Creating nourishing, sustainable habits when life feels relatively stable is hard enough. Doing this during difficult, chaotic times can feel not only impossible but almost useless.
Why start meditating or reading more or sleeping better when everything is so up in the air? Why start anything when the world is on fire? Why try anything new when you’re so tired?
But here’s the thing: Regardless of what’s happening around you, you deserve to feel good. And in order to do good, it’s helpful to be at our best. And the way to do that is to cultivate your mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health and well-being.
When building new habits, James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, provides an invaluable framework. The two concepts I’ve taken away from his work are: set super small goals and create systems that make your desired habit effortless.
To start, think of one habit you’d like to create right now. What would support your mental, emotional, physical, or spiritual health? How would you like to feel and what can help you to cultivate that feeling? What habit would be comforting or energizing or restorative? What habit would bolster your connection with loved ones?
Jot down the habit, and then shrink it. Reduce the time, length, or magnitude. Instead of walking outside for 20 minutes, aim to walk for 5 minutes. Instead of reading a few chapters or even one chapter, aim to read a single page. Instead of journaling for 10 minutes, journal for one minute. Instead of meditating for 5 minutes, meditate for one minute or even 30 seconds.
During stressful times, it’s especially helpful to avoid making lofty, ambitious goals, because we simply don’t have the mental and emotional capacity and bandwidth to accomplish them. And that’s OK. So, instead of doing nothing, we can still nourish ourselves.
Setting such small goals might sound silly, but even the tiniest changes, no matter how insignificant they initially seem, can become transformative.
As Clear writes in Atomic Habits, “If a pilot leaving from LAX adjusts the heading just 3.5 degrees south, you will land in Washington, D.C., instead of New York. Such a small change is barely noticeable at takeoff—the nose of the airplane moves just a few feet—but when magnified across the entire United States, you end up hundreds of miles apart.”
Finally, think about how you can adapt or redesign your environment to make it easy and essentially automatic for you to act. One quick way is to create obvious visual cues.
For example, according to Clear, after making your bed, place a book on your pillow to read later that night. Do the same with your journal, if you’d like to cultivate a journaling practice. If you’d like to start stretching during your work breaks, have your yoga mat by your desk. If you’d like to meditate, download a mindfulness app on your phone and set a reminder with your alarm.
If you’d like to walk first thing every morning, place your sneakers by your bed and put them on as soon as your feet hit the floor. If you’d like to start sending kind notes to your loved ones, gather everything you need in one place: stationary, pens, stamps, and your address book.
Reflect on exactly what you need right now. What are you yearning for? How can you make this happen? Then figure out how your environment can support this new habit.
This is another way we can honor and care for ourselves, which, of course, provides us with the fuel to care for others.