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Habits to drop in 2021—and what to do instead

Let’s stop pretending we can predict the future. But these new habits will help you thrive in 2021, even in the midst of change.

Habits to drop in 2021—and what to do instead
[Source images: santima.studio/iStock; Magda Ehlers/Pexels]
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Spend more time with family.

Pick up a creative hobby.

As 2021 arrives, looking back on the habits we resolved to break and adopt in late 2019 and at the beginning of 2020 is quaint . . . almost. Of course, the enormous challenges and changes the past months have brought weren’t anticipated when we wrote out our earnest lists of what we’d accomplish as we started a new year—and a new decade.

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But writing resolutions is what so many of us do this time of year. And what could be hopeful than continuing to look forward to better days? So, in the interest of acknowledging the events of the past year—and, perhaps, what we’ve learned—as well as looking forward to better days, here are some habits swap out in the new year:

Leave behind: Predicting the future
Adopt: Planning to adapt

“I think if there’s any habit we should consider breaking, it’s confidence about what’s going to happen in the year to come,” says Bruce Feiler, with a chuckle. But he’s serious. The author of Life is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age and Council of Dads: My Daughters, My Illness, and the Men Who Could Be Me, which inspired an NBC television series, believes we should approach the coming year with more humility.

That’s not to say you can’t make plans or set goals, but don’t expect things to unfold perfectly as you’ve predicted, and be prepared to pivot. “The linear life is dead,” Feiler says. “It’s been replaced by what I call the ‘nonlinear life.’ And the nonlinear life has many more disruptions, twists, turns, setbacks, upheavals, crises—what I call ‘life quakes.'”

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Go back and look at the resolutions you made last year, he suggests. And “let that be a reminder to be a little humble, to expect the unexpected, and to psychologically prepare ourselves that the road back is going to be as winding as the road that brought us here.”

Leave behind: Letting your phone rule the day
Adopt: Setting yourself up for success

You know the drill: Roll over, grab your phone, check out what happened while you were sleeping.

Stop doing that, says brain performance expert Jim Kwik, author of Limitless: Upgrade Your Brain, Learn Anything Faster, and Unlock Your Exceptional Life. You’re rewiring your brain for distraction and reaction. “Every ring, ding, ping, Like, share, comment, and cat video is rewiring your brain to be distracted. And you wonder why you don’t focus when you’re reading something or studying something or you’re on a Zoom call,” he says.

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Plus, you’re wasting the time when your brain is most relaxed and flexible, he says. Whatever you’re taking in, whether it’s doomscrolling or obsessing about the latest irritating work email, sets the tone for your day.

Instead, adopt some phone-free habits for the first hour to help you set yourself up for a successful day. We all know the A-list ones: meditate, exercise, hydrate, eat a healthful breakfast, read something other than the digital onslaught. But, really: This time is your own. Find the morning rituals that work for you and help you start the day strong.

Leave behind: Overscheduling
Adopt: Editing your workday ruthlessly

During the pandemic, the number of meetings increased by nearly 13% on average, according to research from Harvard University and New York University. Plus, we know the workday has gotten longer. So, the combination of longer work hours without breaks, plus the interruptions of setting up and attending more meetings can be a drag on productivity, says Aye Moah, productivity expert and cofounder of productivity app Boomerang.

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Moah says that taking back control over overwork and overscheduling can help you be more productive. “Start setting aside predetermined times for meetings each week. This habit keeps you from enduring the constant disruptions caused by the back and forth emailing to schedule a meeting and breaking your focus on whatever task you’re working on to attend said meeting,” she says.

Time-blocking, when it leaves enough slack for occasional disruptions and changes throughout the day, can also be an effective tool in corralling too many meetings and too much work.

Leave behind: Blending everything
Adopt: Setting more boundaries

Another new pandemic norm is the total convergence of work and home life, especially for workers who switched to entirely remote work, says Camille Preston, founder and CEO of AIM Leadership, LLC, a leadership coaching firm. Suddenly, families and others who live in the same home were under one roof all the time, blending work, school, and leisure activities.

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Preston uses her own life as an example. Her favorite yoga class would energize her for the day. “I would walk out of there recharged and ready for the day,” she says. But now, she does the same class via video. “The last time I took it, I had to make my kid an egg sandwich in the middle of it. My husband was shoveling,” she says. “Not the same.”

It’s time to put some boundaries back in place so you can properly tend to your own needs, she adds. Those things you found you needed to do to take care of your physical and mental well-being? You still need them, she says. You can’t keep making withdrawals from your “energy bank” without replenishing them and still remain healthy, she says.

So, work on incorporating structure into your days to make time for life’s varied demands. Of course, sometimes this is easier said than done. But, if you can, ask for help when you need some time for yourself. Set a time when work ends and avoid gravitating back to your desk in the evenings because it’s easy.

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Leave behind: Isolating excessively
Adopt: Finding new ways to connect

Even the most me-time loving introvert likely has had it with isolation. Loneliness was already at an all-time high before the pandemic, and also carries real health risks. After a while, being isolated can become its own habit, especially when fostering connection in a socially distanced society isn’t as easy as it used to be.

“Quarantining doesn’t have to mean losing contact with others. Use the new year as an excuse to text or call friends you would like to catch up with,” says Lyn Morris, chief operating officer of Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services, a mental health services provider. There are a few ways to make this a habit:

  • Set aside time on a weekend night and use that as a standing “date” to remotely chat with friends or family on a weekly basis.
  • Do a “presentation night,” where each person in the group arranges a short, lighthearted talk about a special interest of theirs.
  • Cook a simple recipe together each week via video call, each from your own kitchen.
  • Find the time to get outside every day. Breathe fresh air and wave to your neighbors.

The key is to find a way to maintain contact and tend to relationships until we can safely resume traditional forms of contact. Try different ways of communicating with those close to you regularly and keep the methods that work best for you.

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Leave behind: Clinging to what’s not working
Adopt: Making time for better habits

If you don’t honestly assess what’s not working and letting it go, it’s going to continue to resurface and prevent you from creating the new habits you need to be happier, healthier, or more satisfied. Doing so may mean facing down the fear, sadness, or shame about a loss or setback to begin to come to terms with it so you can change it. Managing transitions, including those that will undoubtedly come in 2021, happens in three phases, Feiler says:

  • The long “goodbye”—mourning the past and ritually marking that it’s not coming back
  • The messy middle—shedding old habits and developing new ones, adapting to what’s happening now
  • The new beginning—unveiling the new you

As you let go of the loss, habit, or whatever is creating a drag on you or your progress, find a ritual to acknowledge it, Feiler says. Write it down and burn it in a fire. Bake a cake. Plan a celebration. Or find something else that works for you. The ritual can help make the transition real, and help you move on to forming new and better habits.

“An important and under-appreciated skill in the new year, is to say goodbye to the past. Sometimes we get so caught up in making resolutions and plans for the new year, we forget to mourn, and to say goodbye, and to put behind us the life that’s not coming back,” he says. “If you don’t do that properly, you’re not going to see the possibilities in the future.”

About the author

Gwen Moran is a writer, editor, and creator of Bloom Anywhere, a website for people who want to move up or move on. She writes about business, leadership, money, and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites

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