Man drinking from water bottle

"Start by picking a simple and small habit that can fit within your existing routine."

A major part of fighting depression is learning how to develop healthy and sustainable habits.  

Unfortunately the common anecdote that it only ‘takes 21 days to form a new habit’ often sets us up for unrealistic expectations and failure. The truth is each person forms habits at different rates. 

  • The average time it took volunteers to form new habits in one study was 66 days.[1] This may sound daunting, but it also shows that forming new habits isn’t impossible – we just need to be realistic with our hopes and timelines. 

Here are some simple, yet powerful, habits that can help to fight back against depression. It’s important to start small. Once you’ve picked out a couple habits to try, check out our guide to creating healthy habits, which can help you break habits down into goals, and work towards long term sustainability.

1. Stay hydrated

Depression has a wide range of symptoms, and being dehydrated can further sap our energy and make it even harder to concentrate.

To stay healthy and well hydrated, a good bench-mark to aim for, for men, is about 15.5 cups (3.7L) per day. [2] 

One quick tip is to have a cup of water alongside a coffee or tea in the morning. Then throughout the day, work on getting into the habit of having a cup of water each time after you pee.

Packing a water bottle or always having one on hand can also make it easier to keep up the habit. Having an easily measurable goal like “I want to finish two of these bottles per day” can help to keep an eye on your progress as it’s easy to lose track of how much we truly drink in a day. 

2. Have a serving of fruit or veggies with breakfast

A healthy diet is key to fighting depression and fruits and vegetables are often overlooked by lots of guys. 

This could mean adding some berries or a banana to oatmeal, cereal or waffles, having an apple with peanut butter, making a smoothie, enjoying chopped veggies and hummus, or eating ‘ants on log’ (celery, nut butter, raisins or other dried fruit). 

By having a couple options you like, you can mix them up so you won’t get bored and be more likely to let the habit fall away.

Adding this habit to breakfast or an early snack helps us start the day by knocking off a simple “to do” as part of a daily healthy diet. 

Learn more: Using What You Eat to Fight Depression

3. Maintain personal hygiene

Depression can zap our energy levels to the point of never wanting to get out of bed. But not looking after daily responsibilities like regularly showering or bathing, brushing our teeth, and cleaning laundry makes it hard to build new habits to help lift our mood.

  • For example, if you haven’t combed your hair or changed your sleep clothes, you may be less likely to go out for a walk or meet up with a friend for coffee.  

Even if it’s the only thing you have the capacity to do, it’s important to try to maintain good personal hygiene habits. 

Whatever you normally do to maintain your look and feel more confident, try to do it regularly and not let it slide because of other priorities. Your health and wellbeing are always top of the list.

4. Create a morning routine

Having a morning routine is a great way to add structure and routine into our lives.

For example, a morning routine could look like (incorporating some of the above habits):

  1. Drink a glass of water
  2. Make yourself a cup of tea or coffee
  3. Make a healthy breakfast (including a piece of fruit or vegetable)
  4. Check or make your schedule for the day 
  5. Shower
  6. Change clothes
  7. Comb hair
  8. Remind yourself of something you are looking forward to that day 

Unless you are expecting an important message, it can be helpful to delay looking at your phone, as it’s a tempting distraction that can take up our time and interfere with staying on task.

Learn more: Creating Daily Habits and Routines to Manage your Mental Health

5. Set aside some worry time

When we have something particularly stressful going on that we know we might get stuck thinking about all day, setting aside some time to allow ourselves to worry about it can help free us of the persistent stress for the rest of the day. 

During your “worry time”, it can also be helpful to make a list of items that are causing you stress. For items which are in your control, spend some time making a plan to resolve thumourhe issue as best you can. For items outside of your control, consciously practice letting them go as you move on to the remainder of your day. 

For example, if you’re having ongoing family stress, try to say to yourself ‘Okay, I am allowed to think about this for 15 minutes this morning”, then use this time to think about it. Afterwards, whenever it pops back into your head, stop yourself and remember that you already spent enough time on this for one day, and you have time set aside to think about it again tomorrow if need be. 

This can sometimes help to put worries aside before bed, as you can know you’ve already spent time thinking about something and don’t need to worry about it anymore. 

Learn more: Stress Management for Men

6. Go for a lunchtime walk and start taking the stairs

Try taking a break to go for a walk during the day, even a 5-15 minute walk will help. Tying a walk to an activity that is already in your schedule (eg. a lunch break) will make the habit easier to remember and stick to.

Taking the stairs (if possible) is another simple way to incorporate more physical activity into your day. 

If walking and stairs are not possible, there are many quick seated arm exercises that can also be helpful. 

Learn more: How to Use Physical Activity and Exercise to Fight Depression

7. Make time to laugh

Laughing activates the release of the neurotransmitter serotonin, the same brain chemical targeted by common types of antidepressant medications.

It’s easy to get bogged down in stress and prioritize other things over ourselves, but try setting aside a few minutes each day to do something fun or funny. 

  • Maybe it’s watching a favourite 20-30 minute show each night (half an hour or more) before bed. 
  • Maybe it’s following a feed with funny memes on IG that you check at lunch time.

Find something that makes you smile and make time for it each day. 

Setting aside a longer period of time once or twice a week to watch a funny movie, enjoy a stand up special, or meet up with a friend who shares the same sense of humour as you can also help. 

Schedule time in your day and week for laughter, similar to how you might schedule time for physical activity.  

8. Deep breathing

Some guys may shy away from the idea of meditation, but by doing so, they miss out on one of the strongest skills you can form – the ability to remain calm and focused while under stress. 

One good habit to form is the ability to use the ‘box breathing’ technique when we notice we are starting to get stressed. This means breathing in, pausing, breathing out, pausing, and repeating until we feel more in control, all to the count of 1, 2, 3, 4 for each step. 

These skills, and similar breathing exercises, are used by top athletes and even US Navy SEALS. 

“Box breathing is a technique that helps you take control of your automatic breathing patterns to train your breath for optimal health and performance…it was instrumental in saving my life several times in crises, I was able to remain calm and focus clearly”

– Mark Divine, former US Navy SEALs Commander, NYT bestselling author of The Way of the SEAL and founder of SEALFIT (Forbes)

Learn more: Managing Depression with the Help of Meditation

9. Journaling

Research has found several benefits to keeping a journal. One study found that expressive writing (the technical term for “journaling”) can reduce rumination and depressive symptoms.[3] Many mental health professionals recommend it as a way to fight depression.

For some guys, it can be a quick 5 minute process done daily. Others may choose to write longer reflections once or twice a week. It’s important to experiment and find what works best for you.  

  • A quick journal entry after dinner can help you recap your day and set some “to-dos” for tomorrow.

If you choose to journal during your nightly routine, different types of journaling may be more effective than others. One small study found that spending 5 minutes writing a very specific to-do list helped to facilitate falling asleep at bedtime more than journaling about completed activities.[4]

Learn more: How to Journaling Can Help Combat Depression

10. Build a sleep routine

Around 90% of people with depression have issues with sleep, but it’s often an area we overlook or don’t prioritize.[5]

Having a regular sleep routine – going to bed and waking up at the same time each day – is one of the best things we can do for our sleep quality. This allows our body to optimize our sleep cycle and restore our energy. 

An example of a sleep routine:

  1. 30 minutes before sleep: Shut off all electronic devices (blue-spectrum light is known to impede sleep).[6]
  2. 20 minutes before: Lay out clothes for the morning, brush teeth, wash face.
  3. 10 minutes before: Calm your mind and body down with some deep breathing.
  4. Time to sleep: Turn your bedroom into a cave – minimize noise and light.

Learn more: How to Improve Your Sleep to Fight Depression

11. Keep up with household chores and clean up after yourself

When we spend less time caring for the space we are living in, it can translate into us caring less about ourselves. 

Some guys only clean up when they have guests coming over, but we need to value ourselves just as much as others. We can take pride in cleaning up our living space.

  • You could try setting up a routine where you vacuum once at the start of each month, or clean your bathroom and bedroom every Sunday. 

12. Schedule time to get ‘in the zone’

Getting ‘in the zone’ means getting caught up in enjoyable activities which pull us away from the negative thoughts we are having. 

  • Some examples include playing sports, gaming, music, swimming, dancing, woodworking, drawing, biking, photography, gardening – find what works and make time to do it.

If we set this time aside, say every Friday evening after work, it can also help give us something to look forward to during the week. 

13. Get into nature

As the world becomes more urbanized and developed, it’s getting harder for people to find places where they can comfortably connect with nature. Studies have shown that consistent exposure to greenspace – or a lack thereof – has a large impact on our ability to manage depression, anxiety, and stress.

Being in nature can promote the production of important neurochemicals that assist in the regulation of our mood. Finding time to get out and immerse yourself in nature, even in small spaces, is a great way to de-stress, re-energize, and re-centre yourself.

This could mean:

  • Taking a slow walk to really look around and enjoy the space
  • Going for a hike
  • Reading a book while breathing fresh air
  • Bird watching
  • Boating or fishing
  • Simply sitting and relaxing

Learn more: Using Nature to Fight Depression

14. Practice gratitude

Shelter, sleep, food, water, and clothing are the bare necessities we need for life, but how often do we acknowledge having these needs met. How often do we acknowledge the people we value in our lives, or the work we put in to better ourselves, or the progress we’ve made on our road to recovery? 

Gratitude is about slowing down to acknowledge the positive things in life we often take for granted. 

There are two main ways to practice gratitude.

The first way is to note the people and things in your life you are grateful for. 

In the past, practicing gratitude was built into many people’s religious or spiritual prayers and routines. Whether you are religious or not, practicing gratitude is an important habit for everyone to build. 

  • This could be a morning journal exercise after breakfast listing the things in your life that are most important to you.
  • Or a quick saying of thanks for what you have and the people in your life before dinner. 

The second way is to express your gratitude to others. When we thank others for their time or efforts we signal to them that their actions were important and valued by us. This can also give the person an opportunity to share things they value about us that we may be under-appreciating (which can be very easy to do while fighting depression). 

  • Next time someone does you a favour, even if it is a small thing like holding a door for you or posting a comment on your social media, try to make sure you don’t just say ‘thanks’ without thinking about it. Instead, truly be grateful for the fact that they just went out of their way to do something nice. 
  • You can also try to think of larger favours a friend did for you in the past that you didn’t fully appreciate at the time and reach out to let them know (without the expectation of hearing back). 
  • Or, you can do something kind for people in your life, like making dinner for friends or grabbing coffee or tea for a co-worker.

References

  1. Lally, P., Van Jaarsveld, C. H., Potts, H. W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European journal of social psychology, 40(6), 998-1009. https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.674
  2. Mayo Clinic. (October 14, 2020). Water: How much should you drink every day? Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/water/art-20044256
  3. Gortner, E. M., Rude, S. S., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2006). Benefits of expressive writing in lowering rumination and depressive symptoms. Behavior therapy, 37(3), 292-303. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.beth.2006.01.004
  4. 4. Scullin, M. K., Krueger, M. L., Ballard, H. K., Pruett, N., & Bliwise, D. L. (2018). The effects of bedtime writing on difficulty falling asleep: A polysomnographic study comparing to-do lists and completed activity lists. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 147(1), 139. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0000374
  5. Nutt, D., Wilson, S., & Paterson, L. (2008). Sleep disorders as core symptoms of depression. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 10(3), 329-336. https://doi.org/10.31887/DCNS.2008.10.3/dnutt
  6. Chellappa, S., Steiner, R., Oelhafen, P., Lang, D., Götz, T., Krebs, J., & Cajochen, C. (2013). Acute exposure to evening blue-enriched light impacts on human sleep. Journal of Sleep Research, 22(5), 573-580. https://doi.org/10.1111/jsr.12050

For more tips on forming habits, see our guide to Building Healthy and Sustainable Habits to Fight Depression.