The hard thing about hard things is that you actually have to make yourself do them.
We aren’t hard-wired to crave exercise and broccoli. We are all the descendants of people who managed to survive the harsh environment and the many dangers of daily life by being good at storing and conserving energy.
Basically, our ancestors had a taste for sugar and fat coupled with a metabolism that would store energy (as fat) for hard times. Given the demanding nature of prehistoric or even more recent but less advanced life, our ancestors likely weren’t too keen on running unless they had to to catch their food or avoid becoming food.
Here we are today in modern times. We have the same genes as cave people but our lives are vastly different. We no longer have to hunt and gather food and expend energy dodging ravenous lions. The problem is our brains and metabolism are still evolved for this. We think that we should be able to overcome our genetics with pure willpower.
Time for a reality check.
Willpower. Doesn’t. Work.
At least not on its own.
Good news, everyone! You can give willpower a fighting chance by setting up a daily routine.
Routines are the glue that holds all of your goals together and helps make them achievable. Routines are also the foundation upon which resilience is built.
What is so effective about routines?
Routines take the guess work out of what you will do.
Have you ever gone to bed fully intending to wake up early to go to the gym, but ended up getting lost watching facebook videos until the last possible minute without being late for work? Or maybe said you were going to cook at home so you could eat healthier and save more money and ended up dialing out for pizza delivery when your day (or your stress levels) got away from you.
When you establish a routine, it makes the healthy goals that don’t come naturally to us (thanks to our ancestors) easier to accomplish. When something becomes part of what you do, you don’t have to make a decision to do it, you just do it.
This last part is key.
We have a limited number of decisions we can make effectively.
It turns out, we have a limited number of decisions we can make effectively in the day. The New York Times published a piece about this several years ago, and the implications were staggering. It showed that people who were hearing cases as part of a parole board were much more likely to make a thoughtful decision in the cases heard earlier in the day. Popular media reports that decision fatigue is the reason iconic CEOs and politicians such as Mark Zuckerburg and President Barack Obama wear the same basic outfit every single day – it reduces a decision so they can use their decision energy on more important things.
Routines for everyday Resilience and optimal mental health
Let’s apply this secret of the ultra successful to our own lives. You don’t have wear the same boring outfit day in and day out to see benefits. Nor do you have to eat the exact same thing for dinner every day. You can have flexibility, but do so within a routine.
What we do to optimize resilience is set a routine around the foundations of good health. For those who like acronyms to remember things, let’s call it a MESS, and think about how employing MESS can actually clean up your life.
MESS stands for Meals, Exercise, Silent reflection, and Sleep. Your daily routine should include all of these things, every day.
Let’s talk about why we need each of them and some strategies to get things going.
Routine Strategy – Meals
You have to eat. Duh.
But what you eat makes a huge difference in how resilient you can be. In upcoming blogs we will talk more about specific nutritional strategies and specialized diets. For now, let’s just focus on making sure you include meals in your daily routine.
Regardless of your dietary strategy, when it comes to routine the most important thing you can do is eat the same meals at the same time, every day.
This helps you accomplish 2 things. First, it helps make sure you have budgeted time to eat, so you won’t skip past lunch and end up so hungry (or hangry) by dinner time that you are using your speed dial to order in a pizza on your way home.
Second, when you eat at the same time every day, it helps give your body signals as to what time of day it is. This is important for ensuring you have the right balance of hormones and neurotransmitters for the time of day. Basically it helps your body understand what transition it has coming next and whether it needs to get energized or start to wind down.
A bonus you can include with your routine is both cooking your food and/or prepping food for the future. Again, achieving healthy habit goals are hardest when you have to make the decision to act on them. If it is part of your routine, you won’t have to decide to act on them, and will just do them. This is especially important at the end of the day, when most of us have already reached decision fatigue.
Routine Strategy – Exercise
Like meals, exercising at the same time every day gives your body cues about what it should do, and including it as part of your everyday routine takes away the need to decide to exercise.
Most people feel best when they exercise in the morning. It helps with mental health, physical resilience, and clear-headed focus. The biggest challenge that gets in the way is having to make that dreaded decision to get out of bed when our ancestors genes are telling us to sleep in case we need to outrun a tiger later today.
If it isn’t a decision anymore, and just how you start your day, you are more likely to do it. You are also more likely to not trick yourself into believing you will go to the gym at the end of your day, when you have already made what feels like eleventy billion decisions. We are all suckers for that mind-game in the early morning hours if we don’t have a routine.
But wait, aren’t you supposed to take rest days? Sure – but let’s make it an active rest day. You don’t need to do high intensity interval training every day as part of your routine. Change it up! And definitely include a day where you have active rest – meaning a gentle walk or restorative yoga session – something where you move but aren’t physically taxed as much.
Routine Strategy – Silent Reflection
Some call it meditation, some call it prayer, others may call it gratitude. Whatever you prefer to call it, get it in your schedule every day.
It doesn’t take much. Evidence shows that as little as 7 minutes of mindfulness meditation per day can have dramatic positive impacts on focus, mental health, and even physical pain.
With such a short amount of time needed, it seems silly to insist that it is as vital to include as a daily routine. But believe it or not, I have found through both personal and clinical experience that if silent reflection isn’t included in a routine it is harder to actually accomplish than exercise. I blame that trickster of a mind again, that thinks it will be easy to fit in “later” because it only takes a few minutes. Funny how “later” never really comes.
The time of day you set aside for silent reflection doesn’t really matter. Nor does the number of times you do it. Some people find that it is easiest to do all of the things that don’t come naturally (like sit still and be present) first thing in the morning, before their head is filled with thoughts from the day. Others find it is best right before bed, and can help calm the mind from all those thoughts. Others still find it effective to do as a transition from work to home life, almost like a reset button they hit so that they can be present with their families. The truly dedicated might practice silent reflection multiple times daily.
Regardless of when you want do it, or what works best for you – include it at the same time in your daily routine.
Routine Strategy – Sleep
Everything else you do in your day in some way helps to promote good sleep.
Sleep is where your body and brain heal. Many of your hormones (which impact your mood) require sleep to be reset. It is by far one of the best strategies for promoting resilience and at the same time, the most underutilized.
As far as routines go when it comes to sleep, there are 3 components. Wake time, pre-bed routine, and sleep time.
Wake time should be the same time every day, even on weekends. We have a tendency to “sleep-in” on weekends, hoping that we can make up for the sleep we didn’t get during the week. This not only doesn’t work, it actually makes it harder for us to follow the good habits that will help us sleep during the week. Set your wake up time for a minimum of 7 hours after your sleep time (preferably more, closer to 9 hours, especially if you have chronic or long-term stress, or are recovering from a mental health issue.)
Next, your pre-bed routine is essential to help your body start to wind down and ease the transition from wake to sleep. This should start an hour before your intended bedtime. First things first – power down all of your electronics. No tablets or smartphones in bed. No watching TV until the very last minute. Not only are these things stimulating to the mind, the light from them blocks the signals to your brain that it is night and that it should make melatonin, the hormone that helps you fall asleep. The hour before bed should be spent with calming activities, like getting prepped for the next day, warm bathing, or reading (from a book or an older e-reader without a backlit screen).
Set your bedtime and stick to it!
Finally, set a bedtime and stick to it every day. Even weekends. Bedtime could also be called lights-out time, because that is what it means. This is not the time you crawl into bed and then spend an hour reading, this is the time you turn everything off and go to sleep. Make sure you give yourself a minimum of 7 hours before you have to wake up and start your routine for the next day.
It’s All About Circadian Rhythm
Setting up a daily routine helps promote a healthy circadian rhythm. This is our natural sleep-wake cycle. Unfortunately, it gets disrupted in almost all mental health conditions.
We know that depending on how long you have been struggling with your mental and emotional health or stressful circumstances, you may need more support than just a routine. Most of us do. We will talk about more specific strategies for things like diet, nutrition, sleep support, hormone support and more in future blogs. But we always have to start with the foundations, and set ourselves up for success with the more targeted strategies or they won’t be as successful.
Finally, we are all individuals. Find what works best for you, your work/family life, and your natural energy patterns. But once you find it, stick with it. Reduce that decision fatigue and suddenly it will feel much easier to make the healthy choices that always felt impossible before.
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Ready to get your life back?
Dr. Jennifer Bahr
Founder of Resilience Naturopathic