Take “Wellness” off your to-do list

By ZOE HARRIS

Yesterday I received an email from the New York Times that said: Day 5. Refresh. Take a Self-Compassion Break. The email suggested that I take a moment to close my eyes and soothe myself by wrapping my arms around my body. I was then given the option to press a button to “mark this task complete.” 

Five days ago, I signed up for the Healthy Habits Well Challenge in the wellness section of the New York Times, offering up my email to receive daily “wellness challenges” for 28 days in a row such as Have a Savory Breakfast, Controlled Breathing Exercise, and Phone Free Lunch. The habits suggested in the Well Challenge are extremely accessible; they’re inclusive, casual, and quick. The “mark complete” button caters to our modern obsession with productivity—an obsession potentially exaggerated by the act of scrolling through email. They reminded me of conversations I overhear and often partake in at Midd that almost always link “wellness” with tasks intended to craft a healthier future self. 

There is something seductive about adding another box to check at the end of our days, about focusing on some future self who is more-present, more-hydrated, and more-fit, and this challenge plays into that. This is especially true as a senior about to graduate in May—if I don’t know where I’ll be for the next two years, why not just practice deep breathing every day for a few weeks? Or be a little more hydrated? The tendency to do things like signing up for this Wellness Challenge seems to be coming from a need to focus on a small, measured number of future days for which to optimize ourselves. But having these types of declarative conversations and signing up for Wellness Challenges like I am so prone to doing are not habits; they’re tasks.

Habits are difficult to build when you’re as transient as most of us are as Middlebury students. For much of our time here, we are rarely in the same place, sleeping in the same bed, for long. Last year, I was living in an on-campus house in the fall, a different room for J-Term, abroad for the spring, at home for a few days, at an internship elsewhere for the summer, and then back at school in the fall. It is a privilege, of course, to move around in this way, but this also means that my habits are never truly rooted in place. These habits must prevail in different breakfast spots, bedrooms, commutes, food options, friends, weather, time zones, schedules, and spaces. They must be portable and malleable. During my constant movement last year, I made up a habit of rubbing my index finger along my thumb a few times, as a sort of check-in with myself. During my semester abroad living with an Italian host family, unable to decide what, when, and how much food I ate for dinner, I began eating slowly, paying more attention. I clearly haven’t figured all of this out yet—I’m signed up for this wellness challenge, after all, and it’s instructing me to Set an Intention to Connect tomorrow. But those two routines last year felt accessible and real. 

What bothers me about the type of self-optimization that this Well Challenge is offering is that it seems superfluous to try “choosing a mantra” on a day when you already feel fine. No one feels great chugging too much lemon water when they’re not even thirsty or “eating a savory breakfast” when they’re perfectly happy with their yogurt. No one feels present and mindful when they write set a task to be more present and mindful. The best “wellness” habits aren’t boxes to check off on a to-do list, but tools to whip out in times of need. 

As we wrap our minds around the unknowns of the next few years, maybe it’s all about portable, adaptable, cheap habits that aren’t wrapped up in checking boxes. The two habits that I developed last year, the finger rubbing and the slow eating, were habits that I tried multiple times until I realized that they really worked; they then became tools I could turn to when there was a need rather than a box to check when there wasn’t. The best habits are invented in our own minds and adaptable in any circumstance. They’re simple, barely noticeable; they’re not glamorous proclamations to be shared at lunch, and there’s no flashy language that can package them nicely into daily emails. They’re not dependent on place or productivity; they just carry us through when we’re transient. 

I may not build a new habit from this challenge, but I will receive 28 wellness tips, researched and explained, straight to my inbox. I will always read articles and be part of conversations that imitate what this Wellness Challenge represents. That’s fine, but it’s far more practical to turn them from goals into ideas. The first habit of the Well Challenge was to perform a “coffee or tea meditation,” which I never did—I’ve skipped most of them for the very reasons in this article—but today I tried it because I found myself alone with my coffee for a few minutes. It makes sense that, as transient college students who might not know where we’ll be waking up in a few months, we’d want to build habits we can carry with us that will make us feel healthy and grounded. This happens slowly, though, without big proclamations about how great our future selves will be if we just start sleeping more or eating vegetables. Don’t make your to-do list any longer than it needs to be: That’s wellness. 

Zoe Harris is a member of the class of 2020.