On Habits

What does your typical morning look like?

If you’re anything like me two months ago, it went like this: the alarm goes off. You snooze it. And snooze it again. And again. Finally, the dogs click-clack cheerfully into the room, demanding to be let out.

You extract yourself from the sweaty, sweet nest of your husband and baby (who woke at 5:30 to nurse), and stumble outside in an oversized t-shirt and your underpants to peer blearily at the world while the dogs pee.

Then you come back inside, get dressed as quickly as possible (at this point you’re a half hour behind schedule), toss your t-shirt on the ground, gobble down some breakfast (and leave your bowl on the counter), make a half-hearted attempt at brushing your teeth, and then dash off to work.

At work, you sit at a desk all day, and only rise to refill your water bottle or to take your lunchtime walk. You slouch. And by the time you get home, you’re so exhausted that you only have time for a slap-dash dinner. You play your daily meditation track as you’re drifting off to sleep.

Even though this might seem like the basic routine of a tired new parent, the small actions that make up that routine are habits.

We all have them–good habits, bad habits, neutral habits. Sometimes we’re aware of them (for example, I have a habit of picking my nose in the car. I’m unapologetic about this. It’s one of the most precious times of my day), but sometimes we aren’t.

Habits are the building blocks on which our daily routines are formed, and–when repeated daily, for years–they decide factors like our future health, happiness, and stability.

Jogging at sunrise with the dog = an excellent habit.

I’ve always considered myself to be someone who has trouble forming habits. I admire the people in my life who do the same thing every single day–like the former pilot I got to know during high school, who maintained the same daily routine like clockwork.

So when a book on habits popped up in an Audible ad, I was instantly intrigued. The book, Atomic Habits by James Clear, claimed that it held the secret to easily forming healthy new habits, and breaking bad ones.

I’d never read a self-help book before, but I’ve long been known to spout off information to all my loved ones about the latest NY Times article on wellness. And this book promised to illuminate a topic that I’d long been curious about. I bought it.

And, as cheesy as I felt while listening to it, I loved it. It gave me a whole new perspective on how habits are formed and maintained, provided tools to clean up some of my bad habits, and gave me the motivation to tackle the daunting task of forming good habits.

First I started by simply observing my habits as I moved through the day. This step is crucial–as I discovered, often you have bad habits that you’re completely unaware of (like putting a dish in the sink instead of taking the extra two steps to put it in the dishwasher, or leaving your pants on the floor instead of shoving them back in your drawer).

A tidy house usually saves you time in the end.

These kinds of sloppy habits create a lot more work for you in the long run–it takes just as much work to throw your pants on the floor, as it does to shove them in a drawer, it just means that later you’ll have to come up and expend even more energy to clean them up. Same with the dishwasher.

I spent about three days observing, and to help keep myself aware, I spoke each habit aloud as I did it. For example, I’d say “Looking at Instagram,” as I looked at Instagram. Or “putting my dish in the sink” as I put it in the sink.

Once I felt thoroughly aware of (and appalled by) my thoughtless actions, I turned my thoughts to the future: who did I want to be in ten years? And if I continued on this current track, what would my life look like?

After a lot of thought and several drafts, I decided that I wanted to have strong relationships with my family (which meant cutting down on screen time, increasing quality time, and increasing mindfulness and self-awareness so that I have the mental capacity to be patient and tuned-in), be fit and healthy (we already eat pretty well and exercise fairly regularly, but I wanted to make exercise more steady and well-rounded. I also wanted to step up my dental care game, because plaque has recently been correlated with dementia), and have a tidy, cozy home.

Once I’d identified which habits were helping me toward that future and which weren’t, I sat down and wrote out a habit sequence. The trick is to stack each desired habit on top of the next, so that one leads to another, and reduce any extra effort required to make each good habit happen.

My habit sequence looked like this: L wakes up. Nurse him in bed. Get out of bed when my alarm goes off, put on jogging clothes, which have been laid out ahead of time, while Jordan watches the baby. Take the dogs out to go pee. Then put one dog inside, and head out for a jog with the other. Come back in, hang up the leash, and immediately brush my teeth and floss. After I’ve brushed my teeth, get dressed, put my clothes in the drawer. If Jordan hasn’t already, make the bed. Then, sit down to meditate.

Usually at this point Jenna has come inside and made breakfast. So I eat breakfast, and Jordan and I drive in to work. Instead of diving right into email at work, I take 10 minutes to journal (and if I didn’t have a chance to meditate at home, or L distracted me through it, meditate).

Afterwards, I make a to-do list for the day, pick an item off it, and jump into work. Three times a day, when I close my door to pump, I do a series of stretches and exercises.

Guitar could be a good addition to our evening routine.

That might sound like a lot of work, but it doesn’t feel like it. Because I have a clear time and location for doing each thing, and have tried to take the “friction” out of performing the habit, it becomes as thoughtless as tossing my clothes on the floor.

Today’s the 48th day that I’ve followed this habit sequence, and not only is it starting to feel automatic, I’m also seeing payoffs. My body feels strong and toned from the exercises I do during work and in the morning. My mind is relatively clear. Our house is perpetually clean–people have even complimented us on how tidy we keep things, a first for us! My journal is full.

And I greatly enjoy my morning routine–we still may have the occasional rushed day, but for the most part it’s smooth and full of things that make me feel good.

It’s definitely required tweaks here and there as I’ve gone–I had to cut out my morning cup of green tea, because I just never got around to actually drinking it most mornings. But mostly, it’s solid and doable and enjoyable.

Now Jordan and I are working on refining our evenings–figuring out a flow that leaves us feeling good. A few things I think it might include: a walk with the dogs, putting our phones away in a drawer to cut down on screen time, dinners with friends and loved ones and swapping Netflix for board games. While these are all things we do on a regular basis anyway, by intentionally building them into our lives we ensure that they’ll continue into the future, and our lives will incrementally improve.

What would your perfect habit sequence be? Any tips for things I should incorporate in mine?

2 thoughts on “On Habits

  1. Thanks for the post, my routine is comfortable, but like the ‘deliberate’ approach you describe. And you’re right about being tidy, best to get things done once and once only ‘ just do it.’

    1. How did you form your routine? It was very hard for me to find one that fit in all I needed to do, but still brought me joy. 100% agreed on the tidiness–it has transformed our house. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s