By Marcel Schwantes
Imagine the possibilities of a life filled with these simple acts of joy that can be done in minutes. Here’s a template to get started.
Before this 31-day plan became a lifestyle, I first had to remove the tumors of self-gratification and hubris (trust me, the attitude ruling my life in the old days was all about “what’s in it for me?”).
Now that you have a glimpse into your own plan, a fair warning: It’s not about you. It took years for me to develop the understanding that life is really about giving, service, and meaningful relationships.
If you’re still with me, these things have reshaped my path as entrepreneur, happy husband, proud father, and community leader. Many can be practiced in minutes per day. Others will require some courage and stretching. Use this to acclimate yourself to a life of happiness and success.
Your 31-Day Personal Development Plan
Day 1: Do something for someone else.
Do a “five-minute favor” for someone. Five-minute favors are selfless giving acts, without asking for anything in return from the people that you help. Examples of five-minute favors include: sharing knowledge, making an introduction, serving as a reference for a person, product, or service, or recommending someone on LinkedIn, Yelp, or another social place.
Day 2: Share your positive experiences with friends and family and watch your joy increase.
Studies published in BPS Research have found that sharing the good things that happen in your life is the way to happiness. In one study, participants that journaled and shared positive experiences with another person at least twice a week were more satisfied with life.
Day 3: Stop striving to achieve.
We all have a tendency to work too much, lose our balance, and, ultimately, our joy in life. It’s the unhealthy feeling that if we don’t do something productive every day, we’ve somehow failed. So allow your perfectionism to rest. Slow down, and know that life is OK the way it is, right at this minute. As you eliminate the need to strive and be perfect, surrender to the universe. You’ll begin to appreciate and focus on other, neglected priorities that bring you joy.
Day 4: Put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
Empathy and compassion are things you can develop, and it starts with thinking about other people’s circumstances, understanding their pains and frustrations, and knowing that those emotions are every bit as real as our own. This helps you develop perspective, and opens you up to helping others, which also enhances your sense of gratitude.
Day 5: Discover your purpose and enjoy the journey.
Remind yourself frequently that the purpose of your life is not to work 10 hours per day, five days per week for 30 years, then retire to a golf course in Florida. Your true purpose should be to discover your calling in life, basking in the joy of the journey along the way, one step at a time. In the end, your legacy is left to these two questions:
- What impact did I make on the lives of others?
- Who did I serve and make better?
Day 6: Stop getting the attention and focus it on other people.
There’s something magical that happens when we let other people have the glory. Reading this may bruise your ego, but when we shine the spotlight on someone else and let that person be seen, heard, respected, and considered special—it becomes enjoyable to do so, and gives us a peaceful and quiet confidence.
Day 7: Give thanks. Your situation could be a lot worse.
I don’t care what religion you come from, start your day by thanking your higher power for the things you take for granted. As it turns out, if you make more than $30,000, you earn more than 53.2 percent of Americans. If you make more than $50,000, you earn more than 73.4 percent of Americans. Feeling grateful now? Say a little prayer and give thanks, and then pray for the other 73.4 percent.
Day 8: Exercise more of the P word.
Patience is a virtue I wish more people practiced. It helps you relax and rethink when things are snowballing out of control. Did that guy cut you off on the highway? Relax, take a deep breath, and consider that perhaps he’s rushing to the hospital with his wife in labor in the backseat. Patience helps you see the innocence in other people during those really frustrating moments when you’d like fist to meet wall.
Day 9: Be the first to reach out after an argument.
The tendency for so many of us is to let resentment fester after an argument or misunderstanding, and then cut off the person from our lives until he or she reaches out to us with an apology. It’s convenient. But it’s also just plain dumb. You lose a friendship, a family relationship, or great work connection because your ego has to have its way. Instead, be the first to reach out to make amends, even if you’re the one that has to apologize. That humble act will do wonders; the other person will soften, apologize, and allow you back into his or her life.
Day 10: Just. Say. No.
Truly happy people live a simple life. They have a simple schedule. They don’t take on more than they can handle. They live according to their values and purpose. They have strong boundaries around what comes into their life. And they have no problem saying no. If it doesn’t serve you, if it has little value, and if it doesn’t make you better tomorrow than you are today—just … say … no.
Day 11: React to good news with genuine enthusiasm.
Researchers call it active and constructive responding (ACR). If a friend or colleague shares good news (say, a promotion), there are many ways in which you could respond to this news. An ACR response might be, “That’s fantastic! I had no doubts the leadership team would recognize your hard work. Let’s celebrate and get some pizza and beer tonight.” An ACR response shares in people’s joy and excitement, and shows interest and curiosity. By doing so, you’ll maintain strong personal relationships and feel more positive.
Day 12: Be diligent.
Ever looked at an ant farm in action? Every single ant has amazing ambition and self-discipline. They are diligent! If you’re wondering, “Why do I slack off so much?” it may be time to take a long, hard look in the mirror. What’s keeping you from being diligent? Usually the first step of motivation is exactly that—just focus on the first step. Then, it’s one step at a time after that. But whatever you do, get off the couch, stop Snapchatting, and choose to be diligent today.
Day 13: Soak up the wisdom of another person.
If you’re a smart person (and I trust that you are since you’re reading this list), you want to view yourself as a small fish in the great big pond of life—seeking out connections to learn from. So who are the people of influence in your life? Invite one of them to coffee, and learn something new from this person. It will make you better, and he or she will appreciate the chance to pay it forward.
Day 14: Journal about three new things you are grateful for.
Psychologist Shawn Achor told Oprah that you train your brain to be optimistic if you do this for 21 days in a row: Each day, write down three new things you are grateful for.
Day 15: And while you’re at it, journal about one positive experience today.
Achor also told Oprah that if you spend two minutes daily journaling about one positive experience in the past 24 hours, it allows your brain to relive it, and teaches your brain that the behavior matters.
Day 16: Exercise for 15 minutes.
Achor also told Oprah that if you hate exercise, all it takes is 15 minutes of fun cardio activity, which is the equivalent of taking an antidepressant, but with a 30 percent lower relapse rate.
Day 17: Focus on your breathing.
Stop what you’re doing. Now breathe, and watch your breath go in and out for two minutes. Do this every day. This allows your brain to focus on one thing at a time. In Achor’s study, he says it will “raise accuracy rates, improve levels of happiness, and drop stress levels.”
Day 18. Express kindness through a text or email.
Take two minutes each day to write a positive email or text praising or thanking someone you know. And do it for a different person each day. Achor says people who do this become known as positive leaders with strong social connections—the greatest predictor of long-term happiness.
Day 19: Find something or someone that will make you laugh.
Humor helps you think more broadly and creatively. Psychologists had students solve puzzles after watching a clip of Robin Williams doing standup. Twenty percent more puzzles were solved by sudden insight from students who had watched comedy compared with students who had watched scary or boring videos beforehand. There are other benefits: Laughter releases endorphins into the body—a chemical 10 times more powerful than morphine—with the same exhilarating effect as an intense workout at the gym.
Day 20: Deal with a problem you’ve been neglecting.
So you’ve been putting off handling a difficult person or putting closure to something. By facing conflict and going through the eye of the storm, you’ll build resilience to deal with future problems seamlessly. Choosing to deal with the situation today will teach you to be more honest with yourself and others, give you the strength and openness to deal with problems quickly, and help you avoid procrastination.
Day 21: Do something fun.
Now that you’ve dealt with resolving a conflict, reward yourself with something fun. Science has found that people who have fun on the job are more creative and productive, make better decisions, and get along better with colleagues. Another study discovered that to unlock your creative potential, “go out and play” to lift your mood, and then come back to the problem.
Day 22: Build up your faith.
I don’t speak of religion, which has been abusive to so many. I speak of a faith—whatever your belief system—that comes from a deep spiritual connection with a power greater than yours. A power that extends you grace, forgiveness, love. It’s this faith that strengthens you and makes you endure your trials. A faith that helps you realize it’s no longer about you.
Day 23: Have lunch with someone, and listen to that person selflessly.
Give someone your full, undivided attention, and listen to his or her story. The best listeners, as I’ve written about before, have an uncanny ability to listen intuitively to the other person before responding. They listen with one modus operandi: How can I help the other person?
Day 24: Pursue an activity that brings you peace.
Get involved in an activity that’s enjoyable; something that will bring back that bounce in your step. What is it that you love to do? What brings you peace? Hint: Think hobbies, nature, friends, or exercise. I often take the lunch hour to swim, as it releases endorphins. What’s going to bring you peace?
Day 25: Look at people in the eye, smile, and say hello.
We live in such a fear-driven and insulated culture that we don’t even look people in the eye when we’re walking down the street, sitting in subway trains, or even when making our way through office hallways. Just for today, think of strangers as being a little more like you, and treat them with the kindness and respect they deserve: Look them softly in the eye, smile, and give a warm greeting.
Day 26: Take some quiet time alone to reflect.
For 30 to 60 minutes, remove yourself from the noise, clutter, distractions, screaming kids, and busyness of life. It helps to do it first thing after you wake up. Go out into the stillness of the morning, sit on a dock, under a large tree, or on a swing bench and meditate on the good things of life. Close your eyes, breathe through your stomach, and center yourself. Setting aside this little ritual makes the rest of your day seem manageable. You’ll notice a difference and a weight off your shoulders.
Day 27: Look at a situation by taking in the whole picture.
We call it self-awareness. It’s choosing to see two sides of an issue by tapping into our feelings and those of others for a different outcome. It helps us to respond instead of react to people. By redirecting negative thoughts and emphasizing positive ones, you can be the real you and enjoy interpersonal relationships much better.
Day 28: Reframe!
Do you ever hear that voice inside your head tell you things like, “I screwed up again. I’m worthless.” Or “I can’t do this. I’ve never been able to do it; it’s not going to work now.” This is negative self-talk and it can be toxic, as it reinforces irrational thoughts. Catch yourself in the act of using negative words or phrases and identify the triggers. Are demands at work piling up? Are things at home not so peachy? Stop your thought midstream by saying to yourself (or in your head), “Stop!” Then dig deep down inside yourself and reframe your assumptions. Are you assuming something is a negative event when it isn’t necessarily? Stop and reframe, and see if you can come up with a neutral or positive replacement.
Day 29: Readjust the strict rules you impose on yourself.
Are you a perfectionist? Identify one personal rule you live by that’s rigid, unfair, or unhelpful. Then reword it to be more helpful, flexible, and forgiving. Then put your new rule into practice!
Day 30: Relax and be more spontaneous.
Doing both are really necessary for healthy living. So if you’re at work, take regular breaks: Stretch, do breathing exercises, go for a walk outside, take a 15-minute nap, play a game, or just enjoy yourself. Add spontaneity to your life by going on a date with your spouse to a new ethnic restaurant, stopping afterward to watch the sunset. And next week, think about picking up a new hobby. Surprise yourself!
Day 31: Spend some quality time with an elderly person.
Elderly people have a rich and long history full of stories, experiences, and perspectives you’ve never thought of from simpler days gone by. There are many wins for you: It teaches you to be a better listener (day 23), builds up your patience (day 8) since elderly people typically speak slower, and you acquire new wisdom (day 13). They benefit from your attention (day 6) and kindness (day 18, 25).
What would your life look like if you practiced some of these things everyday, extending this plan beyond a 31-day cycle? It just might help you live the life you’ve always wanted rather than settling for whatever comes your way.
What will you do to live a more intentional life?