June 30, 2022
by Dr. Bruce Freeman, Director of Patient Experience for dentalcorp
Many of us want to incorporate healthier habits into our lifestyles, but the mere thought of a wellness routine is daunting. You floss, you brush, you exercise, and think to yourself, “there are only so many hours in the day!” I recently read a great article by Jamie Millar about this very topic, and I’ll summarize what I’ve learned from my research.
So, how do we forge ahead on our journey to good health without getting stuck down the wellness well?
James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, says the key is to start with a no-brainer that you cannot avoid and catapults you into “work mode.” Take working out for example. Start by putting on your shoes! You have a report to finish? Perhaps you start with a glass of water and making your bed. He also suggests starting with something you like, such as your morning espresso, then moving on to something you may favour a little less, like your morning stretches or doing the laundry. Clear explains that a “motivation ritual” is thus formed where something you like (the espresso) is linked with something you may not always enjoy (the laundry). Movement is key and yoga philosophers, or the first neuroscientists as I like to think of them, recognized the importance of reigniting that mind-body connection. Mental and physical wellness go hand-in-hand, and you cannot have one without the other. Routines create the neural pathways for getting the body to do what we want it to do. Millar quotes Dr. Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, who outlines the following roadmap:
Where: Establish a dedicated location, whether it be your desk or your yoga mat.
How long: Use the Pomodoro Technique, developed by Francesco Cirillo, where you estimate how long a task will take and break it down into bite-sized chunks with small breaks in between.
How: Put some guardrails around the task (e.g., number of workout sets or pages of writing) before taking a break. Having a pre-commitment strategy, such as a set workout time, and a fallback plan (in case your bike ride is rained out) also helps avoid getting off track.
Support: Make sure you have the support necessary to keep you motivated, like snacks. I also suggest mixing things up to keep it fresh and interesting, like trying a new type of workout that will challenge your body. And yes, there will be some trial and error but that’s how we learn what works best for us. So, shake it off, and don’t stress if you fall out of your first downward dog.
Apparently, the more you think about the task at hand, the less likely you are to do it and that is why ritualising it and making it a habit that you do without much thought, is key. Otherwise, as Millar writes, you create what Clear calls “decisive moments,” where you can forge ahead or bail and flop on the couch. A “pre-commitment strategy” helps as well, like getting your gym gear out the night before and selecting an online workout or a specific time to get moving. According to Dr. Dimitris Xygalatas, an anthropologist and cognitive scientist, routines (or rituals) give us structure and help us reduce stress as our brains are “active prediction machines.” When stressed, our brain’s smoke-detector, the amygdala, which can get bigger and angrier over time, puts us in that hyper-aroused state, where we are swept over the edge of reason by stress hormones, unable to think clearly. By creating healthy rituals, we reduce our stress and allow our frontal lobes, the centre for objective thought, to take over, helping see the world more clearly.
Millar also advises of the need for a “shutdown ritual,” where we review progress, plan for tomorrow, and allow our brains and bodies to absorb the efforts of the day. Whether you say out loud, “mission accomplished,” or, as Dr. Newport suggests, declaring “shutdown complete,” although it might seem silly, it will send a signal to your brain that the day is done, after which you close your computer and put away your phone.
Remember, the goal is progress, not perfection.
If you eat a cookie, who cares.
If you miss a workout day, no big deal.
Take the energy you would expend beating yourself up over a blip in your plans and use it to focus on starting fresh the next day. Realizing how your brain works is the first step in changing your behaviour. With just a few simple steps, with no apps or special equipment required, you will soon find yourself actioning healthy routines for which your mind and body will thank you.
About the Author
Dr. Bruce Freeman is Director of Patient Experience for dentalcorp. He serves as Co-Director of the Facial Pain Unit and Hospital Dental Residency Program at Mount Sinai Hospital. Dr. Freeman is also a certified yoga instructor who emphasizes how self-care leads to the best patient care.