netrun78/iStock, Getty Images
(netrun78/iStock, Getty Images)

Looking back on the past year … wait, nobody really wants to relive that, right?

Even now, the omicron variant means COVID-19 precautions – getting vaccinated, getting boosted, following safety measures – aren’t going away. But “this is a new year where so many new beginnings are going to be happening as we work to get back to some semblance of normalcy,” said Dr. Christopher Celano, associate director of the Cardiac Psychiatry Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

Whether you’re stepping back into pre-pandemic habits or staying home and trying to form new ones, here are ways to make things happy and healthy.

Reward yourself for health

The pandemic upset a lot of routines. Few of us like change, but it’s not all bad, said Wendy Wood, provost professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

“Every time there’s change or disruption, it alters your living environment in ways that influence your habits,” said Wood, author of “Good Habits/Bad Habits: The Science of Making Changes That Stick.”

A habit, she said, is basically a shortcut by which your brain automates your behavior. When habits get disrupted, it’s stressful, because you have to think. “And that’s definitely a challenge,” she said. “But it is also an opportunity.”

Research shows creating a healthy habit isn’t about mere willpower. A key part is about replacing the behavior you want to change, Wood said. “The easiest way to do this is to change the cues to the old pattern – maybe move the doughnuts off the kitchen counter or don’t even buy them in the first place. Until then, that old habit will still be there, even if you’ve resolved to change.”

Say you’re headed back to the office and are worried about falling into an old pattern of grabbing fast food at lunch. Wood’s solution: Before you return, put some rewarding alternatives in place. Zero in on a healthy restaurant you want to try, or buy a new lunchbox with healthy treats that you enjoy preparing each morning.

“It needs to be something that you enjoy, that you find easy to repeat, in order to repeat behavior enough to form a new habit,” she said. “Be aware that old habits will still be activated once you get back into that old work situation.”

This technique worked for Wood, who works out at home on an elliptical. At first, she hated it. Then, “I figured out I could read trashy novels and watch TV shows while I did it. And I don’t have time for those things normally, but on the elliptical, I do. And I enjoy it. It’s part of my habitual routine now, and I work out regularly.”

Make it easy

Another key to forming a healthy habit is to remove barriers to doing it. So if you’re hoping to restart a gym habit, remove as many excuses as possible. Wood said data suggests people who had a slightly longer drive to the gym went there much less often than people who had a shorter drive.

If your goal is to eat better, consider buying pre-cut vegetables at the grocery store, she suggested. Or, if you’ve gotten in the habit of ordering groceries online, pare the unhealthy food from your list, and use the time (and dollar) savings to head to a farmers’ market.

Return to work: The office version

If your new year will include a return to the office, it’s OK to expect some stress, said Celano, who also is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

“My main advice would be to take it one step at a time,” he said. If you’ve got the option, block off time to work on tasks alone. If that’s not an option, recognize that everyone’s in the same boat.

And make time to get to know your colleagues again, he said. Personal interaction can be the upside of being with colleagues. The isolation of remote work makes it easy to forget the pleasures of catching up with someone.

Return to work: The home version

If more work from home is in your future, remember to take care of yourself, Celano said. Without a daily commute to help set boundaries, people have found themselves working late into the night.

Self-care is critical, he said. So put it on your calendar. “I think it’s very easy for your day to fill up, but if you add self-care activities to your schedule, you will be more likely to do them.”

Cultivate optimism

Whatever changes the new year has in store, stay positive, Celano said.

“When people are feeling more optimistic or more positive, they’re more likely to have a healthier diet, they’re more likely to be physically active, and they’re less likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors, like drink too much alcohol or smoke.”

Optimism doesn’t mean denial, he said. It’s a shift in focus. Maybe the pandemic meant you had to meet with someone online instead of visiting them. “If you spend all of your time focusing on the fact that you didn’t get to see them in person, you’re going to miss out on some of the good things that may have happened in that interaction.”

Simple activities can boost optimism, he said. Think about positive events going on in your life and share them with a family member or friend. Or think about what a “good life” would mean for you in the future and what steps you can take to make that a reality.

You also cultivate a positive spirit by volunteering – or by just showing simple kindness, Celano said. All that “can be a really powerful way to start the new year.”

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