Blog Series: Everyday Mental Health: Universal Truth #1 Planning Your Life is Essential to Mental Health

Dr. Amanda Beaman, C.Psych


If you’ve been reading the planning series (articles 1 to 3), you’ve learned about a foundational habit that we review with most of our clients- Planning.  You’ve learned that detailed planning of tasks and goals is not just for achievement purposes, but that the process has other mental health benefits.  Planning every day leads to reductions in feelings of anxiety and overwhelm, and helps us maintain healthy levels of motivation.  While there are other habits that also impact our mental health (see the next articles!), if we can’t plan and motivate ourselves effectively, we won’t be able to get the most out of other mental health strategies.

The specific aspects of planning discussed in articles 1 to 3 include how to: remove unhelpful assumptions about planning, articulate goals, break down goals, and utilize a schedule.  A final step to ensure the success of this habit is to think about the environment within which you hope to carry out your goals.  By “environment” I am referring to the physical, mental, and social environment. As much as possible, we want this environment to nudge us toward our goals (not away!), and be positively reinforcing so that we keep doing it!  These important aspects of planning may not always come up during the previous planning steps so we are addressing them separately here.

Based on what we know of the motivation system in humans, an environment that supports our goals is one that provides positive feedback, that reinforces us taking steps towards our goals.  A healthy goal environment also limits the chance for negative feedback, which causes us to avoid taking steps toward our goals.


Let’s review an example.  Let’s go back to Kelly, from article 2.  Her goals were as follows:

  1. Make a detailed daily schedule every day, with “to-do” items prioritized and added in the schedule
  2. Start exercising more- to start, 3 times a week for 30 minutes in the morning
  3. Reading at night before bed about interior design project in mud room instead of social media scrolling
  4. Eliminate screens from bed
  5. Develop strategies to help with negative thoughts about the next day that cause stress
  6. Spend time with kids in the evenings instead of distracting myself with screens


Kelly and I spent time articulating some goals for her to get started with (above), but we realized that there were factors in her environment that we could tweak to enhance her motivation and reduce negative feelings that may cause her to want to avoid taking steps.  As we discussed getting started, she described the environment within which she would like to exercise in the morning.  She explained that she would do it in the basement, but she reflected that she didn’t really like going down there- as it is dark and cold.  This could have been a source of negative feedback that got in the way of her continuing. We discussed that taking some steps to make the environment more appealing might make her look forward to going there,  and may also have the effect of ramping up her motivation before the first day that she plans to start exercising.  These extra steps would turn the space into a place that provides positive feedback in terms of how she felt in the space.  As we discussed this her creative juices turned on- she thought about some of the quick interior design ideas she had read about and she got excited about turning the space into an inviting atmosphere – just for her.  I could see her motivation spike the more we discussed it.  Similarly, one reservation she expressed about spending more time with her kids in the evening was that they tended to be on screens, and she found it frustrating to nag at them about turning them off.  We discussed some activities her kids might like, that might naturally win over their attention.  Kelly came up with an idea of working on a mural with them in their rooms as both of her children have been interested in art.  At the very least, she planned to have a conversation with them first, about spending time together in the evenings, to find out whether there is something they could all get excited about.  In both of these examples we see that planning something on paper may be different in reality, and by asking ourselves some questions we can find ways to further nudge ourselves toward starting something, remove obstacles, and to keep motivation going.  Other general ideas with regard to making the goal environment supportive include:

  • Telling people who are supportive of us about our plans
  • Having conversations with our loved ones about specific ways they can support our goals
  • Building in daily or weekly rewards for taking steps towards our goals
  • Creating an inviting physical space for ourselves
  • Making sure we have everything we need prepared the day before we start
  • Writing about our accomplishments to keep us motivated
  • Asking someone we enjoy time with to do it with us


Make a list of the factors in your physical, mental, and social environment that you think can act as positive feedback, to nudge you toward your goals and keep your motivation going:

Now make a list of the factors in your physical, mental and social environment that you think act as negative feedback for your goal (s) :

Are there things that you can do to reduce the negative feedback and increase the positive feedback in your physical, mental, and social environment?


In Conclusion

In this series on planning we have taken you through some of the evidence-based practices that we use with our clients everyday in our practice, to help reduce overwhelm, nurture the motivation system, and get people moving on the changes they’d like to make in their lives.  As you can see, it often isn’t as easy as just deciding that we want to do something different, there are a number of factors that inhibit or facilitate change.  Knowing how to plan effectively helps remove some of the factors that inhibit change. Keep in mind that it can take a while to get the hang of planning, and turn it into a daily habit.  We hope that you have found this series to be helpful and we’d love to hear from you about how planning is going !!  Stay tuned for the next articles in our Everyday Mental Health Series.