Cultivating Mentally Healthy Habits in LXD

Illustration depicting a watering can over the mind of a girl with flowing black hair and hearts, rainbows, and flowers blossoming in her mind
This post describes ways that learning experience designers can promote mentally healthy habits in courses and conferences.

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Do you try to incorporate mentally healthy habits into your life? What about into the learning experiences you design?

My team and I have been hard at work lately on a big project revising three large instructor-led training courses for a federal agency. It’s a total of 22 days of instruction that involve the learners staying on the campus at a training center for a week or more at a time. After spending a long day in the classroom, participants also have homework outside of class—some of which involves working on group projects. Before you ask, most of the structure is imposed by the agency and isn’t in our power to change.

Knowing that long days of in-person learning can be mentally and physically draining, I’ve been thinking about how to make the experience more enjoyable for learners and more effective overall.

One of the sessions at last week’s fabulous Anchored in Learning summit hosted by Anchored Training helped me connect some dots. What’s missing in the courses my team is revising—and in many learning experiences, including conferences—is a focus on participants’ mental well-being.

The Healthy Mind Platter

In Erin Huffman-Richard’s session, “How to Maximize Performance Daily,” she explained the Healthy Mind Platter, created by Dr. David Rock and Dr. Daniel Siegel. It’s a concept modeled after the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate concept that illustrates the five food groups to promote healthy eating habits. But rather than focusing on feeding the body, the Healthy Mind Platter focuses on mentally healthy habits that feed the mind.

According to Dr. Rock and Dr. Siegel, building daily habits related to the following seven mental activities will “optimize brain matter and create well-being:”

  • Focus Time: focusing on goal-oriented tasks
  • Playtime: being spontaneous or creative
  • Downtime: letting the mind wander
  • Time In: reflecting internally
  • Connecting Time: connecting with people and the natural world
  • Physical Time: moving the body which strengthens the brain
  • Sleep Time: getting enough rest

Where L&D Misses the Mark

As I reflected on Erin’s presentation about developing mentally healthy habits, I realized that too often in learning experience design, instead of promoting healthy habits, organizations encourage bad ones.

They arrange “lunch and learn” trainings that maximize the workday but eliminate downtime. They schedule week-long in-person training courses, including “team-building” events, in which every moment is scheduled. Or they require mandatory eLearning courses with no opportunities to reflect on what was learned. 

Does any of this sound familiar? Let’s think about how we can do things differently. . . .

Incorporating Healthy Habits into Learning Experience Design

Let’s look at each item on the Healthy Mind Platter and think about ways we can incorporate mentally healthy habits into the learning experiences we design. These are what come to mind for me. I’d love to know your thoughts too.

Focus Time

The mistake many learning experience designers (including me) make is expecting the entire course to be focused on accomplishing on goal-oriented tasks. The reality is that the human brain can’t focus 100 percent of the time. Addressing the other habits from the Healthy Mind Platter can help learners focus when you need them to.


Think about the last course (or other learning experience) you designed. Did you build in opportunities for fun? Creativity? Spontaneity?

We need to bring the fun factor into our designs whenever we can. Obviously, some content is more suited for games and other creative techniques than others, but with some out-of-the-box thinking, just about any topic can be fun.

If you think your topic is too serious to be taught with a game, what about a simulation or scenario? One really great example of using simulations to teach about a serious topic is the LifeSaver® interactive video to teach CPR. It might not be exactly what you think of when you think of “playtime,” but it’s effective and feeds the fun-craving part of our brain.


Allowing the mind to wander is one of the best ways to spark creative and innovative thought. It’s why we often get our best ideas in the shower or when we’re drifting off to sleep. Learners need downtime too, so be sure to build in plenty of breaks into instructor-led learning experiences. If you don’t schedule downtime, learners will take it anyway—usually in the form of zoning out.

If you’re building eLearning, try to make sure the course will save the learner’s progress if they need to take a break. Building short lessons or modules can encourage learners to take breaks more often, and it helps with cognitive load.

Time In

Time in is all about turning one’s thoughts inward. Reflection is a critical component of learning. Reflecting helps our brains process new information, store it in long-term memory, and make sense of it in new ways. If you’re not currently building in reflection questions into your learning experiences, I encourage you to start doing so.

As an example, in the current project I mentioned at the beginning of this post, we’re creating a Learning Journal for participants with prompts at the beginning and end of each day for them to reflect on what they’re learning.

Connecting Time

Humans are social creatures. Connecting with others is extremely important to our mental wellbeing. Particularly for in-person events, learning experience designers should build in time for participants to get to know one another and socialize informally. However, keep in mind that everyone’s needs are different. Too much socializing can be as detrimental to the learning experience as too little. This is why designers need to be careful not to overdo things like team-building events.

If you’ve been paying attention to this blog, you know I’m a huge fan of online learning experiences. However, the same disabilities that make online learning necessary for me also cause me to live a very isolated life, so I appreciate when those online learning experiences allow me to interact with others. Virtual courses shouldn’t be a “sit and get” experience. Build in opportunities for the learners to interact with you and with each other using the chat panel and virtual breakout rooms.

Physical Time

Moving the body increases oxygen and blood flow, which improves mood and cognitive function. It also has been shown to release something called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in the hippocampus—an area of the brain associated with learning and memory. BDNF boosts the ability of neurons in the brain to communicate with each other. (Isn’t brain science cool?)

Finding ways to incorporate physical movement into learning experiences can help build healthy habits and improve participants’ ability to learn the material. Be mindful that people have different mobility levels, so for instructor-led events, instead of telling people to “stand and stretch,” offer frequent breaks to allow people to move their bodies as they need to.

Sleep Time

While many adults (including me) might love to go back to having “nap time” in the middle of the day, this isn’t something most of us can work into a learning experience design. However, if you’re designing in-person events, be mindful of participants’ need to rest at the end of a long day.

Some conferences and other learning events begin at 7 a.m. and schedule activities well into the evening. Many people, particularly those with disabilities, need more downtime and rest than that to be fully functional. It may be fine to schedule optional activities in the evening, but anything critical to the learning experience should be incorporated into the regular day. (And seriously, do you really need to start at 7 a.m.?)


Developing and maintaining mentally healthy habits has many benefits, including improved cognitive functioning. If we’re truly focused on building better learning experiences, we’ll also build in mentally healthy habits.

To recap, those seven daily habits on the Healthy Mind Platter are:

  • Focus Time: focusing on goal-oriented tasks
  • Playtime: being spontaneous or creative
  • Downtime: letting the mind wander
  • Time In: reflecting internally
  • Connecting Time: connecting with people and the natural world
  • Physical Time: moving the body which strengthens the brain
  • Sleep Time: getting enough rest


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