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Want to reduce stress? Your systems and habits can help (a lot), say scientists

November 04, 2022

Want to reduce stress? Your systems and habits can help (a lot), say scientists

This guest post was written by Rachel Smith. Rachel Smith is a freelance journalist, copywriter and the founder of Rachel’s List – and she’s like that duck on the pond: calm and serene on the surface and paddling like a maniac underneath. She relies on a paper diary with habit tracker and rock-solid systems to get her through. But some days, she just goes to bed and pulls the doona over her head.

Okay, can I have a show of hands: who out there is stressed right now?

I suspect many of you are nodding along, because I did a little experiment before writing this piece: I plugged the search term 'how to be less stressed' into Google and got 324 million results.

Yep, stress flattens many of us, regularly. And science tells us that ignoring stress for too long is a really bad idea

So what can we do? Well, for many of us, creating good systems and habits can help. Quite a lot, as it happens.

These come before goals, by the way. It’s not enough to create a goal to ‘reduce stress' – you actually need the scaffolding / systems and the habits that come before it to get the outcome you're looking for.

And if you get those right, the goal should take care of itself.

Let's break that down a bit

So, we know we can't just set a goal like 'meditate daily'. You need to create a system of habits that help you meet that goal - something Atomic Habits author James Clear talks about a lot.

"Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress," he writes. "Problems arise when you spend too much time thinking about your goals and not enough time designing your systems."

We must 'fall in love with the process rather than the product', he adds.

And when it comes to stress reduction, it's about creating a process (or systems and habits) that help you change your behaviour and your environment.

Creating habitual systems which reduce stress

Let's start by making a quick list about some of the things we know (from research) that help alleviate stress in our lives:

  1. Meditation
  2. Exercise
  3. Cook healthy meals
  4. Reducing social media time
  5. Connecting with people you love.

So you might try to create a series of habits that trigger you to actually do the thing regularly (like meditate, or go for a run).

3 ways to create systems and habits to have a more stress-free life

1. Tie habits into cues within your environment

So, we all know that meditation helps us deal with life's stresses. But what if you just don't make time for it, or only do it once a week instead of the 3-4 times you'd like to do it? You need to alter your environment to make the habit easier and more seamless.

That might mean creating cues, like setting an alarm reminder each morning and having an app set to your favourite guided meditation. Over time, those cues will help solidify the habit.

2. Break bad habits by eradicating the cues that lead to them

For example, say you've developed a bad habit of staying up late and doom-scrolling on your phone instead of going to bed. You wake up groggy and sleep-deprived - which studies show has a major impact on our stress levels.

You need to break the cue that leads to that behaviour. Leaving your phone in another room before going to bed might work for some. For others, investing in a timed 'lock box' so you can't access your phone until the morning sounds drastic, but might suit you better!

3. Track your habits

There are so many ways to track your habits - whether you use the built-in habit tracker in the Curation 2023 Diary, or an app like Streaks. But one reason habit tracking is so powerful is because it gives you a visual reminder each day and you're prompted to act - continuing the habit the next day, and the next.

Habit trackers are also very motivating, because we can see our progress and it helps us maintain focus. It also keeps you honest: it's easy to trick yourself into thinking you're doing ok with your habit when actually, you're dropping the ball - a habit tracker gives you hard evidence of how you're really doing.

Good luck - and if you try this out, let us know how you go.