So, there we are, we did it. The first week of actual school in 2021. How was yours?
Mine was good, I've very much enjoyed the slower pace and less demands on my attention at any one time. But, it hasn’t been the revelation that I hoped for, there’s been something a bit underwhelming about the whole thing. Yes, its been nice, but just nice, I expected more.
And that got me thinking, what’s going on? A huge part of my daily and weekly routine has changed for the better in terms of my stress levels and energy levels. And yet, at the same time it feels a bit of a let down- what’s that about?
I think it has to do with the expectations- high expectations of everything changing when actually we’re still in lockdown; still not able to see friends and family, still limited in what we can do and where we can go. So yes, weekdays feel very different (and I am absolutely NOT complaining about that!) but the circumstances around that one change haven’t really altered at all. Perhaps that’s part of the problem.
And then I wonder if there’s also a bit of lag in adjustment. All change, no matter whether it's positive or negative, requires some adjustment to accommodate the new routines and habits. And that’s when I realised that the daytime stuff has altered so I have more energy and I'm less tired when the evening comes around, but I'm still in the same old patterns of activity in the evenings. In fact, the only accommodation I have made is to give myself more ‘treats’ because you know what, home schooling was hard and we did get through and so we deserve some sort of reward right?
The difficulty is, my habitual reward in lockdown is food and alcohol. So, I’m drinking more wine and eating more crisps than I know is good for me and yet can’t seem to get around to changing that. Not to excess, just more evenings than in an ideal world and perhaps that extra glass or extra little thing from the treat cupboard more often than usual.
So, this leads to the question: if I see this in myself and am aware of the impact of these choices, how can I join up my values (crisps and wine every night aren’t ideal, they don’t actually make me feel that good), and actions (I’m in the co-op and somehow the crisps and wine are in the basket as I simultaneously think “you don’t really need those”)?
Well, I think it comes back to what I was saying last time; sometimes what I think will be ‘relaxing’, ‘good’, a ‘treat’ actually isn’t what my mind and body needs. I’m sometimes working out of habit, on default, rather than thinking and planning for what is actually useful and important to me.
So here I go again with some planning.
(I’ve tried to create a straightforward format that you might also find helpful if you’ve fallen into the lockdown trap of lethargy and habits that don’t make you feel good.)
As usual there’s some structured reflection using an occupational model (person-environment-occupation). By using this framework, I can start to unpick the motivations and drivers behind a pattern of behaviour that I’m not really happy about.
As a reminder, the elements of the model are:
Person: this is about the ‘me’ bit of the puzzle, thoughts, beliefs, values, sense of identity, life story, skills and challenges.
Environment: the physical and social surroundings I’m in.
Occupation: the things I do over the course of the days, weeks, months, lifetime.
So, when I think about my current pattern, the things that stand out are:
So, what can I do to support myself to make better choices?
I'm not going to massively shift the person element without larger amounts of willpower than I have available, so I suggest a good place to start is with the occupation and environment. The dynamic relationship between all the elements of the model mean that if I can shift environment and occupation, I can anticipate a shift in the person element as a consequence.
If I can create a supporting environment and meaningful activity, the ‘spin off’ will be a change in how I feel and my thought patterns with less need to ‘just think myself’ there.
So, how can I change the things I do and how can I use the spaces I’m in to support these changes?
The first thing to think about is what is the meaning behind the action?
1) sitting on the sofa is a habit driven by the tiredness of the lockdown juggle of home school, work, house stuff, the emotional drain of not seeing the people I love etc etc etc.
2) the wine and the crisps are definitely in ‘treat’ territory in my mind.
So, to be able to make relaistic and sustainable change I need to recignise that:
1) I'm not knackered at the end of the day so maybe I do have more energy to do something different.
2) the wine and crisps is about wanting to feel good, wanting to recognise that we've worked through something difficult and are out the other side. This tells me that if I’m looking for a reward of some kind, I need to factor this into my alternative occupations. If I don’t, the attraction of the ‘treat’ of my habitual evenings will win out over the alternative ‘less rewarding’ occupation.
That leads me to my next question: What else do I like that makes me feel good, or relaxed or like I’ve had a break?
For me, the answer (in these restricted times) is:
go for a walk with a friend
go for a walk on my own listening to the radio
do some calligraphy or make some cards
have a bath and read a book
do a zoom Pilates class
Now I have ideas for alternative things to do that aren't just that habit of slump in front of telly, eat, drink, repeat.
Next, how do I take this knoweldge and actually change my habit. ON e way is to think about how I can use my social and physical environments to support me to do things I know make me feel good.
text some friends and see who wants an evening wander: planning and committing to an activity makes me do it and I KNOW I always come back feeling good
charge my headphones and put them by the door so I can listen to the radio as I walk: these will be ready to go AND a good visual prompt to remind me that I don’t have to just slump- there are other possibilities
get all my calligraphy stuff out BEFORE I do the bedtime routine with the kids: this will not only be a visual prompt but removes the barrier of having to do it when I come back down. avoiding trying to intiate the change at this point is important because this is when I’d usually gravitate towards the sofa so having an alternative right there and easily accessible makes me more likely to do something different.
put the hot water on for a bath BEFORE I do the bedtime routine: same as above, reducing barriers to alternative activities in the moments that the pull toward habits will feel strong and enticing! Also, I would hate to waste the energy of heating the water so once it’s on, I’m committed to my plan.
Book evening Pilates classes in advance and put them in my phone calendar: another visual prompt and the expectation of me attending is a good social pressure to push me to do something different
All of these things will give me social or environment prompts to do something different to my habitual slump in front of the telly. They’re all things that I don't associate with eating and drinking but will still feel like 'treat' because they'll make me feel good.
I’m not saying I’m not drinking wine or eating crisps ever again, just trying to avoid it being my default evening activity because I know it doesn't help me feel good when its every day. In fact, doing this reflection has helped me recognise that once crisps and wine are a habit, it’s less of a ‘treat’ so I’m creating a double bash to my sense of wellbeing- doing something I’ll feel guilty about and not even enjoying it at the time!
I know I can't change with willpower alone so using the the spaces around me to prompt me to do things differently I hope to create a happier, more satisfied me. And when I do have a crisps and wine evening, it will taste all the better for being a choice, an actual treat; not just a default, not just a slump through time.
So, here’s to adjusting to the changes in our circumstances by giving ourselves the best chances of doing things differently. For me, it's about how I use my evenings, for you it might be something completely different. The lovely thing about using an occuaptional therapy approach is that it doesn't matter: the process, the thinking and the model are useful to help you think about whatever changes you want to make. Big or small, immediate or longterm, by understanding your motivations and the impact of your environment and occupations, you can create a plan that gives you the best chance of making real and sustainable changes that will make a difference to how you feel.
Below is a summary of my plan. There’s also a blank of this table in the file share of the website in case you’d find it useful to use for yourself.
Wish me luck, or if any of my local friends see me hovering around the crisps aisle in co-op, ask me if I fancy a walk one evening. That’ll be all the reminder I need to make me think outside the habit.
Thanks for reading