Image credit: Estée Janssens on Unsplash / CC0 / Public Domain

I don’t know about you, but for me, the month of January is tough and almost feels like having a ‘hangover’. After looking forward to the big month of December, and getting very stimulated on various levels, January is dull and boring. The weather doesn’t cooperate either. I often find myself stuck in a rut: it’s back to the same old thing all over again.

Since the winter is in itself a very slow time, it might be worth trying to shake things up a little bit. Try out new things, pick up unfinished projects, start new routines. It will help to get ‘unstuck’ and boost morale. In the Christian tradition, the period of Lent, that starts mid-February (give or take a week or two), aims to do exactly the same thing. Traditionally, it focused on praying, fasting and giving to the poor, but nowadays the scope is much wider. Even when you’re not practising religion, you still could take advantage of this unique period. Here’s a few things you could try.

1. Establish a new daily routine

I definitely need this towards the end of the winter in Europe. The days are still very short, the nights are very long. It is often freezing outside and grey skies dominate the weather. Clear days with lots of sunshine are rare. A perfect way to mess with one’s biorhythm. I notice how my sleep patterns are shifting to hibernation mode. I go to bed at a later time every day. When you have to get up around the same time for work, it makes my nights shorter and my mood grumpy. Also, I’m back to my old unhealthy behaviours after the lush month of December.

The best way to kick a habit is to throw it out, start something new. Something that works better. For me this involves heading to bed earlier while still rising at the same time. I also plan to eat at set times of the day to kick the bad habit of grazing and snacking all day. I live in the centre of a bustling student town and I notice that when I don’t eat proper breakfast, lunch and dinner, I tend to opt for take-away and thus gaining back all the weight I lost last year.

For people who want to get more out of their day, I can recommend checking out which gives you a lot of tips on self-improvement. A book lots of people swear by is The Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod.

2. Find your peace of mind

Several studies show that practicing meditation and mindfulness helps you, among other things, to focus better during the day and it reduces stress. It is also associated with increased  body satisfaction. A lot of people associate meditation and mindfulness with vague Eastern philosophies, where in reality these techniques can be found everywhere. Meditation isn’t ‘owned’ by any religion or philosophy. In ancient Christian writings it is known under various names including ‘contemplative prayer’. You can contemplate on whatever you like and tailor it to your specific needs. There are lots of guides on meditation available on-line, I found this article in the New York Times a nice neutral primer.

A good resource on breathing exercises (which is the core of meditation) is Breathe by Dr. Belisa Vranich. While it’s not a ‘meditation handbook’, it gives you insight on how breathing works and how you can use it for your benefit. If you’re Christian and want to know more about Christians forms of meditation, I highly recommend reading St. Francis de Sales’ book Introduction to the Devout Life. I’m more like a guided meditation kind of person, which is why I tend to stick to the Liturgy of the Hours for my daily dose of meditation. Since it’s already structured and tailored to the time of the year, it’s a perfect way to jump start my day.

3. Work on a creative project

Another good way to shake things up is to do something entirely different. When the weather is gloomy and life in general is boring, chances are that your mood is low as well. One way psychologists treat people with depression is by doing Behavioural Activation. The idea is to stop the negative cycle where low mood makes us unmotivated to engage in activities. Creating something stimulates the brain and thus improves your mood. You start feeling better about yourself.

We all have projects we want to do, but somehow never find the time to complete them. Why not pick something you want to work on and give yourself 40 days to work on it. There are plenty of ideas to be found online. You could do some home improvement, finally finish those unread books sitting on your shelf, learn a new skill.

4. Get a different taste

When I am stuck in a rut, I find myself not only doing the same things over and over again, but also eat the same meals every week. It’s winter, so everything yummy is expensive and I don’t have inspiration to make something new. Lent is a great way to challenge myself and discover new recipes. My go-to site for recipes is the BBC Good Food site. Good Food is a magazine, but a lot of their recipes are made available for free online. This year, I’m doing a forty day vegetarian challenge. Until Lent ends, I’m not eating any meat.  I know one or two vegetarian recipes, so I will be forced to find new recipes online.

In previous years I’ve gone Paleo for forty days or tried to cut on various foods I thought I was eating too much.

5. Sign Up for Volunteering

The last idea may not be for everyone, but volunteering for a charity or other community service near you helps to find new friends and useful things to do. It’s another way to re-activate from a rut, especially if you don’t work full-time. For me as a Catholic, volunteering in the parish seems the obvious thing to do, but since I like to have a broad range of social contacts, I typically try to look for something in the wider community to do and meet new people.

Here in the Netherlands we have ‘community centres’ (Dutch: buurthuis) where you can walk in and have a coffee. Soon you’ll get a good idea of the sort of help needed in your neighbourhood. I’ve worked in the past doing gardening work for national charity Natuurmonumenten in nature reserves and volunteered for the Red Cross going door-to-door collecting donations. I’ve also helped elderly people to maintain independence by doing cleaning work in their houses. If you’re in the United States, you can see what’s around in your neighbourhood via Create the Good. There’s always something to do and new friends to meet! It really gives you a huge boost, knowing you’re doing something meaningful inside your local community.