As a teacher, your work/life balance and wellbeing habits are high on your priority list. But for reasons you’ve yet to fathom, it’s been really bloody hard to get them to stick.
No matter your good intentions, you’re still the last one there on a Friday, getting kicked out by Maureen the cleaner. However hard you try, you’ve still got your head buried in planning on a Sunday, desperately trying to get your resources sorted or differentiate the maths lesson for the seventeenth time.
But don’t beat yourself up with Maureen’s mop. Developing good wellbeing habits is a skill you can learn. It’s not something that Jessica, the Y5 teacher, was born with. If she sashays out at 3.30 on a Tuesday to go and meet her friend down the pub, that’s down to one of two things.
Either, Jessica doesn’t give a shit about school and has given Maureen the books to mark. Or, she’s developed healthy wellbeing habits that are serving her well and keeping her work/life balance in check. Prosecco’s on you, Jessica. Nice one!
So, who would you rather be? A Jessica, who’s got her wellbeing shit together, or…well…you? Someone who has tried really hard to put her work/life balance first, but arrived at school yesterday with odd shoes on?
Habits Are the Answer
If I asked you what you think a habit is, you’d be able to tell me, right? You know, things we do without thinking about it, like brushing our teeth or grabbing a custard cream with a cuppa.
Our brains use habits to conserve energy. Relying on learned behaviours that we have repeated countless times enables the brain to operate on autopilot for many of our decisions.
Decision fatigue is real, so if we had to think about every one we make, we’d be exhausted before we’d even left the house in the morning. It’s why Mark Zuckerberg wears the same clothes every day – not because he’s a tight-ass who can’t be bothered to do his laundry, but because he simply doesn’t want to waste energy or time thinking about his choice of outfit.
And while I’m not suggesting that you need to go full Zuckerberg on this one, I do think creating simple wellbeing habits can help you develop a much more balanced life.
When you think of creating new habits, you can fall into the trap of assuming that you’ve got to make big, bold gestures. You know the ones I mean.
- Running for 30 minutes every morning before work.
- Leaving school by 5 o’clock on a Tuesday and Thursday
- Preparing all my lunches for the week ahead on a Sunday.
Now, believe me, I’m not knocking big, bold gestures. I’m all for being organised and intentional with life. And big habits work for some people, they really do.
But what research shows is that, for many of us, we start off with good intentions, but over time, we can’t exist on willpower alone and the new habits we try to implement eventually fall to the wayside. Hello New Year’s resolutions…
So, is there an answer? Do habits really take at least 21 days to implement? Do you need to make big, bold changes in order to be successful?
Not even close.
The Power of Tiny Wellbeing Habits
Leading habits researcher, BJ Fogg, is a pioneer of something he calls Tiny Habits. He believes, as I do, that establishing small habits is the key to successful behaviour change.
Instead of creating wellbeing habits that are hard to manage as time goes on, he suggests creating habits that are so small that success is almost inevitable. It helps avoid overwhelm and you’ll feel more inclined to repeat that habit each time.
Let me give you an example.
You want to start the day off in a calm, intentional, positive way. You read about the benefits of meditation and decide that your new habit will be 10 minutes of meditation every morning.
The next day, you wake up and you complete your 10 minutes. You have a little boost of serotonin as you realise how happy you are to have completed this new habit. You’ve been successful and nothing beats that feeling of success. Your new meditation habit continues for a few days, maybe even a week or so.
But then, suddenly, you miss your alarm and it throws your whole morning out of routine.
Rushing to get ready for work and miss your meditation. You feel disappointed, maybe a little angry with yourself. You begin to doubt whether meditation is working at all. A few days later you miss another session and tell yourself that you’ll do it later.
And the cycle continues, and your new habit slowly dwindles away.
So, What Can You Do?
Now, before you throw your wellbeing habits under the bus, let’s explore how a tiny habit can help you instead.
Ten minutes of meditation for someone who’s never meditated before is quite a stretch. It’s more challenging than people realise. But what if we made it smaller? Tiny, in fact?
Instead of a ten-minute session, why not make it two minutes? After all, two minutes of meditation is better than zero minutes, isn’t it?
And before you start thinking that two minutes of meditation is the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever heard, I’m going to stop you right there, sister, and say that the research suggests otherwise.
In fact, it shows that it isn’t repetition that forms new habits. It’s the emotion that goes with completing one. It’s that feeling of success. Whether it’s two minutes of meditation or ninety minutes of yoga. It’s emotion that fuels change. Not repetition.
Repetition enhances a new habit and helps the brain to grow new neural pathways, but it doesn’t form the new habit. As BJ Fogg says, when you get a new phone, you don’t have to build in the habit of using it, do you? You start using it habitually right away!
However, it’s not just that feeling of success that will help you. To really get a new habit embedded, you need something called an action trigger.
Action Triggers for Wellbeing Habits
Habits are impacted by your environment, either positively or negatively. If you’re trying to give up the Custard Creams, removing them from the cupboard will help. Otherwise you’ll see them in there, and temptation will strike.
An action trigger works in a similar, but positive way. It’s a visual/auditory/kinaesthetic reminder that helps you remember to do your new habit each time. It preloads your brain’s decision-making process and motivates you to complete your new habit.
So, what could an action trigger be for meditation? Well, there a few that I’ve heard and read about:
- Leading neuroscientist, Dr.Tara Swart, leaves out her yoga mat in her room as a visual reminder to get moving for five minutes each morning.
- Dr. Rangan Chatterjee suggests completing your meditation while the kettle boils and using the click of the button to signal your meditation time.
- Habits enthusiast, Steph Caswell, suggests leaving your trainers out to remind you to go for your five-minute walk at lunch time.
Triggers help to keep temptation and distraction at bay. But they need to be specific, interrupting your stream of consciousness and reminding you to complete your habit.
Putting Wellbeing Habits into Practise
So now you know how tiny habits and action triggers can help you, it’s time to decide how to use them to grow your wellbeing habits.
If you’re worried about starting so small, be reassured that habits grow over time. If you start with two minutes of meditation consistently, you’ll soon realise that sometimes you manage five minutes.
You decide to walk each day during your lunch break, so you start with five minutes, but soon you’ll realise that you walk for ten or fifteen minutes.
Once your habit becomes consistent, it becomes part of your identity. You see yourself as ‘someone who meditates’ or ‘someone who runs.’ And that, my friend, is really powerful. Identity is what leads you to make better decisions for your wellbeing.
You’re no longer the last one there on a Friday, chatting to Maureen, as you’ve started leaving five minutes earlier each week. You’re no longer buried underneath planning on a Sunday, as you’ve started putting boundaries around your time on the weekend.
It all starts with a tiny habit. So tiny that you’ll think it’s inconsequential. But it isn’t. It really, really isn’t. Before you know it, you’ve become that teacher who puts her wellbeing first.
And you and Jessica can sashay out the front door together.
Your 3 Action Steps for Building Tiny Wellbeing Habits
- Decide on one tiny wellbeing habit you’re going to try tomorrow. Just one, otherwise you can feel overwhelmed. Write it down in your planner or your journal.
- Pick your action trigger that will help you remember to do it – visual, auditory or kinaesthetic.
- Complete your tiny habit as soon as possible, tomorrow is good, today is better. Record how you feel. What worked? What didn’t? Commit to doing this habit as often as feels comfortable – if it’s a five-minute lunch time walk, commit to doing it twice a week to start with. Remember to keep it manageable.
Further Reading – Habits