There are many health and wellness tips I could list off, all of which are useful, most of which you have probably heard before. Drink more water, get enough sleep, exercise daily, reduce stress with mindfulness practices, eat your veggies and protein and so on. It's always good to become educated and updated on what changes we can make to improve our lives but I'd like to take a look at the how, not the what.
At the best of times integrating new patterns can be difficult. Hello New Year's resolutions! Regardless of the circumstances, there are simple systems that will guarantee your success. It's not a magic wand, but if you stick with the system the healthy habit you've been meaning to integrate into your life with consistency will become as second nature as brushing your teeth. And just think about that. When we were kids we had to be told to brush our teeth. We didn't want to. Especially my younger brother Bruce. For a year he would go in the bathroom, run his toothbrush under the faucet and say he had brushed his teeth. My mom only discovered this after a dentist visit, many cavities, and a very large bill. But even little Bruce learned that the daily habit of brushing his teeth yielded positive results and the bit of effort was worthwhile. So pick that thing in your life that you want to improve, whether it's adding something like daily exercise or levelling up your training, or reducing something, such as screen time, alcohol, or unhealthy foods, and read on!
Whether it's personal or global, the one thing we can count on is change. There will always be cycles to our lives that either line up with what we want, or do not. One of the best ways to self soothe, adapt, and thrive during times of uncertainty, which is essentially all of the time as we never really know what the next moment holds, is to develop self awareness and practices that can help us ride the waves of life and embrace the challenges as an opportunity for growth. Just like building muscle, growth occurs when we are challenged beyond our current capacity. In strength training we methodically and gradually increase the stress on muscle fibres, causing very slight damage to them. During recovery the muscle repairs, builds, and we become stronger. Our systems are brilliant. With properly structured training we experience super compensation and our lean muscle mass increases so that our body is prepared to handle the imposed stress (those brilliant squats you did, for example) the next time you do them. Then we make the exercise more challenging and the process occurs over and over again. Before you know it you're squatting one and a half times your body weight, you're ridiculously strong and mobile, look and feel amazing, have pain free joints, increased energy and libido, and the mental fortitude of a ninja! The same applies to any challenge in life. The key is to develop self awareness and know what it is you need in order to recover from stress or to dig deep into untapped strength reserves.
Here are a few systems to help you deepen your self awareness, foster self compassion, and build some kick ass strength and resilience!
1. Develop your personal check in
Play around with what works best for you, but develop a personal check in practice and do it daily, preferably in the morning before you start your day. This can take many forms but the key is to tune in. It's like using google maps. You may know where you want to go but in order to find the best route, you've got to take stock of where you are starting. Then you'll be able to more effectively navigate your way to your goal. Even if it's only a of couple minutes, create the structure of consciously checking in with yourself. This might be a short meditation practice, finding a quiet space to sip your coffee and focus on your breathing, a writing/journalling practice, going for a walk around the block... feel out what is good and doable for you. Whatever it is, make sure it is designated as your personal check in time. Do not let other things hijack your practice and then when you're standing in line at Starbucks getting your morning brew think, “Ah crap, forgot to check in. I'll just do it now. That'll be good enough.” That's like saying that chewing a piece of minty gum is a good substitute for thoroughly brushing and flossing your teeth. No dice! You can set aside five or ten minutes in the morning. Just do it. Figure out what you need in order to make that five minutes happen. Get up earlier, get off your phone, if you live with other people make a proclamation that you are not to be bothered when you're doing your thing, whatever that thing may be, to be quiet and tune in.
Personally I've created a system that integrates a few different things I've learned and developed over the years. I begin with a five minute meditation. Sitting upright I simply focus on the feeling on my breath moving in and out of my body. We desperately need to strengthen our focus. We practice distraction every single time our phones beep and we stop what we were doing to check the notification. Practice focussing. Even on the days you feel like you suck at focussing, do your practice. Notice your thoughts and feelings and come back to your breath. Like training a puppy, gently tug on the leash with firmness and love, and bring the puppy of your mind back into focus on the flow of your breath.
Next, I check in with my body, mind, and heart. I literally say “Good morning body.” and I take stock of what I am feeling, what I notice. Then mind, and heart. This can be done very quickly and there is nothing to do, nothing to fix. You can simply name the things you notice and let them be. Bringing awareness to the raw materials of you and the state you're in is essential for determining what will best serve you that day. Maybe you're feeling anxious and need to prioritize some mini breaks throughout the day to help you stay calm and centred. Maybe you're feeling energized and it's a great day to have an intense workout and cross a bunch of errands off your list. You're the emperor of your life and you get to decide what your personal kingdom needs in order to have a great day. Then go forth and go with the flow. As Bruce Lee said:
“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves. Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”
2. Implementing change: steps to success
So you're rocking your morning check in and starting to notice that there are certain things in your life that aren't serving you or your health and wellness goals. Or perhaps you were already aware of something you want to add or reduce in your life but have been having trouble doing it consistently. Fantastic! You're aware of the thing that you are committed to transforming which is the most important step. Now, be specific. “I want to drink more water” or “I want to exercise every day” is pretty general. Make it specific. If you are living a fairly sedentary lifestyle that involves a lot of desk and couch action, pick a form of exercise that you enjoy and is super easy to do. I highly recommend walking. It's free, it's amazing for your health, and if you experience back pain a brisk walk while swinging your arms (from your shoulders, not your elbows) will do wonders. Don't take my word for it. This advice comes from back pain expert Dr. Stuart McGill. If you'd like to read more, check out his book Back Mechanic.
But back to you and your goal, whatever it may be. You've identified what you're going to do and you have made it specific. Now here is the hottest tip of all. Commit to incremental change. This was recently reinforced for me by Kevin Darby at DTS Fitness Education and it continues to work wonders for myself and my clients. Make your goal as EASY as possible to accomplish. If your goal is to walk for forty-five minutes every day, start with five. Heck, start with one! I'm serious. Go out for a brisk one minute walk. Starting is the hardest part and chances are that if you walk for one minute you'll find yourself doing five because, what the heck, why not? You're already out there and it feels kind of good. Then the next week it's three minutes, then six, then ten. You get the idea. TINY changes CONSITENTLY will win the race every time. It's the classic story of the tortoise and the hare. Build up your positive habits with tiny steps and you'll see results faster than if you sprint one day and crash the next.
Important note! You might not succeed every day. Especially when you're beginning to integrate a new practice into your life. Congratulations, you're totally normal! Here's the key. Celebrate your wins and commit to doing just a little bit better the next week. So if you got out for three walks in week one, great! That's three more than last week, which was zero! Notice what structures helped you achieve this, make any adjustments so that you can remove obstacles to your new healthy habit, and aim to do four walks in week two. A final note on incremental change. Try not to miss your awesome new healthy habit two days in a row. If you miss a day, commit to getting it done the next. Build momentum.
* Do a daily personal check in.
* Be specific with your goal.
* Incremental change. Make it easy.
* Celebrate your wins!
* Adjust what you need to in order to do a little bit better the next week.
* Try not to miss two days in a row. Momentum is a thing! Use it to your advantage.
* Celebrate your wins again! Remember, if you fall off and mess up, yay! You're normal!
* Start NOW. Not tomorrow. Not Monday. Today.
Remember, as you work out the kinks so that your new habit takes less and less effort to execute on a daily basis, you'll soon find yourself in a positive feedback loop where NOT doing the thing feels worse than the effort it takes to do it. Can you imagine going three days without brushing your teeth? No thanks, me neither. As you master one healthy change in your life, you'll be able to apply the system of incremental change to another and another and another. Make that small investment and watch the interest accumulate over time. Invest in yourself. You get one body in which to live this life. If you got one car to drive your whole life, would your run that beauty into the ground? Let it sit there rusting and just hope for the best? With consistency and expert guidance you can not only maintain but upgrade your body every year. Get the most out of your journey and enjoy the ride!