Habits That Help: Setting Yourself Up for Success with Self-Care

Person with shoulder-length hair pulled back, standing bent, holding knees and resting after jogging on the riversideTo dream big is daunting. To move from the drawing board to an action plan separates the dreamers from the executors. Reality dictates we step into the unknowns and uncertainties of the next moment trusting our ability to improvise as needed by the imperatives of the moment. What we reflectively take away from this moment and process outside of our awareness will be the solvent that develops snapshots of our emerging path in the dark rooms of our souls.

This formula applied to me as I sought to complete my memoir. In your case, it may apply to changing careers or searching for love. We move forward with this inherently galling process without any guarantees we will break the tape at the finish. However, we stand to gain from stretching our capacities to perform only by committing as much of our heart, soul, and mind to the enterprise as possible. The sums of such coordinated efforts are infinitely greater than the sums of their parts. The repetitive, focused, and strenuous exertion of our mental, and in some cases physical, muscles stimulate neural adaptations to stress. These adaptations result in higher yields in our capacities to work longer and harder, as well as to tackle more complex tasks.

To go the distance begins with daily preparation and attention to details of self-care, which I like to call little labors of loving ourselves. These little labors determine the big picture of success by creating what I think of as “the momentum of positive spirals.” Treating ourselves as if we possess riches of untapped resources elevates self-esteem, which in turn reinforces taking better care of ourselves.

This article entry may be the most important in this series by laying a foundation for successful completion of cherished projects that, whether we like it or not, wind up being endurance events of sorts. Such are the timelines for making meaningful changes like raising well-adjusted kids, recovering from addiction, or changing the dance steps we do with romantic partners.

Please keep in mind the goal is to overcome inertia and remain in perpetual motion. We must learn to not take prisoners in our efforts to get past quitting over the demoralization rooted in wishful, impatient expectations. The inner constraints and external obstacles that don’t kill us will make us stronger. Losing momentum is human; quitting on ourselves because the realities of success take some getting used to is a crying shame.

If you want it easy in the short run, you will have it very hard in the long run, as you may be leaving your dreams at the drawing board. If you are willing to work consciously and deliberately to develop habits of self-care in the beginning, they will be your foundation for building and making your dreamscapes realities. These practices will eventually become as much second nature to you as showering every morning. You can wrestle now and pin an opponent I will call “resistance to change,” or wrestle with this resistance your entire life because you refuse to break a sweat to win the match. My father, who was risk-adverse to the point of paralysis in his lifetime, would not flee his comfort zone unless our walls were on fire. Consequently, he would not have lived and died with bitter regrets had he overcome his resistance to being the author of his lifetime narrative.

If you are willing to work consciously and deliberately to develop habits of self-care in the beginning, they will be your foundation for building and making your dreamscapes realities.

One of my cornerstones for building an edifice of self-care activities geared for success is HIIT (high-intensity interval training). One of the leading scientific experts on this method for maintaining health and vigor into the twilight years is exercise physiologist Dr. Martin Gibala, who in collaboration with author Christopher Shulgan wrote the eye-opening book The One-Minute Workout. Dr. Gibala’s book provided me the scientific basis for my intuitive discovery of a fountain of youthful energy in my 50s and 60s. The learned discipline and flexibility to go from zero to 100 mph in short bursts, punctuated with longer recovery intervals, is not only critical to overcoming the inertia shaped by varying degrees of anxiety and depression, but also the most time-effective and potentially least stressful approach to developing endurance for your long-distance journeys.

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Think about training yourself to execute like an elite performer, making a commitment to access on demand, coordinate, and apply all your resources to the task at hand. I’ll delve into this training modality in detail in later articles. Another huge benefit of this exercise regimen is the salutary impact on my immune system. Many hours of productivity are lost due to acute and chronic illnesses. Can we ever get beyond quitting if we are constantly set back by painfully distracting and debilitating illnesses?

Four years ago, I was temporarily tone deaf to my body, which was screaming for me to rest. I developed pneumonia on top of bronchitis. Because I was in such good health, I missed only a week of training. Since then, I have not suffered anything more significant than a postnasal drip. I’ve been able to work out four to five days per week, 52 weeks per year. This level of wellness permitted me to muster the energy to condense a full-time private practice into three days per week and accelerate the process of finishing my memoir by writing and editing the other four days. Oh, yes, I forgot to mention that in my spare time I released my first pop album! My wife watches me bound out of bed around 4:45 a.m., just before my alarm goes off, shakes her head, and rolls over wondering if she mistakenly married the Energizer bunny.

I attribute another key to my success to what I put in my body and how much attention I pay to dental health. Much of my creative work takes place between the hours of 6 a.m. and 3 p.m. To sustain my energy level, I make sure my breakfast and lunch contain healthy fats and proteins. This way, I avoid large fluctuations in my blood sugar level, which can be a drag on my energy. I measure what I eat to ensure I receive adequate nutrition without putting undue stress on my digestive system, which then competes with blood flow to the brain and other organ systems I depend on to propel me forward. A peanut butter sandwich with banana and lettuce or spinach on whole wheat bread is my go-to lunch during the week. I’ll admit that by Friday I’m bored to tears eating the same thing. However, I find I am able to avoid afternoon lulls with this dietary regimen.

The mouth can be a petri dish for some wicked bacteria that, if not managed, can lead to systemic health problems that go beyond the immediate problems associated with periodontal disease. We are at increased risk for heart disease, stroke, respiratory problems, and even dementia by not tending to our oral hygiene. Think about the potential crimp to be put on your plans to change careers, start a family, run a marathon, or enjoy retired life if you are felled by such maladies, let alone the hit the quality of your life would take. Talk about how not making self-care a daily labor of love could worry you to distraction, if not sideline you for extended periods. Just for the record, I floss, use toothpicks, brush, and rinse with an antiseptic mouthwash after every meal.

I won’t tell you I never fight with myself when time is tight. Yet, it’s easy to stay on course since my health and, therefore, the quality of my life is infinitely better by committing myself to these routines. I may be most proud that I have reversed my periodontal disease that years ago required surgery. (If you haven’t been through it, trust me: you don’t want the experience.) These are activities that have become second nature and require little or no conscious effort to execute. Call me rigid and I will thank you for the compliment.

Last but certainly not least are my morning mindfulness activities. Before I get started on the day, I clean out the residual clutter from my mind so I have space and the attention to problem-solve what will be in front of me the rest of the day. If my reinvention began with giving birth to a mindful self, then meditation has been the vehicle I use to parent and develop that self. I spend 10 minutes in meditation, 10 minutes visualizing my long-terms goals and deciding on the next steps to take, and 10 to 15 minutes planning when I will make time to move ahead with my trek.

In the next installment of this series, I will focus in mindfulness as the linchpin of my growth and development of a success ethic.

Remember, success is a marathon and not a sprint!


Gibala, M., & Shulgan, C. (2017). The One-Minute Workout: Science Shows a Way to Get Fit That’s Smarter, Faster, Shorter. New York, NY: Random House LLC.

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  • Leave a Comment
  • Daphne6

    May 2nd, 2017 at 2:45 PM

    I would love life so much more I think if I could get into the habit of doing some of these awesome things for myself. My problem is that I give up way too easily I know that without a doubt. I am the worst about looking for results as soon as I start something new and then if I don’t see a change immediately I want to give up. It all boils down to the fact that I have never liked having to let things play out and find a rhythm. I am so ready to see the changes but never quite ready to fully commit.

  • Mitchell Milch, LCSW

    May 9th, 2017 at 3:15 PM

    Hi Daphne, First off, thanks for reading my post. My first analyst is one of the folks I dedicated my memoir to. When I returned to graduate school for the third time(Yes, I had for some time raised quitting to an art form), Dr. G. encouraged me “to play” with the process of struggling to rewrite some self-defeating narratives that encouraged me to quit on myself. I learned to luxuriate in being with my imaginative play and overcame a “writer’s block” that had me in a state of despair over getting through my undergraduate studies. Over time, I learned to trust that by losing myself in my virtual laboratory and having fun experimenting with new takes on old ideas, with patience I got better and better at reorganizing and mastering belief systems that held me back. Losing myself in such reveries made for a progressively productive laboratory of reinvention. Keep the faith!

  • Kira

    May 5th, 2017 at 7:02 AM

    Isn’t it funny how something so small like learning how to knit has been such a good thing for me?
    it gives me something to do that is not so mindless as sitting aorund and watching tv. I get to create

  • Mitchell Milch

    May 11th, 2017 at 6:36 AM

    Dear Kira,
    I’m jealous of your ability to knit a functional piece of art. Maybe it is not such a small thing to train your executive faculties to direct your innate intelligence to master new challenges. Thanks for reading my post.

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