Building Healthy Habits When You’re Really Exhausted


How do you develop new habits when you are exhausted? The key is to start small and take a friendly, whole-person approach to long-term change. Start by developing a regular sleeping habit, from going to bed at the same time to waking up at the same time. Then work on your diet. Aim for more water and identify eating habits that make you feel more energized and less exhausted. Then, fold in some exercise, whether it’s regular cardio or adding some stretches and steps to your workday. Once you establish these healthy habits, you can expand to others. Work on one new habit at a time and do it slowly and steadily.

Getting into a new habit at the best of times can be difficult, let alone trying to make changes when you’re already used up. The past few years have stretched almost everyone. And you may find yourself exhausted and unsure if you can really change your situation — or just confused about where to start.

So what do you do when you’re stuck in the vicious cycle of needing to improve your habits so you can feel refreshed, but struggle to muster the willpower and motivation to even try?

As a time management coach, many of the people who come to me are already fatigued — sometimes to the point of burnout. They want change, but don’t know how to get started. So we must find a path to recovery that honors their current state, but does not leave them there.

The key to moving them forward is not to hit them hard — they’re hard enough on themselves. Instead, in the long run, it’s most effective to take a whole-person friendly approach: remembering the basics of taking care of yourself through sleep, diet, and exercise lays the groundwork for then to advance in other areas of time management.

If you find yourself utterly exhausted but longing for a change, this is the path to sustaining new habits.

Start sleeping

When you’re super tired, the key to more productivity isn’t pushing harder, but pushing less. Once you get used to getting enough sleep, your body will support you in reaching your daily goals instead of dragging you down.

There is a very specific order in which I recommend working on sleep when you are at the point of exhaustion. Start by aiming for an earlier bedtime based on how many hours of sleep you need to rest. If that’s eight hours a night and you have to get up at 7am, that means the lights go out at 11pm. -eye.

Once you get used to going to bed earlier, start working on your bedtime routine so that once you’re in bed, you can actually fall asleep. Experiment with different strategies, such as logging out of electronics an hour before bed, not watching anything too stimulating late at night, or just dimming the lights.

Then the next step to improve your sleep quality is to focus on getting up at a set time. Most people set this goal as their first step, but it actually comes later in the process. I recommend this order because if you go to bed on time and fall asleep quickly, getting up is so much easier. And as an added bonus, consistently getting up earlier will make it much easier on those days when you have to commute to the office.

Think about nutrition

If you give yourself enough time to rest, you will gain the capacity to work on other areas. I’ve found that the next most effective energy rebuilding habits involve simple nutritional strategies.

An effective habit is to drink more water. Increased water intake improves energy, aids concentration, and reduces fatigue and anxiety. Make it a habit to always carry a filled water glass or water bottle with you. I fill a water glass with breakfast, put it on my desk while I work, and keep refilling it throughout the day. If it’s more difficult for you to refill, buy a really large water bottle so you only have to fill your water tank once a day.

Then consider whether you are getting enough nutrition. Some of my coaching clients are so absorbed in their work or have so many back-to-back meetings that they don’t have time to eat – or they just forget! If you find yourself in that situation, buy some very simple food options like bars or protein shakes that you always keep behind your desk. Make it a goal to eat at least one or two a day. While you’re developing the habit, you may need to put a reminder on your calendar or phone, or put a healthy snack on your desk as a visual cue. My clients who have been reminded to eat find that they have more energy throughout the day and feel much less exhausted after work.

get moving

Once you have the building blocks for sleep and nutrition in place, you need to start thinking about incorporating them into physical activity. Counterintuitively, exercise ends up giving you more energy throughout the day rather than depleting it. It also has the added benefits of improving mood, sleep quality and focus. Some of my coaching clients with ADHD find that exercise is one of the most important ingredients in keeping you focused throughout the day.

Doing at least 25 minutes of vigorous cardio exercise at least three times a week can improve your overall well-being. I recommend dictating specifically where and when you’re going to do this exercise, such as, “I’ll be working out at the gym Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 7:00 AM to 7:30 AM.” And if you find yourself struggling with motivation, seek support by exercising with friends, attending a class, or hiring a trainer. You can borrow the energy and motivation of others when you feel exhausted.

If that level of physical activity seems too much to begin with, starting with gentle stretching or walking is a step in the right direction. Make exercise a ritual associated with a daily event, such as “When I get up, I’ll stretch for five minutes,” so you can seamlessly integrate the habit into your lifestyle.

Pick a new habit

Once you are integrated into the healthy habits that will significantly reduce your exhaustion, you can choose other new habits to incorporate into your life. By paying attention to the basics of sleep, diet and exercise, your energy and focus throughout the day are improved, so you are able to tackle more.

To reduce the chance of being overwhelmed, I recommend picking only one at a time. For example, you may decide to focus on being on time, planning your week, canceling projects, checking email, or any other habit you’d like to master. Then focus on incremental change. For example, if you are on time, you can choose a meeting type 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 changing habits, especially when you’re really exhausted, is to take it slow and steady: move forward but don’t put too much pressure on yourself. 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 regain energy, prevent fatigue, and build momentum for continued growth and development.

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