4 Ways to Improve Your Life in the New Year

Don't you just love new years? The prospect of fresh and new possibilities always brings me added motivation to try new things that could potentially improve my life even just a little bit from the year before. If you, too, are looking for a few ways to tweak your life this year, here are a few that I've tried (or am currently trying) and can wholeheartedly recommend:

1. KonMari your life

Last year, I declared war on clutter and unleashed KonMari on my life. For those unfamiliar with the KonMari method, it is the brainchild of Maria Kondo, a Japanese tidying and self-help guru who preaches only keeping things in your life that spark joy. It begins with sorting through your clothes and getting rid of all the things that don't spark joy. You have to be ruthless — let go of everything from that bad shopping decision you made to cheer yourself up on a terrible day (probably something expensive but ultimately impractical or unflattering) to that present thoughtfully brought back from a trip by a favorite aunt (something exotic but ultimately not your style — Kondo says the joy was in the gift-giving moment and you don't have to feel guilty about letting it go). You will start out with decluttering your life of extraneous possessions but if you continue on with the philosophy, you will soon find yourself applying it to everything else, including your personal relationships and career choices.

I talk about KonMari in detail in this this blog post, if you're interested in learning more. But if you decide to go all in, I recommend getting her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, because you will want to refer while going through the process. You will inevitably find yourself getting stuck on an item or fifty, so it's always helpful to read her tips. It won't be easy; the initial stages of hauling off several handtrucks of stuff to charity thrift shops took some effort — but the resulting ease of living a life where everything I touched was something I loved was well worth it. Just imagine a life where everything you use is your favorite thing: underwear that you feel sexy in, tights that are smooth and snug, sweaters that hug you in the right places, jeans that flatter your figure, shoes that put a spring in your step. You probably own many of those things already but they are often obscured by the droopy undies, snagged tights, ratty sweaters, ill-fitting pants and scuffed shoes that you can't let go of. While the prospect of getting rid of many of your possessions may seem daunting, I can guarantee that the end effect is liberating. Don't be trapped by decisions that you regret and things that no longer fit in with the person you've grown into. I can vouch that KonMari is truly life-changing and I absolutely recommend it.

2. Start a bullet journal

Beginning Bullet Journaling with my Moleskine and pen

If KonMari is about decluttering your life, bullet journaling is about decluttering your mind.

I have a friend who started calling me Squirrel when we worked together some years ago because when stressed out, I was easily distracted — very much like this guy — which resulted in my forgetting things that could have had disastrous results. The aforementioned crises were averted and I have not been in Squirrel mode for quite some time now, even managing to juggle full-time work and grad school for two years and ending up with a promotion, a Master's degree and a published article. But the memory of that time has always left me with lingering anxiety that I'll revert to Squirrel state when confronted with too much to do. Moreover, I always worry that I will get lost in the minutiae of busy work and lose track of the big picture.

This is why the idea of bullet journaling appealed to me when I first read about it. A bullet journal is essentially a to-do list, planner, journal and notebook rolled into one. It is meant to be a quick and easy way of keeping track of what you have done, what you need to do right now and what you plan to do in the future. All you need is a notebook and pen (I'm using this Moleskine notebook and an erasable pen), and you're meant to jot down quick bullet points rather than the "Dear Diary" entries of yore. Different bullets help you keep track of tasks you've completed and those that need to be "migrated" to a later date. The Bullet Journal website gives the purist's explanation of the concept, which is meant to be extremely quick and simple. But as with most trends, bullet journaling or "bujo" as it's been nicknamed by fans has taken on a whole other life of its own, as you'll see from the #bulletjournaljunkies tag on Instagram. Crafty and creative sorts will probably be enticed after reading Buzzfeed's take. Personally, I've kept it pretty simple so far and I have only been at it for a few days but I am really enjoying it. Apart from alleviating unnecessary anxiety that I'm forgetting something, jotting down quick notes has been an exercise in mindfulness, making me more aware of how I am spending my days and how my daily tasks contribute (or not) to the bigger picture I am after.

3. Try doing 30 days of yoga from home

I was stuck in a cycle of vacillating and postponing my workouts when I discovered the Youtube channel Yoga with Adriene. Adriene is a Youtube phenomenon with over 1 million followers and over 125 million views on her videos. I immediately liked her easy, unpretentious approach to yoga and the fact that her videos were just the right mix of ease and challenge. My tailspin stopped when I started her 30 Days of Yoga series, doing a session every day, first thing after waking up.

It wasn't always easy to get myself to do yoga upon waking (especially when the night prior involved a lengthy happy hour) but I managed to drag myself to the mat religiously because I found that no matter what state I was in, I was happy to be on that mat within 5 minutes of starting. Adriene's 30-day series sessions are usually between 20 to 30 minutes and not wickedly strenuous so it's really nice to start the day with them. While you might not exactly be doing crow poses and headstands by Day 15, you will feel calm and centered, while also gradually improving your strength, flexibility and balance. I am such a fan that I have since moved on to her newest series, Yoga Revolution, which so far ties in rather nicely with the last item on this list.

4. Beat the bulge with a slow carb diet

I bought Tim Ferris' bestselling book, The Four Hour Body, a few years ago but never gave the slow carb diet section much thought as I was so busy at the time that I barely had time to eat, let alone get fat. I bought it for the quick exercises that he insisted would keep me toned without taking too much of my precious time. The kettlebell swing he suggests kept me in pretty good shape until I went into my thesis hole and shunned the world outside my research.

Fast forward to the end of 2016 when, after a few months of living happily ever after with my love in Switzerland, the land of cheese and chocolate, I realized I had also begun living fattily ever after. All the homey carb- and wine-fueled dinners at home and long drinking sessions with our newfound Geneva friends had resulted in a soft layer of fat cozying up to my midsection. That realization, coupled with the impetus of a new year, got me to consider Ferris' slow carb diet, which promises that one can lose 20 pounds in 30 days by:
  • avoiding "white" carbohydrates; 
  • eating only protein, legumes and vegetables for every meal; 
  • only drinking water with lemon, coffee, tea, no/low calorie drinks and red wine; 
  • not eating fruit; and 
  • taking one day a week to binge on everything you couldn't eat before. 
Basically, a good slow carb meal would look like this:

The perfect slow carb meal

Not so bad, right? While I don't need to lose 20 pounds, I thought it would be nice to shed off extra fat and get on the road to being more toned this year so I did a trial period this week. Although I ended up cheating a little bit every day, just consistently having a slow carb breakfast has made me feel less bloated and more trim, so I will keep trying. Friends who have been able to sustain eating similarly have encouraged me that it truly works. So if you are looking for a quick and effective way to shed unwanted fat, you might want to give this a try.

* * *

Well, those are my tips for improving life in the new year. Do you have any life-altering ideas you'd like to share? I'd love to hear some. Let's rock this new year!

Montreux Marché de Nöel

Montreux Riviera at Christmas, Marché de Nöel

"Pas de retour à Genève," said our train conducter with a straight face as he looked at our return tickets from Geneva to Montreux. He was only joking, course, when he told us that we could not come back from Montreux—but after a few hours in this beautiful lake side town, we thought maybe there was something more to that funny train conductor's joke. After all, even Queen's legendary frontman Freddie Mercury was so smitten with Montreux after recording some of his last songs here that he decided to stay. The feeling was mutual; the city of Montreux claimed Freddie as their own and a statue of him still stands triumphantly on the shores of the Montreux Riviera.

Freddie Mercury statue in Montreux

We came to Montreux in search of good old Christmas cheer, as did everyone on this side of Lac Léman, it seemed. It was the first weekend of the Marché de Nöel and a Sunday (when stores and restaurants are typically closed in Switzerland) so people were drawn to it like chestnuts to an open fire.

Roasting chestnuts at Montreux Marché de Nöel (Christmas Market)

We came in search of whimsical Christmas ornaments to bring extra cheer to our home. Most of the little booths sold artisanal handicrafts, from glass-blown decorations to hand-carved and painted soaps, which were not exactly what we were looking for. But eventually we found a few choice Christmas tree ornaments to take home: a little vintage-looking John Deere airplane and a whimsical little mercury glass owl. I still regret not buying one of the naughty gnomes, I must admit.

Montreux Marché de Nöel (Christmas Market in Switzerland)
Montreux Marché de Nöel (Christmas Market in Switzerland)
Naughty middle finger gnome at Montreux Marché de Nöel (Christmas Market in Switzerland)
Montreux Marché de Nöel (Christmas Market in Switzerland)

We were pleasantly surprised by the array of delicious things to be devoured at the Christmas market. We expected the hot mulled wine, raclette and fondue but were thrilled to discover sandwiches piled with seared foie gras and duck meat, then drizzled with either fig or truffle sauce. We stayed long enough to also grab dinner from one of the stands hawking staggering amounts of rösti, gratin des pommes, pork hocks, sausages and sauerkraut. And of course to have some good old, spiced vin chaud.

Foie gras sandwich at Montreux Marché de Nöel (Christmas Market in Switzerland)
Sausages, potatoes and sauerkraut at Montreux Marché de Nöel (Christmas Market in Switzerland)
Vin chaud at Montreux Marché de Nöel (Christmas Market in Switzerland)

Despite the crowds, Montreux was a delight. We took some time to also walk around the lake and take in a glorious sun setting behind the Alps. That was where we came to the conclusion that what makes Montreux so special is that it gives you the feeling that something cool can always happen while also giving you the assurance of peace. As Freddie Mercury said, "If you want peace of soul, come to Montreux." We certainly found some of that there and true to the train conductor's word, we found ourselves reluctant to leave and eager to return.

Montreux Marché de Nöel (Christmas Market in Switzerland)
Sunset by Lac Lèman in Montreux, Switzerland
Montreux Marché de Nöel (Christmas Market in Switzerland)

Gruyère: Hiking the Swiss Chocolate and Cheese Trail

Hiking in Gruyère

We came to Gruyère lured by promises of sublime views and flavors—and Gruyère certainly delivered. It is a region with a great variety of dramatic landscapes to explore and deliciously rich delights to sate your palate.

It took us a little under two hours to drive our rented car from Geneva to the town of Charmey on a Thursday afternoon. If you decide to drive here, too, make sure you take a car with some horsepower—there are more than a few uphill roads and you don't want to worry, as we did, that you'd have to jump out and push a little Puegeot up the mountain. The drive is gorgeous, especially when the road wraps around the lovely city of Montreux. We drove to the recommended starting point of the hike, Charmey, and parked our car at the museum where it stayed safely while we went off to explore. Charmey is also well known for its spas but we had other indulgences in mind. We went into an unassuming little boulangerie to have some quiche and salad for lunch, topped off with coffee and the meringue dipped in double cream that this region is famous for. I have loved meringue since I was a kid but have never before tasted them dipped in rich cream. It's a life-changing experience that you cannot miss if you're in the area!

Meringues and Gruyère double cream

Hopped up on sugar and caffeine, we felt ready to take on a 2-hour hike. From the residential area, we found our way to rolling green hills set against lush tree-covered peaks. It's the type of landscape that makes you want to burst in song like Maria and the von Trapps. 

Hiking in Gruyère, Switzerland

Not long after, our path turned into a wooded forest edged by turquoise waters. It soon led us to a suspension bridge where J couldn't help but jump up and down to make me feel queasy. The bridge isn't that long though so I made it through (and snapped some photos midway to annoy him right back).

Hiking in Gruyère, Switzerland
Hiking in Gruyère, Switzerland

The path brings you to the shore of Lac Montsalvans, one of Fribourg's reservoirs, then to the impressive dam that it feeds. From there, it descends into Jaunbach Gorge, which to me is the most beautiful part of the hike. Here you go through numerous tunnels and wooden walkways, and see small cascades and beautiful rock galleries carved by rushing water through the centuries. The gorge is usually open from April to October only because the water levels can change very quickly, so take this into account when planning your hike.

Jaunbach Gorge, Gruyère, Switzerland
Jaunbach Gorge, Gruyère, Switzerland
Jaunbach Gorge, Gruyère, Switzerland
Jaunbach Gorge, Gruyère, Switzerland

The nature walk ends in the town of Broc, where if you have better timing than us, you can visit the chocolate factory of Cailler and cap off your hike with some delicious Swiss chocolate. We finished our hike right as the factory was closing so we rewarded ourself with a beer in town instead before hopping on a bus back to Charmey to fetch our car.

Sheep in Broc, Gruyère, Switzerland
Charmey, Gruyère, Switzerland

From Charmey, we drove up to the Old Town of Gruyère to claim our reward for the day's exertions: a sumptuous dinner of fondue and wine. The Old Town is impossibly charming, with its cobblestone streets and Medieval buildings set against craggy mountain peaks. We dined on the terrace of Le Chalet de Gruyere, one of the most adorable little buildings in town. Our feast of viande séchée (traditional Swiss cured meat) and young potatoes, bread, pearl onions and cornichons dunked into that big pot of melted cheese was the perfect end to a day of many delights.  

The Old Town of Gruyère, Switzerland

Lavaux: Hiking the Swiss Wine Trail

Hiking in Lavaux, the wine terraces of Switzerland

Our first hike in Switzerland was, funny enough, not exactly a hike but a long and meandering walk through what could possibly be the world's most beautiful wine country. Lavaux is vast and an undulating swathe of terraced vineyards set against the turquoise waters of Lac Léman and the towering peaks of the Savoie mountains. Stretching 30 kilometers from St. Saphorin to Lutry, Lavaux is a UNESCO Heritage Site, protected since 2007.

It's very easy, albeit pricey, to take the train from Geneva to St. Saphorin. On a Sunday afternoon with little planning, we coughed up about 50 francs each for the pleasure of traveling round trip by über efficient Swiss train. It was a good option for a couple who didn't feel like driving under the influence—and the views are stunning, especially when you get to the Lavaux area (make sure to take a seat on the right side side of the train). But if you have a group of at least 4 and a willing designated driver, coming to Lavaux by car would probably be the most economical option.

Hiking in Lavaux, the wine terraces of Switzerland
Old Town of St. Saphorin in Lavaux, the wine terraces of Switzerland
Classic Swiss house in Lavaux, the wine terraces of Switzerland

We came on a Sunday because we were more interested in hiking and enjoying the scenery than swilling wine. If you are more interested in the imbibing part, do not come on a Sunday as, similar to most everything else in Switzerland, the winetasting rooms are shuttered then. We quite liked having the quiet medieval towns and rolling vineyards mostly to ourselves, through the heat was punishing in late August with most of the walking route fully exposed to sun. October is supposed to be the optimal time to visit Lavaux so that one can enjoy the golden foliage and fruit-laden vines at more comfortable temperatures.

Vines with grapes in Lavaux, the wine terraces of Switzerland

We meandered along the Swiss Wine Route and walked from St. Saphorin to Chexbres, which is deservedly known as the balcony of Lac Léman. The incline is very steep and on a hot day, it can feel like torture to take on that climb. But when you get to the top, you'll find that it is absolutely worth it. Aim for the popular bar Le Deck at the hotel Le Baron Tavernier for postcard perfect views. Le Deck is only open from April until about September but if you come at the right time of the year and can manage the wait (they don't take reservations), the views here are splendid. If you have a more urgent hankering for beer, as we did, you can simply cross the street and have a drink at the hotel. The advantage to this approach is you are also likely to see the impressive parade of luxury cars zipping through this most picturesque of driving roads.

View from Chexbres in Lavaux, the wine terraces of Switzerland

We ended the day by walking from Chexbres to Epesses, which was mercifully all downhill and with amazing views most of the way, to boot. The train tracks in these parts are all the way down near the lakeside so you always have the option of waiting alongside the lake, watching the locals paddleboard and swim in the incredibly clear and clean waters. Even without the wine and with all the sun-drenched walking, we fell in love with Lavaux. You can't miss it if you're coming through this part of Switzerland!

Hiking in Lavaux, the wine terraces of Switzerland

La Salève - Hiking to the Balcony of Geneva

View of Geneva from Mont Saleve

The Swiss life is known for certain key pleasures: cheese and chocolates as major food groups, and hiking and skiing as national pastimes. As we continue settling into our new life in Switzerland, we've also started to partake more and more in these delights. Funny enough, however, our first hike as Geneva residents was not in Switzerland but across the border in France. Nothing quite drives home the oddity of this Swiss city tucked in the bosom of France as the process of hopping on a Swiss bus, crossing the border on foot and hiking up a French mountain to get a proper overview of Geneva.

La Salève is the closest and most easily accessible mountain for Geneva city dwellers looking for a good nature romp. You can take Bus #8 all the way to the end of the line in Veyrier, cross the border and take any of about a dozen possible hikes up the mountain. I brought my passport but the office was closed that Sunday so we unceremoniously crossed over into the EU.

Hiking up Mont Saleve

In addition to multiple hiking trails, one can easily reach the top of Salève by car or cablecar (a one-way ticket for the téléphérique is 4,30€ while a round-trip ticket is 6,30€). We elected to hike up the mountain and take the téléphérique down, which I recommend. While going up a mountain is certainly more challenging that going down, we decided to save our knees from the pain of a steep descent, and are still glad that we did.  

View of the Telepherique du Mont Saleve

We basically winged it, as far as hiking routes go. Similar to Switzerland, Salève had several signs pointing to and estimating times for various routes. We took the route to L'Observatoire, which at 2 hours and 15 minutes is the fastest but also has the steepest incline. It is largely a walk among the trees, with occasional breaks where one can glimpse Geneva—not the most impressive views, if you've hiked elsewhere in stunning Switzerland, but delightful enough for us amateur hikers. We largely enjoyed just being away from the city, taking on a physical challenge and communing with nature.  

When we reached the peak, we found ourselves reluctantly back among the tourist throngs at the landing point of the téléphérique. I pulled out my euros and we enjoyed some hotdogs at Buvette Sympa. We skipped having a beer here as we intended on walking on to L'Observatoire but I would urge you to try the special Mont Salève microbrew at this point. We continued on to L'Observatoire and along the way passed the table d'orientation where we were lucky enough to glimpse a paraglider beginning his flight to the plains down below. When we reached L'Observatoire, I was surprised to find a Buddhist temple adjoining the restaurant. It felt anachronistic, almost, but the colorful Buddhist flags flapping in the wind did make for a stunning visual together with the view of the city of Geneva. At the restaurant, we enjoyed the view with some beers on the terrace then walked back to take the téléphérique down.

Mont Saleve, France

We didn't consult any guides before hiking up Salève but you would perhaps enjoy the guide prepared by Téléphérique du Salève (available in English and in French), as it has a lot of interesting historic tidbits about the mountain. If you plan well and are a more experienced hiker, you can also join the Geneva Association of friends of the Salève for their Sunday 10am hikes, which can take 5 to 8 hours (3 hours of which will consist of a rapid climb). You can find more information here.

Happy hiking!