Creating Healthy Habits in Quarantine: Strategies

Part 1: A series on maintaining mental and physical health in isolation.

Posted Mar 19, 2020

 Hannah Khoddam
This post was authored by Hannah Khoddam, Ph.D. candidate at the University of Southern California. 
Source: Hannah Khoddam

If you all are like me, I’m sure you’ve been feeling a mix of confusion, powerlessness, helplessness, and an overall anxiety about the state of the world right now. And as many of us are practicing social distancing and have the privilege of being able to work/stay at home, I can imagine that we are all trying to figure out how to make the best of this temporary new way of life. I have been working from home for a while now and have been working out at home almost exclusively for the past six years. I am also in the last few months of completing my doctorate in clinical psychology specializing in health/medical psychology. A big part of my training has focused on helping individuals change or maintain their health behaviors (e.g., changing diet related to obesity, managing chronic pain, even coping with prolonged hospitalization). Given the challenges of our new world, I thought some of these suggestions or tricks might be useful to you!

Health behaviors are anything that helps us maintain a healthy lifestyle: exercise, drinking water, eating behaviors, mindfulness, or even taking medication or going to the doctor.  Regardless of what your health behavior change is, the first step to implementing change is to take stock of where you’re at. Here are some questions I ask clients when starting to think about creating schedules to incorporate healthy habits into their daily lives.

 Kaboompics/Pexels
Source: Kaboompics/Pexels

1. What is your relationship with schedules like? Before you buy that beautiful planner and start color-coordinating your schedule, it’s important to determine your relationship with schedules. Are you the kind of person who makes a minute-to-minute schedule and sticks to it? Do you like to have a general idea of what you need to get done in a day with flexibility for when it gets done? Or do you make a detailed minute-to-minute schedule and never get to anything on your to-do list?

Understanding how you work with a schedule is your first step in determining how to maintain healthy habits. There is no one way to do this, but in order for it to work, you have to get real with yourself about the way you normally do things (or don’t do things!). Go ahead and do a little reflection on how you normally tackle different tasks and how you respond when your life is scheduled.

2. How does structure usually come to be in your life? Are you able to create structure for yourself when you have free time? Or do you need others to create the structure to keep you on track? Remember, there is no right or wrong answer here, just reflect on what normally happens and how you feel about it.

If you are able to create structure for yourself, get out that new sparkly planner and get to work! (More on how to create goals in a later post.) But if you are someone who needs structure to come from something or someone else first, check in with yourself: Is this something you want to continue, or something you want to change? If you’d like to continue this strategy, then brainstorm some ways to be kept accountable during this time. Here are some ideas:

  • Have an accountability partner: get a coworker, friend, or family member to check in with you in regular intervals to make sure you’re on track (i.e., set up regular meetings or check-ins).
  • Set reminders or alarms at the beginning of the day for when you need to switch or accomplish tasks.
  • Set up a reward schedule, so that after every task or every few tasks that you are not looking forward to doing you do something pleasurable or rewarding after.

Spoiler alert: Many of these strategies will actually help to build intrinsic motivation, once you’ve realized you can stick to your schedule and goals. So even though you are utilizing other people or outside measures to create motivation, you are also creating motivation for yourself.

3. What are your intentions or motivations for the activities on your schedule? Determining your motivation for healthy habits may come in handy when troubleshooting what is getting in the way of accomplishing these tasks. For example, if you are working out due to fear of gaining weight, or feeling social pressures to keep moving, when your day goes off track it’s going to be harder to stick to your goals. Additionally, if you are overwhelmed by anxiety and adding one more thing to your to-do list feels impossible, don't do it. Take some time to recoup, take care of yourself, calm down, and come back to it later. If you are motivated to take care of yourself, to control the parts of your life you can control, or to be an example for your family, it will be much easier to stick to your schedule and goals even when things get tough.

Important disclaimer: You do not need to have a schedule. I repeat—you do not need to have a schedule. The take-away from this post is that it’s important to check in with yourself about what you need and what’s important to you at this time. If you need a few days to snuggle on the couch with a warm cup of tea and binge-watch Love Is Blind to come to grips with the reality of the world, do this! If you want to jump right into structuring your days to feel a sense of normalcy, do this! The important step is to check in with yourself, understand your motivations, and if you are not happy with the way your life is going, make a plan to change it (and read my next post on making smart goals). 

So, where do you start implementing a schedule?  

Check in with yourself! Notice how you usually work with a schedule (do you need a rigid schedule or an outline with flexibility?), what your motivations or intentions are for creating healthy habits (are you motivated by fear or by an intention to take care of yourself?), and whether your motivations or intentions are what you want them to be (if not, what can you do to change them?). This is a whole post in and of itself, which we will get to. But at this point, can you make small changes? Can you take a couple of days to take care of yourself and re-evaluate where you are? Or can you add one small thing a day that you want to do to work toward a healthy habit? This can be anything! And no choice is too small. Lastly, have compassion for yourself. Wherever you are in your healthy habit journey, whatever you accomplish today is enough. Start here and everything else will come together.