10 Steps to a Fresh Start
Did anyone else’s April disappear in a blur of suckiness?
Between illness, terrible headlines, frigid weather (until yesterday, we were wearing parkas!), a vacation that wasn’t, and a general Murphy’s Law vibe, the past few weeks have left me looking for a reset button. I can’t fix or change a lot of the things I’m struggling with right now, especially since many of them need to be addressed at a societal level. I also can’t rest my way out of this — even if I could take a few weeks off of work, I still have a toddler to take care of, and the existential tiredness of being a new parent in a pandemic isn’t something a single vacation can erase.
Still, I need some way to shake off some of the heaviness of recent events and reenergize myself. So I’ve been thinking about renewal. No matter how hard the winter, the Earth bursts open in spring, abuzz with new life. We don’t forget the trials of winter, but somehow, the warmth and vibrancy of spring taps into some reservoir of energy we didn’t know we had.
I’m always struck by how non-linear energy is. I was talking to someone recently about how capitalism has shaped our mental models of nearly everything, and it’s certainly true for energy. We think about energy like money — a finite resource that we expend or conserve. But sometimes we get bursts of energy from doing something counterintuitive. We go to a party feeling exhausted, but end up being drawn into lively, interesting conversation and find ourselves bouncing our way home. Or we sleep all Sunday to give ourselves space to rest, and only feel more tired at the end of it.
Renewal shows us that we can restore our energy by tapping into the power of a fresh start. In the aesthetic of renewal, we are reminded of nature’s ability to endlessly renew itself, and we find ways to make this abstract idea of renewal tangible in our lives.
Renewal is the tenth and final aesthetic of joy that I describe in Joyful. It incorporates sensations of blossoming, growth, and potential: new leaves unfurling, flowers opening, seasons bringing change into our surroundings.
With that in mind, here are some ways I’m creating a sense of renewal in my life right now.
Bring home flowers
Flowers are the ultimate symbol of renewal. Humans are universally drawn to flowers, and yet flowers have no meaningful nutritive value. One theory behind why we evolved to love flowers is that they are pure potential. Flowers show where fruit will be in the future. Our ancestors who paid attention to flowers could remember the locations of fruiting plants and be ready to harvest their fruits before other animals could get to them.
Flowers are an affordable joy, especially in a season where they are abundant. In a pinch, foraged branches of greenery can offer a bit of freshness even without blooms.
Get a change of scenery
Sometimes renewal is as simple as changing up the impressions on our retinas. Think about it: if you’re staring at screens all day every day, the inputs your brain is receiving are quite limited. Monotony is draining. An extreme example is the ennui that astronauts sometimes suffer during missions due to the highly controlled and limited environment. Researchers are now studying virtual reality solutions to give astronauts exposure to scenery that helps them cope with the monotony of their surroundings.
Fortunately, you don’t need virtual reality. You can simply get outside and go somewhere a little different. Get out into nature if you can — its gentle movements and ever-changing textures help to reset your attention — or even just go to a part of town you rarely visit. Imagine your senses like a puppy: they don’t do well being cooped up. They come to life when you let them out to run around.
Switch out your art and decor
When you’re feeling burned out, it’s tempting to feel that buying something new will give you that rush of joy you’re craving. But before breaking out your credit card, try changing around some of the things you already have. Switch artwork from room to room. Move a throw blanket from the sofa to your bed. Turn double-sided throw pillows around.
It’s easy to see our home decor as fixed and final. But switching it up can help us see the things we already have through a new lens, and remind us why we love them. Working within these constraints can also fire up our creativity, which rarely happens when we turn to consumption for a solution.
Get a haircut (nothing drastic!)
I’m always amazed by how new I feel after taking a couple of inches off my hair. My head feels lighter, and when I look in the mirror, the face looking back at me looks less tired. I’m not suggesting a radical change (which comes with risks better taken when you’re feeling rested), but rather simple maintenance, whatever that looks like for you.
Make a new recipe
Find renewal in the kitchen by turning a favorite cookbook to a new page. Sometimes I find that I choose a few recipes in a cookbook and then keep making them again and again, forgetting about the other 50 I haven’t tried. Another approach? Head to a farmer’s market and pick up something seasonal. Then learn how to prepare it.
The general principle here is to think beyond the sense of vision when looking for renewal. You can find renewal through new flavors, new scents, and new sounds as well.
Clear your desk
If you want a barometer of my current state of mind at any given moment, taking a look at my desk is a good place to start. For example, right now you might see piles of swatches, bills, mail, and mockups, along with a screwdriver, an old Metrocard, a broken tripod, and five pens strewn about so that I can quickly pick one up and jot whatever thought is threatening to flee my brain at that moment. It’s a visual representation of the chaos I’m dealing with as I juggle work, three different home projects, a move, and everything else.
Does clearing your desk eliminate the chaos? If only! But it does offer a little reset that lets you experience a fresh start when you sit down to work or do life admin.
For extra credit, knoll the items on your desk. Knolling is just a fancy way of saying “arrange at right angles.” It’s similar to what chefs do when they make a mise en place, and it creates a pleasing sense of order that makes your workspace feel “ready.”
I remember a visit to a nature preserve when I was a kid. There were all sorts of artifacts in the visitor’s center — birds’ nests and eggshells, feathers, and translucent, papery snake skins. I always found it amazing that a snake just sheds its skin, wriggling out of a it like a dress.
We can’t exactly shed a whole skin, but sloughing off a layer of old cells can give a feeling of freshness. My tool of choice is a coconut brush, which has the added benefit of promoting circulation and an all-over tingly feeling that makes it feel like it’s really doing something.
Yes, it might seem small or silly, but so often we overlook the body in favor of the mind. The pure physicality of this approach means we don’t just think about renewal. We really feel it.
Change up a routine
What basic daily activity is feeling stale to you?
Routines can help lower the friction to doing things we want to achieve, like bringing movement or mindfulness into our lives. At the same time, even good routines can become tiresome when repeated endlessly.
You could vary the exercises you do at the gym or listen to a book instead of a podcast on your morning walk. You could try a different lunch order or take a different route on your commute. You could even just take a few days break from a well-worn routine and then come back to it. A brief break interrupts the process of hedonic adaptation and refreshes the joy you get from a familiar activity.
Deep clean or organize one small thing
A full spring clean is out of the question this year. My basement looks like something out of Hoarders, as we move out of our city place and try to consolidate all our things under one roof. But choosing one small area to deep clean or organize is doable and offers a small reset that can help build momentum for larger changes down the road.
Recently I ordered wooden bins for the toys that have accumulated under our kitchen island. It took a little while to measure and find the right bins, but almost no time at all to sort the toys and put them away. The result is transformative! I can actually walk in the kitchen now without stepping on toys. And G. plays in a much more focused way.
Places to start: Organize your sock drawer, junk drawer, linen closet, or spices. Clean your dishwasher filter, fix a broken piece of furniture, weed a garden bed, or clean out your fridge.
Planting seeds or bulbs makes you an agent of renewal, not just for yourself but for all who get to enjoy your garden. It’s an act of anticipation, inviting you to stay attuned to your surroundings until the rewards of flowers or fruit arrive. It may even set you up for future seasons of renewal, if you plant perennials that will return each year, filling the landscape with growth and color.
You can take this one literally (and as a gardener, I hope you do), but you can also take it metaphorically. Plant seeds of future relationships by making a small gesture of friendship. Plant seeds of future success by investing in learning something new. Plant seeds for future joy by planning an event or trip in the future.
When I was a kid, when a game wasn’t going your way, you might yell “Do over!” as plea to your playmates for a fresh start. Adult life doesn’t give us many do overs, but we can still access the feeling of a clean slate through experiences of renewal.
How do you access renewal? Feel free to share your tips in the comments!
Image: Zoe Schaeffer via Unsplash