Healthy habits are hard to make, but easy to break. Here's how to keep all of your good work intact when you take time off.
Holidays. The festive season. A break.
Just reading these words likely gave you a hit of happiness. And it's no wonder. In a time when everyone's stress or burnout level is hovering near a 10/10, we crave time off to relax and recharge, and we know we need it to attack our goals with fresh energy.
The problem? An all-or-nothing mentality. Too often a well-deserved break becomes a full stop. A few days off turn into a month of no training. A blowout weekend out of town ends up derailing a solid nutrition plan. A week or two away from classes or work makes us dread signing back in to our computer, even when we love what we're doing.
Even a few days of not eating well, exercising, studying or working can create a habit within your brain, and that becomes your new normal.
Nicole Detling, PhD
Mental-Performance Coach and Sport-Psychology Specialist
The reason it feels so tough to get back on top of your game is that you probably define a "break" as a do-nothing period, explains Michelle Cleere, PhD, a performance psychologist who works with elite athletes, professional musicians and executives. "We live in a society where people tend to think either 'I'm giving 100 percent' or 'I'm putting in zero effort'", says Cleere. And just as constantly going all out can lead to burnout, giving up all of your good habits during time off can kill your momentum and set you up to fail too, says Nicole Detling, PhD, a mental-performance coach and sport-psychology specialist who works with professional and everyday athletes. "Humans thrive on consistency and routines", explains Detling. Even a few days of not eating well, exercising, studying or working can create a habit within your brain, she says, and that becomes your new normal. Why? "It is far easier for the mind to repeat things than to begin anew", says Detling.
A Better Breather
Instead of stomping on the brakes of your routine, you want to embrace an "ease up on the accelerator" mentality, say Cleere and Detling. This gives your brain a break from the constant intensity of your daily grind. Plus, adds Cleere, when you slow down and take it easy—say, doing lighter workouts during a holiday rather than completely ditching the gym—you're able to turn back to your usual routine more easily. Think of a pan of water on the hob: It can come back to the boil more quickly if you lower it to a simmer instead of turning the heat off completely.
This approach can also help you level up upon your return, says Cleere, "if you use the opportunity to work on skills that develop your identity in a different way". Let's say you're a runner who needs a mental and physical pause from pounding the pavement. Dust off your bike or pull out a yoga mat, so you keep feeding your body with the movement it needs to stay mobile, and challenge your muscles and mind in a new way. If you're a foodie who does the same meal prep every weekend, experiment with a new-to-you cuisine that incorporates vegetables or healthy grains you've never tried before. The point: "You mix it up with something that's enjoyable, different and fun, but you don't completely stop your pursuit", says Detling.
Using "time off" to try a goal-adjacent activity has a bonus effect, adds Detling: You spark positive hormones like dopamine, serotonin and endorphins. "Those feel-good chemicals fight against stress in your body", she says. "Now you can focus more, and your body rebuilds itself stronger".
How to Rev Back Up Again
You might need a little oomph to get you going once you're ready to return to your regular scheduled programming. Try these strategies to psych yourself up quickly.
1. Connect to your "why".
"Athletes who work out even when they don't feel like it don't do it because they're constantly motivated to move, they do it because they're committed to something greater", says Detling. Whether you want to lift heavier weights, study more consistently, use less plastic or talk to your grandparents more often, ask yourself why you've set that goal. Do you want to feel more energised? Happier? More present? "Keep asking yourself "why?" until you reach the reason that's so deep, it hits you like a punch in the gut", says Detling. Think of that whenever you need a push.
2. Win the conversation.
We all have an inner monologue that's constantly feeding us information, says Detling, and often it's self-defeating. We'll consider journaling, for example, then hear ourselves say that it takes too long or we have nothing interesting to write down. Deliberately talk back to that voice, says Detling—repeat your "why" and what you're committed to—and the voice will get quieter and less convincing. "It's like playing a tennis match in your head", she says. "Your brain is going to hit that ball over the net and say, 'Eh, I don't feel like it'. Your job is to hit it back each time".
3. Give yourself a countdown.
To immediately get yourself moving, literally (getting out of bed for yoga) or figuratively (registering for that class you've had your eye on), think "3, 2, 1, go". Employing a simple countdown gives you a feeling of control, says Detling, and convinces your brain that you've already made the decision to take action. Use it for small steps, so, "3, 2, 1, put on your sneakers", "3, 2, 1, open the door", "3, 2, 1, jog down the block", and so on, versus "3, 2, 1, run a 10K". This way, the command feels doable and you tick off multiple successes as you go, building your confidence.
4. Make it feel easier.
When you're really struggling to get back to your old routine, figure out a way to make it feel less like a strugglefest. For example, if you're having trouble getting yourself to pick up your weights again, try listening to music you love (rather than no music at all or an app-curated playlist you feel "meh" about). A new study found this can distract your brain from the work, and thus make exercise feel like less of an effort. (The study also found that listening to songs with about 165 beats per minute that you love could increase your strength and endurance during your workout). It's like adding grease to wheels, says Detling, and that extra ease can help you find the energy to go for it again.
If you still find yourself falling into an all-or-nothing, fully on or completely off mentality when it comes to your training, diet, hobbies or social commitments, think of your future self. Will future you thank or curse current you, when your "break" is over? Do what you can to make yourself happy down the road and you'll naturally set yourself up for a successful reset.