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50 easy hacks to change your life in 2020

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Environment
a person sitting on a bed: Photograph: Getty Images© Provided by The Guardian
Photograph: Getty Images

Use your voiceThe number one thing that people can do, says Libby Peake, senior policy adviser at the Green Alliance, “is to press your representatives to hold politicians to account over their environmental promises”. Also, consider switching your pension and bank accounts to companies that don’t invest in fossil fuels. “If done on a collective basis,” Peake says, “this will send a clear message to businesses and governments that this is important to people.”

Avoid anything single use

Think beyond plastic, says Peake. “In a lot of instances, people are switching from single-use plastic to unnecessary single-use wooden cutlery, paper straws or aluminium cans,” she says. “But those materials will also have an impact on the environment.”

a close up of a flower: ‘If everybody started doing insect-friendly things, it could have a real impact on insect populations.’ Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo© Provided by The Guardian
‘If everybody started doing insect-friendly things, it could have a real impact on insect populations.’ Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Let bugs live

“If everybody started doing insect-friendly things, it could have a real impact on insect populations,” says Peake.

Cutting out pesticide use, growing insect-friendly plants and refraining from lawn mowing are encouraged.

Shop vintage more often than not

“The clothing industry creates more emissions than aviation and shipping combined,” says Peake. “If you buy secondhand clothing, or at least invest in better-quality items, you will make a real impact on the climate crisis and pollution.” No vintage stores or bountiful charity shops nearby? Shop online from Oxfam, Rokit, Beyond Retro and Brag, among a host of others.

Explore flight-free holiday options

“By not flying anywhere,” says Peake, “you can drastically reduce your CO2 emissions and still have a great time.” She points out that the UK has 15 stunning national parks. Research rail travel to European destinations, consider Interrailing and house-swapping schemes at destinations reachable by rail or road.

Fear not the used electric car market

If you need a car, the Green Alliance has gathered reassuring data on the used electric vehicle (EV) market; because of lower running and maintenance costs, used EVs work out cheaper over five years of ownership. If you own a high-emissions car like an SUV, even exchanging it for one with a conventional petrol engine, five rungs down the car-tax brackets, would cut your driving emissions by more than a third, while halving your road tax. But, says Green Alliance policy director Dustin Benton, “the smarter thing to do is to buy a second- or thirdhand EV, and lower your carbon footprint by two thirds.”

Buy refurbished or remanufactured electronicsA little like refurbishing, “remanufacturing is a factory-based process where electronics are returned to as-new quality, and resold with a warranty,” Peake says. Look out for remanufactured goods becoming more commonplace over the coming year, and in the meantime, buy more refurbished and reconditioned electronics. Most come with decent warranties; chances are you’ll get something as good as new, a lot cheaper. “Every new electronic item that makes it to market,” says Peake, “creates vast amounts of waste.” Smartphones, for example, contain 100g of minerals, but miners must dig through 30kg of rock to find it, according to a Greenpeace report. And Friends of the Earth, she says, “estimates that each smartphone requires 12,760 litres of water (160 baths).”

Plan your meals

“Minimising food waste is a good way to reduce carbon impacts,” says Myles McCarthy, director of implementation at the Carbon Trust. “Buy only what you will eat and home compost your food waste.” If it ends up in landfill, it can produce the greenhouse gas methane. Meal planning and shopping lists are key, says Peake, and will make your life a lot easier. Look for batch-cooking ideas online to save time and energy.

Make meat a treat

While going vegan is ideal, even reducing your meat and dairy consumption can have a big impact, McCarthy says. Beef and lamb are the biggest offenders, “and most dairy products are likely to have substantially higher carbon footprints than vegetables”. Analysis from the Green Alliance shows that the UK could get on track for zero carbon from land use if we ate 30% less red meat by 2030, combined with other measures. In his book We Are The Weather, Jonathan Safran Foer suggests cutting out meat and dairy until dinnertime, but any reduction is worthwhile, says Peake. Don’t let feeling guilty for not going fully vegan stop you.

Adopt a jumper-first policy

It’s an oldie but a goodie, says Peake: “Put on a jumper before you reach for the heating thermostat. Households are much warmer now than they were in the 1970s. People used to manage in colder rooms.”

Sleep

Go to bed on time

Respect your circadian rhythm by going to bed and getting up at regular times, says Guy Meadows, managing partner at the Sleep School. By doing this, “you’re more likely to wake up at the right time in your sleep cycle, which means you’re more likely to feel refreshed”. Wherever your daily sleep requirements sit in the ideal range of between seven and nine hours for adults, keeping a regular sleep-wake cycle impacts everything from “appetite hormones to your heart rate and your blood pressure”.

Declutter your bedroom

“Your bed is for sleep and s** only,” says Renata Riha, consultant in sleep and respiratory medicine at the University of Edinburgh. “It’s not for watching television, knitting, reading for hours on end, or eating. Your bedroom should be a space that invites sleep.” Declutter, she says, “step by step, drawer by drawer”.

Switch off from work earlier

“Disengaging from work, email and your phone for at least an hour prior to bed can be helpful,” says Riha, who is also co-director of Sleep Consultancy Ltd. Meanwhile, put some thought into activities that help you wind down. She suggests a hot shower an hour before bed, because when you get out, your body will cool to an optimal sleep temperature. Or, “sharing your problems, if you can, with an engaged and sympathetic listener”.

Dine a little earlier

“Eating acts as another marker that tells your brain it’s still time to be awake,” Meadows says. “It helps to leave at least a couple of hours between eating and sleeping.” We’re designed, he adds, to do our eating within a 12-hour window each day and then fast for the following 12. But most of us actually spread our eating over 15 hours.

Take 10 deep breathsIf you’re chronically stressed, you can get into a vicious cycle where stress ruins your sleep, and then tiredness exacerbates the stress. “Taking 10 deep breaths can be a simple way to take you out of that fight-or-flight state,” Meadows says. “Socialising is another powerful way to relieve stress.”

Become less dependent on sleep aids

If you ask a normal sleeper what they do to sleep, says Meadows, “they’ll say, ‘nothing’. Whereas if you ask an insomniac, they’ll give you a list as long as their arm.” He observes that for many, “it’s their extreme efforts to try and control their insomnia that push their sleep further away”; sleep aids, from ear plugs or lavender pillows to Night Nurse or diazepam, erode trust in your ability to nod off naturally. Meadows says you should start by identifying these mental crutches. He uses mindfulness to help clients view their fears of sleeping without aids as “just noise in their heads”.

Give your overactive mind a name

Learn how to lean in to the brain chatter that keeps you awake, Meadows says, by giving your mind a name: “It could be the inner critic, head of drama, the Death Star.” This, he says, “can transform the way you relate to your own mental events”.

Dim all lights an hour before bed

“Light is one of the most powerful circadian synchronisers,” Meadows says. “Reduce the brightness on your telly, phone or iPad. It’s about proximity as well. One of the problems with devices is that we hold them really close, directed straight into our eyeballs and their light-sensitive cells.”

Make midday your caffeine cutoffFor optimum sleep architecture, which means getting the right amounts of light, deep and REM sleep, stopping caffeine at midday is the place to start. Caffeine has a half-life of six hours, and a quarter-life of 12 hours, so even quitting at midday leaves you a quarter caffeinated beyond bedtime (unless you keep unusual hours). “Many beverages and foods contain caffeine, so check the label,” adds Riha. Usual suspects include chocolate, or chocolate or coffee-flavoured desserts and cereals, that bedtime mug of cocoa and some headache medications.

Take your sleep disorder seriously

If you suspect that you or your bed partner (or any other cohabitee) has a sleep disorder, such as sleep apnoea, snoring, restless legs syndrome or insomnia, “make a doctor’s appointment,” says Riha.

Bringing video evidence of a sleep disorder to a health professional is, he says, “worth a thousand words and allows them to make the right diagnosis or referral”.

Relationships

a close up of a red building: When we’ve known someone for a long time, it’s easy to make assumptions about what they’re thinking or feeling, or what they mean. Photograph: Getty Images© Provided by The Guardian
When we’ve known someone for a long time, it’s easy to make assumptions about what they’re thinking or feeling, or what they mean. Photograph: Getty Images

Check your assumptions

When we’ve known someone for a long time, it’s easy to make assumptions about what they’re thinking or feeling, or what they mean. Relationship coach and author Sam Owen suggests asking more questions instead, “especially during arguments”.

Be kind“Know what your partner likes and use that information to be kind,” says Ammanda Major, head of service quality and clinical practice at Relate. “Take time to speak and listen.” Being kind can simply mean showing interest, even when you’re not that interested in, say, someone else’s office politics (you should expect the same in return).

Give someone space

“Remember that people do need a little bit of separate space,” says Major. No one has a right to expect instant responses. “Give people time to reflect and don’t demand instant answers.”

Write thank you notes

Everyone likes to be appreciated, including work colleagues, says Joel Garfinkle, executive coach and author of Getting Ahead: Three Steps To Take Your Career To The Next Level. Thank people for their work, whether they’re “above you, below you, or at peer level,” he says. As well as handwritten notes, email or voicemail thank yous will strengthen bonds between you and your colleagues, says Garfinkle.

Root out one-upmanshipWhether you are friends, colleagues or lovers, Major says, “it’s very easy to slip into one-upmanship over who has had the worst day. The reason is usually because we feel unheard: ‘Why do I need to keep telling you I’ve had such an awful day? Because I don’t think you’ve responded to me in a way that lets me know you understand.’”

Use “I” statementsIf you moan to someone about their actions, Major says, “you’re probably going to create a defensive situation. Whereas if you say, ‘I felt really sad when we had that row and I would really like us to talk more about it,’ nobody can argue with that: it’s how you feel and you’re appropriately sharing it.”

Level with new love interests

“Be as clear as you can about what you want from a relationship,” Major says. If you’ve struggled with previous relationships, she suggests, “sometimes it can be very helpful to get some counselling, to help you reflect on what’s important to you.”

Be choosy

“Socialising is linked to increases in happiness, and being around the good people in your life is energising,” Owen says. But people who knock your self-esteem can have the opposite effect. She recommends pruning these draining relationships. “Trust the visceral feelings that you get in your body that tell you if you feel good or bad in someone’s presence.”

Give a little

“Giving has been linked to increases in resilience and happiness, even if it’s costly,” says Owen, whose latest book is Happy Relationships: 7 Simple Rules To Create Harmony And Growth. Giving can mean many things, from “giving your time to an elderly neighbour, or helping your parents more, or giving something to somebody who is homeless”.

Try biting your tongue

This is not to suppress expressing your feelings, but rather, learning to become more reflective than reactive. If something bothers you, Owen says, “watch it over time. Do something that regulates your emotions. Go for a walk (which can help problem solve), listen to some music.” This gives you time to consider how to frame the issue in more productive language.

Exercise

a woman sitting on a table: ‘Put times in the schedule when you can be active.’ Photograph: Getty Images© Provided by The Guardian
‘Put times in the schedule when you can be active.’ Photograph: Getty Images

Monitor yourself

Susan Michie, professor of health psychology at University College London, says that “being your own scientist and collecting data,” through regular weighing or wearing a fitness monitor, is a proven route to success. “If you don’t collect data about yourself, it’s unlikely that you’re going to notice what works for you.”

Use visual prompts

If you want to start a fitness habit, it’s important to leave visual nudges for yourself. “Even something small like putting your running trainers by the door,” suggests Emma Norris, research fellow for the Human Behaviour Change Project at University College London.

Make “if then” plans

“If I’m going to work, then I’ll pack some fruit in my bag.” Or, “If it rains on a running day, then I’ll do a YouTube workout instead.” Plans like this, says Norris, “reduce the option for you to opt out, by programming yourself to think that this is what you would always do in that situation”.

Temper your goals

As tempting as it may be to try to do everything at once, setting attainable goals is key, says Margie Lachman, professor of psychology at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. “It is hard to make a big change all at once. Small increments are helpful.” If you get a pedometer, for example, Norris recommends upping your existing step count by 10% each week.

Give up less easily

“There’s some evidence that the time taken to form a habit ranges from 18 days to 254 days, depending on the person and the behaviour,” says Norris. So if it doesn’t stick quickly, be persistent and use the strategies listed here to help you.

Reward yourself

“When you reach those little milestones,” Norris says, “think creatively about what a healthy reward would be for you: seeing a friend, reading a book you’ve been meaning to read, or whatever works for you that isn’t the obvious cake.”

Try a free workoutThe NHS website has a virtual fitness studio, says Norris, “with a range of free workouts ranging from 10-45 minutes, across aerobics, strength training, pilates, dance and more”. YouTube, she says, “is chock-a-block with free programmes and videos: Joe Wicks’s The Body Coach is my personal go-to for 15-20 high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts.” She recommends trying a variety.

Sneak activity into everyday life

“If you are busy and live by your calendar,” Lachman says, “put times in the schedule when you can be active. Take extra steps rather than shortcuts; walk the stairs instead of getting the lift, park further away from the destination, take a walk during a one-on-one meeting.”

Make exercise social

“Accountability helps,” Lachman says, “so let others know you are trying to be more active. Share your accomplishments on social media. Find an activity partner or walking group.”

Stand up every 30 minutes“So many of us are chained to our desks every day,” says nutrition and fitness author Louise Parker. “If you make getting up every 30 minutes or so a habit, not only will it keep you moving, but it can help give your brain a refresh.”

Diet

Separate mealtimes from screen time

“If you’re watching TV, scrolling through Instagram or checking your emails, you’re not paying much attention to what you’re eating,” Parker says. The result: you are more likely to eat more, but will feel less full for it.

Make smoothies

For those who struggle to eat enough vegetables, “a green smoothie that has at least two portions of veg and one of fruit is a great way to top up your intake,” Parker says.

Plan your work food

We’re more likely to choose unhealthy foods outside the home. “Look at your schedule at the start of the day,” advises Parker, “and plan meals and snacks, avoiding long gaps when you might feel excessively hungry.”

Eat more protein (if you want to lose weight)

“The longer something takes to digest, the farther down the gut it will go and the fuller it will make you feel,” says Giles Yeo, principal research associate, MRC metabolic diseases unit, Cambridge University and author of Gene Eating: The Story Of Human Appetite. Any protein – whether it’s from meat, beans or other plant sources – takes longer to digest than fats or carbs, he says. Peanuts, almonds, sunflower and pumpkin seeds are good protein sources, along with soya products such as tofu and soy milk.

Stop blindly counting calories

The energy load from ingredients varies wildly according to how they’re prepared, plus we all metabolise foods differently, so counting calories isn’t much use. “If you eat 100 calories worth of sweetcorn and then you look into the loo the next day, it’s painfully obvious you have absorbed nowhere close to that,” says Yeo. But if you eat tortillas made of dried and ground corn, he says, “a far greater percentage of the calories become available”. Cooking releases more calories in many foods, too, which is why, says Yeo, “people lose weight on raw vegan diets”.

Focus less on restrictions“Try and focus on what nutrition you can add to your diet, instead of cutting out or restricting food,” says Aisling Pigott, NHS and private dietitian, and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association. “Add flavours with plenty of fruit, vegetables, wholegrains and protein,” she says. “If your favourite meal is spaghetti bolognese, try switching to a sensible portion of brown pasta, bulking the sauce out with vegetables and mixing in different recipes (such as a lentil bolognese).”

Don’t skip meals

“Regular meals are key to building a healthy relationship with food,” says Pigott. Stabilising our eating patterns allows us to make positive food choices, whereas “skipping meals, or going long periods without eating can lead to overriding our bodies’ hunger and fullness cues”. The trouble with being so busy that we don’t stop, she says, “is that it can be difficult to recognise these cues, making us more likely to overeat”.

Stop and enjoy every meal

“Whether you are eating broccoli or biscuits,” Pigott says, “taking time to taste and enjoy what you are eating is as nourishing as the food you are putting in your body.”

Prioritise herbs and spices over salt

Salt is not the only way to make a meal sing with flavour, and as Pigott points out, “many of us are consuming too much of it”. Salt intake can increase the risk of raised blood pressure, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

Make cooking from scratch easier

As a protective measure against the added sugars in ready meals, Pigott recommends arming yourself with quick and easy recipes. “I love Jack Monroe’s Tin Can Cook book, which has some wonderful store cupboard staples,” she says. Swapping recipe ideas with friends and family, she says, “can be really motivating”. Anything more than a small glass of juice (150ml) will slosh extra sugar into your diet, but “will not provide health benefits,” says Pigott.

In pics: Let mindfulness be your New Year’s resolution for 2020 (Slideshow by StarsInsider)

a person standing in front of a sunset: What is mindfulness? It is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of what we are and what we are doing. By maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, we can pretty much cope with all that life throws at us. But we could all appreciate less stress, more happiness, and better health, right? Practicing mindfulness through meditation is one way to achieve all this. But there are also lots of practical every-day measures we can adopt to reboot our well-being and enjoy a greater inner calm. And what better time to start than at the beginning of a new year?Browse the gallery and find out how you can be more mindful in 2020. 

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