A long-time reader sent me this question and I thought it was a good one: “With all this alone time (during the pandemic), I find myself with the blues much more often than before. That sense of ‘what’s the use?’ creeps in far too frequently. Then I have a much harder time with my bad habits as they jump on in there to be my comforts.”
First, I’m not a doctor nor do I play one on tv. If you’re struggling with something that feels like more than ‘the blues’, seek out a professional for support. Second, there were a few things in that question, but I’m going to focus on the habits part of it. It doesn’t mean the other parts aren’t relevant, it just means I’m not speaking to those at this time.
Is It Really Your Habits?
There is ample research on habits out there, and chances are you that you’re already well-practiced at setting habits and breaking them. You may not think you’re very “good” at setting or breaking habits. Or you may think your “bad” habits are bigger than the ones other, more disciplined, people have. For many folks, habits are a great place for judging yourself harshly, more harshly than is ever warranted. And yet, we do it anyways.
As I’ve gone on my own journey of setting, breaking, and maintaining habits, I’ve come to realize that sometimes it’s not the habit practice (or lack thereof) that is the issue. Rather, the issue may lie in a disconnect between my internal environment and my external one.
My internal environment includes the Me who is thinking and the Me that is my body and all its parts, hormones, hunger signals, brain chemicals, and everything else that keeps this body operating. My external environment is just that, the day that is unfolding around me, including where I am, what other stressors have shown up in my life, what’s going on, and what I’m dealing with at work or at home.
To take this out of the esoteric, here’s a story:
I spent seven years working as a lifeguard on this amazing lake the next town over. We frequently took the rowboat out on the lake, whether to transport gear out to an off-shore raft, or as a fitness challenge to row ourselves a mile across the lake only to dock the boat and swim back (talk about a shoulder workout).
With rowboats, if you put effort into turning the oars to dip and pull through the water, the boat’s going to start moving.
But on days when the wind kicked up waves on the lake, rowing into the wind meant having the boat hit each wave as it crested and smacking into it, spraying my back with water and making for a bumpy and more effortful row. I had to work harder to make any headway, and I had to either just accept I would smack into the waves or try and angle through them in a way to avoid the worst of the head-on waves. Those were my least favorite days to row.
Other days, the wind would be coming sideways across the lake. This was far better than rowing into a headwind, but it still posed challenges. One arm was always working harder than the other to try and keep the boat going in the direction I was aiming at, and I’d have to think more about correcting course with each pull of the oars through the water.
Then there were days when the wind was with me, a nice tailwind, pushing the boat in the direction I was headed. The rowing was easy on those days. Minimal effort needed, minimal thinking required.
And every so often, there’d be absolutely zero wind. A calm lake with a glassy top. No-wind days were great because I wasn’t wishing that they were tailwind days. I enjoyed just feeling the effort in/outcome out nature of each pull of the oars. I’d have missed that enjoyment completely if I’d been sitting in the boat wishing for some wind going the same way as me.
In every situation, the rowing was always there, but how I rowed had to adapt to fit the environment I was in. Not to be too on the nose with this, but if you’re doing your habit practices each day expecting the wind to be the same as it was yesterday, you’re going to run into a day (or many) where it feels like you just aren’t good at doing habits.
Sometimes, it’s windy. Nothing you can do about it except adjust your rowing strategy or leave the boat in the dock for the day. And to be frank, those windy days were the days where I got stronger, learned more, and became better.
You already know how to do habits. And if you find you need some pointers or guidance, buy a book and by all means learn more on the science of habits. James Clear’s book is a fantastic one but there are also many others. But again, what if the thing you need instead is to connect the internal You who is trying to be a successful habit-doer (rower) to the external environment that you’re living in (wind and all) and operate accordingly.
Sometimes you really are better served to just dock the boat for the day and try again tomorrow. But sometimes, perhaps even a lot of the times, it’s just wind and you can make it through that.
Postscript: Please do not think I’m in any way an expert at practicing habits. I get disconnected, thrown off course, I waste time, and there are days when I consider the entire thing a wash. Sometimes it’s windy and I’m pissed off because I wanted to row like it was a glassy top, peaceful, day. What can I do except see the opportunity to learn from it?
Post postscript: Enjoy the tailwinds, accept the headwinds, and remember that while you can’t change the wind, you can change yourself.