What worked for me in 2021

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I love to do a little bit of reflection at year’s end (or, in this case, the year’s beginning), but I don’t make it complicated. Around my house we’ve been using the same two questions for years to help us take stock of the year gone by.

They are:

What worked for me last year?What didn’t?

Today I’m sharing a few of the things (from significant to shallow) that worked for me in 2021. (I’ll share my list of what didn’t work in the newsletter, same as last year, and the year before that. Sign up here if you’re not on the list.)

I’ve been using these reflection questions for more than a decade, and blogging about them since 2013. Somethings have changed little over the years, while some of my long-ago changes are now thoroughly incorporated into my life. (For example, 2013’s “taking a photography class” and “setting up designated office space for myself.”)

Close readers will see much is unchanged since last year; plenty of things from my 2020 list of what worked  (and my 2019 and 2018 list) are still working for me.

2021 was a difficult year, for me and for my family, in ways both anticipated and not. (2020 was a hard year as well, and while that was no secret, looking back I can see I didn’t mention that in my post.) I went into the year knowing stress management was going to be crucial to stay afloat, and that underlying need permeated the year.

That being said, these are my new (or new again) 2021 additions:

The basics

In 2021 I carried over an explicit priority from 2020: with so much of significance being out of my hands this year, (pandemic, unrelated illnesses and deaths, other people’s decisions), I made a conscious effort to control the things I could that contribute towards resilience. That meant focusing hard on the foundational things: eating well, exercising regularly, and sleeping plenty.

For me, eating well at this point in my life looks like getting plenty of protein, taking it easy on the sugar, and not inadvertently skipping meals because I have meetings scheduled straight through the lunch hours, a scheduling hiccup that’s plagued me in the past.

In 2020 I resumed running regularly to stave off stress; last spring I went a step further and rejoined the gym for the first time in many years. I wanted the accountability of a group setting, and honestly, I wanted to get out of the house. In the hour I’m there, I don’t think about anything else, and that makes the travel time well worth it. It’s also been fun to track my progress there—I’m fitter than I was when I began again, and that’s not nothing.

Sleep has always been high on my priorities list, and in 2021 I sought to keep it there. That means not reading “one more chapter” at bedtime (I’ll be honest, this is tough), closing the blackout shades, and occasionally taking a melatonin supplement at bedtime. (I use these, I only take half the dose, I’m grateful they’re available.)

Working rhythms

I’m constantly reconfiguring my work life to suit the current season, and 2021 was no exception. My biggest struggle is finding (and then protecting) the large chunks of time needed to work on big, absorbing projects—something that I’ve found to be particularly tricky when heading off to the library or coffee shop to work is not an option. But I had reasonable success with blocking off my calendar during an unusual (for me) time of day, which meant I was able to get my work done.

I also took more walking breaks during the work day than I perhaps ever have before, for movement and mental health, which so often work together, in my experience. (Want a fun little book about walking? I enjoyed this one last year.)

Reading for myself

As always, I read up a storm of new releases for the 2021 Summer Reading Guide (our TENTH!) and then, as always, was ready to read lots of Very Old Books afterwards.

I leaned hard into the backlist for the rest of the year, and so enjoyed the process. I also dabbled with a completist project that I intend to continue in 2021, which was immensely satisfying. (I say more about this in yesterday’s new episode of What Should I Read Next (“Books that stand the test of time,”) with my esteemed and entertaining friend Jim Mustich. Listen in Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.)

On that note, can I tell you how much I enjoyed using my own reading journal? This is going to sound funny, because OF COURSE I sought to design a book journal that would be a pleasure to use, but I was truly floored by how much I’ve loved using it myself. I started mine in August when the first copies arrived on my doorstep, hot off the printing press, and have been genuinely surprised at how much it’s helping me in my reading life. (I made a dedicated podcast episode about the history, design, and features of the journal, as well as tips for how to use it: listen here to Episode 305: “Read yourself like a book.”)

Clean laundry and clean counters

If you regularly read this blog, you know I fell hard for a laundry book this year, and have gleaned more satisfaction from the chore than I thought possible this year. In fact, I just started a load twenty minutes ago, and felt so capable as I treated a filthy pair of pants with laundry soap and just the right stain solution, before tossing them in the wash. They’re going to look GREAT in an hour—and I think therein lies the satisfaction, the tangible transformation of the rumpled and dirty to clean and fresh in a short span of time.

My kitchen counters are pretty cluttered at the moment—and don’t even ask about my office table—but this year when I begin to feel overwhelmed, I’ve made a conscious effort to clean my physical spaces. It always makes such a difference. (Which isn’t surprising—this is a basic Don’t Overthink It principle!—but it’s still a little jarring to experience, every time.)

Meal helpers

Now we’re circling back to those foundations again, and that includes eating well, specifically, here, for meals at home. We have a family of six (five when the oldest is away at college), and keeping everyone fed—and just keeping all that food in the house—is no joke.

In 2021, Will and I were both tired, and more than a little overwhelmed, and it changed the way we fed our people. We leaned hard on Costco delivery, even though Anne Helen Petersen’s book Can’t Even (one of my favorite books of 2020) made me wish Instacart and DoorDash and the like didn’t exist. Are they problematic? YES. Were they an enormous help this year? Also yes.

We used more convenience foods and heat-and-eat meals than we ever have before, especially in the fall when Will was tending to his sick father. (You shared some great recommendations for your favorite easy dinners here on the blog and on twitter, and I would still love to hear your suggestions: share them in comments!)

And while I’m a maximizer at heart—something I wrote about extensively in Don’t Overthink It—giving ourselves permission to make small, frequent, and inefficient runs to our tiny neighborhood grocery store felt like such a grace this year.

We also continued to use the New York Times cooking app. This paid service has recipes for almost everything I could ever want to make, which means instead of scouring the internet for dinner ideas, we confine our search to this single place. (Another Don’t Overthink It principle: as is probably clear, I’ve leaned heavily on those principles this year, in this and .)

Unexpected new arrivals

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but we let our daughter get a hamster late last year, and little Phoebe has already brought so much joy to our family. I’ll share a video of her on Instagram later today, but suffice it to say: she’s adorable and hysterical and when we call her “our emotional support hamster” we’re not even kidding.

I’d love to hear what worked for YOU in 2021, and what didn’t, and why. Tell us all about it in comments.

P.S. I’ll be sharing what DIDN’T work for me in 2021 in the newsletter this weekend. Click here to make sure you’re on the list.

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