I like to live by my whims. I enjoy surprises and “playing it by ear.” Unlike
my husband some people who thrive on routines and predictability, I prefer to just wing it. All the time.
I have discovered, though, the power of intentionally forming habits around specific goals. I only set one goal for myself at a time. Once I have determined an area I want to grow in – exercise, eating, my spiritual life, writing, you name it – I construct a weekly habit around it. I think hard about how I can position a new activity in my weekly routine in such a way that it will succeed for the long term. My strongest routines are weekly ones. You may prefer daily or monthly routines.
Let’s look at exercise. Unlike many people I know, I do not enjoy exercising. Do not try to sign me up for a triathlon or a half marathon. That ain’t my zone. I do not find all the panting, sweating, and mental challenge fun. Like everyone else, I like the feeling after exercising, though, and I want to be a fit, healthy person. So, I decided I needed to build exercise into my schedule in such a way that ensured I would do it regularly. This meant signing up for several classes at our YMCA. Scheduled classes carry the power to make me follow through for several reasons: 1) they meet only at specific times and thus must be put firmly in my calendar 2) each class is led by a teacher and so I am not in control which means I cannot quit early and 3) I have to pay for these classes and so I cringe to miss one. I also keep a gym bag ready to go at all times and I bought a parking pass. Nothing has to be built from scratch when it’s time to exercise. If I have a class, a teacher, a prepared bag and a parking spot, off I will go. The simple habit of it propels me forward.
Or take writing. When I decided last year that I wanted to start writing and see where it led, I knew that the only way I would get it done would be to assign a weekly day to it. So, I found a friend who was willing to meet me every week for a day at the coffee shop and we chose a day that would work for both of our calendars. Now, week in and week out, I spend Wednesday writing. I guard the time religiously and do not schedule other appointments on Wednesdays. Aspiring writers are usually given the advice to write every day. This is good advice for a lot of reasons, but I knew it was not what my writing required or what my calendar allowed. Because it is in my calendar every week and because the habit is strong, I write every Wednesday even when my friend cannot join me. Or when the weather is bad. Or when I’m not sure what I want to write about. Or when I’m not in the mood. I have made it a habit, and so no discipline or extra thought is required for me to sit down once a week with my computer and get to it.
I also rely on habits to sustain my spiritual life. Every morning, my alarm goes off, I shuffle to the kitchen to get the cup of tea that Rick has kindly prepared for me, I retreat to a comfortable armchair in the corner of our bedroom and I spend 30-40 minutes praying and waking up. It is not my most alert, intense time of prayer, but I have found that allowing myself to wake up with God as my companion is a ritual I cherish. Recently, I decided I was spending too much time worrying every day and I needed to spend more time praying instead. So, I set my alarm clock for thirty minutes earlier, and have started prayer journaling my way through the various things I am worrying about. It was easy to slightly step up an already established habit. Nothing new had to be created.
Similarly, my dad built the foundations of my spiritual life and that of my children simply by making going to church a weekly habit. Every Sunday for decades and decades he has gone to church, even on vacation, even when he was stationed in Thailand with the army during the Vietnam War. It didn’t occur to me to not go to church my first Sunday away at college. Or any of my first Sundays in new towns. Such is the power of our habits.
I only have so much energy for forcing myself to do things I don’t feel like doing and there are many activities I may not be in the mood for but that must be done – cleaning the bathroom, returning phone calls, opening all the mail, grocery shopping, etc. I cannot make all the difficult tasks subject to my whims or only a small fraction of them will get done. If I want to make progress in something, I need to make some kind of specific habit around it so that forcing myself is not required. Designing the precise habit and trying it the first time is the hard part. From there forward, if it’s in the calendar, the force of the habit itself propels me forward.
If I have to do a lot of thinking to make it happen, it also won’t get done. There are too many exit ramps. That’s the the other advantage of a habit: it requires no thought. No decisions must be made, no plans developed. You just do what you’ve always done. There is great power in this. Use this power to build some good and healthy routines into your life. Maybe it’s a weekly walking date with a neighbor. Perhaps it’s eating a handful of almonds every morning or a salad with every dinner. It could be praying with your family every morning at breakfast. Good habits go a long way toward building good lives.
© Laura Goetsch and Thinking About Such Things, 2015.