Despite being a dedicated writer, in the last months my family and other animals required my full attention. The habit of getting my articles in shape on a daily basis seemed unachievable. So how would I repair a broken relationship with a good habit?
We are indeed talking about a relationship. Whenever we need to get back to something that we value, that we know is good for us and that requires energy we do not seem to have, we are looking at a neglected relationship that we want to turn into a friendship again.
Writing for the hongkonqueror is an example, as it behaves a bit like our family dog: until lunch he rests from his morning walk. After that, he follows anyone who is home around and settles, ever so slightly sulking, on the floor in full sight whilst following everything we do with his eyes, head resting on the floor. To the innocent bystander it looks cute. As his pack leader, I know that underneath he is wondering: When are you taking me for a walk in the woods again? Hm? When? Do you have to sit there and stare at that square thing or can we go walkies nows? No pressure, just wondering… a dog can pull that guilt evoking presence off perfectly, but a half written blog post, a rolled up yoga mat or an inbox full of flagged emails can do the trick too. It is a phenomenon most humans walking on civilized earth experience at some point in their life: occasionally, what we value ends up on the back burner whilst we’re putting out the fires close to us. In coach-speak that would be looking after the urgent at the expense of the important. It happens. And it’s a big deal.
I found that three things work well in bringing a productive habit back to life. There are plenty more ways that behavioral psychology has identified, but I want to limit it to the essential ones. Before you get going, remember why that habit is important to you. If you need to do some self-study, I recommend Gretchen Rubin’s valuable insight into how habits work: Better Than Before is a book that deserves not just space on our shelves, but more so, to be read. I listened to the book several times on audio whilst walking the dog.
- Start small, but start. My yoga training & teaching days required a lot of discipline with regard to home practice and preparation. What always worked was to start and not to get hung up on how long I would practice. The most basic requirement was 90 minutes practice daily, but whenever I was pressed for time I broke it down and did standing poses in the morning and inversions at nighttime – a more realistic schedule for me. Woody Allen’s co-writer Marshall Brickman says, in reference to his friend’s famous quote Showing up is 80 percent of life, says:” Sometimes it’s easier to hide home in bed. I’ve done both.” So have I, and the showing up works better in 80% of the time. I remember a guy I met 30 years ago who mocked my running efforts with the words: unless you do it every day for at least an hour, don’t even start. He is sick, depressed and overweight now, because he put the bar too high when what mattered was to show up in the first place. It’s an easy mistake to make, especially with so much perceived perfection around us.
- Put those important habits into the diary and treat them like an appointment. Plan. Show up. It doesn’t matter whether we do the best workout, change the world, eat the perfect diet or write the most profound viral article on day one. Nike has made a success of JUST DO IT, because habits work exactly like that: once we made a decision, there’s only one way to go and that’s to go. Once you are past the reasoning, stop reflecting and do it. A habit forms over about an average of 60+ repetitions – that’s what it takes to rewire our brain to take a shortcut that makes it harder not to do something that doing it.
- Make change as easy as possible. Nudging is one of the most effective ways to overcome obstacles: Put the mat out, keep your running shoes handy, plan healthy meals way ahead and simplify, simplify, simplify.
Regular readers know I advocate reflection, and of course, that is an essential part of my daily practiced behaviors. However, when it comes to an abandoned healthy habit, it is important to stop reflecting after we made a decision and to make it as easy as possible to be consistent. Gretchen Rubin’s success in part is that she consistently publishes what she’s experiencing.
Habits are like good friends. We don’t think about whether we are friends, we are connected without a thought process and make that relationship a priority which will override the supposed urgent. Friends – just like good habits – claim our time and attention without us reasoning whether or not we want to invest into this relationship. They are here to stay, no questions asked.