False Expectations: Why Gimmicky Checklists and Challenges Don’t Work with Wellness

adult, diary, journal

As a society, we love shortcuts—we’re always looking for faster ways to do things. And often, there’s a way to cut corners that allows us to be more efficient without sacrificing quality or depth. But there are some pursuits where shortcuts are antithetical to the goal of the pursuit itself.

Wellness is one of them. Alina Liao started a journaling company called Zenit Journals  to help with her own healing journey with trauma, depression, and anxiety. Her therapist had recommended that she journal, but she had always struggled with the blank pages. One day, she wrote down a few prompts specific to what she was working on; having those prompts made a huge difference.

With Zenit Journals, she both designs the journals, including the prompts, and leads workshops to help people get into a regular routine with journaling. For her, every day is an emotional roller-coaster ride, with good moments and bad. Alina says the kind of hacks and challenges and checklists that we love so much in the rest of our lives don’t work when it comes to mental health.

For her, there is no “30-day path to wellness” where if you just do three things every day, you’ll be “well” at the end of the month. Below, she talks about how we need a different approach to managing wellness.

“30-day wellness challenge”

“Achieve balance with these ten steps!”

“Daily self-care checklist”

I often see headlines like this in today’s wellness industry. We love our checklists, productivity hacks, and quick wins. But as a wellness practitioner and entrepreneur who has struggled with trauma, depression, and the belief that “wellness isn’t for me,” I find these promises of “achieving wellness” problematic.

The idea that we can “achieve” wellness as a fixed state is misleading. Products, services, ads, and social media posts promoting this narrative often have an image of someone looking perfectly poised and serene. On my good days, I shake my head at those images and move on. When I’m depressed, these images trigger my feelings of being a failure.

We don’t achieve wellness like getting a diploma. Wellness is an ongoing practice. Our state of well-being is affected by what’s going on inside of us and around us moment to moment. So, “being well” has to do with the way we account for our well-being in our regular, everyday choices moment to moment. I wake up and feel anxious about getting through my ever-growing to-do list.

Do I dive right into emails? Or do I breathe, remind myself that I will be OK if I take a moment to myself, and journal for five minutes? A few hours later, I’m feeling OK, but then I hear something in the news that triggers grief. Do I push that aside and carry on, or step away to process my feelings? At night, I’m feeling anxious about the next day. Do I stay up another hour watching TV to “put off” the next day? Or do I go to bed with a good book? Every day is a new day, with its own opportunities and challenges for wellness.

Because wellness is about applying practices to our daily circumstances, hacks and checklists can be counterproductive. They focus our attention on the actions they prescribe. Now, there’s nothing wrong with commonly suggested actions. Meditating, going for walks, stretching, journaling, drinking water—all of these are positive things we can do for our wellness. But wellness starts from within. Even what it means to “be well” depends on the person.

We must first look inward, listen to our bodies, feel our energy, and understand what we need in the moment. Feeling tired? Perhaps lie down. Feeling drained from work? Perhaps take a walk. Feeling disconnected? Perhaps call a friend. Feeling energized? Perhaps create something fun. Practicing wellness requires being aware of what you are feeling physically, mentally, and emotionally in the moment, translating those feelings into your needs, and problem-solving a response that addresses that need.

This constant self-awareness must be developed internally and can only be developed by practice. Turning to checklists that merely tell you what to do detracts our focus away from this internal development.

Finally, there is danger in promising results with wellness checklists and hacks. Wellness is a personal journey, and there are so many factors that affect someone’s wellness. When I was deep in my depression, it was easy to jump to the conclusion, “Well, then, there’s something wrong with me” when something didn’t work out as promised. That can reinforce the belief that “wellness isn’t for me.”

Progress is not linear. Our path to wellness is not linear, either. Wellness is hard work. Especially for those of us with trauma and who have been conditioned to believe that our wellness doesn’t matter, it is a long, arduous journey to go from knowing, “I need to take care of my wellness” to believing “I am worthy of taking care of my wellness” and then to actually taking care of our wellness.

Then, some days, we get thrown back and we have to do that work all over again. That’s why taking care of our wellness in our regular, daily lives is so much more than getting through a checklist or 30-day challenge. Promising results might make for a quick sell, but it can also discourage people from doing the real work when results are not seen right away.

So what is another way? I invite us to let go of the search to “achieve” wellness and instead commit to the journey, the process, the work. Although it’s a harder, bumpier road, accepting the bumps up front can reduce the hard times later on.

For providers of wellness products and services, I suggest we be mindful of the language we use and the way we frame our offerings. We offer inspiration, guidance, and options—not guarantees or even solutions. With my company, Zenit Journals, I make customized journals where the individual can choose the wellness prompts that go in their journal. I truly believe that everyone can benefit from using our journals, but I have made the choice to avoid language that comes across as guarantees of success.

This approach might defy recommended sales tactics, but my commitment to making wellness accessible actually means not oversimplifying what’s involved in being well. My approach instead is to provide spaces for people to know themselves more intimately, gain a deeper understanding of what impacts their wellness and what they need for their wellness, and chart their own path for wellness. We owe it to the people we aim to serve to honor the real work required to live well.

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