Establishing Healthy Habits Through the COVID-19 Crisis

Our old routines and ways of doing and being have been stripped away, leaving us ungrounded and confused. It may not be easy, but here’s how you can establish healthy habits to get you through COVID-19.

Social distancing, while currently necessary to protect public health and “flatten the curve,” is disrupting lives across the globe. Our old routines and ways of doing and being have been stripped away, and many of us are left ungrounded and confused. This extreme change can be very disorienting. However, the circumstances also offer us an opportunity to consciously create positive change in our lives. It may not be easy, but it can be done, and here’s how:

The key is in the selection and establishment of a single “keystone habit.” According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, a keystone habit leads to multiple positive behaviors and positive effects throughout your life. A keystone habit is one that “locks together” the different aspects of your life; that makes everything else better, easier, or more fulfilling. It is the habit that turns your trajectory toward growth and transformation. It can become the new rock or anchor that gives structure, clarity, and purpose during an otherwise unpredictable time.

This keystone habit could take many forms. Perhaps you begin a daily walking routine, meditation practice or gratitude journal. Perhaps you select to eat one additional piece of fruit every morning when you wake up or drink a glass of water. (To choose a habit that promotes wellness during the pandemic, refer to these wellness strategies that reduce stress and boost immunity.)

So how do you choose your new keystone habit? Connect it to a goal that feels truly uplifting.

You can find guidance by asking yourself, “What is my one biggest goal?” This is about uncovering a true desire and not a desire that involves a “should” of any kind. If it is authentic, thinking of this goal will make you energized and excited. If it is a should, it may feel heavy and burdensome. Next, borrow the wisdom of Gary Kelly, author of “The One Thing,” and ask yourself the question: “What is the one thing I could do, such that by doing it, everything else becomes easier and/or unnecessary?” This is the question that turns a goal into an action.

Once you choose your next action to help you achieve your biggest goal, translate the action into a habit that is very very….small.

Why should your new action be small? Don’t we want big changes?

Stephen Guise, the author of Mini Habits, explains that we want the action to be so small that it can easily be done every single day. If the action is too big, you will overwhelm yourself and deplete your limited store of willpower. However, if the action is small, you will be able to do it no matter what. Use your willpower strategically to select the behavior that is needed, but make it so small that it doesn’t require much willpower to do on a daily basis.

Take, for example, a deeply held wish to get into shape. To translate this goal into action, you may decide to exercise every day. That sounds like a great plan, but if the behavior is too large (i.e. an hour-long sweat session), you are setting yourself up for failure. If you are a novice exerciser, you will either get tired, injured, or overwhelmed, or it will activate your inner rebel that is resistant to change. Conversely, if you go very small - such as with a 10 minute daily walk - you can do it even when you are tired or moody or anxious. The 10 minute walk may grow to become 20, 30, 45 minutes or more, but even if you just do 10 minutes, you can feel proud that you accomplished the desired behavior, track your success, and nurture the habit to get stronger.

Once you have identified your goal, picked the ONE thing, and translated that into a small daily action, you will need to hold yourself accountable to transforming it into a habit. Successful habit formation requires awareness as to what makes a habit stick. Here are some strategies to consider:

  • As we said before, make your new habit very small (i.e. 3 push-ups, 5 minutes of meditation, 10 minutes of writing, etc.). This helps you best use your limited willpower.

  • Provide yourself with a cue to make it easy (i.e. workout clothes set out the night before, or your gratitude journal next to your bed). Make it easy to take action.

  • Make the habit rewarding or desirable. This could involve tracking your behavior in a habit journal (since it is so satisfying to check a box!) or it could involve pairing your new habit with something you already love (such as listening to music while you walk or rewarding yourself with soothing tea after meditating).

  • If possible, “stack” the new habit onto an existing habit. For example, put your workout clothes in the bathroom so that you see them after brushing your teeth. The workout habit then gets stacked on the tooth brushing habit.

  • Do your new behavior every single day. Do not miss a day. If you miss a day, make it your goal not to miss a second day. Be kind to yourself but firm. And if it isn’t working, get curious about any obstacles so you can troubleshoot and evolve your plan.

Soon enough, the small keystone habit will provide much needed structure to your day. It will be an anchor and will provide a sense of predictability during otherwise uncertain times. Additionally, the habit that you establish will be life affirming and help you grow in a positive direction. For example, if you choose to exercise, your health and fitness will begin to improve. If you choose to meditate, you will get better at noticing and calming the busyness of the mind. If you choose to practice gratitude, you will start to feel a more positive outlook about your life. If you decide to write every day, you may end up completing that long-awaited novel!

During this uncertain time, you have an opportunity to make the most of the new blank slate of your day, take control of your wellbeing, and transform your life, your goals, and your health. Take a moment to ponder what it is that you truly want in the long run (beyond these uncertain days). Strategize how you can translate this yearning into an action. Make it small (trusting that your skills and capacity can grow over time) and then do it every day. Finally, watch your life change course for the better. “Normal” life may be put on hold right now, but your personal growth and transformation can keep progressing.

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