There is a momentum to bad habits that is all too easy to build. I have what some call an addictive personality – if something gives me a rush, any kind of rush, I have trouble regulating it. This can be triggered by something as seemingly innocuous as browsing reddit to see if there’s anything entertaining on the front page. If the loop builds up a little momentum it gets easier and easier to open it again and before I know it I’ll be checking back on the page every few minutes even though it’s no longer satisfying and I’m doing nothing more than chasing the dragon.
For some time now I’ve been consciously working to improve my life. I have been continually raising the bar for the bad habits that I allow myself and I am always striving to improve. One bad habit of the past was not keeping a regular bedtime. It wasn’t even to do anything interesting, just killing time and not wanting submit to the end of the day. I still wrestle with this one but in years past it was much worse. I would stay up until four or five in the morning and sleep until the early afternoon when I could. Shift work and weekends made this easy enough, but I’ll tell you that when you’re waking up after lunch your day is already off to a less than productive pace.
Another very bad habit of mine is wasting time. Living with this habit for enough years has allowed me to realize that it’s simply a way for me to avoid responsibility and the cycle goes something like this: I have a number of items that I would like to get done in the day but instead of starting out with them at the first opportunity I’ll sit down and look something up on the internet. That topples the first domino of giving in to impulse which makes it much easier to topple the second. I’ll think of something novel or nostalgic that I want to see next and I’ll look it up before I’m even done with the first.
Before I know it I have twelve tabs open in a browser and I’m jumping around as I’m remembering to finish the videos and articles that I’ve already started. And I tell myself the lie that I’ll just finish these and then get right to the chores that I actually want to get to. But once the impulse train has picked up speed it’s very difficult to jump off of it.
I can burn hours of an evening away doing this only to look at the clock fifteen minutes before I had planned to go to bed and I’ll have two real choices: I can give up on the evening and go to bed at a reasonable time, guilty about the responsibilities that I’ve left undone, or I can stay up and get going on those chores only to sacrifice my energy and clarity the next day when I am inevitably under-slept. Obviously neither of these is completely constructive.
It was years ago that I first heard the term “self sabotage” and I immediately connected with its meaning: behaviour that creates problems and interferes with long-standing goals. I’d built a lot of skill placating myself with fleeting pleasures at the cost of not actually accomplishing anything, and I’ve had such a long history with this behaviour that it exploits a weakness of human psychology: we will most easily return to that which is familiar over anything else, even if it’s counterproductive or even damaging. (I wrote previously about the familiarity trap here.)
So it goes that even though I know I’m taking part in an activity that is not only unproductive but actually working against my own personal goals I will all too easily stick with it once I start because the devil we know is much more comfortable than the perceived chaos of the devil we don’t.
Once I started to improve my standards for getting things done there was a while that I felt I’d set a good pace with productivity – even though I would sometimes waste time than I would like I was still getting the dishes done, taking out the garbage, cleaning the cat litter… all of the standard chores were getting done on the regular. This was a significant upgrade from how my life was prior but after a while I realized that I was using it as an excuse to put off the more ambitious goals I had set. I was giving myself the free pass on the merit of “look how much you’ve done today!” That self praise made it easy to ignore how much I wasn’t getting done.
Then again, going the other way and looking at what you haven’t accomplished is a trap in itself. Part of the reason I spent years in a time-wasting freezup was because all I could see was the things I hadn’t done. This would intimidate and overwhelm me and I would soothe myself by avoiding it with the aforementioned procrastination.
So I’d learned that looking at everything I didn’t have was much too heavy and was the opposite of motivation. Then I upgraded my routines and learned that looking at only what I’m accomplishing made it easy for me to still put off my list of bigger goals.
So where’s the balance here?
It is in exactly that: balance. It is important to know first what you want to get done in a day, (and being realistic about it,) and then go through that list one by one. At the end of the day you’ll know what you accomplished, what didn’t fit in, and how you can better approach it tomorrow. With such a long history of poor time management even this planning process took quite a bit of activation energy. Now that I’ve experimented with a number of approaches I’m finding that lists help me far more than I would have previously guessed.
First of all, they’ll help me prioritize. With a physical list in front of me it’s easy to juggle and optimize what needs to be done and how long it will take. Second of all, they help me to be action oriented. When I get home for the day I don’t have to sit down and figure out what I need to get done around me and in what order – it’s already written out. So the only decision I need to make is to do it or not. And I find that the more undesirable the chore, the better I feel when it’s out of the way.
An example from my own routine: I do not like working out. I do it, but I don’t care for it. I spent years thinking I should keep a regular exercise schedule and I’d stick to workouts here and there for a week or two at a time. But I had trouble finding motivation, and my energy level would be a little different each day after getting home from work, and I was used to procrastinating so it was very easy to avoid this activity. I told myself so many times that once I did it regularly I would start to enjoy it, then it would get easier.
Well, after years of that approach operating about as well as a submarine screen door, I tried something new. I started getting up really early in the morning and working out within five minutes of getting out of bed. I still did not like it. But I was up while it was still dark, and the whole city was pretty quiet, and I wasn’t pressed for time whatsoever. So with no excuses in the way it was much easier just to get started.
Also, I had a predefined routine to follow. I knew how many of what exercise I was going to do, so I knew when I would get it over and done with. This would push me to get it done a little faster, which meant working a bit harder, which meant more results. It turns out not caring for it was a good tool for getting a better workout in. And each day I was getting it done a little more quickly which gave me more time to eat breakfast, or even fit another exercise into the routine.
I always start with pull-ups. I hate them. They’re really hard and every time I step up to the bar I feel doubt and fear. Some deep-rooted voice inside of me insists that I’ll fail to get the right number in, and that I really don’t want to anyway so just don’t do it. So I do it in spite of that voice. And practicing turning that voice around actually gives me more energy. Partly because I quiet it down, and partly because it’s a mental victory.
Then once I’m finished the workout I’m definitely awake. Plus it’s still early and now I feel strong and stable. On top of that my mood is incredible, usually for the whole day, and I’ve started the day with jumping right into action and accomplishing my most hated for chore. It still sucks so it didn’t end up turning to sunshine and rainbows but slaying that dragon feels pretty damned good.
And sometimes I don’t make that mark to get up early. I’ll be up later finishing this blog, for example, so I’ll set my alarm later to be sure I’m getting enough rest. And sometimes I’ll feel guilty about this but I have to remember to be kind to myself. First of all, I’m not staying up just for the sake of staying up, and second of all is that I can’t hit every mark perfect. Just a little better each time, I hope. I’ve chosen to look at everything as success: either you win or you learn, then you’ll never have to worry long about screwing things up.
What about your habits? Do you notice the draw and momentum of poor choices? Are there routines that you watch yourself repeat that you can’t seem to break?
Well folks, until next time, keep fit and have fun.