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4 High-Impact Baby Steps to a Life of Well-Being

05/01/2014 08:51 am ET | Updated Jul 01, 2014

I know I would be better off if I slept for eight hours every night. And did yoga five days a week. And ate kale and ran marathons and kept a gratitude journal and shopped at the farmer's market and learned to play the viola. But I don't. Every one of these things would require a huge lifestyle shift. Well, maybe not kale, but the point is that committing to too much change at one time is a recipe for failure.

So where to start? Here are four of the most common pieces of "live better" advice, and ways to make some serious progress without feeling too overwhelmed to continue or turning your life upside down:

1. Get enough sleep.

The problem: Yes. Sleep deprivation ruins health, diminishes competence and leaves us feeling unhappy. But sleep is competing with other compelling interests, and may often be forsaken in favor of work, nights out and time spent in front of the TV or computer. In addition to sleep, feeling competent on the job, maintaining strong relationships, and taking time to unwind are also crucial to our wellbeing. If getting enough sleep means a life of nothing but work and slumber, we're more than willing to power through with an extra shot (or three) of espresso.

The fix: Commit to getting your full seven to nine hours every other night. While consistency is ideal, many of the worst effects of inadequate sleep are associated with compounding deprivation over the course of several nights. If you absolutely have to work late Monday, don't do it again Tuesday. If you find yourself out until bar time on Friday, lay low Saturday.

This strategy also works for parents of young children, who can commit to being "on-duty" on alternate nights. My husband and I have been doing this for more than a year now and I can vouch that it's sustainable. By committing to getting enough rest at least every other day, you'll largely avoid emotional breakdowns, mental lapses and health problems without having to shirk responsibilities or abandon your social life.

2. Unplug and recharge.

The problem: The pros of unplugging sound great, but we use our smart phones for everything. We may need to be reachable for work, we want to be reached by friends, and quite frankly we're completely addicted to our little all-purpose fun boxes. Not to mention the fact that we can no longer focus, navigate or remember anything without the aid of an electronic device.

The fix: Baby steps. Even if you can't bear to unplug during the day, don't keep your phone in arm's reach while you sleep. Having a smart phone on the nightstand is associated with poorer sleep and insomnia. If you use your phone as an alarm clock put it across the room from your bed. This has the added bonus of forcing you to get out of bed when it goes off.

3. Find time to pursue your hobbies.

The problem: When pressed, a college wellness counselor once told me that hobbies are any obligation-free activities you enjoy in your spare time. When I explained that my hobbies were drinking and napping, she refined this definition to include "flow." Flow is a term psychologists use to describe a state of invigorated concentration experienced while pursuing an enjoyable activity. Playing an instrument is a classic example, but for the utterly talentless among us there are some more attainable alternatives.

The fix: While "drinking" may not count as a flow activity, thought-provoking discussions where you lose track of time certainly do. Even if these conversations take place in bars. While channel surfing is mentally discombobulating, various kinds of media consumption (some movies, most video games) can produce a sense of flow, provided the content is sufficiently stimulating. Identify which elements of the things you already enjoy produce a sense of flow, and make an effort to focus on those pursuits at the expense of solo wine night and browsing Reddit.

4. Get in touch with your spiritual side.

The problem: "Start meditating" has been my failed New Year's resolution on more than one occasion. For those of us who don't subscribe to any particular religion (or like me are -- gasp! -- atheists) establishing and following a spiritual practice can be hard. The benefits of diverse types of spiritual engagement are well established. However those who aren't traditional church-going types may find such an endeavor feels forced, like another nagging task on the to-do list, or is just a waste of time.

The fix: The key here is to realize no particular set of activities or time commitment is required to be "sufficiently spiritual". If taking a walk in the woods keeps you feeling grounded and connected, great. If you don't know where to begin, a meditation app like Headspace or a gratitude challenge can be great places to start.

Spiritual practice can be anything that gets you outside of yourself, of the strange and complex social structures you exist within, and helps you to look inward, feel at peace or feel like part of a greater whole. Whatever gets you to that place is good enough.

Whether you feel like your life needs a reboot or you're perpetually looking for ways to live better, it's overwhelming to commit to dramatic changes. Baby steps can sometimes succeed where grand plans fail. This time, instead of waiting until December 31 and grandly announcing that I am beginning a one-way journey to enlightenment and possibly monk hood (only to guiltily give up four days later), I'm aiming a little lower. I'm going to spend 10 minutes meditating every day for one week.

What baby steps to wellbeing have worked for you? What will you try next? Share in the comments below.

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