What Should Your Family’s 2021 Priorities Be?
Because we can’t walk into 2021 hoping to reset the clock to 2019
by Steve Silvestro, MD @zendocsteve
You can also listen to this article as a podcast on your favorite podcast app or click on the player below:
I don’t usually start articles off with a preface, but as we all know, everything is different in 2020. This year has affected all of us, but it’s impacted some more than others. A wonderful guy I knew from college passed away as a result of COVID; I feel for his family. Friends of mine lost parents and grandparents. And countless people whom I’ll never know lost their own loved ones. And unfortunately, this pandemic isn’t through with us yet. So as I wrote the piece that follows, I was painfully aware that some of the thoughts below may be most easily applied by some more than others. But as we all must push forward in whatever way, at whatever pace we individually can, my hope is that the ideas below can be used by as many of us as possible.
In the film version of Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone, Harry, Hermione, and Ron have just narrowly escaped the dripping fangs of a giant, three-headed dog when Hermione announces:
“Now, if you two don’t mind, I’m going to bed before either of you come up with another clever idea to get us killed—or worse, expelled!”
As she leaves, an incredulous Ron tells Harry: “She needs to sort out her priorities!”
Now, I’m not one who usually spends the end of one year eagerly anticipating next, impatiently waiting for it to hurry up and start. But if any year were a ferocious, three-headed dog most of us would like to escape, 2020 would be it.
Yet in true 2020 fashion, sorting out your family’s priorities for the year ahead is likely to look different from how you might have done so in the past…
PRIORITIES ARE ALREADY CHANGING
By early December of most years, my kids will usually have crafted a holiday wishlist of a dozen or so things they want, having taken a Sharpie and circled half the Target catalog or drafted a running list on my wife’s phone in the months leading up to Christmas.
This year, however, eighty percent of the times I asked them about what they wanted for Christmas, they responded with: “I dunno.”
Yes, they’re getting older. And yes, COVID made sure that they had far fewer in-store shopping trips this year to spark their desires. But I also believe that the strangeness of this year has shown them that maybe they don’t need as much materialistic stuff—whether they consciously recognize that lesson or not.
I’ve written before about how through all the hardships of not being in school and figuring out how to safely see friends, my kids found new ways to learn and grow—they tinkered with new instruments, read a bajillion books, rode bikes, and even got really into geocaching. Over the last ten months, their priorities began to shift without them even realizing it.
For me and my wife—and perhaps for you, too—the shift in family priorities has been a bit more palpable. Gone are the busy schedules of driving two kids to soccer practice, swim sessions, and school events. In are more time together (with its pros and cons!), more quiet time reading, fixing things around the house, and enjoying the outdoors. In fact, even though we were thrilled when the kids’ soccer league opened up with masks and precautions this fall, I have to admit I’ve found myself content to see our busy schedules settle down once again now that the season has ended.
Working from home presented new challenges for many. Isolating from loved ones—and for many, the tragedy of losing loved ones—put into stark relief how much we all mean to each other. And the combination of extreme politics and the loss of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many others whose names didn’t grab the headlines was a painful reminder that humanity’s shadows don’t just lurk beneath the surface, but remain glaringly present every day—a reminder that will hopefully not fade from memory in 2021.
The truth is, we can’t walk into 2021 hoping to reset the clock back to what life was like in 2019. This year changed us—we need to let its lessons sink in and choose how we want to use them to direct us as we move forward.
TO ACCEPT THE IMPACT, YOU FIRST HAVE TO RECOGNIZE IT
In order to fully understand the impact this year has had on you and your family, you’ll need to take time to truly reflect.
A college friend of mine once made a comment that has stuck with me now many years later. Weeks after the 9/11 attacks while most of the country was still processing what had happened, he seemed fairly well put together. When I asked him how this was so, he said that he had long before learned to allow himself to “fully feel” his emotions when he felt them. By letting himself bear the full weight of his feelings, letting them take him as far as they could in the moment, he was able to better accept and respect them—and then move on.
Most of us have been guilty at some point this year of lingering in the superficial with half-joking comments like “2020 is a dumpster fire,” “2020 sucks,” or “because it’s 2020.” Thoughts like these help us get by in the moment by letting us skate across the surface of hard times and chuckling them off.
But if we hope to be at peace with this year as we step into the next—if we want to truly be able to move on—then we’ll need to dig deeper and fully explore its impact on us.
Be specific as you do: What was hard about this year? Why? What was good about this year? How so?
Digging deeply like this isn’t always fun, and it’s rarely easy. For those who’ve had extremely painful times—those who’ve lost loved ones, or lost jobs or relationships—it may even be best done with professional help. But I encourage you to take the time to dig, to reflect honestly on how this year impacted you and your family. And depending on the age of your kids, it may be wise to help them reflect on their own experiences, as well.
CHOOSING HOW TO REBOOT
If it’s clear to you what the best or hardest parts of 2020 were for you and your family, then your task is just as clear—to try and plan out how to best maximize the benefits of the good and to tackle the pitfalls of the challenging.
(Again, for those who’ve lost loved ones, moving forward will likely take more than a simple exercise. You might also not feel ready to move forward yet—and that’s perfectly okay. Know that there is help if you need it.)
But if you have a jumble of feelings about this year and aren’t sure what to do with them, then you might find an activity I’ve written about before to be quite helpful—the “80/20 Exercise.”
In a nutshell, the 80/20 Exercise is a simple way to whittle through the noise and identify the positives in your life you want to focus on, as well as the negatives you’d like to fix.
The year-end/new year version of the 80/20 Exercise looks like this:
In the first part of the exercise, write down all of the things that were the most challenging or brought the most frustration or negative impact to you and your family. Once your list feels complete, circle the 20% of items that caused 80% of your frustration. These are the few things that brought the most sadness, irritation, or drama. By focusing on tackling these few things, you’ll put a significant dent in preventing this year’s hardships from extending into next year.
Once you’ve identified the disproportionately trouble-making 20%, note next to each one “can be changed” or “can’t be changed.” For those items that can be changed, brainstorm specific ways you can go about doing so in 2021. But for those items that cannot be changed, your task is more challenging—if they truly can’t be changed, then you must learn to accept them as they are. Fighting against something that cannot be changed is how we take pain and turn it into suffering, and doing so is sure to keep you from moving forward in the new year. As hard as it may be, let it go—whether on your own, or with the support of friends, family, or a professional.
For the second part of the exercise, write down all the things that were good about this year. Be specific—rather than saying “family,” write “spending more time hiking with the kids,” or “video calls with family we miss.” Then go through and circle the 20% of the items on your list that have brought you 80% of your joy. These are the things you’ll want to make an effort to see happen more often in the year ahead.
PLANNING AHEAD NOW THAT THE CRACKS ARE EXPOSED
The trigger for much of—but not all of—the upheaval we felt in 2020 was certainly COVID-19. But unfortunately, even with vaccines rolling out, we’re still going to be dealing with this virus and feeling its impact for most of 2021.
So as you plan for this next year ahead, tackling the few things that brought the most hardship and boosting those things that brought the most joy, it’ll be best to plan for two conditions—the world as it is now, dealing with safety measures and social distancing, and the world as it might be by the end of next year, much more open and relaxed. How you approach your priorities may need to adapt as the year progresses.
We’re all looking forward to the scourge of COVID to be over and done with, but recognizing that its end is still down the road and planning accordingly will let you start working on your family’s new priorities right now.
Yet as I noted a moment ago, COVID-19 was the trigger for many, but not all, of the challenges we faced this year. The roots of many of this year’s hardships, both societal and personal, were already there, some lurking beneath the surface, others in plain view but ignored—and they were all exposed by the impact that COVID had on the world.
That’s why the challenges and the heartaches, the positives and the pitfalls of 2020 shouldn’t be quickly forgotten, no matter how much we’d like them to be.
By taking the time to reflect, by allowing yourself to dig deep and explore what exactly was the best and the worst of 2020—and, more importantly, why—and by identifying exactly what your and your family’s priorities for the new year should be, you’ll be taking an important step toward making 2021 a better year for everyone.