The Skillful Life

When it comes to enjoying a healthy, happy life, good intentions will get you just so far. You also need practical skills in a variety of areas — from health and fitness to relationships and finance. Here’s an action plan for assessing and building the skill sets that matter most to you right now.

If there’s one thing most of us learned in kindergarten, it’s that skill building is inherently satisfying. And back when learning to tie our shoes and use a pencil sharpener were big-deal achievements, it seemed that each day provided fresh opportunities to master new tricks.

Unfortunately, now that we’re all grown up, similar skill-building projects may seem like out-of-reach impossibilities. They’ve become part of that ever-expanding class of things that we know we probably should do, but can’t seem to make a habit of because — well, because we’re way too busy, overwhelmed or just plain tired. Or because we have no idea where to start.

Sure, we know that upgrading certain skill sets would probably make our lives easier, better, more satisfying. After all, if we maintained a higher level of health and fitness, maybe we’d have more vitality and energy for our other goals — and we’d waste fewer days being sick or exhausted.

If we were a little better at managing our money, maybe we’d encounter fewer financial crises, and we’d stress less about the future. Maybe we could even work a little less and invest in a future we’re truly passionate about.

And if we were more skilled at navigating our personal relationships, who knows how much easier, more rewarding and more joy-filled our lives would be?

But, really, who has the time to take on learning and growing when we can barely handle our current obligations? The more important question, many personal-development experts insist, is this: What busy person can afford not to?

After all, if you’re busy, you don’t have time to do things badly or inefficiently. You definitely don’t have time to clean up lots of little messes. Plus, if you’re underperforming (or under-enjoying) because of a lack of skill in one area, there’s a good chance that the lackluster results are holding you back in other areas, too.

Perhaps most important, there’s the matter of satisfaction: Achieving a reasonably high level of mastery across a range of practical skill areas contributes to a sense of confidence, purpose and peace of mind. It helps us operate at a higher level of our personal potential, and it helps us make the best use of our energy in the pursuits that matter most to us.

Of course, we can’t do — or learn — everything at once. That’s why it’s a good idea to take stock of our current skills and know-how, and then assess which new competencies will best propel us toward our goals.

To help you get started, we’ve prepared charts with what we see as some high-priority skills required to maintain a high level of well-being in a few key areas (feel free to add your own): physical health and vitality, financial management, creative and personal expression, and relationships.

First, use the charts (available here as downloadable PDFs) to acknowledge the skills you already possess and to note the ones you’re keen on mastering next. Then, take a crack at prioritizing the list of things you want to learn first, and consider which of the suggested action tips might offer good ways to start. Finally, set some benchmark goals and interim “do by” dates on your calendar, and begin reaching out to the resources (coaches, trainers, mentors, partners) who can help you make progress.

Take on even one small task each week, and by month’s end you’ll find motivation sprouting in the spaces where busyness and boredom used to dwell. So we suggest keeping your skill-building list handy …

Fitness and Health

When it comes to protecting and leveraging your most precious asset (that amazing body of yours), which of the following skills do you have on your side — and which will you put at the top of your “must do” list?

Skills and Know-How (download chart PDF)

  1. I make room in my schedule for daily exercise and healthy eating.
  2. I know how to relax and have fun — and I’m capable of taking a break when necessary.
  3. I usually choose foods and beverages that support my health.
  4. I regularly get enough good sleep.
  5. I avoid weight-loss scams, fad diets and fitness gimmicks.
  6. I feel confident about my ability to shop for healthy groceries and to prepare convenient, nourishing meals.
  7. I’ve established a balanced and varied workout routine I enjoy and that keeps me fit.
  8. I know how to use a heart-rate monitor to support my fitness goals.
  9. I actively manage any current health conditions.
  10. I know how to manage my stress so that it does not harm me or those around me.

Take-Action Tips (on your own)

  • Schedule yourself healthy. Sit down with your calendar for the next three months and block out some windows for rest and reflection; healthy cooking and eating; exercise and activity; and outdoor fun time. You might also schedule “learning appointments” for health-and-fitness-related reading, listening, and skill building. (See “Dig Deeper,” below, for links to recommended articles from Experience Life.)
  • Take some tests. Getting objective results from basic health-screening evaluations, as well as from cardiovascular, strength and metabolic fitness tests (available at health clubs and sports clinics), can help you establish appropriate goals and get you on track toward achieving them.
  • Do a clean sweep of your fridge and pantry. Yank and toss items that contain refined flours, trans fats, high-fructose corn syrup or other unhealthy ingredients that seem at odds with your healthy priorities.
  • Share your fitness journey. Many have found motivation by blogging about their fitness successes and setbacks. Check out our editors’ blogs at experiencelife.com/blogs, then start your own blog through www.wordpress.com or a similar service. You might also consider an online fitness network, such as www.traineo.com, where like-minded people can discuss challenges, set goals, share advice and measure their progress.

Sign Yourself Up (workshops/seminars/programs)

  • Get away from it all. Spend your next long weekend (or vacation) at a health-oriented retreat center, where you can learn about wellness, assess your own fitness, rest and restore.
  • Join a club. Whether a running club, health club, yoga studio, ballroom dancing or group-fitness class, you’ll connect with a culture and community that supports your new motivations.
  • Hit the store. Many grocery and gourmet-supply stores offer classes on cooking with whole foods. Grab a few schedules, highlight your favorite options and book a new  edible adventure into your calendar each month.

Hire Some Help (trainer/coach/pro)

  • Personal trainer: Trainers can help people of all fitness levels find a regimen that works for them. Ask about the personal-training and small-group training services offered at your local health club or fitness studio.
  • Health coach: Trained to support  individuals in creating new, healthy habits and in overcoming lifestyle challenges, health coaches (some of whom are medical professionals) also assist those with chronic conditions that are holding them back.
  • Health pro: If an injury, illness or mystery symptom is tripping you up, seek advice from a qualified doctor, chiropractor, naturopath, nutritionist, mental-health pro or other health expert of your choice.
  • Group personal training: In group personal training, a small group of people works together with a single trainer. You still get individual attention, but for a fraction of the cost. You also get the added support and camaraderie of fellow fitness seekers.

Financial Management

Whether you have a lot of money or a little, managing it well empowers you to direct your resources where they’ll do the most good. Which financial skills will help you make the most of the money you have at your disposal, and which will give you the greatest peace of mind?

Skills and Know-How (download chart PDF)

  1. I have a regular financial-management routine that helps me track my spending and saving on a weekly or monthly basis.
  2. I balance my checkbook and review my bills regularly.
  3. I have an effective filing system for my bills, statements and other financial documents.
  4. I spend my money on the things that represent my values.
  5. I use an automated deposit system for retirement, savings and emergency funds.
  6. I do not carry a large credit-card balance, and I pay all my bills on time.
  7. I know my credit rating and closely monitor my credit report.
  8. I am comfortable talking about money with my partner.
  9. I feel good about where I’ve invested my money.
  10. I have trusted financial advisers whom I can consult for guidance and help when necessary.

Take-Action Tips (on your own)

  • Seize ownership. If you have a mental block that makes dealing with money tough for you, reframe that challenge and decide that you are learning, not failing. Pick up the book Your Money Life: The “Make-It-Work” Workbook by Ruth Hayden(Tyborne Hill, 2005). Or listen to the audio seminar “Transforming Your Relationship With Money” by Joe Dominguez (available as an MP3 or CD at www.soundstrue.com).
  • Get connected. Online communities like www.wesabe.com offer great tools and resources for boosting your financial savvy. They also help you connect with other people who share their own best practices and real-life advice.
  • Pay your bills online.Many financial institutions have secure online account-management systems and offer other automated services free of charge: email alerts when your bank balance drops below a dollar amount of your choosing; automatic withdrawals to savings and retirement accounts; and budgeting tools that reveal what percentage of your money you spend and where.

Sign Yourself Up (workshops/seminars/programs)

  • Embrace distance learning. Tele-classes and online seminars are a great way to build your financial savvy. Conscious Bookkeeping  (www.consciousbookkeeping.com) offers workshops and classes that combine practical accounting skills with greater personal money awareness. Check out the podcast interview with Conscious Bookkeeping’s founder, Bari Tessler, at experiencelife.com/podcasts.
  • Join an investment club. This is a great way to expand your financial knowledge base and meet other people with similar money questions and concerns. Find a club through The Motley Fool at www.fool.com/investmentclub.
  • Go back to school. Community education classes and the Learning Annex (www.learningannex.com) provide local opportunities for you to hone your financial prowess.

Hire Some Help (trainer/coach/pro)

  • See a financial counselor. A qualified fee-based adviser or coach (not one who works on commission) can help you sort out financial messes, including debt problems, and give you a sense of direction and accountability. Find one through www.wiseradvisor.com.
  • Consult with a certified financial planner. Planners focus on helping you make wise investment decisions based on your goals and priorities (again, avoid commission-based arrangements). Find a planner through the CFP Board of Standards at www.cfp.net. Want to make sure your investments sync with your values? Look for a planner who specializes in Socially Responsible Investing.

Creative Endeavors

Stoking your creative fire can improve your productivity and life satisfaction by sparking insights, forging synaptic connections, and infusing your life with new energy, meaning and joy.  So give a little thought to the status of your current creative urges and expressions — and then get busy giving them a boost.

Skills and Know-How (download chart PDF)

  1. I regularly pursue creative and personal projects (music, art, writing, crafts, gardening) purely for satisfaction and enjoyment.
  2. I surround myself with creative inspiration by exposing myself to new sights, sounds, ideas and experiences on a regular basis.
  3. I bring creativity to my work and to my relationships with others.
  4. I’m open to doing things I’m not necessarily “good“ at.
  5. I meet regularly with like-minded creative people for support, camaraderie and inspiration.
  6. I’m able to ignore the voice of my inner critic when necessary.
  7. I appreciate the creative talents and contributions of others.
  8. I know how to jog my creativity when I’m feeling stuck.
  9. I feed my brain with a steady supply of open questions, unsolved puzzles and “never done this before” challenges.
  10. I’m aware of the physical environments and periods of day in which I tend to be most creative.

Take-Action Tips (on your own)

  • Get with the program. Crack open The Creativity Book: A Year’s Worth of Inspiration and Guidance by Eric Maisel (Tarcher, 2000), which gives you insight, encouragement and a creativity-building process to follow. Or read How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day by Michael J. Gelb (Dell, 1998).
  • Open some creative space: Declutter a desk, table or workbench where you can make a creative mess without disrupting your daily activities, or hang a corkboard where you can arrange visually appealing images or items that inspire you.
  • Use magazine clippings to create a collage of what you want your life to look like one year from now.
  • Spend some quality time with a kid.Try taking your kids (or borrow your nieces, nephews or neighbors) to a museum this weekend and ask them about what you encounter. Step into their world and see what they’re seeing. Let their imagination spark yours!

Sign Yourself Up (workshops/seminars/programs)

  • Take a class. Scan the offerings in a local community-ed catalog and circle anything that piques your interest: Always wanted to make jewelry? Speak Italian? Try welding? Go for it! No nearby community-ed center? Check local bulletin boards for offerings, or check out online resources like www.learnoutloud.com and www .edufire.com for at-home options.
  • Find a support group. Networks of writers or artists often meet informally to offer each other support, feedback and camaraderie. Look for one in your area (MySpace, Yahoo! Groups and similar networking Web sites can help you find creativity-boosting groups), or start one of your own!
  • Volunteer.Drama buff? Become a volunteer usher at a local theater. Art enthusiast? Become a docent at a favorite museum. History hound? History centers are often recruiting volunteers to give tours or staff the help desks.

Hire Some Help (trainer/coach/pro)

  • Find a creativity coach. These motivational specialists can help you find inspiration, focus and direction for your creative dreams. Search for one in your area at www.creativitycoachingassociation.com/findcoach.
  • Take a lesson: A single one-hour lesson or private consultation with an accomplished artist can deliver years’ worth of inspirational fuel. Short on cash? Consider trading skills (you help that oil painter with her tax return, she shows you how she layers a canvas to get that amazing shade of Prussian blue). Or simply ask someone for a little mentoring. You might be surprised by how many creative types are willing to share what they know.

Relationships/Communication

The success of our biggest efforts often depends on enduring support from others. And our personal relationships are fundamental to our quality of life. So which interpersonal skills do you bring to the relationships that matter most to you?

Skills and Know-How (download chart PDF)

  1. I am able to clearly and comfortably communicate my thoughts, ideas and feelings to others — and I’m not often misunderstood. I regularly show kindness and affection to the people I care about.
  2. I treat my family, friends and coworkers with respect and dignity. I hold them to the same standard in their dealings with me.
  3. I am able to apologize when I’m in the wrong or have hurt someone.
  4. I actively listen when others are speaking and acknowledge their views — even if I disagree with them.
  5. I raise concerns honestly, but without blaming and shaming.
  6. When arguing, I’m able to pause thoughtfully before I say something I might regret.
  7. I know how to exit arguments in a healthy, positive way.
  8. I can share in the joys and concerns of others without getting personally sucked into their experiences.
  9. I refuse to tolerate hurtful or destructive behavior from others, and I’m willing to see my own role in the conflicts I experience.

Take-Action Tips (on your own)

  • Be reflective. Spend some quiet time thinking about the quality of your relationships and interactions with others: How fulfilling are they? Notice any negative patterns? Take note of both the strengths and challenges you see reflected in your relationships to date.
  • Seek feedback. Ask some trusted friends for observations and reflections on your relationship skills — and then listen. Also, think back on the complaints and compliments you’ve heard from more than one person in the past.
  • Read up. Choose a couple of good books that provide solid counsel in your skill-seeking areas and aim to cover a few pages a day.
  • Define areas for improvement. Armed with a list of your reflections and observations, you can pinpoint the areas worth addressing. Acknowledging you have a tendency to blame, brood, overreact or interrupt can be the first step toward reforming your own less-than-stellar relating behaviors. A good next step? Read The Relationship Cure: A 5 Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family, and Friendshipsby John Gottman, PhD (Three Rivers, 2001).

Sign Yourself Up (workshops/seminars/programs)

  • Take a class. Universities and tech schools often offer professional-development courses in communication and interpersonal conflict resolution. Visit your local university’s Web site or the Learning Annex  (www.learningannex.com) to see what’s available near you. Or check out Illumination University (www.illuminationuniversity.com) for distance-learning options.
  • Participate in a relationship workshop. Many respected clinics and therapy and retreat centers, such as The Gottman Institute in Seattle (www.gottman.com) and the Option Institute in Sheffield, Mass. (www.option.org), offer weekend or weeklong seminars.


Hire Some Help (trainer/coach/pro)

  • Consult with a therapist or coach. Working with a therapist or life coach can help you improve your interpersonal skills. Look for a therapist in your region at the Psychology Today Web site at www.psychologytoday.com (click on “Find a Therapist”). Find a life coach through Coach University online at www.findacoach.com.

Make the Time

Eager to acquire some new life skills, but feeling pressed for time? Here are some top tips for finding time in your schedule for lifelong learning.

  1. The chapter-a-night method. Select one skill-acquisition book at a time and keep it on your nightstand. Commit to reading a chapter each night before bed. Reading is a great way to drift toward sleep, and a chapter a night will keep you moving quickly through the books you want to read without feeling overwhelmed.
  2. Make the most of margins. Do you have dinner in the oven and 30 minutes to kill before it’s ready? Or are you waiting for a meeting that’s starting late? Instead of idling, use the time to make mini-strides on a skill-building project: Read an article, make some notes, check in on your goal list (see “You Can Do It!” below), or catch up on an advice blog.
  3. Go on a TV diet. Review your weekly lineup of programs and excise half of them from your watching repertoire. Use the reclaimed time for working on the priorities of your checklist: For example, you might listen to skill-expanding MP3 downloads while walking — instead of getting sucked into Lost. Or you might set up your financial filing system during the time you used to watch American Idol. Rearrange your Netflix queue to include some educational or inspirational titles related to your skill-building goals.
  4. Capitalize on your commute. Put your drive time to work for you. Listen to an educational book on CD. Keep some sticky notes in the glove box so you can take your portable insights and to-dos with you when you leave the car. Or call your cell-phone voice mail (hands free, of course) to leave yourself reminders while you’re on the road.
  5. Become a morning person. We’re often at our most creative and least critical when we first wake up. Keep a pen and paper by your bed and jot down creative ideas and inspirations for a minute or two after you open your eyes. Get to bed early so you can wake up refreshed and ready to make use of the best (and most private) hours of the day.

You Can Do It! (Whatever “It” Is)

Need help figuring out what new life skills you want to tackle first — or even if you want to tackle anything? Visit www.43things.com to get some ideas and craft a starter list. Then get reading:

All About Me by Philipp Keel (Broadway Books, 1998): Learn more about the most important person in your life — yourself. This book will help you shine a spotlight on your strengths, weaknesses, interests and priorities.

I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was: How to Discover What You Really Want and How to Get It by Barbara Sher with Barbara Smith (Delacorte, 1994): Helps you outline your goals, embrace your dreams and eliminate roadblocks to success.

You Can Do It! The Merit Badge Handbook for Grown-Up Girls by Lauren Catuzzi Grandcolas (Chronicle, 2005): Instructions on how to master a whole fleet of new skills.

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