Designing your day

How small changes to behaviour can reap big rewards

Designing your day

Dr. Lisa Belanger knows we are the sum of our daily habits. Behaviour is something she’s studied for over 14 years - and it only took a global pandemic to get other people interested in it too, she laughed.

"People are starting to pay attention,” said Belanger, an expert in behaviour change and CEO of ConsciousWorks. “It’s our health, it’s our success within our discipline, but we don’t often get taught how to create behaviours.”

Belanger recently spoke to Community Trust’s brokers on the science of creating habits that last, and one of the things she focused on was behaviours that have a high ROI for brain function, “and what I mean by that is mood or mental health and productivity. Are you putting them in your day?”

As one of several events hosted to build on its "We Care" philosophy, Community Trust wanted to delve into the topic of healthy wellness practices because brokers are facing an incredible volume of work, zeroing in on phone calls and their home computers and not taking steps to prioritize their wellness. Belanger said this is incredibly common as people shifted to working from home, and even though the workday could have decreased - even by losing the commute, for example - it actually increased by 45 minutes to two hours.

“We don’t have the recovery we used to have,” Belanger said. “There’s no time between meetings if we don’t design it that way, there are no built-in breaks such as commutes or walking to your next meeting to let your mind wander, there’s no more grabbing coffee with a colleague.”

Workload is only one aspect of what leads to burnout because work-life balance isn’t about how many minutes we spend doing each, but about how much of our time syncs up with our priority list. There’s a lot that’s misaligning because of the state of the world, but the good news is we actually have more control over our habits than ever - even if it doesn’t feel that way.

“We should be taking this opportunity to consciously design our day and pick and choose what we want to keep and what we want to give up,” Belanger said. “It’s important to start our own personal analysis on what serves us and what doesn’t.”

There are many high ROI behaviours, but number one and number two are mindfulness and movement. Anybody can make small changes to their days to get more of each, Belanger noted. Whether you’re working, taking a walk or spending time with a loved one, mindfulness allows you to be 100% present in whatever you’re doing. It’s also required for effective recovery, “because it changes what our automatic processes are, our go-tos and habits,” she said. It draws you out of ruminating thought, for example, by bringing you to the present. Think of drinking your coffee or tea in the morning - wine and dark chocolate in the evening work as well, Belanger added - and coming to your five senses while you do it.

“It doesn’t have to be a dedicated 20 minutes to sit cross-legged and meditate - be creative, or layer it on to things you’re already doing,” Belanger said, noting the number one reason people don’t do these health behaviours is time. “It can be as simple as enhancing your morning cup of tea. Even the busiest person can fit that in.”

Separating meetings or client calls is also a small mindfulness practice that can make a big difference. A minute or two between work-day obligations means you’re not bringing the emotional capacity from your last encounter to the next one, and there’s a competitive advantage to showing up neutral - or in a positive mood - to every interaction.

Movement is also critical to managing wellbeing. Physical activity creates brain-derived neurotropic factor and DHEA (a hormone produced by the body’s adrenal glands), which both change the way the brain is constructed from a neurological perspective, Belanger said. Brain-derived neurotropic factor allows for neural connections to be created, solidified and strengthened, which facilitates thinking, innovation, our ability to create habits and memories, and to learn. Cortisol used to be seen as a measure of how stressed you are, and DHEA was hailed as the antidote, but Belanger said it’s actually the difference between DHEA and cortisol that determines stress levels. That means we can produce greater resilience in our brain by increasing DHEA through physical activity.

“That’s not usually how we talk about movement, but we need it,” Belanger said. “You’ll see benefits like mood and creativity improvements by incorporating simple, small practices two or three minutes a day - that’s up and down the stairs between Zoom meetings.”

Things have changed for everyone, and it never hurts to give each other validation over those changes. Belanger, who is still adjusting to the fact she rarely sees her audience now that her talks are virtual, has started every keynote by acknowledging the fact that the past year and a half have been brutal.

“It’s been really, really hard,” she said. “Doesn’t matter your situation, who you are or what benefits you may have gotten from the pandemic, it’s still hard and we need to give ourselves permission to say that.”