I got an email recently from a regular reader of my newsletter asking:
You write a lot about habits and mental health AND you’re a psychologist yourself. So, I was wondering: What habits to improve mental health do you practice?
Before I get to the specifics of my answer, it’s worth pointing out a more general point.
When it comes to staying mentally strong and healthy, the old adage applies: Prevention is the best medicine.
In other words, the best way to think about staying mentally healthy isn’t, What can I do when something goes wrong? But instead, What can I do to prevent those things from occurring in the first place?
Because no matter how mentally tough we are, and no matter how many resources and supports we have, it’s just really hard to pull out of negative spirals once we’ve fallen into them:
- It’s really hard to pull out of a major depressive episode once we’ve started ruminating and getting in the habit of beating ourselves up.
- It’s really hard to break the cycle of worry and anxiety once we’ve started imagining all the worst possible scenarios and outcomes.
- It’s really hard to be loving and compassionate toward our spouse once we’ve cataloged the 45 ways they’re a terrible person and we’re consumed by a cloud of anger and resentment.
- It’s really hard to simply fall asleep once we’ve spent an hour and a half laying in bed worrying about not sleeping.
Not that pulling out of these episodes can’t be done. It can.
I work with people every day to help them do it. I know it’s possible.
But I also know how a painful struggle it is and how much time and energy it can take. And how much better life can be if we can creatively find ways to avoid these negative cycles in the first place.
That’s the perspective I’m going to take to answer my reader’s question about how I maintain my mental health.
A few notes before I begin:
- These are the habits and routines that work for me. I’m not saying definitively they can or should apply to everyone. That being said, I do believe that most of them—in some form or another—are pretty universally applicable.
- Many of these mental health habits are not explicitly psychological in nature. That’s intentional. Mental health sits on top of a foundation of physical health. If that foundation isn’t strong, how can we expect what sits on top to be solid?
- This list is not meant to be comprehensive. These are not necessarily the most important or powerful ways to maintain your mental health. They’re simply the ones that strike me personally as being important for my mental health. This is a glimpse inside the way I work—gospel it is not.
Without any more preamble, here are the 8 habits to improve mental health that I try to practice on a daily or near-daily basis.
If I could only recommend one habit to bolster your mental health, it might be mindfulness.
If you’re not sure what mindfulness is exactly, I’ve got you covered:
In short, mindfulness is the best way I know of to train and control our attention. And the ability to regulate and control our attention—what we choose to focus on—is arguably the most valuable skill you can have for avoiding depression, anxiety, and many other mental health issues:
- Want to stop worrying and focus on the positives in your life? You need to be able to control your attention.
- Want to stop criticizing yourself for every little mistake and stay committed to your goals? You need to be able to control your attention.
- Want to stop procrastinating and start getting real work done? You need to be able to control your attention.
- Want to stop ruminating on all the injustices everyone in your life is piling on you and be a little less angry all the time? You need to be able to control your attention.
You get the idea. Taking responsibility for our own minds and how we think about things is essential to our happiness and success in just about any endeavor or aspect of our lives.
Mindfulness is the most efficient and effective way I know of for doing just that.
Here are two good ways to get started with mindfulness:
- A formal mindfulness practice. Practicing mindfulness meditation each day in a structured way for a fixed amount of time. It’s like a workout for your mind.
- Ordinary Mindfulness. This is where the rubber meets the road. Ordinary Mindfulness is about applying the lessons and skill of a mindfulness practice to real life situations and problems. It’s also, by the way, the part most people miss and the biggest reason why they don’t find mindfulness helpful. As an aspiring basketball player, you could practice dribbling and passing drills all day long, but if you don’t apply those skills in a real game of basketball, well…
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2. High Intensity Interval Training
High Intensity Interval Training is a method for exercising very intensely for short amounts of time.
Long-distance running used to be my thing. I love the runner’s high and the weird rush I got when I realized I’d been running for an hour and half and actually felt better than I did on minute 2!
But between a full-time job, spending time with my wife and two young daughters, and trying to write regularly, spending an hour or two most days running just isn’t feasible anymore. But I can get in 3-4 really intense 30 minute workouts each week.
It’s pretty clear that there are some really big benefits to this kind of exercise, in addition to it being logistically convenient. Exercise in general also has well-know beneficial effects on everything from sleep to depression. Plus it helps me stay fit and gives me a sense of accomplishment and self-efficacy.
Regular exercise is one of the best ways to stay mental healthy, and High Intensity Interval Training is a convenient way to get maximum benefit from exercise with a minimum amount of time.
To learn more about High Intensity Interval Training and how it might be beneficial for you, check out this guide to High Intensity Interval Training from Precision Nutrition.
3. Sleep Like a Robot
We’ve all heard how important sleep is for just about everything in life. And it’s true—getting consistently good rest will improve everything from your immune system to your mood.
What most people don’t realize is that the secret to getting good sleep is to stop trying to get good sleep.
I called this section Sleep Like a Robot because good sleep means sleeping like a robot would—predictably, consistently, and and as unthinkingly as possible.
What this means for me is that I essentially ignore all the wonky sleep hygiene tips and tricks we hear about on the news and try to just do these two things:
- Be consistent. I try to have the same evening routine each night, ideally something relaxing. I get up at the same time every single day, even on the weekends. The more boring and predictable you can be with your sleep, the better trained your mind will be to just fall asleep and stay asleep.
- Don’t think or worry in bed. Your brain should only associate one activity (ok, maybe two ????) with your bed: Falling Asleep. This means you should not get into bed unless you’re actually sleepy, and you should have a dedicated time and routine for problem-solving and worrying before bed.
Good sleep improves everything, and the secret to good sleep is to make your sleep routine as boring and predictable as possible.
Remember: If you want to sleep well, sleep like a robot ????
I write a lot of articles about sleep:
- A Beginner’s Guide to Insomnia
- How to Fall Asleep Fast With Deliberate Worry
- How The Simpsons Cured My Insomnia
- Even more of articles on sleep and insomnia
I also wrote a short eBook about it:
Finally, here are two of my favorite books on how to get better sleep:
- Goodnight Mind by Colleen Carney (my sleep hero) and Rachel Manbur
- Say Goodnight to Insomnia by Gregg Jacobs
4. Intermittent Fasting
Similar to exercise and sleep, good diet is one of those things that when done well improves many aspects of our life, including our mental health. Intermittent Fasting is the simplest framework I know of for eating well, and it helps me stay focused and clear-headed throughout the day to boot.
Intermittent Fasting simply means that you restrict your eating to a certain window of time throughout the day. In my case, I typically don’t eat anything until noon and am usually done with dinner by 7:00. I do this on weekdays but not usually weekends.
There are lots of different schedules for intermittent fasting, see this handy guide to learn more.
The benefits of Intermittent fasting for me include:
- An easy way to make sure that I eat a modest number of total calories per day. I can basically eat as much as I want in that 7 hour window and I probably won’t go over my target calories for the day.
- It’s extremely simple. There’s nothing complicated about it compared to most diet plans with all their fiddly details and lists of thing you can and can’t eat.
- My energy levels are more consistent throughout the day. I virtually never experience the dreaded 2:00pm slump on days when I do Intermittent Fasting.
Intermittent Fasting is not for everyone, so do your research and maybe experiment with it a bit before you throw yourself into it whole hog.
The bigger point here is that cultivating an effective and reliable system for eating well is one of the best things we can do to maintain our health generally, including our mental health.
The best place to start if you want to learn more about Intermittent Fasting is this excellent beginner’s guide by James Clear.
5. Ask for Feedback
We all have weakness and blindspots in our lives. I know I certainly do, both personally and professionally, so I try to take active steps to counteract them. And the most important of those steps is the habit of regularly asking for feedback from people I trust.
In my professional work as a psychologist, for example, I have regular consultations with a senior clinician I work with so he can point out shortcomings in my work that I’m missing. I also regularly ask my clients for feedback on how I’m doing or what could be better about our work.
This is usually uncomfortable, but almost always productive. It helps me stay self-aware and forces me to keep working on myself and growing.
In my personal life, I try to ask my wife and several close friends and mentors for their honest feedback about myself (behaviors, tendencies, etc) and my work (articles, ideas, etc.).
Importantly, I’ve found that while most people are initially hesitant to give really honest/raw feedback, if you keep asking in a genuine way it shows that you really do want honest feedback and eventually makes it safe for them to open up about what they really think.
Whatever your own unique weaknesses and blindspots, quality feedback is the best, most efficient way to stay aware of them and work to improve them.
This is an invaluable mental health habit!
- How to Ask for Feedback That will Actually Help You (Harvard Business Review)
- Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well by Douglas Stone
Assertiveness may be the most underrated mental health habit on this list, and perhaps the most underrated aspect of mental health generally.
The ability to directly and respectfully ask for what you want—and set boundaries on what you don’t want—is key to building self-confidence and and living your life according to your values rather than other people’s wishes.
One very small example of how I try to practice assertiveness is to always ask for a better table whenever I’m being seated at a restaurant.
Restaurants will always try to seat you in a place that’s most convenient for them. But think about it: Who’s paying whom, here? It’s always a little uncomfortable, but fundamentally there’s nothing wrong with asking to sit where you’d like rather than where they’d like.
Being assertive doesn’t mean we’re rude or demanding; it means we respect ourselves enough to ask for what we want.
There are two main benefits to cultivating a habit of assertiveness:
- In the moment, we often end up getting what we genuinely want rather than “letting it go” because we feel too uncomfortable to speak up.
- In the long run, we’re teaching our brain that our wants and wishes are worthy of being taken seriously. This is the key to self-confidence.
This book is far-and-away the best resource I know of for learning to be more assertive and set better boundaries:
- The Assertiveness Workbook: How to Express Your Ideas and Stand Up for Yourself at Work and in Relationships by Randy Paterson
I also wrote a guide to assertiveness which you can rewad here: How to Become More Assertive: A Guide to Living Your Own Life
7. Never Worry in Your Head
There’s something incredibly clarifying about writing out how we think and feel rather than just letting it loop over and over again in our head.
One big reason is that it forces us to slow down. Thoughts seem to travel at near light speed in our head, which means we can go over and over the same anxiety or stress-producing thought patterns dozens of times before we’re finally able to break free.
But we can’t write nearly as fast as we can think. Which is why I try to adhere to a little rule I created for myself: Never worry in your head!
So, if you must worry, do it on paper.
Writing down our thoughts and feelings can take many forms such as journalling, keeping a diary, free-writing, or even poetry. A favorite technique of mine is called Deliberate Worry.
8. The 4:55 Drill
Staying organized and on track with our many to-dos and responsibilities is a huge part of not getting stressed out.
One of the simplest and most effective techniques I’ve found for staying focused and productive is a little end-of-the-day routine I call The 4:55 Drill.
At 4:55 (or about 5 minutes before I leave my office), I pull out a 3×5 index card (or sticky note, depending on my mood ????) and jot down the 3 most important things I need to get done the following day. I leave it face up on my desk so that as soon as I get to work the next morning it’s right there staring at me.
The 4:55 Drill has 2 big benefits:
- It decreases my anxiety and stress about work during the evenings. By writing down my 3 most important to-dos for the following day, I’m implicitly telling my brain it can relax because I know exactly what I need to do tomorrow and won’t forget.
- It reduces friction in the morning. A common cause of procrastination is uncertainty or a lack of clarity about what exactly we need to do and how we’re going to do it. This uncertainty then leads to anxiety, which leads to impulsively checking Facebook or ESPN as a way to distract ourselves from that discomfort. By being super clear about what we need to do, we maximize our chances of staying focused and efficient.
The 4:55 Drill is great because it’s so simple and quick. It literally takes me less than a minute most days. Give it a shot.
I describe this technique (and a small addition to it) in more detail in this article:
The best way to maintain our mental health is to avoid getting sucked into negative patterns and spirals in the first place. To do this, it’s important to establish and maintain habits and routines that act as buffers against the inevitable stressors of life and provide a sustainable source of mental and emotional strength. These are the 8 mental health habits that work for me. I hope you find them useful too.
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