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An Ode To 14 Low-Key Life-Changing Things That Got Me Through 2020 And Into 2021

Some big, some small — but all, to me, were important.

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In a year that's had more bad news than all the bad news in the rest of my life combined, there were several things that helped make things a bit better along the way.

Some big things, some small things. But all, to me, were important. I'm not a huge fan of forcing a "silver lining" on bad situations (see: 2020), since sometimes acknowledging "the bad" can feel pretty cathartic. But as we head into 2021, I'll admit that making an inventory of all the stuff I got done this past year has made me feel pretty freaking good about myself. And I would add making this very list as one of the things that's made me smile just a little bit this year, too. 😌

1. I paid off my credit card debt thanks to, of all things, a podcast.

TBS

A few years ago, my brother introduced me to a personal finance guru named Dave Ramsey, who hosts a popular podcast by the same name. In every episode of the show, Ramsey takes calls from people asking for financial advice. The highlight of every episode is the brutal — almost hard-to-listen-to — advice that he gives all the callers. Some might call it harsh, but TBH, digging into his podcast and his free spreadsheets was exactly the kind of army-style slap to reality I needed to finally pay off my debt.

I know that crawling out of credit card debt isn't an immediate option for most people. But what I'd tell those people is what I realized at the end of my journey (and secretly always knew to be true): Don't let your debt kill your joy, because you can always pay down debt but you can't take back time.

2. For the first time in my life, I experienced the world adapting to my introverted self, instead of the other way around.

E! Online

All my life, I've worked hard to try and adapt my introverted self to extroverted American culture. I've learned to embrace crowds and public speaking, learned to voice opinions about things, and gotten better at making new friends. The journey's been hard. And to this day, these things continue to demand a bit more energy from me than other life activities.

But thanks to a big life change of moving from New York City to Berlin, Germany, I was able to reset that dynamic. In Berlin, I've transitioned into a less-social life, wherein I'm expected to chat with no more than one or two people at a time in real life? My DNA was literally coded for exactly this type of situation. I'm not saying this year was fun in any way, but I did get to experience a pace of social life I've always dreamed of. And I don't think I'll be so quick to transition out of it. 😛

3. I created routines that actually worked for me — and then stuck to them.

Hulu

I've always wanted to be the kind of person who has a routine. Thanks to my daydreaming tendencies and overachieving nature, though, keeping routine habits has always felt like something reserved for people with extraordinary discipline.

But this year, I've spent a lot of time cycling through a list of, like, 10 activities total. And for the first time in my life, I've had an extremely constant morning and bedtime routine. I love going to sleep, knowing that I have a full morning of self-care activities waiting for me: That includes a mix of journaling, drinking a cup of tea very slowly, staring out my window, rubbing my plants, reading, and working out. Similarly, I love ending work, knowing that a pleasant evening of more reading, taking a warm bath, and calling my friends and family back in the States awaits.

4. I read a book that made me feel more seen than any other book in the last few years.

Photo from a page of Cathy Park Hong's "Minor Feelings," with an underlined excerpt that reads, "To grow up Asian in America is to witness the humiliation of authority figures like your parents and to learn not to depend on them: they cannot protect you."
Michelle No / BuzzFeed

When I read Cathy Park Hong's Minor Feelings, I felt a level of existential acknowledgment I haven't felt, ever, in popular culture. I raced through this memoir-cum-book of cultural criticism, gobbling up Hong's descriptions of Asian American experience (perhaps skewed toward East Asian representation, BTW) and finding myself in every one of her sentences. Reading her book made me like Asian Americans had been placed somewhere on the cultural map, a location pin dropping on a map. At the same time, it made me sad for all those other books I had spent my life reading and thinking, "This is as close as it's gonna get."

In a year wracked with confusion, grief, and anxiety, Cathy Park Hong's Minor Feelings kept me alive. Get a copy here.

5. I got closer to friends nearby.

Nickelodeon

When you're free to travel thousands of miles and text people countries away at all hours of the day, it's easy to neglect the local friends in your life. It took Zoom fatigue and cabin fever to make me realize that I have friends just a few minutes' walk away whom I can experience the glory of IRL conversation with. My local shopkeepers and friends next door have been my lifeline this year and have made me eternally grateful for my local community.

6. I got extremely into YouTube workouts.

Photo of Michelle's workout station, with a pair of dumbbells and two smaller filled-up water bottles doubling as lighter weights.
Michelle No / BuzzFeed

I have never been the type of person to enjoy gym classes. I've tried everything from HIIT workouts to Zumba and pilates, and every experience has felt like a test of patience, resilience, and social anxiety all at once. I've also eschewed gym classes because of the dilemma they've always posed: I can either look good while working out or have an effective workout with insane expressions and grunts.

Enter home workouts, wherein absolutely no one will fault me for making my guttural workout sounds, for ending a set a few seconds earlier than I should, or for doing an exercise completely differently from what's on screen. In my home gym (the tiny area in front of my couch), it's my rules and I get a pat on the back whether I work out for 5 minutes or 45.

Read more: 15 Online Workouts You Can Do At Home Instead Of At The Gym

Now here are some smaller, but still-significant things made 2020 just a little bit better:

7. I upgraded from a mattress on the floor to an actual bed (that I assembled myself!).

Bravo

If you want to instantly feel like a queen, try going from sleeping on a mattress on the floor to sleeping on a bouncy bed, WITH a headboard. Yeah. If you know, you know.

8. I watched my plants unfurl new leaves in real time.

CsaK / Giphy / Via giphy.com

I've been places. I've seen some shit. But nothing's ever scared me more than watching my plant unfurl a new leaf in real time. When it first happened, it reminded me that I lived with living creatures (seven of them!) in my home and it kind of creeped me out. But now I just can't stop staring at my plants, hoping to catch another new bud blossom into adulthood.

9. I made micro-adjustments to my apartment.

The writer's rug perfectly aligned to the floorboard
Michelle No / BuzzFeed

Before quarantine, I had dozens of tiny to-dos that I always managed to put off, like descaling my shower head, aligning my rug to my floorboards (hello, OCD), AND finally putting up that one frame that's been gathering dust since I moved in. You know, all the the things that you absolutely cannot be bothered to think about after a long commute back home. In the COVID-19 world, I find myself actually looking for more things to fix up. On days when I haven't left my house and feel unnaturally sluggish, I'd say I even enjoy having little home maintenance tasks to pour my energy into.

10. I grew out my lifeless, dry, and broken bleached hair.

Writer with a short haircut, after having cut nearly all her old blonde hair
Michelle No / BuzzFeed

I loved my bleached hair. But after three years of dipping my hair in industrial-strength bleach, my locks were one strong gust of wind away from completely breaking off my head. This year, with salons closed and nowhere to go, I finally got the opportunity to let my blonde hair grow out and chop it all off. (Okay, so there're still like a few tiny streaks left in this photo but I promise it's completely gone now!)

11. I tried dozens of new recipes.

Homemade German kale stew with smoked sausage and boiled potatoes
Michelle No / BuzzFeed

Cooking is probably the closest I'll ever get to having an actual hobby. It doesn't take a lot of expertise, has a pretty flat learning curve, and has a huge payoff (at least for me). Some of my favorite recipes I've made this year are chimichurri shrimp, pecan pie, Korean braised short ribs, and this hummus that I'll never tire of.

I've also gotten into German cuisine! Some of the best new dishes I've tried are bread dumplings with creamed mushroom sauce, kale stew with sausage, and Swabian-style lentils with spaetzle, a type of homemade pasta.

And hot tip: If you have a tiny kitchen or a small cooking budget, an immersion blender will go a long way and open a whole new world of recipes (think: dips, soups, and sauces).

12. I wrote lots of birthday cards.

13. I had the most chocolaty croissant of my life.

Chocolate-filled croissant
Michelle No / BuzzFeed

This year wasn't a complete bust. At an outdoor wedding, I tasted the most chocolaty croissant I've ever had in my life. You know how when you're at the end of a bag of Doritos, you'll sometimes discover a lone chip heavily caked with Cool Ranch powder? My croissant was the same kind of exceptional unicorn, and biting into it felt like winning the flavor lottery. I'll never forget you, Austrian croissant.

14. I got a subscription to a magazine based out of my former hometown — and it satisfied my homesickness.

Screenshot of New York Magazine website
New York magazine

I have no idea how I would've gotten through this year without the help of memes, pop culture, and the advice column Ask Polly. The latter is one of the reasons why I splurged on a subscription to New York Magazine, which has made me feel connected to the funnest parts about the Internet and has soothed my bursts of New York nostalgia.

What are some the things — small or big — that got *you* through 2020? Tell me in the comments below.