I don’t know about you but I’m sick and tired of the general messaging “out there” that tells me to work harder! Start meditating! Learn a new language! Go to the gym! Quit when you’re dead! Blah, blah, blah…

I’m sorry but I don’t have an hour to meditate in the morning; I’d rather read in bed than spend my evenings learning a new language; and I sure as sh*t ain’t gonna sacrifice my Sundays to boil a week’s worth of broccoli so I can lose 30 pounds and look like a skeleton gift-wrapped in skin.

But, thankfully, that’s not what this guide’s about. It’s not about adding to your to-do list. It’s about the small life-changing habits you can start today that don’t add a single second of time to your daily schedule, yet pay huge dividends in the way you think, feel and even look; although, hot damn, you’re already gorgeous!

It’s about taking the time you already spend—studying, working, working out, driving, in transit, cooking, and doing housework—and making it count. How? With these simple daily habits to improve your life (without demands on your time) …

Daily habits to improve life while brushing your teeth

Things to do while brushing your teeth

Think about it: this essential routine accounts for at least four minutes of your day, assuming you spend the recommended two minutes brushing, twice per day. That’s 28 minutes every week and two hours per month, which could be spent doing something other than just staring idly at yourself in the mirror. So, here are some of the best daily habits you can add to your tooth-brushing routine:

Hold a deep squat

Squats are hard for a reason but if you can take the punishment, the rewards are stronger, more shapely quads, hamstrings, and glutes, as well as improved balance and mobility. In fact, squats are like the “superfood” of exercise: they do your whole body a whole lot of good!

Plan your daily goals (and other mental admin)

People typically brush their teeth at the perfect time of day to either plan for the day ahead or process the day they just had. So why not do that? Gathering your thoughts and thinking through your daily goals—either for this day or the next—is a great way to center yourself. So, here are some questions you might answer while brushing your teeth:

  • What are my intentions for the day?
  • What are three things I’m looking forward to?
  • What’s the hardest thing I need to get done today?
  • What are my steps for getting it done?
  • What are some of the other important things I need to accomplish?

Practice gratitude

There is actually solid scientific evidence supporting the health benefits of gratitude; not to mention its efficacy in combating anxiety and depression. In other words, practicing gratitude is not some touchy-feely Oprah flim-flam. So, while you brush your teeth, think of three things—big or small—that you’re grateful for.

Brushing your teeth is the “anchor habit” that reminds to do things like holding a deep squat or practice gratitude. And this is an important concept in habit-building so to learn more about that, check out our article 'How to build strong study habits', which can be applied to any area of life, really!

The best daily habits to do while taking a shower

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the average shower lasts 8 minutes, which sounds really short. I mean, did they survey people with long hair at all? So, anyway, let’s call it 10. That’s 70 minutes per week and FIVE HOURS per month. And here’s what you can do with those five hours...

Make the shower cold. Like, freezing cold.

The benefits of cold showers

Sure, it might not feel enjoyable (at first) but there’s very real scientific support for the benefits of dousing yourself in icy water every morning:

Cold showers can boost:

  • Alertness and make you feel invigorated (no surprises there)
  • Your body’s metabolism
  • Your mood and mental resilience, which is great for well-being
  • Physical recovery after sports
  • The release of endogenous pain relievers

Still not buying it? Check out 'How the benefits of cold showers could change your life!'

Also, meet me in my natural habitat (talking about how to build habits):

Other small life-changing habits for the shower

Similar to when you brush your teeth, here are some of the best daily habits for the shower, rather than deafening your housemates with your singing ...

  • Think of three things you’re grateful for (practice gratitude)
  • Speak aloud your plan for the day
  • Practice a hard conversation you need to have
  • Chant a favorite mantra, for example: I am enough; I am imperturbable; I will have a good day, because it's my choice; hey, who moved my shampoo? Every cell in my body is alive and beautiful.

Personal hack: I listen to podcasts while I’m in the shower. But I try to keep them intelligent so that I’m actually expanding my horizons and maybe even learning something new.

Small life-changing habits to build while waiting (for someone or the bus / train, etc.)

Killing time while waiting for the bus

Look at anyone at a bus stop, in the subway, or in a doctor’s waiting room. They’re on their phones, right? Probably trolling through social media. But you can put that time to much better use with these small life-changing habits ...

Run through a few stretches

No-one’s going to bat an eye at you if you use a bench to stretch your hamstrings or lean against a wall while you stretch your quads. In any case, have you BEEN in a big-city bus, train, or subway station before? Forget trance parties, some of the weirdest exhibitions of human behaviour I’ve ever witnessed happened in the New York subway.

Do gentle exercises

Do toe lifts to make those calf muscles pop or hand exercises like rotating your wrists and stretching your fingers as wide as they go. The latter is useful for anyone who spends six hours plus per day working on a computer, which is, like, EVERYBODY nowadays.

You can also do kegel exercises—just don’t smile while you’re doing it: that’s creepy—which can strengthen the pelvic floor muscles. This, in turn, supports bladder, bowel, and sexual function, preventing you from becoming an incontinent, impotent mess in your older years. Yay!

Learn something new or refresh something old with Brainscape

If you haven’t yet become acquainted with Brainscape, allow me a brief introduction. As the world’s smartest study app, Brainscape is a powerful tool for helping you learn things—particularly content-heavy subjects that require a lot of memorization—so much more efficiently than regular textbook study.

There is actually a whole science to how Brainscape leverages your brain’s intrinsic hardwiring to help you permanently bank the facts quicker, and you can read all about that right here: “Why spaced repetition works so effectively’.

One of the best daily habits you can build, therefore, is to use Brainscape to learn something new or reinforce (review) older knowledge in those little snatches of free time we have throughout our day, such as while waiting for the bus or the doctor’s office or for your partner to get ready. Whether you’re currently in school, prepping for a certification, or you just want to beef up your knowledge or language skills, there’s always something to learn and Brainscape is the ultimate accessible portal to help you do that.

Check out Brainscape’s Knowledge Genome for a universe of ready-made flashcard collections on just about every subject imaginable!

Daily habits to improve life while watching TV

Passed out on the couch

If you spend appreciable amounts of time looking like our friend here—melting into the couch, binge-watching TV—then here are the best daily habits to make “Netflix & chill” just a little bit better and healthier for your body and mind...

Couch yoga

Do stretches or run through some yoga poses on the floor in front of the TV. Keep a yoga mat nearby, within sight, so that you’re reminded to do it when you’re three episodes deep into your favorite show. You could even just stay seated on the couch, cross-legged, and stretch your hands forward to activate those muscles and pull out those stiff tendons. Is couch yoga a thing? If not, it should be!

Learn with Brainscape

Whip out your phone, tablet, or laptop, open Brainscape and run through a few flashcards for some lightweight, yet quality studying. Brainscape is easy to combine with TV because you don’t have to be uber dialed into, for example, a textbook or lecture, in order to answer the questions your flashcards throw at you.

Drink water. Lots of water.

Fill up a big water bottle and keep it next to you while you watch TV because it’ll (1) keep you hydrated and (2) force you to get up frequently to pee. The latter side effect is where the third and fourth benefits come in: (3) it’s good for your body to move after sitting for so long and then (4) if you’re procrastinating by watching TV, having to go to the bathroom is the perfect opportunity to snap out of your trance, turn off the TV, and get back to doing something a little more productive.

Personal hack: Do a crossword, sudoku, or jigsaw puzzle to keep your hands busy, which can prevent you from wanting to relentlessly snack, which I do when I watch TV. It also exercises your brain, keeping you cognitively sharp.

The best daily habits to do while studying

Studying hard

Okay, this is a tricky one because, well, shouldn’t you just be focused on studying when you’re preparing for a test or exam? Yes! But we have a few suggestions for gently tweaking your study habits that can help you get so much more out of your time … and the first one is going to sound a little weird …

P.S. Also be sure to check out ‘How to study effectively: The ultimate guide’.

Breathe. Like you mean it.

When you’re deep in concentration, your body perfectly still, you tend to breathe quite shallowly and the lack of oxygen can make you feel quite sleepy. Learning to breathe much deeper can keep you more oxygenated and, therefore, more alert and energized. So you need to start teaching yourself to breathe deeply and in a controlled manner.

Set a gentle alarm every 20 or 30 minutes to remind yourself to breathe in deeply, hold for four seconds, breathe out deeply. Repeat four times. And then get back to your studying while trying to breathe in and out deeply. You’ll probably forget within a minute or two as your brain becomes absorbed in your learning. BUT your alarm will kick in after 20 to 30 minutes and you’ll repeat!

After a few weeks of this, you’ll have improved your breathing.

Get active

Exercises like walking or running on the treadmill, cycling, pounding the elliptical, etc. all engage your body. But from the neck up, you’re pretty idle. So why not repurpose that cardio time for learning? Sure, it’s not like you can engage in deep learning but you can definitely use this time to review previously-learned knowledge. And you can do this with Brainscape’s flashcards or with the Feynman Technique (more on this in my “personal hack” coming up).

For even more inspiration on how you can study while exercising; and exercise while studying, watch me getting muscles and A’s in this video:

Personal hack: I have always been a major proponent of the Feynman Technique, which I mentioned above and will now delight you with a little explanation. This essentially involves teaching your subject aloud, as though to a sixth grader. I.e. You cannot assume that they have a sophisticated knowledge of your subject.

The reason this is important is because it requires you to explain and scaffold your knowledge from the ground up, in a way that makes sense to someone else. If you can do that, then you really do know your subject well. If you can’t, you might be missing something. Use your discretion, of course. I mean, if you’re studying advanced astrophysics, it’s not like you’re going to want to start right at the beginning with what an atom is.

Anyway, I used to walk around my room and teach aloud my subject—whether high school history or, later, college-level economics—to my four walls (true story) and (1) being active by walking around, (2) speaking aloud, and (3) explaining my subject from the roots up really kept me engaged, focused, and reinforced by knowledge.

Here’s the hot “tea” on the Feynman Technique.

Small life-changing habits to build while exercising

Doing yoga while studying

When you’re in the thick of exam time or up to your neck in deadlines at work or just generally feeling “meh”, the prospect of exercise can be less appealing than making out with a lawnmower. And yet the great paradox is that regular exercise IMPROVES your studying, work productivity, and mental health. So, here are a few things you can do while exercising if you find it totally boring ...

Study

I already kinda covered this in the previous point but if you’re super enthusiastic about repurposing gym time for learning, check out this article in the Brainscape Academy: ‘How to study while exercising.

Listen to a (smart) podcast

If you’re not too attached to your gym music playlist, try introducing a few podcasts into your gym routine! Again, there’s an emphasis on podcasts that are mildly cerebral and will expand your knowledge and worldview, etc.

ALTERNATIVELY, you could record yourself reading through your study notes or “teaching” your subject aloud and listen to that so that you’re hearing the important content again and again, which will help to reinforce it.

P.S. If you’re in law school or studying for the bar exam, check out Brainscape’s hands-free MBE podcast! Each episode contains a series of questions (followed by answers) on essential law content you need to know. By pausing after each question and attempting to answer it from scratch, you will be deeply reinforcing your knowledge via active learning.

Mentally declutter

Mentally declutter

Oftentimes, when we work out, we plug into something like music, podcasts, TV or whatever. But sometimes, it’s incredibly productive to plug out of any distracting media and use that workout time to “check in with yourself” and process some of the accumulative drama that’s been bothering you.

  • Did you have a fight with a parent? Think it through. Process it.
  • Do you have a huge presentation coming up? Rehearse it or plan your next steps. Feel more in control.
  • Need to have a hard conversation with your partner? Run through it in your mind. Be brave.
  • Had a rough week? Practice some mantras to heal yourself. Take it out on the punching bag. Congratulate yourself for getting through it.
  • Did something bad and feel guilty? Confront it. Think it through. Resolve to do better. Forgive yourself. Move on.

See what I mean? While you’re pounding the treadmill or pumping iron, run through all the disparate thoughts and stresses and anxieties that are floating about your head and ADDRESS THEM. Mentally declutter. Let them go. You’ll feel amazing afterwards.

The best daily habits to do while lying in bed

I’m certainly no stranger to those nights when your brain decides to play a game of “let’s-stay-awake-and-stress-about-sh*t-for-absolutely-no-reason!” Actually, this is such a pervasive thing amongst humans that it inspired us to write this article: ‘How to cure insomnia (without drugs).’

So, in short, here are some small life-changing habits you can build to actually benefit from that annoying wide-awake time, without bathing your brain in dopamine-inducing TikTok videos. Added benefit: each one calms and focuses your mind, helping you get to sleep.

  • Practice the Feynman Technique, running through all the things you learned that day.
  • Practice gratitude for the day's big and little wins. (Like being visited by hummingbirds.)
  • Practice the 4-7-8 breathing routine: Breathe in for four seconds, hold for seven, and breathe out for eight. It’s incredibly effective for reducing anxiety and can help you get to sleep quicker!
  • Mentally declutter by reviewing the day in detail, moment by moment. What lessons did you learn? What can you do better tomorrow?

Personal hack: If I’m really struggling to fall asleep because my brain is insisting on playing (on repeat) a detailed reel of all the things that are upsetting me in life, I’ll sit up, grab a pen and paper and write it down. This almost always succeeds in getting the stress out of my head and onto paper, where I can address it in the morning.

Read: 'Is waking up early bullsh*t?'

A final note on life-changing habits

Ladder to success

One of life's greatest lessons you or I will ever learn is that you can teach yourself to do, think, and feel anything—LITERALLY ANYTHING—simply through consistent repetition. Understanding this gives you the ultimate power to change anything about yourself, whether it’s a negative pattern of thinking, having tiny biceps, or being unable to speak Mandarin.

Just remember that new things, thoughts, and behaviors (such as the small habits I’ve mentioned throughout this article) will always feel awkward at first, even uncomfortable, but they’re totally worth it in the long run. For example:

  • I’ve become a master at holding a book while walking up a steeply-inclined treadmill;
  • I mentally declutter, talking to myself out loud, in my car all the time (screw what other people think);
  • I’m religious about running through stretches at night in front of the TV;
  • I’ve defused many emotional triggers by changing my inner dialogue when something happens that would ordinarily make me mad; and
  • I always emerge from a shower having learned something new, even if it is that cats are crepuscular.

Maybe none of these seem life-changing to you but I know they have been for me. I’m happier, healthier, stronger, and smarter because of them. Plus, they take me zero extra time!

So, whatever your challenge is, you can rise to it more successfully simply by making small changes to your daily routine and practicing them every day so that they become a deeply-ingrained habit.

Now the only question remaining is: how do you plan to change your life today?