If we want to improve our habits, where should we begin? In my book Better Than Before, I identify 21 strategies that we can use to make or break our habits. That’s a lot of options! It’s a good idea to start by tackling the habits that most directly strengthen self-control, which we need if we’re going to keep any of our other good habits.
These five habits will protect us from getting so physically taxed or mentally frazzled that we can’t manage ourselves.
Get at least seven hours of sleep.
For many of us, those last hours of the day are time to play or relax, but the fact is, we need sleep. Lack of sleep affects mood, memory, immune function—it even contributes to weight gain. Most adults need at least seven hours of sleep a night. If you struggle with getting to bed on time, try setting an alarm at night to help you get moving toward sleep.
Go for a 20-minute walk.
Physical activity is the magical elixir of practically everything. Exercise relieves anxiety, boosts energy and mood, improves memory, sharpens executive function and contributes to weight maintenance. It both energizes and calms us. You don’t need to train for a marathon or go to an hour-long spin class. The biggest health boost goes to those who are consistent about being less sedentary.
Don’t let yourself get too hungry.
Because the brain needs energy to manage impulses, paradoxically, one of the best ways to avoid impulsive overeating (or any bad habit) is to eat enough. Also, skipping meals can lead to a whole day of bargaining and bad choices.
Take time to unclutter.
Most of us get a real lift when we put things in their place, tackle nagging tasks, clear surfaces and get rid of junk. This surge of energy makes it easier to ask more of ourselves, to use our self-control and to stick to a challenging habit. One of the most popular habits for boosting happiness and productivity? Make your bed. Also, if you can do something in less than one minute, do it without delay. This eliminates the scrim of clutter on the surface of life.
Give yourself healthy treats.
I’ve saved the best for last! Treats are delightful. Unlike a reward, which must be earned or justified, a “treat” is a small pleasure or indulgence that we give to ourselves just because we want it. We don’t have to be “good” to get it, we don’t earn it or justify it. Giving ourselves “treats” may sound self-indulgent or frivolous, but it’s not. When we give ourselves treats, we feel energized, cared for and contented, which boosts our self-command. It’s a Secret of Adulthood: If we give more to ourselves, we can ask more from ourselves. Self-regard isn’t selfish.
What are some healthy treats? Browsing through art books, cookbooks or travel guides; taking photographs; napping; looking at family albums; putting on perfume; coloring in a coloring book; learning a new magic trick. I recently started a podcast, Happier with Gretchen Rubin, and many people have told me they use podcasts as a good way to treat themselves.
Be wary of the most popular unhealthy treats, however. Food and drink, screen time and shopping can be healthy treats for some people, but many people should steer clear. We don’t want to do something to make ourselves feel better that just ends up making us feel worse.
These five areas build on each other. Start with one area, and go from there, as you make your habits better than before.