I don’t think habits are meant to be permanent.
For how much work humans put into forming “good habits” though, it sure seems like they intend the habits to be permanent.
The science of forming habits is a massive field of research and study, and has been the backbone of countless diet, productivity, workout, sleep, and language-learning programs.
There are things that work when it comes to habits. Repetition, using willpower to your advantage, and celebrating small wins, all work to help you lay down the new habit, whether it’s to establish a workout routine, start going to bed earlier, or begin meditating.
That’s the science of it.
Where science is about facts, figures, and data – art is about looking at contrast, finding the beauty in your creation and drawing it out.
I’ve gone through a lot of habit stuff in the last 18 months, and I’ve been through a crazy amount of habit-exploration and action. I wanted to share a different take on habits that you may not have considered as you do your own habit-forming.
The rigidity of a habit
Habits are a thing you do consistently. I’m a fan of consistency. Trouble shows up though when your habits are rigid but your life isn’t. There’s an ebb and flow nature to life that requires you to adapt and adjust to it – or it will drag you along whether you like it or not.
When you rely on clinging to your habits like a branch hanging out over the banks of a fast-flowing river, you can actually cause yourself unhealthy stress while you try to maintain your healthy habit.
Endurance athletes who ‘need’ to get their miles in despite the fact that they slept just six hours for the past three nights as kids and work required more than usual from them.
Crossfitters who know that the shoulder pain they’re feeling isn’t going away, but they’re committed to training, so they wrap themselves in k-tape and power through their workout.
New moms who are anxious to get back to their old workout habits after baby arrives, and thus hold themselves to a standard impossible for someone sleeping in 2-hours spurts every night.
It’s understandable. You put all that work into forming the habit originally, and you felt so good when you were doing the habit, it’s natural to want to hold on to that. But by defining yourself by your habits, you turn yourself into a binary equation. Either you’re doing the habit and you’re succeeding, or you’re not doing the habit, so you’re failing.
Here’s the thing though…
You’re not a one-trick pony, this won’t be your only habit rodeo.
This one habit won’t be the only habit you’ll ever form, and this isn’t the only habit that will ever make you feel accomplished and happy. If you’ve built a habit once, you can build a habit again.
To be able to selectively choose which habits you engage with, which ones you ignore for a while, and how you approach them – that’s more art than science.
The seasonality of habits
I’d had the concept for my foundational strength and mobility program, The Unbreakable Body, in my head for awhile. When it came time to finally turn it into a Real Thing, I spent from May 1 through the end of the year working on it every free moment I had. I worked 8 hour days both days of the weekend, every weekend, plus evenings after running my gym.
I’d already cultivated the habit of working long hours thanks to my years working at a commercial gym. So pressing down harder on the gas pedal of this habit wasn’t hard to do. Being capable of working long hours was a habit that suited my current season.
I was used to not having a social life. I liked the rewards that working a lot gave me. The habit of working massive work weeks was second nature by the time the UB build rolled around.
The end-stage of habit formation is “second nature” – when the habit is no longer something you have to give conscious thought to, you just do it. By this point, you’ve put a lot of hard work in to forming your habit. You’ve laid down new neural pathways and strengthened the myelin sheath along that part of your nervous system.
When you hit “second nature”, the habit has become a part of you.
Habits that have become second nature are often left to tend to themselves where they can do one of three things: flourish in the area you planted them, die altogether, or overtake the garden and choke out everything else.
When I’d decided in late 2014 to move west to a state that better suited my outdoor passions, I had a sobering conversation with my buddy, Dallas, who lived where I was moving to. Even though working long hours had become a part of me, the season of grinding was over.
I’ll never forget this, he said, “If you find yourself with free time, the answer is not to choose to work more. Get out there. Opt in to the rest of life.”
My ‘normal’ had been this: if there was nothing else to do, I worked on my work. I’d busted my ass and had done a good job, but I’d also gotten incredibly sick twice during that time period, and was dealing with ‘is this what my life is going to be forever?’ questions late at night when I thought about my future.
It was time to set a ‘new normal.’
When the habit services a lifestyle you no longer wish to lead, it’s time to let the habit change (or leave altogether).
As I settled in to life in the mountains, I slowly shed the ‘work long hours’ habit as the rest of my life took on new significance.I know I can call on that old habit of mine when I need it. But unless I’m under a serious deadline, there really isn’t a need for me to call on that particular habit anymore.
The bendable nature of habits
I’m a part of facebook group of fitness friends who all joined the Unbreakable Body around the same time. They use the group for accountability and support. Recently, a question was posed to the group: one person was getting ready to re-start her workouts and wanted to know how others were tackling their weekly programming.
As everyone chimed in with comments, it became clear that nearly everyone in the group had gone through a major life change recently. And it had thrown a curveball at each person – and their plans.
Instead of hauling off the deep end and quitting all her habits when things had gotten crazy, one member had brilliantly set a realistic goal of ‘movement maintenance’ habit during the chaotic time she had been going through. The original form her exercise habit had been set in wasn’t going to work for this period of uproot. So she re-molded the habit so it suited her current needs.
Habits can be molded, shaped, and shifted…and still be true to the original habit.
When you hold fiercely to a habit, despite what your life is dictating is possible for you right now, you create friction for yourself. If your life is shifting a bit, then You are shifting a bit. Your habits can shift too.
Morph your habit as your life morphs, and see what other iterations of the habit, and its relationship to you, can come out of it.
Crowdsourcing your habits
A ‘morning routine’ habit sounded terrible to me, but everyone who has a morning routine seems to be in love with it. Many of those I spoke to were rising early and knocking off movement, meditation, journaling, food, and coffee all before their “day started”. It sounded awful.
That is, until I started gathering more specific information from talking to people who did morning routines – and began to find ideas for a routine that didn’t sound awful. I talked with my friend, Steve, who recently wrote a book and who was high-level in his morning routine game.
After hearing him lay out his morning routine, I thought, “Oh! I could do that! And it doesn’t sound terrible!” By crowdsourcing the methods of a particular habit, I was able to unearth a method that sounded appealing and effective.
The habit is the final portrait, the method of implementation is the brush you select to paint with.
I crafted my morning routine to mimic what Steve had told me worked for him, and lo and behold, morning routines became fun! And productive!
So much so that I finished a project I’d started months ago…I wrote a short book using my morning routine time! More details on that soon, but hot damn, that’s what can happen when you put the right method with the right person.
When it comes to living a healthy, high-quality, life – you’re going to need to build habits. But instead of seeing them as a permanent fixture in your life, consider just how not-permanent a habit actually is, as it lives and breathes in your ever-changing world.
Be merciless in ebbing, flowing, switching, adjusting, dropping, removing, and changing any habit that isn’t aligning with what you’re currently going for in your life.
Your habits are a part of you, they are not you.
You change, give your habits a chance to change with you. The habits you set now will be serving a different master ten years from now. You will not be the same person – why would your habits remain the same?