Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA, LBA 1.19.21
As I predicted in my previous blog, we did not wake up on January 1 to a new world. Many of the things that stressed people out for most of the year last year are still creating stress. Pandemic, isolation, politics. But, despite the ongoing challenges we still hold hope for a better year in 2021, and there are some promising signs as we see people successfully being vaccinated across the country and as our incredible health care workers and medical scientists develop more and more effective interventions for COVID-19.
For many people, the things that are causing such stress over the past year are things that we just can’t control. It is so frustrating in life when situations are completely out of our control. Think about even simple daily things, like being a passenger in a car when someone else drives differently than you do – too fast, too slow, taking a different route (the wrong one, to be sure!). When we are not in control, it can increase our feelings of stress. In 2020, so many things felt out of control. In one post last year, I wrote about focusing on things you can control during times of stress. As things drag on with the pandemic, this would be a good time to re-group and consider what things each day are within your control and what things are not. Once you determine this, you can work on a plan to let go a bit of some of the worry about what you can’t control while focusing your energy on what you can actually do to make things better for yourself and others right now.
One thing we can all do, pandemic and politics aside, is examine our daily habits and routines. What is working well for you? What are some things you would like to change on a daily or weekly basis? I can easily think of five things I would like to do differently when it comes to daily habits, the question is how to make these changes in a meaningful and lasting way.
Habits are hard to change. I am not just talking about commonly known vices like overeating, smoking, or alcohol use. I am talking about all our daily habits and routines. There has been some research looking into habits, and the most common lore tells us that we can make or break a habit in 21 days. In reality, based on a study done in London, it can take anywhere between 21 and 254 days to achieve automaticity with your habits. A lot of this will depend on how much you like your current habits, and how badly you want to add some new, healthier habits.
To help focus on making some positive habit changes this year, here are some ideas for small, simple changes with big potential benefit:
- Take 5 minutes every day to reflect on one positive thing. This can be ANYTHING. Did the sun shine today? Did you have something good to eat? Did you do something fun? Accomplish anything? Did someone say something nice to you? Take those 5 minutes and really focus on one thing that was uplifting for you. Even on the darkest days you will be able to find one point of light if you let yourself look.
- Start a step towards one of your goals. If you have a big goal to be more organized, each day you can tackle one small thing towards this goal. Clean out a drawer, go through one pile of things that has been waiting for your attention. Every goal can be broken down into steps that are manageable. If you do one step a day, you will make progress and will have the benefit of a sense of accomplishment each day.
- Go outside. But wait, it’s January you say! It’s cold outside, and there may be snow. Ice. Wind. I hear you! Winter is NOT my thing either. But if you push yourself for even a few minutes of fresh air every day, you will get that benefit of being outside, breathing new air, seeing something outside your own walls, and in some cases challenging yourself to be a little bit uncomfortable in the process. (Extreme weather in the summer can be equally challenging to cope with for many people). You may even find that by stepping out for a few minutes for a tiny walk can lead to longer walks than you planned, and more enjoyment of fresh air.
- Do one nice thing for someone else. When we think of doing good deeds, often we think about things that include a bigger commitment than what we may be able to do every day. For example, helping at a soup kitchen, or taking food to a food pantry in your community. But kind acts can be the simplest things, and can make someone’s day. While doing things like helping at a soup kitchen totally count and are always encouraged, if you can’t do this type of service every day consider some smaller kind acts. Some examples include posting a positive comment on Facebook for a friend, giving a compliment to someone, sending a note to someone you haven’t seen for awhile (email or snail mail), doing something around the house to help out, or – one of my favorites – paying for the person in line behind you when you go to a coffee drive-thru.
- Treat yourself. Like with the positive thoughts, this can be ANYTHING. A favorite TV show. Ice cream. A conversation with a friend. Yoga and/or meditation. Every day should include one thing that is just for you. It will be important here to first of all, LET yourself do something just for you. Some people have a hard time allowing themselves to do things that are for their own well-being or satisfaction. It will be equally important to acknowledge things you may already do every day to treat yourself, even if you don’t think of it that way. For example, maybe you already do yoga or meditation every day, and then carry on with your busy life and routine. Remember as you cope with your day that you did take some time to do something that was just for you – in this example, yoga – to help you stay focused on the things that you do to make yourself happy every day.
These 5 small, manageable daily habits can make a big difference in your day and may even help with stress and overall happiness.