The Writing Life: Habits

“With habits, we don’t make decisions, we don’t use self-control, we just do the thing we want ourselves to do.” Gretchen Rubin

Image courtesy of Eileen Rackus

Life is filled with many challenges and responsibilities that sometimes place a heavy demand on our time and energy. Such things often conflict with our desires and needs. Achieving goals is not something we should leave to chance. There is contradictory evidence about will power: it’s finite, it ebbs and flows like our emotions, it is like a muscle and becomes fatigued from overuse. Whatever the case, if we foster healthy habits to create and maintain balance and know ourselves better, we will be more successful in our efforts. In order to preserve will power, we can build behaviors that enable us to accomplish more every day. Habit building requires time, focus, and energy so before undertaking this worthwhile endeavor, we should make a plan to set ourselves up for success.

The first step is to look at your various ambitions and choose one. It will be challenging enough to create one new, lasting habit. Trying to do too much can cause your preliminary progress to crumple like a house of cards. You might be wondering how you can choose just one. This exercise can help.

  • List all your goals and think about each one. Ask yourself the following questions.
    • How long have I wanted to do this?
    • How important is this?
    • Why is this important to me?
    • How difficult or easy will it be to accomplish this?
    • Will it take a longer or shorter amount of time?
    • What feelings come up when I think about this?
    • How would this fit into my life right?
  • As you ponder the level of effort against the importance and your current feelings about it, does 1 or more goals from your list rise above the rest? If it’s just one, great! That’s the one to work on now. If not, take a walk, meditate, or perform some other physical task and let one part of your mind consider what’s next while another part focuses on your exertions.

Once you have decided, it’s time to deconstruct the goal. Most ambitions involve many smaller goals. And those smaller goals are made up of many new practices. One of the keys to success when it comes to creating good habits is to break them down to the smallest steps possible. For instance, I wanted to have more energy so I could get more done. I had lots of plans such as painting my home office, decluttering, organizing the closets, but felt so tired after working that sometimes I didn’t even cook dinner. I just wanted to chill and watch Netflix.  When I thought about what would be involved in having more energy, I came up with the following list:

  • sleep better
  • eat better
  • exercise regularly
  • relax more
  • work less

When I looked at the list, I wasn’t sure if work less was very realistic. I didn’t even know how to relax in a way that would rejuvenate me. I realized that some of these would require a lot of thought, research, and trial and error. It felt a bit overwhelming, so I decided to start with just one item on the list. I decided to start with exercise. I knew from previous experience that I would start to feel good after just a few days of consistent exercise. My goal was to get on the elliptical for 30 minutes at least 5 days a week. It was a great plan, but it was still too big.

Days turned into weeks without getting on the elliptical once. I always found an excuse. I’m too tired. I’m too busy. Somedays I didn’t even think about exercising. I changed the goal to 20 minutes at least 5 days a week. When I did not use the elliptical a single time in a few more weeks, I decided on 15 minutes. I kept planning and decreasing the time until, one day, I got on for six minutes. That worked out well, so I did it again a few days later. Then, a third time in the same week! Over time, I worked my way up to getting on the elliptical 2 times a day for 10 minutes each, 5 or more days per week because I liked how I felt afterwards and those breaks throughout my day became very welcome.

This is not how I envisioned exercising would look, but it worked. I wasn’t too tired. I had more energy! I wasn’t too busy to fit in 10 minutes. In fact, I looked forward to the break from work. Often, we just have to keep breaking our goals down until they feel possible. Many experts agree that breaking down habits into the smallest steps possible will decrease resistance to the new behavior.

Once we have a plan that feels doable, we have to be consistent to make it a reliable practice. There is some disagreement on how long it takes to form habits and, in my experience, some things take longer than others. Occasionally, I’ll make a decision and never look back. Typically, though, the formation of new behaviors requires weeks or months. But it doesn’t have to be tedious. I like to learn so when I’m trying to build a new habit, I read a lot about it. I want to understand the theory behind an activity or aim and I wonder what has worked and not worked for others. I know myself and I try to engage my strengths to bolster my efforts.

My “success” in developing a habit of exercise spawned the development of additional lifestyle changes. I started stretching, sporadically at first, then daily, and then twice daily in 10-minute intervals. That seemed to be the magic number for physical activity. I didn’t feel guilty about slipping away from work for 10 minutes to do something that helped me focus better. While streaming shows in the evening, I searched for quick and healthy recipes and saved them to Pinterest. Because I like to organize things, I organized the pins into categories. Then, I developed shopping lists and planned when and what to cook. I discovered the less crowded times to grocery shop were Saturdays at 9am and Tuesdays at 2pm. I also carved out time two days a week to cook large amounts of food so there would be leftovers. Sometimes, I cooked and froze food in individual serving containers. Eating better and exercising contributed to better sleep. And I developed quite a few new habits and experienced increased energy to do more things. My closets still need organizing and my home is still cluttered but I am loving learning to play the guitar!

Developing good habits that fulfill your needs and desires is a worthwhile endeavor. Not only will you achieve your goal, but you can change your life. Next time you feel an urge to do something for yourself, give in! And don’t forget to make it fun and interesting. Enlist a friend to learn and grow with you. Engage your strengths and your senses for a fuller, richer, more invested experience. Build practices that give you a better life today. Engage with the process of habit building in a fully committed, fully participatory way. Focus on what you are doing now, in the present moment, rather than where you hope to get to tomorrow. Enjoy the journey.

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