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Kathy Whelan

Posted on December 17, 2023

It was a relief that nothing was lost in my recent move from the city to a new suburban home. Nothing, that is, except the healthy habits I had worked so hard, for so long, to build.

Amid towers of boxes and a steady stream of construction workers, I couldn’t seem to find time to meditate, exercise, get enough sleep or eat regular meals at our new home. Healthy habits that had seemed so strong now felt more fragile than the glass pieces I had packed with such care.

I told myself the situation was temporary and that I shouldn’t worry, but I did. As the weeks passed, I feared my lapses would themselves become habits.

As I tried to rebuild a framework for healthy living, I made some progress, but my emotions were like a roller coaster. Taking a close look at my feelings, I decided I was struggling with a loss of control. I couldn’t set a schedule like I had before, and that really bothered me. I knew I needed patience, but it didn’t come easily. I also needed self-compassion – to treat myself as kindly as I would a friend or family member faced with a similar situation. After all, I was doing my best.

It helped to remember I wasn’t alone. People face this kind of challenge all the time: starting a new job or academic program, getting a new boss, becoming a parent or caregiver. I thought of the many people who have been working from home and are now being called back to the office. All of us have lost a structure we depended on.

The idea of sharing an experience with others helped me shift my focus from myself to the process itself, and I found some approaches that were helpful:

1) Prioritize. Knowing I couldn’t do everything at once and that my husband and I had to eat, I organized our kitchen first. To shape an environment conducive to easy, healthy eating, I stocked it with wholesome ingredients for simple-to-prepare dinners that could stretch to more than one meal.

2) Make it obvious. I needed cues for what I hoped to accomplish. Laying out my hand weights on the basement floor made them visual reminders whenever I went downstairs to unpack a box. When space became available as boxes were cleared, I ordered a treadmill, which would be impossible to overlook.

3) Start small. I had to focus on taking one small step at a time. Even if what I did would have seemed trivial before – a 7-minute meditation or a 15-minute treadmill session – I needed to be content with, and even proud of, doing it now. I had to notice, but not react to, negative self-talk and feedback from my phone’s health app, which kept reminding me I wasn’t taking as many steps as usual.

4) Stack habits. New practices would be easier to establish if I connected them to something I was certain to do. “Habit stacking” is something I’d learned from James Clear. Since I depend on my morning coffee, I decided to meditate every day immediately after my first cup. It worked, getting my mornings off to a good start.

5) Set boundaries. I needed to temporarily decline most social engagements and non-urgent meetings. At times I felt impolite doing this, but it was more important to safeguard any free time for unwinding and relaxing with my husband, especially near the end of the day. That downtime helped prepare me for sleep.

6) Seek support. Though I was more accustomed to offering support for building healthy habits, I now needed to receive it from others. When I shared my struggle with my family and friends, I got the encouragement I needed.

7) Notice opportunities. As my daily habits began to come together bit by bit, it cleared out headspace for some creative thinking. What, I asked myself, was possible now that hadn’t been possible before? What would enrich my life most? The desire to meet new people with similar interests led me to imagine hosting some “wellness dinners” in my new home.

Rebuilding a healthy lifestyle has been a reminder that habits, both good and bad, are hard to break. The brain pathways I’d built previously were still with me, waiting to be used. As long as I had a realistic plan for accessing them, nothing would be lost. So please remember this if you find yourself struggling to revive good habits: it’s never too late.

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