What worked for me in 2021

I love to do a little bit of reflection at year’s end (or, in this case, the year’s beginning), but I don’t make it complicated. Around my house we’ve been using the same two questions for years to help us take stock of the year gone by.

They are:

  1. What worked for me last year?
  2. What didn’t?

Today I’m sharing a few of the things (from significant to shallow) that worked for me in 2021. (I’ll share my list of what didn’t work in the newsletter, same as last year, and the year before that. Sign up here if you’re not on the list.)

I’ve been using these reflection questions for more than a decade, and blogging about them since 2013. Some things have changed little over the years, while some of my long-ago changes are now thoroughly incorporated into my life. (For example, 2013’s “taking a photography class” and “setting up designated office space for myself.”)

Close readers will see much is unchanged since last year; plenty of things from my 2020 list of what worked  (and my 2019 and 2018 list) are still working for me.

2021 was a difficult year, for me and for my family, in ways both anticipated and not. (2020 was a hard year as well, and while that was no secret, looking back I can see I didn’t mention that in my post.) I went into the year knowing stress management was going to be crucial to stay afloat, and that underlying need permeated the year.

That being said, these are my new (or new again) 2021 additions:

The basics

In 2021 I carried over an explicit priority from 2020: with so much of significance being out of my hands this year, (pandemic, unrelated illnesses and deaths, other people’s decisions), I made a conscious effort to control the things I could that contribute towards resilience. That meant focusing hard on the foundational things: eating well, exercising regularly, and sleeping plenty.

For me, eating well at this point in my life looks like getting plenty of protein, taking it easy on the sugar, and not inadvertently skipping meals because I have meetings scheduled straight through the lunch hours, a scheduling hiccup that’s plagued me in the past.

In 2020 I resumed running regularly to stave off stress; last spring I went a step further and rejoined the gym for the first time in many years. I wanted the accountability of a group setting, and honestly, I wanted to get out of the house. In the hour I’m there, I don’t think about anything else, and that makes the travel time well worth it. It’s also been fun to track my progress there—I’m fitter than I was when I began again, and that’s not nothing.

Sleep has always been high on my priorities list, and in 2021 I sought to keep it there. That means not reading “one more chapter” at bedtime (I’ll be honest, this is tough), closing the blackout shades, and occasionally taking a melatonin supplement at bedtime. (I use these, I only take half the dose, I’m grateful they’re available.)

Working rhythms

I’m constantly reconfiguring my work life to suit the current season, and 2021 was no exception. My biggest struggle is finding (and then protecting) the large chunks of time needed to work on big, absorbing projects—something that I’ve found to be particularly tricky when heading off to the library or coffee shop to work is not an option. But I had reasonable success with blocking off my calendar during an unusual (for me) time of day, which meant I was able to get my work done.

I also took more walking breaks during the work day than I perhaps ever have before, for movement and mental health, which so often work together, in my experience. (Want a fun little book about walking? I enjoyed this one last year.)

Reading for myself

As always, I read up a storm of new releases for the 2021 Summer Reading Guide (our TENTH!) and then, as always, was ready to read lots of Very Old Books afterwards.

I leaned hard into the backlist for the rest of the year, and so enjoyed the process. I also dabbled with a completist project that I intend to continue in 2021, which was immensely satisfying. (I say more about this in yesterday’s new episode of What Should I Read Next (“Books that stand the test of time,”) with my esteemed and entertaining friend Jim Mustich. Listen in Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.)

On that note, can I tell you how much I enjoyed using my own reading journal? This is going to sound funny, because OF COURSE I sought to design a book journal that would be a pleasure to use, but I was truly floored by how much I’ve loved using it myself. I started mine in August when the first copies arrived on my doorstep, hot off the printing press, and have been genuinely surprised at how much it’s helping me in my reading life. (I made a dedicated podcast episode about the history, design, and features of the journal, as well as tips for how to use it: listen here to Episode 305: “Read yourself like a book.”)

Clean laundry and clean counters

If you regularly read this blog, you know I fell hard for a laundry book this year, and have gleaned more satisfaction from the chore than I thought possible this year. In fact, I just started a load twenty minutes ago, and felt so capable as I treated a filthy pair of pants with laundry soap and just the right stain solution, before tossing them in the wash. They’re going to look GREAT in an hour—and I think therein lies the satisfaction, the tangible transformation of the rumpled and dirty to clean and fresh in a short span of time.

My kitchen counters are pretty cluttered at the moment—and don’t even ask about my office table—but this year when I begin to feel overwhelmed, I’ve made a conscious effort to clean my physical spaces. It always makes such a difference. (Which isn’t surprising—this is a basic Don’t Overthink It principle!—but it’s still a little jarring to experience, every time.)

Meal helpers

Now we’re circling back to those foundations again, and that includes eating well, specifically, here, for meals at home. We have a family of six (five when the oldest is away at college), and keeping everyone fed—and just keeping all that food in the house—is no joke.

In 2021, Will and I were both tired, and more than a little overwhelmed, and it changed the way we fed our people. We leaned hard on Costco delivery, even though Anne Helen Petersen’s book Can’t Even (one of my favorite books of 2020) made me wish Instacart and DoorDash and the like didn’t exist. Are they problematic? YES. Were they an enormous help this year? Also yes.

We used more convenience foods and heat-and-eat meals than we ever have before, especially in the fall when Will was tending to his sick father. (You shared some great recommendations for your favorite easy dinners here on the blog and on twitter, and I would still love to hear your suggestions: share them in comments!)

And while I’m a maximizer at heart—something I wrote about extensively in Don’t Overthink It—giving ourselves permission to make small, frequent, and inefficient runs to our tiny neighborhood grocery store felt like such a grace this year.

We also continued to use the New York Times cooking app. This paid service has recipes for almost everything I could ever want to make, which means instead of scouring the internet for dinner ideas, we confine our search to this single place. (Another Don’t Overthink It principle: as is probably clear, I’ve leaned heavily on those principles this year, in this and .)

Unexpected new arrivals

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but we let our daughter get a hamster late last year, and little Phoebe has already brought so much joy to our family. I’ll share a video of her on Instagram later today, but suffice it to say: she’s adorable and hysterical and when we call her “our emotional support hamster,” we’re not even kidding.

I’d love to hear what worked for YOU in 2021, and what didn’t, and why. Tell us all about it in comments.

P.S. I’ll be sharing what DIDN’T work for me in 2021 in the newsletter this weekend. Click here to make sure you’re on the list.

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24 comments

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  1. Jennifer Geisler says:

    What a wonderful post! it’s one I look forward to every year, because it reminds me of some things that work for me, too, that I have let slide. This year the big change in my life was to take Earthing seriously. Backed by science (there’s a book about it, Earthing), 40 minutes each day of bare feet touching the earth has led to the best sleep I’ve had in years, joint pain reduced or disappeared. I sit in my lawn chair, book in hand, and rest my bare feet on the grass. Being perennially cold, I had to give up in November and purchased an Earthing mat, plugged into a grounded socket, which works well enough for me to use it every single day. The impact on my sleep has brought major improvements in other parts of my life.

    • Joanne A says:

      In 2021, I had expectations of reading some great bestsellers, and I couldn’t keep up. I felt stressed between full-time work, managing a house with 6 kids, and professional obligations. Now, 2022 brings my focus to self care and reading anything I want. I have come to the conclusion that I am not going to feel guilty about not reading the new, shiny book, and concentrate on the gems that I have had on my bookshelf. I am following a suggestion by @lauravanderkam to read a chapter a day of War & Peace. I am happy to say I have started reading it after waiting for the “right moment,” in the last 10 years.

    • Carolyn Haun says:

      I love this post. Glad to hear there are other “Earthers”. A simple activity that gives enormous benefits.

      It’s great for jet lag too. My last international trip, to Iceland, I “earthed” as soon as I could and frequently. Felt fantastic whole trip.

      Didn’t know there were earthing mats. Living in the PNW, that is something for me to look into. Earthing in mud during our heavy rainy season isn’t as pleasant. 🙂

      • Jennifer Geisler says:

        Earthing mats can be purchased on Amazon (of course!). Be certain that you purchase the ones from the original researcher, C. Ober. There are lots of knock-offs. I thought I was ordering a large mat to sleep on, and made a mistake and purchased a small floor mat, which turned out to be a better choice for me. You need to have a grounded outlet nearby, which I don’t have next to my bed because of other appliances, lamps, etc. I would say that the mat is not as powerful as the direct earth contact, but still good.

    • I publish a year-end wrap-up, too, but mine is not as global as yours! You really take stock. I love the way you talk about dedicating yourself to Very Old Books. Also plan to check out the reading journal — I have one but it’s one I’ve fashioned for myself.
      My accomplishment roundup:
      https://ciambellina.blogspot.com/2021/12/the-year-in-writing-and-
      My list of the books I read:
      https://ciambellina.blogspot.com/2021/12/what-i-read-in-2021-what-ill-read-in.htmlcontemplation.html

  2. “as is probably clear, I’ve leaned heavily on those principles this year, in this and .)”

    And what?! The suspense is killing me! 🙂

    I read your posts regularly but always forget to comment. Thanks for another great year!

  3. Sarah says:

    One of my favorite recollections from my time in practice was doing a leg amputation on an emotional support hamster. I’m not even joking, the little gal was originally purchased after the death of a beloved grandparent to help with grieving. She totally defied hamster stereotypes and was a very sweet gal (who did very well after her procedure). Our favorite quick meals are soups, my daughter’s favorite is a lentil soup that is made in the instapot and includes a smoked turkey leg for flavoring. We’ll make a huge batch and then freeze jars for when we need a quick meal.

  4. Laura McGrew says:

    I love your book journal and bought one for myself and one of my besties. I figured out, using it, that I reallllllllly do not like books that use the unreliable narrator voice. What’s the point if you cannot trust what the narrator says? And so many of the “psychological thrillers” that are so popular use that voice, so I just say No. I’m not sure I would have clarified this for myself without your little gem. So thank you!!!

  5. Tracey says:

    Thank you for sharing! I appreciate these posts. The reminder re: laundry and decluttering is great, the encouragement on simplifying food is helpful – we have a small local meal prep service here with good healthy and affordable food that I’m pretty unabashedly using lately as I deal with caregiving and other hard things.
    Last, and most importantly, I also never imagined we’d end the year with pets but the two kittens we got this year have truly made the biggest difference to our lives. We love them so much. I never imagined becoming *such* a cat mom.

  6. Adrienne says:

    Meal delivery services worked really well for us this year. We are using Hello Fresh for dinner planning and it’s made life so much easier. The mental burden of choosing meals, making a shopping list and doing the grocery shopping is so much less now. I chose the meals (usually about 20 to chose from each week) and all the ingredients and recipes are delivered ready to cook. I think we waste less food now too. I also started getting whole 30 ready-made lunches delivered to stop our habit of eating out at lunch. Same cost, healthier food.

  7. katherine hardee says:

    Awesome post Anne…thanks for normalizing short-cuts and emphasizing the importance of self care with eating right, exercise and quality sleep.
    I am so happy for your family to have Phoebe…our family life was so enriched by two sweet guinea pigs Theo and Cookie when my children were younger. They are they best and I love that they purrr : )
    PS. How is Daisy adjusting??

    • Anne says:

      I’m so happy to hear your guineas brought you joy!

      Phoebe is fascinated by Daisy, who is by turns curious and couldn’t-care-less about Phoebe. We were afraid Daisy would view Phoebe as a tasty potential snack so this feels like a big win so far.

  8. Suzanne Stewart says:

    What a wonderful post!

    I LOVE LOVE LOVE the website budgetbytes.com when it comes to meal planning and easy recipes, because I, too, have prioritized healthier eating habits. Her 4-week meal plans have everything from shopping lists to what to do with the leftovers. Well worth the small investment to pick up one or more of them.

    I think, if anything, the pandemic has taught us all what we truly, truly prioritize and what we can let go of. Good luck on your continued journey toward maintaining and discovering your “need be’s”.

    Thanks so much for all you do!

  9. Ann W. says:

    Hi,
    I participated in “The Bible Project” with other members of my church congregation. I started my day early before others arose in my household and read the Bible Every Single Day of 2021 until Dec. 24, when I finished the last verse in the Bible. The habit is so ingrained in me now I am still getting up early to read scripture, pray and mediate.

  10. I think it is so important to name what is working and what isn’t (I can’t wait to hear). But, then also to name it to your family. Because maybe what is working is in part to something they are doing and you want to thank them…or the reverse, what isn’t working is something that directly involves them. What’s working for me? Have a new reading room where I can go and not have to hear my husband’s TV shows, but yet am in earshot if he wants to tell me something. What isn’t working not praying enough when I’m feeling anxious or overwhelmed about something or someone. So, I’m working on giving it to God more often. Thanks for sharing, Anne!

  11. Kay says:

    Love this post. Helped me to reflect on what is working right now in my life. Cooksmarts.com has been my lifesaver during the pandemic. Restaurant quality healthy meals I make myself without all of the thought on what to make or what ingredients to get. Second thing working is my afternoon cup of tea with a piece of delicious dark chocolate (Endangered Species brand is amazing) and a great book. I look forward to that moment all day long. The third working is this wonderful website. Modern Mrs. Darcy feels like sitting down with a great friend and sharing things we have in common and enjoy. Thank you for creating and maintaining this little space in the world where I can feel welcome.

  12. Melanie says:

    Thanks, Ann, for this fun post and the reminder to look back for the things we want on repeat. Meal planning was my go to when I had my littles in the house: I was never fast with planning out the meals but it saved my hide and this was well before the days of food delivery services. My adult kiddos now do it with their families. Like Suzanne mentioned, BudgetBytes is great for an assortment of meal planning menus and the bonus of the grocery list, organization of her site plus the free sample menus make it a win do me
    After asking for the books I wanted for Christmas (and getting them), and getting my Book Club picks ordered or, I’ll get from the library I’ve decided this year that any book-itches I get for new and different I’ll “Read From My Shelf”. I have so many wonderful books just waiting to be read! I need to use what I have then pay it forward.
    Lastly, my self-care at night always includes a cup of Yogi’s Bedtime Tea —it’s delicious—and I take my natural melatonin (3 mg). I also love Yogi’s DeStress lavender tea for mid-day. Hope this helps😊

  13. Pam says:

    What’s worked for me this past year:
    Healthier eating and returning to strength training and a bit of regular cardio. I’m the fittest I’ve been in years, including a 40 pound weight loss.
    Also continued on my decluttering journey, in fits and starts. Moved along an old wall unit this year, as well as a lot of unused craft supplies and reference books. All went to a good charity!

  14. I’ve translated your helpful question into “What was life-giving in 2021?” Here are just a few of my answers: Saturday wanderings in the car with my husband, moving my desk to a new location where I can see out a window, a deepening friendship with a couple from our congregation, continuing to meet with my spiritual directees, celebrating our 50th wedding anniversary, as well as the 25th wedding anniversary of our daughter and son-in-love and the 15th for our son and daughter-in-love, re-reading all of Louise Penney books in order.

    • Suzanne C says:

      Nancy, I moved my desk in front of a window this year also and, wow, what a difference it made! I can’t often have the curtains completely open because the sun reflects off the very white garage most of the day, but just the filtered sunlight coming in helps so much. It’s the little things, especially these days. 😊

  15. K says:

    Anne, I started using this method for reflecting on the year after reading about it on your blog a few years ago. It has been such a helpful tool for me and has also been helpful to understand problems and successes in isolated instances, as well. Thank you for what you do.

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