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Establishing Habits for People Who Hate Structure
February 28, 2020
It Doesn’t Happen Overnight
I think we all want to live healthy, full, and meaningful lives. We all have dreams, goals, visions, ideas, and hopes for what we want to accomplish. There is a pathway to progress and the roadmap will look different for each person. But one thing remains the same. Our actions/behaviors help determine if we get there.
An olympian cannot simply will themselves to a gold medal. A doctor cannot simply hope for a good surgery. A person cannot simply close their eyes while driving and manifest themselves to a destination. A farmer cannot simply sow good thoughts into the ground and hope to produce a harvest. It takes work.
We form habits either intentionally or unintentionally. It is how the brain works. The brain learns what is rewarding and what is painful and adjusts accordingly. That is a very crude understanding of habits, but you get the picture.
Mental health professionals often give those who suffer from panic attacks tools to ground themselves back in reality. It could be as simple as counting ceiling tiles or taking ten deep breaths. After a major concussion in college, I suffered from intense panic attacks for about a year. These grounding techniques helped pull me back from overwhelming emotions and refocus me on what was happening in the present moment when I was in the middle of an attack. I have carried those tools with me ever since.
Time Will Tell
I was in a very dark season of my life when I started to apply this technique on a larger scale. I began to ask the question, “could healthy habits, patterns, and routines help me reach a more holistic rhythm of living?” I could see that happy, healthy, and successful people had routines. While I did not like routine, could these things help me in the way that grounding techniques helped me during my panic attacks? When I was in a major funk in my mind, body, and soul, could healthy rhythms help set a course for healing? For progress?
Of course I am not the only one to think about this. There are plenty of scientific studies that show the affects of good and bad habits on a persons overall health. AA is an entire program designed around similar concepts which help alcoholics live their lives free of addiction and get back on their feet again. But what I was seeing from self-proclaimed self-help gurus did not seem appealing. Everybody had quick tips to a healthy life. My journey was taking a lot longer.
You have probably heard it said that it takes 21 days to form a habit. Turns out there’s not a whole lot of science behind that statement. Dr. Maxwell Maltz was the person credited to have said this but the crazy thing is, he didn’t actually say it. He said it took a MINIMUM of 21 days in order for an old mental image to dissipate and a new mental image to stick. A recent study shows it can take between 2 months to 8 months to establish a new habit. There’s a really awesome article about it here.
The first time I read this it blew me away because I had been experiencing the same thing. Some of the rhythms I was beginning to incorporate into my life were taking much longer than 21 days to establish. Sometimes, it was months before I would see it stick. But as long as I was committed to the process I saw overall progress.
Fear of Commitment
In that same study, they showed that you did not have to be perfect in order for the habit to form. In other words, if you planned on going to the gym 5 days a week and you miss a day, it’s okay. The habit can still be formed as long as the commitment was solid.
It may be a crazy notion, but it is okay to tweak a lifestyle change to fit what works best for you. In 2019, I made the shift to a (mostly) plant based lifestyle. It was a personal choice that came out of a time of spiritual fasting. During that year, I also shifted to an intermittent fasting routine. That may sound like a lot, but I adjusted it so that I would be successful and enjoy it. I give myself 10% leniency a week in my “food budget” for times that I want to enjoy food outside my regular routine or I am somewhere that I don’t have access to those types of foods. I shoot for a 16:8 daily fasting routine, but I am not overall worried if its not EXACTLY that ratio.
These two shift have been life-changing for me. Even though I am not performing them perfectly as prescribed, I still find incredible benefits and joy in them. Why? Because I am committed to the overall purpose. I want to live a long, healthy, and energized life well into my grey-haired years. I don’t want to be stopped by my own body as I get older, within what is in my ability to control. And that is a powerful reason to commit to overall healthy lifestyle changes.
If we are not intentional about training our brain to engage in healthy rhythms, it will train itself. I got to a place in my life where I was tired of having no direction, no goals, no strategy, and no progress in the things that mattered to me. I had these big dreams deep down, but no idea how to start. So I never started and I hoped it would magically happen on its own. It seems silly to say out loud now, but I know from conversations with others that I am not the only one. We are often plagued by all the things we “should do” that we never start on the path for the things we are passionate to do.
I do not enjoy structure. I push against it as hard as I can. If you are anything like me, then you know how hard it is to commit to any lifestyle change. Even if I’m the one setting the course, a part of me wants to say, “don’t tell me what to do”. It’s what author Steven Pressfield in his book the War of Art calls Resistance. “Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stand Resistance.” It’s that sly and vile force that hijacks our dreams and turns them into a pile of unfinished good intentions.
In order to create habits and rhythms that will actually make a difference in our lives, we must commit to the process. That means getting back up when you fall off the wagon. That means showing up day after day after day until the behavior becomes reflexive. That means throwing away excuses that have held you back for years. That means sitting with yourself long enough to discover what really matters to you. And perhaps that is the scariest part of the journey.
A Journey of a Thousand Miles
It is said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. It is a great slogan for coffee mugs but it is more powerful when you actually take it at face value. We live in a time in history when we can have what we want faster than ever. While there are many positives that come with forward progression, it leaves us addicted to instant gratification. If we cannot get our bikini body in a few months, we want out. But we are going to complain and speak poorly about ourselves the whole way.
There is an intricate balance of contentment and aspiration. We should be inspired to grow, change, explore, discover, and create. But once we have committed to the longer journey of establishing healthier habits, we must also be content with who we are at the present moment. We must honor who we are in the present while also pushing ourselves towards growth. We must accept the full journey of personal transformation. A caterpillar does not hate the fact that it is a caterpillar even though one day it will become a butterfly. Like my husband says, you’ve got to find beauty and value in where you are at now.
All of this to say, the journey to a more holistic, healthy, and fulfilled life comes in small steps that reinforce the greater picture. Progress over perfection. If we are focused on perfection, we often find that progress never happens. If we are focused on progress, the change often happens in a more successful and meaningful way.
In order to break out of a funk or make peace with the fact that structure can be our best ally, accepting that the journey may take a lot longer than we expect is pivotal. It is important to push yourself, I understand that. If you’ve got a deadline, you’ve got a deadline and there’s really nothing you can do about it. But if you decide to make a major lifestyle change, you have got to start on the micro level. Maybe you want to be a morning person so instead of setting your alarm for 4:00AM when you’re used to getting up at 7:00AM, consider moving your alarm clock up in 15 minute increments over the course of a few months. Give yourself a chance to win.
Framework for Freedom
There was a study done where they observed children on playgrounds with and without a fence/boundary. The discovered that those children without a fenced-in playground explored less and stayed closer to the teacher. On the other hand, those children with a fenced-in playground explored to the farthest reaches of the boundaries. Creativity without any structure paralyses and holds us back from reaching out as far as we can. Structure, habits, and routines can be our greatest ally.
There are many lessons that could be pulled from these observations. What I glean from it is that there is safety in framework. There is a freedom that comes with setting up boundaries with ourselves and others. The structures and routines that scared me most can actually be my greatest weapon to breakthrough.
Now before you go planning out the ten lifestyle changes you have been dying to implement over the years, remember that they have to truly matter to you. The motivation behind the shift must be weighty enough to carry you through the times when you want to give up. You have to accept that it might take longer than you think to establish a new rhythm and commit to the process. And last, but certainly not least, you have to take it slow.
If you push against any kind of routine like I do, then you understand how hard it can be to implement a lifestyle change that is important to you. I am currently reading Atomic Habits by James Clear and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg in order to learn more about sustainable habits in our lives. A lot of the ideas that have been rumbling around in my head actually have scientific basis for what I am experiencing. I am still learning the language to describe my experience, but it has been eye opening to say the least.
Maybe you’re in a rough season and you’re desperate to find some footing in the midst of the chaos. Maybe you’ve just come out of a rough season but don’t know where to begin again. Maybe you’re tired of not following through on your plans and beating yourself up for it. I have a few questions I want you to consider. What would you life look like if you lived in the rhythms and habits you want to implement? What if a little bit of structure, done in kindness to yourself, was your ally? What if you could eliminate some stress and anxiety by having predictable patters that grounded you? What would it look like if you were living your ‘unlived life’?
I hope to dive deeper into the process of forming a habit, but there’s some awesome starter info here. I am not a guru and I cannot give you ‘x’ number of steps to the correct pathway to inner peace. But I can share my story with you and the things that have greatly impacted my life. I can tell you that it takes time and it takes a lot of commitment to be kind to yourself along the way. I have some tangible lessons I can pass along, but its a personal journey. I can tell you that its been a huge positive shift in my life. It has given me the ability to walk in hope and confidence. My greatest desire in sharing my story is that you’d find the same things.