7 Everyday Habits for a Healthier Mind

Do you have trouble concentrating? How’s your memory? How much water did you drink yesterday?

Chances are, your mind could be healthier than it is right now. You could enjoy better focus, more creativity, a lighter mood, a sharper memory, and so on. The solution doesn’t have to be complicated or costly. You can strengthen your cognitive health by practicing a few basic habits.

Read more to learn the impact these habits have on your mind, how to get a gauge on how you’re doing in these areas, and how to grow in your consistency in practicing these habits.

Habits Constitute a Lifestyle

These habits are nothing new—they’re as old as the hills. They’re basic. But most people don’t have these habits. I’m sure that you do these activities to some degree, but how’s your consistency? You probably know that these habits are healthful, but how well do you know what difference they make for your mind?

The word habit implies consistency. It constitutes a lifestyle. A healthy mind isn’t something you just pick up at the mall; it’s something you cultivate over a lifetime.

Not only do these habits work wonders for your mind’s health and performance, but they also pack benefits for your body’s health and performance. These basic lifestyle choices improve your overall well-being.

(Note: In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explores how habits develop into automatic behaviors. He explains why unhealthy habits are notoriously difficult to break and provides a practical framework to help you understand and change any habit. In Tiny Habits, Stanford behavioral scientist BJ Fogg argues that the best way to change behavior is to start small. In Atomic Habits, James Clear argues that adopting the right habits will drastically improve your life—but, to do so, you must understand how habits work and how you can change yours. I encourage you to check out these books or our guides to get a better handle on understanding and establishing habits.)

Start by Getting a Gauge

“There is nothing more frightful than ignorance in action.” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

If you use an app to track some of your lifestyle activities, you’re not completely in the dark. It’s incredibly beneficial to get a gauge on what you’re already doing with these habits.

You know how much water you’re supposed to drink every day, right? Although there are various schools of thought, many health experts recommend eight to ten eight-ounce glasses (some recommend more).

Although you probably know how much you’re supposed to drink, do you know how much you actually drink? There was a time when I thought I did. I believed I was hitting the mark. Then I kept track for a few days. Every time I poured myself a glass of water, I made a note of it in my Notes app. At the end of each day, I checked my total. I found that I had been wrong. I wasn’t drinking as much water as I thought I was, which meant that I wasn’t drinking as much as I should.

Years ago, when I started practicing daily intermittent fasting, I was surprised to realize how often I ate mindlessly. Apparently, I sometimes do things without thinking! I’m not just talking about those times when I absentmindedly put the TV remote in the freezer; I’m talking about lifestyle habits that make a difference.

Can you identify with this? Could you live more thoughtfully? You might benefit from tracking how often you complain, swear, nag, give compliments, or show appreciation—or how much alcohol you drink or how much time you spend with your kids.

A key component of life change is awareness. When we have an accurate measure of our lifestyle activities, we know whether we’re actually where we want to be. We can be healthier when we’re more thoughtful. It’s not complicated or difficult; it’s just a matter of getting our brains out of autopilot and living more thoughtfully. For good.

With each habit discussed below, you’ll be prompted to get a gauge on where you are right now.

7 Habits for a Healthier Mind

Let’s take a look at what each habit is, what difference it makes for your mind, how you can get a gauge on where you are now, and how you can make a plan for consistency.

Don’t let this overwhelm you. It might work best for you to focus on one habit at a time. You could start with the habit that you have the best handle on.

Healthy Mind Habit #1: Hydration

“If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.” (Loren Eiseley)

You’ve probably heard it all your life: Drink eight glasses of water each day. You can find a variety of opinions on the amount, and it can vary based on several factors. A common recommendation is eight eight-ounce glasses (the 8×8 rule), which is 64 ounces a day. However, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine advises that men should drink about 100 ounces and that women should drink about 73 ounces of water each day. Generally, you’re drinking enough water if you are rarely thirsty and your urine is colorless or pale.

If you’re like me, you’re a bit “out of it” first thing in the morning. That’s due, at least in part, to dehydration. Likely, it’s been hours since you last drank water. Start your day by hydrating. Keep it going throughout the day. If you’re thirsty, you’re probably already dehydrated.

What Difference It Makes for Your Mind

“Dehydration causes brain functioning to slow down and not function properly. It is important to think of water as a nutrient your brain needs.” (“Water, Depression, and Anxiety,” Solara Mental Health)

Water contributes to the maintenance of normal brain function. The effects of dehydration vary among populations, but studies indicate that dehydration can impair both cognitive function and mood. Proper hydration can contribute to a healthy mind in several ways:

Improved cognitive function

  • Memory
  • Attention and concentration
  • Alertness and clarity

Improved mood

  • Reduced depression, anxiety, stress, irritability, and panic attacks
  • Increased contentedness, calmness, relaxation, and positive emotions

Get a Gauge

For several days, record how many ounces of water you drink each day. You might use an app to help you keep track.

Make a Plan

Somewhere prominent, record your hydration plan that includes a measurable goal. For extra motivation, share your plan with someone or even invite someone to join you. Here are a few tips to help you stay properly hydrated:

  • Start your day with a full glass of water.
  • Keep a container of water with you.
  • Keep track of how much water you drink, and aim for your goal. Generally, it’s a good idea to drink half of your recommended daily amount by midday.
  • Eat fruits and vegetables. They contain lots of water, relative to other foods.

Healthy Mind Habit #2: Sleep

“’O sleep, O gentle sleep,’ I thought gratefully, ‘Nature’s soft nurse!’” (Elizabeth Kenny)

This article is about basic lifestyle habits. Just as you’ve heard about the necessity of drinking water all your life, you’ve heard about the importance of a good night’s sleep. But, how consistent are you? Do you know how it impacts your mind’s health and performance?

Surely you’re familiar with the feeling of sleep deprivation. It’s not cool. You can’t focus, you’re not sharp, and you’re probably grumpy.

Most experts recommend seven to nine hours of sleep each night. Sure, there’s a small minority of people who can get by on less than that. But, if you think you’re one of them, you’re probably wrong. Try getting more sleep for a good stretch of days, and see how it makes you feel.

What Difference It Makes for Your Mind

Adequate sleep can contribute to a healthy mind in many ways:

Improved cognitive function

  • Clear thinking
  • Information retention and learning
  • Decision-making
  • Problem-solving
  • Memory
  • Attention
  • Alertness and engagement
  • Executive function (working memory, flexible thinking, self-control, focus, emotion management)
  • Creative and innovative thinking
  • Reasoning

Improved mood

  • Possible reduction of the risk of suicide
  • Lower risk of mood disorders
  • Less stress
  • Fewer repetitive negative thoughts
  • Lower risk of depression, anxiety, and panic disorders
  • Steadier emotions
  • Increased positivity and happiness

Get a Gauge

For several days, record your bedtime and your wake time. Calculate how many hours of sleep you get each night, making allowance for the time it takes you to fall asleep as well as any time lost to wakefulness during the night. You might use a smartwatch or sleep app to help you get a gauge.

Make a Plan

Somewhere prominent, record your sleep plan that includes a measurable goal. For extra motivation, share your plan with someone. Here are a few tips to help you get a good night’s sleep:

  • Keep your room cool. Cooler temperatures (around 65℉) generally help you sleep better.
  • Get up on time. Even if you feel like you need more sleep when you wake up, it’s generally better to catch up on that sleep the next night. Getting up earlier tomorrow morning will help you get to sleep earlier tomorrow night.
  • Keep your sleep schedule as consistent as possible.
  • Avoid taking naps. If you absolutely must catch up on sleep, aim to nap in the morning rather than later in the day.
  • Allow yourself time to wind down. Dim the lights, stop using screens, and don’t get into a conversation about the latest political hot topic.

Healthy Mind Habit #3: Time in Nature

“I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees.” (Henry David Thoreau)

More and more evidence shows that time in nature is healthy for our minds. I’ve always enjoyed the great outdoors, and reading The Nature Fix helped me realize that the cognitive health benefits are amazing. Simply activities such as sitting on the grass, walking through the woods, dipping your feet into a stream, or digging your hands into the dirt in the garden can do wonders for your mind, body, and spirit.

Some people practice forest bathing, which includes focusing on what you’re experiencing through your senses of sight, hearing, touch, and smell.

One of the benefits of spending time in nature is the opportunity to experience awe. Stand at the edge of an ocean or at the foot of a mountain. Watch and listen to a thunderstorm. Examine a bird’s nest. Observe an ant colony. Gaze at the Milky Way. These awe experiences provided by nature give us perspective. They help us see how we’re part of something grand. They give us healthy humility. And, research shows that awe even makes us more helpful and caring human beings.

If you’re a believer in God, spending time in nature is also an excellent way to connect with the Creator and stand in awe of what He’s made.

What Difference It Makes for Your Mind

Spending time in nature contributes to a healthy mind in many ways:

  • Reduces stress and anxiety—Lowers levels of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline
  • Improves mood—Provides opportunities for awe and a break from rumination; reduces depression and relieves symptoms of PTSD
  • Restores mental energy and improves concentration and memory—Time in nature relieves the effects of ADHD and “directed attention fatigue.” Nature captures our attention in different ways (effortless, non-demanding). It’s sometimes called “soft fascination” or “intrinsic fascination”.
  • Improves creativity and imagination
  • Improves sleep

Get a Gauge

For several days, record how many minutes you spend outside in nature each day.

Make a Plan

Somewhere prominent, record your time-in-nature plan that includes a measurable goal. For extra motivation, share your plan with someone or even invite someone to join you. Here are a few recommendations:

  • Make a list of nature destinations within a few miles of your house. It doesn’t have to be a vast wilderness. A park, a patch of woods, and an open field all fit the bill.
  • Once a day, experience nature through any of your senses. Do the best you can with what you have. You might simply open your window and listen to the birds or the wind in the treesor just watch the clouds go by.
  • At least once a month, spend at least two hours in nature.
  • Find a “sit spot” where you can spend about 20 minutes at a time. You might take a camera, a journal, or a sketchpad.

Healthy Mind Habit #4: Nutrition

“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” (Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin)

Again, this is a basic habit that you’ve heard about all your life. I don’t need to go into a lengthy argument about its importance and benefits. I will say, though, that it’s not too late to do better with your eating habits. Usually, we focus on what nutrition does for the body. But, it also greatly impacts the mind.

What Difference It Makes for Your Mind

Nutrition fuels the brain, protects brain cells from damage, slows aging in the brain, helps the brain communicate with the rest of the body, improves mood, boosts memory, and might lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Get a Gauge

Fear not—this isn’t a calorie-counting program. The idea is to get a broad assessment of your diet. For several days, on each day, record what you eat, placing items in one of two categories:

  • Category A: Vegetables, fruit, grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes
  • Category B: Items that include processed sugars, artificial sweeteners, non-plant-based fats, or stuff you can’t spell

It’s also helpful to record what times of day you eat.

Make a Plan

Somewhere prominent, record your nutrition plan that includes a measurable goal. For extra motivation, share your plan with someone or even invite someone to join you. Here are a few recommendations:

  • Add more Category A foods, and drop some Category B foods.
  • Be consistent with your meal times.
  • Don’t eat close to bedtime.
  • Listen to your body and your mind. Pay attention to how your eating habits affect how you feel.
  • If you have particular health concerns, consult a physician and perhaps a nutritionist.

Healthy Mind Habit #5: Social Connection

“We need each other, and, the sooner we learn that, the better for us all.” (Erik Erikson)

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell examines the small Pennsylvania town of Roseto, where research suggested that tight-knit community relations were responsible for residents’ remarkably low levels of disease, crime, alcoholism, and suicide. While that’s fascinating and important, you might not need researchers to tell you that. You probably know from experience that you feel and do better when you have strong, healthy social connections.

What Difference It Makes for Your Mind

Social connections decrease stress, depression, and the risk of suicide and death.

Get a Gauge

For several days, record interactions you have with others each day. Note roughly how much time you spend and how many different people you interact with. These can be in-person or virtual interactions.

Examples of interactions that you may include:

  • Conversations with family, friends, and acquaintances that are social in nature and go beyond “What’s for dinner?”
  • Exchanges with grocery checkers, restaurant servers, bank tellers, etc., in which an effort is made to be friendly and caring
  • Watching a TV show with your spouse
  • Playing a game with your child

Types of interactions that you should not include:

  • Conversations with coworkers about work tasks
  • Gossip (talking about others with a careless attitude toward the truth or speaking negatively about others as a form of entertainment)
  • Quarrels

Make a Plan

Somewhere prominent, record your social connection plan that includes a measurable goal. For extra motivation, share your plan with someone. This is an excellent habit in which to invite someone to join you! Here are some ideas:

  • Once a week, call a friend or relative who lives out of the area.
  • Join a community choir, a hiking group, a bridge club, etc. Meetup.com is an excellent way to find gatherings in your area.
  • Actively cultivate friendly relationships with your neighbors.
  • Serve at a church or another volunteer organization.

Healthy Mind Habit #6: Exercise

“Good things come to those who sweat.” (Unknown)

You’re not surprised to find exercise on a list of healthy habits that benefit cognitive health. Like nutrition, we tend to focus on the effects on the body, but you’ve probably experienced a boost in your mood when you’ve taken a brisk walk around the block.

Confession: I am not a fitness fanatic. As a writer, I have a fairly sedentary lifestyle. I’m grateful for my smartwatch, which tells me now and then to “take time to move.” I’ve found that I can clear this “move alert” only if I get my heart pumping for a minute or two. That’s how my workday goes. Then, I’m careful to get in a session of Nordic walking almost daily, and I take a good hike two or three times a week.

What Difference It Makes for Your Mind

Exercise reduces depression and anxiety, decreases stress hormones, increases concentration, promotes learning, boosts memory, enhances creativity, pumps more oxygen to the brain, slows cognitive decline, helps brain cells grow, and promotes brain plasticity.

Get a Gauge

For several days, record what exercise you do and for how long. You also can record your brief “got my heart pumping” moments if you’re sedentary most of the day.

Make a Plan

Somewhere prominent, record your exercise plan that includes a measurable goal. For extra motivation, share your plan with someone or even invite someone to join you. Here are some recommendations:

  • If you have special physical considerations, consult your physician about what kind and amount of exercise is appropriate for you.
  • Remember that this is a habit, not something you do now and then. So, it’s important to pick an activity that you enjoy well enough to stick with—and something that’s practical to do on a daily basis.
  • Unless your physician recommends otherwise, aim to exercise about 30 minutes a day.
  • If you exercise near the start of your day, you’re done for the day! That feels good.

Healthy Mind Habit #7: Rest

“Sometimes, a break from your routine is the very thing you need.” (Unknown)

Rest is different from sleep. In this context, rest is a break from your workaday life. It’s a shift away from routine. A diversion from the norm. A change in your form of mental activity. A retreat from the sensory overload that tends to dominate our lives and produce stress.

It’s important to understand what rest is not. Rest is a shift in attention and activity by healthy choice, not by demand or avoidance. For example, at work, you have a report due at the end of the day, and your eyes are starting to cross. Some options:

  • Avoidance: You get involved in a political argument on social media and eat a box of donuts.
  • Demand: You answer a phone call and deal with a vendor.
  • Rest: You take a walk around the office building.

The difference among these three activities is how you return to your task. If you return after social media and donuts, you’re still stressed out (perhaps also angry) and your cognitive function has been slowed down by the sugar. If you return after a phone call with a vendor, you’re probably still stressed out and distracted on top of that. If you return after a walk around the building, you have more focus, mental clarity, and perhaps some creative solutions for the task that’s due.

Since rest in this context is a break from the norm, it can come in various forms. It could be a walk outside, a jigsaw puzzle, a cup of tea, or a phone call with your best friend. It might be hard to think of rock climbing as rest, but it can be rest from your stressful week at work and demands at home.

It’s important to understand that it’s not rest if your focus is on perfection rather than leisure. If bird photography is a diversion you choose, it ceases to be rest if you get stressed out trying to capture the perfect shot of a penguin in flight. It ain’t gonna happen.

To sum it up, rest is a shift in attention and activity that is by healthy choice (not by demand or avoidance) for the purpose of leisure so that you can return to routine with a mind that is restored, recalibrated, and recharged.

A Deeper Rest: Sabbath

I feel I would be remiss if I failed to tell you about a form of rest that is a powerful force in my life (and the lives of many others). There’s a much deeper level of rest called Sabbath. The word sabbath is derived from a Hebrew word for rest. According to the Torah and the Bible, God created life on earth in six days and then rested on the seventh day. He set that day apart to be different from the others. On the first six days of the week, people were to work; on the seventh day, they were to rest from that work.

It’s a holy day—the original “holiday,” in fact. It’s designed to be a day when people take a break from their workaday life. It serves as physical rest, mental rest, and spiritual rest—an opportunity to restore, recalibrate, and recharge in every way. It allows us to shift focus from busyness to calm, from routine to wonder, from self to God and others. It gives us permission to stop doing and start being.

Perhaps God and the Bible are not for you, and that’s okay. But, if you’re interested in experiencing Sabbath—rest on the deepest level—I encourage you to do an experiment. Try it for one month. From Sunday to Friday, do all the stuff you need to get done during the week. On Friday night, withdraw. If something comes up that you need to do, let it wait until Sunday unless it’s a life-or-death emergency. Don’t feel guilty about it. Sabbath is 24 hours of guilt-free rest. You might just find—as I have—that you are more productive in six days than you are in seven. Even more, you’ll find that you do and feel better—mind, body, and spirit.

What Difference It Makes for Your Mind

Rest restores, recalibrates, and recharges your mind. Consider this excerpt from Ferris Jabr’s article “Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime” in Scientific American: “Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life. A wandering mind unsticks us in time so that we can learn from the past and plan for the future. Moments of respite may even be necessary to keep one’s moral compass in working order and maintain a sense of self.”

To follow are some additional benefits to cognitive health and performance that can come from various forms of rest:

  • Positive stress: Leisurely writing a poem or painting the front door is a challenge that engages your mind, but it is not a threat that can trigger fight-or-flight stress hormones. Your mind regards such a challenge as a good thing that can keep you vital and excited about life.
  • Relaxation: Activities such as bird watching, museum browsing, and reading put you in a focused and relaxed state. Just a short break to enjoy a cup of tea can bring calm!
  • Increased neuroplasticity: Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to form new connections and pathways and change how its circuits are wired. It can enhance learning, memory, and overall cognitive skills. Traveling, creating artwork, learning a musical instrument, reading fiction, dancing, and enjoying puzzles and riddles can boost neuroplasticity.
  • Increased empathy: Spending time with family, friends, and pets can lead to more identification with — and concern for — others’ experiences and feelings. Reading a novel can do this, as well!
  • Better memory and reduced risk of dementia: Activities that are particularly mentally stimulating (such as playing a musical instrument or doing a crossword puzzle) can improve memory and stave off dementia.
  • A sense of purpose, achievement, and satisfaction: It’s easy to see how baking a loaf of bread, decorating the Christmas tree, finishing a book, organizing the hall closet, writing a thank-you note, or volunteering at a local charity can produce this. What a mental boost!
  • Increased performance with a task after a break: Taking a break can help you return to your routine or task with clearer thinking, creativity, and recharged focus and mental energy.

Rest is a break, whether it’s for five minutes, 24 hours, or two weeks. You eventually return to your routine or task. The benefits of rest can be experienced both in the moment and upon return to your routine.

Get a Gauge

Record how many times you take a brief, healthy break during the day. Note how many days of vacation you took in the past year.

Make a Plan

Somewhere prominent, record your rest plan that includes a measurable goal. For extra motivation, share your plan with someone or even invite someone to join you. To follow are some recommendations.

A few years ago, I heard Rick Warren (author of The Purpose Driven Life) make this suggestion regarding rest: divert daily, withdraw weekly, and abandon annually. I’ve never forgotten it! It’s an easy-to-remember formula for mind-healthy rest.

Example
  • Divert daily: Play the ukulele for 20 to 30 minutes.
  • Withdraw weekly: Kayak on the lake all morning, and then enjoy a picnic.
  • Abandon annually: Take a road trip to Wall Drug in South Dakota.

This doesn’t include the mini rests you should take throughout the day. These are activities you can do for 30 seconds or five minutes.

Examples
  • Stand up, and stretch.
  • Go to the break room, and refill your water bottle.
  • Text your kids to tell them you love them.
  • Pray.
  • Look out the window. This is especially beneficial if you look at a screen most of the day. If you have some nature outside your window, you get bonus benefits! Gaze at a tree from bottom to top, observe people’s activities, or just watch the clouds go by.
  • Listen to a song that makes you smile. (You could make a playlist of happy songs to keep you smiling!)
  • Go outside, and walk around the building.
  • Take ten deep breaths.
  • Braid your little girl’s hair.
  • Read for pleasure for five minutes.

Don’t neglect mini rests (“baby breaks”), as these small activities can make a big difference!

Implement a system that prompts you to rest at intervals. You might use a Pomodoro (pomo) timer. Some productivity apps have one. That will help you focus on a task for 30 minutes or so and then take a break. Find a system that works for you.

(Note: Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky discuss techniques like Pomodoro in their book Make Time, in which they offer tips, tricks, and hacks to reclaim control of your day-to-day life and make time for the things that matter most.)

Wrapping Up

Don’t be overwhelmed by the prospect of starting seven new habits. Start with getting a gauge on each one. Make a plan to focus on one habit at a time.

Also, consider how you can kill two birds with one stone. You can practice many of these habits in conjunction with each other. For example, you can take a vigorous walk in the woods with a friend, sipping water as you go. That’s hydration, time in nature, social connectedness, exercise, and rest—all at the same time. Also, these habits are connected to each other. Your vigorous walk was fueled by a nutritious breakfast and will help you get a good night’s sleep tonight.

Whatever you do, be more aware of your habits (your lifestyle) and be more thoughtful about how your habits impact your cognitive health, for good or for bad. From moment to moment, the choice is yours. You have the power to strengthen your mind’s health, one day at a time.

7 Everyday Habits for a Healthier Mind

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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