At last night’s Be Well Plan session, a dominant theme was the challenge of building wellbeing activities into one’s life when one’s life is already busy, chaotic and challenging.
During these times, trying to add wellbeing activities – yoga, meditation, exercise, gratitude letters etc – can feel like just another thing that ‘needs to be done’ and ends up contributing to the already present sense of overload.
In most cases, it usually isn’t actually a ‘time’ issue even though we might say “I don’t have time’. Many wellbeing activities can be completed in just a couple of minutes.
Instead it is more of a ‘working memory’ and emotional issue. Our working memory, which is trying to keep in the forefront of our mind all the things we need to do and think about, has a very limited capacity and overloads quite quickly. I wrote about working memory in a recent post on cognitive load.
This is amplified by the presence of powerful feelings associated with overload and stress: anxiety, worry, overwhelm, frustration, sadness, anger. During stressful times we are working overtime to try and keep these feelings mostly managed, or at least not have a meltdown.
So ‘I don’t have time’ is really more of a case of ‘I don’t have the mental space to think and I’m barely keeping on top of the feelings I already have’.
In that context, the thought of adding something ‘new’ to the mix is then just highly aversive, even if we know intellectually that adding it would probably help. Then when we (not surprisingly) struggle to add the activities, we berate ourselves and call ourselves a failure. This can quickly become a vicious cycle with the constant self-criticism fuelling future difficulties in establishing new habits and the cycle continues.
So what do you do in those scenarios?
Depends. If you are still committed to trying to build some wellbeing activities into your day, there are a few options.
First, abandon the idea that all wellbeing activities involve lots of time. Sure, there are people meditating for an hour a day, or investing extensively in hobbies. But wellbeing activities during really busy and chaotic times look more like taking a minute to centre yourself, noticing and challenging self-criticism, sending a friend a text message telling them they rock, doing a quick time-management exercise, or taking a quick run up the stairs.
When we hold in our heads the expectation that we should be consistently devoting large chunks of time to our wellbeing, then we will always fall short of that and always feel like a failure. This is amplified in perfectionists who always hold themselves to unreasonably high standards and always feel like they are falling short.
Dial your expectations back to just at the level where you think you can perform. If all you think you can do is 1 minute per day of meditation, set it at that. Trust in the fact that when you discover activities that are helpful to you, you will naturally expand and amplify them and devote more time.
Offload some working memory content. Even just having a big to-do list that you are tracking in your head can overwhelm working memory, let alone everything else you are thinking about. So get as much of that information onto paper, calendars, diaries as you can.
Time management is key here. I run a lot of parallel projects – too many to keep in mind at the same time. So at the beginning of each day I list in my calendar 3 things I need to attend to that day. I also use time blocking to segment parts of the day for certain activities. The combination helps me not get too overwhelmed by the number of things that need doing.
Bundle wellbeing activities with existing activities. Do you get a coffee each day? Use the first 2 sips as mindfulness exercises, noticing the taste and temperature. Say a quick thanks for the presence of coffee.
Brush your teeth a couple of times a day? Take one deep belly breath before and after brushing.
Have lunch each day? Before lunch take 2 minutes to be still and check in on how you are feeling and engage in some thought defusion – imagine the stressful thoughts being carried away on a big bus.
Catch the same lift each day? Maybe use the stairs.
Lie in bed for at least ½ hour before getting to sleep? Do a quick progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) or mental gratitude exercise.
I think you get the idea 🙂
But what if I have zero motivation to do these things?
We’ve developed a rather unfortunate collective understanding in our culture that motivation precedes action, that inspiration precedes creativity, that curiosity precedes learning. In everyday life though, it seems at least equally to be the reverse of that. People who get started on a task seem to see their motivation increase. People who spend time trying to create new things are hit with inspiration whilst they are creating. And we often don’t get really interested in a topic, until we’ve spent some time working on it.
What I am saying here is don’t mistake a lack of motivation for a sign that it isn’t the right time to get started with these things.
That being said, there are cases for delaying one’s wellbeing efforts. I’m happy to admit that during stressful times, I often abandon some of my wellbeing activities with the exception of sleep and trying to eat well. I used to get worried about this, until it became clear that once I found a little mental or emotional space I’d get back to those activities. Sometimes, we just have to prioritise other parts of life over our wellbeing plan.
All I ask during these times is to keep the psychological door open to getting back to these activities when you feel you can. If it has been a couple of months and you’ve not returned to them, then maybe try a couple of the strategies mentioned earlier.
Be kind to yourself. Those of us in the wellbeing space like myself who give advice about this stuff can give the impression that we’ve got this whole mentally healthy habits thing all sorted. We don’t.
Yes, it is probably the case that the therapists, counsellors and mental health professionals I know are generally better than the average person at self-care, but we still make the same mistakes, start and stop activities, get overwhelmed, fail to establish habits and get frustrated with ourselves.
Really, our only advantage is a little bit of extra knowledge about wellbeing creation and habit formation, that allows us to correct and get back on track easier.
So if you are finding it hard, that isn’t a sign of your failure. That is the reality of trying to wrangle the average human body/mind to follow a healthy routine.
And of course, stay tuned to this blog, because this is where we discuss wellbeing, how to build it and how to navigate the tough times.