They say it takes 3 weeks to create a habit. They also say that small changes over time are the only ones that are ultimately successful. So, instead of trying to implement or expand an entire stress management plan all at once, you’re going to start with one small thing, then add or increase one small action each month. Not only will you be more likely stick with each practice, but by adding one thing at a time you can easily tell which practices help you the most and which need to be tweaked or eliminated
If you’re not one for following rules, or you just like to do things your way, you don’t have to follow this calendar if you don’t want to. Feel free to switch things around if that makes more sense to you. Feel free to replace some of the ideas with something else, like an increase to one that you began earlier in the year. It’s really just meant to be a suggestion or framework for you to build your own practice(s) from.
January – Begin, renew, or increase, a gratitude practice that resonates with you. There’s no doubt that formally renewing, and even tweaking, my own gratitude practice each New Year has helped not only to keep it going, but also to remind me how much it lowers my response to stress.
A few possibilities for your own practice: Keep a gratitude journal, make a good things/gratitude jar (see last week’s blog post for more about what this is and how to do it), say prayers of gratitude each morning or bedtime, give thanks for something with each meal, remember to say thank you (to servers, baristas, the lady who held the door for you, the person who did what you asked, etc.), or give thanks for the hard things in life – for making you stronger, wiser, etc.
*Please don’t let this be one that you delete or replace. You may be tired of hearing about gratitude but I know you’re perfectly capable of at least saying thank you to the people you interact with. It’s amazing how much nicer people are when they feel appreciated. C’mon make the world a little nicer, won’t you?
February – Begin, or increase, a mindfulness practice. This doesn’t have to be an elaborate practice, you can start with as little as 5 minutes a day.
A few possibilities for your own practice: Mindfulness breath meditation, listening meditation, walking meditation, mantra meditation, guided meditation, color mandalas, or color any of the adult coloring books that are all the rage now.
March – Exercise and movement practices are a great way to burn off or counteract stress. Spring is the perfect time to begin, or increase, a regular exercise or movement practice. If you’ve been a couch potato all winter, start by doing something active that you enjoy just one day a week.
A few possibilities for your own practice: Walking, riding your bicycle, swimming, tai chai, dancing, or yoga.
April – Pay it forward at least once this month. International Pay It Forward day is April 28th, but you could do it once each week if you’re so moved.
A few possibilities for your own practice: Pay for the coffee order behind you, help the person ahead of you in the self-check line bag their groceries, hold the door for the person behind you, let someone go ahead of you in line, mow your next door neighbor’s lawn, or run an errand for an elderly, ill, or injured neighbor.
May – Vitamin D has been shown to have a positive effect on our mood so much that people who don’t get enough begin showing signs of depression. Luckily, our body makes vitamin D when it’s exposed to the sun, so get outside for a few minutes each day (walking from your car into work doesn’t count)
A few possibilities for your own practice: Drink your morning coffee or tea on your deck, spend some time in the evening reading or sipping a favorite beverage on your porch, take a walk in the fresh air, or do your daily meditation on your back lawn.
June – Local farmer’s markets are in full swing now. If you’ve ever been hangry, you know that hunger or not eating right can have a negative effect on your response to stress. Starting this month, make sure you eat one piece of fresh, preferably local, produce each day. If there’s a farmer’s market near you, get them there.
A few possibilities for your own practice: A small apple, ½ cup of berries, 8 large strawberries, a large orange, a medium pear, a large plum, 16 grapes, 2 medium carrots, 2 large celery stalks, 5 broccoli or cauliflower florets. (recommended serving sizes from the CDC)
July – You know from experience that receiving a compliment has a positive effect on your stress level. Did you also know that you get that same boost from giving compliments? This month, give at least one sincere compliment to someone each day. Spread the love and compliment someone different each day.
A few possibilities for your own practice: Compliment the purse, earrings, shoes, perfume/cologne etc. of a fellow shopper; compliment a coworker’s thoroughness, attention to detail, or timeliness; compliment a child’s talent for something, compliment the book someone is reading, or compliment a harried mother on the way she handled her tantruming toddler.
August – Increase one of the practices that you started earlier this year – add another day, or lengthen the amount of time spent on the activity.
A few possibilities for your own practice: Increase the amount of time you spend in your mindfulness practice by 5 minutes, add an extra day of exercise or movement, or begin paying it forward twice a month.
September – Laughter is one of the best antidotes to stress that there is, so spend some time each week doing something that makes you laugh.
A few possibilities for your own practice: Watch a funny movie, see a stand up comedian, tell jokes with friends or families, read a funny book, or spend some time being silly.
October – Declutter one room. Clutter is stressful, but only you can define what clutter is for you. Now that it’s getting colder and you’re probably spending more time inside, and are therefore unable to avoid the clutter, it’s the perfect time to do something about it.
A few possibilities for your own practice: Clean out the junk drawer in the kitchen, clear out a closet, take any clothes you haven’t worn in over 2 years to a local charity or resale shop, clean out the garage, clean out the basement, clean off one set of shelves somewhere, or go through your CDs &/or DVDs and get rid of any that you haven’t watched or listened to in at least 2 years.
November – Thanksgiving month is the perfect time to increase the gratitude practice you started in January.
A few possibilities for your own practice: Give thanks for something at each meal, sincerely say thank you to servers and baristas, increase the number of things you write in your gratitude journal (if you currently write 5 per day, try for 6, 8, or even 10), or give retroactive thanks for something in your past that seemed awful at the time but turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
December – Tis the season of goodwill so do some random acts of kindness this month.
A few possibilities for your own practice: Hold the door for someone with an armload of packages, hold the door for someone who’s pushing a stroller or wheelchair, or just hold the door for someone instead of letting it slam in their face (I’ve even done this with automatic doors at the supermarket by saying “let me get the door for you” and stepping on the sensor mat a second before they get there. It has (so far) never failed to illicit a chuckle and even an occasional, overly exaggerated “why thank you. You’re too kind.”), give compliments, return emails promptly (I don’t know how this went from good manners to an act of kindness, but if it fits… go with it), return an abandoned shopping cart to the cart corral, pick up a piece of trash from a parking lot or sidewalk and throw it away, or volunteer at a food bank or shelter.
You’ll notice that some ideas fall into more than one category and that some are also a category unto themselves. That’s entirely by design. None of us exists in a vacuum and neither do our stress management practices. It also makes it easier to follow through on some of the practices by not limiting your choices.
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