Well, it happened. We made it to 2021. But if we’re being honest with ourselves, the madness of 2020 didn’t vanish overnight—and now the holidays are behind us, with not much to look forward to that’s obvious up ahead.

I’ve always struggled with this time of year, especially when I was living in snowy, dark climates. January is a month that tends to drag toward the end. There’s a buzz in early January from the excitement of New Years and resolutions and new planners, but as the winter drags on and there’s very little to look forward to, it can become challenging to keep your spirits up. Especially this year, where many of us are ringing in 2021 while experiencing some form of lockdown, we really need to make January special.

With that in mind, I undertook a project to transition from “holiday” to “winter” in my home decor, mindset, and attitude toward life. Thinking about the winter as its own special time with its own joys and struggles can, I think, help us all stay positive when it might be a challenging time.

01. Set the scene

The “January project” was really born when I came up with the idea of replacing all my household linens and decor with items in white. I’m now living in a region without snow, and I missed the beautiful white—plus, white can really open up an indoor space, it gives you a sense of a fresh start, and it can easily transition into spring with the addition of a few beautiful floral prints. Try this with white curtains, white pillow covers, white blankets . . . and see whether it boosts your mood. You could even purchase a white lounge set to match your new surroundings! Don’t forget the candles—try finding some long-burning pillar candles, or place timed electric candles in your windows. Candles are an incredible comfort in dark days.

I’d be remiss not to mention string lights—steal them from your Christmas tree! Decor can be homemade, as well. I’m planning to craft some little white paper or cardboard houses and paper snowflakes and stars (this tutorial is in German but it’s still pretty clear—if you’re still lost, try this). It’s far less depressing to take down all the Christmas decor when there’s something fresh and new to put in its place.

02. Set a schedule

I know, I know, boring. But it’s really easy to slip into a rut in the dark days of January. As I work from home and have some flexibility, I find it most helpful to set a schedule in broad strokes—a wakeup time and bedtime, with a few anchor activities throughout the day—and then let myself go with the flow the rest of the time. Setting boundaries around screen time, especially, can help that Netflix episode or Pinterest session feel like a special reward rather than a time vortex. 

I’ve recently started leaving my phone outside my room on airplane mode and not checking it in the morning until after I’ve taken a walk—it motivates me to get outside, and when I finally do let the stressful notifications roll in, I’ve primed my day for a good start. If you’re in a particularly dark region and/or prone to seasonal depression, a session under a sunlight lamp might be a good thing to work into your daily routine (I’ve used this one with success!). If the sun isn’t rising at the time you want to wake up, I’d highly recommend a sunlight alarm clock to help your circadian rhythm out.

The nice thing about setting a schedule is that you can set things to look forward to throughout your day—you get to curl up with a book and a cup of tea at 3 p.m., for example, or you always take a nice hot bath at night. Having things to look forward to really helps us stay positive and motivated when we might be slipping into a rut. Plus, if you have a routine, it feels like an indulgence to break it—to sleep in later, for example, or to take one day off. I always take Wednesdays off my regular work routine and devote them to cooking, cleaning, and annoying chores—but these feel fun because they’re a break from my regular routine!

03. Take cozy walks

I’m going to be honest with you: I’m not very motivated to work out in January. It might be shallow, but no one is going to see my legs for months, and so I’m just not that worried about them—I’d rather get back into my running routine when I can actually run outside than force myself through weeks of indoor workouts. But the fact remains that we all need exercise to stay healthy, and it’s particularly important to get outside in the winter, even when it’s the least appealing. What’s a girl to do?

Walk. Beside being the workout of choice of Elizabeth Bennet (remember how Mr. Darcy noticed how her “eyes were brightened by the exercise”!), walks have a wide variety of physical and mental health benefits. Plus, they don’t have to involve suffering—I promise. Remember the saying, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes”? Put that into practice and bundle up for your daily walk—maybe bringing along a hot drink to boot. Chat with a friend on the phone or in person, or maybe bring along a camera for a photo shoot. Exercise doesn’t have to be a dreadful experience, even in the winter months.

04. Things to look forward to

Beside your daily activities to look forward to, it’s great to have some bigger things to count down to days—or even weeks—in advance. I was recently part of a Zoom table-read of a Shakespeare play; virtual events like this abound, and watching one of the many creative productions that are underway live (or even at a scheduled event with friends) can be a magical experience without leaving the comfort of your own home.

A subscription box can also be fun to look forward to—I have a candle subscription, and knowing that those candles are coming in the mail is such a little delight! Or, set a weekly date with yourself to go out to a local coffee shop or pick up a new book from the bookstore. Looking forward to something is one of the best ways to make these days fly by.

05. Activities you don’t usually do

One of the keys to making this winter season special for me has been intentionally taking up activities that I don’t normally do. For example, I’m not a big crafter, but lately I’ve been enjoying trying a different craft kit every week (Etsy has some incredible ones—look for a terrarium kit!) If crafting isn’t your speed, try picking up a new instrument, undertaking a baking challenge, or even just journaling every day. Dare I say that online dating could also be a fun thing to try in the long, quiet winter evenings? Or, if you’ve had an eye on a self-help or course-style book like The Artist’s Way, or there’s a series you’ve been meaning to read, this might be a great time to pick that up to set this time apart.

06. Food and drink

One of the big components of the Danish art of hygge is hot drinks and delicious foods. There are some winters that may be a good time to cut back on the sweets, but I’ve never met one, and it’s certainly not this winter. I’m saving the sugar detox for some less-depressing time and embracing the opportunity to be cozy with nice treats for cold winter days. This can also help with the post-holiday letdown—sometimes we  deny ourselves all the nice things to eat from a sense of guilt that we “indulged” over the holidays, when really this is a time when we might appreciate a cup of hot chocolate even more than on Christmas Eve.

07. Soundtracks and specials

Part of the joy of Christmas is the sound of Christmas—familiar carols, Christmas bells, Mariah Carey in all the stores. But winter can have its own special soundtrack. Try making your own playlist of wintry tunes (I’m leaning toward medieval melodies for mine) to make this time its own special season.

This can also be a great time to pick a specific series to catch up on. Rather than descending into a Netflix binge, pick a series and watch one episode a day (or even one episode a week, like in the old days of cable!) This, again, can give you something to look forward to and give you a sense of the time passing along. You might even wish that January were a few days longer!

January doesn’t have to be nothing but a post-holiday letdown. If we let it have an identity as a season of its own, all the specific joys of winter won’t be lost on us—and we’ll enjoy the journey to the brighter days ahead!