Five small ideas for big changes in your life

Reset a stressed brain with a simple breathing exercise: breath in for a count of five breaths, hold your breath for five breaths, and then breath out for five breaths. Repeat this process two more times.
Reset a stressed brain with a simple breathing exercise: breath in for a count of five breaths, hold your breath for five breaths, and then breath out for five breaths. Repeat this process two more times. Getty Images/moodboard RF

Looking for five quick, actionable ideas that can help you become less stressed and more productive? Sit back and take a deep breath - or five - to learn how small daily actions can improve your life.

Cynthia Ackrill, a leader in the field of leveraging stress for optimal health and happiness, spoke last Wednesday morning at the Wells Fargo Brokerage women's event "Improving your Swing on the Course of Life.”

Read on for the tips to improve your own personal game...

1 - Breathe.

Have you taken those five deep breaths?

I understand if you just did a mental eye roll, since ten minutes of meditation has rarely (if ever) happened for me. Nevertheless, Ackrill says that medical brain scans illustrate that short breathing breaks can improve the brain's performance and actually "reset" a stressed brain.

While swami-like zen meditation may be out of my reach, I was able to enjoy the following short exercise Ackrill guided the group through at the event: breath in for a count of five breaths, hold your breath for five breaths, and then breath out for five breaths. Repeat this process two more times, counting your breath mentally or using your fingers.

Then ask yourself the following questions:

How is my energy - physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually?

What is it I need now?

Who do I want to BE in this moment?

Feeling less stressed? If so, your brain is better able to function and make decisions.

Still not convinced you can integrate this into your life? Ackrill had one client use a trigger (every time she touched a doorknob) as a reminder to take a deep intentional breath (or do the above exercise). Not just useful for breathing exercises, any specific action in your life can be a trigger to start (or stop) an action.

I want to be more mindful, so I’ve set an intention to make sure I am in the present moment with my thinking every time I stop at a red light while I am driving.

2 - Aim small.

Who hasn't set a big goal (lose 20 pounds!) and assigned themselves correspondingly large action steps (exercise every day and avoid carbs like the bubonic plague)? Unless you have the discipline of an Olympic athlete, these good intentions were most likely met with disappointment.

The good news for the non-Olympic athletes is that small changes can create big momentum. So instead of a complete overhaul of an area of your life you would like to change, it may be best to aim for an easily actionable tune-up.

Ackrill's coaching client (a successful, overworked lawyer) wanted to lose weight. What was her first step? The client committed to go to bed fifteen minutes earlier each night.

This easy to accomplish task led to positive momentum and a feeling of self-care, which led to additional lifestyle changes. The outcome was that the client accomplished her goal of losing weight.

Other examples of small easy changes include:

drinking more water to increase energy, since dehydration leads to feelings of fatigue (physical),

the previously mentioned breathing breaks (emotional),

getting ten minutes of natural sunlight each day, as a lot of us are Vitamin D deficient, which is another cause of fatigue (physical),

and working in short blocks with a timer followed by a timed break to promote focus, also known as the Pomodoro method (mental).

3 - Say no to multi-tasking.

Speaking of focus, or lack thereof, Ackrill says that multi-tasking has been proven to increase the time needed to complete tasks and has been shown to lower productivity. This is because multi-tasking divides your attention and it takes the brain between ten and fifteen minutes to regain optimal focus when switching back to a task. Multi-tasking activities which draw on the same part of the brain (such as responding to emails while trying to read a book or write a letter) is the least effective form of multi-tasking.

Don’t think you’re ready to focus on just one thing? If you feel you must complete two things at once, multi-task two activities which draw on different parts of the brain, such as cleaning the house while listening to an audiobook.

4 - Say yes to multi-purposing.

While multi-tasking doesn't work, multi-purposing does.

What exactly is multi-purposing? Multi-purposing is doing one task that has several benefits. Eating dinner with a friend provides both emotional connectivity and nourishment (you have to eat, right?). Biking to work serves the functions of transportation with the health benefits of exercise. Meeting with a financial planner can allow you to plan for your long term goals, get a financial plan in place, and potentially lower stress.

5 - Energy management is key.

Ackrill stated that her most important take-away point was that stress management is energy management.

On the topic of energy management, she uses the example of thinking about your most productive time of the day and using that time to work on important tasks, rather than checking email and doing stimulating (but low-value tasks) in that time window.

Big life events like a health issue, a move, or a divorce are obvious times of high stress. Less obvious are the daily stressors we frequently encounter (negative feedback at work or a cranky child) which wear down our endurance and energy. Creating focus and momentum using small steps is positive and productive regardless of the level of stress in your life.

What small changes can you make right now to make your life better?