MICHAEL THOMPSON

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Better Living

The 6 Little Habits That Saved My Smile During This Brutal Year

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“What helped you get through the last 12 very bad months? What little things made you smile? It’s worth getting these things down on paper. They’re worth taking with you!”

I was talking to my coach. As someone who leans negative, thinking about what went well this past year wasn’t an easy conversation to have. I’m a feeler. I always have been. When I think about COVID, I go dark.

I see my friend crying uncontrollably when he told me he couldn’t say goodbye to his mom in our building’s basement. I see scared people being treated by other scared people dressed up like they’re working for Elon Musk. I get angry when thinking about the people who decided now’s the time to not live in fear and all of a sudden become a rebel.

But like my friend Don Johnson said, I want to see a world that goes back to better!” And for that to happen, it’s worth taking the time to think about what saved your smile over the last brutal year. For me, it wasn’t any one thing in particular, but rather stumbling across the six ideas below and turning them into habits once I realized how much better they made me feel.

1. Kick-off the day by hitting snooze

During the Holocaust, Viktor Frankl, author of *“Man’s Search for Meaning,*” set the habit each morning of asking himself this one simple question: Who needs me?

He would later note this habit was one of the three main drivers that provided him with the mental strength to endure four years of concentration camps — along with finding a daily project (for Frankl, it was keeping little notes) and taking the time to better understand the suffering.

Tomorrow morning, hit snooze. But instead of going back to sleep, put your feet flat on the ground, close your eyes, and take calm breaths while thinking about which specific things you can do to support the people you care about until your alarm goes off again.

This isn’t an end-all-be-all cure for the morning blues. But it helps. Sometimes the best form of self-care we can give to ourselves is thinking about how we can care for others. Worst case, it gives us some time — if only for 5 minutes — to give our own problems and worries a break.

2. Use the “Last Time” technique

I love two things: my family and alone time with absolute silence. Over the last year, there have been times when these two things didn’t mix very well as our young boys have a real passion for rolling marbles above my office. To combat this, I found the ‘Last Time’ exercise extremely valuable.

The next time you get upset with someone, imagine it’s the last time you’ll have with them. The next time you have to do something you don’t want to do, imagine it’s the last time you’ll ever have to do it. The next time you’re bored, imagine it’s the last time you’ll ever have this much time for yourself.

This simple reminder will not only help you breathe easier while snapping you back to where you belong: the present moment. But it will also help add meaning to things you often consider annoying or mundane.

I used to despise changing my youngest’s diaper. Reminding myself that each time I do it may very well be the last has helped me look for a reason to laugh instead of letting out a grunt.

3. Study one historical person a week instead of handing your free time over to algorithms

Some people eat what other people feed them and then complain about gaining weight. Punch algorithms in the gut by making a list of people you want to learn more about. Then do a deep dive into their lives each week by reading their biographies, listening to their interviews, and watching their documentaries.

I started this habit a few months before COVID hit. Keeping at it during lockdown gave me something to look forward to instead of getting roped into the social media circus when I got bored.

Plus, learning more about the lives of people like Katherine Graham, John Lewis, and Larry King served as a reminder that in order to accomplish anything in this world you have to put in the work and be bold. Good things do indeed happen when we treat our curiosity as our primary responsibility instead of defaulting to Facebook.

Every time a friend finishes her weekly article, she sends me a picture of her drinking a beer. This may not sound too crazy, but it’s the only beer she ever drinks and it’s her personal reward for sticking with something she finds tough. When COVID hit, since I haven’t had a drop of alcohol in seven years, I stole her idea but eat four Oreo cookies as a substitute.

What do you do to celebrate your wins?

Do you even still celebrate?

Make treating yourself a habit after you do something particularly challenging. For me, that thing is writing. Even though it can be fun, most of the time getting out an article or two a week hurts. Knowing I have a 10-minute date on my terrace with four delicious Oreo’s helps me stick with it while providing me with time to think about how far I’ve come.

5. Create a boring email chain

Over the summer, I heard about this tip courtesy of author Gretchen Rubin’s mom where she and her family started a boring email chain. This may sound odd, and don’t get me wrong, it is. But it’s also a seriously effective lightweight tool for keeping your relationships tight.

Recruit a few friends and once a week send each other mundane life updates. Something as small as you burnt last night’s dinner will do. The same goes for saying you finally won a game of Uno against your kids. The best part is you don’t even have to reply to each other, just read the messages so the next time you talk you have a few jumping-off points instead of starting off with “Watcha been up to?”

As an introvert, I never thought I’d miss small-talk. But man did this past very bad year remind me that in order to have deep conversations it sure helps if you’re having consistent little ones.

6. Remember love is water

I walked up the steps in our apartment and saw my wife quietly crying in the kitchen while making dinner. She didn’t want to make our kids upset, so she pulled me aside and told me that her dad’s best friend had just passed away before quietly falling apart. It was the fifth family friend to pass on in as many days.

That night, instead of watching some mindless TV together to wind-down, I found her asleep on the sofa after I’d put the kids to bed. “You should stay up some,” she said, “It’s early.”

A few hours later, after trying to sneak into bed, I realized I’d forgotten to get some water. But when I reached out to get my glass, I realized it was already full.

Two young kids in a small apartment.

The day she had.

Dealing with me.

Despite this, before going to bed she still thought to herself, “Michael’s going to be thirsty later!”

Any time I get a glass of water for myself, without asking I now get one for my wife. It’s a small thing. But it serves as a reminder that the small things aren’t the small things — the small things are the thing.