Our favorite healthy habits of 2021
By Tara Parker-Pope
What good things did you do for yourself in 2021?
This year on Well, we suggested a number of small habits that can make life just a little better. It’s not too late to try them and pick a few you’d like to continue. Here are eight of our favorites.
Claim the best hours of your day
What time of day do you feel your best? For some people, we may feel most energetic during the first few hours of the morning. For night owls, evening might be our best time of day. Now ask yourself, “Who gets those hours?” Do you spend your best hours checking emails, catching up on work or doing tasks for your family? Try giving that time to yourself instead. Use it to focus on your priorities, rather than someone else’s. You can use that hour or two for anything you want — it might be for a hobby, a project that you feel passionate about, time with your children or even to volunteer and help others. Setting aside your best hours to focus on personal goals and values is the ultimate form of self-care.
Enjoy exercise snacks
Too often we think of exercise as a formal activity we have to do for an hour at the gym each day. But a number of studies show that short bursts of exercise several times a day lead to meaningful gains in fitness and overall health. Just as you might grab a handful of chips or nuts to break the monotony of your day, an exercise “snack” is a quick movement break. Get up and pace when you’re on the phone. Do jumping jacks, lunges or a wall sit, or walk the stairs for 20 seconds. My go-to exercise snack is 10 wall push-ups.
Take a gratitude photo
If a gratitude journal isn’t your thing, make a plan to take one photo a day of something special in your life. It can be a cute picture of your dog, a sunset or a delicious meal. Take a moment to study the photo, sit with your feelings of gratitude, and then share it with a friend or post it on social media. When we make an effort to notice our surroundings or show appreciation for the people, places or things that make us happy, it’s called “savoring.” Scientists know that savoring exercises can lead to meaningful gains in overall happiness and well-being.
Create a ‘feelings’ list
Every day when you brush your teeth or make your coffee, ask yourself: How are you, really? Think of a word that describes exactly what you’re feeling. Unsettled? Energetic? Delighted? Frazzled? (Avoid standard answers like “good,” “fine” or “OK.”) This simple labeling activity is surprisingly effective for calming stress and taking the sting out of negative thoughts. (The Hoffman Institute has a detailed feelings list at hoffmaninstitute.org.) Studies show that when we label our feelings, it helps turn off the emotional alarm system in our brain and lowers our stress response. Ask your kids to pick a word that describes their feelings every day, too. It can be a surprisingly fun family routine.
Do a five-finger meditation
This is an easy way to calm yourself, no matter where you are. Use the index finger of one hand to trace the outline of the opposite hand. As you trace up a finger, breathe in. As you trace down, breathe out. Continue finger by finger until you’ve traced your entire hand. Now reverse directions and do it again, making sure to inhale as you trace up, and exhale as you trace down. I’ve used this method on airplanes, before getting my COVID vaccine shots and during stressful meetings, and it works every time.
Make it easy
In the scientific study of habit formation, the thing that makes it harder for you to achieve your goal is called friction, which typically comes in three forms — distance, time and effort. The friction-free habits you’ll keep are those that are convenient, happen close to home and don’t take much time or effort. For example, one of my goals this year was to cook more and stop ordering takeout or buying expensive store-prepared foods. I hated going to the grocery store, and I found it difficult to cook for one person. Then I read a Wirecutter article on the best meal kit delivery services and realized I could make home cooking a lot easier on myself. I started using the Martha Stewart & Marley Spoon meal kits, and it was like having my own personal sous-chef. By removing the friction, cooking is now fun, easy and delicious.
Watch the jellyfish
One of the best mindfulness tips I came across this year was from Cord Jefferson, the television writer who thanked his therapist on national television when he won an Emmy. Jefferson told me he struggled with traditional meditation, but he enjoys watching a web camera showing the jellyfish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Bookmark the jelly-cam at montereybayaquarium.org and get lost in the gentle pulses of the jellyfish for a short mindfulness break during your workday.
Find a health buddy
Choose a friend who shares your health goals and make a plan. Meet each other once or twice a week for a walking date. Or it could be a daily text check-in to see how you’re doing on a diet or a Zoom call to work together on a decluttering project. Studies show we’re more likely to reach our goals when we bring along a friend for the journey.