Creating habits or bound up in rules?
In August on my personal blog I started a 30-day blogging/ brainstorming challenge. Over the first 22 days I delivered only 9 posts. The purpose of attempting the 30-day challenge posted by Learning Rebels was to support me in the practice of making my work visible - a key plank of learning to work out loud and creating it as a habit. As Shannon Tipton puts it when we don't do something we become rusty, "the more we turn our head away from what's important, the harder it is to turn back." Habits are things we repeat regularly and tend to occur subconsciously, they are powerful elements of our behaviours to learn how to develop.
But at this point I was technically not even reaching a 50% 'success rate' with my desired habit, unless I was really aiming to develop a habit of avoidance. While some of the issues were fundamentally practical - e.g. I tend to spend my free days either in fields or on the sea, not areas renowned for connectivity - inevitably some were about how I feel about the process of 'putting myself out there' and its importance to me. Unfortunately what resulted from this is one too many incidences of feeling guilt, a bit stressed and a sense of failure.
Then I found myself in a supermarket aisle, simultaneously attempting to remember the contents of the forgotten shopping list and work out when I was going to blog that day, if I was also going to go running. I got to thinking that I was conscious of too many 'rules' about what I was supposed to be doing that day, in any 'ideally effective' day. Now a rule feels fundamentally different from a habit in definition, tone and ultimately helpfulness for changing behaviour; 'explicit or understood regulations or principles governing conduct or procedure within a particular area of activity'. In that moment I felt like a jurisdiction on which the self-improving me was exercising great swathes of control, "don't do this, do that", "do this now", accompanied by negative messages and penalties of guilt.
Now personally, I am an inveterate self-improver, that's one habit I've really got nailed. I just wrote a list and it transpires I am currently, simultaneously engaged in trying to adopt 8 new habits. Not solely, or even mainly, because I see a mass of inadequacies about myself but because it goes hand in hand with my constant desire for trying new stuff and being interested. And as a coach and change agent I am really interested in what works in changing behaviour. Habits as Charles Duhigg evidences are one really important way of thinking about this, "the more you focus the more that focus becomes a habit". In 'Happiness by Design' Paul Dolan relates this idea to achieving the balance between pleasure and purpose that brings happiness, "attention acts as a production process that converts stimuli into happiness."
So, I decided to not do as I was told (yes, by myself), stuff the blog posting and go to a field for the weekend - to be present, flexible and potentially spontaneous. Because that is one of the fundamental problems of rules, they stop you being present and enjoying the experience and opportunities of now. That is where they are fundamentally different from habits; a habit is resilient enough to recover from not being performed on occasion or even for a limited period of time. Yet when trying to adopt a new habit making 'rules' is an essential part of getting to where you want to be because you are acting consciously. Rules are the shorthand of designing in the environment, process and timings of the things you want to be doing subconsciously.
So to differentiate the forming of a new habit and make sure that the 'rules' are just a temporary means to an end, I decided on a checklist:
Have purpose: a thing that you want that you are motivated about - its unlikely the habit itself is the end-game. E.g. I am working on weight training three times a week so I can be a better sailor, not because I want to lift weights 3 times a week. I may by the time I have the habit have changed my mind about the necessity and joy of lifting weights but it's not currently my goal.
Experiment: habit-forming as Duhigg says is an individual process, try a thing, if it doesn't feel right or get done then try something else, keep the things you are using to form the habit under review. E.g. I spent years failing to floss at night because the hygienist said that was when I should, now I floss in the mornings and it actually gets done.
Wear it lightly: if you don't do the thing don't beat yourself up, think about it and try and learn something but move on to try another day or time, maybe go back to 2 and change something.
Reward and celebrate: acknowledge what you have managed to achieve and the effort and skill that went into making that happen. It will give you a platform to help with future habits. E.g. When I wrote my mental list of current self-improvement projects I noted there were at least 3 things that I thought would be on there but actually I now considered them to be habits, but I had not previously acknowledged that I had made that happen.