A Hard Look at Habits

book and white flowerful black prescription glasses on small timber table
by Amaya Pryce

The patterns of our lives reveal us. Our habits measure us.
~ Mary Oliver

What you do one day, or a couple of days a month—whether for good or for bad—ultimately won’t have much impact on your life. What you do most days most certainly will. It’s like compound interest: A couple of cents or dollars a day seems meaningless in the first few years, but over the course of a lifetime it can make you rich. Or conversely, a small, insignificant poor choice, made regularly, can sabotage your life by barely perceptible degrees.

I’ve been taking a hard look at my own habits lately, after reading “Better Than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits”, by Gretchen Rubin. The book gives an exhaustive list of strategies that can help or hinder attempts to change behavior patterns, and some good reasons to pay attention to what you actually do on a daily basis (as opposed to what you wish you were doing).

Rather than attempting a total overhaul—since I’m more of a Moderator than an Abstainer, in her terms—I’ve been looking for ways to make my wanted habits easier (and therefore more regular), while making the less desirable habits, like visiting the very tempting bakery down the block, or having a glass or two of wine at dinner, into more occasional treats.

But before getting too far in the process, I found that I had to back up a bit and figure out what I actually value the most, because there just isn’t time to cultivate every good habit I’d like to take up. What I found was that in some areas I was already doing a pretty good job. For instance, I value reading, and make sure that I get a lot of time for it. I value connection with my friends and family, and I also have a good track record of maintaining those ties (although I did decide to increase the frequency of emailing my parents!).

In other areas of value to me, my habits needed some tweaking. I value spirituality, and as an important part of that I value meditation. However, I wasn’t as consistent with my regular sitting practice as I wanted to be, because I was always physically uncomfortable sitting on the floor. Once I found a meditation bench that allowed me to comfortably kneel, and then – bonus! – downloaded an app to track my sessions and connect with other meditators (it’s called Insight Timer), I suddenly found myself on an almost effortless roll.

I was actually surprised by how motivating I found the app to be. This is the strategy of “monitoring,” and I’ve decided to see if it will also jumpstart my generally non-existent exercise habit. Health is definitely a value of mine, but you wouldn’t know it if you saw how much I don’t exercise. I’ve ordered one of those fitness trackers that look like a bracelet, and signed up for a somewhat pricey gym where you work with a trainer. (If I have an actual appointment, I’ll probably keep it.) I’m also using the strategy of piggybacking one habit onto another by doing 15 minutes of yoga immediately following my meditation.

Finally, since I’m a writer and I value creativity, I’ve decided that I should actually write a little bit every day. Formerly I’ve been pretty streaky with my writing. I’m using a wall calendar to keep track of my writing days, and setting the bar pretty low (I count it even if I only write for fifteen minutes, but I’m finding that fifteen minutes often leads to much longer).

What are you doing, or not doing that you wish you were, on a daily basis? What little things can you do that will set you up for success? What’s really important enough to you to do most days? I put a little note on my mirror to remind me of how I want to spend my days, and therefore my life:

Everyday I: meditate, write, connect with loved ones, and move my body.

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