Habits are the key to a happy life. Or a terrible life. It really depends on the habits you pick.
A great reference for choosing small habits and making them stick is James Clear’s Atomic Habits. Tiny, easy habits tend to lead to exponential changes over time, and healthy habits generate more healthy habits. On the other hand, unhealthy, self-destructive habits tend to accumulate into a downward spiral. It’s a slippery slope, as they like to say in AA. So it really matters which habits you follow. It’s a life or death choice.
A couple of years ago, I joined an online program from the founder of Zen Habits, focused on habit change and monthly challenges. As a beginner, I was encouraged to start with something so easy it was almost impossible not to do: drink one glass of water when I woke up.
Although it was easy to do, I had to set a reminder on my phone in order to actually remember to do it (and sometimes I forgot anyway). I also needed to find a way to track whether I did it or not, so I could remember for my weekly check-in. This became the basis for my habit tracking and reminder systems I now use on a daily basis.
These are five foundational habits that have helped me become a happier, healthier, better version of myself.
A glass of water in the morning was my starter habit when I began to overhaul my health and habits. It’s something so easy to do that it would hard to find an excuse for not doing it. It doesn’t require any special equipment or much cognitive effort. You can even put the glass of water on your nightstand the night before as a subtle reminder.
Drinking a glass of water is not going to massively change your life or health, but water is symbolic. It is the basis for life itself, and drinking pure water every day is one of the best thinks you can do to support all of your bodily systems. It’s also symbolic of your intention to take care of yourself. The most basic human need is water.
It almost feels cliché to put meditation on this list. All of the habit gurus say to meditate. All of the guru gurus say to meditate. Your mom probably meditates. But there is a reason meditation is such a ubiquitous part of self-improvement schemes. Practicing meditation can help you find mental space for all of the other things. Just sitting and following my breath for ten minutes every morning may well be the most powerful habit I’ve taken up.
Starting meditation can be intimidating. Not only does it feel like it would be impossible to sit quietly for a few minutes, doing NOTHING, but how do you actually do it? Never fear, there’s an app for that. Headspace has a great program for beginners, and I’ve heard great things about the Calm app. Insight timer is a free app, and also includes free guided meditations along with a customizable timer function. Apple Fitness + includes meditation, as does Peloton, and I’m sure many other fitness apps. Your mind is an important thing to exercise regularly.
Like any habit, start with the smallest possible version of it. Just do one minute. Or just close your eyes and count five breaths. It is really as simple as that to start.
When I started working from home at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, I saw a steep drop in my daily activity levels. I had been walking more than a mile per day just incidentally when I was commuting to work, and then suddenly I wasn’t. I started scheduling late morning walks whenever I didn’t have too many meetings. At first, I just did a two mile loop that took me up a hill to get a view of Lake Washington. Somehow that daily glimpse of the lake became a balm for the anxiety of living through a global pandemic.
Over time, I expanded my loop. I found some urban goats and chickens that I liked to visit. I discovered the best routes down to the lake. I watched gardens bloom and birds argue.
I also work out more vigorously, but I consider walking a more fundamental and important habit. I try to get in at least 3 miles per day, and I have loops that go up to 5 miles for days when I have enough time. If I didn’t have other things to do, I could walk all day. Which is exactly what the human body was designed to do. Just go for a walk around the block, and you might be surprised how much it shifts your mood.
4: Tracking habits
I don’t like tracking things. It feels tedious and a little pointless. Why do I need to write down what I did if I know I did it? Despite my natural aversion to trackers and tracking, I’ve learned that it is almost compulsory if you want a new habit to stick. Once a habit is a habit, you can risk not tracking it and see what happens.
I do annual and weekly trackers in my Bullet Journal and I use the Productive app for a quick check-in every evening. I also check in once per week with my online accountability group, so tracking helps me look back and see where I fell short of my expectations, or where I exceeded them. If I’m consistently missing certain habits, I know I need to reevaluate and probably downsize a bit.
There are a gazillion habit tracking apps and sites–just do a quick search for “habit tracker” on your platform of choice. But all you really need is a piece of paper you can put some check-marks on, or a calendar with room to mark your habits. Of course, habit tracking is itself a habit that you have to find a way to remember. Paradoxically, habit tracking is one of the habits I track every day.
5: Sleep schedule
After I started my habits of meditation, yoga, and journaling in the morning, I realized that I would need an earlier wakeup time to get everything in before work. I chose a 5:30 start time, so that I can get some of my morning things done before my husband starts his morning workout in the same space. The problem was that I have never had a bedtime (in my entire life), so getting up early meant that I wasn’t getting enough sleep, which soon made it hard for me to keep up with my newly formed habits. I was just too tired.
The solution was simple: Go to bed early. I used the iPhone bedtime function to set a sleep schedule with a bedtime of 9:30 PM. I now make a habit of starting my bedtime routine by 9, so that I have some time to read. I also started using the Autosleep app with my Apple Watch to track my sleep quality.
I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to wake up before dawn, but whatever time you want to get up, give yourself a bedtime eight hours earlier and stick to it. Time to sleep is absolutely the best gift you can give yourself.
Other habits I find helpful
In addition to the habits mentioned above, here are a few more I have found most beneficial. Two years ago I was doing none of this regularly, so I feel like if I can develop these habits, most others can, too.
Most Important Task (MIT): This is a simple prioritization practice. Each day, mark the thing on your to-do list that will have the most impact with a star, exclamation point, highlighter, or other designation. The habit is the act of choosing the task, but the benefit comes from then making that task the first thing you do during your productive hours.
Yoga: I’ve been an off-and-on yoga practitioner since I was a little kid. I keep coming back to it for many reasons. It’s a non-aggressive way to improve strength and flexibility. It can also be in itself a form of meditation and a grounding way to start the day. I do at least a few sun salutations after my morning meditation, but I aim for a 20-30 minute daily practice.
Journaling/ Morning Pages: I practiced Julia Cameron’s famous Morning Pages sporadically for many years. Writing three pages longhand just takes a long time for me, so in order to get some kind of writing practice into my morning I started writing for ten minutes with a timer. I found I typically filled one side of a page in ten minutes, so now I just fill the page without the timer.
Language Lessons: I started using Duolingo to learn Italian several months ago, and now a 15 minute lesson is what I do every morning before firing up my work laptop. It’s a great way to warm up my brain before diving into work chaos. Learning a language is always useful, and will make you a better citizen of the world, especially if you love to travel.
Workouts: Exercise can take many forms, and I’ve tried a few over the years. Back in my early thirties, I was a runner. Knee and ankle issues made that hard to keep up, so for a while I switched to hot yoga. Talk about sweaty! When I got back into regular workouts after a years of inactivity, it was thanks to my husband’s decision to buy a Peloton bike. Now I do a few rides per week and have added some strength training in between. Nothing is better for you than exercise, and the main trick is to find the one you enjoy doing and start VERY small.
Bedtime routine: In addition to setting a bedtime (for the first time ever!), I made going to bed a bit more attractive by adding some self-care to my routine. After brushing and flossing, I do some skin care, about five minutes of stretching, and then read until I start to get sleepy.
Food tracking: Have I mentioned that I hate tracking? I was really resistant to doing any type of calorie counting or food tracking when I got serious about losing weight at the beginning of 2020. But when I decided to go Keto during my breast cancer treatments, I really couldn’t track my macros without using a tool to calculate them. So I grudgingly signed up for Cronometer and started tracking food every day. Though I have never been 100% accurate with weighing food, etc. I get a pretty close approximation. It has been eye-opening to learn how many calories are actually in foods, and where my nutrients and macros are imbalanced. I’ve kept up food tracking even after losing most of the weight I wanted to and letting go of strict Keto.
Weekly review: I joined a small group as part of a Zen Habits program I signed up for in early 2020 (which I can thank for much of my progress on habits), and every Monday we all check in on how our week went and our intentions for the current week. We each share how many times we did each habit, as well as any wins, challenges, and learnings. This habit has been instrumental in keeping me on track with all the other habits.