Last week someone emailed me a story from the NY Times, and when I read it, I happened to look at the list of "most popular emailed stories." Near the top was something titled Unboxed: Can You Become a Creature of New Habits? Which was a question I wanted to read about and have answered.
One of the reasons I continue to value my Mormon upbringing was the whole goal program I grew up with. There was this official church curriculum for teenagers, which presented them with six specific areas of well-rounded humanity--physical health, spiritual development, social interactions, personal ethics, I don't remember them all--and we were expected to set and complete two goals in each area every year while we were in junior high and high school. If young women completed the program satisfactorily, they got a really ugly necklace. I don't remember what young men got. Maybe a merit badge; their version of the program might have been tied up in scouting, which the church has sort of commandeered.
I used the goal program to great advantage, collecting a slew of virtuous habits such as thrift and punctuality. I made running three miles every school-day morning a habit--albeit one I hated--and the fact that I managed to do that for a full year helped me acquire that necklace I never wore once. I wasn't in it for the necklace, you see: I was in it for the habits and the accomplishments themselves.
And yes, I didn't just focus on habits; I also set goals for specific accomplishments: prepare a bassoon solo for regional Solo & Ensemble competition. Be valedictorian of my crappy high school, just like my big sister--which included all sorts of habits for how I dealt with school work: listen in class, take good notes, attend to assignments promptly, complete them thoroughly, keep them organized so I could find things when I needed them, etc.
I still have all those habits--or rather, their equivalents in the adult world--and I don't want to relinquish them; they've served me well. I can find stuff when I need it. I don't bounce checks or get parking tickets or library fines or any sort of late fees. If I'm given a specific project to complete, I pretty much get it done on time.
And yet, I can feel a laxness and laziness and tiredness in the way I approach my habits. Now that I'm in my 40s and have been keeping an elaborate to-do list since I started grad school (my to-do list as an undergrad wasn't so elaborate, but I certainly had one), it's not really a habit; it's more an element of my character.
My goals these days are almost always about accomplishments, rarely about habits. I think this is a problem. Because while some of the habits I worked hard to cultivate have become an integral part of my personality, other habits I've acquired are more like the absence of intentional habits--just lazy routines.
One the thing I like about academia is that on the days I don't teach--and if I'm lucky enough to get a schedule were I don't have to be in a classroom until after noon, even on the days I do--I don't have to set an alarm clock. This means I habitually go to bed and get up whenever. Admittedly, I have sleep issues, and having to set an alarm is sort of anxiety-inducing for me; and yet, given that I usually wake up around 8, I would hope I'd be able to create a more structured, although still not rigid, approach to retiring and getting up.
Then there's what I do when I get up: I habitually sit down at my computer and read the news until I A) run out of news or B) get bored. I could devise a schedule; I could also say that other things would take precedent over reading on-line newspapers every morning. But it's a morning-appropriate task, and my brain isn't always ready for something for strenuous first thing in the morning....
I don't entirely know where I'm going with this, and that's part of the problem--not for this entry, but for my life. I want some new habits, but the thought of pursuing them seems vaguely uncomfortable--which is precisely what I should be seeking. I found the NY Time article really compelling for statements like this:
brain researchers have discovered that when we consciously develop new habits, we create parallel synaptic paths, and even entirely new brain cells, that can jump our trains of thought onto new, innovative tracks.
Rather than dismissing ourselves as unchangeable creatures of habit, we can instead direct our own change by consciously developing new habits. In fact, the more new things we try the more we step outside our comfort zone the more inherently creative we become, both in the workplace and in our personal lives.
I have been trying to step outside my comfort zone in the last few days, in small ways. Friday I spent a good deal of time in the car, and I forced myself to listen to my least favorite of the radio stations I can tolerate: NPR. (I know I seem like the kind of person who should love NPR, but prefer music to talk on the radio.) I've been setting my alarm clock for 8 a.m. and making sure I'm in bed by 11:30 p.m. I even did yoga yesterday! Now there's a habit I'm sorry I lost: poses I used to be able to hold for a good long while I couldn't even get into in the first place when I tried them last night. I lost that habit--which I loved, which sustained and enriched me--for a variety of reasons: I moved away from Iowa City, where I had a house with a big expanse of bare floor perfect for plopping down a yoga mat at a moment's notice, plus a yoga teacher I adored who would teach me new stuff every week; and I got cable.
But I don't just want to do something new and different, once or twice--or something old abandoned so long ago that it feels awkward and difficult. Yes, I would love to take a ceramics class--I've wanted to do that for a long time. But I don't know if throwing pots would become a habit for me, and I want some new habits.
But what? I guess I could start crocheting more and knit less. I could follow Benjamin Franklin's template, provided in his autobiography, for "the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection":
Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself, i.e., waste nothing.
Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
Wrong none by doing injuries or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.
Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another's peace or reputation.
Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
But to be honest, that was part of my model back when I was a teenager, so even though I'm not as successful in some of the areas as I once was, they all seem pretty familiar....
I could resolve to blog every morning, or every other morning.... I could resolve to be a more faithful, regular commenter on my favorite dozen blogs or so. (That means your blog.)
Is anyone willing to help me out with this? Having had a few posts lately that garnered a lot of comments, I am reminded again that there's just no predicting what people will feel like responding to, and I also think that asking for comments is sometimes the surest way not to get them. But I'm taking the risk. Gentle readers, what are the habits you find most useful and or/enjoyable in your own lives? What are the habits you would most like to cultivate?