As someone who grew up in a country where warm and sunny days were the norm, moving to London and enduring my first winter here was a bit of shock to the system. At the end of that winter, I remember muttering “never again!”. Although to be fair to my younger self, because I thought this experience was a one-off, I didn’t invest in a proper winter coat, scarf or gloves, so it is not surprising that I was freezing most of the time! Twenty-three years (and 23 winters) later, you will be pleased to hear that I have adapted a bit better to a colder environment, and although I would prefer year-round sunshine, I am learning to embrace the change in the seasons.
However, I still find myself feeling slightly uneasy as summertime draws to a close and the leaves start falling from the trees. I begin to feel a little anxious at the prospect of months of cold and gloomy days. I know that most of my friends who have grown up in warmer climates feel the same way, but this year, I have noticed a more universal anxiety about the prospect of us entering this winter, with further restrictions on our movement and no clear timescale for the end of the pandemic in sight.
This year, I’ve decided that I will take a more solution-focused approach and put strategies in place to look after my mental health and wellbeing over the winter months. My long-term goal is to be able to spend a good portion of the winter months in sunnier places (and that is something that I am actively working towards), but right now, I realise that I also need to look at incorporating new habits into my daily routines to keep me healthy and focused.
We all know that physical activity is good for both our physical health and our mental health and wellbeing. Even 10 minutes of brisk walking can increase mental alertness, energy and mood. The benefits of regular physical activity includes increases to our self-esteem, reductions in stress and anxiety. Physical activity also plays an important role in preventing mental health problems from developing and improving quality of life for people who are experiencing mental health problems.
However, when it is cold and raining, it can be difficult for many of us to motivate ourselves to get outside and be active. Over the last few months, I have noticed just how much physical activity I have been missing out on as a result of not using public transport and walking between destinations as frequently as I used to. I realised that I needed to consciously incorporate more walking into my daily routine and find ways of increasing my step count. Being outdoors and doing physical activity in a ‘green’ environment has been shown to have more positive benefits than exercising indoors. One of my new routines it to go out for a walk in a local park before I sit down at my desk to start work for the day. I am also using my walking time to listen to inspiring podcasts and audio books. Spending more time outdoors has helped me to be more aware of my surroundings, noticing the changing seasons – for example over the last few days, I’ve been appreciating the autumnal colours and crunchy leaves underfoot. This helps me to feel more connected to nature and I find that it boosts my mood.
Getting out first thing in the morning helps me to feel more prepared to start the working day. However, as someone who has worked remotely for the majority of the past six years, I know that without prompts I can quite easily stay chained to my desk for hours on end without taking a proper break. I have downloaded an app to my phone which helps me to practice the ‘pomodoro’ technique. A phone app is useful, but this is something you could just as easily do with an alarm clock or timer. This technique encourages you to split your time into focus sessions of 25 minutes, followed by a 5-minute break. Even though I have been using this technique on and off for a few years now, I am always surprised at how quickly 25 minutes goes! During your break time get up and move around. For example, you could do a couple of stretches, jump around, run up and down stairs, put on your favourite song and dance around, or go and make a cup of tea or even some household chore you have been putting off. If you haven’t already tried this, I recommend that you give it a go – I find that on days when I make the effort to use this technique (even if I don’t use it for the whole day), I feel so much better at the end of the day. I also find that my productivity levels go up during the focus sessions. I know that doing this sort of thing isn’t always practical, for example, when you have to attend a longer meeting. However, think about whether there are some practical steps you can take in these situations, e.g. if you are organising a meeting, why not to try to build mini breaks into the agenda and encourage everyone to get up and move around on a regular basis. If you aren’t the meeting organiser, could you suggest this to the organiser or other team members?
As well as taking regular mini breaks throughout the working day, consider taking the time to have a proper lunch break away from your computer and eating nutritious food. You could use being based at home as an opportunity to prepare yourself more nutritious meals, and again, you could use this time to get outside – even if it is just for a 5 minute walk around the block, or to go out into the garden or onto a balcony, if you are fortunate enough to have outdoor space.
Another thing that I have embraced over the last few months is online exercise classes. A few months ago, when classes moved online, I think many of us saw this as a temporary solution to the closure of gyms and exercise studios. However, once I got used to the technology and knowing how to position my camera so that my instructor could see what I was doing, I really enjoy having this time to focus on my wellbeing. I also now have fewer excuses for not making class, e.g. I can’t blame the weather, not having enough time to get there, etc.!
In this article I have described some of the things that I find helpful and which I am making a conscious effort to incorporate into my daily routine. However, it is important if you want to develop new habits that you find activities that you enjoy and that are practical for you and your personal circumstances.
What problem or issue would you like to solve? For example, do you want to find ways to better manage stress? Although there may be aspects of working remotely that you enjoy such as not having to commute every day, perhaps you have also found yourself stuck in front of your computer and not being as physically active as you were before. Or perhaps you miss the social interaction of your workplace and would like to think of ways to bring more of that into your day whilst working remotely?
List all the possible solutions to your problem or issue on a piece of paper. Next, for each of the possible solutions, consider the consequences of this action – both positive and negative. It is important to be realistic about any practical barriers that could stand in the way of your ideas. Also, consider what is in and outside of your control and focus on those things which are within your control.
Once you have considered the consequences of each possible solution, rate each one on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being ‘not at all useful’ and 10 being ‘as useful as it can be’.
Take the solution with the highest rating, and if necessary, break it down into more manageable steps with clear goals. For example, you may decide that you want to aim to walk 10,000 steps a day. How, where and when are you going to do this? Do you need to start with a lower target for the first few days, and gradually build up to the 10,000 steps? Is there someone who can support you and offer motivation, for example, could you share your goals with a friend or partner who will encourage you to stay on track and hold you accountable?
Once you have implemented your solution, remember to monitor the outcome. Take the time to reflect on what worked well and what didn’t. If things didn’t go to plan, why not? What prevented you from achieving your goal and what could you do differently next time? Were you perhaps setting yourself targets which were too ambitious for the first attempt? Maybe breaking down your goal into more manageable steps will help?
Remember that new habits can take a really long time to become embedded into our daily lives, so try not to be too hard on yourself if you find yourself slipping into old routines. Keep on persevering and experimenting with different strategies until you find what works for you!
During my Executive Leadership Coaching Programme one of the areas we focus on is your health and wellbeing. When you feel better, you perform better. We’ll discover and explore your personal stress triggers and develop coping mechanisms to better manage stress when it does arise. By making your wellbeing a priority, you’ll begin to feel more in control of your personal experience and enhance your self-belief.
Mandy Murdoch – Coaching Psychologist, Accredited Coach and Consultant
Email: [email protected]