Atomic Habits for Mental Health

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I love to give people tons of options to improve their mental health, but I know that this can be overwhelming. So in this post let’s talk about tiny yet powerful strategies that actually reward you for doing them. Let’s talk about tiny changes that take a few minutes a day to build atomic habits for mental health.

A Growth Mindset with Mental Health

There’s two ways to think about mental health. And I think a lot of people don’t realize that they’re stuck in the first one. 

Most people believe that you either have depression or you don’t, that if you get diagnosed with depression or anxiety it’s like a permanent trait that you have and that all you can do is learn to cope with it. 

Now, I don’t think about depression or anxiety that way. I think of it on a scale. When your symptoms are severe they interfere with your life in a big way, and when your symptoms are mild or when your symptoms go away it doesn’t interfere with your life anymore. 

How To Improve Mental Health

Depression and anxiety disorders can actually be resolved when we chip away at them. And thinking about them this way gives us agency. It gives us power to change our own lives. 

Research shows that we can absolutely influence our mental health in huge ways. So for example, daily aerobic exercise can decrease depression and anxiety symptoms for over 75% of people. (12, and 3). Eating a healthier diet can decrease your risk of depression by up to 35%. (4)  Changing how you think, like going to therapy, helps 60 to 80% of people. (5

One study showed that for people with depression, when they treated their insomnia, 87% of them saw their depression symptoms completely resolve. (6) Using a therapy light or practicing meditation can be more effective than medication at treating depression and anxiety. 

Getting Motivated When You’re Depressed

But the problem is that all of these changes are hard, and they can feel super overwhelming when you’re drowning in anxiety or overwhelmed by depression. 

And then often when we get really motivated to improve our lives, we try some huge change. We make a plan to run a marathon, or we sign up for 5 a.m. CrossFit sessions at the gym, or we start some new diet. And while you can willpower yourself to make these changes for a little while, willpower usually just doesn’t work as a long-term strategy. 

Then the bigger the change you want to make, the more exhausting and overwhelming they are, which disincentivizes you from continuing them. It gets harder and harder to do them instead of easier. 

So while you can willpower your way to doing them for a while, the most likely outcome is that you get exhausted and you quit and then you’re more discouraged than when you started. So making these huge changes rarely works. Sometimes it does, but it just can’t be your only strategy. 

Small Changes Can Improve Mental Health

Now, I love to give people tons of options to improve their mental health, but I know that this can be overwhelming. So in this post let’s talk about tiny yet powerful strategies that actually reward you for doing them. 

They make your life easier instead of harder, and then you get feeling better and you get more energy and they become easier to do because they’re habitual. And then with that extra energy you can add another on. And instead of feeling more and more tired, you actually feel more and more energetic and resilient. 

So in this post you’ll learn about tiny changes that take a few minutes a day to build atomic habits for mental health.









Improve Your Mental Health With Small Atomic Habits

Small changes are better than big changes. James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits — which is a great book, by the way — tells the story of the British cycling team. They were one of the worst teams. Despite having lots of resources, they lost miserably. 

But then they got a new coach. And he didn’t change the team by telling them to just try harder or work harder or exercise longer. He just looked for tiny, incremental changes that they could improve one percent at a time. 

So they changed tiny little things like painting the inside of their vans so that they could keep their bikes cleaner, and they improved their uniforms so that they were more comfortable, and they tracked sleep so that they could sleep better. 

And they went from being one of the most underperforming teams to winning the most gold medals at the 2008 Olympics and then repeatedly winning the Tour de France. 

Now, in Atomic Habits, James Clear teaches how a one percent change every day makes you 37 times better by the end of the year. But most people fail to change because they try to make some gigantic improvement, which lasts for a little while, but then they run out of motivation because the change takes so much energy. 

So when you want to improve your mental health, I do not want you to make some huge, monumental change all at once. I emphatically tell my clients to not do that. You’ll be much more likely to create real, sustainable change by choosing teeny tiny habits that make your life easier over time instead of harder. When you let these changes add up over time, they snowball. 

So for example, let’s say you start to take vitamins in January, and it helps you have just, like, one percent more energy each day. 

And then in February you can use that energy to add in one small change. Like maybe you set a healthy boundary at work, like not answering your emails after 5 p.m. And then that helps you feel less overwhelmed, so that gives you one percent more energy. 

And then in March you add in a 10-minute walk to your day, and getting in some exercise improves your sleep, which makes you a little bit less tired each day, which gives you one percent more change in April. 

Each of these tiny changes helps you have more energy, be a tiny bit healthier, and actually makes your life easier instead of harder. And these positive changes snowball over time and can really help you get out of the rut of depression. 

So at this point in May you’ve got five percent change, which is 72 minutes more energy than you had in January. And with those 72 extra minutes of energy you might be able to make a few more tiny changes. 

Tiny changes are way more effective than that diet that you dropped by the beginning of February, which just made you feel worse about yourself instead of better. 

Now, I have an entire course about how to use tiny changes to improve your mental health. It’s called Change Your Brain: 10 Essential Mind-Body Skills for Mental Health. And I go into a lot more detail in that course on how to create changes that are super impactful but also long-lasting. That course is way more in-depth. But in this post I’ll give you about 30 ideas that you could use for your first one percent change. 

Remember These 3 Principles

As I make this list it’s really important that we talk about three principles. So first, pick the low-hanging fruit. Start with one change that takes the least amount of effort or is the most enjoyable for you. 

So if you love to exercise, add that to your routine first. If you hate to exercise, maybe start with light therapy because it’s easier for you. Or if you love people, schedule in some friend time. If being with people is exhausting for you, maybe start with a change to your diet. 

The principle here is start with the simplest, easiest changes first because these can give you more energy and motivation to make other changes in the future. And only make one change at a time, and work on that change until it becomes easier and easier to do. So I like a month as the initial time period. 

Number two: create a system to make this new action easier over time instead of harder. 

So for example, taking your medication every day can help improve mental health, and a system to make this easier is something like buying a pill box so that you know when you’ve taken it already or putting that pillbox on your breakfast table so that you remember to take it with breakfast every day. A system makes it so that you don’t have to remember it and think about it each day. 

And then third, use a habit tracker and set a 30-day goal for a tiny change you want to make. And just give yourself a check mark for every day that you do this tiny change. 

Now, Jerry Seinfeld had a habit of writing one joke every day. But the way he tracked it was by putting up a big calendar and putting a big red check mark for the days he wrote the joke. Use his method. That’s awesome. 

Again, I learned about it from Atomic Habits. It’s a great book. Read that book. 

You could also download my free Habit Builder. Or I like the free app Habit to track your progress. 

Atomic Habits for Mental Health

So now that you know the principles behind this, I’m just going to throw out a bunch of ideas of tiny changes that can improve your mental health. 

So light therapy is really effective. A lot of research shows it’s as effective as antidepressant medication. So you could buy a light box and do 10 minutes a day of light therapy while you do your morning routine. Or if you can’t do that, you could just open your curtains in the morning or sit outside in the sunlight every day for 10 minutes. 

Another one: consider supplementing with a multivitamin or a multi-mineral. EMPower is a well-researched option for this. It’s not a sponsor. But there’s a lot of research behind it that shows it helps some people. 

You could try to add a fermented food to your diet or consider a probiotic supplement. You can do any kind of movement outside. Add one vegetable to your meal. So for example, buy pre-packaged vegetables and put them at your desk every day. 

Daily gratitude practice. You could make a system of this by asking a friend to do it with you or you could use a journal or you could use an app. 

Express appreciation. Tell your significant other or your child something you appreciate about them every day. It will change how you feel about them, and it might even invite them to improve too. Or you could express appreciation to your boss or a cashier or a wait staff every day. 

Another small change that can make a difference is to watch less news and use that time instead of watching news to do some good in the world instead. 

You could also just switch your accounts to follow uplifting accounts like Good News or Upworthy. So make your social media a positive place, and just unfollow any accounts that bring a lot of negativity to your life. Setting up your Instagram to follow more uplifting people probably only takes a few minutes every day.

Another thing that can make a huge change from a tiny change is improving your sleep. 

Now, this might feel impossible, but there are a lot of tiny things you can do that really add up. You could try to wake up at the same time every morning for one week. You could decrease your caffeine usage. You could use your bed only for sleeping. Or you could set an automatic Do Not Disturb mode on your phone for nighttime. Little things like that can add up over time. 

Practicing mindfulness is really beneficial for mental health but feels overwhelming sometimes. Just try practicing slowing down your breathing when you’re in your car and noticing your breathing in your car. 

Or when you’re driving, you just drive without listening to anything and let your thoughts wander for a little bit. 

Or you could practice mindfulness in the bathroom. So instead of staring at your phone while you’re on the toilet, just take a deep breath and slow things down. 

Another thing you could do that can improve mental health is to set limits on your screen time. Or you could choose to keep a book next to your bed instead of your phone at night. 

You could try the brain-dump activity. You could do a one-minute meditation each day. Just Google it. There are hundreds of one-minute meditations. 

During your breaks from work you could try going for a walk or stretching instead of looking at your phone. You could set a daily goal for how many steps you’ll get to encourage you to walk a little bit more each day. 

You could practice a self-regulation technique once per day. So this is things like deep breathing, the yawn, or tapping. And again, these only take a minute or two every day. 

Nature decreases cortisol. Nature decreases the stress response. So for those of you who live in big cities or can’t get out in nature very often, you can do really tiny changes like getting a plant for your home. You could put nature photos on your computer or in your house or on your screen saver or on your TV in the background. Or you could just follow nature photographers on social media. 

Connection and relationships are one of the biggest indicators of happiness and healthiness. So you could just try to deepen the relationships you already have. These small little actions really do add up over time. 

So you could send a text message. You could plan a lunch date. You could call someone up to ask how they’re doing. You could make a reminder to call someone you care about.So those are a few ways that you could just improve your connections. 

There’s a few other things you can do. And I call this setting tiny rules for yourself. And if you set these rules and you work on them, just tiny increments for a month, your mental health will improve. 

So one of them is setting a rule like I’m not allowed to call myself names. 

I’m not allowed to use words like “always” or “never.” So you replace black-and-white thinking with gray thinking. 

You catch yourself when you’re using catastrophizing language, and you replace it with a courageous statement or use a growth mindset. So you replace the word “failure” with “not yet,” as in, “I haven’t figured out how to do math yet” or “I haven’t figured out how to be a good listener yet.” 

So these are a ton of little examples, and again, don’t do all of them. Only pick one that you want to work on. 

But I hope that this list gives you a ton of ideas that you could use to improve your mental health. And again, don’t try to do all of these; just pick the low-hanging fruit and start to implement one until it seems easy to do, and then pick the next one to work on. 

I hope you found this post helpful. Let’s get better at feeling. 

Thank you for reading, and take care.

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