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It’s not always the big decisions that shape our lives, but the little ones we make every single day such as – do I press snooze or go for a run?  Do I spend my time worrying, or ask directly? Do I say yes when I don’t have the time or the energy? Below psychologist, Dr Audrey Tang shares 10 positive habits and intentions you can set this autumn for better mental resilience and happiness.

1. Don’t make resolutions.
Although the “back to school” feeling may inspire us to restart those habits we meant to get on board with in January…don’t make resolutions, but try this instead:

– Write down an overall goal  

– Identify the steps you need to achieve it (make sure they are steps that are palatable and easy for you to achieve where possible…those are often the habits that will stick!)

– Every day make sure your little choices and decisions move you in the right direction.  

Bonus tip: If you get stuck ask yourself – is what I’m about to do going to move me towards my ideal life or away from it!?

2. Schedule in “me time”. 
If you look after yourself, you have more for everyone else – so timetable yourself in every day – making that commitment to yourself is as important as your commitments to others.  Whether you use that time to meditate, take a class, read, or simply have a cup of tea (while it’s still hot) – clearing some headspace will also help you be more effective when you release the pause button.

3. Take an attitude of gratitude. 
The best thing about being annoyed with work, is having work.  It has been a tough year, so certainly – if you are looking for a fresh start, then see tip 1, but otherwise, try regular gratitude practice.

Gratitude magnifies positive emotions which can energise us to be motivated to act:  Research on emotion shows that positive emotions wear off quickly. Our emotional systems like newness – but after a while it wears off. But gratitude makes us appreciate the value of something.

Gratitude blocks toxic, negative emotions, such as envy, resentment, regret—emotions that can destroy our happiness. This makes sense: You cannot feel envious and grateful at the same time.  (So if you free up some of the space that envy takes up, you have more left to do whatever it is you need to do for you!)

Grateful people have a higher sense of self-worth. Once you start to recognize the contributions that other people have made to your life and in turn realize that other people have seen the value in you to make those contributions—you can transform the way you see yourself…again your are more likely to be motivated to do something for yourself if you love yourself!

4. Speak kindly to yourself 
When you plant a seed, you don’t say things like “I’ll give you 10 minutes and you’d better grow”, so although you might want something, treat that desire like a seed – plant it, do all the things to nurture it, and be patient. (…and don’t forget, sometimes, you might grow more than you thought!!)   A challenge I give my students is for every negative statement they have about themselves or someone else – they need to give 2 positives

5. Practice setting boundaries (You’ve had space this year – make sure you fill it with what you NEED).
Do you need other people’s psychodramas?  Do you need to stay late every night?  Do you need to please the PTA and the Hobby Group and the Sunday Club?  Identify what you NEED in your life, and make sure there’s room for that first, before booking anything else in! If you continually people please the one person who will not be pleased…and in fact gets exhausted and resentful is YOU, and how pleasant or pleasing is that in the long run for others!?  We need to remember that “No.” is a complete sentence and doesn’t need a qualification.  If someone keeps trying to persuade you – you need to ask, is this for their benefit or for yours, and if the former, ask yourself if you really owe them that favour.

However, if you are struggling with this try “buying time” statements such as “I don’t have my diary/time to check right now…but I’ll tell you later” as this gives you time to consider if you really want to do it, and to offer an excuse. Alternatively, try practicing the following:

– Time Limit: Of course I can help but I can only do it at/by X time or I only have 5 minutes, and I must get on with X

– Delay: Can I let you know at the end of the day/tomorrow?  (This gives you time to decide if you really want to do it…and find an excuse!) 

– Signpost: I’m really sorry I can’t – but xx might be able to…

– Ask directly:  How would you like me to help you/What do you think is best for me to do/What would be of most help to you at this time? (This allows the other person to take more responsibility for their request)

6. Get effective with your self-care choices

– Recognise when you are enjoying something. 

– Decide if that activity energises or relaxes you. 

– Decide which you need when you need it – and pick from the list of things you know you enjoy.  

Habitually you may hear “self-care” and think “spa day” or “meditate”.  But whatever energises or relaxes you best (at the time you need it) is going to be the most effective for you.  Remember that if we are anxious, then something relaxing may be most effective, and if we are feeling down, then an energiser may be best.  Being consciously aware of what you need, means you get there faster.  Work this out now, and as your commitments grow, you’ll know what will give you the energy – or the calm – in order to embrace them and even thrive.

7. Do one thing to make someone else smile
While engaging in things that WE enjoy definitely raises our positivity, research shows that even just seeing the act of kindness towards others makes us feel even better. It doesn’t have to be expensive – just dropping a text, or sharing something funny – even stroking your pet can make them feel good – and you’ll feel great too!

8. Don’t sweat the small stuff
Yes, there’s a big decision to be made if you’re going to buy one house over another, BUT if you’re trying to decide between having Indian or Chinese takeout tonight and both places are great, why waste time on the choice…ask yourself instead – if (select one) were the only choice, would I be happy with that? And then go spend your time and energy on something more important!!

9. Remember it’s ok to edit your life
Look carefully at your current relationships. Ask yourself:

– Which ones are reciprocal?

– Which ones bring me joy?

– Which ones encourage honesty?

– Which ones can I rely on? 

– Which ones are with people I respect for their own values and actions? (Which ones does I actively want to choose?)

Then contact those people – you might even do it now!!

10. Boost your happiness naturally
You can do this alone or with friends.  Humans are biophilic meaning that we have an affinity with nature and things that are “natural”…so simply go outside and embrace the fresh air. Sunlight naturally stimulates the production of vitamin D revitalising our immune system, and exercising in the sun produces serotonin (which helps regulates our sleep and appetite) and dopamine (the “feel-good” neurotransmitter), and can help produce endorphins (our body’s natural pain relievers).  Do this with a friend and you’ll also boost oxytocin.  Topping up your energy tank makes the moments that drain your energy far more bearable.

How long does it take to adopt these new habits?
Change is hard – especially when it is a change in habits of a lifetime that, even if they haven’t served us well.  Further, Our brains evolved to keep us safe, our bodies to perform vital tasks efficiently…as such we do recognise fear more easily than happiness, and, physically we tend to do things that keep us comfortable. The irony of the latter is that after a while it can become too uncomfortable to make any change at all – even when you recognise staying the same is no longer what you want.

So one way to work to beat that rut now is to look at change as having three zones, the first is the “comfort zone” (the place where we spend the most time), the next is the “stretch zone” and the third is the “panic zone”. Understandably neither our brain nor our body wishes to get into the panic zone, BUT stretching – well, stretching can actually feel quite nice.  Therefore, we can do something – anything at all – that pushes you a little into the stretch zone every day. Perhaps one day you might lift a slightly heavier weight, you might walk a little further, you might take the first steps to learn a new skill. When you get used to the stretch, you’ll find that becomes comfortable, and suddenly your old “panic zone” has moved to become the new “stretch zone”. 

Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist, mental health & wellness expert and author of The Leader’s Guide to Resilience, Pearson, £14.99

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