How you spend your 20s is hugely important for determining who you’ll become — personally and professionally — in the future.
In fact, one psychologist calls this time period the “defining decade,” since it sets the stage for the rest of your life.
Find out what you should start (and stop) doing in your 20s to lay the foundation for lifelong success.
1. Start writing down your goals
Toward the end of his 20s, Quora user Dirk Hooper started envisioning his ideal lifestyle five, 10, and 20 years down the road.
To ensure that he wasn’t just fantasizing, he wrote down what he hoped to achieve and how he might get there.
“The act of writing your goals and dreams do[es] a couple of things for you,” Hooper writes. “It forces you to nail down what’s really in your mind, and it gives you a tangible record that you can refer to over time.”
There’s research to back up Hooper’s theory. In one study, college students were instructed to write down a path toward achieving their future goals. Unsurprisingly, many of those goals involved finishing their education. Results showed that students who completed the writing exercise were more likely to stay in school than those who didn’t do the exercise.
2. Start letting go of your ego
A number of Quora users mentioned some variation on the idea that you shouldn’t let pride or vanity get in your way, and you should stay open to alternate viewpoints.
Michael Elijah writes: “Learn how to kill your ego. It blinds and fetters us from possibility and progress. Learn how to burst your bubble with simple questions [such] as, ‘What if things aren’t what they seem to be?’ and vitally, ‘What if I am wrong?'”
3. Start reading a lot
After college, Hooper realized there was still a lot he didn’t know.
“So, I became a voracious reader,” he said. “I engaged in a campaign to educate myself on any subject that inspired me. One book led to another. Over the years I’ve learned 10 times more than I ever learned in high school or college.”
We’re not advocating autodidactism over formal education, but reading is a great way to learn more about topics that aren’t necessarily covered in class. Get started with this list of 30 books to read before turning 30.
4. Stop trying to live someone else’s life
It’s tempting to use other people’s expectations and values as the yardsticks by which you measure your own accomplishments. But doing so can prevent you from ever feeling truly fulfilled.
Here’s Franklin Veaux:
If there’s one thing you can do that will help more than anything else, it’s this: Live life on your own terms. Don’t do things because you think you ‘should.’ Don’t do what other people tell you to do. Don’t do what society expects you to do. Don’t sit around waiting to start living your life. This life belongs to you and to nobody else. You will not get a chance to do it again. Live it on your terms.
5. Stop feeling bad about the past
In response to the question, “What should one do in their 20s to avoid regrets in their 30s and 40s?” several Quora users suggested that regret isn’t a particularly healthy mindset.
Writes Jayesh Lalwani:
There are two kinds of people in the world: People who live their lives looking back, and people who live their lives looking forward.
You can recognize people who live their lives looking back by their heavy use of shoulda-woulda-coulda. I should have taken that job. I could have gone to that college. I would have married the girl. I could have been a contender. These people are constantly looking for things to regret. To them, life is a series of failures, and every future opportunity is a chance to [mess] up.
You can recognize people who live their lives looking forward by their heavy use of shall-will-can. I shall get that job. I can go to college. I will take care of my family. I can, will and shall be a champion. These people are constantly looking for challenges to beat. To them, life is a promise of unrealized wins, and every past failure is a lesson.
Meanwhile, journalist Kathryn Schulz suggests that we can expect to have some regrets, and shouldn’t feel bad about having them.
“The point isn’t to live without any regrets, the point is to not hate ourselves for having them,” she says in her TED Talk. “We need to learn to love the flawed, imperfect things that we create, and to forgive ourselves for creating them. Regret doesn’t remind us that we did badly — it reminds us that we know we can do better.”
6. Start showing loved ones you care
“If you really care about a certain someone, make it a habit to show it,” says Christian Svanes Kolding.
“Little gestures, kind words. It’s not about constant contact, but more about finding mutual ways to share your life with the people you care most about. … And if you have a partner, show your love. Take nothing for granted. Life happens.”
7. Start taking care of your health
“The simplest and most important action you can take is to protect your health,” writes Andrew Solmssen. “Once it’s gone, it’s really hard to bring back. Most people in their 40s and beyond would trade money for health.”
Exercising is especially crucial at this juncture in your life. If you start early, you’ll establish the habit for decades to come, which will be especially beneficial in your late 30s when you start losing muscle mass. Just remember to choose physical activities you really love, since you’re less likely to continue exercising if you dislike your workouts.
8. Start saving for retirement
“Spend less than you earn and put money in an IRA,” says Paul Richard. “Compounding does amazing things and you will be able to retire when you want, instead of working forever.”
Richard is right: The earlier you start saving for your golden years, the more time your money has to accrue interest.
9. Start asking questions
“By asking questions, you’re getting different perspectives from different people,” writes Brian Austin. “To a greater or lesser extent, all of our lives are enriched by sharing the thoughts and ideas of others.”
Scientists say this kind of curiosity and knowledge-seeking can strengthen your personal relationships because you spend time listening, and it boosts your performance at work because you always want to learn and improve.
10. Start flossing
It’s “disheartening how many sit in dental chairs for hours later in life forking over thousands,” writes Madeleine Gallay.
According to the American Dental Association, you should floss at least once a day to help remove plaque from the areas between your teeth where your toothbrush can’t reach. Otherwise, you run the risk of gum disease and cavities.
11. Start practicing mindfulness
Mindfulness is about becoming more aware of your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surroundings. Experts say it can help you perform better at work because it allows you to deal with stress in a more healthy way.
Lauren Ramesbottom recommends cultivating mindfulness by setting aside a certain period of time every day or week for quiet meditation or reflection:
“This could be anything from writing in a journal, to listening to quiet music in the dark in your room, focused deep breathing or doing yoga. Anything that allows you to separate yourself from the daily trials of life … and have an open conversation with yourself in regards to how you’re feeling.”
12. Start learning how to read a scientific paper
“Learn a bit about medicine, including how to read a scientific paper,” says Austin Schopper. “This will not only help you learn to take care of yourself better, but will also insulate you from con artists and frauds trying to sell you ‘detox’ remedies and miracle cures.”
Over at The Huffington Post, Jennifer Raff, Ph.D., a professor of physical anthropology, offers nonscientists a (nonscary) guide for reading and understanding a scientific paper.
13. Start learning how to cook
“Learn how to prepare a meal for more than just you,” Schopper says.
You might live alone now, but chances are at some point, you’ll be cohabiting with a significant other and/or kids — and this skill will come in handy. Plus, cooking most of your meals at home saves money and tends to be healthier than dining out.
14. Start getting involved in meaningful causes
Consider joining a Meetup or another group of people who are interested in similar political and cultural issues.
“You will never have this much energy, health this great, or this much disposable time again in your life,” writes Heidi McDonald. “Make the most of it. This is your best chance to make a difference in the world.”
15. Start following current events
“Chances are,” McDonald writes, if you keep up with the latest news, “you’ll find your passion, whether that’s a cause you’re interested in or a niche you believe you can fill.”
Moreover, you’ll be better able to make small talk if you’ve got a few hot topics on hand.
16. Start traveling
“Don’t be a tourist but a traveler,” says Shrey Garg. “This will help increase your vision and make you realize how big and small the world is at the same time.”
Over at US News, Claire Volkman advises going beyond the landmarks and discovering the cafes, stores, and parks that exist off the beaten path. You may also want to consider renting a home instead of a hotel in a neighborhood far from tourist attractions.
17. Start taking alone time
Garv Suri recommends spending half an hour every day in solitude.
Make sure you don’t have your phone with you: Researchers say humans need true solitude, away from texts and Twitter, in order to understand their own behavior and experiences.
18. Start conducting weekly reviews
“One great habit is a weekly review to look back at the past week and lay out the one coming up,” says Curt Beavers. “Use these three questions:
1. What went well last week? (Celebrate and continue these.)
2. What didn’t go well? (Stop, overcome, or remove these from your plate.)
3. Based on the answers above, what changes do I need to make to make this week better?”
19. Start appreciating failure
Here’s Arpit Sethi’s advice to a 22-year-old who wants to know the best way to invest time: “Fail. Merely out of our teens this is the best thing that can contribute in the making of an adult. The more we fail, the more we learn.”
Sarah Rapp of 99U interviewed Tim Harford, author of “Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure,” and learned that failing productively involves trying lots of new things, failing in a safe space, and being prepared to ditch your plan if it’s just not working out.
20. Start expressing gratitude
“Start each day with a thankful heart,” says Alex Chuang. “Gratitude can turn ordinary things into blessings and is the easiest path to happiness. Don’t let the things you want make you forget the things you have.”
In fact, successful people from John Paul DeJoria to Oprah Winfrey have a daily gratitude practice. DeJoria, for example, sometimes uses the first five minutes of the day to “reflect on what I have in life and for what I am grateful.”
Meanwhile, research suggests that taking the time to express gratitude for and appreciate your partner is a key predictor of relationship satisfaction.