Self-Care Series, Part 2: The Power of Daily Habits

Today I’m going to share with you some of the habits and routines I have put in place to take care of my mental health. In Part 1, I talked about what self-care means, why it is important and challenged some stereotypes which I feel have been associated with this ‘buzzword’ recently.  

I believe that self-care doesn’t have a solution you can just ‘copy and paste’ into your life. We all lead different lives, with different schedules and routines, however, I do find it helpful to read about what other people do to look after their mental health, and so I hope by sharing what works for me it may give you ideas and inspiration you can draw on for your own life.

Discipline over willpower

“It is a profoundly erroneous truism that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilisation advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without think about them” – Alfred North Whitehead, An Introduction to Mathematics, as quoted in Better than Before by Gretchen Rubin

Over the past year or so, I’ve been experimenting to find the right balance of routines and habits. Routines and habits are powerful, preventative measures to manage your mental health over the long term. Habits rely on discipline over willpower.

Now, discipline does not sound exciting, but I have come to realise that discipline is a means to bring excitement and inspiration into your life. By adopting a regular routine, you no longer need to dig deep to find motivation to do something. To quote Nike, you just do it.

Russell Brand, speaking on his incredible podcast, said in an interview with Brené Brown that we are taught by society that freedom means the freedom to go after our desires, whereas in fact, true freedom is the freedom from our desires.

As Gretchen Rubin says in her incredible book ‘Better than Before’, “Habits make change possible by freeing us from decision making and using self-control”. As we shift our daily actions into autopilot mode, we cultivate the mental space needed to free up our time and energy.

Recent research has challenged the theory that your willpower is a limited resource, which like fuel can be used up and needs time to replenish. Yet, the principle of decision fatigue is widely accepted in psychology. The principle holds that the more decisions you make, the more likely that the quality of your decisions will deteriorate.

Famously, Barack Obama wore the same suit every day, to reduce the number of decisions he had to make in a day. Several powerful business leaders such as Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs have been known for this as well.

So, if you start your day deciding when to get up, what to wear, whether or not to go to the gym, what workout to do, weighing up how intense you want the workout to be, whether to do upper body/leg day/cardio/spin class/go home and do a yoga class in the evening instead, whether to meditate or spend longer in bed…. By the time you rock up for work at 9am you’ve already depleted your ability to make quality decisions.

And when it comes to self-care, taking time for yourself after you have hit burn-out stage is too late. For me, self-care is about taking preventative action over the long-term.

So without further ado, here are my current daily habits….

Habit 1: Move. Do Yoga & Exercise

The habit: Gym 4x/week before work. Wednesday is my rest day, but I still get up at the same time (see my notes on your circadian rhythm below!) and have a slower morning with some yoga at home. I also aim to take 2 yoga classes in addition during the week, but realistically I rarely manage more than 1!

Why? It is not an understatement to say that exercise has transformed my mental health. It has not only helped me to de-stress, but after my university trampolining days ended, it was a year or so of not exercising before I realise the impact that had. When I returned to exercise, from the first workout I felt a sense of peace and ease that I haven’t found anywhere else.

Yoga was, for me, the ‘gateway drug’ to an exercise routine. It is accessible to all – anyone can do it in some form. It helps build the habit of putting on your exercise clothes and going to class, without needing huge motivation or willpower – it’s a low barrier to entry! It is a way to build strength and flexibility, and you can see and feel progress very quickly. It also has a clear mental component, and it can help build focus, concentration and reset your mind. If nothing else, a yoga class is an hour away from your phone with nothing to do but surrender yourself to the class.

Striking a balance: I aim to exercise a little every day, but I’m still working on getting a balance of yin and yang movement. In general, I am all yang and no yin!

In other words: I love high-energy training, like HIIT, cardio and even weights, but struggle with finding time for gentle yoga practices, stretching and mobility work. I also try to go for a walk on my rest days, to get some time in nature.

Finding this balance is important – if you push the yang activities too far, you can start getting addicted to that endorphin high, which although a powerful motivator can leave you ‘tired and wired’ –  so full of energy that you can’t sleep, leaving you stuck in a downward spiral of exhaustion. This peaked for me last week, so I took a week off. For me, self-care is about listening to your body, doing what is right, and giving yourself a permission slip to do what is right for you.Meditation

Habit 2: Meditate

The habit: I first experimented with meditation as a student, when I discovered the 21-day challenge offered for free by Deepak Chopra and Oprah. I completed a 20-minute meditation every day for 21 days, and by the end I can honestly say I felt a true shift in my state of mind.

During one meditation, I had a clear realisation that the relationship I was in would never work, cried for 20 minutes and then ended the relationship. Although upsetting, it was the calmest, easiest decision I have made because I knew it was the right way to move forward. I find that meditation is a way to clear out and calm all the mental chatter that constantly fills your brain, and the more you do it, the deeper you are able to connect with yourself.

When I say “connect with yourself”, I realise that implies that there are two entities you can define as you: there is you, and then there is the you that you are connecting with. At first you may see this concept as either absurd or infer that there are multiple personalities in there! But we all have that voice in our head (the ego) and meditation allows you to disconnect from it and reconnect with your true self.

I do find that meditation helps prevent me from burning out, keeps me calmer and more relaxed when I incorporate it routinely, and I start to notice a difference usually after around 2 weeks.

Why? But if you want to simply calm your mind, why should you meditate? Why not watch TV or go for a run to zone out that endless mental chatter instead?

In his book ‘Bliss More’, meditation teacher Light Watkins provides a compelling argument to support a meditation practice. He says that although many people say ‘running is my meditation’, in reality, meditation is a unique practice. Running may be your way of allowing your thoughts to calm, but meditation is a specific mental technique to achieve a specific mental change.

Light uses the analogy of swimming: you can get in the water and figure out a way to get to the other side of the pool, but if you are taught a stroke, you’ll get where you want to be much more quickly. It’s a skill which takes time to build.

On the flip side, Light presents a compelling case for breaking the rules around meditation. He asks, what scientific evidence is there that sitting on a hard, wooden floor with your back aching as you try to sit up straight is going to cultivate a specific mental state? There isn’t any, so get comfy! Just not so comfy you fall asleep…

Side note: I have been fascinated to read and understand the research showing meditation may have a similar effect on the brain as psychedelic drugs such as LSD. The research on psychedelic drugs’ impact on mental health has seen some staggering results. For example, in a preliminary study at University College London, 50% of patients saw their symptoms of depression disappear entirely for the 3-month period of the trial. In his book Lost Connections, Johann Hari explains how the effect of LSD on the brain is comparable to that of seasoned meditators, who have spent years cultivating a practice of meditation. Many people report after taking psychedelic drugs within a specific, controlled environment an experience of disconnection from the ego and identification with the true self, which can also be found through long-term meditation practice.

Striking a balance: I find meditation to be beneficial, but I haven’t yet found the right way to incorporate it routinely into my life. It seems some ways work for a while until I get tired of them.

I hope that one day it feels an effortless joy, and I aspire to be like Light Watkins, who struggled to imagine a day without meditation.

Habit 3: Journal

The habit: There are a huuuuge number of journals out there, and even more ways to approach journaling. For a while, I was wrapped up on the best routines – should I answer a specific set of questions every morning? Should I follow The Artist’s Way and write 3 pages of stream-of-consciousness every morning? Should I use my journal to track specific measures like health and wellbeing? Should I purchase a pre-made journal for specific purposes?

For me, I found the best way is the simplest: I buy cheap notebooks (spiral-bound is easier to write in when in bed, and a nice cover makes the idea of journaling more appealing to me!) And each day I just write bullet points of things on my mind. These bullets were originally inspired by the ‘bullet journal method’ but have become a way for me to note what is on my mind in separate sections.

I write for as long or as little as I feel on that day – if I’m tired, or time-pressed, it is just a few sentences or half a page. If I have a lot on my mind, I’ll write several pages.

I always end with a quick gratitude list. I write a minimum of 3 things I am grateful for, and try to avoid repeating what I have said on previous entries. This makes me become more specific – it’s easy to write down every day that I’m grateful for a wonderful boyfriend, and every day that is undoubtedly true, but by focusing on a particular special moment or joke we shared that morning, it helps me appreciate the small things as well as the big picture.

Once I have my list (usually of around 5 things), I push myself for 1 more thing – not because it’s difficult to think of 5 things I am grateful for, but because I try to think outside the box/outside the obvious. Usually that mental stretch helps me find something non-obvious, like a flower I saw at the side of the road, or a side comment someone said in passing but that made me feel proud. If I’m writing in the morning, this may be from the previous day. 

Why? Journaling helps me to get what is in my head out on paper. Like meditation, it clears out some of the mental clutter, and is a way to disassociate from those thoughts – when I see worries written on paper, it is often immediately clear how silly they seem!

Striking a balance: I often write in the morning, and include my intentions, goals and objectives for the day, before writing what I am grateful for. In the evening, I write about what has happened in the day, as well as repeating the gratitude practice. For me, I love to sit in the café at my gym with my morning coffee, and then in the evening journal before bed, which usually helps me sleep more quickly. Which conveniently leads me on to…

Habit 4: Bedtime routine

The habit: This is a habit I’m still working on, and after some bouts of insomnia over the past 6 months, a strong bedtime routine has become more and more crucial for my health and wellbeing.

I know that when I follow a bedtime wind-down process, I sleep earlier and get to sleep more quickly and easily. This is sometimes impossible such as when I need to work late, but on almost every night of the week, my aim is to eat early, end screen time (phone, TV, laptop) at 9pm, dim the lights, use a pillow spray and essential oils, read a book, journal and go to bed early.

My next big goal? Keeping to bedtime and wake-up time every day of the week, including weekends, but so far that seems an impossible task! I like my weekend lie-ins!

Why? I may have mentioned this once or twice before (to everyone I have ever met!) but you absolutely need to check out Matthew Walker’s work if you haven’t already. His book ‘Why We Sleep’ is fascinating, and his podcast interviews on ‘The Joe Rogan Experience’ and ‘Feel Better, Live More’ were eye-opening and transformative.

According to Walker, the scientific literature shows that wakefulness (i.e. being awake) is a form of low-level brain damage, and that sleep is the only way we can restore functionality to our body and mind. We often see diet and exercise as the key to wellness, but he argues that sleep is the foundational health pillar, and that evidence suggests that in almost all illness whether acute or chronic conditions can be helped by getting a better night’s sleep.

Striking a balance: In my experience, above anything else, sleep requires a sense of balance. Sleep can be elusive: the more you try, the more it evades you. Go to bed too early and you may end up lying awake longer than had you gone to bed at your normal time.

If you focus too much on sleep, then the days you haven’t slept well can feel more stressful – it is like worrying about worrying: you stress that you needed the sleep and didn’t get it, and that stress uses up energy that your body so desperately needs because you are already tired!

Long-term self care

Here, I have outlined the key self-care habits and routines I have found help improve my health and wellbeing. But true self care is more than the daily, habitual actions.

For me, self-care is about creating space in your life to enjoy it, to connect with others, to find creativity and to go after the big goals that are important to you.

Self care is about protecting your mental health, and so taking the time to do the psychological work, such as rooting out limiting beliefs and challenging destructive patterns of behaviour is crucial if you want to live a bigger, better life.

I find these four daily practices – move, meditation, journaling and a bedtime routine – give a solid foundation and cultivate the space needed to do the psychological work, as well as go after the BIG life dreams.

What are some of your daily habits? Any tips for improving these routines? I’d love to hear!