Labeling our feelings helps minimize the intensity of them, so I’ve been trying to identify how I’m feeling and finally found a word that resonated, which is malaise. Malaise is a vague sense of mental or moral ill-being. It’s a vague discomfort. I think my morals are okay, but mental ill-being and vague discomfort sounds about right. The most applicable example of how this old French word ties into our condition today comes from former President Jimmy Carter. In what became known as the malaise speech in 1979, Carter described the U.S. as “a nation facing a crisis of confidence and rife with paralysis and stagnation and drift.” That speech didn’t serve him well as he asked Americans to step up and sacrifice during the oil crisis of the period and frankly, we just weren’t into that. But doesn’t that dialogue describe our current condition? A nation facing a crisis of confidence and rife with paralysis and stagnation and drift.
The staff here at Work2Live had a conversation about this because we seem to all be suffering from malaise ourselves. There’s nothing wrong, we’re all healthy, we’re all employed – we’re all just fine. But we’re not feeling quite right. Our discussion started by reviewing our recent participation with leaders from various organizations who all seem to be suffering the same condition. They don’t talk much anymore in meetings and when I ask, “how are you?” the answer is “fine” or “okay,” with the same facial expression that clearly states “not really.”
It’s not apathy, which is a lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern. Instead of “I don’t care,” it’s more like “what’s the point?” That’s exactly what I say to myself each morning as I look at my unmade bed. But making your bed is what’s called a keystone habit. Keystone habits have a domino effect and related to bed-making, studies show that one simple act improves productivity for the rest of your day, increases your sense of well-being and even improves your budgeting skills. Daily exercise is another keystone habit, leading to eating healthier and increased efficiency. Meditating eases your mind, reduces blood pressure and strengthens the immune system. Meditation is correlated with increased memory and awareness, reduced stress and anxiety, and increased goal-setting as well, so it’s a very powerful keystone habit.
Here's the rub though. If you’re experiencing malaise, or sadness, depression or apathy, getting motivated to establish any kind of a new habit feels impossible. Our staff agreed that we just couldn’t do it on our own, so we’ve created our own experiment to hold each other accountable. We’re keeping a shared log of how much exercise we’re getting and how we’re doing with a keystone habit of choice. Now each morning when I look at the bed, I may still ask what’s the point of making it, but I immediately remember that I have to fill in that log and others will see that I did not make the bed. That small motivation is all it takes. I’ve made my bed every morning since we started the log.
We’ve had scientific news this week from the CDC and the WHO that clearly indicates we’ve got at least a year to a year and a half remaining in this strange reality of physical distancing and wearing masks, of remote working and learning, of returning to work or school at least temporarily and then partially shutting down again, of hybrid models of trying to get out in the world again. As hard as it may feel to start a new habit, if you’re experiencing challenges with your mood and/or motivation, it’s time to push yourself into making some changes. Instead of trying to change multiple habits at once, try a keystone habit that makes it easier to change multiple habits in connection with the original.
In addition to exercise, making the bed and meditation, here are some other keystone habits you might consider: Sleeping 8 hours a night makes you more productive, reduces junk food consumption and improves your communications. Having family dinners together increases children’s homework skills, results in higher grades, greater emotional control and more confidence in the kids. Journaling helps you improve your writing, reduces stress and boosts creativity. Developing strong willpower leads to other good habits, such as better managing your money or improved performance at work.
Keystone habits create small victories and that’s part of how they create widespread changes.
Research shows that these small wins have enormous power, an influence disproportionate to the accomplishments of the victories themselves. Small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince us that bigger achievements are within reach.
The key to working on a keystone habit these days, however, may mean creating a structure to hold yourself accountable. Ask a friend or a work associate, or create an entire group online that will provide support to each other and hold each person accountable for following through. During times like these, life is just too hard to go it alone, so reach out. I’ll bet the people you ask will be very happy to have that support as well and as our motivation grows, we’ll feel better and better about ourselves and about the world around us.