Eleven Life Categories to Improve in 2021

One of the problems with making New Year’s Resolutions is that they generally focus on one part of your life. As helpful as it might be to improve in that area—especially if that area is causing your problems—the complex workings of human success, happiness, and fulfillment require quite a bit more than a perennial promise to lose weight.

The eleven dimensions here are listed in order of priority. You’re likely doing fine in at least some of them, but don’t skip past any category: there’s always room for improvement.

1. Health and Physical Wellness

Your body is the vehicle for everything you are and everything you do. No matter how strong your mind is, poor physical health can lead to poor energy, a poor attitude, and a general sense of feeling bad. As a result, you have to take of your physical health first to avoid underperforming in all the other dimensions.

The easiest way to think about your physical well-being is to start with sleep, hydration, exercise, and nutrition. I am not so good on hydration: seriously, who wouldn’t prefer coffee to water? But most people struggle the most with sleep. In my experience, getting a good night’s sleep makes the other three categories much easier to handle.

2. Psychological Health and Stress Management

There is every reason to be concerned about your psychological health and stress management: declining life expectancy in the US is driven by suicides and opiates, and more young people have experienced depression during the pandemic.

Part of the problem is that almost everything you see, read, or hear from media companies and social media is negative. The narratives from every point on the political spectrum are divisive, framing issues to turn people against each other. As boxing referees tell each fighter at the start of a match, you need to protect yourself at all times. If you have never done a Negativity Fast, eliminating all negativity and replacing it with something positive, this is a great time to try it.

Whether you do contemplative prayer, meditate, practice yoga, keep an introspective journal, or do deep breathing exercises, it’s critical that you manage your stress (especially if you’re like me and don’t recognize the stress). You also want to train your brain by consuming empowering ideas that strengthen your mind instead of weakening it.

3. Spiritual Health

You may or may not be a spiritual person or a person of faith—I make no judgement either way. But if spirituality is important to you, you have to take care of this dimension. For our purposes here, let’s call this “your relationship with God.”

Whether pursuing that relationship means going to church, sitting on a mat, praying, or sitting in silence in the woods (one of the best ways I’ve found to experience the numinous), this is one of the things that is important enough to be in the top three.

4. Personal Development and Growth

You are perfect just the way you are, and you could use a hell of a lot of improvement. No matter how much you improved last year, you are still pure potential. You don’t want to have the same year over and over.

Your journey (and I hope it’s both an adventure story and a romantic comedy) is one in which you grow and develop, becoming the person that comes after the person you are now, that better version of yourself that lies dormant until you force it to the surface.

You need a growth and development plan. What do you need to improve? What do you need to learn? In what ways do you need to grow? The only way to keep from repeating last year’s mistakes is to start improving yourself.

That new version of you will bring something new to your future, as well as improving your results in all eleven dimensions.

5. Recreation and Renewal

You have to make time to do things that you enjoy, things that entertain or engage the part of you that needs joy and laughter and adventure and escape. Those of us with a Protestant work ethic tend to avoid “fun,” preferring to turn anything and everything into work. Taking care of yourself on all the dimensions requires that you let go of work and do things that are pure pleasure.

Recreation, re-creating yourself, is a form of renewal. It allows you to recharge, reconnect, and renew yourself. Without recreation, you can grind so hard that you wear down your ability to take care of every other dimension of your life.

6. Relationships: Family

Some of you might object that relationships should be higher in this list, especially family relationships. My point here is not that you shouldn’t put your family first or that you should prioritize yourself over others. But I do think that you have to take care of yourself before you can take care of other people. The worse you do at taking care of yourself, the less valuable you are to others.

With that said, let’s talk about family relationships. These are the people who are going to show up to your funeral, whether or not they happen to share your genetic material. I promise that few of your social media friends will be present at your wake, no matter how many likes they parceled out or how much they gushed over your latest baby pictures.

To improve your family relationships, start by reading Chasing Daylight: How My Forthcoming Death Transformed My Life by Gene O’Kelly, the CEO of KPMG who died of an aggressive brain cancer. I genuinely hope it makes you cry. We take a lot of things for granted until we lose them, especially when those “things” are people we love.

Get this one right and prioritize your family. Make up reasons to get together. Call your mother and your father. Never end a family visit or phone call without telling people that you love them—yes, even your tinfoil-hat-wearing Uncle Enrico—just in case that’s the last thing you get to say to them.

7. Relationships: Friends

You need friends: after family, they’re the most critical relationships you will ever have. There is evidence that friendships are critical to your well-being and longevity, but it’s easy for busy people to overlook their importance. So no matter how busy you get, there is always a reason to get together with friends. There is always a new restaurant with a menu worth exploring, or a new trail worth hiking, or a team worth cheering, or even a TV show worth binging.

8. Relationships: Clients

You have a choice when it comes to your client relationships. Some people believe that the transactions are more important than the relationships. The better approach is to believe the relationships are more important than the transactions. You’ll spend a good number of working hours with your clients, so assume that they’re more than a CRM entry.

Over time, your clients may well become some of your most important allies.

9. Your Work

The work you do matters. It matters enough that you should take it as seriously as your physical and mental health, as well as all the other categories listed here. You should grow and develop, improving your craft and increasing the quality of the outcomes you create. But most of all, you should do your work with a sense of love.

My tagline for that is “do good work,” but Martin Luther King, Jr. said it far better: “Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.” You can make anything better by giving yourself over to it completely and working to improve it.

10. Wealth and Financial Health

Some who read this list will want to put wealth at the very top of this long list. I get it: I also care deeply about wealth and financial health. But having grown up without either, my subjective experience is that unconditional love and purpose are enough to have a good life, often one that is better than a life with more money than you know what to do with. That said, you need not sacrifice love or purpose as you boost your bank account and your portfolio.

Wealth and financial health don’t just happen. You have to work to ensure you that you are building your financial future. A good way to start is by automatically transferring some money from every paycheck into an investment account. No matter what the market does or how often your interest compounds, the discipline itself will produce positive results.

11. Contribution

I put this one last for much the same reason I stuck family relationships halfway down the list: the more you take care of yourself and your relationships, the better you can contribute. When you look back at your life, you won’t give a whit about your big house on the hill or your brand-new Mustang. You are going to measure your impact in terms of who: the people you helped, the difference you made in their lives, and what you did that created some benefit for others.

Contributing isn’t something you do after retirement, once you’re done looking out for number one. It’s something to integrate all through your journey.

Happy New Year! Do Good Work!

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