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Opinion and Editorial

Start small to build healthy habits for life

Tonya Lester/ The Shrink
Filed on July 30, 2020
healthy habits, covid

(Photo: Alamy)

Allow yourself to find sanctuary in the small, positive actions you can take right now.

A Facebook joke from the first week of 'shelter in place' went like this: "I'm either leaving this quarantine with my chakras aligned, my house painted, and speaking three languages, or 15 pounds heavier with a drinking problem." The internet was flooded with stories and memes aimed at productivity, asking, "What are you going to do with all this found time?"

A few weeks in, many had changed their tune. The New York Times ran an article titled Stop Trying to Be Productive about people who anticipated having lots of free time to jump into projects, woefully underestimating the time it takes to work, home-school, and maintain a household, even without the commute into an office every day. Not to mention the fatigue so many of us are feeling. It takes a lot of energy to maintain equilibrium in such times.

I can relate. I can't believe how much sleep I suddenly seem to need, and, international pandemic or not, I loathe the trend of treating productivity like a religion. If productivity and efficiency live in service of connection, creativity, and general well-being, that's great. But too often, it seems they are valued as an end in and of themselves. Still, taking good care of ourselves and each other, physically and mentally, is now more critical than ever. We need to find a balance between rabid optimisation and throwing in the towel altogether.

Enter the book Tiny Habits, by BJ Fogg, the director of the Stanford University Behavioral Design Lab. The method to implement Dr Fogg's Tiny Habits system is simple: Create a 'Habit recipe'. 

1. Identify your intention (motivation)

2. Brainstorm actions that lead to your intention

3. Make those actions so tiny, that it's almost easier to do them than to skip (ability)

4. Create a recipe for each behaviour, which includes a prompt, "After I do x (current solid habit, like brushing your teeth), I will do y (desired new habit).

5. Instantly celebrate accomplishing the tiny action. This may feel silly at first, but it is vital for wiring the new habit, so the goofier, the better. My current favourite is to throw my arms open in a victory stance.
For example, say you want to start journaling daily. The habits recipe you might use to kick off this new routine might be: 

After I've cleared off the dinner table in the evening, I set out my notebook and pen on the kitchen table. After I brush my teeth at night, I set my alarm for 6am to write before I go to work.
That's it. Then pat yourself on the back or raise your arms in victory to celebrate your accomplishment. These little starter steps create a momentum that blooms into consistent, life-enhancing behaviours.

Grounding ourselves in habits and routines that are healthy and life-affirming isn't selfish, and it doesn't mean ignoring the severity of what we are collectively facing right now. Humans are designed to self-soothe in positive ways and negative ones. For many of us, the negative ways can be much easier to fall into. Instead, allow yourself to find sanctuary in the small, positive actions you can take right now.    
Tonya Lester is a psychotherapist based in New York, US.

-Psychology Today

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