I’ve been meaning to cover this topic for a while after getting a request from a listener and going on my own journey with habits and routine. In the episode I talk about why our brains love habits (especially when we’re stressed), how we can be more agile in our thinking and a couple of tips to embed positive habits.
Listen wherever you get your podcasts or here:
Links and further reading
- Why the stressed brain falls back on old habits
- Seedling episode 19 – How to get out of a negative thought cycle
Today I want to talk about habits. They really are the foundation of our days, so I want to explore how we can let go of negative ones, be more flexible in our thinking and build up more helpful ones. So, if your habits need a make-over, keep listening.
Hi everyone, how are you doing? I’m good, feeling much more settled in the new flat and just happy. It’s incredible what a change in environment can do for you, just being in a space that feels light, comforting and ‘us’ is amazing. The old flat was part furnished so some of it wasn’t our style at all, so we’re having lots of fun picking out furniture that reflects our style.
Anyway, let’s get into today’s topic which is habits. This was actually a request from a lovely listener called Han a good while ago, so I’m finally getting around to it. The reason there is so much to say on the topic of habits is because they really do make up our days. Our brains love a shortcut, anything to save energy. This means they love following patterns and turning regular behaviours into habits. This means it doesn’t have to *think* about the action as much, it comes naturally, like brushing your teeth.
This can be a great thing, when our habits are serving us. But sometimes the habits we fall into can be unhelpful. We might have a habit of saying yes to everything when really we should say no or we might have social media habits that don’t make us feel good. And you know what’s interesting is that when we’re stressed, we’re much more likely to fall into these habits.
I read an article about this recently and I’ll share the link in the show notes so you can read, but it talks about a study where a team of Dutch researchers looked at the brain’s response to stress. They found that as levels of the stress hormone cortisol increased following a threat or challenge, the activity in flexible, goal-directed brain systems tended to diminish and activity in habit-related systems surged.
So basically, in an effort to save energy and cognitive resources, our stressed brain prioritises old habits and routines over purposeful, deliberative action. And again, this can be OK if we have habits that serve us, but if we don’t it can be detrimental.
The article also discusses the issues that can come with certain mental illnesses where sticking rigidly to routine and habit are a hallmark, like eating disorders, OCD and anxiety disorders. This I can definitely relate to as someone who has anxiety and a history of an eating disorder. I’ve been on quite a journey when it comes to habits and routines, trying to find the balance between habits that serve me and being more flexible and adaptable to change.
And this flexibility is what the article highlights – breaking up the stress and habit partnership by reducing stress and improving mental flexibility.
And honestly, this is still an area I’m learning about, but I thought I’d share what’s helping me be more mentally flexible and some tips for embedding more positive habits because stopping a habit is hard, but when we build positive ones, at least we can fall back on those.
So in terms of being more flexible, the biggest thing for me was to pause when something unexpected came up. For example, at work, if I’d planned out my day and I was asked last minute to do something else, my head would immediately start spinning, worrying about my ‘plan’.
Now my first instinct is to take a deep breath and pause. Look at my workload and my priorities and what I can move around. This space also gives you a chance to consider if you can do what’s asked and say no if you need to. This process of pausing is, I believe, called ‘thought stopping’ and it can help you from getting trapped in habits or cycles.
The next thing I’ve experimented with is not plan so much. I would tend to plan out my full month in terms of work and social life, like, to the day. Which always meant panic when something unexpected popped up. Now I’m definitely less ridgid.
For work I have a list of tasks I like to get done each month according to priority and then I plan a week at a time. It gives me more freedom mentally and I just remind myself that if everything doesn’t get done – that’s OK because I’m human. I also let go of my daily life-admin to-do list that used to hang over me, instead trusting myself to know what needs to be done.
Something else that really helps is to focus on one task at a time. When I try to multitask or flit from one task to another I get overwhelmed and stressed, while single-tasking helps me stay calm and therefore a bit more agile in my thinking. In fact this was also mentioned in the article, there are studies that show media multitasking (so trying to answer emails while watching Netflix) can damage our ability to be cognitively flexible, so yeah – single-tasking is where it’s at!
Other things that have helped are learning something new and mixing up my routine. When you learn something new, you’re stretching your mind, limbering it up by taking in new information. I love Skillshare for this and have watched lots of classes on botanical illustration which has become a very positive new habit for me.
And if you are trying to build in some more positive habits alongside being more flexible, here are a couple of quick tips that can help:
Firstly, try to anchor new habits with a specific time or action in your current routine. This is one of the best ways to not only help make new habits stick, but to ensure they can actually fit into your day. So, for example, I’ve found the best time for me to meditate is first thing in the morning during the working week, before I get out of bed. So it’s now simply become a part of my morning routine on the days I work.
Next, play with setting alerts or reminders to help you with your new habit. I have a wind-down alarm on my phone that goes off at 9:45 every evening to prompt me to turn off my devices to I can get ready for bed, write in my journal and read before bed. Visual prompts can really help too, so if you want to journal more, put your journal somewhere you’ll see it every day and put a pen next to it – make it easy for yourself to engage with the habit.
So there we go, I hope that was useful, as I said I’m definitely still on my own journey with this so I’d love to hear how you work on mental agility and habit changes, head over to @katbluejay on Instagram to chat. I’ll be back for our interview episode in a couple of weeks – every season I do one interview and I can’t wait to share this one with you, but until then, take care.
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