whether it sparks joy. If the answer is yes, keep it. The goal is not to get get rid of as much stuff as possible, but rather to make sure that what you do hold onto makes you happy. More often than not, getting rid of a lot of stuff happens anyway as you realize that much of the stuff does not spark joy. Marie Kon recommends tidying by category (e.g. clothing, kitchenware, etc.) as opposed to by room. Do this at home and at work to liberate yourself from the useless clutter and make more room for pieces that bring you joy and inspiration.
  • Clean your desk before you leave. File papers, put away pens, throw out old sticky-notes. These little things add up over time, so the two minutes you spend putting everything away at the end of the day will actually save you 15-30 minutes if you were to wait until it was a giant mess. Not to mention, you’ll save time the next morning when you know exactly where to find the paper you were last working on. You’ll also make sure you’re not unintentionally leaving any to-do items unfinished because the reminder you left yourself was buried under a pile of papers.
  • Use small storage space. The less space you have, the less clutter can accumulate and the sooner you realize when you need to tidy up. You can’t change the size of your office or the square footage of your house, but you can choose to use fewer storage containers and aim to leave extra space in each of them. When more than 75% of your storage space is full, think about what you are unnecessarily holding on to. What can you let go of?

Digital

  • Apply constraints. One of my biggest pitfalls is leaving too many browser windows open at one time. This is especially true when I’m blogging and am referring back to different sources. However, I tend to leave these windows open even after I have finished blogging for the day just in case… Unfortunately, this causes your computer to slow down over time, and websites take longer to load. It also becomes hard to find the window I’m looking for when each tab is too short to list the name of the website. So I try to limit myself to five tabs at a time. If you have two monitors, you might be able to get away with a few more than that, but I promise your internet browsing will be easier the fewer windows you have open. If I am working on something that involves referencing many different sites, I use plug-ins such as OneTab (for Chrome) or Sessions (for Safari) to save and label each browser history, so that I can open them one at a time only when I need to.
  • Inbox Zero: A clean email inbox is a necessity if you want to keep on top of your tasks and focus on what’s really important. If you find yourself overwhelmed with the amount of email, consider a tool like Unroll.Me to unsubscribe from unwanted subscription emails, or create labels and folders so you can tuck away emails you may need to reference but don’t want sitting in your inbox. Create categories for types of emails you get often, or a system to flag what’s urgent and needs a response. Build inbox management into your schedule, dedicating some time towards reading, replying to, and organizing your emails. The slight amount of continuous housekeeping and organizing of your inbox will result not necessarily in less email, but less headache when you do check your email.
  • Shut down. I am one of those people that will do a hard shut-down less than once a month, but I’m trying to get into the habit of shutting down my computer every night. Not only does this reinforce the previous habit of leaving fewer windows open, but it supports the life and battery of my computer. Did you know that your computer will automatically install a lot of necessary updates when you restart it? Instead of having to press the ignore button twenty times before you download a new update, your computer will automatically do this for you when you reboot (or ask you to do so at the very beginning before you’re elbow deep in work). A hard shut down also provides a mental escape from your digital work.

Mental

  • The 2-minute rule. Will the task at hand take two minutes, or less? Do it now. Checking these easy items off your to-do list will help prevent the little things from piling up later.
  • The Ivy Lee method. Write down the 6 most important to do’s based on factors such as value provided and date due. Rank them in ascending order, and execute based how you’ve prioritized each of them. This method forces you to evaluate what is truly important today and to limit your focus to only those six tasks, which is much more realistic than trying (and ultimately failing) to get everything done.
  • Write things down on paper. Whether you prefer to use your planner or sticky notes, there is something fulfilling about crossing items off a list, flipping to the next page or recycling the paper once you have completed everything. Many task-oriented apps allow you to do this digitally too, but i find that the satisfaction is not nearly so great.

Take it a step further: If you’re using the Ivy Lee method, try writing down your 6 priorities in the weekly outlook section of you Spark Notebook or Planner. The morning, afternoon, night format of these pages makes it easier for you to allocate the appropriate amount of time to each task (be realistic!).

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Meal prep breakfast and lunch for the week

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I want to make this happen because: I want to eat healthier breakfasts and lunches that will sustain 8 hour work days. During a hectic work day, I don’t have time to think about lunch. I end up buying something quick and easy or waiting until I am so hungry, I scarf down the closest snack I can find (…I see you Doritos). When I pack protein and veggies for lunch, I can prevent this kind of crash, staying focused and productive.

My plan of action is:

  • Do some homework. There are many blogs that can help start a meal prep routine. Apps like SideChef, Pepperplate can help with meal ideas. Find resources that inspire you!
  • Plan meals in advance. I write down the week’s meals in my Volt Planner. This initial planning stage is crucial to using your time and money most efficiently. I choose one protein to focus on each week, so that I’m not wasting any leftovers.
  • Prep every Sunday morning. I like Sundays because the food stays fresh for the week, but whatever day you choose, stick to it.
  • Breakfast
    • Make overnight oats for five days every Sunday night
    • Use chia seeds and Greek yogurt as a base, then add frozen fruit or spices for variety
    • Store in mason jars that can be sealed and reused each week
  • Lunches
    • Make dinners that reheat well as leftovers (2 lunches)
    • Use this guideline: protein + vegetable + whole grain (3 lunches)
    • Pick one protein to cook in bulk and use for the whole week
      • Week 1: chicken
      • Week 2: tuna
      • Week 3: ground turkey
      • Week 4: hard boiled egg
    • Peel and chop many types of raw veggies that can be alternated for different lunches
    • Store in reliable containers with partitions

Take it a step further: Use the Monthly Calendar to plan ahead weekly lunches

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Write every day

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I want to make this happen because: whether or not you consider yourself a “writer,” writing every day can help you improve your communication style, think through tough problems and provide a release from painful emotions. Let me explain. The act of writing slows down your thought process, allowing you to really think through what you are trying to say. Is your point clear? Does your message make sense? Is the language you use appropriate? Each of these things are much easier to determine when you can reread the words back. Writing also allows you to make new connections. A few minutes of free association can help you brainstorm ways to solve the problem that has been bugging you at work. This is especially true if your work is non-writing based because you brain is forced to express the problem differently. Writer/programmer, Scott Young, recommends writing down your thoughts as fast as they pop into your head until the solution presents itself. He argues that when you do this, you’re able to see some of the smaller sub-steps you hadn’t thought about. When I feel stuck, I like to map out my problems, using single words or phrases as broad headings and short paragraphs or sentences as subheadings that flush out each thought. Because this process can get messy, I like to use pencil and paper where I am free to draw arrows connecting ideas. Finally, writing down your personal thoughts and feelings can be very cathartic. Writing forces you to give words to those feelings, which can make them more manageable. Journaling can also help you identify a pattern of intrusive thoughts like, “I feel bad about my weight” or “My boss doesn’t notice my hard work,” and once you’ve identified the source of this negativity, you can take steps to change your behavior or consider things from a different state of mind (e.g. “My body is strong and healthy”).

My plan of action is:

  • Set aside a time to write. When I don’t make writing a priority, I hardly ever do it. Other obligations come up or I feel tired, so I promise myself that I’ll write extra the next day. Sound familiar? Break this habit by scheduling yourself time to write. And it really doesn’t matter when! You could write in first thing with your morning coffee, on your bus commute to work, during your lunch break or in the evening before you go to bed. What’s important is that you commit to a time and stick to it (see next bullet).
  • Write every day. The process of sitting down at your computer or with a pencil and paper with the goal to write something–anything–may feel foreign at first. Your first few writings may even be about how awkward this whole process feels. That’s okay! The point is to develop a habit. Over time, your writing may become more philosophical, it may start to look like a journal entry, it may turn into a rant, or it may evolve into something you can use for your work. Ultimately, you want the time you set aside to write to become something you look forward to because it provides some value to you. Successful authors, including sci-fi guru, Stephen King, recommend setting a daily writing goal like writing 1000 words a day. If you have the time to devote to such a lofty goal, or you’re hoping to turn your writing into a career, I say go for it! However, those of us who hold a day job may not have the time to keep pace. Think about what your writing goals are. Realistically, how much time can you devote every day? Thirty minutes? Even one line a day can help you build up a stronger habit of writing.
  • Unplug each time. Turn off your internet, let your phone charge in another room, tell your family that you need some quiet time. Do this, so that you have are free from distraction. Even though we all have a constant monologue tittering in our heads, we too rarely have the opportunity to really listen to ourselves. And sometimes listening to yourself is physical. Listen to your body, your heart–what have you been ignoring?
  • Share your story once a week. If you are successful in writing every day, there will be a lot that you don’t want to share–that’s okay! Some writing sessions are just for you. However, there is something to be said for putting your work out there. If your goal is to become a better author, this is especially true for you. Try publishing an article on LinkedIn, on your personal blog page (set one up if you haven’t already) or even on facebook. Not ready to let your inner thoughts become so public? Post an excerpt from your writing on Twitter, or send your writing to a close friend you can trust. By sharing your story with someone else, your writing takes on a life of it’s own that can help you build an audience of readers.

Take it a step further: Feeling stuck? Try using the inspiration pages to kickstart your daily writing. Each page has an inspiring quote or prompt that is meant to get you thinking. Respond to this prompt as a writing exercise, or let it guide your thought process as you consider another idea.

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Develop a green thumb

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I want to make this happen because: being closer to nature can reduce stress and improve well being. The link between our environment and health is becoming stronger as more studies are finding consistent evidence in support of this relationship. For instance, a study conducted at a suburban Pennsylvania hospital found that patients recovering from gallbladder surgery recovered a day faster, needed less pain medication and experienced fewer postsurgical complications when their hospital bed had a view to an outdoor green space than when they had a view to a brick wall. Presumably the stress of the hospital environment was placated by the view of nature, resulting in better health outcomes. It does not take any leaps in judgment to translate the implications of this study (and others like it) to the home or workplace. Having a plant or two can help reduce stress during a hectic work day, allowing you to get more accomplished. In fact, another study conducted at Washington State University confirmed that workers experienced a 12% rise in productivity and a 10% increase in attentiveness when plants were present in the work space.  

Of course, there are many other reasons to get planting. Any excuse to get outdoors is a great reminder to be more eco-friendly, and having indoor plants can improve the air freshness. The hard part of being a plant parent, however, is keeping the little guys alive.

My plan of action is:

    • Start small. If you’re a beginner, start with one or two plants so that you don’t become overwhelmed. A small selection of plants will take less time to manage, and you’ll be able to identify which elements help your plants thrive.
    • Survey your space. Does your garden have full sun, or is it mostly shaded? The amount of light (and sometimes even the direction of the light) can have a big impact on which plants you should choose. If you are planning on potting your plant, make sure you have chosen the right size pot. Small pots are good if you’re starting from seeds, however, you’ll want to move your plant into a bigger pot once it starts to grow. Finally, if your plant is inside, make sure it’s getting enough light, or it will starve of nutrients. Keep house plants near a window, or move them near one for a few hours each day. Whatever type of gardening you choose, make sure to do your homework first. Tip: plants that do well inside include succulents, bamboo and spider plants.
    • Check the soil every day. There is a difference between dirt and potting soil, and your plant will do much better in soil because it offers the right balance of water, air and pH that will help your plants’ roots grow deep and healthy. Give it every advantage by planting it in nutrient-rich soil. But your job is not done once the plants are in the ground. It’s a good idea to feel the soil (especially if you’re new to gardening) in order to get a sense of when you need to water. Until you start to notice a pattern, press a finger or two to the soil every day.
    • Keep hydrated. Plants need more water than you think. The exact amount depends on the type of plant and the amount of sun it gets. On hot days, you may need to water twice: once in the morning before work and again after dinner. When you check the soil, notice the moisture level. If the soil still feels moist, wait a day and check again before watering. Too much water will rot the roots. Too much water is a particular concern for potted plants. Make sure your pot has holes at the bottom so that your plant is not sitting in water.

Take it a step further: Use the note taking pages in your Spark Notebook to keep a gardening journal. This is a tip that successful gardeners swear by! Starting a journal can be intimidating because there is no one way to do it. I saw an example of a gardening journal that kept track of high/low temperatures, barometric readers, rainfall, etc. each day! I’ve also seen examples that are written in beautiful prose. My style falls somewhere in between. I use tables to keep track of what I’ve planted, and I write short update on the status of my plants. I mostly like to make lists. For instance, lists of the plants that produced the most fruit, lists of the pests and diseases that plagued a particular plant, lists of plants I’d like to try next season, and so on…

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Be more grateful

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I want to make this happen because: there is no point dwelling in negativity. Negative thoughts seem to have greater power over our consciousness because they compound. You have one minor inconvenience and it’s no big deal. Then, you experience another set back, but you can manage. When a third thing goes wrong–even something small–you feel like the day has been ruined. Unfortunately, we don’t give nearly the same weight to positive experiences. For instance, we’ve all experienced that uncomfortable moment when you sit down on the toilet seat only to find that there is no toilet paper. However, have you ever given thanks when your significant other or roommate has restocked the TP? You probably think nothing of it. We tend to notice negative experiences while ignoring the positive ones.

That’s not to say that negative thinking is always a bad thing. In fact, researchers have concluded that negative thinking is a natural defense mechanism. When we have experienced something undesirable and have reason to think we might experience it again, negativity is our brain’s natural response to buffer our emotions against such an outcome. However, living reactively to negative experiences is exhausting (and can have consequences for your health). Identifying those moments in your life that have brought you happiness (e.g. like the backrub your significant other gave you after a stressful day at work) will help regulate your mood.

Writing down one thing you are grateful for every day can help you modify this pattern of thinking. Having a written account also allows you to revisit those moments that brought you happiness, which can be uplifting when times are trying.

My plan of action is:

  • Write it down immediately. This is one time where it is less important to set a daily goal of gratitude than it is to acknowledge what you are grateful for in real time. There are three reasons for this. First, the practice of writing things helps you build habits. Second, you are less likely to forget the little things that happen over the course of the day if you can write them down as they occur. Third, you are forced to be more aware of the things you are grateful for throughout the entire day instead of relegating this practice to the end of a day.
  • Post visual reminders. Practicing gratitude throughout the day takes practice. To encourage this way of thinking, print out visual cues that remind you to be thankful. You can find lots of printable words of affirmation (I like www.positivelypresent.com for this!), or you can create your own. Pick out one or two instances of gratitude from your journal that really resonate with you. Write them on a sticky note and place them in places you spend a lot of time (like your desk or the bathroom mirror).
  • Be specific. Speaking in generals terms tends to have a diluting effect. If you’re just going through the motions without really appreciating what you feel grateful for, you are missing the whole point of this challenge. You may be grateful for your family, but can you specify what about your family today has been particularly special? The more detail you provide, the more meaningful this practice will be to you.
  • Try subtraction, not just addition. Being grateful does not always mean that something has to happen to you. Consider what hasn’t happened. It’s easier to feel grateful when you get promoted, but have you given thanks when you didn’t miss a deadline? These are the type of things that we constantly forget to be thankful for, but they can be just as important.
  • Give others a reason to be grateful. I like to look back on my gratitude journal for ways I can repay in kind. For instance, the other day, I noticed that a colleague had taken it upon herself to reduce my workload by making headway on some of the little tasks that had piled up. Who are you grateful for? It may be a coworker, a family member, or even your local coffee shop. Let them know by leaving that person(s) a thank you note or by performing a favor without being asked. The more love we can spread in this world, the better. <3

Take it a step further: Many Volt Planner users have transformed their books into gratitude journals. Some have used the monthly calendar pages as a way to track their gratitude each day. Others use the weekly outlook spread. The benefit of using the outlook pages is that you have space to bullet the many things you are grateful for throughout the whole day. If you’d like even more space to flush out and expand your thoughts, try using the inspiration pages, which were created exactly for this sort of thing in mind!

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