Cultivating and Maintaining Good Habits

Written by Andrea Williams, HR Organization and Professional Development

You’ve likely heard more and more talk about the next phase of our personal and professional lives — be it resuming our pre-COVID routines or creating new ones going forward. Although none of us know exactly what the future looks like, now is an excellent time to consider the changes we may have made over the past year that we’d like to carry forward — perhaps prioritizing our health, creating new family traditions, or learning new skills.

As we navigate the next phase of our lives, University of Southern California research psychologist, Wendy Wood, points out, “We’re going to be faced with two sets of habits: pre-pandemic and during the pandemic. And we’ll have to choose which to repeat.”

Don’t leave your habits to chance. Take this opportunity to make deliberate choices about which habits you want to maintain going forward and any new habits you want to form. Here are some tips to help you cultivate and continue the habits that best serve you and others.

Take it one at a time

Focus on one habit or goal at a time to reap the most reward. When you have the foundations for the first goal in place, you can then move to the next one. When you have integrated the second goal into your schedule, you can then work on the third goal and so on. Set yourself up for success and remember that slow progress is better than no progress.

Understand your habit’s function

Our habits typically meet an underlying need, such as the need for comfort, to feel safe, or to feel cared for. Understanding the significance behind our habits can help us better evaluate whether these habits still serve a real need. We can then opt to further cultivate a habit or design a new, healthier one.

Compare likely outcomes

When you’re faced with a moment of choice, ask yourself, “If I perform this habit, how will I feel? Where will it put me?” Pause, envision yourself and the outcomes, and notice how you feel. Then ask yourself, “If I instead choose to perform this other habit, how will I feel? What will it get me?” Pause, envision, and notice. Set an intention for what you’ll do and then follow through.  

Be consistent and kind

Strive for consistency in your habits rather than perfection. Many habits take time to integrate to the point that you no longer need to think about them. Until then, when you deviate from your plan, kindly redirect yourself toward the results you want without punishment or judgment. There is debate over whether there is an actual causation or rather a correlation between repetition and the formation and enforcement of habits, but research shows positivity combined with consistency is key. Reinforce the positive and focus on your progress and victories, no matter how small.

Share the experience

Cultivating and maintaining habits happens faster and easier when they’re shared. Friends, family, and colleagues can provide support in the form of accountability, reinforcement, and celebration. If you don’t have a circle you can count on, reach out to a therapist or an organization that fosters community in a particular area. MSU faculty, staff, and their families have access to resources including the Employee Assistance Program (EAP), Health4U, and the MSU WorkLife Office that can help.

Don’t get discouraged if your first (or fourth) attempt doesn’t stick. Nobody is perfect in forming and sticking with good habits. Focus not on perfection, but rather on the process of trying things, redesigning your approach as necessary, and trying again.

Sources

Chua, Celestine. 21 Days to Cultivate Life Transforming Habits Retrieved April 2, 2021 from https://personalexcellence.co/blog/21-day-trial/

Fitzgerald, Sunny (2021, April 5). Pandemic habits: How to hang on to the good ones and get rid of the bad. Retrieved April 5, 2021 from https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/wellness/habits-covid-good-bad-how/2021/04/03/5a229796-93c0-11eb-a74e-1f4cf89fd948_story.html Forbes Coaches Council (2020, July 1). 16 Unique Ways to Cultivate Good Habits and Cut the Bad Ones. Retrieved April 2, 2021 from https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2020/07/01/16-unique-ways-to-cultivate-good-habits-and-cut-the-bad-ones/?sh=3860e7155606

Burnout: How to Avoid It and What to do if You’re Experiencing It

Burnout is described as a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress. According to the American Psychological Association 2021 trends report, “two-thirds of employees report that poor mental health has undercut their job performance during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 40% of employees are battling burnout.” While these numbers are disheartening, after a year of balancing the evolving demands of remote work, childcare, social distancing, financial uncertainty, grief and more, they’re certainly not surprising. If you are experiencing symptoms of burnout, we want to ensure you’re aware of the resources available to MSU employees that may help. If you’re a supervisor, follow these tips to lead by example and make sure your team is aware of them too.

While symptoms of burnout can vary depending on the severity, some include persistent fatigue, chronic stress, inability to focus, change in eating habits, reduced sleep quality, depression and anxiety. If these symptoms sound familiar or you want to learn more about the signs of burnout, we recommend you watch this 24-minute webinar called How to Recognize and Minimize Burnout presented by Jaimie Hutchison, Deputy Director for the MSU WorkLife Office.

Resources and Tips

As Jaimie states in the webinar mentioned above, “Even if you are not experiencing stress or burnout now, a positive course of action is to proactively take up self-care and build your mental resilience.” Whether you feel like burnout is on the horizon or not, there are actions you can take to improve or avoid symptoms. Take stock of your current habits to see where you could make improvements and don’t forget to use the resources available to you:

  • Utilize employee mental health resources. As an MSU employee, you and your family have access to the Employee Assistance Program (EAP), which offers a confidential virtual counseling service at no cost. MSU Health4U offers a weekly virtual MSU Grief and Loss Support group. You also have access to Teladoc, which allows eligible employees and dependents who are 18+ to schedule a virtual visit with a therapist or psychiatrist. Your Best Doctors/Teladoc Medical Experts Behavioral Health Navigator benefit allows you to have a current mental health diagnosis reviewed by experts who will provide a second opinion, answer questions and help you find a specialist (if needed).
  • Set boundaries. Keeping an up-to-date work calendar is a great way to let your colleagues know when you’re working and when you’re not. When your home office is also the family dinner table, it can be too easy to answer email and phone calls after hours. However, as shared in this LinkedIn News article, “When there’s never a break, productivity ultimately suffers, and burnout becomes a greater risk.” It’s in your best interest to save after hours work for urgent issues only.
  • Take note of caregiver resources. We appreciate the struggles and challenges caregivers are experiencing right now. The MSU WorkLife Office has compiled an extensive list of resources available, including: options for care providers, support for managing boundaries with kids and work at home, and supervisor support on flexibility and making equitable decisions.
  • Make time to do things you enjoy. Whether that’s painting, planting a garden or walking the dog, make time to do activities you’re interested in – even if they’re challenging at first. This recent MSU Health4U article called I am a Runner! by Beth Morris LMSW, MPA chronicles Beth’s “last-ditch effort in the middle of a pandemic to try and manage stress” through a new running program. Beth’s story is inspiring and demonstrates how making time to do an activity you’re curious about – even if it’s hard – can help you cope with stress. Check out the MSU events calendar to see if there are any interesting virtual or socially distance activities you can join.
  • Practice mindfulness. There are many definitions out there of mindfulness, but most include the practice of being aware of what you’re sensing and feeling in the moment, without judgement. Developing a mindfulness practice can help you focus, ease anxiety, and manage stress. MSU employees have access to discounts for the Headspace and Calm meditation apps (find here under the Reduce Stress heading). If you want to get the whole family involved, MSU Extension recently published this Starting a Mindfulness Practice with your Child article.
  • Move more. A regular exercise program can have huge benefits on our overall health and well-being. Recreational Sports and Fitness Services offers virtual group classes over Zoom and Fitness On Demand, which gives you over 1,000 classes to choose from. Additionally, benefit-eligible employees have access to MSU Benefits Plus, which allows you to explore Global Fit’s growing library of free virtual classes and resources. Login to MSU Benefits Plus, click on Discount Shopping in the top navigation then type “Global Fit” in the search box to find a link to the digital resource library.
  • If you can, take time off. If you have vacation and/or personal days you can use, talk with your supervisor about taking some days off. That time away from work could be just what you need to reset and recharge.

We hope these tips and resources will help you avoid burnout or start to recover if you’re currently experiencing it. While the past year has been challenging, know that you’re not in this alone and there are resources available to help.

Sources:

Anders, G. (2020, October 8). Burnout signs have risen 33% in 2020; here are seven ways to reduce risks. Https://Www.Linkedin.Com/Pulse/Burnout-Signs-Have-Risen-33-2020-Here-Seven-Ways-Reduce-George-Anders/. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/burnout-signs-have-risen-33-2020-here-seven-ways-reduce-george-anders/

Huff, C. (2021). Employers are increasing support for mental health. American Psychological Association 2021 Trends Report, 51(1), 84. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2021/01/trends-employers-support

Mental Health Resources for Employees

Whether you’re a parent working from home while taking care of kids, an employee on the frontlines, or someone dealing with grief and loss, everyone’s mental health continues to be affected by the pandemic. While it can be difficult to ask for help, there are a variety of resources available to assist you as an MSU employee.

Support Groups and Learning Opportunities

The following virtual courses and meetups are available (some require registration) from MSU Health4U and the MSU WorkLife Office:

  • MSU Grief and Loss Support: Specialized counselors facilitate weekly online support sessions on Tuesdays for those experiencing grief and loss.
  • Coping 2.0: During the pandemic, our coping strategies were tested. This virtual course on June 1 is an overview of our coping strategies and why they seem to be failing at certain times. The class will review what our brain is doing during times of stress and teach brain-based coping strategies that can be accessed any time they are needed. At the end of this class, the participant will leave with a variety of coping skills and how to use them effectively.
  • Virtual Health and Well-Being Sampler Series: Health4U is offering an all virtual ‘Health and Well Being Sampler Series’ to units and departments at MSU. The Sampler Series is designed to provide MSU employees with a taste of the classes, programs, and services that are offered by the professional staff of the Health4U program. Participating MSU Units will have the chance to map out a custom, six-week course suite with classes in the focus areas of Emotional Wellness, Food & Nutrition, and Movement & Fitness.
  • Mental Health & COVID: What are we up against? How does COVID-19 impact our mental health? How do we care for ourselves and others? What resources are available and how do we access them? Let’s talk about these and other important questions as we address the intersection of physical health and mental health in the COVID19 pandemic. This event with the WorkLife Office is on May 13 – please register using the link in the course name.
  • Self-Care and COVID: We know that “self-care” is a buzzword we’re hearing all over the place lately, but what does it really mean? We’re here to tell you that it’s more than chocolate and bubble baths – although those are great too! Talk with us about ways in which we notice that we are in need of some care and how it’s possible even in the midst of a pandemic. We all need to take care of ourselves, so let’s look at how to make those lovely thoughts a reality. This event with the WorkLife Office is on May 20 – please register using the link in the course name.

Employee Assistance Program Counseling Services

The Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is a confidential counseling service provided at no cost to MSU faculty, staff, retirees, graduate student employees, and their families. Learn how to make an appointment on the EAP website. These appointments are offered virtually through Zoom.

Teladoc and Best Doctors Services

As a reminder, benefit-eligible employees also have access to Teladoc and Best Doctors Behavioral Health Navigator for mental health services. Teladoc offers 24/7 access to a healthcare professional via web, phone or mobile app for employees enrolled in an MSU health plan. Employees and their dependents over 18 can also receive medical care for behavioral health (depression, anxiety, grief counseling, addiction, etc.). If deemed medically necessary, a prescription will be sent to the pharmacy of your choice. The Behavioral Health Navigator can help you get a second opinion on any medical opinions and access to coaching and online educational tools.

Your mental health is a priority, and we want to ensure you are aware — and can take advantage — of the many mental health resources available to MSU employees.

Coping with Chronic Uncertainty

Written by Jon Novello LMSW, ACSW, a Counselor with MSU’s Employee Assistance Program

Uncertainty. Along with pods, social distancing, and “you’re on mute,” uncertainty has become one of the buzzwords of this global pandemic. That’s for a good reason. We are living in a state of chronic and ongoing uncertainty. The reality of COVID-19 and our ongoing, evolving response to it continues to impact the everyday lives of every human on the planet. Many of us feel out of control in a world where our future is unclear and unpredictable.  

And we really don’t like to feel out of control. We find uncertainty hard to cope with even in the best of times. According to Dr. Christine Carter, a Senior Fellow at the Greater Good Science Center and author of The New Adolescence: Raising Happy and Successful Teens in an Age of Anxiety and Distraction, humans “crave information about the future in the same way we crave food, sex, and other primary rewards. Our brains perceive ambiguity as a threat, and they try to protect us by diminishing our ability to focus on anything other than creating certainty.”  

Think about that: our brains perceive ambiguity as a threat. When faced with a situation where we can’t know what will happen next or how things will turn out, we feel threatened, afraid of the unknown future. To deal with this fear, we begin to seek out more certainty to convince ourselves that things will be ok. We look for answers, information, reassurance from some external force that can tell us that things will work out so that we can feel better. 

That’s what many of us are looking for right now: an answer to make us feel better about the pandemic. An example of this is how frustrated many people feel about the science of COVID-19. To satisfy our feelings of insecurity in so much uncertainty, we want science to be clear and definitive — to tell us how long this will last, what we need to do to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe, and when exactly a vaccine will be available so that things can “go back to normal.” But science is ever- evolving, and new information gained sometimes means that we have to adjust our understanding of reality. If we look for definitive answers when we are still researching the problem, we may end up feeling overwhelmed and hopeless.  

As Dr. Carter points out, “sometimes — maybe always — it’s more effective not to attempt to create certainty.” Seeking more certainty when we are surrounded by so much unknown leads us to constantly try to control that which we can’t control, which results in more anxiety, not less. Instead, what tends to help us get through moments like this is learning to live with ambiguity. 

To that end, here are six strategies to help you navigate a world that is so uncertain. 

  1. Make your health a priority. Invest in your wellbeing right now. It’s easy to focus our attention and care on other people, especially those of us who are caregivers and fixers. But, that attention to others still costs us, in energy and resources. If we aren’t taking care of ourselves, then we run out of juice at some point, and that can lead to more intense feelings of anxiety and depression. 

    Make sure that you’re getting enough sleep (or at least rest). Eat well to nourish your body. Spend time with your friends in creative ways. Play, read, listen, dance, sing, run, hug, love. These things fill us up and rejuvenate us, but they are easy to neglect.
     
  2. Exhibit compassion, patience, and grace. Many people are struggling right now, and that emotional toll can sometimes play out in how they interact with you. You may notice that some of your coworkers have shorter fuses than they might typically have. An employee at a local business you like may not be as attentive to you while providing you service. This is normal during a time like this.

    It is important to try to interact with others from a position of empathy and curiosity. If someone is having a hard time, rather than complain about them, try to wonder what might be going on in their lives that is making it hard for them to be pleasant. That doesn’t mean that you have to tolerate bad behavior. There are times when we need to set clear limits with others. But we can do that from a position of compassion and grace. 
      
  3. Explore the concept of acceptance. This can be tricky. This doesn’t mean to simply resign yourself to the bad stuff. Rather, acceptance allows us to look at the world as it is, rather than as we wish it would be. When we focus on what we’d rather see, we observe the world from a state of resistance, where our attention stays solely on what’s wrong and why it shouldn’t be this way. It might be easy for me to spend hours dwelling on why people aren’t wearing masks properly in downtown East Lansing. While I might be able to come up with countless reasons that prove that my thoughts are correct, this doesn’t do anything to change those people’s behavior, nor does it stop the spread of COVID-19. Rather, it keeps me in a position of anger and hopelessness, which affects only me. 

    Acceptance, on the other hand, allows me to approach the problem from a place of openness, curiosity, and creativity. Given that people are not wearing masks, and given that I am concerned about the spread of this disease, what can I do about it at this moment? Acceptance points our attention in a specific direction, toward what is possible, rather than what is not working.
     
  4. Notice what you can control, and work to accept what you can’t. Here’s something that we know to be true: we tend to do worse psychologically when we focus our attention on things that we can’t control; and we tend to do better when our attention is focused on things we can control. That seems like an easy concept to understand, but it’s hard to do sometimes. Dwelling on those things that are out of our control can be so compelling. But it can lead us to feeling overwhelmed and out of control. Plus, the reality is that we have no control over most of the world around us. 

    When we focus on what we can control, it allows us to feel more in control. I can’t control who wears masks and who doesn’t, but I can control what I choose to do when I walk downtown. I can’t control whether someone is snippy with me at work, but I can control how I respond to that person. I can’t control whether people share the same political view as me, but I can control how I show up and whether I vote. I can’t directly control whether oppression or injustice is happening, but I can control how I stand up to it. We can control how much we are doing to take care of our minds, spirits, and bodies.
     
  5. Be more present. “The opposite of uncertainty is not certainty; it’s presence.” When we try to create more certainty, we try to control the future. We are trying to make things work out in the way that we’d prefer. But, again, we typically have so little control of most things that it can lead to feelings of anxiety and frustration. Rather than trying to seek more certainty, we could instead focus on the present, which is the only place where we have control. 

    Remember that we do better when we feel in control. When your brain slips into imagining a scary and unknown future, bring your attention to your breath. From there, check in with yourself, asking what you need right now to feel ok. What is happening right now? What is possible right now? What do I need right now?
     
  6. If you need help with any of this, get help. If you are struggling and wondering if you need assistance, reach out and ask for help. There are plenty of resources available to you. As an MSU employee, you have access to six sessions of free, confidential counseling through the Employee Assistance Program (EAP). For people that need more than six visits, the EAP will be able to provide you with referrals to local therapists that are in- network with your insurance plan. In addition, there are many other resources available through MSU, and in the larger community. Feel free to look over this guide for more information about what resources are available to you. 

If you would like to learn more about EAP services or would like to get in touch with a member of the team, please call 517.355.4506, send an email to eap@msu.edu or visit eap.msu.edu.

Sources

Carter, C. (2020). The New Adolescence: Raising Happy and Successful Teens in an Age of Anxiety and Distraction. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books.