How do you form new habits when you’re exhausted? The key is to start small, take a soft, holistic approach to long-term change. First, start by establishing a regular sleeping habit, from going to bed at the same time to waking up at the same time. Next, work on your diet. Aim for more water and identify eating habits that make you feel more energized and less drained. Then, incorporate some exercise, whether it’s regular cardio or adding stretches and steps to your workday. Once you’ve established these healthy habits, you can develop more. Work on one new habit at a time, and take it slowly and steadily.
Picking up a new habit at the best of times can be difficult, let alone trying to make changes when you’re already exhausted. The past two years have stretched almost everyone. And you may find yourself exhausted and doubting that you can really turn things around – or just not knowing where to start.
So what do you do when you’re trapped in the vicious cycle of needing to improve your habits to feel refreshed, but struggling to muster the willpower and motivation to try?
As a time management coach, many of the people who come to see me are already tired, sometimes to the point of exhaustion. They want change but don’t know where to start. So we need to find a path to recovery that respects their current state but doesn’t leave them there.
The key to helping them move forward isn’t hurting them — they’re hard enough on themselves. Instead, what’s most effective in the long run is to take a gentle, holistic approach: remembering the basics of self-care through sleep, nutrition, and exercise lays the groundwork for you to then progress to other areas of time management.
If you find yourself completely exhausted but longing for a change, here is the way to create lasting new habits.
Start by sleeping
If you’re super tired, then the key to greater productivity isn’t pushing harder, but pushing less. Once you start getting enough sleep in the usual way, your body will help you reach your daily goals instead of dragging you down.
There is a very specific order in which I recommend working on sleep when you are on the verge of exhaustion. Start by aiming for an earlier bedtime based on how many hours of sleep you need to rest. If it’s eight hours a night and you have to get up at 7 a.m., that means the lights go out at 11 p.m. Set a recurring alarm on your phone for about 30 or 45 minutes before this time to remind you to start relaxing and getting ready to quit. -eye.
Once you start getting into the habit of going to bed earlier, start working on your pre-bedtime routine so that once you’re in bed, you can actually fall asleep. Experiment with different strategies, such as unplugging electronics an hour before bed, not watching anything too stimulating late at night, or simply turning off the lights.
Then the next step to improving your sleep quality is to focus on getting up at a consistent time. Most people consider this goal their first step, but it actually comes later in the process. I recommend this command because when you go to bed on time and fall asleep quickly, getting up is so much easier. And as a bonus, consistently getting up earlier will make it easier for you on days you have to get to the office.
Think about nutrition
Once you allow yourself enough time to rest, you will begin to have the ability to work on other areas. I have found that the next most effective habits for rebuilding energy involve simple nutritional strategies.
An effective habit is to start drinking more water. More water intake improves energy, helps concentration and reduces fatigue and anxiety. Make a habit of always having a full water glass or water bottle handy. I fill a glass with water at breakfast, keep it on my desk while I work, then refill it throughout the day. If refueling is more difficult for you, get a very large water bottle so that you only refill your water tank once a day.
Then ask yourself if you are getting enough food. Some of my Coach clients get so wrapped up in their work or have so many back-to-back meetings that they don’t feel like they have time to eat – or they just forget to! If you find yourself in this situation, buy very simple nutritional 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 develop this 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 exhausted after work.
Once you have the basics of sleep and nutrition in place, you need to start thinking about incorporating physical activity. Counterintuitively, exercise ultimately gives you more energy throughout the day instead of draining it. It also has the added benefits of improving mood, sleep quality, and concentration. Some of my coaching clients with ADHD find exercise to be one of the key ingredients to being able to focus throughout the day.
If you do at least 25 minutes of vigorous cardiovascular exercise at least three times a week, you can improve your overall well-being. I recommend dictating specifically where and when you will do this exercise, such as, “I will be training Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 7-7:30 a.m. at the gym.” And if you’re having trouble motivating yourself, find support by working out with friends, going to a class, or hiring a trainer. You can borrow energy and motivation from others when you feel exhausted.
If this level of physical activity seems too high to start with, starting with light stretches or walks is a step in the right direction. Make movement a ritual tied to a daily event such as “When I get up, I stretch for five minutes,” to help you integrate the habit seamlessly into your lifestyle.
Choose a new habit
Once you have incorporated the healthy habits that will significantly reduce your burnout, you can choose other new habits to incorporate into your life. Following the basics of sleep, nutrition and exercise will have improved your energy and focus during the day so you have the ability to do more.
To reduce the possibility of being overwhelmed, I advise choosing only one to work on at a time. For example, you might decide to focus on being punctual, planning your week, dividing up projects, tracking emails, or any other habit you’d like to master. Then focus on incremental change. For example, by being on time, you can choose a type of meeting where you really focus on arriving a few 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 really exhausted, is to take it slow and steady: push forward without putting too much pressure on yourself at once. You won’t be able to change all your habits in one day. But over time, you can develop new habits that will help you re-energize, stave off fatigue, and build momentum for continued growth and development.