12 Proactive Things You Can Do Right Now

January marks a new year, and that means you can expect to find plenty of articles and ideas about how to set and keep the traditional New Year's resolutions.

But why bother?

Why invest energy into a list that most of us don't adhere to when you could instead simply begin adapting new behaviors that will ultimately lead you in the right direction? Start now, and you'll have a head-start on achieving some of those objectives, many of which are likely leftovers from previous years. You'll also find that you're more likely to stick to your new way of life because rather than setting some vague and overwhelming challenges (like “lose weight” or “write a book”), you're creating new habits that will form the foundation of your happier, healthier life. (See also: 25 New Things to Do Today)

Business owners call it "future-casting" and done correctly, it's what enables companies to meet the demands of changing market conditions due to new technology, consumer consciousness, and environmental developments. In other words, it's all about being prepared for what could be, so that you're never caught off guard by what is. It’s about being proactive.

So, in the spirit of getting things done, here's 12 easy ways to take a proactive approach to life.

1. Learn About Investing

If you have a 401(k) or IRA, then you probably know what kind of investing "plan" you chose when you signed up. Most providers of these financial vehicles offer a selection of plans based on your desired level of risk. But do you know which funds and/or stocks your particular plan includes? Do you understand the difference between the various mutual funds, know how to analyze the fees that they charge, and have a good feel for how to value a particular stock?

Obviously, learning more about the various investing tools and all the options that are available to you is the best way to get better control over your finances, but this kind of stuff can be a little intimidating, especially if finance isn't your forte. So rather than setting a resolution to "start investing" or "build a bigger portfolio," set a smaller goal now to simply start learning about what's out there and how it all works.

2. Start Saving

Did you know that 25% of American households have no savings whatsoever? Given the state of the job market and the super-slow return of our economy, it's not surprising that saving has taken a back seat to more pressing financial concerns.

Maybe that means you have to start out small — even just $5 a month is worth the effort. The financial cushion that you'll eventually build will give you a renewed sense of security — something I think everyone can benefit from — not to mention a sense of accomplishment for actually moving toward such an important goal.

3. Pay Down Your Debt

I know, I know...easier said than done, right? But where there's a will, there's a way. And because even the smallest amounts can make a big difference, you don't have to make dramatic adjustments to your income or budget in order to succeed at this.

Pick an obligation, and pay just $5 or $10 more each month if that's all you can do — and then take pride in the fact that you're taking charge of your debt. It won't pay the balance off quickly, of course, but like that new savings account you're starting, it will give you a clear sense of accomplishment as you realize you're taking control in a big way.

4. Think About Retirement

Because most of us equate investing with retirement, we have limited knowledge about how our retirement nest egg actually adds up. Add to that the fact that 40% of Americans have no retirement savings at all, and it's easy to see why so many of us think the future looks financially bleak.

The problem is, like investing, the concept of retirement savings can be a little intimidating, especially if you're on a tight budget. But even if you can't afford to start setting aside big chunks of your income right now, you can start learning about the different retirement options and how each one could benefit you.

5. Start an Estate Plan

Estate planning is one of those things that we purposely choose to ignore, if for no other reason than we don't like the idea of planning for our death. But it’s also the primary factor that can make or break your family's financial future. If done correctly, can actually save them money down the road.

And if you think that your estate isn't big enough for a plan, consider this — if you're 18 or older, you already have a plan whether you realize it or not. It's created by your State Legislators, and unless you create something to override it, that state will decide what happens after you’re gone.

A good estate plan allows you to provide for your minor children and even make special arrangements for disabled family members. It can include instructions and authorities to ensure that your wishes are followed in the event you suffer an injury or illness and can no longer speak on your own behalf. And it can ensure the privacy of the contents of your estate, keeping would-be thieves and con-artists from preying on your grieving family.

In short, planning for your family after your gone isn't just a good example of the benefits of being proactive, it's the only way to protect the legacy you hope to pass on to the next generation.

6. Meditate

When it comes to meditation, there are three kinds of people in the world: those who swear by it, those who laugh at it, and those who keep meaning to do it, but just can't figure out how to get started.

Let me first address that last group of people — don't worry so much about doing it "correctly." Yes, there are added benefits when you master meditation but honestly, that mastery doesn't come right away. First, you have to learn how to quiet the mind, and that takes a little practice.

Your goal is to quiet your mind for a full 20 seconds without any chatter at all. If a random question or thought pops in, start over and keep going until you can reach 20 seconds with no problem. By the time you reach this milestone (it's not as easy as it sounds), you'll have integrated meditation into your daily routine, and you'll be much more ready to dig deeper into this ancient art of relaxation.

Now, for that second group of people who laugh at it — I know you too. I'm married to one of you. If I'm right, you're more tense and stressed than you'd like to admit, and while it's not your fault (people just seem to keep doing things to aggravate you), you have a hard time letting go and winding down. Why not give it a shot?

If I'm wrong and you're as cool as a cucumber, then hey, skip this step and move on to the next. No worries!

7. Learn Something New

A while back, I wrote about the benefits of exercising the mind to improve memory and, hopefully, stave off dementia later in life. Since that time, I've followed my own advice, taking up foreign languages, guitar, physics, and algebra in a self-teaching environment whenever I've had time.

And in the process, something amazing has happened.

I feel smarter. Not just book-smart like I know something you don't, but I genuinely have more clarity. And the more I learn, the more this feeling grows.

Keeping your mind active not only improves your memory, it also opens you up to new ideas and possibilities which could translate into a new business or lead you to acquire a new skill that nets you a promotion. Either way, you're better off for your efforts.

If you can't manage going back to school full-time, then go part-time. Or do like I'm doing and self-teach when you can. My algebra and physics lessons are straight out of college textbooks that I bought at Half-Priced Books and my language lessons are free, courtesy of DuoLingo (incidentally, if you want to follow me there, my username is HappyGoKate).

8. Start Something Big

Talking about starting a business or going back to school brings us to the next item on my list — that life-altering thing you've wanted to do but just never seem to have the time for.

Maybe you'd like to write a book or quit your job or travel the world or grow your own food. Whatever it is, it's the thing that's attached to your "someday," only someday still hasn't come.

Well, being proactive means not waiting around for the time to be right and instead, creating the opportunities you need to build the reality you want.

So, take a step. It doesn't have to be a big one; any old step will do. Request that college catalog or download the form to file your DBA with the State. Research opportunities to study abroad or start browsing beach front properties to see what's available.

Maybe you can't do it all right now, but you can start formulating a plan for making it happen and that plan requires a first step. Start there, and then take another. You'll be amazed at how fast things can change when you start moving.

9. Simplify

If I were to make a list of resolutions today, one of my top to-dos would be to get organized. Not just my closet, but my office, too, and of course, my garage could stand a good cleaning-out as well.

In fact, as I stand here looking around my house, I'm seeing all kinds of areas that would benefit from a little more organization, and surely I'd be happier and more productive without all the clutter.

The proactive approach, of course, would be to tackle these areas one-by-one. No major overhauls — just a slow implementation of systems that would make it easier to find my stuff when I want it.

That means that I won't have to dig for receipts at tax time. I won't have to rush-clean because company's coming over, and I won't have to think of a good argument to explain why my daughter has to organize her room but I don't. See? The benefits of being proactive are many.

10. Get Over It

Bernard Meltzer once said, "When you forgive, you don't change the past. But you certainly change the future." And in the context of being proactive, we couldn't ask for anything more.

Forgiveness allows you to move forward, while carrying a grudge only ties you to the past. Forgiveness allows you to heal, while carrying a grudge keeps you angry. Which do you suppose would be the best path for a bright and happy future?

Taking steps now to get over whatever it is that makes your blood boil will actually help you add years to your life. Not to mention that they'll be much happier years than they would be if you had stayed angry all that time.

11. Eat an Apple

Or an orange or some celery. Losing weight and eating "better" are top resolutions year after year, yet the fast food industry continues to show billions in revenue (over $195 billion this year alone), and we're still one of the "largest" populations in the world (currently ranking at #3).

Every year we start out strong, eating nothing but grapefruit and cottage cheese, only to discover that we really miss those chocolate truffles, and maybe if we wait and start "next week," after (you fill in the blank) is over, then we'll be able to do a better job and really stick to it this time.

Instead, let's start with something small (notice a trend?).

Eat an apple every day for breakfast, and then celebrate that you're eating healthier. Yes, following it up with a chili dog and fries for lunch will likely cancel out any calories you saved at breakfast, but you'll still benefit from the nutrients of the apple, and it's certainly still fewer calories overall than if you had chosen donuts or a sausage biscuit instead.

Plus, instilling these little habits is also slowly changing your mindset. As you start to feel good about that apple, you'll find that trading that chili dog for a salad is much easier to do.

12. Stretch

Part two of that whole "get healthier" lifestyle requires that you do some exercise, and this is another area that we often put off until some later date and time.

We have good intentions starting out of course, but the end result is typically a gym membership we never use and silent guilt we suppress when we pay the bill every month.

Let's stop that cycle, too.

Instead, stretch. Or go for a walk. Or go fuss in the garden. The point is, get up and move. Start slow and build up your stamina. Take a dance class, ride a bike, go swimming. The more you move around, the less you mind it, and as your health begins to improve and your waistline begins to shrink, the whole idea of exercise won't be the grueling event you see it as now.

Now it's your turn. What ideas do you have for living a proactive life?

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Guest's picture

This Christmas break (I am a teacher) has been a chance for me to undo the damage from stress. I chose one day for the gym, one day for the house. Found it was easier to go to the gym! Shows what my 'hard' area is!

While this is not what you most likely had in mind for the 'Start Something Big'... It is HUGE for me. It does fit in the Simplify. I was to choose one area to de-clutter each day. Things need to be put away. If there is not a place for it to call home, decide whether it is a keeper or tosser. Paper is the hardest. Need to roll the file cabinet out... make new file folders and start getting rid of all the loose paper.

Decided I could include a stretch in the middle of it all to ease back the stress of dealing with it all... take a break and meditate outside... or listen to some calming music while doing all this fun processing!

If by chance anyone looks at my website... that is another HUGE project. I have been keeping tab on the biggest searches and will gradually take action on them. Much research needs to be done to bring about my final product. It will not be blog created for money, now. That is a whole other project that has not been finalized.