New Year, Same Me

Back in October, I started reflecting on 2019. The planner sat empty, except for my name on the page at the front where I promise a reward if someone finds it, until this week. Uncertainty loomed large. Planners seem orthogonal to ambiguity.

Remember the Be/Do/Have questions?

  • I want to be a national-level powerlifter in my age group.
  • I want to be a better clinician for my kiddos.
  • I want to be a grounded partner, mother, and friend.
  • I want to travel at least once this year.
  • I want to spend more time at the beach.
  • I want to bike more, walk more
  • I want to have a peaceful porch
  • I want to have a productive office space
  • I want to have a tidy home

Take a look at my lists. I am very “BE” driven. Each of the “DO” and “HAVE” items feeds at least one “BE”. Let’s re-arrange these slightly by function.

I want to be a national-level powerlifter in my age group. To make this happen, there is a lot of lifting. There is also active recovery and stress management, which means consistent quality time on the bike and in the park. I meditate on my porch and like to do yoga there most of the year, which is easier when the porch is peaceful and thus inviting. Travel to a larger-scale meet with an extra day or two for a vacation would support this goal.

I want to be a better clinician for my kiddos. Becoming a better clinician involves actively seeking supervision, taking time to reflect on my practice, and continuing education. A productive office space, a peaceful porch, and a tidy home can give me the mental and physical spaces to support intellectual and emotional effort. Conferences and trainings away from home are a great way to break out of routine and wake up my beginner’s mind. Conference on the beach? I’m there.

I want to be a grounded partner, mother, and friend. Reflection, meditation, activities like lifting, biking, yoga, swimming, and reading re-fill my cup and make space for everyone else. No one comes to my house for my housekeeping, but having a comfortable space to share with others is important to me.

What goes in the planner? Like most goals, these break down into a mix of one-off to-dos and habits/processes and not everything can go in the planner at once. Lord have mercy, my head would explode and I’d be a sobbing heap of failure by February. Some people can and have done everything, cold turkey. Fix the eating, hit the gym, clean the house, repaint the kids, do it all! However, most of us aren’t like that. The human animal has an enormous drive to return to the familiar and too much change tends to rebound with a nasty bounce.

What’s familiar right now? Lifting four days a week. Meditation three days a week. Eating well 60% of the time. Erratic housekeeping around my erratic “staff” [read teenagers]. Watching Netflix at night with my husband. Reading 70% of the books I mean to read. Tossing and turning at night because I haven’t left work at work. Hot soaks nearly nightly with epsom salts.

Where are my anchors? Lifting is solid. Going to work is solid.

Which existing habits can be a little better? Eating well consistently. This takes at least 90% adherence to be successful and 60% is frustrating. Housekeeping consistently. There are a few things I currently do sometimes, like start laundry and take care of the dishwasher in the morning, that I could do more often and make a big difference in the state of my world. Meditate consistently. More is better, and fifteen minutes daily instead of 15 minutes on three seemingly random days a week might smooth out a bunch of stuff.

There’s January. Three habits. No one-offs. Anything else that happens is bonus and not tracked, like getting to the local yoga studio I tried last week or to the park on a chance warm evening. Let’s see what happens.

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Routines

I want to start with routines, because routine is the midpoint between habit and ritual.

When we talk about changing the things we do, we have to talk about brain physiology, learning theory, systems thinking, cognitive distortions, and the Heath brothers. As mentioned in the previous post, our lives run on autopilot most of the time simply because actively making decisions every moment of the day would consume the mind. Your brain uses the pre-frontal cortex to make and execute plans and regulate emotions. It was the last brain structure for evolution to construct and the last structure to develop in an adult brain, finishing up around the age of 25. Learning theory describes how we reinforce and extinguish observable behaviors through two sets of direct mechanisms, as well as social learning theory which describes how we reinforce and extinguish observable behavior by watching others. Systems thinking treats an actor as a member of a larger system, which acts and is acted upon, a formal way of saying “No man is an island.” Cognitive distortions are ways of thinking that distort observations to fit a pre-conceived narrative and are considered to be maladaptive. The Heath brothers have written wonderful popular books on change and introduced a variety of metaphors into popular culture.

What about routines?

If most of your day is going to be on auto-pilot, it would be nice if the auto-pilot took you where you preferred and not only where you went last week. Take a moment and think about what you do for the first hour after you wake up.  Chances are you have a set of things you do in a general order and those things could include periods of indecision or chaos. Chaos and indecision nest nicely into a routine. If you have ever heard a parent of young children complain about “trying to get out the door” and “every day is a battle” then chaos is a part of their morning routine. Deciding what to do for the rest of the day can also be part of a routine. If you walk into your favorite restaurant and consider the menu before picking the same thing, or never picking the same thing, that’s a routine.

A routine is a behavior or a set of behaviors that execute on semi-conscious cues.

Purposefully built routines have the power to alter our paths. What would change in your day if you began it on purpose? Could you be more calm or more energized? How would you like this day to happen?

You are the expert on you. Without giving any advice about what to do with your morning routine, let’s talk about how to change the routine you have.

  1. What is the result you want? Begin with the end in mind. If you had the perfect start to your day, how would you be and what would be happening?
  2. Notice what you’ve got. For 2 – 3 days, watch yourself go through your morning without judgement. Notice what you do and notice what works and what doesn’t. At this point no one cares why some things happen and some things don’t. The story is irrelevant. Just notice.
  3. Break down the ideal start to the day. This is a loop. Your loop may have you walking all the way back to the night before.
    1. What is the last thing that has to happen?
    2. What conditions or actions have to exist to make it possible?
    3. Repeat with the condition or action from 3.b
  4. What’s already in the routine and working? Does it need to move earlier or later or stay right where it is?Next is the most difficult step.
  5. Change one thing. Just one, for a week or two. Make a change and monitor how it goes. Even if the change seems stupid easy and you are certain you could change the entire morning, don’t. For most people, change is best accomplished in small increments. Be patient. Change one thing. Once that thing is fairly well integrated, which takes a week or two, change the next thing.

Routines are that mid-point between mindfulness and habit. We use the mindfulness technique of notice-and-name to become conscious of patterns, consciously change parts of the pattern, and as they become more automatic, make more changes. The routine may over time become habitual, but for the moment we are still very aware of actively making choices.

In the comments, let me know how it’s going or ask questions! I’m happy to help.

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