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Healthy Habits for Executives

Creating new habits to support your wellbeing.

Habits are the brain’s internal driver. They inform a large part of our daily unconscious behaviour. Dedicating time and energy to learning new habits will, in time (once the new habit becomes a part of our unconscious behaviour), free up cognitive time and energy for other matters. Even though much of what we do is driven by our habits, there is still mystery around how habits are formed and maintained over time.

There is also some debate in the literature as to how long it takes for a new habit to become habitual. Some research suggests 28 days, while others indicate the time frame is dependent on the complexity of the habit and other variables such as ease of implementation, and perceived benefits. It is however fair to suggest that 28 days of dedicated and repetitious practice will instil the foundations for a new habit to take form.

Barack Obama provides a great example of setting yourself up for a new habit with ease. During his presidency, Obama stated “You’ll see I wear only grey or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” Another way of looking at this is he turned wearing grey and blue suits into his daily habit, to free up cognitive time and energy for more important matters.

With most of our daily behaviours coming to us autonomically, an evolutionary feat of humans used to conserve energy, the question remains, what exactly is involved in changing old habits and forming new ones? The answer lies in neuroplasticity.

Being aware

A key component in creating these new neural pathways is developing our awareness and mindfulness of a habit’s trigger. To become aware of the feeling, sensation, thought, or desire that arises the moment before the behaviour. For example, what is the sensation or feeling you notice just before you pick up the phone to check social media? Once we become fully aware of the trigger to a habit, recognise it in the body, we can then begin to rewire new neural pathways for that habit by noticing the trigger and mindfully replacing the original habit with your preferred more beneficial one.  Sounds easy right?

Well, it really can be.

Studies have shown that applying these methods of mindfully identifying the trigger of a habit, creating new neural pathways through the replacement of an old habit with a new one, coupled with a good dose of self-discipline and a strong intrinsic motivation for the new habits, creates a winning combination. Intrinsic motivation is an important ingredient. Habit changes which are motivated by external sources (eg. for someone else) tend to not be as successful as they do not rewire the neural paths so strongly.

Habits for Longevity and Wellbeing

Healthy Routines

Now that we understand how the brain and body work to support us in creating new habits, what new routines could we integrate into our lives to support vitality, health and longevity? Daily habits are an incredibly personal and subjective topic. It is a matter of identifying which habits will provide the foundation or changes you desire for the life you aspire to.

Some recommendations include:

  1. Try to get 8 hours of sleep, give or take 1 hour: Although much research still debates if limited sleep is the cause or symptom of some illnesses, sufficient research has found 7-8 hours sleep per night as the recommended daily dose to flourish and thrive.  Learn more about sleep hygiene.
  2. Spend 30 minutes per day paying attention to food: this combines nutrition wellbeing benefits as well as mindfulness practice during preparation. This includes meal planning to support healthy eating habits. Reset your habits with a detox!
  3. Create a morning routine: which makes the most of this quiet time of day. It may involve exercise, breakfast, meditation or writing (by hand), whatever your morning needs are. Try to combine some time outdoors, and away from devices.
  4. Introduce a 10 minute mindfulness practice to your daily routine: This may include a 5 minute breath practice, followed by 5 minutes of mindfulness. Neuroscience research shows that the potential gains are significant from a regular mindfulness practice in supporting the formation of healthy new habits.
  5. Try the 42% rule for burnout prevention: Yes, that’s right, a recent publication by the Nagoski sisters states that we should rest for 42% of the day, equalling 10 hours per day, for optimal mind/body health. ‘Rest’ includes sleep, time connecting with family and friends, exercise time, cooking, eating and anything that feels invigorating or replenishing. It does not include scrolling social media or reading the news.
  6. Nurture your social circle: This is particularly important during these times of isolation and lockdown. Provide space in your week for ‘connecting’. Is it possible to include that 1 extra phone call or 1 coffee date per week to connect with your social circle?
  7. Develop body awareness: Our bodies let us know throughout the day if our stress levels are increasing or if a sense of anxiety is developing. Practicing body awareness throughout the day to identify your body’s signs of stress (eg. jaw tightens, chest feels tighter, shoulders tighten and lift up ever so slightly etc), empowers you to relax your body’s response. With conscious practice, over time, this habit can become autonomic whereby your body will respond to an internal stress response without you consciously addressing it.

Habits for Success

The habits listed above, whilst improving your health and wellbeing, will create the fertile ground for you to pursue your purpose and achieve success.  The following routines, habits and perspectives inspired by some of the respected leaders of today and yesterday provide some food for thought on habits-for-success:

  1. Aim for work/life harmony rather than work/life balance. The term ‘balance’ indicates a trade-off rather than integration. When you are content at work, then you will have more for home, and if you are happy at home, your energy and motivation for work will naturally increase. Harmonise.
  2. Protect your time and don’t let other people set your agenda for you. This is easier said than done. A first step towards supporting this is each morning, give yourself a chance to get into our own day, set the purpose, before engaging in something that someone else wants. (Jeff Bezos)
  3. Carve out time to think, as opposed to doing the same things that have been done before. Focused thinking time is something shared by almost all successful leaders. (Barack Obama)
  4. Create an idea capture system. Whether it be carrying a notebook and pen with you everywhere or a dedicated notes section in your smartphone, it is important to have a place to note ideas as they come to you. (Richard Branson)
  5. Practice letting go. This is fundamental to becoming a great delegator. (Warren Buffet)

I sleep. Or rather, I nap. There’s no conundrum that a 20-minute nap can’t help me unpack. It’s like a refresh button for my mind. I wake up clearer and more able to make the “gut” decision because I’ve stopped thinking. Whatever I’m feeling when I wake up is the feeling I go forward with.

4 SHORT LIFE LESSONS FROM BOZOMA SAINT JOHN | THE TIM FERRISS SHOW

 

Learn more about our Executive Wellbeing Program, a unique program for wellness, stress management, health and creating new habits.

 

Blog written by:  Ali Donnellan

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