For years I felt like I was going through my life on autopilot. I would wake up early, immediately start work, and then wouldn’t stop until night, leaving me too exhausted to do anything but watch Netflix for the rest of my day. I spent my weekends doing activities I didn’t enjoy which would leave me feeling drained because I felt like I would let people down if I said “no.” Finally, after one particularly stressful week, I realized I hadn’t created the life I truly wanted. I had financial security, an amazing husband, a sweet dog, a fantastic family, and a lovely apartment, but still, I wasn’t happy.
If I wanted to feel my best and show up for the people I love, I needed to make some serious lifestyle changes. So over the course of a few months, I implemented habits that transformed my mood and my life. Not only did these habits make me happier, but they also improved my health and relationships. Curious how you can get more joy from life? Keep reading to learn the seven simple strategies I used to help me become my best self.
1. I pursued activities with no end goal
We live in a society so focused on optimizing every activity that we often forget it’s OK to do things simply because we find them fun. Studies show that people with hobbies have fewer negative emotions and are less stressed than those without hobbies. Making time in your week for a little leisure not only makes you feel more zen, but it can also help you rediscover parts of yourself you’d forgotten or discover new aspects of yourself you didn’t know existed.
I studied English in college, devouring 3-5 books a week. But after starting a demanding career, I barely got through a handful of books each year. Younger me was eager to get lost in stories and passionate about dissecting the themes of novels. I felt like I had lost this part of myself in my 20s and I wanted to get her back. So I set myself a reading goal of one book per month. The best part of this goal for me was that it wasn’t time-consuming. Rather than scrolling Instagram in the morning, I curled up on the couch with my dog and spent 15 minutes reading a book. This simple habit helped me start my day with joy, which positively impacted my attitude for the rest of the day.
2. I started saying “no”
When was the last time you said “no” to a coworker, friend, or family member? If it’s been a while, you’re not alone. 65% of American women report that they struggle to say “no” to others. But it’s a word you should get in the habit of saying more. Setting boundaries can significantly reduce stress and make room for what matters most to you. I used to be a “yes” girl. I said “yes” to extra projects at work even if I was already drowning with projects. I said “yes” to late night drinks with friends even if I really wanted to save money and hit the sheets. I tried to be as accommodating as possible because I wanted people to like me. What I learned was that being a “yes” girl didn’t make me more likable. It made me tired and stressed.
So I started saying “no” and setting boundaries to protect my mental health. This meant not taking on more work than I could tackle in an eight-hour workday and telling my friends that I’d be happy to meet up for a walk in the park Saturday morning, but I wasn’t going to make it out for happy hour (which, let’s face it, never just lasts just an hour). Saying “no” was incredibly uncomfortable at first, but every time I said “no” to something that didn’t align with my values, I was saying “yes” to something that did. Saying “no” to more work than I could handle meant I could say “yes” to Wednesday date nights with my husband. Saying “no” to drinks with my friends meant I could say “yes” to a hangover-free walk with my dog.
3. I stopped comparing myself to others on social media
Raise your hand if you’ve ever fallen into the social media comparison trap. I know I have. Having access to other peoples’ lives is captivating, but it can also be incredibly damaging to your mental health. Studies have found a link between using multiple social media platforms and higher rates of anxiety and depression. Experts believe this is likely due to many reasons including increased social comparison. For me, social comparison manifested in how I felt about my body. As a wellness fanatic, I tend to follow mostly women in the health and fitness space. However, this space is dominated by people with a very specific physique. Seeing these images of primarily one type of body made me begin to dislike my own.
I started to notice that every time I scrolled through social media, a series of hateful thoughts about my appearance followed. So, I did a social media cleanup, unfollowing accounts that consistently made me feel like crap and following others that celebrated women with a variety of ages, ethnicities, and body types. Changing the type of content I was exposed to slowly began to change how I thought about myself. Seeing images honoring women in all our forms helped me realize my own beauty and released the pressure to have a leaner body and chiseled six pack.
4. I spoke kindly to myself
We all have a little voice in our heads that pushes us to be better. However, that voice can quickly turn from a motivational speaker to a bully. Most people experience 12,000- 60,000 thoughts each day, and on average, 80% of them are negative. Experts agree that this type of self-talk can lead to a multitude of harmful repercussions like low confidence and depression.
In an interview with Jay Shetty, Kendall Jenner confessed that she keeps an image of her childhood self on her bathroom mirror to remind her that whenever she says something unkind about herself, she’s also saying it to the little girl in the photo. I’ve adopted this practice into my own life, with an image of a toddler me holding a puppy as my lock screen. I’ve found that I have a harder time saying hurtful things to myself when I’m looking at that smiling little girl, and now spend my energy telling her she’s smart, successful, and loved.
5. I did workouts I actually enjoy
For years, the fitness industry told women that we need to punish ourselves with grueling workouts every day in order to have the body of our dreams. While the new wave of female fitness focuses on balance and honoring our bodies, many women still hang onto the mentality that exercise must be intense to be effective. However, pushing yourself through a HIIT class you hate could actually do your mind and body more harm than good.
According to research, the top predictor of whether or not you’ll stick to an exercise plan is how much you enjoy it. Participating in workouts you love encourages you to move more frequently, which will ultimately help you stay consistent with your workouts.
I used to be guilty of forcing myself to get through workouts I hated for a month only to lose motivation and not exercise again for another two weeks. I knew that if I truly wanted to reap the benefits of exercise, I needed to create a routine I could do consistently. So I ditched the workouts that didn’t bring me joy and swapped them out for activities I love doing daily, like outdoor walks, yoga classes, slow trail runs, and occasional weight lifting. By creating a routine that catered to what I enjoy, it’s been easier to stick to an exercise plan, helping me feel more energized throughout the week.
6. I ditched the diets
Nearly every woman has felt the societal pressure to diet at some point in her life. This exhausting pursuit of thinness starts young, with 80% of 10-year-olds reporting that they have been on a diet, according to recent data released by the Keep It Real campaign. This food mentality often doesn’t lead to a healthier body. Instead, women frequently report feelings of deprivation, guilt, and anxiety. Like so many other women, I’ve fallen into the trap of yo-yo dieting. I would follow a strict eating protocol that left me tired, unsatisfied, and inevitably binging when my body and mind couldn’t take it anymore. This created extreme anxiety around food, making it challenging to go to social events, on vacations, or on date nights without panicking about what would be on the menu.
I was tired of making my life smaller and avoiding activities I loved in pursuit of an unattainable body. So I ditched the diet mentality. Now, I ask myself what I can add to my plate to make my meals as enjoyable and nourishing as possible. I try to include protein, whole grains, healthy fats, and my favorite fruit or veggies with every meal so that my body gets the nutrients it needs to thrive. But if I want to eat a slice of pizza or go out for ice cream with my sister, I do so without guilt, knowing that the experience will nourish my soul. It took a lot of practice, but eventually, I eliminated food guilt and now have an amazing relationship with nutrition.
7. I gave myself more grace
I used to struggle with an all-or-nothing mentality. If I couldn’t do something perfectly, I would be overly critical and wonder why I even bothered setting new goals. This would cascade into feelings of failure that killed my motivation and kept me stuck in self-destructive habits. Letting go of perfectionism and giving myself some grace gave me the ability to tackle the above strategies and stick with them. Reframing mistakes as learning moments instead of failures helped me see the progress in any slip-ups that occurred, which helped maintain a growth mindset.