Why telling people to take care of themselves is not working…

Most of us know, intellectually, that we have to take care of ourselves. We know that drinking more water than coffee is good for us; we know that exercising is important; we believe that mindfulness would be helpful. We also know that we are generally more capable of offering empathy and support, when we are well rested, and in a calmer state of mind. Yet, even under normal circumstances (pre-Covid), with more resources and opportunities, we fail to do so. So…

…why do we think that in the midst of a crisis we, or others, will all of sudden pick up on these good habits?

Change in context can lead to change in habits, and it is indeed a great opportunity to foster new ways of being. But, it cannot just be left to chance. Disruption creates the opportunity, but it does not alone lead to change. There are three important factors that need to also be present: nudges, triggers, and structure.

Before going into each, let’s first define ‘taking care of ourselves’ as anything that we intentionally do to support our physical, emotional and psychological health. Sleep hygiene, exercising, mindfulness practices, spending quality time with loved ones, reading, writing, drawing, playing an instrument, cooking, could all fall in the categories of self-care, as long as these activities contribute to our individual well-being. For starters, you need to know what these activities are, for you. What are the longing you have in this domain of life? Do you long to have a more consistent sleep routine, or to exercise everyday? What longings do you have, that would make you feel like you are taking care of yourself? This is an important first step, because doing anything for reasons other than our well-being, is not the same as self-care. If you work-out everyday because you dislike your body, the relationship with the activity (working out) will not result on your overall well-being.

Nudges

“So, what’s a nudge. A nudge is a small feature of the environment that attracts our attention and alters our behavior.” Richard Thaler

Nudges are subtle and timely contextual reminders that can, at the appropriate moment, shift or guide behavior. For example, if you would like to increase diversity and reduce bias during interviews, one way organizations can do that (among important policies and so on) is by handing a ‘cheat-sheet’ to the interviewers to read just before the interview, ┬áreminding them to ask or not ask certain questions, and be aware of their biases. A nudge, timely like this, can reduce the ‘default’ behavior (or inertia) to act as we would normally do otherwise. For adapting self-care habits it is important for each of us to notice the exact time when we do an action that we want to replace with a better (healthier) action. A simple example may be drinking more water. We notice that when we feel bored, we reach for the refrigerator, and eat instead. So to change that ‘impulse’ to eat, with a new habit to drink water, we need a nudge, right at that time. One way we could do that, is filling up reusable water bottles with water, and placing them at eye level in the fridge. It will be the first thing we will see, right when we open the refrigerator. That ‘nudge’ will guide the new behavior. Over time, we won’t need the nudge, the habit will be formed and we will act in a new way, without that reminder.

Tip #1: To apply this in your life, do not make a big list of habits you want to replace. Instead, tackle one at a time. Start with something that is simple, like the example above, rather than going for the big one. This will build your confidence and motivate you to keep trying with additional habits.

Triggers

“When we understand our triggers and plan our time, we become indistractable.” Nir Eyal

A trigger is a prompt that pulls our attention away from a current action or thought and toward another action. When used intentionally, triggers can support us in forming new, better habits. Not necessarily helpful triggers that we are all well familiar with, includes the email ‘ding’ in our computers, or the sound in our phones when text messages come in. Even if we are focused doing something productive, the sound will trigger us to think about emails and messages. Just as technological triggers can distract us away from being productive, they can also help us form new, better habits. For example, there are a number of apps that will send reminders throughout the day to our phones, and when these sounds ring, we are prompted to stop whatever we are doing to take a deep breath, stretch, go for a quick walk, etc. The alarm in the morning is both a trigger to wake-up, but can also be a trigger to go on a run, do yoga, or whatever habit we are trying to form.

Taking the same example above, in trying to drink more water, any trigger or sound can be scheduled so that 3x or 4x a day we are reminded to fill up our bottles with water. This trigger reminder, along with that nudge example shared above, will ensure that even if we are tempted to open the fridge to eat, we will be nudged to drink water instead.

Tip #2: Triggers should be used very intentionally and they will be more impactful if used in conjunction with nudges. Do not put triggers everywhere, as they will just become noise. Instead, make these sounds, and wake-up calls, quite unique so they can generate the impact you want.

Structure

“Discipline is choosing between what you want now, and what you want most.” Abraham Lincoln

Over a decade ago I went through a yoga certification program mostly because I wanted to deepen my practice. I learned quickly that to be free in my body, and remain flexible, it was just as important for me to ground down. The term “rooting down, to lift up” is an example of how in yoga we help student anchor their foundation (whatever is touching the yoga mat) so that they can find freedom and flexibility with the other parts of their bodies not touching the ground. Similarly, in life, structure is the anchor that gives us great freedom. A healthy dosage of structure, in the form of daily, weekly, and annual routines and rituals, is critical in forming new healthy habits. Disciplining our minds and bodies, opens us up to achieving greater creativity, and success.

Placing nudges in our contexts, deliberately blocking unhelpful triggers while establishing intentional ones to support habit formation can only truly work over the long haul when we embrace structure and discipline. When COVID-19 took many of us to working from home, many of us found ourselves struggling to separate home life from work life. We also saw how difficult it was to be more structured without the need to drop kids off in school, drive to work, or drive to certain meetings. When a few weeks later, we realized that this change was here to stay for a lot longer that most of us anticipated, we took on the challenge to create some manner of a routine (what many starting calling the ‘new normal’) so that we could feel a sense of control, and ultimately, freedom. Those that did not manage to establish a new normal, continue to struggle more deeply with self-care, exactly because their days control them, rather than the other way around.

Tip #3: Whatever the habits are, that would enhance your well-being, begin by designing an attainable structure. Again, do not do a complete overhaul – simply start with the key daily and weekly start/stop rituals that indicate that is either time to begin the action, or the time to complete the action. I usually recommend starting with blocking a consistent time in the day to do the activity you need to take care of yourself, whether it is drinking water, eating a real meal (rather than cheese and crackers – I am guilty of that!!), going on a 30 min walk, or even calling a dear friend or family member.

Quick disclosure: I am in the midst of learning and listening deeply to understand racial injustice in the US. I feel, like most, that right now the best thing I can do is to listen, and learn. With that said, I am still and will always be driven to help my entire community (all of you) to be the best version of yourself because I believe that when we care for ourselves, we are fundamentally more equipped to take care of each other. My posts are not intended to be dismissive of our current circumstances. To the contrary, I am guided to provide this resource exactly because I know the power of self-care as we aim to drive long-lasting changes.

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