2020 did not turn out how any of us expected. Despite all the craziness and uncertainty, last year also created some new opportunities for personal growth and positive changes.
As NYC got shut down in March 2020, I started looking for new habits to reduce stress and take care of my physical and mental health.
While we can’t eliminate all stress from our lives, creating and maintaining healthy routines can give a sense of control. It can also improve well-being, decrease stress level and anxiety, and provide more energy to face life’s challenges.
I want to share ten life-changing habits I added to my life during 2020. While it was a challenging year, these new habits will have a permanent, positive impact on many aspects of my life long after the pandemic passes.
1. Growing sprouts on my kitchen counter
I’ve been growing sprouts since June 2020, and it has become a significant component of my daily nutrition.
Sprouts are seeds that have germinated and become very young plants. They are low in calories, but they are a rich source of nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. The sprouting process increases nutrient levels, making sprouts more abundant in protein, folate, magnesium, phosphorus, manganese, and vitamins C and K.
In addition to their nutritional value, sprouts may also offer various health benefits, including more comfortable digestion, improved blood sugar levels, and a lower risk of heart disease.
Sprouts are generally consumed raw (you can add them into a salad or sandwich), but you can also lightly cook them.
This sprouting process usually starts with soaking seeds for 6–10 hours in filtered water. The soaked seeds are then exposed to moisture for a couple of days. During this time, you need to rinse seeds several times a day to prevent mold. It generally takes between two and seven days for seeds to grow into sprouts.
There are many different types of seeds that can be sprouted, including beans and peas (lentil, adzuki, soybeans, mung beans, black beans, green peas, and snow peas); grains (brown rice, buckwheat, quinoa, and oat); vegetables and leafy greens (radish, broccoli, and beets); and nuts and seeds (almond, alfalfa, pumpkin, and sunflower seeds).
One of the risks linked to eating sprouts is the possibility of food poisoning. However, you can reduce that risk if you buy high-quality seeds and take necessary precautionary measures, such as rinse seeds consistently.
I started with an organic sprout seed sample that includes different blends of seeds and allowed me to figure out which sprouts I enjoy more. I use a seed sprouter tray for larger seeds and a sprouting jar with a screen lid for smaller seeds.
2. Daily habit tracking
When I started working from home in March, I expected to have more free time to complete some of the projects on my to-do list. Within a couple of weeks, I got the feeling a lot of the things I planned to do never got done. I felt guilty and disappointed about not living up to my expectations.
Gradually, I adjusted my approach to productivity. Instead of setting ambitious goals, I started putting together a list of habits I wanted to practice every day and three primary goals each week.
My list of daily habits includes getting up before 7:30 am; doing morning meditation and journaling; working 60–90 minutes on the most important task of the day before noon; reading for at least 30 minutes; working out; connecting with at least one friend or family member; writing; and going to sleep before 11:30 pm.
I use a simple excel spreadsheet with separate rows for each day of the month and columns for each of my commitments and print out a paper copy of my tracker. In the evenings, I check the boxes for the habits I managed to practice during the day. I do not expect to get every box on the list marked every day — although it would be nice — but commit to practicing at least four-five habits per day.
Tracking my daily routines on a piece of paper creates more accountability and helps me stay more consistent.
3. Setting a bedtime alarm
As I started working from home, it was tempting to stay up late and hit a snooze button in the mornings, which interfered with my sleep quality. When I did not get enough sleep, I felt tired, irritable, and unproductive in the mornings.
While I realized that getting more sleep would be beneficial, I resented going to sleep earlier and tended to stay up past midnight. I felt that evenings were my only time to relax after a long day and going to bed earlier would cut that time.
My solution was to set a bedtime alarm at 10:30 pm to remind myself that bedtime is coming up. I use this alarm as a clue to shut off all my electronic devices, including TV, computer, and phone. I give myself about 30–45 minutes after the alarm to unwind and get ready to sleep.
4. Creating more awareness of my thoughts
Many people believe that outside events create emotions. In reality, most emotions are the result of our thoughts about those events. When something happens, we try to make meaning out of a situation and instantaneously generate thoughts.
Some of those thoughts are rational; others are not. Depending on your thinking, the same situation can bring different emotions.
We generally do not evaluate how we think about things. The human brain produces thousands of thoughts every day (different sources cite the number between 60,000 and 80,000). Most of those thoughts are negative and repetitive. At least 95% of our thoughts are unconscious.
You do not have control over thoughts that come into your mind, but you do have control over how you respond to those thoughts. Instead of unconsciously going wherever your mind wants to take you — usually down the dark rabbit hole — you can consciously take control of and guide your thoughts in a different direction.
I started noticing and acknowledging more of my thoughts. I recognize what is happening in my brain and what story I tell myself. Many of the negative thoughts relate either to dwelling in the past or worrying about the future.
Once I realize that I got caught up in excessive negative thinking, I try to focus on the present moment and replace negative thoughts with more powerful and constructive ones. I remind myself that I have the power to choose my thoughts in any situation and consciously choose more empowering beliefs.
5. Cutting back on my smartphone usage
Several weeks after the start of lockdown, I noticed a significant increase in my screen time. Unable to socialize with my friends and family, I started spending more time texting, scrolling, swiping, and browsing on my phone. I told myself that my phone helped me stay connected, entertained, and learn some new stuff. However, when I looked at my phone usage stats, those numbers made me feel frustrated.
Gradually, I realized that the habit of spending all that time on my phone wasn’t harmless. While checking my phone created the feeling of instant pleasure and gratification, it distracted me from my longer-term goals and commitments.
To reduce the amount of time I spend on my phone, I keep my phone out of sight while working. I either turn it off for several hours in the morning and in the evening or put it away in a different room.
At the same time, I consciously create time slots when I spend some time on my phone without feeling guilty about it. I also shut off my phone around 10:30 pm and don’t put it back on before 8 am.
Throughout the day, when I experience an urge to check my emails, dating apps, or social media, I take a pause instead of immediately acting on an impulse. I take a deep breath and slowly count to ten, creating some space between my urge and action.
6. Adding more fiber to my diet
I had heard about numerous benefits of eating fiber before. Last year I took some time to understand better what fiber is and its impact on health.
Fiber includes the parts of plant foods your body can’t absorb. It’s a type of carbohydrate that can’t be broken down into digestible sugar molecules. Instead, fiber passes relatively intact through your stomach, small intestine, and colon and out of your body.
There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber partially dissolves in water, and it forms a gel-like substance during digestion in the small intestine. It can help lower blood cholesterol and glucose levels.
Insoluble fiber maintains its stringy structure as it passes through the GI tract. It promotes movement through your digestive system. It also acts like “little brushes” on the colon walls, helping clear away dead cells and leftovers of partially digested food.
Additionally, the fiber you eat feeds trillions of bacteria that comprise your gut microbiome. Fiber-rich foods serve as nourishment for the bacteria, and they also promote the gut microflora’s health. The gut microbiome plays an essential role in your overall health by helping control digestion and benefiting your immune system.
Fiber is best known for its ability to improve digestion by normalizing bowel movement and maintaining bowel health. However, fiber-rich foods also provide other numerous health benefits, including lowering cholesterol levels, controlling blood sugar levels, reducing the risk of heart disease, and helping achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Fiber consumption has also been linked to longevity and decreased risk of some types of cancer.
According to the Institute of Medicine recommendation, women ages 50 or younger should consume 25 grams of fiber per day. In comparison, men ages 50 or younger should consume 38 grams. Women older than 51 should have 21 grams of fiber per day, while older men should consume 30 grams. Most Americans do not consume enough fiber in their daily diet.
Most whole plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, are good fiber sources. Soluble fiber is contained in beans, lentils, oatmeal, peas, citrus fruits, blueberries, apples, and barley. Good insoluble fiber sources include foods with whole-wheat flour, wheat bran, brown rice, cauliflower, potatoes, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Some foods, like nuts and carrots, are good sources of both types of fiber.
High-fiber foods are essential for your health. However, adding too much fiber too quickly can promote intestinal gas, abdominal bloating, and cramping. Increase fiber in your diet gradually over a few weeks. It allows the natural bacteria in your digestive system to adjust to the change. Also, drink plenty of water as fiber works best when it absorbs water.
7. Reducing social comparison
While I logically understood that it was pointless to compare myself to others, there were times when I tended to do it. Instead of focusing on my own progress, I got caught up in what other people were doing and their accomplishments. It made me feel frustrated, jealous, and inferior.
Measuring yourself against others can be useful if it gives you the motivation to improve your life. However, more often than not, social comparison can make you feel envious and unhappy. It can also result in resentment and the feeling of inadequacy.
I’ve created more awareness about the comparisons I make, what triggers those comparisons, and how they make me feel. Instead of focusing on other people’s lives, I refocus my attention on what I feel grateful for in my own life.
Also, I often remind myself that life is a journey, not a completion. Every person is on his or her life journey. My journey has nothing to do with what other people have achieved and how well they are doing. Their success does not take away from my success and accomplishments.
8. Intermittent fasting
Intermittent fasting (IF) is an eating pattern that cycles between periods of fasting and eating. It does not specify any foods you should or should not eat. You can eat whatever foods you prefer and compress them into a 6–8 hour eating period with a 16–18 hour fasting period. Some people fast for 24 hours or even several days.
The benefits of IF go beyond weight loss. It stabilizes blood sugar levels, decreases blood pressure, and lowers cholesterol levels. Some research also suggests that IF can help protect against many diseases, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, etc. Additionally, IF can reduce inflammation, increase resistance to stress, and improve memory and mental health.
’ve found IF relatively easy to implement, especially given limited options to eat out during 2020. I fast three or four days a week and eat regularly during the rest of the days. On fasting days, I stop eating around 8 pm, skip breakfast the next morning and then eat again around noon the next day. When I’m not eating, I drink a lot of water and a cup of coffee in the morning.
Hunger is usually is not that big of an issue on most days. However, some days, I feel that my body needs a nutritious breakfast and I avoid fasting on those days. Generally, I feel more energized and more focused on the days when I fast.
9. Daily journaling
As I often felt in 2020 that my mind was overwhelmed with stressful thoughts, I found it helpful to express my thoughts and emotions through writing.
Writing down my thoughts in a journal gives me mental clarity and reduces stress. When dealing with intense emotions or confusion, journaling also helps me better understand my feelings and quicker release them.
Journaling is also a great way to practice gratitude. When I am dealing with anxiety, sadness, or anger, it can be hard to see what is going well in my life. Writing down several things, which I appreciate and feel thankful for shifts my perspective, and improves my mood.
Additionally, I write about my life vision and my goals. My life vision reflects where I want to be in one, three, five, and ten years. It captures what kind of person I want to become and describes every aspect of my life, both personal and professional.
Creating a vision of my life and journaling about it guides me to take the best actions that move me towards the life of my dreams. At the beginning of each month, I reflect on my progress for the prior month and set up new goals. I do a similar review of my life also on a quarterly and annual basis.
Finally, sometimes I use my journal to write my to-do list. Just writing all tasks down relieves the stress of having to remember everything. Once I write down the items you need to complete, my mind does not need to continue thinking about them, and it gives me more mental clarity.
I enjoy writing my journal in the mornings and when I have a chance in the evenings. My morning journaling mostly focuses on gratitude and plans for the day. During my evening journaling, I reflect on my significant wins and challenges and my future goals and dreams.
10. Creating fitness goals
I decided to take a break in 2020 from marathons, triathlons, and mountaineering adventures to pursue other personal goals, even before all the races got canceled due to COVID. However, I found it challenging to figure out my new exercise routine and stay motivated to work out with no events to train for.
My training load in prior years used to be somewhere between 10 hours and 15 hours per week, depending on a race or an adventure I prepared for. With no races to look forward to, and the gyms closed, my weekly exercise routine started significantly decreasing. There were some weeks when I could hardly force myself to train several hours a week.
While I realized that my prior fitness routine did not work any longer, I needed to create new fitness goals and readjust my workouts. Instead of following a training plan, I started setting weekly and monthly exercise goals.
Each week I aim for two or three runs (about 20–25 miles), two cycling workouts (about 50 miles), one or two swims, two strength training sessions, and at least 30-minutes of yoga. I also ensure to get outside and walk at least one mile on the days when I don’t exercise.
Setting weekly fitness goals gives me motivation to stay active. Alternating my exercise routine between different sports makes it more exciting and gives me more time for recovery. At the same time, I feel that I have more flexibility with my exercise. If something unexpected comes up or I feel tired, I can skip a day or two and still complete my weekly goals.
In 2020 I also tried several monthly plank and push-up challenges. While those exercises take less than five minutes per day, they can make a big difference in core strength, which plays an essential role in overall fitness and health.
The hardest part of a 30-day challenge is to remember to do the exercise. Setting daily Alexa reminders on the Amazon echo in the mornings helped me stay consistent and get it done.
I hope you will pick up one or two habits from the above list and add them to your life. You can’t always control the outside circumstances, but you have control over your daily actions. By creating and maintaining healthy habits, you can meaningfully improve your health and boost your well-being and happiness.