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Giving up sweets, sugar, or alcohol may seem like the perfect way to approach Lent, but what if instead of giving something up, you took something on?

Ashley Kappel
February 15, 2018

While Lent’s roots are intrinsically religion-based, abstaining from something during the forty-day period leading up to Easter has been adopted beyond the Christian community. People use Lent to kick-start diets, re-resolve to hit the gym, or swear off sweets until the sugar-laden Easter basket arrives.

For participants who didn’t join for religious reasons, it’s a chance to begin again a few weeks after the new year, a second chance to change who they are, and to test their own willpower.

And even though that might be great for some people, I’m over it. Not the religious part of Lent—I’m actually still very into that aspect—but I’m over using those forty days as a kind of mallet to beat yourself over the head, and later as a bullhorn to announce to the world that you’re doing so.

That said, forty days is a great amount of time to establish healthy new habits, so instead of ditching food groups or dieting in the name of faith this season, let’s do some good instead, shall we? Here, some ideas we’re putting into practice this year.

Put It on Paper

One year, I dedicated a few minutes a day to writing a letter to someone important in my life, which was likely the first time since middle school that I wrote someone a note just because. Instead of making a list of every family member and friend, take a minute or two that day to be mindful of who might need to hear from you. Is it a thank you to a child’s teacher who’s going above and beyond to provide much needed help in a certain area? A friend you lost touch with during a transition in your life? Or someone who needs a dose of cheer to get through a gloomy time, sickness, or just a terrible day? During the following months, I tacked notes onto boards, stuck them on fridges, and tucked ‘em away in drawers. I hope those words did as much for the recipient as they read them as they did for me when I wrote them. By the way, I ended up needing way more than forty days.

Give Back

Instead of pining away over desserts you rarely eat anyway, dedicate time to a favorite cause. While some people pledge forty hours to represent the forty days, doing so can either be a motivator or a speed block. Instead, if you feel you must incorporate the forty, do it in a different way. Donate forty dog toys, bags of kitty litter, or warm blankets to the animal shelter. Purge forty pieces of unworn clothing from you closet. Pick out forty items from your pantry that you can drop off at the food pantry, or pick up a few extra items the next time you’re at your local big box store. The point of Lent, at least for me, is not picking something so large that you get discouraged and quit, but instead tackling something tangible so that you have time to reflect on yourself and the needs of others around you.

Create a Habit

Repetition is key in creating habits, so use Lent as a time to be intentional in creating a habit you want to keep. As in all things, moderation is key. Don’t sign yourself to make your bed, cook every meal at home, implement a cleaning schedule, drink 100 ounces of water, and exercise every day if each of those things is new to you. If you try to tackle them all, you’ll burn out. If you must add multiple habits, do so weekly. The first week, make your bed every day. The next week, work on meal planning so you can stop buying lunch out. The third week, chart your water intake, and so on.

Be Mindful

In a time where we mindlessly scroll while waiting for our water to boil, order to arrive, or oven to preheat, a screen-free season might be the kind of spring cleaning your soul needs. While avoiding all screens might be impossible for work or family reasons, consider using screens in general as a tool and not a toy. Yes to scheduling play dates and meal planning. No to seeing what your high school bestie is up to. Or, for the truly infatuated, limit yourself to a single screen at a time. It’s one thing to connect with other viewers celebrating an Olympic win on Twitter while you watch the games live on TV; it’s quite another to browse Snapchat while binge watching Netflix.

Pick Up a Skill

While you can’t become a concert pianist in forty days, you can learn to play scales and master basic five-finger melodies. Pick a skill, talent, or hobby you’d like to cultivate and dedicate real time to it. If you’d like to become a better painter, set aside a week to work on drawing, then practice for the duration of Lent. The same basic idea (select a focus, dedicate time to it with a clearly defined goal, and carry through no matter what until the end of Lent) can be applied to anything from learning how to grill, becoming a runner, or even learning to be a better listener. As the saying goes, "The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now."