Sometime in September, I came across an article on preparing for the winter months. Not in a Game of Thrones “grab your sword” way. In a “buy some fuzzy socks, take your multivitamin, and fix up your home office before lockdown 2.0” kind of way.
I bookmarked the article for two reasons. First, because I like to have ammunition on hand in case I need to validate a purchase with Ken. (“See?” I say, as I show him a picture of a woman wrapped snugly in a weighted blanket. “I need this. For lockdown.”)
Second, because I love to feel prepared. Life feels a lot less chaotic and overwhelming when you have a granola bar and backup charger with you. This was my backup charger.
Or, so I thought.
I made a list of how I’d prepare. I’d clean up the medicine drawer, stock the pantry, and reorganize our storage downstairs. I’d finally buy some nice pajamas (as though my problem is inexpensive pajamas, and not wearing my work, exercise, and sleep clothing interchangeably now that I’m always home). But four months later, I couldn’t tell you which of those tasks I crossed off. What I can tell you, is that by the time winter came around and the Netherlands all but closed for business, I was completely burnt out.
I’m not talking sleep-in, second-cup-of-coffee, living-for-the-weekend burnt out. I’m talking sleep-for-a-year, dreading-Christmas, drag-yourself-to-the-finish-line burnt out.
ME, OF ALL PEOPLE.
So, for the first time in four years, I didn’t set any resolutions. I decided to take it easy, enjoy my two weeks off work, and savor the holidays. Luckily, Christmas was actually lovely, even if we had to do half of it over FaceTime.
But as those two weeks ticked by and I wasn’t feeling much better, I got to thinking. I like resolutions for a reason: they give me a sense of purpose. Maybe I didn’t want to better myself this year. But I could better my life.
I thought back over 2020, to the times when I’d been happiest despite lockdown. At the end of summer, there was a two-week stretch where I’d gone on an hour-long walk every day, inspired by a program called 75Hard (a discipline-building challenge which included a number of daily tasks). I decided to try out the challenge for as long as I felt like doing it, which turned out to be 15 days. Then on day 16 it rained, and instead of a walk, I took a nap.
But while the all-out nature of 75Hard was not for me, the daily walks were amazing for my mental health, and the checklist-style nature of the daily tasks were a good fit for my brain. It did give me an idea.
Maybe I could make my own checklist-style challenge that included exercise. But, instead of building discipline, I could commit to five daily tasks that supported to my happiness and emotional wellbeing. Instead of a must-do checklist (like 75Hard), I reframed them as daily invitations to take better care of myself.
After I spent some time thinking about it, I chose these five tasks:
10 minutes of meditation
I’m not a very zen person, but in the periods of time where I was meditating regularly, it did have a noticeable impact on my mood. And, let’s be real, we’ve all heard that meditation is good for mental health. I decided to aim for ten minutes a day.
30 minutes of intentional activity
I love working out, and especially the gym. Working out from home is harder (and significantly less enjoyable) for me, but I know it still makes a positive impact on my mood. For this, I aimed for 30 minutes of activity: enough for a nice outdoor walk, or a fun(ish) indoor workout.
I’ve kept a gratitude practice on-and-off since I read The Happiness Project in my gap year, nine years ago. But the downside to regularly listing the things you’re grateful for is that it becomes almost a mindless process. I’m grateful for my health. I’m grateful for pants. Are you really grateful for those things right now, as you write them down? Do you feel it in you?
For me, after nine years, the answer was no. So I pared the list down to two things per day, and they had to be timely, or specific to this 24-hour window. Think “I’m grateful for the really lively conversation I had with my brother about Soul last night” instead of “I’m grateful for my brother.” I’ve found that specificity really helps.
I’m not very strict about what I eat, but I know that I do feel much better when I’m eating a pretty balanced diet with an emphasis on greens and protein. I can still eat whatever non-greeny, non-proteiny things I want (case in point: Ken and I split a bag of yoghurt gummies last night) but I’m trying to keep all my main meals nourishing and filling.
Read 10 pages
Finally, I’ve always loved reading. But my life has become so digital that’s harder for me to pick up a book now than it used to be. When I do make the time to read, I find that it slows my brain down and helps reduce the low-level anxiety I feel when I’ve spent a lot of time reading the news or on social media. 10 pages is a low enough bar that it makes for an easy daily habit. I find that I often read way more than 10 pages a day just because reading has become habitual again.
So, where does the name 83Strong come in? Well, I wanted a finite period of time so that it felt like I was working towards something. I arbitrarily picked the first day of spring as an end point, so that this practice felt like something I could do to get through a tough winter while looking forward to the spring. I counted backwards: 83 days.
As for strong, the one thing I liked about 75Hard, other than the daily walks, was the branding. I loved being able to say to Ken “I’m eleven hard today” after completing the 11th day of the challenge. So Ken and I brainstormed a few words I liked. My first try was ‘Beertje,’ my nickname, and the Dutch word for ‘little bear.’ But being 11 little bear didn’t really feel like an accomplishment, so I settled for strong, which feels both empowering and like it underlines the strong mental foundation I’m trying to create.
As of today, I’m 12 strong, and I have to say that I really do think these tasks are having a positive impact on my mental health. Circumstances are still tough, and especially politically, life right now feels very uncertain. But I feel as though my baseline mood is closer to where it normally is, and I feel more resilient to life’s daily stressors right now than I have in a long time.
If you, like me, didn’t have the energy to set resolutions this year, maybe you can try a similar set of invitations. It doesn’t have to be for 83 days, it doesn’t have to be daily, and they don’t need to be the same ones I chose. By all means, make it personal! But the pandemic isn’t over, and my guess is that it’ll be quite a while before things feel like they used to, if they ever fully do again.
Consider the things that help you feel happier and most stable in unstable times. See if you can invite yourself to engage in those things a little more often this year. If you do, let me know how it goes. I’m rooting for you.