Do we drive our habits, or do they drive us?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what it is you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?
from “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver
Over the holidays I spent a lot of time purging and digging out from under piles of paper and abandoned blog posts. One treasure I came across was a battered copy of Mary Oliver’s “Summer Day,” and another was an old essay by Adolf Meyer that I’ve never been able to throw out.
Adolf Meyer was one of the founders of occupational therapy, my former profession, and he cared a great deal about the role of habits and our use of time. He wrote, “Human ideals have unfortunately and usually been steeped in dreams of timeless eternity, and they have never included and equally religious valuation of actual time and its meaning in wholesome rhythms.”
How we use our time equals who we become, or don’t become
For those of us who are lucky enough to have choices, how we use our time has a huge effect on our health and well-being. But often, we are driven more or less unconsciously by habit. (Confession: I have a habit about writing about habits).
Habits are energy savers. Tasks that we repeat everyday become so ingrained in our minds and bodies that we don’t need to think about them. Remember how difficult your first few driving lessons were in comparison to driving today? Habits can be physical, mental, emotional, and even philosophical or spiritual.
The problem with habits is that we cease to pay attention to them, and they can get in the way of our evolution, our health and our happiness. We get so caught up in our customary grooves that doing things differently becomes like climbing out of a trench. In yoga philosophy these grooves are called Samskaras—a Sanskrit word that later served as the root of the English word “scar.”
The way that we move, or don’t move, during the day becomes embedded in our tissues. Our mental habits can lead to adverse psychological states or relationship problems, and our broader, cultural and political “habits” routinely lead to wars, environmental devastation, and a very tiny number of people who are obscenely wealthy lording it over a huge number who barely have enough to survive.
The first steps in working with habits, is simply to become aware of them. This sounds a lot easier than it actually is. Often, your friends and family are very good at pointing them out to you. But meditation is probably the best tool going. Watching your mind take off repeatedly helps you to see its preferred routes and destinations. And at the macro level, parsing out the habits of groups, cultures and societies is the work of philosophers, writers, artists and academics. Not many of us take the time to appreciate this work, but it’s important nonetheless.
When we start looking at our habits, it’s similar to dealing with a messy house. There are habits that we want to purge, some that we dislike but can’t be bothered to change, and good habits we want to keep or develop.
At some point during the holidays (it’s a blur) I came across a blog called Zen Habits that I am now thoroughly in love with. Its founder, Leo Babauta, says that his content can be shared freely, so rather than paraphrase I’ve copied and pasted a post that I found very helpful below. I’ve been using his advice, and so far its been working for me. I hope you like it as much as I do, and you can sign up for his updates if you find it beneficial.
In the meantime, I hope you can find a little quiet here and there, to contemplate what you are doing with your time. After all, as we chant in the sangha I attend, “Time passes swiftly, and opportunities are lost.” Every day is precious,
Where the wild things are (at least when they’re doing yoga),
PS Mary Oliver passed away this week. If you’re not familiar with her work, go and find it. She was a jewel.
PPS I always appreciate hearing your ideas and thoughts. Please leave a comment about what you’re thinking or working on in the comment area below.
Leo Babauta’s Steps to Creating a Habit
- Pick a positive habit. I recommend you find new, positive habits to form, rather than starting with quitting a bad habit. If you want to quit eating junk food … focus instead on creating the habit of eating more vegetables. Good positive habits to start with: meditation, reading, writing, exercise, eating vegetables, journaling, flossing.
- One habit at a time. We all have a list of a dozen habits we’d like to change — and all right now! But in my experience, the more habits you do at once, the less likely your chances of success. Even one habit at a time takes focus and energy! Trust me on this: doing one habit at a time is the best strategy, by far, for any but the best habit masters.
- Small steps are successful. People underestimate the importance of this, but along with one habit at a time, it’s probably the most important thing you can do to ensure success. Start really small. Meditate for 2 minutes a day the first week (increase by 2-3 minutes a week only if you’re consistent the previous week). Start running for 5-10 minutes a day, not 30 minutes. Eat a small serving of vegetables for one meal, don’t try to change your entire diet at once. Start as small as you can, and increase only gradually as long as you stay consistent. Small steps allow your mind to adjust gradually, and is the best method by far.
- Set up reminders. The thing that trips people up in the beginning is remembering to do the habit. Don’t let yourself forget! Set up visual reminders around where you want to remember (ex: in the kitchen, for the veggies habit, or a note on your bathroom mirror for flossing), along with digital reminders on your phone and calendar.
- Set up accountability. How will you hold yourself to this habit change when you feel like quitting? Accountability. Join a community or small team to hold yourself accountable — I highly suggest you join my Sea Change Program for this accountability.
- Find reward in the doing. You won’t stick to any change for long if you really hate doing it. Instead, find some pleasure in the doing of the habit. For example, if you go running, don’t think of it as torture, but as a way to enjoy the outdoors, to feel your body moving, to feel alive. Bring mindfulness to each moment of doing the habit, and find gratitude and joy as you do it. The habit will become the reward, and you’ll look forward to this nice oasis of mindfulness.
- Try to be as consistent as possible. The more consistent you are, the better. Resist putting off the habit, and make it your policy to just get started when you have said you’ll do it, rather than indulging in the old pattern of, “I’ll do it later.” That’s an old habit that you want to retrain by doing it immediately.
- Review & adjust regularly. I like to review how I did with my habits at the end of each day, before I sleep. It helps me get better and better at habits. But at the minimum, review once a week (and do a check-in with your accountability team) and adjust as needed. For example, if you forgot to do the habit, adjust by creating new reminders. If you aren’t consistent, maybe set up a challenge with your team so that you pay them $10 each day you miss (for example). Adjusting each week means you’ll get better and better at doing this habit. If you fall down, keep coming back.