Looking back on 2020, lockdowns and pandemic restrictions forced many people to start new routines. Work commutes disappeared. Fitness classes were canceled. Homes became classrooms and workplaces.
Some people thrived with all the changes; others struggled.
“The experience of 2020, as hard as it was, held many lessons,” said Gretchen Rubin, author of the book “Better Than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits.”
“Some people’s habits improved — often when they used the time they usually spend on work travel or commuting on exercising, cooking, reading or other healthy habits. Other people’s habits worsened because they were under stress or shaken out of their usual helpful routines.”
By reflecting on the changes and challenges of last year, you have an opportunity to recycle your best pandemic routines and build on them in the new year. Here are five habits you can keep.
Double down on self-care
Pandemic habit: During this crisis, we learned that we are all connected, and that taking care of ourselves — staying safe and well — is also a way to care for our community.
Recycle the habit: Continue making self-care a priority once the pandemic has passed. If you’re someone who thinks you don’t have time for self-care, or that it seems selfish and self-indulgent, you’re not alone.
“One of the things that you come across all the time is the idea that ‘I can’t invest in things that are good for me, because it’s taking away from my ability to be a good parent or do what I need to do at work,’ ” said Kelly McGonigal, a Stanford University health psychologist and author of “The Willpower Instinct.”
“Wouldn’t it be great if we learn to lean in to our interdependence, and that we can actually take some kind of joy in knowing that when I take care of myself, I often am also taking care of others?”
Self-care isn’t just a nap or a hot bath to escape the family. It’s about setting priorities, setting boundaries and finding purpose. Start by mapping out a typical day, from morning until bedtime. You probably spend about eight hours sleeping — but how do you spend the other 16? Write down the time you take preparing meals, doing your job, shopping, watching television, doing laundry, helping children with homework, caring for an aging parent or catching up on emails.
What one- or two-hour period in each day do you feel your best? Your most energetic? Your most productive? Now look at your list. Who gets those hours? Try giving that time to yourself instead.
This doesn’t mean taking a break from life. It means focusing on your priorities, rather than someone else’s. You can use that hour or two for a hobby, a work project that you feel passionate about, time with your children or even volunteering. Focusing on your personal goals and values is the ultimate form of self-care.
Pandemic habit: To avoid spreading the virus, everyone learned to be accountable to one another by wearing a mask, limiting contacts and keeping distance.
Recycle the habit: While you still need to take pandemic precautions, you can build on your accountability habit. Find an accountability buddy to help you achieve your health goals. You can check in with a friend every day to talk about healthful eating. Make a plan to walk with a friend. You can create public accountability by declaring your goals on social media.
If you prefer to stay accountable only to yourself, you can create accountability by using an app that sends you daily reminders, like Headspace or Calm for meditation, Noom for tracking what you eat or Fitbit to track your exercise habits. You can even hold yourself accountable through a daily journal entry.
“We do better when someone’s watching,” said Rubin, who wrote the book on habits. “Even when we’re the ones doing the watching!”
Make activity part of your day
Pandemic habit: When gyms closed and fitness classes were canceled, many people had to figure out how to exercise at home.
Recycle the habit: Instead of trying to schedule one long exercise session, take small exercise breaks throughout your day. After a long meeting, take a walk. If you’ve spent all day on a deadline, take a break and do some yoga stretches. Do jumping jacks or wall pushups while you listen to the news or a podcast.
Several studies show that short bursts of exercise result in meaningful changes to your fitness and metabolic health. Start with 20-second exercise breaks three times a day. If you want to do more, take a few one-minute breaks.
“You don’t have to be doing structured exercise; you can just be active,” said Martin Gibala, professor of kinesiology at McMaster University, whose lab has conducted several studies of short bursts of exercise. “It’s much easier to get activity in when you do it in these small bouts of exercise. Every little bit counts.”
Form a health pod
Pandemic habit: According to a poll by Axios, last summer nearly half of Americans said they had formed a pod or social bubble — a select group of friends to help them cope with pandemic life.
Recycle the habit: Don’t disband your pandemic pod when COVID-19 restrictions end. Keep it to support your health goals. Even if you didn’t have a quarantine pod, you can form a new health-conscious bubble in 2021.
Create a walking pod and meet a few times a week for group walks. Or talk to your podmates about their healthy eating goals. You can share recipes and tips, and when social restrictions end, you can plan healthy-eating potlucks.
It took a pandemic to teach some people what many cultures have known all along — that social networks can give us healthier, happier lives. In Okinawa, Japan, which has one of the longest average life expectancies in the world, people form a kind of social network during childhood called a moai — a group of five or more friends who offer social, logistic, emotional and even financial support for a lifetime. Members of each moai also appear to influence one another’s lifelong health behaviors.
Several communities in the United States have tried to replicate the moai effect by forming health moais of like-minded individuals who walk together or share healthy meals. After Dan Buettner, a National Geographic fellow and author, persuaded 110 people from Naples, Florida, to form a potluck moai, 17% told him they lost weight and 6% reported improvements in blood sugar.
Forming friend groups to help you achieve your goals is a way to make your healthy habits last, said Buettner, author of “Blue Zones Kitchen,” which explores healthy eating habits from regions where people live longer.
“It’s the best intervention you can invest in,” he said. “It’s long lasting and has a measurable impact on your health and well-being.”
Keep a crisis notebook
Pandemic habit: In the early days of the pandemic, people panicked, hoarded toilet paper and packed their pantries to deal with the uncertainty of shutdowns.
Recycle the habit: Plan for uncertainty and create a collection of legal documents that will make sure everyone is prepared for an emergency.
Start with a three-ring binder. While you should create a digital copy of all your important documents, it’s good to have a physical binder that your loved ones can grab in a crisis. The first few pages should be a “where to find it” list of your important documents — banking information, insurance papers and key contacts. But the most important document in the binder is your advance directive.
An advance directive should designate someone to make medical decisions for you if you’re unable to make them and offer specific guidance about your wishes if you become critically ill. You can find the right documents for your state on the AARP website (aarp.org/caregiving).
And here’s a surprise: When you sit down to imagine a serious health crisis and the guidance you want to offer a surviving family member, it doesn’t have to be depressing. Use the process as an opportunity to think about your values, your hopes for aging well and what makes life worth living.
It can be like time traveling to the future and helping loved ones through what may be one of the most difficult moments of their lives.