Routines are like a soft, comfortable sweater on a chilly day — they just feel good. Unfortunately, our regular routines were all thrown for a loop back in March. “Loop” is maybe not a strong enough word; it’s been more like a prolonged earthquake. Now, over six months later, we’ve all established new routines, some of which are healthy, and others, well, not so much.
The COVID-19 data on health is not encouraging. While most everyone has heard of the pandemic-related weight gain described as the “quarantine 15” or the “COVID curves,” the real concern should be the impact the virus has on our psychological health.
A recent CDC study of over 5,400 adults found that almost 41 percent of Americans are struggling with mental health issues stemming from the pandemic. That study was soon followed by a paper in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) indicating “depression symptom prevalence was more than three-fold higher during the COVID-19 pandemic than before.” The authors also encouraged us to “recognize that these effects can be long-lasting, and to consider preventative action to help mitigate its effects.”
My guess is none of these data points surprise you. In fact, you might be thinking that the numbers should even be more alarming. It’s been said we are all in the same storm, but in different boats. For some, the pandemic has been mildly inconvenient, but for others, it’s been devastating. Regardless, for each and every one of us — it’s been disruptive to our routines.
Moving forward, how can you best create an environment that will maximize your ability to not just tread water, but to come out of this mess better and stronger than when you went in? With that in mind, I’d like to share some strategies that have been extremely helpful for me personally over the past several months.
#1 Maximize your ability to “take a punch.”
Resilience is key. If you get knocked down eight times, can you get up nine? The answer should be, “ABSOLUTELY!” Life is not easy, and it never was, but it’s obviously been especially challenging in 2020. So what! Double down on the things you know will help you weather the storm. This applies to right now as well as when COVID-19 is eventually in our rear-view mirror.
You already know the basics:
- Eat well (i.e. “cut the crap”)
- Move daily (hopefully outside)
- Prioritize sleep (try to never get less than seven hours a night)
These “Big Three” are critical for both physical and emotional health, and, as we’ve talked about with past issues, you cannot outsource your health. Don’t be afraid to take time for yourself — especially if you are hoping to have a positive impact on the lives of others.
#2 Establish a morning routine that allows you to come out of the gate strong.
When I first started running marathons and half-marathons, my good friend Tim Church used to tell me, “Start fast and then pick up the pace.” That was obviously horrible advice for a distance race, but I do think it’s a marvelous strategy for us to start each and every day.
It’s probably a pretty safe bet that you currently begin most of your mornings in a very similar manner, and that your weekday routine differs quite a bit from your weekend norm. I encourage you to examine your regular routine, and then really consider if that’s working to your advantage.
#3 Nighty night!
It’s impossible to start the day off well without a good sleep the night before. As mentioned earlier, try to never get less than seven hours of sleep per night, but remember, quality is just as important as quantity. Of note, those who sleep less than seven hours per night are three times more likely to catch a cold than those who get more than seven hours per night. We don’t know yet if there is a similar connection to COVID-19, but my belief is that anything we can do right now to improve our overall immunity makes sense.
One of the upsides of quarantine, according to the early research, is that it’s had a positive impact on what’s called “social jet lag,” or the difference between your Monday through Friday sleep routine and your weekend sleep schedule. A large disparity between the two has the same impact on your circadian rhythm as flying across multiple time zones would.
We all have exactly one biological clock, not two. If you want to improve the quality of your sleep, then you must strive for a consistent schedule in regards to when you go to bed and when you get up. Regularity is critical.
It’s also important to realize that alcohol is not a sleep aid. It does work as a sedative but, for the vast majority of us, it’s highly disruptive to the quality of our sleep, REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep in particular. If you’ve been struggling with issues such as uncertainty, fear or anxiety, which is absolutely understandable during this “chapter,” and you’ve been using alcohol to help take the edge off, you should recognize it may be having the opposite effect.
If you want to take a deeper dive on the topic of sleep, I highly recommend Dr. Walker’s book as well as a recent conversation he had with Dr. Peter Attia on his podcast, The Drive.
#4 Rise and shine!
As the late, great Zig Ziglar used to say, “If you keep doing what you’ve been doing, you’ll keep getting what you’ve been getting.” If you want a different outcome, then you need to be open-minded to a new approach.
If you are of a certain age, then you may remember the old Alka Seltzer commercial that encouraged you to, “Try it. You’ll like it!” What I’m about to share may seem absolutely ridiculous, but I honestly believe if you’re willing to try it, then you’re most likely going to like it.
Tomorrow when you wake up, do not look at your phone. See, you’re probably already thinking, “I’m out!” Do everything in your power to delay all technology (phone, computer, radio, television, etc.). Don’t touch it for at least five minutes. No email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, etc.
Technology has very gradually changed the way we learn, interact, live, feel and, most importantly, think. If you doubt this, I encourage you to watch the new Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma (Fair warning: while it’s nothing you’re most likely not already mindful of, the concentration of evidence is especially unnerving. Memorable quote: “You’re a lab rat. We’re all lab rats.”).
Since COVID-19, I have made a very strong commitment to not let technology dictate how I start my day. I don’t want someone else, or more likely, something else (e.g. an algorithm) to control my day. I consider each day to be a gift, and I want to maximize how I experience it.
Here’s what I’ve been doing for about six months now, and it’s been a game changer. I wake up (without the aid of an alarm clock whenever possible), I go to the bathroom, feed my dog, make a cup of tea or coffee, then sit down in a quiet location and think. That’s it, I just think for at least five minutes.
Now, five minutes might not seem like a long time, but setting the bar low will dramatically increase your odds of being successful. Remember, repetition is the key to building a habit, and stringing together a series of “wins” will up your odds of permanently changing your behavior. Often the five minutes becomes 10 or 20, but regardless of the length of time, I’m maniacal about protecting the way I begin my day.
I always include some intentional breathing to make sure I’m getting plenty of oxygen deep into my lungs and brain. You might try the 4-7-8 technique. Breath in through your nose for a count of 4, hold for a count of 7, then exhale through your mouth for a count of 8.
I also am mindful to focus on something I’m grateful for and someone I’m grateful for. The best way to learn to be grateful is to practice gratitude. There are all sorts of resources to help you with this including daily devotionals or books of quotes. You might also just try saying this to yourself: Today I am fortunate to be alive. I have a precious human life. I am not going to waste it.
The significance of intentionally starting your day by thinking of what you want to think about is important. In today’s world with the way social media is designed, we often wake up, immediately check our phone, and then instantly enter into a triggered, emotional state. Dr. Walker points out that doing this on a consistent basis disrupts the quality of our sleep by creating what’s referred to as “anticipatory anxiety.” There’s a good chance you’re not even aware of it because it has happened so gradually. A great way to avoid it is to simply not take your phone into the bedroom, and then refuse to even check it until you’re fully awake and have properly “set the stage” for your day.
Each and every one of us have now spent over half a year living through a pandemic. No one asked for it, and none of us know how long it will last or, maybe more importantly, what the long-term impact will be. Even under the best of circumstances, it’s clear that from a health perspective “the deck” is environmentally stacked against us.
In the same way we need to intentionally work on maintaining our physical health, the same commitment should be applied to our emotional health, especially during these days of unchartered waters.
Establishing small ways to “win the day” will help increase your resilience, improve your mindset and hopefully allow you to approach 2021 with a full head of steam.
Todd Whitthorne is an author, speaker and corporate health executive based in Dallas. He serves as the chief inspiration officer for Naturally Slim and is the author of Fit Happens!…Simple Steps for a Healthier, More Productive Life! Todd has several articles and videos available on his website: toddwhitthorne.com. Feel free to connect with Todd via LinkedIn.