How do you form new habits when you’re exhausted? The key is to start small, to take a gentle, whole-person approach for long-term change. First, start by establishing a regular sleep habit, from going to bed at the same time to waking up at the same time. Then, work on your nutrition. Aim for more water, and identify eating habits that make you feel more energized and less drained. Next, fold in some exercise, whether it is regular cardio or adding some stretches and steps into your workday. Once you’ve established these healthy habits, then you can expand into others. Work on one new habit at a time, and take it slowly and steadily.
Forming a new habit in the best of times can be difficult, let alone trying to make changes when you’re already spent. The last couple of years have stretched almost everyone. And you may find yourself exhausted and feeling doubtful that you can really turn your situation around — or simply confused about where to begin.
So what do you do when you’re trapped in the vicious cycle of needing to improve your habits so you can feel refreshed but struggling to muster the willpower and motivation to even try?
As a time management coach, many of the individuals who come to me are already fatigued — sometimes to the point of burnout. They want change but don’t know how to get started. So we need to find a path to recovery that honors their current state but doesn’t leave them there.
The key to helping them move forward isn’t coming down hard on them — they’re already hard enough on themselves. Instead, what’s most effective long term is to take a gentle, whole-person approach: Remembering the basics of taking care of yourself through sleep, nutrition, and exercise lays the foundation for you to then advance in other areas of time management.
If you find yourself utterly exhausted but longing for a change, here is the pathway to sustainably building new habits.
Start with Sleep
If you’re super tired, then the key to greater productivity is not to push harder, but push less. Once you start getting enough sleep habitually, your body will support you in accomplishing your daily goals instead of dragging you down.
There’s a very specific order in which I recommend working on sleep when you’re at the point of exhaustion. Start with aiming for an earlier bedtime based on how many hours of sleep you need to be rested. If that’s eight hours a night and you need to get up at 7 a.m., that means lights out at 11 p.m. Set a recurring alarm on your phone for around 30 or 45 minutes before that time to remind yourself to start winding down and prepping for shut-eye.
Once you begin to get the hang of heading to bed earlier, then start to work on your pre-bedtime routine so that once you’re in bed, you can actually fall asleep. Experiment with different strategies, such as signing off electronics an hour before bed, not watching anything too stimulating late at night, or simply dimming the lights.
Then the next step to improving your sleep quality is to focus on getting up at a consistent time. Most people put this goal as their first step, but it actually comes later in the process. I recommend this order because when you get to bed on time and fall asleep quickly, getting up is so much easier. And as an added bonus, consistently getting up earlier will make it much easier on those days when you need to commute to the office.
Think About Nutrition
Once you give yourself sufficient time to rest, then you’ll start to have the capacity to work on other areas. I’ve found the next most effective habits for rebuilding energy involve simple nutrition strategies.
One effective habit is to start drinking more water. Greater water intake improves energy, aids concentration, and reduces fatigue and anxiety. Make it a habit to always have a filled water glass or water bottle by you. I fill a water glass at breakfast, keep it on my desk while I work, and then keep refilling it throughout the day. If it’s harder for you to do refills, get a really big water bottle so that you only have to fill your water container once for the day.
Then think about whether you’re getting enough nourishment. Some of my coaching clients get so engrossed in their work or have so many back-to-back meetings that they don’t feel like they have time to eat — or they simply forget to! If you find yourself in that situation, buy some very simple nutrition options like bars or protein shakes that you always keep at your desk. Make it a goal to eat at least one or two during the day. As you’re developing the habit, you may need to set a reminder on your calendar or phone, or place a healthy snack on your desk as a visual cue. My clients who have made remembering to eat a priority find that they have more energy throughout the day and end up feeling much less drained after work.
Once you have the building blocks of sleep and nutrition in place, then you need to start thinking about integrating in physical activity. Counterintuitively, exercise ultimately gives you more energy throughout the day instead of depleting it. It also has the added benefits of improving mood, sleep quality, and focus. Some of my coaching clients with ADHD find that exercise is one of the key ingredients to being able to concentrate throughout the day.
If you do at least 25 minutes of vigorous cardio exercise at least three times a week, you can improve your overall wellness. I recommend specifically dictating where and when you will do this exercise, such as, “I will work out Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 7–7:30 a.m. at the gym.” And if you find yourself struggling with motivation, find support through working out with friends, going to a class, or hiring a trainer. You can borrow the energy and motivation of others when you’re feeling exhausted.
If that level of physical activity seems like too much to start, beginning with gentle stretching or walks is a step in the right direction. Make movement a ritual linked to a daily event such as, “When I get up, then I stretch for five minutes,” to help you seamlessly integrate the habit into your lifestyle.
Pick a New Habit
Once you’ve integrated in the healthy habits that will greatly reduce your exhaustion, then you can pick other new habits to fold into your life. Attending to the basics of sleep, nutrition, and exercise will have improved your energy and focus during the day so that you have the capacity to take on more.
To reduce the possibility of overwhelm, I advise choosing just one to work on at a time. For example, you may decide to focus on being on time, planning your week, breaking down projects, keeping up on email, or some other habit that you would like to master. Then focus on incremental change. For instance, with being on time, you may pick one type of meeting where you really focus on arriving a couple minutes early and then gradually expand the scope to other activities in your professional and personal life.
The key to habit change, especially when you’re truly exhausted, is to take it slowly and steadily: Moving forward but not putting too much pressure on yourself at any one time. You won’t be able to change all of your habits in a day. But with time, you can develop new habits that will help you regain energy, stave off fatigue, and build momentum for ongoing growth and development.
Copyright 2022 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.