Life lessons: reflections on 2020
As the year ends, I've reviewed my experiences throughout this tumultuous time and begun to think about the lessons for 2021. It has enabled me to focus on the good things that I can take into next year. What life lessons will you take from 2020?
Barely a year ago, we mainly associated the expression "furlough" with the military term for a soldier's permit to be absent from duty: literally, "for leave". The concept even prompted several songs during World War II with "A Fellow on a Furlough" by Bobby Worth in 1943 and "Furlough Blues" by Earl Hines in 1945. Leap forward to December 2020 and the term is now more associated with wages than wars. Similarly, most of us were unfamiliar with the terms "social distancing", "self-isolating" and "contact-tracing" yet these are now common phrases used in our everyday language.
As the year ends, I've reviewed my experiences throughout this tumultuous time and begun to think about the lessons for 2021. I've found it a helpful process which has enabled me to focus on the good things that I can take into next year. I hope you find my reflections useful. Maybe it will inspire you to think about the positive aspects that you can draw from 2020 with which you can plan for a brighter future.
Cultivate the relationships in your life.
I've reconnected with several distant relatives during the lock-down period. I am enjoying learning about their lives and sharing experiences. When life is busy, it is easy to forget to keep in touch with those who are not so close to you. Lock-down has taught me the value of all human connection not only for support but also the laughter and sense of belonging that comes with it. This crisis has taught me to slow down, show gratitude and try to cultivate all the relationships in my life.
Small acts of kindness matter.
These troubled times have taught me the real value of health and wellbeing, as well as my general appreciation for others. I've noticed many kindnesses people have shown. For example, small things like stopping on the opposite side of the street to talk to a stranger, or phoning just for a chat, or offering to buy groceries for those unable to get out. People seem to have slowed down with less rushed conversations and more listening. I hope that this sense of coming together in adversity continues when life eventually gets a reboot.
Take some time to focus on beauty.
When I feel the current of the day is dragging me along, I stop what I am doing and focus on something of beauty such as the detail on the ceramic clock that I bought in Rome many years ago. Just taking a minute to appreciate the craftsmanship, the glow of the colours and the gentle ticking of the delicate mechanism can soothe and calm me. Then I can return my attention to whatever I need to do. This technique works just as well when out and about. Focus on something of beauty and drink in detail, taking care to notice the colour, shape, texture, sound or smell.
Make mindfulness an everyday event.
I've made mindfulness an everyday event rather than an unusual practice which can fall by the wayside when things get busy. I use the five-senses check-in, which provides an easy form of mindfulness which grounds me and helps me gain perspective. It is straightforward to do. Here's how if you would like to try for yourself. Just pause, breathe, then focus on these questions: 'What do I see? What do I smell? What do I hear? What do I taste? What sensations do I feel in my body?' Consider each in turn for a few moments and stay with the feelings that arise. Finish the exercise by fully breathing, then have a stretch before moving forward with your day.
Unitask to get things done.
I've learned during this time to avoid multitasking, which is an insidious form of self-interruption. You might think that you are saving time and achieving more by jumping between activities. Switching focus between different tasks drains energy from your working memory which is the information held in your mind while deciding what to do. So, what we think of as multitasking is just toggling between one thing and another, and it ruins your focus and depletes your energy. A smarter way to work is to purposely focus on one task at a time with regular planned breaks. You'll be amazed at how much more you can accomplish.
Structure helps make good habits stick.
It can be a struggle to introduce new habits. There's the difficulty of breaking current habits because they become firmly ingrained in the brain, and it takes effort to switch behaviour. I've discovered that a smarter way to introduce new behaviours is habit-stacking. It entails adding further action to an existing routine that you have already established. The habit stacking formula is: After/Before [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT]. Examples are taking a few minutes to stand and stretch out after each video call, or while washing your hands, think about three good things that happen during the day. By linking your new habits to a cycle that already exists in your brain, you make it more likely that you'll stick to the new behaviour. You can learn more about the methodology of habit-stacking in the excellent book by James Clear called Atomic Habits.
Giving feels good.
The wonderful thing about giving is that it creates positivity and can boost your sense of wellbeing. This effect is regardless of whether you donate, volunteer or do something simple that is kind and helpful to someone. "Being kind and generous leads you to perceive others more positively and more charitably," writes Sonja Lyubomirsky in her book The How of Happiness, and this "fosters a heightened sense of interdependence and cooperation in your social community." Giving has also been linked to the release of oxytocin, a hormone that induces feelings of warmth, euphoria, and connection to others.
Christmas is the season of giving. Rather than sending cards this year, I have decided to support the Cats Protection, which is the UK's leading cat welfare charity. It is also a fitting tribute to a much-loved pet who died, aged 15, earlier this year. Founded in 1927, Cats Protection has grown to become the UK's leading feline welfare charity. They help around 200,000 cats and kittens every year through volunteer-run branches. They also provide an array of cat care information with publications, help and advice to educate people of all ages about cats and their care. You can find out more and donate to their Christmas Appeal here: Casper's Magical Journey.
Remember to express gratitude.
In the rush of living, we sometimes forget to say "thank you" to all those who contribute to our happiness, health and success. It is easy to fall into the trap of spending much of our time and energy spent pursuing stuff we currently don't have. Gratitude reverses our priorities to help us appreciate the people in our lives, the things we have and the activities that we do. In the quiet moments before the Festive Season is upon us, consider what you are thankful for and express it to those who matter most to you. I wish you and yours a Merry Christmas and Happy Peaceful and Healthy New Year.
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