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6 Strategies for Changing Your Habits When You have ME/CFS

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It’s tough when your life is limited by a chronic illness like ME/CFS (myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome) to hear all the non-stop talk about major life changes online, on TV, and in magazines, especially this time of year. Who can muster up “willpower” when you are stuck on the couch or experiencing chronic pain?

Life improvements and habit changes are still possible, though, even with chronic illness. The key is to think in terms of small changes made using tools and strategies, instead of that overwhelming (and frankly, ineffective) concept of willpower. No, we can’t just push through our limits to accomplish things…but guess what? Most healthy people can’t make long-term, sustainable changes that way either!

Whether you want to eat healthier, get to bed earlier, learn to meditate, or learn a new hobby, here are some strategies and tools for changing your habits, one small step at a time regardless of ME/CFS symptoms:

6 Strategies for Changing Your Habits When You have ME/CFS

1. Think Small

Tiny steps in the right direction are more effective — and far more doable for those with ME/CFS — than wide-sweeping resolutions. Maybe one of your goals is to eat healthier. Instead of trying to make a bunch of changes all at once (and probably soon reverting to old habits), change one small aspect of your diet at a time. Maybe your first step is simply to eat more fruits and vegetables. Once that has become a habit (perhaps in a month or two), then add in another small step, like reducing sugar. Little by little, you will move toward your goal. Baby steps!

2. Write It Down.

There has been plenty of research on this, and it applies equally well to those with chronic illness. Write out the habits you’d like to change or the goals you want to reach. Don’t stop there, though. I used to write goals every January and then be disappointed every December that I didn’t meet them! Then, I started adding specific objectives under each goal and small, measurable targets for each objective — baby steps, remember? In the example above of wanting to eat healthier, it might look like this:

Goal: To Eat Healthier

Objective #1: Eat more fruits and vegetables

Target 1: Buy frozen fruits and veggies and pre-cut produce to make sure they are always on hand and ready to use.

Target 2: Ask friend/family member for help making a pot of vegetable soup to freeze each weekend so I have easy, healthy meals ready during the week.

Target 3: Make breakfast healthier by adding fruit to oatmeal or smoothies or adding veggies to my eggs.

Objective #2: Reduce added sugar.


Both breaking your desired habit changes into tiny, doable steps and writing them down can help to make slow, steady progress, as long as you don’t write them and forget them. Review objectives and targets at the start of every week, to remind yourself of the targets you are currently working on and the bigger picture you are working toward. It also helps to track your progress, perhaps with a simple checklist for each week or, in the example above, writing down how many servings of fruits and vegetables you eat each day.

3. Get Smart and Learn More.

Expanding your knowledge can help you to change your habits. Maybe you want to meditate every day as part of your ME/CFS recovery. A good first step is simply to learn about different kinds of meditation by reading some articles or watching some online videos. This first learning step can help to narrow down your options so you choose things to try that you think might work for you. Start with just 5 minutes a day, testing out different approaches that you learned about.

4. Link to Existing Habits.

I have found this strategy particularly helpful, to link a new habit I want to adopt to an existing habit that is already a solid part of my self-care routine. For instance, I wanted to do some yoga stretches each day because I always felt better after I did them. The solution was to insert my simple 10-minute yoga floor routine into an existing part of my day. I chose morning because it helps to loosen up stiff muscles, and I inserted the yoga stretches after I shower or get washed up and before I go downstairs for breakfast. It worked! Those yoga stretches are now an integral part of my morning routine. I’ve done the same thing to have more reading time. My husband and I turn off the TV at 9:30 every evening and get ready for bed. Then, we have an hour in bed to read before our lights-out time at 10:30. Now, it’s become a habit, and reading is a part of our evening routine.

5. Know Yourself.

Knowing yourself can help to set you up for success. In my yoga example, I added yoga to my morning routine because that’s when I feel best. Maybe for you, mornings are difficult but you function better in the afternoon, so you can try to establish a new habit then. Self-help guru Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project and Better Than Before, talks about lots of different ways to know yourself, like whether you are an abstainer or a moderator. Say you are trying to give up sugar. Will you be more successful with a moderation strategy of having one square of extra-dark chocolate a day? Or would you end up eating the whole bar and are better off just not bringing the chocolate into the house? She has many more examples of ways to know yourself that can help you to make habit changes that fit your needs and will stick.

6. Keep Trying.

You know the old adage: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!” It’s been around for so long for a reason – it works! The key to long-time success in changing habits is to not give up at the first sign of a challenge. Perhaps you want to get to sleep earlier, and you’ve set yourself a target to turn off the TV and get in bed by 10 pm. You do well the first week, and then you get caught up in a new Netflix show and end up binge-watching past midnight. Oops! Remember it’s only a minor setback. Re-read your targets the next morning and re-dedicate yourself to get back on track. Or maybe you decide your target isn’t quite right for you and needs some tweaking – that’s fine, too. It’s more important to keep trying than to have a quick success.

Establishing new habits when you’re sick or going through ME/CFS treatment that will stick isn’t easy, especially for those living with exhaustion, pain, and limitations, but it is doable, with the right strategies and tools. Focus on small steps you can take today that will help to change your habits for good and bring you closer to meeting your goals. Baby steps!

This article was first published on ProHealth.com on February 15, 2015 and was updated on September 03, 2020.

Suzan Jackson is a freelance writer who has had ME/CFS for 13 years. Both of her sons also got ME/CFS, but one is now fully recovered after 10 years of illness and the other is in college. She writes two blogs: Learning to Live with ME/CFS (with an emphasis on LIVE!) and Book By Book. 

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By ProHealth-Editor

Karen Lee Richards is ProHealth’s Editor-in-Chief. A fibromyalgia patient herself, she co-founded the nonprofit organization now known as the National Fibromyalgia Association (NFA) and served as its vice-president for eight years. She was also the executive editor of Fibromyalgia AWARE, the very first full-color, glossy magazine devoted to FM and other invisible illnesses. After leaving the NFA, Karen served as the Guide to Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for the New York Times website About.com, and then for eight years as the Chronic Pain Health Guide for The HealthCentral Network.To learn more about Karen, see “Meet Karen Lee Richards.”

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