30 Tiny Specific Habits that Make Me Calmer and Happier

person on a bridge near a lake

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The first thing I told new guy as we sat down for drinks was that I’m a type-A nutjob. (I like to let my dealbreakers hang out as soon as possible to give the other person the chance to run). A lot of people think being type-A means you’re a jerk, and there’s definitely a correlation. There’s just something about Type-A people that makes them think that they are in a constant battle with time. Because of that, Type-A people are prone to stress and stress-related illnesses. And that can easily translate into being a jerk.

So I have a fair amount of built-in anxiety. Growing up, my piano teacher would always tell me to relax my shoulders. My doctor would tell me to relax my tongue; my dentist told me to unclench my jaw. Basically any part of me that could be tense, was tense all the time unless instructed otherwise. I was also a worried little kid. We spent a lot of time in Chinatown, Manhattan when I was growing up and whenever we would go shopping, my eyes were stuck on my dad’s back pocket, to make sure he didn’t get robbed. This was when I was 6, and it wasn’t that dangerous there – even for pickpockets. Even now, when I enter my apartment by myself, I check all the closets and the bathtub for murderers, just in case.

I only recently learned that this was not normal.

But rather than consign myself to a life of anxiety and fear, unhappiness and stress-related illnesses, I’ve really tried to fight it. I’ve tried to reduce as much stress as possible from my life. Here are some of the tips I’ve used over the years to make my life a little calmer and happier.

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Waking up

1. Waking up with sunlight.

I purposely picked an apartment that got a lot of sunlight and my blinds are always open. I don’t even own curtains (they get dusty anyway) . It makes it much tougher to stay in bed when there’s so much light streaming through. And even during the winter, I use a Light Therapy Lamp so I can wake up to a gradually increasing bright light (simulating the sun) coinciding with 6am. It’s a great way to start the day (and otherwise would be very jarring to wake up in darkness and then expose yourself to the sun). I don’t use an alarm but this habit helps me wake up at exactly the same time every day.

2. Drinking lemon water.

Lemon water just makes my body feel so clean in the morning (ahem, it helps with bowel movements). Plus I get tons of Vitamin C, which is helpful for iron absorption (I have an iron deficiency, like many women). Also, lemon water doesn’t make me hungry the way tea or coffee do so I can drink it throughout the day as a little flavor to my water without making me ravenous and hangry (and that means less sugar and less caffeine – for a calmer me). When I don’t have my lemon water in the morning, my body just feels sluggish.

3. Leaving my phone outside of my bedroom.

This might not work if I have kids who go to sleepaway camp, but while I still don’t have any real responsibilities, the phone is always outside my bedroom. My bedroom is a no screens place. No TV, no phone, no other electronics (except for the light therapy lamp). I wake up in the morning and have to leave my bedroom to check any devices and I can’t fall asleep to the boob tube, which is supposed to make falling and staying asleep easier.

4. Oil pulling, tongue scraping and sugar-free toothpaste.

Now hear me out, this is pretty weird. I use Baking Soda and Coconut Oil on my teeth with a little Peppermint Oil as my toothpaste. I make a batch every few weeks or so. But after using my own unsweetened toothpaste, regular toothpaste tastes like putting sugar on my teeth. And putting sugar on your teeth just makes you crave more sweets. I realize it’s “fake sugar” but even so, I don’t like having my mouth taste like candy in the morning. I have enough of a sweet tooth as it is!

Also, ever since I switched my toothpaste, done oil pulling and tongue scraping, I’ve had zero problems at the dentist, whereas before I would always have cavities. My dentist (and some of my friends) have all noticed my naturally white teeth (the oil pulling makes your teeth whiter). Additionally, it’s nice to start your day with a super clean mouth. (It’s kind of like that saying of washing your mouth out with soap, but this is much less terrible-tasting). When I forget to do these things, I worry about bad breath and just my mouth rotting in general (see, I can worry about anything).

5. Having everything in bulk.

It would be really annoying to run out of toilet paper in the morning. Or contact lens solution. Or any other thing you need to get ready before work. I shop at Costco (I will write another post some other day – why a single person without a car shops at Costco) because I hate running out of things.

I would see these money diaries where people would buy one chicken breast, 6 oz of rice and 1 potato on their shopping trips. What a waste of time! I buy 5 pounds of frozen chicken, 10 pounds of rice and 10 pounds of potatoes. I can skip shopping for weeks without worrying about running out of things. So this saves me a fair amount of time shopping because if I don’t HAVE to go to the store, I won’t. It makes it easier to cook, because I have everything I need, which means I’m healthier and saving money. And it means I don’t have this nagging worry about running out of things.

Some of the things that I buy in such large quantities that I consider them annual purchases – dishwasher detergent, garbage bags, Baking Soda (seriously baking soda is the best in bulk. You can also use it to make an abrasive scrub to basically clean anything you want, as well), swiffer refills, liquid soap, sponges, laundry detergent, Chlorox bleach wipes, and Coconut Oil. Other things I buy in large quantities – rice or grains, meat, frozen veggies, tea.

Morning routine

6. Lifting weights.

I was always terrible with lifting weights, but I know I need to! Now I just have a short routine with simple Adjustable Ankle or Wrist Weights. No excuses, it’s in the routine now. Lifting weights makes me stronger and better able to face the day. It’s also a great stress reliever. I realize I’m never going to look like Madonna by doing a simple routine, but even a little boost of strength is better than nothing. As they say, the way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.

7. Reading a chapter of a book in the morning.

I realize that a lot of people are very anti-Tim Ferriss but I find his latest books – Tools of Titans and Tribe of Mentors to be fascinating. They’re basically chock-a-block full of little life hacks from the most successful people in the world (perfect if you like reading lists like this). Also, the inspiration for my one-meal-a-day habit and the one-good-breath-a-day habit (below) came from Tools of Titans.

Problem for me is that 1) I own the books and I never read books that I own and 2) both books are incredibly long. But each chapter is only a few pages long. So I’ve decided to tackle each book by reading one chapter a day. Yes, it’ll take me the whole year to finish reading, but I will finally finish reading it. And I get to digest each chapter for the day. It’s like my mini-meditation and it makes me feel good that I’m learning new ideas in the morning, even if only bit by bit.

8. Foam Rolling/stretching.

I would like to say I do this as precaution, but actually the last two massages I had were agony when the masseuses even touched my legs. They were so tight. It is a luxury to get a massage, but you can’t actually pay your way out of pain. You have to put in the work (unless you have a personal Thai massage assistant at your back and call every day). So in order to even appreciate having a massage, I have to get my body in shape to receive one.

I had read somewhere that you have to spend an equal amount of time recovering from your day as preparing for it. I’m not sure that’s true but I know that years of not recovering (not stretching, not breathing, constant stress and anxiety) has left me so tight that I couldn’t even get a massage. So now I’ve become proactive. I realize that getting a massage is like going to the trainer – the pro can only do so much. Most of your advancement is in the homework. Most of what will help you or kill you is your daily lifestyle decisions.

Stretching and foam rolling (I also like using these Therapy Balls) are activities that require repeated practice. It can’t just be “I’ll stretch today for 2 hours!” and then never stretch again. You have to give your body some time to rest in between and after, so that your body will be able to go further into the stretch. I like this book for its foam roller beginner plan. After mandating a little foam roller time, my hips aren’t constantly in pain! Small (but significant) gains.

9. Streamlining my clothing selection.

I like everything in my closet. Full stop. I can pick anything off the line and wear it and I wouldn’t hate my day.

My main closet is only for work clothes – casual clothes or workout clothes go in the dresser or in the other closet. So I face all my work clothes every day, with no other clothes in the way. They are organized by color.

In addition, I’ve divided my closet in half with a blue ribbon separating the middle. I only pick stuff to wear from one side of the closet. Once I wear something I move it to the other side of the closet. I continue until everything is on the other side of the closet. Then I just start over on the other side. Most of these items are dresses so I just pick a dress and go. If something is ripped or dirty, it goes in a separate area but everything in the closet is ready to go. As the system proceeds, my decisions get fewer and fewer. Decision fatigue is debilitating for me. This way, with fewer decisions, even if I become indecisive, I can just pick the next thing in line and I’ll be fine with my outfit.

It’s not the same as being a minimalist and only having 10 items of clothing, but it does streamline my decision making. Everything I do with regard to my work clothing is about reducing decisions. I said above I buy things in bulk, but that’s for things that are exhaustible. For things that don’t run out, and that you can only use one of at a time, I have minimalist-ed to one. I have ONE pair of work shoes. I have ONE work purse. ONE blazer. ONE pair of flat sandals that I use for commuting. ONE watch. No decisions required because there’s no selection. And that’s fine by me.

10. Avoiding certain stressful things.

 

My morning routine is as notable for what it doesn’t have as what it does. Of course I check my phone in the morning – I’m human.

But I stopped listening to the news. You learn over time that it’s not helpful and it’s not important.

I don’t drink coffee – coffee doesn’t work for me. I get jittery and then sleepy.

I don’t eat breakfast. Eating breakfast makes me so hungry. (But if I do eat something in the morning, I avoid sugar and try to eat protein).

Basically, I try to start the day with silence and peace as a stark contrast from what will soon happen at my job.

11. Getting rid of something everyday.

Whenever something gets in my way of finding something, and I can’t figure out why I would have this item anyway, I’ll just toss it. Also, if I hate something, I’ll throw it away. It seems like a small thing but I know I’ve gotten rid of a lot of little obstacles in my apartment every day because of this. I’m not very organized and I hate taking care of objects so I’ve learned to shop less. Not shopping means less stuff to take care of, organize, and then ultimately throw away because I can never figure out how to keep track of it all. Ultimately, for me, less stuff means less stress. And getting rid of stuff I hate is also less stress.

Also, don’t have a junk drawer. Just get rid of the junk. You’ll thank yourself.

12. Spending 30 minutes out in the sun/exercising.

I bike to work and try to bike home. It’s often the only exercise I get through the day. It is also meditative (I usually think of blog posts on my bike ride). If I bike to and from work, it’s an entire hour out in the fresh air.

I also bike everywhere to save a few minutes on places that are really close by but would be annoying to walk to (there’s that Type-A resurfacing). It’s really hard to stay stressed when you’re on a bike in the sunshine for half an hour. Nearly everyone is Vitamin D-deprived, and getting more sun is a great pick-me-up.

During the Day

 

13. Having all sorts of pick me ups in the office.

 

I always have red lipstick because seeing red puts you in a better mood. I have my favorite perfumes in my office because, the same thing with smelling something beautiful. I have lotion for my face so it doesn’t get too dry. I have dry shampoo and hair oil so my hair will look ok. I have hand sanitizer because, well, that’s just good sense.

I have things in my office that make me happy. I spend a lot of time there so it just makes good sense to have a way of picking myself up and feeling good about myself throughout the day.

14. Only exposing myself to good media.

My ex and I used to keep a blog. We have very strange religious and political views so we saw each other as refuges for discussing things. We would link articles that we wanted to discuss and then we would discuss them. We would always link at least three articles per blog post. So when I read stuff online, I would look at the articles very critically. I would wonder if it was good enough for the blog.

And it became clear which blogs were more fruitful for discussion, which ones produced articles worth discussing. I started to wonder why I would I want to read anything that had very little chance of being something I would want to talk about, to remember, to discuss. Why am I reading things when it’s clear that I won’t want to remember even tomorrow what Kylie Jenner is wearing, for example. If it’s not important to my future, it’s not important to my present.

Even now, though I don’t have that blog anymore, I do write down important things I’ve learned in a journal. And it’s a reminder that I want to fill my mind with stuff that I want to remember. I don’t want to fill my mind with stuff I immediately want to forget.

15. Spending quality time away from my phone.

 

I was late to the smart phone game (I got my first smart phone in 2013) but I’ve finally started to get a phone addiction. Trying to circumvent this, I’ve stopped ALL app notifications. I also have an app to block me from using my phone – I usually block myself for an hour – it’s brutal. But it brings me a little bit of peace and productivity.

16. Taking one good breath.

People often hate it when you tell them to breathe in a stressful situation. For me, though, it’s helpful because I often hold my breath even during generally unstressful events. So normal breathing is something I still need to work on.

Deep breathing is the ultimate goal. I’ve heard that not only do you need to take a deep breath that fills your lungs, but when you exhale, you’re supposed to really squeeze your lungs to get all the air out. In any event, focusing on even one good breath is way better than the very shallow panic breathing I use throughout the day. It also oddly makes me feel accomplished – like hey, not all my breaths sucked today!

17. Keeping a drawer of chocolate at work.

This is just good sense. This one is my favorite. It’s not an affiliate link. Chocolate just makes me happy. And sometimes you want something sweet.  And if you buy any kind of baked good around my office, it’ll run you at least $3. Having a little piece of chocolate satisfies the urge and gives me a moment of edible happiness.

18. Trying to get through all emails.

I try to touch everything only once in my inbox. And if I can’t respond immediately something I’m trying to do is take notes on why I don’t respond to any email immediately. But having too many emails stresses me out. It’s very calming to me to have a clean inbox.

After work

19. Cooking.

I know it sounds really stupid but honestly figuring out what to eat was stressing me out. This was the real impetus for me eating one meal a day. Just having lemon water for breakfast and a snack for lunch has alleviated a lot of decisions I have to make. (And yes, even choosing what to order in a restaurant was giving me decision fatigue. Honestly eating out gives me more decision fatigue than cooking because there are so many choices. If you cook at home, you can really only cook the items you have, meaning fewer decisions).

With fewer meals, I could focus my decisions on making one awesome meal at home. Cooking at home means that I have healthier meals that remind me my childhood – which was a very pleasant healthy childhood that I’m ok being reminded of. On nights when I’m at home, I always cook. I never order takeout, which has always seemed like such a hassle, and delivery takes too long. Plus, because I buy in bulk, there’s always food to cook.

I tend to drink soup with my meal. I guess the kids call it bone broth. Chinese people are big on soup. I like the ritual of it myself, though I also stew a lot of chicken feet for their collagen. It’s a relaxing way to end the day. For dinner, I rely on simple strategies to always have a good meal.

20. Bringing a book everywhere.

 

For a type-A nutjob like me, waiting in lines can induce so much anger. Having a book is a way to self-medicate. I always have at least 8 books checked out from the library at any given time, because the book I may want to read today may be different than what I wanted to read yesterday. And as a practical matter, only certain books are small enough to lug around.

If I forget my book, I have devised other ways to entertain myself. I try to practice seeing without my glasses (ok I’m extremely nearsighted, so this is actually very difficult for me). I focus on breathing. I try to work through problems. Basically, I focus on ways not to think about how angry I am becoming while standing in line.

21. Having things to look forward to.

Anticipation is the real joy or the real dread, in my opinion. I generally have a hard time understanding how to feel joy during an event so the anticipation really is the best or worst part. It’s something I need to work on – feeling the moment. But for now, if I have something to look forward to, the time passes sooner and it’s much more pleasant. I try to do something fun at least every week and I keep a running total of these things to remind myself of what fun I had this year.

22. Taking the stairs.

I hate waiting. Taking the stairs is a little bit more exercise and keeps me from waiting. Honestly I do anything to keep myself from waiting. I use self-checkout. Sometimes I’ll put stuff back in the store that I don’t NEED to buy if I’m in a line without a book – so I can just leave the store without waiting in line. Any little movement – anywhere – makes me feel like my fight against time is less dire. I’m moving – I’m getting somewhere. That calms my Type-A tendencies. And if I’m honest, every time there’s a fire drill I’m stunned at how out of shape I am – thus the need to take the stairs more often. It’s like lifting weights – every little bit counts.

23. Having really stupid things in my apartment that make me smile.

Like my Batman Shower Curtain. My Batman wall art. A gallery wall filled with family pictures, beautiful photos and dumb postcards. Tacky gold chairs. A little girls’ hot pink futon. My Keanu Reeves rug. Trinkets and souvenirs from good times.

My apartment looks like a college student dorm room. I have really junky furniture. It’s probably not befitting a lawyer who makes six figures. But I enter my apartment, I see all the things I love and I think, ahh I’m home.

Night routine

24. Taking a bath.

 

I’m type-A so obviously I’m a shower kind of girl. But taking a bath is so soothing – I never regret it.

I add Epsom Salts because most people are low on magnesium and Coconut Oil so my skin is soft. Sometimes I’ll add this seaweed detox bath. The first time I used it, I slept like a dream, but it’s been only ok since then. No screens in the bath. Only a good book, some ice water, maybe an aromatherapy diffuser or candle and myself.

25.  Packing my bag for the next day.

Even if it’s just throwing most of the stuff I need to pack in the general direction of my bag, it makes everything a little bit easier in the morning. Because I bike to work, it can get complicated packing for the day – because you have to pack everything for showering at work and your work outfit. This wouldn’t be a big deal if I didn’t bike to work because I’d just use the same purse day in and day out. But with a bike, and then sometimes taking the metro home, it can be a little more work. I don’t want to add stress to my life by biking to work so I try to pack ahead of time.

26. Keeping a list of daily and weekly items to move forward.

I have a list of things I need to do everyday. What? A list within a list? Yep. This list is actually how I started many of these activities. It’s a way for me to remember to make progress toward my goals.

Some of the items on the list don’t necessarily make me happier or less stressed (so not on this list). Actually they often make me MORE stressed but the end goal would make me happier. The idea of finishing a large task and taking steps toward that goal consistently make me happier. And I have to remind myself that no matter what, I don’t want a zero day. Every day is important. I have to make SOME progress every day.

I practice my Chinese and my Cantonese daily (and weekly with a tutor) though it can be difficult and annoying. I work on my Pinterest game (which I’m slowly starting to enjoy). I copy my journal entries into Word. I write these to-dos on a list and they soon become habits. And building those habits makes me happier.

27. Doing leg inversions for a few minutes before sleep.

 

I don’t know if it really works but to me, this feels like a collective sigh that the day is over. And because I always do this before bed, it reminds me to go to sleep, honestly. And it could just be me, but it makes me feel just a little bit skinnier after doing my inversions (ok I made that up but I do feel that way).

28. Writing my lessons for the day.

Every night I evaluate my day and think about the lessons that would have helped me do better. I don’t remember if this is the accurate quote but I think Coco Chanel said, every day I simplify because every day I learn something.

29. Wearing an eye mask.

 

If I used blackout curtains, I couldn’t wake up with sunlight (see #1). So I wear an eye mask. These Lovely Panda Face Sleep Masks Eye Masks are adorable. For whatever reason, these masks always come off in the night so my eyes are always greeted to sunlight, not to a mask. It’s probably a flaw in the mask, but it works out well for me.

30. Drifting off thinking of something positive.

I still always have nightmares (ugh to be type A) but fantasizing about wonderful things helps me fall asleep quickly. So go ahead and dream about your dream life, rather than worrying about what happened or what’s to come. This is your fun time.

Five I’d like to incorporate

1. Writing thank you notes.

It’s another way of creating a gratitude journal (which I never figured out how to do correctly because to me, it was writing 1. family 2. health 3. finances every day) except that the people I’m thanking actually get to hear the thanks.

2. Taking pictures of beautiful things.

I got the One Second Video app. (this is an example) I saw it in the Jon Favreau movie, Chef, and was so charmed by it. I still have yet to remember to record more than a few videos.

3. Giving up tracking my sleep.

Basically being type-A means you berate yourself for wasting time, even when it’s not a waste. For instance, I found that tracking my sleep meant I would berate myself for sleeping. And I don’t even know what that accomplished. If I’m tired, and because I don’t have a set start time at work, I can sleep in without repercussion. I don’t want to be someone who berates themselves for sleeping 7-8 hours like a healthy person. So I’m not going to track it.

Conclusion


You can see a consistent pattern of reducing disorganization and clutter, reducing decisions (for decision fatigue), typical stress relieving activities and other tiny little habits that are just meant to encourage a positive outlook on life. Those are the kinds of habits that have made my life better. There are obviously bigger things I also do to make a better life (spending time with family, removing toxic friends, reducing bad habits, increasing financial security) but these habits are things that almost anyone can start doing immediately without the need for other people or a lot of money.

New Guy was looking over my shoulder and noticed that the time on my clock displayed the seconds. He said, that’s needless stress. So I got rid of it. I can’t tell if it has made me that much less stressed but if there’s a way to reduce stress, I’m keen on it. I’m always looking for new ideas.

19 thoughts on “30 Tiny Specific Habits that Make Me Calmer and Happier

  1. Wow. This is an exhaustive list! And it’s awesome!

    My wife and I have been using your recipe of toothpaste too. Commercial toothpaste has all sorts of chemicals that aren’t necessary and can be unhealthy. For example, sodium laurel sulfate is in a lot of commercial toothpaste. It’s not necessary and can be an irritant.

  2. people are anti-Tim Ferris? Really this is new to me…. who? where? and most especially why? The dude is pretty freaking awesome!

    OK… rant over.

    But yes! weights! reading….writing. definitely some of my favorite habits. Keep it going. Cheers!

    1. He gave a book talk around here and a lot of people were pretty negative about the idea. I can’t hate on anyone who tries so hard to chase self improvement.

  3. i bought one of every linked item. i eat one quality meal a day too. it’s water at home then green tea at work and some almonds near lunch time most days. then i go home and cook because i enjoy it. i have no phone and it’s great. no news: same here. i also very much like getting the dealbreakers right out there on the table in any relationship.

  4. Wow! So many good tips in here that I should be stealing from you 🙂
    I used to be really good at following routines when I was single and lived alone but I haven’t figured out how to make it work now. My husband works shift work, so sometimes I’m up at 4 am (seriously) to drive him to work! But I’ve been using that as an excuse for too long. There are lots of great habits that I can do every day, regardless of my schedule. (Especially #30!)

  5. Lots of great ideas. I try to improve my habits and combine good habits. For example, while I have my 2-minute electric tooth-brushing time, I do calf-raises, change hands every thirty seconds, do port-de-bras with the first minute, following my hand with my head to stretch out my neck, and I do squats, holding my stomach muscles tight, with the second minute, continuing the port-de-bras and following my arm motions with my head. I finish my teeth feeling like I’ve done a total body workout, so then I stretch my calves, feet and arches while I rinse out the tooth brush and spit out the toothpaste.

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