Habits +

Old Habits - New Habits signpost in a desert road background

This month’s blog was inspired by my recent reconnection with the holy season of Lent.  WAIT! Don’t run away yet!

While I promise to keep my Catholic roots to a limit, there is a connection here so if you’re brave enough, stick around.

For many of you – Christians obviously, and others who leverage Fat Tuesday as an opportunity to (Blank) Gone Wild, February 26 was Ash Wednesday.  The beginning of Lent. Now, to be fair, I haven’t observed this day or Lent in around 20 years, a point I will take up with my mom in private. Inspired to return to certain habits and embrace them, I spontaneously went to mass and among other things, received the blessed ashes.

For those who know Lent, one makes a sacrifice — basically gives something up for the 40 days until Easter Sunday.  We usually give up something “bad” or maybe décadent, or something that’s really a favorite thing, which might be bad, decadent and well, a favorite.  (For instance: I gave up French Fries…ouch!) 

And then I thought of habits!

This is a well-worn and frequently written topic for sure.  There are many, many great studies and books that tell us how to change habits, break habits, and generally notdo stuff.  Leveraging big calendar events — like the New Year, religious holy days, a birthday, anniversary, pregnancy and other big events — is typically the motivation behind making changes.  Now here’s the punchline: it’s not about making changes, it’s about creating change(s)! I can hear those remaining readers from way over here: “What’s the difference?”  

First, a quick lesson in habits: Charles Duhigg, considered by many to be the preeminent modern founder of the habit discussion, taught us that habits break down into an easy three-stage process: cue, response, reward.  So when we are cued, it’s what happens next that determines if we move to a newly created habit and reap its subsequent reward or if we respond in the old way and award ourselves that cue’s reward.

James Clear, author of the ever popular book Atomic Habits, states that even when we break a habit, it may never actually go away! If we have formed that “groove,” it’s always able to be remembered.  New habits can be formed, we just create a different “groove” of behavior. This is why it’s easy to slip back into old habits. If we broke them or got rid of them, then how, pray tell, could we actually engage them again?  Right, see how this works? Clear goes on to say the best way to never revisit an old habit is to make it invisible. To remove the cue or change our environment to avoid seeing or experiencing the cue again makes it possible to stay on track with your new “groove.”

Look, creating new habits is hard work.  It takes practice. And, we have to be motivated to create anything new.  If we look first to insights we have about something, are we then motivated to create change?  Do we have the capability to create that change? Will we practice this new behavior? And ultimately will we — perhaps with the help of a partner —  hold ourselves accountable to do it all, to move in a new, more vibrant and healthier direction?

Don’t be too hard on yourself when it doesn’t happen right away.  Malcolm Gladwell states that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something, citing examples such as The Beatles and Bill Gates.  Well, I’m not trying to become a music legend or a billionaire, I’m just trying to not eat a dozen donuts. So here’s where we are…

  1. Identify (and you already know it) the behavior you would like to create.
  2. Envision what creating this change will do for you.
  3. How motivated are you to create it? Be intentional!
  4. What do you need in the way of knowledge and instruction to give you the confidence that it can be done?
  5. Find an accountability partner or coach to be your witness on this journey of creativity and change.

I challenge my clients to move through these five things for two weeks.  There are many other habit experts out there who have variations to the interval.  I’m from the “Don’t eat the hippo all at once” club on this. And when you revert to an old habit, know that it’s all good; just as they say in meditation: Begin again!  

Now if you made it this far and your impatience habit didn’t move you to another site, you can see that it wasn’t all about how holy you are and what sacrifices you have committed for the good of society.  However, if you are a Catholic school graduate, you know that the nuns wouldn’t let you off the hook as I might be doing here. And well, that’s a different habit to avoid.

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