If someone had told you at the beginning of 2020 that the world would be in lockdown come April, you probably wouldn’t have believed them. But here we are.
The coronavirus outbreak has forced people all over the globe to make drastic lifestyle changes to curb the spread of the virus and save lives. For those of us who are now working from home, we’re only allowed to visit the shops for essential items, and virtual meet-ups and Zoom pub quizzes have suddenly become the norm.
As the ways we live and work are turned upside down, so too have our daily routines been forced to shift to accommodate our new reality. Thanks to the disappearance of long commutes and social events, we’ve got more time on our hands – so the question of how we’re spending our time is as pertinent as ever, especially when no-one knows how long the current situation is going to last.
Whether you want to keep going with your old routine or create one from scratch, now is a great time to reflect upon and establish healthy habits which will keep you ticking along over the next couple of months. We’re not talking about training for a marathon or writing a book – this is a global pandemic, not a productivity parade – but simple, achievable habits to make life a little easier and more engaging for the time being.
With this in mind, we asked cognitive behavioural therapist and Noom chief of psychology Dr Andreas Michaelides how to establish those healthy habits. From breaking down your goals and wishes into small, achievable steps to reframing our negative thoughts, here’s what he had to say.
1. Take time to find a new rhythm
“The New Year is usually a time when we establish new routines or habits, and it’s likely you’ve spent the last three months getting into the swing of things,” he says. “With everything that has changed over the past few weeks, these routines may not be logistically possible anymore.
Because everything has changed so fast, it’s important to give yourself the time you need to adapt, and make sure you’re not putting too much pressure on yourself to be productive. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t use this time to establish new ways of living if you feel up to it.
“A drastic change in schedule and circumstances can be overwhelming, but it also offers a great opportunity to establish a new ‘normal’. Creating a new routine is a great way to stay tethered to your goals while implementing new and healthy habits. Throughout this time of uncertainty, this routine will serve as a foundation for all that you accomplish, short-term and long-term.”
2. Define your ‘big picture goal’
“Once you’ve established your new ‘normal’, identify one positive goal you want to achieve during this difficult period,” Dr Michaelides explains. “This should be something that you work towards over time and can be broken down into attainable steps along the way. Possible goals could be training for a long distance run (example attainable step = starting with a 30 minute walk three times this week) or learning to cook healthy and nutritious meals from scratch (example attainable step = researching recipes that excite you).”
If you really want to focus on your mental health during this time, your goal might be something like doing mindfulness meditation once every day or reducing your anxiety levels.
“By identifying our big picture goal, we begin to train our minds to start and sustain positive lifestyle changes that align with that goal,” he adds.
3. Break down the steps to get there
“Breaking down a larger goal into smaller, more manageable pieces is a common CBT technique,” Dr Michaelides explains. “Once you’ve reflected on your big picture goal, break it down into the steps you’ll take to get there. Dig deep into the ‘why’ behind your goal – this will help you understand what’s driving your desire for change. Don’t forget to write down this ‘why’; seeing it on paper and repeating it to yourself will help you internalise it, keeping you motivated over time.
“It’s important to start small; biting off more than you can chew, especially in the beginning, can be unmotivating and unmanageable. Be detail-orientated and pragmatic with every step you take towards your new, healthy routine.”
4. Reframe negative thoughts
“As the reality of long-term lockdown and isolation sets in, you might find it increasingly difficult to stay upbeat and stick to positive habits; feeling anxious about the uncertainty of the future is natural at this time, and it’s important to recognise that,” he explains.
“CBT is based on the idea that our thoughts and attitudes influence our emotions and behaviours, and vice versa. We can therefore break those ‘negative thought > emotion > behaviour’ chains by adjusting one of those components.
“CBT works by helping you to recognise common downbeat thoughts (’I can’t socialise anymore, and that makes me feel alone’) and replace them with new ideas ('I can’t socialise the way I’m used to right now, but I can do it virtually’). Evaluating your thoughts and ideas like this can be challenging, and at times uncomfortable, but doing so is an important part of CBT.”
5. Put your mental health first
“Everyone’s mental wellbeing is under pressure right now, making self-care more important than ever,” Dr Michaelides says. “While it is easy for negative thoughts to take hold or lead to feeling hopeless, acknowledge that they are not serving you. Through building helpful and healthy, new routines and staying connected to your support system, it’s easier to feel motivated and excited about the future.
“Self-isolation is testing and can quickly become overwhelming. However, as with every challenge in life, it presents new opportunities to make positive changes. If implemented now, and strengthened through CBT, these new changes can be carried on after the coronavirus has passed and become life-long, healthy habits.”