Cliff Harvey, clinical nutritionist, researcher and author, shares his top 7 techniques and routines for better mental wellbeing.
Many years ago, when I was a kid, I was diagnosed with depression. That diagnose was later changed to bipolar disorder. I was suffering from these profound depressive episodes, and yet I was hyperfunctional. On the one hand, I could get up on stage and talk to 300 people and feel great, on the other, I sometimes couldn’t get out of bed.
1. Practice mindfulness
Through the process of learning more about that, I had to develop a number of tools to maintain balance in my life. Without even realising it, I set the foundation for my mental wellbeing when I was young. My old man ran marathons and to get more flexible, he started doing yoga. I was about three years old at the time. I’d just copy what he was doing. And then I started reading the books that he was reading, and my mum bought me some other books, and I started becoming more and more interested in the mindfulness aspect of it. That turned out to be really helpful, because I’d developed some of the meditative practice before falling into depression. And that’s something I’ve carried on doing. I don’t necessarily meditate every day, but that’s something I know I can go back to.
While having techniques that you can use when you’re low can be helpful, what’s more important is setting the foundation when you’re feeling good, because then you’ll bounce back easier.
I was asked on a radio show recently about what do I do when I’m feeling really low. I’d like to reframe the question. It’s not so important what I’m doing when I’m low, because when you’re low and you’re lying in bed and you don’t want to get up, you don’t get up. You don’t do anything. So while having techniques that you can use when you’re low can be helpful, what’s more important is setting the foundation when you’re feeling good, because then you’ll bounce back easier.
2. Create a morning routine
I’m a real creature of habit. I need routine. When I find that I have structure, then that gives me the freedom within the structure. It’s simple stuff. Every day I get up, I have two big glasses of water, because I find if I don’t, I’m dehydrated and my mood is worse. I have a decaf coffee. (I’m not drinking caffeine anymore, which is a big shift for me. I realised that I hadn’t noticed how anxious it was making me, and how that was driving some of the cycles of depression and mania. So I cut that back.) After my coffee, I do a hard workout, and have a good protein shake after that. I find if I keep my protein intake up, that really helps with mood as well.
The first thing I do in my workday is write. I feel like I have to write, whether it’s just getting out what’s in my head; or doing some journaling; or writing towards my PhD or research articles. I always do that first. If I get that done, I feel like I’ve contributed something and I feel a lot better about my day. There’s probably a little bit of ego involved there, but it also helps to provide that surety that I’ve done something.
3. Set three mission-critical tasks
Through the rest of the day, I have one technique that is really important for feeling that I’m moving forward in life. I set three, what I call, mission-critical tasks in the day. Most people will have a to-do list that’s 50 or a hundred items long. You look at that in the morning and think, “What am I going to do?”. So, in the evening, I set aside three critical tasks for the next day. I make sure I do those and once I’ve done them, I’ve got the option of finishing for the day, or I could do more work. I could maybe go for a walk, do an extra training or whatever I feel like doing.
Often, I’ll end up doing a bit more work because I enjoy it. But if I’m feeling low or fatigued, I know that I can drop off and just relax and take that time to recover and repair.
Every week, I do things outdoors to get some of that ‘green space’, to lift my mood and improve my mental wellbeing. I really love gardening. I’ve recently taken up painting. I write a bit of poetry, just to get that balance and to get some of the more emotive expression out, because so much of what I’m writing most of the time is based around research. It’s very scientific and quite hard, as compared to the softer side of life.
We know that productivity starts to plateau somewhere between 30-40 hours a week and it drops off a cliff if we work more than 50 hours a week.
4. Do some time budgeting
Because I’m a scientist, I want to take an evidence-based approach to health and mental wellbeing. An area where most of us don’t take an evidence-based approach is time allocation. We know that most people don’t work 40 hours a week. They work more than that. We know that productivity starts to plateau somewhere between 30-40 hours a week and it drops off a cliff if we work more than 50 hours a week.
If I’m taking an evidence-based approach to health and I want to be as productive as I can, I shouldn’t be living with ever-extending workdays.
I came to the conclusion that if I’m taking an evidence-based approach to health and I want to be as productive as I can, I shouldn’t be living with ever-extending workdays. At that point I thought, “I’m going to allocate 20% of my time to work and just try and be highly effective within that”. That means that I typically work 6-7 hours in the day – highly productive, focused work. That generally means I can knock off around 3pm. I can spend a bit of time outdoors in the sun; go for a walk with the dog; spend some time with my partner or have that time to myself to unwind and relax.
When we don’t sleep well enough, we tend to make poor food choices.
5. Get some sleep
That also means I’m not working late into the night, because I found that affects my sleep. And if sleep is affected that leads to cascading problems with stress and food intake. When we don’t sleep well enough, we tend to make poor food choices – all of this has been shown in the research. We know it occurs, but we tend to not take it onboard. I find with my clients, they’re coming to me for nutrition, but it’s often not nutrition that we end up talking about. We need to talk about their social media use because that’s the thing that’s stopping them from sleeping, because they’re on Facebook in bed, with all that blue light exposure, with all those clickbait-type things, and they end up not sleeping until one or two in the morning. Often, it’s about reframing what we think we need to do, to what is actually the greatest need.
6. No social media apps on the phone
I tend to be very targeted in how I use social media. I have two communication blocks in my workday – around 11am, after I’ve done a couple of hours writing, and then once in the afternoon. I batch all my emails and do them all at once. In that same block, I check all social media, check the notifications, reply to anyone who’s commented on my posts, and talk to people in my groups. I use plugins that eliminate the newsfeed and I don’t have any social apps on my phone. I only use it on the computer and that means there’s not the compulsion to be scrolling away on a phone.
We’re all pretty messed up in some respects but we’re trying to work with what we’ve got to keep moving forward.
7. Keep putting one foot in front of the other
Years ago, a client emailed me, asking, “How do you manage to be so present and put together and moving forward and achieving all this stuff?” And I replied, “You’re seeing the facade that is projected”. I try to project a fairly authentic personality, a fairly authentic brand, but people are only going to see the work you’re putting out, they’re not seeing the turmoil that you go through. I know a few things about a few things, but I’m certainly not a guru. That word really makes me uncomfortable. We’re all pretty messed up in some respects but we’re trying to work with what we’ve got to keep moving forward. I think that there are times in life when you realise you can either just stop and give in, or you can at least keep putting one foot in front of the other.
One of the greatest turning points for me was when I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. I realised that I could either let that be a narrative that would play out and I could just accept that and become a victim, or I could at least give it a crack to keep on moving forward.
We can easily fall into the trap of deifying people, and we easily fall into a cult of personality. That means we become absolute in looking at people as good or bad. And none of that is true. Everyone has their dark side. People who we look at as evil or monsters, there are probably some good aspects to them as well. I think we need to be more realistic about who people actually are.
Need help now?
If you are feeling overwhelmed and don’t know where to turn, if you are having thoughts (or if someone you love is having thoughts) that make you afraid for your (their) life, then it is time to reach out. The following numbers may assist you.
Australia. If life is in danger, call 000. Or go to your nearest hospital emergency department. Or call 13 11 14 (Lifeline), call 1300 22 4636 (Beyond Blue), call 1300 659 467 (Suicide Call Back Service)