12 Practices That Have Improved My Life

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Over the past few years, I’ve treated my life as a big experiment.

The primary goal of the experiment is to design an immensely exciting and fulfilling life on my terms. The experiment is grounded in the principles of lifelong learning and contribution. It’s been a lot of fun so far. I’ve tried various wellness activities, reflection exercises, and ways of being.

While certain practices like reading and meditation have been immensely valuable, others like creating detailed task lists and waking up at a specific time every day have detracted from my life.

What I’ve learned along the way is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. You don’t really know what will work for you unless you try it out and reflect on your experience.

Below, I discuss 12 practices that have made a positive difference in my life. I try to provide the context behind why I got started with each practice and how they have improved my life. Feel free to pick and choose the ones that might work for you.

1. Eliminating criticizing and complaining

After reading Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People in 2016, I committed to practicing his first principle, “Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain.” Nobody likes complainers. To motivate myself, I agreed to pay my best friend and travel partner $1 every time I criticized or complained. This worked remarkably well. I quickly became more conscious of my thoughts and the situations that created a desire to criticize or complain.

Over time, I learned my patterns. And in becoming conscious of my patterns, I was able to break them. I started to view the world more positively. Instead of talking about problems, I started focusing on finding solutions. This created a subtle, but highly impactful shift that has allowed me to better endure challenges, become a more enjoyable person to be around, and cultivate a solution-oriented mindset that has accelerated my career.

2. Practicing gratitude

I stumbled across Shawn Achor’s Ted Talk, The happy secret to better work while I was in Edinburgh and navigating a particularly challenging time in my career. The essence of the talk is that positivity leads to significantly better performance, and we can rewire our brains to be more positive in 21 days by doing specific exercises. One of the exercises in Achor’s 21 day challenge is to write three things that you are grateful for each day.

This practice takes two minutes, and it immediately transformed how I thought and felt about the world. I started feeling more positive emotions, appreciating good experiences, and feeling less stressed. I now write down one thing I’m grateful for every morning. When the sea of darkness consumes me, gratitude is my guiding light to safety. Whether it’s warm clothes, food to eat, great friends, or good health, we all have something for which to be grateful. I’m grateful I discovered gratitude.

3. Meditating

I used to think of meditation as a silly practice exclusive to monks. I was wrong. After I graduated from Princeton, I took a trip to Buenos Aires. It was two weeks before I started my job in investment banking. I was excited to enjoy my last few weeks of freedom exploring a new city.

But when I got to Buenos Aires, I felt immense levels of anxiety. I started to experience heart palpitations. I  refused to go to the doctor because I didn’t have health insurance at the time. When the pain became quite severe, I got scared and became open to any potential solution. My buddy suggested meditation. I agreed to try it out. He sat me down and guided me through a small breathing exercise. It helped calm me down and opened my eyes to the possibility of beginning to practice meditation regularly.

Shortly after, I started using Headspace, an iPhone app that enables you to easily do 10 minute daily meditations. I’ve been meditating using Headspace ever since, and it’s become a very important practice in my life. Meditation has helped me slow down, feel grounded, and be less reactive throughout the day. It’s allowed me to tame my monkey brain and clarify my thoughts. I’ve really grown to love meditating while on planes and buses and in beautiful nature.

In addition to the formal practice, surfing, sprinting, and swimming have become go-to forms of meditation for me. They help me tap into the same headspace that I get when I do the formal 10 minute meditation practice.

4. Taming my iPhone

Our phones are amazing, but they are also screwing us over in a lot of ways. If we are not conscious about how we use them, they negatively impact our social interactions and make us more anxious. Here are a few ways that I’ve done to take back control of my life:

  • Airplane mode morning: I used to check my phone first thing in the morning. This habit didn’t allow me to start my day on my own terms. If I saw a work email, I felt more anxious to start the day. I felt less willing to spend 20 minutes journaling, meditating, and reading even though those things set me up for a much more productive and happy day. Now I put my phone in airplane mode before going to sleep and don’t check it during the first 30 minutes of my day. I’ve yet to miss anything important, and I get to start the day on my terms.
  • No phone at dinner: If I’m out to dinner with people, I keep my phone in my pocket and don’t take it out as an unbreakable rule. If the conversation dulls and I feel an urge to take it out, I take that opportunity to sit in silence for once or learn how to ask better questions. If everyone does this, the experience is more fulfilling.
  • Turn off social media notifications: Eight months ago, I took 10 minutes to turn off all social media notifications. It has made a big difference. I don’t need to know the minute someone likes an Instagram post, upvotes a Quora answer, or messages me on Facebook. These notifications are nothing but small dopamine hits contributing to our cultural ADHD.
  • No phone Saturday: This is an experiment I’m currently running. I do not use my phone on Saturday to give my brain a break from being constantly plugged in. So far, it’s been pretty amazing. I feel more recharged, focused, and productive.

It’s up to you to consciously ensure that your technology is serving you. Companies hire smart people and pay them millions of dollars to get you hooked on their products. We need to make sure those products serve us instead of causing us anxiety and disrupting our social interactions.

5. Saying hello.

I re-entered the dating world in 2016. I had been in relationships for most of the prior 10 years, and naturally, I struggled in the beginning.

My biggest challenge was being too nervous to approach girls who I wanted to get to know better. I feared being rejected and perceived as not likable. Eventually, I got tired of feeling this way and turned to my framework for overcoming fear. I quickly realized that the worst-case scenario is that I get rejected, walk away, and end up just fine. I also realized that I was missing out on a lot of wonderful conversations and experiences if I didn’t learn how to overcome this fear.

So I decided to take action. I challenged myself to break through my fears while on a weekend trip to Punta del Este. I committed to walking up and simply saying “hello” to anyone who I wanted to talk to. It worked out remarkably well. Most of the time, it led to an interesting conversation. Sometimes, it led to a great friendship or a date. And a few times, it led to a rejection that made me laugh as I walked away.

This practice has benefited me well beyond the dating world. It’s made me a better professional and more friendly traveler. Most importantly, it has helped me build up my confidence and move past my fears. Now, if I hear a conversation that I want to be a part of or simply want to meet new people, I just walk up and say hello. The general conversational skills that I’ve learned throughout my life take care of the rest.

6. Just start

Whether you want to lose weight, write a book, build a business, or improve your marriage, just start. Too many people, including myself, get caught up in thinking about something and not ever doing something about it. It’s so easy to rationalize why now is not the right time to do something.

  • Just a few more months and I’ll be ready
  • After the big concert, I’ll stop drinking
  • I don’t have the time for it right now

It’s much more admirable and productive to cut the excuses and find small ways to start working on the things you care about. If it’s important, just start. Over time, I’ve learned to take action even when I’m not ready.

When I take action, I get motivated and inspired by the tangible progress. I get creative because I’m actually doing it. And I get the feedback I need to improve and make my vision a reality. Taking action is a muscle. The more you do it, the easier it is. Get started.

7. What can I learn from this person?

Our brains are hardwired to judge and categorize other people. Too often, we put people in boxes before we really know anything about them. This prevents us from building meaningful relationships with others and expanding our minds. I’ve started to combat this by asking myself, “What can I learn from this person?” with everyone I meet.

Every single person you meet can teach you at least one thing. And when you realize that, you seek to understand, not judge them. You may not like or agree with someone, but giving them a real chance changes the game.

You start taking a genuine interest in what other people are saying, and you get curious as to where their beliefs come from. You start asking more insightful questions and uncovering shared beliefs and experiencing. You stop criticizing and start appreciating. It’s really a beautiful thing. Try it.

8. Thinking like a kid

When I used to think about my life, I operated within the constraints of what I knew and what was immediately in front of me. When I was a banker in New York City, I never considered the possibility that I could start my own business, travel the world full-time, and live out of a backpack for years. I never considered that I could go to Rio Carnival with my best friends or chat with monks in Thailand while building my career. I never considered these things because I never took the time to sit down and think about the immense possibility in this world.

Fortunately, I stumbled upon these rewarding experiences. Then about a year ago, I did an exercise from Tony Robbins’ Awaken the Giant Within where I started imagining and wrote down all the different things I could do in life if I took away the constraints. That exercise produced a number of big ideas that got me super pumped about life. It opened my eyes to the possibility out there if you just look for it. I now do a slightly modified version of this exercise every six months.

9. Living with less

When I moved out of my apartment in New York and bought a one-way ticket to Cartagena, I decided that I wanted to travel out of one backpack. This decision required me to cut my life down to a few essential items and store or donate the rest. In the process, I unintentionally became a minimalist. I’m grateful that happened.

In learning to live with only the core items I need, I’ve been set free from my consumerist impulse. I no longer feel the pull to buy things that I don’t need. It’s been a gradual process, but it’s immensely liberating. Now, every time I buy a new item, I donate something else that I have. Living in this way for two years has taught me how few things you really need to live a fulfilling life. I can pack up everything I own in 10 minutes and hit the road. My life feels incredibly light.

You don’t need to do something as extreme as cutting your life to one backpack to feel this. But perhaps spending a weekend decluttering your life and a 6 month stretch without buying new things would be valuable.

10. Weekly review

I first learned about doing a weekly review from David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. The basic idea is to reflect on your life every week and get prepared for the upcoming week. I’ve adapted this idea to fit my needs and personal style. Now, every Sunday, I review my life for 30 to 60 minutes. I reflect on my goals, what I’ve accomplished, key challenges, what I’ve learned, and my focus for the upcoming week. I then write an email to myself and a select group of friends in the following format:

  • Brief summary of the week
  • Tracking against my quarterly goals
  • Learnings
  • Victories
  • Challenges
  • Focus for the upcoming week

This report has been invaluable. It holds me accountable for the things I said I was going to do, allows me to clarify and measure where I am, and enables me to feel grounded for the upcoming week. And because I send it to friends, it ends up being a great way to stay in touch and keep the people I care most about up-to-date with my life while I travel.

11. Starting with why

So much of what we do and how we think is unconscious programming from our society, parents, friends, and education systems. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s important to question it and understand why you do the things that you do. Otherwise, you might end up living in a reality that checks all the boxes but feels immensely unfulfilling for you.

I first learned to start with why when I was thinking about my next move after working on Wall Street, and it’s stuck with me ever since. Discovering the work of Simon Sinek has deepened my interest in the idea.  Starting with why forces you to clarify your values and think about what you want to do in this short life. Your big choices and goals become much easier once you know why you’re working towards them.

12. Reading

After leaving investment banking, I started reading every day. This practice has transformed my life. Through reading 75+ books over the last 18 months, I’ve uncovered new intellectual interests, reshaped my views on life, and developed hundreds of ideas that have improved my personal and professional endeavors. Reading has enabled me to become a better thinker, writer, and citizen.

I think that developing a habit of reading at least 10 minutes every day is the single best way to improve your quality of life. If you’re looking for how to get started, I summarize every book I read here and put together a list of 12 non-fiction books that have shaped my understanding of the world. I am happy to give additional personalized suggestions if you email me.

If you enjoyed this essay…