Tips to Create Habits that Serve

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Today is February 19...the 50th day of the year. How do I know this? Because today I'm celebrating 50 days in a row of meditating, doing yoga, and walking. Woo hoo! Why make an effort to do something everyday? At the beginning of this year, I got to thinking that over the years I have glimpsed different practices that really work for me. By “work for me,” I mean that these practices help me to feel good inside and out, and when I’m feeling better and stronger, this make me more able to handle my life and whatever life throws at me. Meditation is one of these things. Tending to my body regularly by stretching and moving is one of these things. Getting lots of time outdoors is one of these things.

So clearly, I have a sense of the types of practices that help me. And yet there are times when I find it really hard to keep consistency. The very times when I MOST need these practices in my life, the times when I am MOST in need of the peace, grounding, and strength that they give me, are the times when it feels like like I have no time or energy to do them.

I had the thought that I would like to see what it feels like to live in my optimum state. What would it feel like to be taking care of my mind, body, and spirit in ways that are healthy and beneficial...and sustainable? I need to make a note here-- a note that I have needed to remind myself all along the way: I am not talking about perfection. Perfectionism leads me to set really high expectations and throw myself into them in a way that is not sustainable in the long term. I have a sneaky tendency toward perfectionism, and knowing this, I am cultivating self-compassion, lightness, gentleness, and patience all along the way. I’m simply setting my intentions toward wellness and following through to the best of my ability.

How?

I’m not an expert on habits, but I can share what I am learning. Some of these “tips” are personal, but a lot of them show the truth of the common wisdom that we hear about habits and resolutions.

Are you wondering how I know it’s been 50 days or that I walk 5,000 steps? Monitoringis very helpful when habits are forming. For steps, I use the “Health” app that is built into my phone. For my other habits, I use the app, “Productive,” which is free to use for up to five habits. It’s simple and satisfying to use, and it keeps track of things for me. Is technology essential here? No. This is simply what feels easiest to me right now, and keeping track helps to motivate me because...

Streaks can be powerfully motivating. Doing yoga from time to time gives me constant choices to make-- is this the day that I will do yoga? Am I too tired? Is there something else I should be doing? Gretchen Rubin talks about this in “Better than Before,” the idea that habits eliminate the need for self-control and reduce the fatigue of decision-making. Setting the intention to do it every day helps...and then once I’ve done it a few days in a row, a kind of momentum is established. A week in a row! 15 days in a row! The longer it goes, the less I’m inclined to break the chain.

If you want to build a habit that you can do every day, small and consistent is better than large and impressive. Large and impressive is fun for when things are going well, when you have plenty of time and energy, when you’re feeling excited about your brand new habit. But then you wake up late, or you’re sick or injured...and it becomes overwhelming. Guess how many minutes of yoga or meditation “counts” for me? Ten minutes. That’s it. That isn’t a very long time, and that’s the point. I can always find a way to fit ten minutes into my day. Even if I don’t really feel like doing it, I can convince myself to spend just ten minutes. And lots of times, I spend a lot longer than ten minutes...but the promise of “just ten minutes” is enough to get me started. This protects me again the dreaded “all or nothing” mentality that says, “30 minutes of meditation is great, and less than that doesn’t count.” John Berardi, PhD, wrote, “The ‘all or nothing’ mentality rarely gets us ‘all.’ It usually gets us ‘nothing.’” Along the same lines, with walking, people have really been talking about 10,000 steps lately as a daily goal. Guess how much counts for me? 5,000. Last January I tried 10,000. I made it into February, and it was difficult! I often found myself walking around my neighborhood in the dark just before bedtime when I realized I hadn’t done my steps. This got really annoying and maybe I went on a tip or got sick or something...but the next thing I knew, I was barely walking at all again. So for me, for now, 5,000 is my baseline. Sometimes I do hit 10,000, but my goal works for me-- it feels good and is manageable for me.

Find a time that works for you. Morning is my best time, period. I am a morning person, so I feel excited to start the day. Because my husband isn’t a morning person, it also means that morning is a quiet and focused time of the day for me to do my yoga and meditation. And when I start the day with these calming practices, I feel better going into whatever comes next. Finally, when I don’t do these practices in the morning, I find it a bit harder to find time later in the day, or I risk forgetting about them until bedtime. So for me, morning is when I gravitate toward these practices. I’m not trying to push for mornings, just for choosing a time that works well for you.

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Know what's important. I have other habits that I am working to build as well. I’m making more mindful food choices, I’m hiking, biking, and swimming somewhat regularly, and more. But I can’t do everything all the time. So, when I can't do them all, I focus on yoga, meditation, and walking. I keep building these three core habits. Again, I’m not trying to convince anyone that these are the three most important habits to build. I’m saying that whatever is MOST important to you...know it. Know what your baseline is, what practices you will pare down to when time and energy and motivation are in short supply. (Again, this is a rejection of the unhelpful “all or nothing” mentality.)

Know why it's important. There are many times in the past 50 days that I’ve needed to come back to the why of all of this. Why am I doing this? One was when my back was injured for a few days. Before that, I had been doing a LOT more yoga and when I hurt my back, all of a sudden I thought I might need to quit because “how can I do 30 minutes of ‘serious’ yoga” with an injured back? I didn’t like the idea of quitting, and I also knew that pushing through pain would be dangerous. So I went back to why. What made me want to do yoga every day? Because I am tired of ignoring my body. I’m tired of being in pain with muscle tension, trying to ignore the pain, and just continuing to let the pain and tension increase day by day. I want to take time every day to listen to what my body needs and address these needs. Once I reiterated these thoughts, the question of “do I need to quit?” was simple. Yes, I needed to quit doing 30 minutes of “serious” yoga while my back was injured. But no, I didn’t need to quit tending to my body with gentle stretching and movement. This kind of careful movement is highly recommended to recover from back injuries, and the honoring of my back injury is a big part of listening to the needs of my body. (This goes along with the idea of adjusting our idea of what an accomplishment is.) Same with walking. I had to quit doing longer walks for those few days, but with more frequent short walks, I was able to continue walking 5,000 steps and stay attentive to the needs of my back. In the past, an injury like this would totally derail me from my habits because I refused to adjust the habits at all. But going back to the why of it helped me to respond wisely when obstacles arose.

This brings me to my last thought: be nimble. Don’t let yourself get frustrated and blocked by made-up limitations. This is just life, after all, and everything changes. Have the mindset of a scientist or an anthropologist who is just running some different experiments to see what works. If you’re seeking to learn and grow, don’t be afraid to make some changes. Sometimes, on a really busy day, I find myself pacing around the house before bedtime to get in my steps. This is annoying. And when this happens, the next day, I remember to pack my walking shoes, to take the stairs, to park further away...whatever. I don’t let myself get frustrated about how today went, I just move forward. Sometimes I find myself meditating late at night when I feel half-asleep. It isn’t ideal, and the next morning I am more motivated to get up earlier and meditate when I’m fresh. Like Aaliyah sang, “If at first you don’t succeed, dust yourself off and try again.”

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And finally, to use the words of a friend, wallow in your accomplishments. We find it easy to wallow in a sense of failure, but what will help here is to congratulate yourself! Celebrate! Brag to someone who cares about you! Let yourself enjoy what you’ve done. There is a particular sense of joy in following through with something-- that feeling of congruence between what you WANT to do and what you DO. Savor it. Here's to you, and here's to me!