Life

Our Favorite Advice of 2020

On How To!, Slate’s advice podcast, self-improvement gave way to survival this year.

Self-help books.
Photo illustration by Slate

Subscribe to How To! on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Stitcher for full episodes. 

If you’re like us, your 2020 resolutions probably didn’t pan out like you thought they would. Here at How To!, some of our advice, no matter how good at the time, turned out to be terrible once the pandemic started. Like when, at the beginning of this year, we told Sharon, our listener in “How To Find Your First Kiss at 38,” that she should go on as many dates as possible and, well, kiss a lot of strangers.

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But 2021 is a new year! Most of us are eager to make up for lost time, unlearn some of the bad habits we’ve acquired (online doom-shopping, anyone?), and get back on our feet after a year that stressed our health, finances, and relationships. Here is the best advice we’ve heard on How To! to get you through this last stretch of 2020 and into the new year. You can start by saving a dog’s life by picking your underwear up off the floor.

Practice “Temptation Bundling”

From “How To Lose Weight and Keep It Off,” Oct. 6, 2020

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Maybe you, like our listener John, gained weight from the comfort of stress-baked sweets. At 72 and with high blood pressure, John is worried he won’t be in the best shape to travel when this is all over. So behavioral economist Katy Milkman introduces him to a key strategy for losing weight called “temptation bundling.” The idea is simple: Pair something you love—like juicy audio romance novels or, say, your favorite advice podcast—with a workout. The trick is to listen to that audiobook or podcast only when you exercise, so that you actually start looking forward to the workout.

Make an “I/We Ask”

From “How To Get That Promotion You Deserve,” July 28, 2020

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Weight loss is often mistaken as a shortcut to happiness, but we know that much more goes into well-being, like our satisfaction at work. A global recession may seem like the worst time to ask for a promotion, but negotiation expert Alex Carter argues this is actually the best time: Why not emphasize your worth when your company needs you the most? To advocate for yourself effectively, make sure to use what’s called an “I/we ask”: “Here’s what I’m requesting, and here’s how we are all going to benefit.” And if you need more motivation, consider what Alex’s mentor told her about asking for a higher salary: “If you’re not going to do it for yourself, I want you to do it for the person who’s coming behind you. Do it for the sisterhood.”

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And if you’re out of work, a LinkedIn guru walks you through how to land a job in “How To Find a New Career Before It’s Too Late.” Her top tip? Ask everyone you network with to put you in touch with three other people for an introductory coffee.

Create “Reward Substitution”

From “How To Stop Procrastinating,” April 14, 2020

But how do you trick your mind into doing the hard, boring parts of losing weight and getting a better job? Behavioral scientist Dan Ariely has cracked the code to stop procrastinating: Give yourself immediate rewards. When Dan had to give himself painful injections for a hepatitis C infection, he allowed himself to watch escapist movies—but only on injection days. “Being healthy in 30 years is just not that motivating, but doing something that is an immediate reward is motivating,” Dan explains. So buy yourself a fancy coffee after your workout. Or watch an episode of The Queen’s Gambit after you send off three résumés. And hey, when it’s your turn for the vaccine, why not reward yourself with a lollipop and sticker?

Have Family Meetings 

From “How To Tame a Chaotic Household,” March 31, 2020

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So now that you know how to transform yourself, what about your family? Maybe you’re like our listener Sarah, whose tiny Brooklyn apartment is a disaster zone, thanks to a messy husband and a baby on the loose. The trick here is not to pull a Marie Kondo and throw everything away. It’s more important, says Bruce Feiler, author of The Secrets of Happy Families, to focus on how your family communicates. Adapting a practice from Silicon Valley, Bruce advocates for the family meeting: Once a week, sit down and ask each other, “What’s working well in our family this week? What’s not working well? What are we doing to focus on?” This ritual will allow you to share in the chaos and build better habits together

Rely on “I” Statements 

From “How To Save Your Marriage,” Dec. 1, 2020

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If family meetings sound too touchy-feely and you’re more worried about your marriage falling apart, take a step back. This is an incredibly stressful time for couples, but as Gottman Institute co-founder Julie Gottman notes, “69 percent of all problems couples have are perpetual problems.” Rather than criticizing your partner the next time you’re in an argument, Julie advises, describe yourself and what you need—something that you do want rather than what you don’t want. An example: “I feel upset that the bills are piling up. I would love it if you could pay them by next Monday. That would take a load off my plate.”

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With practice, maybe by next year, you’ll be communicating so well that we’ll be advising you on how to have an open marriage—pandemic-willing.

Subscribe to How To! on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Stitcher

To hear the How To! team discuss their favorite pieces of advice from this year and share some behind-the-scenes stories, listen to our year-end episode by clicking the player below or subscribing to How To! with Charles Duhigg wherever you get your podcasts. And if you have a problem that needs solving, send us a note at howto@slate.com or leave us a voicemail at 646-495-4001. To a great 2021!

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