I get irate whenever people try to tell me what to do; it’s a childhood reaction I’ve never learned to outgrow. Is it bad? I could have missed good advice. Is it good? It has taught me self-reliance. Of course, ultimately, it depends on how I manage my irritations. So, when my dental hygienist tried to convince me that it would take only about 21 days to form the habit of flossing everyday, I smiled and demurred. Silently, I said, “That 21 days is a bunk.
First of all, averages or statistics don’t really apply to individuals; they’re information about the aggregate, a group of people. Second, according to some researchers who wanted to have a closer examination of this “21 days to form a habit” claim, their studies show that the actual average is 66 days, and the range is 18-245 days. However, more importantly, the length of time varies among individuals and among types of habits. Maybe for some people it’s easier to form the habit of folding laundry than writing two hours every day…but not if you’re a devoted writer who’d prefer to wear rumpled clothes.
However long it takes for a person to form a habit, the foundation lies in what motivates her to do so. For some people, watching TV is a bad habit, but for others, it’s a form of relaxation. If a person forgoes watching TV but spends the freed-up time playing computer games… Spending “too much time” on the computer? It depends on what you do on the computer, no? It behooves us to think about what it is that we want to achieve for ourselves and what underlies our anxiety.
Forming a habit is never just a matter of willpower. Wendy Wood, professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California, provides a good clarification: “Willpower is more about looking at those yummy chocolate chip cookies and refusing them. A good habit ensures you’re rarely around those chocolate chip cookies in the first place.” Good habits are about structuring our daily lives and environment so that we minimize those temptations that we deem unhealthy or unhelpful.
Structuring our habits requires both positive thinking as well as recognizing where potential negatives may hide, and in that order. We need to know what our dreams are, but we also need to be cognizant of where obstacles may lie. To focus on only one aspect is likely to lead us astray, and to think of obstacles first is likely to sap our energy. For instance, I only recently figured out my painting habit. I usually enjoy the first 5-10% of each of my paintings; I hate the following 80+%. I have to kick myself all the time to finish each painting, and then, I step back and think, “It’s not half as bad as I thought.” So I know what I’d like to achieve, and I have finally learned to grit my teeth for the majority of the journey thus allowing the end to bring the final joy. If I were to focus on only the potential negative side: wasting time, watercolors, papers…I might as well give up painting, which actually I did for quite some time.
Some people scorn habits and others love them. But imagine having to mindfully engage in every single activity every time: We’d be exhausted before lunch. In fact, we repeat about 40% of our activities every day (huge variance from person to person), and habituation frees us to devote windows in our minds to the pursuit of bigger (and more important?) matters. Rather than wondering whether we should or should not have habits, it seems more important to be mindful of what habits we want to create and maintain, and how to use them to stretch ourselves in new areas and directions.
Poets give poignancy on the otherwise mundane matters. I like Mary Oliver’s words on habits:
“The different and the novel are sweet, but regularity and repetition are also teachers. The patterns of our lives reveal us. Our habits measure us. Our battles with our habits speak of dreams yet to come real.”
So, form away your habits. And if you’re trying to instill a “good habit” don’t feel guilty if it doesn’t stick, if you’re trying to defeat a “bad habit” don’t regret its resurgence … just don’t rationalize.
Till next time,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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