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When You Don't Have Time for Healthy Lifestyle Choices

Becoming a healthier you in small, reasonable steps

Psychiatry is increasingly recognizing the role lifestyle issues play in mental illness. Some research, for instance, suggests that regular exercise can be just as potent as SSRI antidepressants. Mental health workers are increasingly recognizing the role loneliness plays not only in depression, but also in medical conditions such as heart disease and obesity. It's not always easy to make lifestyle changes, and in an increasingly fast-paced world, many patients report to me that they just don't have the time to exercise, eat healthy, or pursue new hobbies. If you think you can't squeeze health into your daily life, think again. A better lifestyle may take less time than you think.

The Vicious Cycle of Unhealthy Living

Unhealthy lifestyles create a self-perpetuating and vicious cycle. It begins with feeling like you don't have enough time—or energy, or strength, or emotional wellness—to pursue better living. When you neglect healthy living, though, you end up feeling even worse. And of course, feeling worse makes it harder to exercise, take time to cook, and make other good choices. Thus by abandoning healthy living, you can find yourself trapped in a cycle of plummeting health. The only way out of this is to find a way to incorporate healthy changes, however small, over time.

The Time Costs of Unhealthy Lifestyles

If you think healthy living simply takes up too much time, you need a reality check. Sure, 30 minutes of exercise means you can't spend that time binging on Netflix shows, but a better lifestyle can also gain you some extra time by helping you live longer. The benefits don't just include the distant possibility of a longer life, though. Unhealthy living is taking up more time than you might realize. Doctor's appointments due to obesity-related conditions, being slowed down by the chronic pain of a sedentary life, and getting sick more often all take up more time. Likewise, unhealthy habits—such as spending your time endlessly refreshing your inbox or stalking your ex on Facebook—eat away at time that could be spent doing something more useful.

Mastering Better Time Management

If you're ready to get smart about the way you manage your time and commit to a healthier lifestyle, it all begins with better time management. Everyone wastes time; this is a simple fact of life. But time wasted is time that could be spent doing something more valuable, so better time management begins with discerning how you waste time. Try observing yourself for a week. Keep track of all the time you spend bored on the Internet, using social media or reflexively picking up your phone. You may be surprised to see that a dozen or more hours of each week are wasted on tasks you don't enjoy and don't have to do.

Once you have a grip on where you're wasting time, it's time to begin more effectively budgeting your time. Time is just like money: a valuable good that you can't get back once you've spent. So just as you budget your money, consider budgeting your time. Make a schedule each day, and set clear, actionable goals for each week. Amorphous tasks such as “lose weight” or “be nicer” have no place on your to-do list. By focusing on achievable goals and working them into your schedule, though, you greatly expand your capacity to actually bring these goals to fruition.

Healthy Lifestyles in Small Chunks

If you want to live a healthier life, you don't have to join a gym, devote two hours a day to cooking, and spend all your time exercising. Instead, small decisions can add up to big changes over time. Focus on achieving your health goals in small, manageable chunks. Some easy first steps include:

-Replacing one unhealthy snack with a healthier option each day.
-Committing to cooking at home at least two days per week.
-Dedicating just five minutes a day to exercise. You can steadily increase this number over time, but you may also find that after a five-minute workout, you're motivated to go for 10, 20, or even 30 more minutes.
-Noticing your automatic negative thoughts and focusing on reframing these into more positive ideas.
-Scheduling your work day so you have time for yourself at night. If you complete your daily goals, you'll feel less stressed when it's time to relax. And a daily schedule can prove invaluable at helping you complete your goals.

Finding Time in the Midst of Chaos

Our society is busier now than ever before, so no matter how committed you are to living a healthier life, odds are good something is going to rob you of your time. One of the most important keys to long-term health is finding time for healthy choices even in the midst of chaos. Rather than getting upset when you have to wait in line at the DMV or the car wash takes longer than you intended, start treating this waiting time as “bonus” time. Some easy ways to incorporate healthy choices into a chaotic life include:

-Parking further away from the grocery store so you get a brief walking workout.
-Using time spent waiting to meditate. Research suggests that reflexively picking up an electronic device when you're waiting might actually stifle creativity.
-Carrying a book with you so you're always prepared to occupy your mind when you're stuck waiting.
-Taking time to plan your day when you have to wait in line.
-Doing related tasks at the same time. For instance, if you have to wait on hold with your bank, this is a great time to dash off some short emails.
-Taking a few moments each day to focus on your breathing. This helps center your mind, and something as simple as counting your breaths may help you more effectively manage stress.

The demands our world places on us are bigger now than ever before, but this doesn't mean you have to give up on healthy living. Indeed, making healthy lifestyle choices may be the best thing you can do to manage the chaos of an increasingly challenging world.


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