Staying Motivated Against the Odds – The Power of Habits

We have all experienced a monumental shift in our place, roles and purpose, something unprecedented has happened in our lives, where we now live in constant flux and uncertainty.

Now more than ever we need our routines, we need our habits to support us. They are our anchors, they keep us steady, they help protect our physical and mental wellbeing and allow us to weather the storm. The certainty of our routines and habits adds a rhythm to our lives, this can help us regain control and structure in our lives when so much uncertainty is around us.

Our minds and bodies rely on habits. Our brains have so much to process right now that creating routines that in time form habits will allow us to take that pressure off our thinking mind. Habits are often non-conscious processes and thus free up our minds to focus on what's in front of us, the decisions we need to face.

Routine is our anchor

When researching relevant literature, studies and other evidence for this blog, what I found surprising (I shouldn’t have given I am habits specialist so obviously a fan!) was that evidence for the grounding effect of routines on your physical, emotional, and mental health can be found so far and wide. There is a lot of interesting evidence from the academic fields however I find it’s also important to draw from other sources too.

One of the first texts I came across detailed ancient 2000-year-old Ayurvedic practices around how in times of chaos (which were much more frequent back then – think famine, wars, pillaging) when control or freedom have been taken from us. The most important thing for mind and body that the Ayurvedic practitioners held precious above all else, the very first thing they attended to was creating a routine to help support them.

A little more recently (last week in fact) I read an insightful opinion piece in the New York Times by Astronaut Scot Kelly. Where he parallels the lessons learned from many months’ isolation in space and how that could be applied to help us overcome what we are now facing in terms of coronavirus isolation. He cited that following a routine or schedule was key to helping him get through nearly a year’s worth of isolation on a tiny space station. He notes:

“On the space station, my time was scheduled tightly, from the moment I woke up to when I went to sleep. You will find maintaining a plan will help you and your family adjust to a different work and home life environment. When I returned to Earth, I missed the structure it provided and found it hard to live without. But pace is key: When you are living and working in the same place for days on end, work can have a way of taking over everything if you let it. Living in space, I deliberately paced myself because I knew I was in it for the long haul — just like we all are today.”

Another interesting insight came from a Navy SEAL with 37 years of service. McRaven is an expert on the power of routine for optimal performance, resilience and ultimately life satisfaction. In his recent book he takes the genesis of the top lessons he learnt as a SEAL. Which of all of the things to choose from one of the first major lessons was to start with making your bed in order to go into the day feeling accomplished. This powerful book is attributed to how creating a supportive routine, even though the smallest of changes is key when everything else around you has turned to chaos.

How do we create the routine that we need to support our healthy habits

If routine is what we need right now, how do we create a routine that best supports us? How do we know what to do? How can we become motivated when there is so much going on? So much to distract, detract? So much anxiety and worry? What’s the first step?

This is exactly what I will aim to address, over the next few weeks through posting blogs/podcast episodes or other stuff I think may help you I hope to guide you through a series of evidence-based exercises and challenges to help you create a routine that works for you that maximises your health and happiness and makes it likely that the routines you establish now will translate into habits that will last beyond this period of uncertainty and isolation.

Throughout this time, I’m going to talk about our routines and habits interchangeably (although they are different and there is much debate about the differences to make my life easier for now I’m not going to go into these differences - yes academics you can scowl all you like at me! But now isn’t the time).

Because I strongly believe in practising what we preach throughout this series I will give examples of how I have applied various aspects of habit science to my own life. However, these are not goals but rather illustrations to help support your own thinking about what might work for you. The thing about behaviour change is that it’s not about a one size fits all approach. What works for you won’t necessarily work for someone else. We all have complex busy lives, we have kids, we have demanding jobs or family we need to take care of. Whatever it is that you do to create your own routines/habits it needs to be true for you not Mary down the road. It is important that we create habits that represent the true picture of our lives as these are the ones that can weather the storm.

What I really want for you throughout this series is for you to focus on what is going to help you feel better during this difficult time. Over the course of this series, I will be sharing my top tools for supporting you to develop healthy habits that last. I encourage you to see this as an experiment, there is no right or wrong way of doing this, the only way is through experimentation to find what works, what doesn’t and what else you can adopt and play with to help you feel better right now. Understanding how to make what’s working into a habit is what I want for you. Not everything will be for you, but something will stick. 

Kickstart your healthy habits now

To help you get started right away, I’d like for you over the next few days (be it 1 day or 7 – the more data you collect the more helpful it will be however some is always better than none!) to note down your routine. Become curious around what is helping you right now and what is hindering you. By routine, I mean how you structure your day from the moment you wake up in the morning to the moment your head hits the pillow last thing at night. Make a list – helpful elements, hindering elements and detail why. For example:

  • Helpful: I find starting the day by playing an upbeat song that I love as I get out of bed helps put me in a positive mindset for the day.
  • Hindrance: I find starting the day by scrolling the news headlines makes me anxious, fretful and in a negative mindset for the day.

When should you start this list, now this second, start writing in all you’ve done so far today and why its helpful/a hindrance.

 

I’d love to hear how you are getting on feel free to share these with me at info@drheathermckee.co.uk

Published on 9th Apr 2020 at 11:10 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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