5 Must-Do Habits for 2021

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Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA, LBA 1.19.21

Happy 2021!

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Brave New Year

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Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA, LBA

It has felt like climbing up a mountain, hasn’t it? 2020 has been a year of unprecedented everything, and there will be lots of videos, blogs, and news to reflect upon this past year and look to the horizon for a better 2021. New Year’s Day has long been a symbol of fresh starts and resolutions, which is a great way to approach the new year.

But let’s face it. Nothing will be all that different on a worldwide level on January 1. We are still in the midst of a global pandemic, still looking for answers and witnessing or participating in all kinds of disagreement about the “best” way to handle the situation. This includes personal choices as well as government mandates. Nothing seems to be the perfect answer. So instead of re-hashing everything that has been tough about 2020, or making all kinds of glowing predictions about everything getting better when the calendar changes, I would like to reflect on the things that have been positive this year and how we can bravely move forward to bring all the best things that have come from the pandemic into the next year.

For many people, priorities have shifted. All around me I have seen such a re-focus on family and quality time with loved ones, because for much of the year we have been forced to isolate ourselves into smaller bubbles of contact. So in these bubbles many people have been able to really appreciate and enjoy that time and those people, reconnecting with an emphasis on quality of time spent together rather than trying to fit all kinds of activities into our time. For the new year, think about the times you have been able to find more enjoyment and relaxation with close loved ones, and when things start to feel more normal in the rest of the world remember the value of these times. Make it a priority to seek out those connections with family and close friends.

In our communities, we can all find countless examples of increased giving and support. In the spring, my local community had a surge of donations to food pantries, people volunteering to take food to others, and providing other types of support to families who had experienced job losses or health-related difficulties. Many towns and cities experienced a surge of support for local businesses, including people intentionally shopping at local stores and making efforts to support local restaurants by dining in or taking out food to help those businesses remain open. This spirit of giving back and providing support does not have to go away when the pandemic eases – our communities can always use support.

Large companies have also reached out to help people in need during the pandemic. Of special note is the focus on helping students to make the best of the situation. For school-age students with no internet in the home, companies across the country made internet available to families for free. In many areas, companies created free Wifi hotspots for students to use during school closures. In addition, there have been some nice efforts from everything from insurance companies reducing rates or waiving certain fees to all of these companies that have thoughtfully and often generously established ways to give back specifically to help in the wake of COVID-19. The surge of support from companies that can actually make a difference should help us see the positive side of humanity during difficult times.

In so many ways, we have seen a surge of creativity and industrious efforts to keep people connected. Between updates to Zoom, entertainment giants such as Netflix creating easy ways for people to have movie parties from different locations, and online games increasing access and ease for allowing people to spend virtual time together. We have all had to be more creative and flexible to stay connected to our loved ones, and the technology available to us has given us great opportunities to spend time together.

During this time, we have seen heroic efforts in medicine. Our health care workers across the board have been amazing, providing care under stressful conditions. Throughout this pandemic, there have been ever-changing guidelines on how to treat people who become very ill and have to stay in the hospital for lengthy periods of time. But our health care teams across the country and around the world have stepped up day after day to rise to the challenge of providing the best possible care. They are true heroes. In addition to the health care workers in the field, there have been incredible scientific efforts to learn more about this virus and to develop treatments and preventions, including the vaccines, to help bring an end to the pandemic. Scientific teams have worked around the clock to ensure medical progress that will help save lives.

In education, teachers and staff have gone to incredible lengths to provide the best possible education during this time. Parents have stepped up as partners, providing support while students are learning from home. As exhausting as this has been for both teachers and parents, the efforts have been tireless. Also, educators have tapped into creative and innovative ways to keep students engaged. Look at these North Carolina teachers who have come up with fun and engaging ways to teach online, or this one, who does different character videos for her interactive online class. Is it ideal? No, of course not. But it is also not stagnant – educators and parents are rising to the challenges and continuing to do what they can to give students the best educational experience possible under the circumstances.

I could go on and on with all the creativity and goodwill that has come out of our experience with COVID-19. But let’s take some time now to think about how we start off the new year with courage and strong hearts. One approach is to focus on our great need for things to get better, to get back to normal, to stop needing to think about masks and distancing and limiting interaction and activities. These things will be realized, probably within the next year but not within the next month. So to move forward with positivity, to be brave in the new year, take some inspiration from any of the categories listed above. In the new year, what will your resolutions be? It is always good to spend some time reflecting on personal habits and making changes for yourself, but look at all the positive changes so many people have made over the past year out of necessity. These positive changes have required courage, commitment and positivity. Let’s look back at 2020 with acknowledgement of how different and how difficult it has been, while we look to 2021 with optimism, and a renewed sense of positivity for what can be done by all of us, even under the most challenging of circumstances.