Sometimes the challenges of caregiving leave little time for caring for yourself.

When your loved one’s needs are overwhelming, your needs may feel impossible to address. The time and energy needed to exercise or hang out with a friend or do a favored hobby may seem unavailable and impossible to find. So what can you do to find a way to make room in your life for you?

One way is to reorient your goals and make them “tiny,” according to author and social scientist BJ Fogg, whose book “Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything” presents a method to achieve goals within even the busiest schedule.

For example, if you don’t have an hour to exercise, you may have given up on exercising at all. But what if instead of needing an hour, you only needed a few seconds to add the habit to your life? Perhaps every time you finish using the restroom, you pause, press your hands into the wall, and do two simple wall pushups, then celebrate your accomplishment. You have exercised! Yea!

The new habit is so simple and easy to do, that you’re able to manage it, and celebrating your achievement each time allows positive emotions to lock the new behavior into your day. Suddenly exercise is part of your life and will likely grow if you take the time to nurture the habit and let it expand naturally.

Fogg’s idea is that in order to create new habits, people usually focus on motivation, which tends to be inconsistent and in competition with other pleasurable things. For example, while a person may be motivated to eat healthier, they may also simultaneously be motivated by the enticing flavors of French fries or chocolate cake. People then feel like failures when they can’t consistently resist one motivation for the healthier habit. However, motivations shift day to day for everyone. It’s important to know that and realize that willpower alone doesn’t change habits. Give yourself a break from self-criticism and try a new way to sneak exercise into your life. “People change best by feeling good, not by feeling bad,” he notes.

Instead of motivation, Fogg suggests focusing on “ability” and “prompt” to create new habits. Ability means—how can the desired habit be made easier to accomplish? For example, if your fridge is full of pre-chopped vegetables, will it make it easier to choose a healthy snack? Or if the potato chips and desserts aren’t in the kitchen, will you be less likely to eat them because it’s more difficult to do so if you have to make a trip to the store

Prompt means the impetus to do a particular activity. For example, each morning many people have a routine that goes in a particular order. You might rise, pad to the bathroom, follow up by going to the kitchen to start the kettle or coffeemaker, and return to your bedroom to choose clothes while the water heats. One activity prompts the next, which prompts the next. If you can insert a tiny habit in the sequence, you can accomplish a big change over time.

So what are some easy habits that can be particularly helpful to caregivers? And what are some tips for making them tiny to slide them into your day?

1) Have a Great Day
A first habit that is so easy that it doesn’t even require an extra second of time and can change the whole tenor of your day is the “Maui Habit.” Each day, when you get out of bed in the morning and your feet hit the floor, try saying, “It’s going to be a great day—somehow.” You’ll find that sending that positive spin into your day will affect everything—how you feel about yourself, others, and your day. Give it a try, and see what happens.

2) Celebrate
Make sure that when you experiment with a new habit that you celebrate it. This is essential, even if you feel silly about it. The emotional shine you feel from celebrating is what locks in the new habit. So when you say, “It’s going to be a great day,” raise your arms in victory, do a happy dance, or simply smile widely. That celebration will help you recognize that you have made a change and are doing something special for yourself and the people in your life.

3) Experiment
It’s okay if things don’t go perfectly. If you experiment with adding a new habit, such as meditation by doing three deep breaths when you sit down after lunch, but it doesn’t take, that’s okay. The idea is to find ways to incorporate the tiny habit into your life, and to accept that this is a scientific experiment to help yourself. If it doesn’t seem to work, see what you can adjust to make your new habit easier. Perhaps one deep breath is a better choice or maybe practice sitting down, taking your breaths, standing up, and doing it again to help ingrain the habit. Or maybe the meditation habit would fit better at another point in your day.

4) Brainstorm
You may be surprised what can happen if you brainstorm tiny ideas and implement them. Take a piece of paper, put your aspiration in the middle and write ten ideas on the paper of things that might help you begin a new habit. Once you have the ideas written, circle ones that will be easy to do (be realistic), while starring ones that will help you move strongly toward your aspiration. The ideas can be very tiny. For example, if you want to incorporate a daily walk in your life, the habit might be simply to put on your sneakers after breakfast. You don’t have to go for the walk; the habit is putting on the sneakers. If you do that, celebrate! You might be surprised to see the habit grow, but always remember that putting on the sneakers is the habit, not the walk, so celebrate when you get them on. It’s okay to take them right off again.

For caregivers, Fogg offers a page of specific tiny habits that might help, and here are a few options that might help you and your loved one:

1) “After I have a good cry, I will wash my face, look in the mirror and say, ‘You can do this.’”
2) “After I get Mom in bed for the night, I will tidy one item in the kitchen or den—and call it good enough.”
3) “After I get up to check on Mom at night, I will whisper a word of support to her even though she can’t hear me.” 

Caregiving can be overwhelming but by embracing the tiny habit approach you can make small changes that will have a big impact one day at a time.
Thank you for reading, please share with a friend, and stay well! 

Article by Kathi Koll © 2021