“And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up."
~Galatians 6:9 (ESV)~
Have you ever thought about habits as a gateway to your dreams? Maybe that sounds strange, but think about it. There are aspects of your life and personhood that you want to change, as all of us do, in order to continue transforming into our glorious best selves. There are actions that you want to take, and even build into your life. Your future self, that dream self, can be reached one action and habit at a time. But it can take a lot of effort to always muscle the willpower it takes to make good choices. It is a better economy of time and energy to weave the things you want to do into your routine, so that you don’t even have to think about them much.
But I want to encourage you to step away from the obligation-based “doing” of it all, and imagine your life as a garden. Every choice you make—even the small ones—plants a seed. We want our gardens to be beautiful and ordered, but often we don’t take time to plant the seeds where we want them, but leave them more to chance. The habits that you create are like trees. They will continue to bear fruit and flowers because they are established, and they only require watering and pruning, instead of starting from scratch and having to plant them every time. If you think about it, there are probably routines that are so ingrained you don’t even think about them as habits anymore, because they’re automatic. That’s what’s going to give you more peace of mind and allow you to use your time in a way that is the most effective.
It can feel a bit overwhelming to think about the entirety of changing or creating a habit. We tend to fall into patterns easily, but changing them can seem challenging or even impossible. But all of us have created habits without always even realizing it and have patterns we don’t even think about anymore. One day I decided to go to a new specialty grocery store in town. I got in my car, singing to the radio and made the turn to my normal Safeway instead of going straight - the direction I would need to go. My mind was so used to heading that way it automatically reverted to that route! And so it is with creating new patterns. You do something so much it becomes ingrained, and you conserve energy because you aren’t putting effort into making yourself do something anymore; it is now a part of you.
But...what about before it becomes a pattern and it’s still hard to remember to do it? I hear you, and this is what I would say to that. Just do it today, or if today is over, do it tomorrow. And then do it again. And again. Plant the seed in your mind that this is what you do. At first you may need an alarm or digital reminder of some kind, maybe a bright sticky-note if you’re more visual. But trust me, it takes less days in a row than you think for an action to be your go-to instead of taking cognitive effort. Patterns can be formed in as little as 21 days, or just three weeks. But again, I encourage you to just think about doing the thing today. Make the bed. Rinse the dish. Go for a walk. Write for ten minutes in a journal. And let yourself get excited about your win! You are sowing a seed that will make you more of who you want to be! Remember, celebrating those simple things is so important to this process.
This is not all about doing, but being, about becoming. Ask yourself questions like “What do I want future me to be like?” “How could future me run her life more efficiently?” Let yourself dream big. Anytime you have a thought like, “I wish I were the kind of person who…” let that longing guide you. But don’t stop there. Ask yourself why that is the kind of person you want to be. What would that habit or action add to your life? How would it support you or your loved ones? What could it simplify?
Instead of thinking of it as having to make yourself do something, think of it as being kind to yourself. Connect it to your well-being. For example, think about a habit you’d like to create - maybe more exercise or drinking more water. If you attach the new habit to a habit you already have you will be more likely to follow through with it. For example, if you want to develop the habit of walking every day for 30 minutes then attach that to letting the dog out in the morning. You will both be happier and healthier and you won’t forget your new habit. Why does this work better than just muscling willpower? It is because you are creating a trigger for your new habit. According to Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit, our habits have a process loop: cue (trigger) - routine (the action whether it is physical, mental or emotional) - reward. It is in the reward stage where your brain decides if this is a habit loop it wants to hold on to.
Habits that you no longer want can be ignored, changed or replaced if you understand how habits function. What is the trigger to your current habit? What am I currently doing that I can adapt as a trigger to my new habit? Am I sufficiently rewarding myself for completing the new habit? The reward is especially important during the new habit creation.
Some simple seeds-to-trees could be making your bed as soon as you get out of it or in the first hour instead of later in the day, watering your plants in the evening, or putting dishes straight in the dishwasher after you use them. You do a small thing that day, instead of trying to change the whole trajectory of your day. Do something for yourself that helps create momentum, make your day run smoother, or gives you a sense of satisfaction.
I find by choosing what I want to start doing, one day at a time, I also remind myself I have agency, initiative and grit. These are all important qualities and processes in any season, but especially when things feel topsy-turvy. For me, making my bed every morning and leaving the bedroom tidy makes at least one room in the house that is completely peaceful and a haven. I make a sanctuary for myself. It feels a lot less like a chore when I realize how good it is for my well-being. Maybe it’s something else for you, like prepping the night before for your breakfast or marking out time daily for journaling or self-care. You do the same thing every day for a while, and it will become a part of you, something that you do automatically, a lovely tree in your ordered garden. And I guarantee you that tree will be easier to plant if you connect it to peace and well-being instead of obligation and duty.
Seeds can also be ways that we contribute to others’ well being. Even in this time where we are physically distanced from people not living with us, we can still connect. Maybe we plan on calling a loved one once a week or mailing out a handwritten note to a friend once a month. If we make it a regular thing we do, then it can become a beautiful way we give and a lovely connection to someone else. I know that when someone sends me something handwritten and I get real mail, I feel really loved and appreciated.
Whew, I know that was a lot to take in. So, just to review…
Five tenets of pattern-creating:
I think sometimes we get busy and forget how to dream, but it makes our souls come alive. Let yourself imagine who you want to become, and create your habits to reflect that. And keep celebrating those small wins. You’re doing it; your seeds will be gorgeous trees before you know it!
"The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully."
~2 Corinthians 9:6 (ESV)~