5 Daily Practices that Helped Me Thrive in a Challenging Year
This year, several of the people I love most—including the key members of my own support system—were blindsided by trauma, tragedy, and betrayal. When I recently described the dumpster fire that was 2018 on Instagram, a dear friend texted me because my obfuscation was stressing her out. And I get it. Believe me, I dislike this kind of “vague-booking” as much as the next person, but the stories are not mine to share. (And I just got to use “obfuscation” in a sentence, so it was worth it!)
I’ve been tempted to lay out all the details, in order to prove or validate my assertion that 2018 was a challenging year, but I’m going to let that impulse go. It never does any good to rank or compare trials and tragedies. Why? Well, maybe if you were in my shoes, you wouldn’t find these circumstances quite as overwhelming, because you’ve already survived worse difficulties. Or maybe on the other hand, you’d lock yourself in your closet and suck your thumb in the fetal position, like I wanted to more than a few times—and maybe even did once or twice.
Let me stress here that I personally am fine. I spent much of this year in a supporting role—not as the lead sufferer watching my life implode. But…sitting helpless on the sidelines is a challenge of its own. And yet, I not only survived this year, I thrived. Somehow. And it shocked me because I am not naturally good at compartmentalizing. Generally, my tribulations permeate every part of my life. I get way too wrapped up in other people’s problems. I get way too wrapped up in my own problems. And I struggle to feel okay unless everything IS okay.
Well, this year was different. Things were not okay, but I was. And besides the increased capacity that just comes with age and life experience, I think I can trace it back to five daily practices (plus one overarching goal) that kept me sane, grounded, and connected to myself and to God.
Five Daily Practices: Brought to You by the Letter “P”
At the beginning of the year, before the first shoe dropped, as it were, I decided on a different approach to New Year’s Resolutions. I picked five daily practices, all starting with the letter “P” (because I’m a sucker for alliteration) that would help me connect to what matters most to ME. At the time, I was caring for an infant, I had resumed my freelance work after maternity leave, and I was finding myself too easily hijacked by the news and headlines of the day, on top of the regular life responsibilities of dinner and homework and dishes and bills. I didn’t want these precious days to pass by in a frantic blur. I didn’t want to lose myself entirely in other people’s priorities, even if one of those people was a chubby, diapered, miracle I had waited over a decade for. So I set some intentions for the year.
My five daily practices were:
Prayer (with a focus on gratitude)
Poetry (one poem a day, starting with a book by Billy Collins)
Prophets (a chapter of scripture reading)
Portuguese (5 minutes in the Duolingo app, so I can learn alongside my daughter, who’s in an immersion program at school)
Poses (a.k.a., yoga) and later in the year, Perspiration (this was me easing back into activity very gently after childbirth, recovery, and the sleeplessness of early infancy)
These daily practices energized me. They gave me worthy goals to aim for, and I found it easy to stick with them because they were things I deeply wanted to do. In the past, I’ve often let my goals or New Year’s Resolutions be driven by external “shoulds” or societal expectations, and they never lasted. But these practices were all very authentic to what feeds me—spirituality, reading and the written word, lifelong learning, and moving my body in ways that feel good. (This year, thanks to a helpful little book called No Sweat, I let go of the “shoulds” of exercise: that I have to wear a special outfit and set aside an hour or more a day. That there has to be pain for there to be gain. That I have to do things I don’t enjoy in order to take care of my body. Thanks Michelle Segar!)
How did I make time for it all? I would read my scriptures while feeding my baby his morning bottle. I’d often do my daily Portuguese in the bathroom (sorry for the TMI). And yoga was easy to fit in while the baby was tiny and immobile. When the challenges started landing, in rapid succession, I had already seen the value in following through on these intentions, so I kept them up.
One Big Goal: 50 Books in 12 months
At the same time, I had set an ambitious (for me) reading goal: 50 books by the end of the year, tracked in and by the GoodReads app. The only way I could accomplish this was through a combination of audio books, ebooks, and regular old book-books. Early in the year, I listened to the The 5-Second Rule audiobook by Mel Robbins—a recommendation from a podcast I had been binge-listening to over the Christmas break. It’s a simple but effective premise, and the book is highly skimmable.
As I listened, I realized that with my five daily practices, I had already stumbled upon one of the key things Robbins recommends: own your morning routine. Before you look at your phone, read an email, or check any social media platform, do the things that feed YOU first. Then you’ll be grounded in what matters to you. You’ll be tethered to your deepest values. And you’ll have more to give.
I started these intentions/practices with a particular purpose in mind, but it turns out they sustained me through trials I wasn’t expecting. The book goal also helped to ground me, occupy my racing thoughts, and keep me connected to ME, so I had more to give. And more times than I can count, I would find just the sentence, phrase, or passage I needed, just when I needed it.
When I’d chat with a good friend who knew everything that was going on and was facing a gut-wrenching situation of her own, she was always selfless enough to ask, “How are YOU doing? How are you holding up with so many people needing so much from you?” And I’d say, “I don’t know HOW, but I’m fine! I’m really fine. I’m taking care of my family, I’m somehow staying productive during my freelance hours, I’m exercising, I’ve just scheduled my author headshots, AND I spent 2 hours on the phone with my sister every day this week,” helping her navigate all the terrible things she was facing. Really, how was I fine? I believe it’s because every day, I was feeding my spirit and aiming for the highest good, and God made me capable of more than I could ever do or be on my own.
Tip: Be flexible and forgiving
I know what you’re thinking: Did I really read poetry and scriptures and dozens of books, pray, learn Portuguese, and do yoga every single day in 2018? Heck no! But I did them most days, for the first half of the year at least. As circumstances around me shifted, my practices sort of morphed, but I kept the primary principle in mind: connect to my deepest values first thing in the morning, before anything else hijacks my day, and things will fall into place. Here are some of the adjustments I made to my practices, instead of just giving up when life got in the way:
Walking instead of downward-dogging. When Wyatt got more mobile, yoga was less feasible. (It had become kind of like goat yoga, but with a toddler on my back instead of a farm animal—as if there’s a difference.) So I replaced my yoga practice with a long daily walk, pushing a stroller and listening to an audiobook. Two goals in one! Does “walk” start with a “P”? No. Does that matter? No. I didn’t white-knuckle something that wasn’t working, and I didn’t feel like a failure for abandoning my goal, as I might have in the past. I let myself connect to the core of the goal and be flexible and forgiving instead.
Basement Zumba instead of walking. Later on in the year, when it got too cold for walks, I shifted the practice to be about any physical activity I enjoy. So now my sister-in-law brings her toddler and baby over each morning to let the kids run around my basement while we do Zumba or step aerobics or some other form of exercise together.
Pushing pause on the poetry and Portuguese. In October, I adopted another new goal, along with many of the women in my church: to read the entire Book of Mormon, start to finish, before the end of the year. Because this takes much more time each day than my usual one-chapter-a-day plan, I hit the pause button on daily poetry and Portuguese. I’m still working my way through some silly Shel Silverstein poetry books on the side, just not every day, and it’s hitting the spot. And I’m ignoring my Duolingo reminder emails. For now.
Defining my own reading rules. I was also flexible with my reading goal. At first, I thought all 50 books would be books I’d never before read. But when I was reading The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane aloud to my daughter and niece at night, or working our way through The Magical Animal Adoption Agency series, both of which I had previously read on my own, I thought: this counts too! Who cares that I’ve read them before? Even if they’re short, even if they’re children’s books, even if this is my second or third time through, I get to decide that they count. And the one or two books in my DNF (did not finish) pile? They count too. (I put in a good-faith effort, but I was simply not in the right frame of mind for Infinite Jest, which felt, well, infinite.)
In the end, I didn’t follow the “letter of the law” regarding my daily practices, but I did maintain the spirit of the law, which always matters more. After all, I’m not here to serve the goal; the goal is here to serve ME.
The Importance of Putting On Your Own Mask First
I know I’m not the first to make this analogy, but flight attendants always instruct passengers to put on their own oxygen masks first before assisting others. The same is true in life. These five daily practices were my way of establishing a steady supply of oxygen during a turbulent year, so I could be more useful to those in serious distress.
Nearly every day, I did the things that connected me to my highest self. I prayed, I pondered, I moved my body, I practiced gratitude, and I kept on living my life. It turns out this was exactly what I needed to do in order to have some reserves to share. If I fainted from lack of oxygen alongside the person I was trying to assist, someone else would have to step in and rescue us both, which is the last thing we need.
There are many, many more lessons I learned from my year of reading, and my year of navigating very hard things. I hope to find time to share more of them. In the meantime, I invite you to think about what you can do to tether yourself more securely to your deepest values. Maybe you’ll choose one personal daily practice of your own, or two, or five. Maybe you’ll set an ambitious, year-long goal. Maybe you’ll anchor yourself through the storms of life—either current or on the distant horizon—in some other way.
I just hope you’ll discover, if and when the need arises, that it’s possible to BE okay even when everything else isn’t okay. This discovery arose through circumstances I never would have chosen—which tends to be the way of things—but it has been an immense gift all the same.