Updated on 10.18.11

Nine Things You Can Do Today to Improve Your Life

Trent Hamm

A few days ago, a friend of mine made a comment that stuck with me. He said that his life felt like it was stuck in an endless rut and that everything he could think of to put it on a better path was so big that it seemed insurmountable.

I started off writing him an email about it, but I realized that much of what I was going to write to him would make a powerful article for The Simple Dollar.

My goal was to simply list nine things that he could do today that would improve his situation and leave him, at the end of the day, as though the day that has passed has been a valuable one and has put his life on the right track.

The Reflection
Spend half an hour and reflect on your life. Do it with nothing to distract you except a pencil and a piece of paper in front of you. Just spend that time walking mentally through every part of your life, thinking about where it’s at, what you’d like to be different about it, and what you actually like about it. Hit on what brings you joy and also what you can do to improve. Think about your dreams. Think about your biggest challenges. Look it in the face. Go through all of it.

If you come up with something – anything – that you feel like you should follow up on later, write it down. That’s why you have a pencil and paper in front of you.

Why do this? When you finish this, you’ll feel invigorated. You’ll feel far more in control of your life. You’ll have a much better sense of where things rank in your life in terms of what’s important and what really isn’t.

The List
This can follow the first one quite effectively. Make a list of ten things you want to accomplish, big or small. The best way to do this is to simply go through your mind and write down the first ten things you can think of that you want to do but just haven’t gotten around to doing.

Once you have that list, make another one. For each item on the first list, write down one single action that you can take – fifteen minutes or less – to move that item forward in some way. Then, use that second list as your to-do list for the rest of the day. Get through as many of them as you possibly can before the end of the day.

Why do this? You’ll feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment as you go to bed that night. You’ve taken forward action on a lot of things going on in your life – and forward progress on the things bothering you feels good, like that moment you’re scratching an itch that’s been bothering you for a while.

The Raise
Stop in and have a chat with your boss. Tell him or her that you’re not asking for a raise now, but that you’d like to ask for a raise in six months. Ask your boss what you can do to earn that raise over the next six months.

Take notes. Make a checklist out of what your boss tells you, then strive to go beyond each item on that checklist. Create a situation where you’re so valuable and useful to the company that they need you around.

Why do this? This is a very straightforward thing you can do to improve your own income and secure a stronger place at work. It tells you, in no uncertain terms, what you need to do to excel in the workplace.

The Book
Go to the library or to the bookstore and pick up a well-respected nonfiction book on a topic you’ve always been curious about. Start reading it today and get a significant amount of the way through the book.

The topic can be truly anything you’ve consistently wondered about over the years. All of us with even a bit of curiosity have something that we’ve regularly thought about. Now’s the time for you to sate that curiosity.

Why do this? The act of reading itself improves your language skills. Reading a challenging book improves your thinking skills. Following up on an area that you’re curious about is a great way to improve your knowledge on a topic that matters to you.

The Walk
Go for a one hour walk in your neighborhood. As you’re walking, be observant. Don’t just withdraw into your own shell or your iPod. Notice what’s going on around you with your eyes and your ears. Look for things that are interesting to you.

Along the way, say hello to everyone you see (if that’s reasonable, meaning you’re not walking in a particularly crowded area). Genuinely compliment anyone that you have a real reason to compliment. Also, make an effort to remember anything interesting that you come across, like a flyer for an interesting community activity.

Why do this? The walk itself provides exercise. The constant observation improves your observation skills and your understanding of what’s going on around you. The positive social interaction with others is a great way to practice social skills and perhaps start building connections to the people who live near you.

The Giving
Go to a charitable organization in your neighborhood that you believe in, knock on the door, and ask how you can help. It could be a church, a food pantry, a soup kitchen – anything. The key is that you believe in what they’re doing.

Most charities are happy to find something for an interested set of idle hands to do. It might be anything, from cleaning to serving food to organizing things to setting up or fixing a computer. It depends entirely on what that organization needs, and if you’re meeting that need with whatever skills and energy and time you can offer, you’re helping that charity achieve its goal of helping others who need it.

Why do this? Few things improve your outlook on life quite like investing some of your time, energy, and talent toward helping others. It gives you a strong sense of social accomplishment and pride in how you’ve spent your time, particularly when you can directly see the connection and improvement in your community.

The Cleansing
Go through your house. Gather up everything that you rarely use. Load it in your car. Drive it down to your local Goodwill. Donate it.

Yes, of course, you could have a yard sale or something like that, but the relative earnings for a lot of the things you’d donate wouldn’t earn you a lot at a yard sale and a lot of it would go unsold. Not only that, the stuff would have to sit around your house until the next time you can have a yard sale. If you want a fresh start, you’re better off just getting it out of there.

Why do this? You’re reducing the number of items you own, which means more space in your home and less time invested in upkeep and maintenance of your stuff. You’re giving those items to a charity, and you’re also ensuring that they wind up in the home of someone who wants them.

The Thanks
Call the person that has meant the most to you over the course of your entire life and tell that person that you love them and appreciate what they’ve done for you.

That person might be a parent, but it might also be a mentor or an old friend or an older sibling, depending on how the course of your life has gone.

Why do this? You’re able to let that one important person in your life really know how much they meant to you, which is an emotional gain both for you and for that person. Sometimes, this type of call can cut through a period of poor contact between the two of you, which can be a great improvement to a valuable relationship for both of you.

The Goal
Set yourself a single overarching goal – financial or otherwise – that you want to achieve in the next five years. Come up with a detailed plan for doing it. Do everything you can do for that plan on the first day, such as setting up accounts, setting up an automatic installment plan, doing some research, and so on.

For many people, the singular goal is an obvious one. It’s one that’s been dominating our thoughts for a while but has seemed so big that we’ve been afraid to take action on it. Today’s the day to start taking action.

Why do this? A big goal like this is something that can completely change your life. Taking the first steps toward that transformation can feel incredibly empowering – and they also do start you on your way to the change you dream about.

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  1. Andrea says:

    I’m glad I saw this post on twitter, it’s exactly what I needed to see right now, especially reflecting for a half hour, and creating a list, I guess many people are feeling stuck right now, I just bought the book “The Law of Success” by Napoleon Hill, because of feeling the same way “stuck” so, now I have the book and your list to help get started.

  2. Tara C says:

    Great post! I plan to start working on it tonight. I am in a terrible rut and today I am going to start getting out of it.

  3. Ash says:

    Thanks for remnding me of what my priorities should be! Yes it is easy to get stuck in a rut.
    Great post Trent and some brilliant ideas.

  4. Amy says:

    Great post. So nice to hear of some positive things people can do to change their situation. Often just taking that first step can be a life changer.

  5. jackie says:

    Nice post today!

  6. Mari says:

    Very thought-provoking post and a good reminder that the way we look at our lives is our own decision (no matter how much or how little money we earn).

  7. Brittany says:

    TSD has been up and down lately, but this post was a home run.

    I wouldn’t say I’ve been stuck in a meaningless rut lately–quite the opposite, really. All the goals I’ve been working for finally all fell into place. Finished my contract with my old job (loved the work, but hated the job) with the skills to land my dream job. Paid off my student debt. Have a great friend group, a wonderful relationship, and a strong broader social network. But the problem is… what do I do now? I’ve been feeling a little lost and directionless (but not nearly ready to plan for Big Future Things, like family, house, going back for a Ph.D., etc.). This post has some great steps for finding “little direction” in the meantime.

  8. deRuiter says:

    Nice post. Your mention of soup kitchens brought to mind a long time question. Why is it (and if you know, please post answer) why soup kitchens are always staffed by those who don’t need them, and the clients are never asked to contribute by dishing out food on the line, cleaning up, etc.? On Thanksgiving we’re always treated to pictures of politicians and the middle and upper class folks who give up their holiday to serve food at food pantries. Seems that the people accessing the pantries might have a lot of time on their hands but are never asked to do the work. Just curious. Thank you!

  9. Jessica says:

    @#8: Read Toxic Charity (charities?). I just finished it. It is by a minister who works in Atlanta and his ventures into ministry and charity and charitable giving and why those who receive scorn those who give, depend on giving, and what to do about it. Excellent book. Makes you think twice about how to go about your giving.

  10. Sonja says:

    NOT COOL. I saw this exact thread on Reddit a couple days ago. Guy posts the question “What is one thing I can do today to make me a better man?”. Among the hundreds of responses were a few (about 9!) that keep popping up: meditate, read a book, purge your stuff, complement someone, etc. I think taking that thread and boiling it down into a quick read is fine, but pawning it off as your personal wisdom to your “friend” is phony and disingenuous.

  11. kristine says:

    de ruiter, a lot of soup kitchen recipients are homeless, and do not practice proper hygiene. Some may have TB or hepatitis- many may not have normal medical care. I have worked in a soup kitchen, and I can think of only 1 or 2 clients I would feel even OK about serving my food. Given that there is already a stigma to overcome to go there for food in the first place- the embarrassment of being asked to clean-up, or not being asked to help (which might highlight a disheveled condition), could prevenrt people from coming. Many of the clients we had were also obviously mentally ill, pushed out of state institutions, and living on the sides of highways, under bridges, etc. Knowing this- fear of liability issues might be a factor as well. I once saw a violent outburst over a dropped hamburger bun.

  12. slccom says:

    #7 Brittany: Take some time to celebrate your accomplishments! Figure out what you want to do to play, and just have some fun. New goals will come to you as you are ready, but if you don’t enjoy your accomplishments, it makes future accomplishments seem more like work and less worth doing.

    Congratulations! Now, put down that keyboard and go outside and play!

  13. valleycat1 says:

    #7 Brittany – I agree with #12. Sounds like you are in a good place. Those ‘what now’ times are inevitable and an integral part of life. When you’re done celebrating, from Trent’s list I’d suggest the giving component perhaps as a starting point for you. Whether it’s volunteering time or picking a cause to support in some other way.

  14. kc says:

    The thread on reddit: bit.ly/oH9hfs

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