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If I were to distil what makes a holistic approach to healthcare successful or not, it would come down to habits. A perfect treatment plan means nothing if there is no system or structure to implement and ground it into our daily life routines. A big part of my practice as a naturopath has been to work out the best ways to help folks (and myself) develop habits that support health and reduce habits that harm our health. Tiny positive shifts and 1% changes really do add in the long term and can catalyse much more significant transformations.
I recently read the popular “Atomic Habits” by James Clear, and I was SUPER impressed. James masterfully gathers and distils the science and practice of habit cultivation and behavioural change. He neatly summarises what took me years to figure out, plus some.
To continue with the theme of mental health this season, I’d love to share some of the book’s key ideas. And share with you some ways you can gently tend to your emotional wellbeing with mental health activities on the daily and perhaps inspire you to read the book in its entirety. If you’re a healthcare practitioner working in preventative medicine or someone wishing to align your life to healthier habits, it’s well worth the read for you too!
Atomic Habits & the Power of Compounding
James describes an atomic habit as a practice or routine we do regularly that is both small and easy. Their “atomic” power resides in the compound growth that comes from this self-reinforcing system. For years the idea of “compound growth” or “compound interest” seemed like a financial term that didn’t hold any real importance for me. But then I got serious about my financial habits, saving and understanding that compound interest = freedom. And understanding the power of compound growth financially demonstrates how this can apply to many other areas of our life.
One of the most potent questions that can help us wrap our head around compound growth is this…
If you were given the option of receiving either:
- $100,000 a day for 30-days, or
- 1 cent on the first day, but with the promise that your money would double every day over the next 30 days (i.e. the next day, you’d receive 2 cents, the day after that 4 cents etc.)
Which would you choose?
To experience the full impact of the exercise, get yourself a pen, paper and calculator and do the maths.
If you were to go with the first option, you’d have $3 million by the end of the month. And if you were to go for the compounding option, you’d have…$5,368,709.12. Almost double!
If we come back to mental health activities, habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. And changes that at first seem small and insignificant can compound into remarkable results if we’re willing to stick with them for years.
Changing our Identity & Systems vs. Focusing on Goals
When we’re stuck in a bad habit loop, it’s rarely because we don’t want to change, but rather we don’t have the right system for change. One of the big ideas in the book is if you want better results, don’t focus on goals and achievement. Instead, focus on your systems and who you wish to become.
“I want to do yoga more regularly” becomes “I’m a yogi”.
“I want to break my coffee habit” becomes “I’m not a coffee drinker”.
“I want to write on my blog more consistently” becomes “I’m a writer”.
The Four Laws of Behavior Change
The second half of the book is dedicated purely to building better habits with a simple set of rules we can use. They are:
- Make it obvious
- Make it attractive
- Make it easy
- Make it satisfying.
And then to break bad habits, the rules are inverted:
- Make it invisible
- Make it unattractive
- Make it difficult
- Make it unsatisfying
To use some mental health activities from my own life, I wanted to become more consistent with taking my daily herbs and supplements. I’m usually pretty good, but when I’m out of routine or if a lot is going on, it’s easy for me to become patchy, which isn’t a good combination, as these are the times I need to be supporting my body most.
To make this easier, I made two small changes: I kept my herbal tea blend next to the breakfast tea that’s a daily ritual (obvious) and when I prepare my morning tea, as also put on a pot of my nettle tea (attractive) which I then place at my desk. I can sip away at it throughout the day (easy) and enjoy the smoother, clearer energy (satisfying).
I picked up a $5 pill organiser for my supplements, and at the beginning of the week, I fill it up. It has little daily compartments I can remove and again keep next to my bed (obvious), so after breakfast and dinner, I’m prompted to take them (easy). And the satisfaction for me is enjoying the health benefits of this consistency (attractive and satisfying).
“Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behaviour” – James Clear.
A habit that I wanted to break was not having firm time boundaries with my communication channels – email and social media specifically. I had some bad habits to break!
- Make it invisible – I invested in a personal phone that is analogue (The Light Phone) so that I can’t access these apps with my primary phone. My work phone is a smartphone and created a setting to limit my time on Instagram to 25 minutes and removed my email app. I now only check email on my desktop twice a day at 12 pm and 4 pm.
- Make it unattractive – my habit tracker is very motivational for me. Missing out on an X is an attractive prospect for me.
- Make it difficult – after my workday, and when the weekend rolls around, my work phone is turned off and stored in a drawer.
- Make it unsatisfying – same psychology at step 21
The Habit Log (Tracking Tiny, Positive Mental Health Activities)
Because there is a vital element of delayed gratification when approaching these changes in micro-steps, it’s helpful to have a system that helps you feel like you’re making progress. I’ve long seen habit trackers used in the bullet journaling community. Still, I personally saw them as a hassle…until I tried it. I’m a very visual person, and seeing the chain of “Xs” felt very satisfying and tangible evidence that I was heading in the right direction and making progress.
My set up is a simple spread in my bullet journal with 3–7 habits I want to cultivate:
For me, this month, my ongoing habits I’m cultivating are:
- Drinking nourishing infusion
- 10 minutes of yoga
- Take AM & PM supplements
- 25 minutes of Instagram Monday to Friday
- Bed by 10 pm
What mental health activities would you love to cultivate?
Start with just a couple as not to overwhelm yourself. 1–5 is perfect! Here’s a list of ideas from my online course, The Peace Protocol, of micro-changes that are very nourishing and fortifying for mental health to get your imagination going:
- Get out into the sun for 10 minutes
- Start a yoga class (I love YogaGlo)
- Begin working with a therapist
- Have a cup of calming herbal tea a day (Lemon balm, Chamomile, Milky Oats and Nettle tea are all beautiful choices)
- Only have 1–2 cups of caffeinated drinks a day
- Take a nerve nourishing supplement
- Meditate for 5 mins a day (I love Insight Timer)
- Limit the time on social media
- Read a couple of pages of a book a night
- Connect with 2 friends a week
- Get 8 hours of sleep a night
Do a little planning on how you can make them obvious, attractive, easy and satisfying. Draw yourself up a habit tracker and see what happens!
If you’re currently feeling overloaded or overwhelmed, make sure you take my “Are you burning bright or burning out?” Quiz. Depending on your results, you’ll receive some love letters from me with gentle recommendations on how to nourish yourself and start thriving after a season of surviving.
You may also enjoy:
- What to do when Anxiety Floods Us
- The Manifold Ways of Healing
- Healing After a Season of Stress – Free Webinar
- Are you Burning Bright or Burning Out? Quiz
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