Habits in Lockdown blog series part 3: A surprising way to boost your mental health habits right now

In the last post, we discussed all the positive benefits routine can have on three key aspects of your physical health if you didn’t get a chance to read it you can find it here.

However, routines benefit not just your physical health but your mental health too. Research shows predictable, repetitive routines are calming and help reduce anxiety. Routine can take the guesswork and uncertainty out of bits of our day, which can allow us to feel more in control and less stressed.

Today I’m going to focus on a specific element of mental health routines that can help support you. However, there are a whole host of mental health routines that can enhance your life, social routines, purpose or project-based routines, emotional routines. However, if this is the support you need right now I think it is important that you get it to tackle these I have a special treat at the end of this post from a highly respected and knowledgeable coach in this area.

The elements that I have chosen to chat about today specifically support you both in your work and personal life, in terms of achieving your daily purpose-based goals. It might surprise you that I have focused on this particular element, however this the number one thing people have been asking for advice on and its one of the key things I see that is impacting people’s day to day happiness at home. And that is productivity….

Why is this a helpful habit to develop for my mental health?

You may wonder what productivity has to do with mental health habits. Well, feeling like you have achieved something in your day is a vital part of drawing satisfaction from your life, especially in the current climate. Be it rearranging the bookshelf or cleaning out your medicine cabinet, or working on a tough project at work – feeling like you’ve made progress on any task helps you feel accomplished and satisfied with your day and can have a positive trickle-down effect on your mood and mental wellbeing.

I see so many people struggling at the moment with blurred roles and purpose. They struggle between getting things done at work and being a parent, a teacher, a carer, checking in on others, and just generally managing all the noise that is going on right now. It takes them off task and leads to feelings of a lack of accomplishment in their day.

Listen, getting things done right now is hard. How many of us have struggled with distraction these past few weeks? It’s been so difficult to focus on one thing at a time. Some of us who don’t normally work from home might have slipped into a procrastination vortex where the only things that will hold our attention are Twitter, BBC news and Trump memes. Or you might find that you start to engage in my favourite distraction tool “procrasticlearing” the term for the fake productivity boost you get from tiding your kitchen when you are meant to be working on something else! Additionally, many of us who still have our jobs have started to allow our work-life boundaries to blur too much. Working in our pyjamas or from our sofas, or working past normal hours late into the night and not respecting our own need for personal time. All of this has a negative impact on our productivity and ultimately our mental health.

So how do we tackle this? The first thing, as with any behaviour, is to look at the cues or triggers that are getting in the way of our ability to focus on our priorities or goals (or productivity).

Overcoming distraction and temptation

One thing I encourage you to do over the next day or two is to keep a distraction diary. Taking note of what your major distractions are and when in the day you find yourself most vulnerable to distraction or procrastination. For example, for me, it’s just after lunch so I have to be really clear in scheduling exactly what I plan on doing immediately post-lunch beforehand and have strategies (which I will talk about shortly) in place to help me get immediately back in the mindset of work.

Or maybe you find you're constantly distracted by little things that take you off task. For this, I recommend a very simple noting technique. Split your page into work/personal (or whatever the competing interest is for you at this time) any time things pop up to distract you “cancel flight “ or “check I can get an online shopping slot” instead of doing it – put it in the personal list. Same goes for work tasks. If anything comes up that’s not related to your current task that you are working on writing it in either the work/personal task column. This simple noting technique can help reduce the – "Oh but if I don’t do this now I will forget about it" in other words the constant urge or need to immediately distract ourselves. It also provides reassurance that when you’re finished your task you can come back to it. You can then can pop 30 minutes in your diary at the end of the day to take care of these additional tasks that pop up.

This is not only useful from a productivity point of view but also from an attention training point of view. A study carried out by Microsoft on 2000 participants illustrates that goldfish have an average attention span of nine seconds, while humans now have eight! This split in attention has consequences not only on sucking away our time and our productivity, but it also has been shown to have a negative impact on our mental health. 

Tackling distraction/temptation 

I want you to take 30 seconds right now and write down the top 3 things that are distracting you at the moment. Be it something that is taking you away from your reading or going off-piste with a work task. Take some time to think about what’s throwing you off course most regularly, what interrupts your attention? It could be thoughts, it could be your phone, whatever it is take 30 seconds to think about your typical day and what gets in the way of you staying on task.  

Of these things write a C beside what can you control. I say this as firstly it’s important to recognise that some distractions are out of your control, however, be honest about this with yourself. If your kids are distracting you from work is it because you haven’t set up appropriate boundaries, or if your phone keeps ringing is it urgent for you to get in right this moment? Secondly, as with any habit change, it is useful to start with the low hanging fruit, this helps us build our confidence and momentum and makes it more likely we will be successful in the long run.

Going back to anything you listed that is within your control.

Look at these distractions more carefully what do you feel is the reward you are getting from these? What do they give you?

Is it a break, stress relief, distraction from how you truly feel etc. over the next week become curious about these distractions and what the underlying reward that they provide is, this will really help you in terms of targeting the root cause of these behaviours. For example, if you find yourself constantly checking the news is the root cause of stress or anxiety around the current situation? If so does checking the news help you alleviate this anxiety or does it make it worse? Is there something more functional you could do to alleviate this anxiety?

Start by thinking about what is at the root of this anxiety. This will help you get to a point where you can, in time, start to think about things that may help you better you cope better with these feelings. It could be anything at all but it needs to be something that is most relevant to you (e.g. call a family member you are worried about, practice meditation, take 3 calming belly breaths, disable the news alert from your phone, have a daily check-in with your other half to explore the ways you can better support one another). Another example of something a lot of people have mentioned to me that they are finding difficult right now is comfort eating, many mention becoming distracted by searching in the fridge for a snack when they've just eaten. If this sounds like you, ask yourself besides the pleasure of eating a tasty snack, what is the reward you’re seeking in this? Is it that you are bored? Is it that you’ve been working too long on one task and haven’t taken a break? Is it that you simply didn’t have enough breakfast/lunch? Or is it that food has become associated with soothing feelings of anxiety? Examining the root of your distractions is very important for understanding what drives certain daily behaviours. If you can shine a light on these and get to know the root cause you can start to work on active ways to help alleviate them that will have long-lasting benefits to your mental and often physical health too.

What we can learn from those who successfully stick to their goals about temptation/distraction

Research has found that those who are successful at sticking to their long term health goals, had a different outlook on the distractions or temptations that took them away from their goals. Once they did something that was contradictory to their goals they looked to learn from it. They examined why they gave in to temptation. Was it because they were hungry? Stressed? Tired? Bored? Emotional? Rather than berate themselves for a lack of willpower, they understood that this lapse in healthy behaviours was temporary and after examining why they had strayed they explored how they could tackle the root of the behaviour in future.

One of the best (and most researched ways) to help overcome common distractions and temptations is having a plan known in motivational science terms as implementation intentions. We constantly overestimate and over-rely on our willpower. For long term habit change to be effective we need to stop relying on our willpower and rather structure our lives so that we need to use it less. Implementation intention planning involves creating a plan of action for when you go off track because of a certain trigger. It helps you formulate how you can:

 1. Anticipate these failures/distractions/temptations in order to prevent them from happening in the first place and

2. Deal with them effectively in order to get back on track quickly when you go off course.

By having an alternative plan, it helps you overcome excuses, unproductive habits and develops a system for change in all circumstances rather than relying on your unreliable willpower.

Going back to the top 3 distractions that are within your control let’s make some plans or implementation intentions around them. So how implementation intention planning works is you anticipate your common distraction (x) and list ideas of different ways in which to overcome this distraction in the future.

If x happens (one of those distractions that are within your control) then I will do y (the way in which to overcome it)

For example

·      If I get distracted and want to check news alerts I will write it on my work/personal sheet to find 10 minutes in my diary to set as news time (and set a timer to tell me when that time is done).

·      If I get distracted by my phone I will put it in a drawer, move it to another room, turn it off completely, set up a work time mode on it, put a reminder in my calendar to turn it off between 9-12.30

·      If I find myself going to the fridge looking for a snack I will check in with myself – am I really hungry (scale of 1-10) or am I thirsty, bored, emotional, lonely – what would be something else I could do in this situation that would be more likely to tackle this; call someone, step outside and take 3 deep breaths, have a cup of tea, write down what I think is the root of this distraction

 

Take some time now to write down your implementation intentions or plans around how you are going to tackle 1 of your 3 distractors.

Importantly you need to create a number of alternate options and keep it visible. This is so you know in advance of the distraction what potential options are available to you. Not every option will work well and you will most certainly find that you will occasionally slip back into your old habit, but the key here is two-fold, experiment to find an alternative that works for you and once found consistently execute it.

 

The best technique to help you get more done and feel good about it


The final insight I wish to share is based on one of the best techniques for staying on task. It has been shown in studies to not only improve your productivity but actually your attention span and concentration too. It has single handily been the best productivity tools I’ve come across and I clearly notice the difference not only in my productivity but in my satisfaction and mental health when I don’t use it. Also, what I love about this technique is that it is based around a well known and loved vegetable!

Introducing.......the Pomodoro Technique, which is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. Named “Pomodoro” after the tomato-shaped timer he used to track his work as a university student. The methodology is simple: When faced with any large task or series of tasks, break the task down into short, timed 25-minute intervals (called “Pomodoros”) that are spaced out by short breaks (25 minutes of the task, 5-minute breaks). This trains your brain to focus for short periods. It makes it easy to engage with any task. It has also been found to not only boost productivity but creativity too. It works like this:

■      Choose a task to be accomplished and break it down into 25minute segments

■      Set the Pomodoro to 25 minutes (the Pomodoro is the timer)

■      Work on the task until the Pomodoro/Timer rings

■      Take a short break (5 minutes is OK)

■      Every 4 Pomodoros take a longer break 15/30/60mins

 

There are many tools you can use to time your pomodoros I use a timer app called Focus to Do Timer if you’d rather use pen and paper I highly recommend The Productivity Planner but you could use Alexa/google home, your laptop timer, or you can buy the original tomato timer. Again whatever works for you! The key here is that like with any habit, breaking things down into smaller bite-sized chunks help you not only engage with a task but makes you more likely to continue to engage with it as you start to feel feelings of satisfaction and momentum.

I hope you find some of the above tools helpful in supporting you at this time, as I mentioned as an added extra here is the link to a really supportive PDF guide from a mental wellbeing and clarity coach that I highly respect and value. Not for any reason but that it provides some useful, actionable insights on what we can all do right now to help gain more clarity on the emotions that we are feeling right now.

Take care,

Heather

Published on 30th Apr 2020 at 10:21 by Heather McKee

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Copyright ©2020 Dr. Heather McKee

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This work is in no way meant to replace any medical advice. Dr. McKee is Non-HCPC-registered. Photography by Dylan Madden.

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