Lately, I find myself thinking more and more about habits.
Not least in part because the current loss of normality, routine and whatever illusion I had of control pre-2020 somehow makes unhealthy habits much more appealing and healthier ones much less so.
I mean, I’m battling on…
But as my emotions become more erratic, unpredictable and intense, the urge to remedy uncomfortable feelings with cookie dough, booze, caffeine or mindless scrolling grows stronger day by day.
Just me? Doubt it.
The thing is, habits are pretty important right now. They’re a big part of how able we are to cope. More than ever, we need to look after ourselves, mentally, physically and emotionally.
So, how do we maintain healthy habits amid a global crisis? Here are some tips that might help:
How to maintain healthy habits in lockdown
1. Adapt and modify
If the activities that usually keep you (fairly) healthy and happy are suddenly off the table, don’t lose heart. Consider what it is that you actually enjoy about your usual pursuits. Is it the creativity, the movement, or the challenge, for example? Once you’re clear, have a think: are there any apocalypse-friendly alternatives that might tick some of the same boxes?
Truthfully, a daily walk might not elicit the same state of inner calm that a yoga class does, but it may well get you closer. And that’s something.
2. Forget about willpower
Over time, I’ve learned that willpower never works for long. Taking a smart approach does.
James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, talks a lot about making it easier to do the right thing and harder not to. For example, having little bars of dark chocolate in the house makes it easier for me to satisfy my daily sugar cravings in moderation, while not having ingredients in the house makes it harder for me to plunge into the cake batter. In fact, if I’m willing to brave the supermarket amid a global pandemic in order to get this, then I’m going to let myself have it.
Plan ahead based on where you – the worst, most demotivated, having-a-rotten-day version of you – are likely to slip up. Now: how can you make it more awkward and uncomfortable to do so? By charging your phone away from arm's reach? Deleting your takeaway apps? Turning off email notifications past 5pm?
Similarly, how you might make healthy habits more convenient? By laying out your workout clothes so you see them first thing? Or perhaps by shopping with meal plans in mind, so you’re not at the mercy of hunger?
How too might you make healthier choices more appealing? Might a little recipe research excite you into healthier food choices? Could an activity like housework be combined with something more rewarding, like listening to an audiobook, enabling you to reframe it as a little piece of “me time”? If it feels easy and rewarding, it’s more likely to happen.
3. Ride on the coat-tails of your current habits
Even in these unusual times, there’s likely to be a handful of daily rituals that you practise, perhaps unconsciously. “Habit stacking”, as James Clear calls it, asks that you simply attach a new habit to one that’s already there, taking advantage of neural pathways already in place. So, rather than decide you’re going to start meditating at 8.30am each day, decide instead to meditate for one minute during your morning shower or your first cup of tea.
4. Think small steps, not grand gestures
Yep, I said just one minute. Because according to behaviour scientist BJ Fogg, author of Tiny Habits, small steps are the key to success.
Aim to floss one tooth. Do one squat. Take one breath. Wash one plate.
Once you’re over the starting block, you might find that you’re surprisingly motivated to do more.
Jo Steer is a former leader now working with schools as a wellbeing consultant