Habits vs. Routines vs. Accomplishments, and the Overriding Significance of Goals


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":

1. Temperance
Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.

2. Silence
Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.

3. Order
Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.

4. Resolution
Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.

5. Frugality
Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself, i.e., waste nothing.

6. Industry
Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.

7. Sincerity
Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.

8. Justice
Wrong none by doing injuries or omitting the benefits that are your duty.

9. Moderation
Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.

10. Cleanliness
Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.

11. Tranquillity
Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.

12. Chastity
Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another's peace or reputation.

13. Humility
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?


"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...."

Don't feel so bad.......Franklin wasn't very successful in them either...;-) You may find Walter Isaacson's bio of Franklin, "Benjamin Franklin: An American Life," a very interesting read.

Don't feel so bad.......Franklin wasn't very successful in them either...;-)

that's not the point I'm getting at: I'm not concerned about failure as much as the attempt, and I want some NEW virtues to try for.

But thanks for the book recommendation--I do find BF a pretty interesting figure.

"that's not the point I'm getting at: I'm not concerned about failure as much as the attempt, and I want some NEW virtues to try for."

LOL, I knew that, I was just being facetious.... ;-)

LOL, I knew that, I was just being facetious.... ;-)

Maybe I should try to acquire the virtue Alice tells Geraldine she needs on The Vicar of Dibley: "Must learn to understand humor and how jokes work." :-)

Well, I guess this isn't so much a HABIT, but for a long time I've wanted to learn to play an instrument, and I've resolved to learn guitar this summer (mainly because it's portable and not very expensive). I played the piano a little as a kid, but I never practiced unless my parents made me, so I wasn't ever any good. So. I want to learn how to a) play, and b) practice.

Things that I find useful or enjoyable...To be honest I don't have many useful habits. I do love taking some time a couple of times a week to go get coffee and read at the park (if the weather is bad I sit in my car by the water - still nice to look at). And watching The Daily Show is a fun habit. Hmmm, I think I've been completely useless here. I guess I should try to develop some good habits.

Hi Rebecca--

for a long time I've wanted to learn to play an instrument, and I've resolved to learn guitar this summer

Cool! I am a horrible musician so I always admire that. I'm interested in the trying new stuff business, both for pleasure and for the way it will make me smarter; but it's the lack of consciously chosen habits that has me concerned and doing this whole "time to evaluate my life" thing.

watching The Daily Show is a fun habit.

I would have to agree with that.... but A) I don't have cable and B) watching a show at the same time just seems like too big a commitment. I told a friend yesterday that the only way I can follow a tv show is if it's out on dvd, or if I someday get tivo. So I still think you're doing better than I am on the habit front, because even the regularity of TELEVISION frightens and fatigues me. And the fact that I feel that way about something as undemanding as committing to tv viewing also makes me feel tired and scared, only more so.

Many years ago I made a habit of spending about fifteen minutes of quiet time every morning just centering myself. I get a cup of coffee, I might knit or listen to the radio or just stare into space, but no matter how busy I am, I take that time. I can tell if I don't take that time, too -- it feels like I'm trying to catch up the rest of the day. What do I accomplish? Just being quiet.

I'm not sure this is a habit... but I have two spaces that I'd like to get into order and keep in order: my office, and my basement craft workshop. I'd also like to develop a routine for office tasks that I have to do on a regular basis, like working on one kind of record every week, doing my correspondence at the same time every morning, or spending the afternoons of three days a week writing.

One habit I'd like to cultivate is to send handwritten notes to friends on nice stationery, or even to send postcards just to say hello. In this digital age, graces such as this are becoming lost arts and I know how much I love getting notes from friends myself.

Hi Juti--

thanks for these lovely suggestions. I was struck by the idea of a basement craft workshop: I have a very big and relatively dry basement; I could make it into a workshop. And that would be a new habit, because after all how we organize and move through our space involves all sorts of habits. Having recently rearranged some furniture and gotten rid of a few old pieces I had grown to hate, I remember how I would automatically move to take something out of a chest of drawers that had been sold and hauled away in a minivan days earlier. It took quite a while to get my muscles and so forth to break the habit of turning automatically to things that were no longer in my house.

I also agree with you on sending actual pieces of paper through the mail. I LOVE postcards, and I have one friend who sends me a postcard every single week--and to my shame, I reciprocate only occasionally. But I think I will indeed cultivate this habit of writing a note and mailing it, and not relying so much on email.

This post is so interesting to me. Maybe I'm not in the exact same boat as you, but we're rowing on the same lake. I've been searching lately for some new habits and hobbies that will shake things up a bit. Maybe it's just because I feel like I'm in so much transition lately; I'm not sure.

I know I've been doing some thinking about where I feel like I'm lacking something, and making an effort to be creative in filling that void. I know I need to get more physical movement into my life, but I have no desire to join a gym. That means more hiking, more walking, more batting cages, etc.

And now I've realized that I've been absolutely no help at all. Which is an old habit.

Hi LG--

I know I need to get more physical movement into my life, but I have no desire to join a gym.

I'm with you on that. I remember the day about seven years ago when I walked out of a gym in the middle of a workout and said, "I HATE coming to a gym; I will find other ways to exercise."

I just hate it. I HATE gyms. I hate the machines and the lights and the music and the mirrors and the monotony and the membership fees and the fact that gyms even exist in the first place.

Letting me vent about that is actually very helpful. Few people understand my profound gym-loathing. It might be beyond what you feel but I'm still glad to get it out there.

And I'm also glad to know I'm not the only one out here on this lake.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on May 12, 2008 8:23 AM.

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