Habits are the elimination of micro-decisions, and the key to progress

I stepped away from the keyboard for a bit and the result was a decline in so many aspects of my life, largely morale and a sense of “movement.” I’ve long been a believer in the “do something for 30 days to form a habit” mentality, it’s proven so true, unfortunately, to undo a habit doesn’t take nearly as long. I would argue that it can come as quickly as your decision to NOT do it for a day or a week. This is what happened to my writing.

For several months I had managed to incorporate a pattern of waking up, doing little else before I would write in some form; either in my handwritten journal, my Evernote notebook or here on my blog. I would typically also match this with morning meditation or yoga or weightlifting. About 6 months ago I got a puppy and all of a sudden I had to choose to deal with his morning routine to the detriment of my own, with that change in patterns I slowly quickly fell out of my habit.

As I spend my days pondering how much better I felt when I was doing that, I finally link “habit” and “micro-decision” as they really should be. In creating a habit, I remove one more micro-decision from my daily routine. I can choose to wake up and do this thing (writing) or I can wake up and browse Reddit. I can take the time to formulate my thoughts for the day or I can just consume and be distracted. (That seems like another post, consumption vs creation, maybe I’ll return to it later.)

For years I abhorred the idea of routine or daily habits, that seemed like it was all about losing spontaneity or flexibility in my life and while that has some ring of truth to me still, it isn’t as extreme as I’ve always thought.  The trick is to keep those habits and let them coexist with spontaneity. In the case of my writing/morning routine vs my puppy, the answer was likely to start my morning a little earlier or just allow my day to start a little later as I get through my routines. I am realizing more as I become more mindful or self-aware, that habits are really just me removing choices to make and just doing things that should be done. They’re less about “being better” and more about “being me.” When I’m not letting myself have positive habits then I’m just sitting in stasis, or possibly slipping back to a less self-reliant or empowered version of myself.

“Micro-decisions” is a relatively new term (at least to me) and one that’s tossed around by the likes of Tim Ferris and other productivity gurus but I’ve never heard someone say it directly next to “habit”. I’m not saying it hasn’t been said, I just didn’t hear it. I first started seeing it in conjunction with intermittent fasting or probably more specifically “bulletproof coffee.” The usage was that by always consuming the same breakfast, or by only having one meal a day, you have a little bit less to think about and it gives you back some mental stamina or removes some of the stress that builds up from a day of decision making. While I’m not spending my day making high impact decisions for the world around me, I do like that I can get up, do this coffee routine and be on my way. My mornings are on auto-pilot when it comes to nutrition. I would never have called either “BP Coffee” or intermittent fasting a habit but I would acknowledge that they removed one or several small decisions from what I do before work.

I say all that, to say that eliminating a micro-decision is effectively the same as creating a habit. Rather than get up and think “should I work out today” I just say “I’m up, time to work out.” The same goes for my other tasks, “I’ve made my coffee, fed the dogs and let the chickens out, time to write” and that’s just how the day goes from there. No time to wonder what I’ll write about, or if I’ll write, I just start doing it. If it feels like something to share with the world then I’ll go to the blog, if it’s feeling more transactional or daily log then I’ll probably write it by hand and if it’s something between the two (eg. future blog post ideas) then I’ll jump into Evernote. Once I’m done with writing on to the next “this is just what I do” step in the day. It sounds easy because, once you make the choice to do it, it is easy.

Should YOU do it? Possibly? I often say to myself “When it matters, I’ll prioritize making it happen.” The question is when will it matter… that all depends on the person, how happy they are with their current daily habits (Reddit surfing is a habit) and how much they want to default into a new behavior. You just have to make that real decision for a little while (30 days? probably not necessary) and accept that it’s the new normal. I’ll be tinkering with my ideas of “new normal”here in the coming days weeks and months to see where it goes. Let me know if you’re doing it as well.

Craft your own rituals

I keep seeing posts giving me a glimpse into the morning/evening/breakfast/dinner routines of the Internet cognoscenti with a promise that if I adopt the same, my life will expand dramatically. I have now also seen a few posts saying to ignore those other posts because we’re all different. I’ll admit, I’m not a fan of a “Do these 10 things” or “Buy this 7 items” type lists as the list length is arbitrary and the items are typically things I already do, or can’t do, or won’t do. I’m here to say that the things you do are your own to choose, but the real value is to create your own rituals or routines. This seems like a no-brainer, but I’ll expand.

I grew up in a non-religious household with periodic trips to church to stay good with God, I don’t remember a whole lot of the experience and don’t feel it shaped me too much. When I was dating my now-wife I attended Catholic Mass with her a few times and realized how much different it truly was from my churchgoing experience. There was a flow to the process, something I would see at the time as potentially comforting to those in attendance. You might be paying attention to the actual sermon, you might not, but you knew when it was time to stand, to kneel, to sing, to pray. The entirety of the Mass was its own ritual which eased the minds of the congregation. I wasn’t for me, but I could see there was a benefit.

Flash forward to this past month in my life. I was finding a flow with a morning ritual that worked for me and which helped bring peace into my life, then one day, we got a puppy. While this new addition to the family has been surprisingly drama-free, it has brought with it a change in my morning. Previously I had a pattern of getting up, tending to our other critters (chickens & older dog), making coffee, doing yoga, journaling, and blogging. Now, I had a puppy which sort of fit in there, but I had to be vigilant that I didn’t allow him to pee in the house, or chew things up… and he always needed to be near me. For the past few weeks, I always get my coffee, but yoga is intermittent, journaling and blogging is non-existent. My ritual was broken and my mental state has been sliding all the while. I feel guilty for not doing these things which were a priority in my life. I can now see how a devout Catholic could feel distraught if they miss their weekly mass, that departure of habitual comfort is rough.

In religion and in the podcast/blog world, ritual gives us comfort without the necessity of thought. Now, this can quickly fly in the face of my mantra, Be Mindful in All Things, but it doesn’t have to. I can’t speak for religious ritual, but I can talk all day about my daily habits and those of the productivity masters across the web. Ritual, on its own, gives you one (or more) less decision to make on any given day. For me, I’ve started a routine of a “Bulletproof” Coffee in the morning and then an intermittent fast until early afternoon. I no longer spend time deciding on breakfast and my morning is a tiny bit simpler. When I was doing all of the things mentioned in my previous paragraph I felt like I was taking action in my life without trying to decide what to do. Journaling is just automatic word writing, blogging does take more thought… so it was the toughest decision in my morning routine. Morning (or any time) routines are just an antidote to Decision Fatigue.

So there, that’s my point in all of this. Oddly, in this streamlined world, we have MORE decisions to make on any given day than we used to. I have more choices, more opportunities than my parents did at my age and it adds up to be a bit more stress as I try to decide if I’m doing the right thing. Creating a ritual that you follow, or a routine that happens daily, you have a little less stress and hopefully a little easier day. But wait, “What about Mindfulness,” you say? Well, by now you know that Mindfulness is really about being present in the moment. If you have a routine or ritual you’re following, just be present in that process. I grind my coffee beans in the morning, so I’m considering that process while I do it. I take the time to smell the coffee as it brews, I am deliberate in my measurements for butter, coconut oil, protein powder, whatever. While it’s a thing I do every day, automatically, I’m still present every time I do it.

When you’re ready to simplify your morning, your lunch, your midday break, see if you can create an automatic behavior (what I keep calling ritual) that you can be mindful while doing, but that you don’t have to think about before you do it. I’m sure I’ll come up with a 10 things list at some point, but right now I encourage you to make your own 10 (or 7 or 4) item list of morning behaviors and commit to repeating them daily. With these things lumped into a routine, you’re slightly more free to explore other more pressing decisions!

Accepting things at Face Value

If someone says you look nice/pretty/handsome, don’t deny them or downplay their statement. Accept what people tell you as their truth, acknowledge it positively, and move about your day. By downplaying other’s intent we’re just re-investing in our own negative self-talk and devaluing ourselves and them for saying something.

Recently my son entered a crafting contest and as we dropped off his entry, the lady taking entries commented on how nice it was and even commented on parts she liked. Grudgingly he acknowledged her compliment, but he wasn’t super happy or positive in his response. As we were leaving, I commented that she seemed to like it and he said: “She’s just saying that.” Now, this kid isn’t generally much of a pessimist and he wasn’t disappointed with his project before we got there, this was enough out of character to make me pause. Often I get the most insightful WHILE I’m explaining something, so I just responded with what I was thinking, luckily with enough mindful filter to not just lecture or negate his feelings.

As I asked him why he thought that, I tried to allow him to have his feelings while also help him and myself realize, assuming someone’s intent when they say something is just negating THEM while also feeding our own judgments. I suggested to him, as I now do myself and others, that the best you can do is accept someone’s compliment honestly and presume them to be telling you their feelings. Now, you may say that to the complimenter by way of being modest, but your best bet is to accept their kind words with a smile. Whenever possible, shut up the chatter of your “monkey mind” which relishes negativity and incorrect assumptions.

Accepting things at face value can go a long way in different directions with different topics. In this case, my son had negative self-talk regarding his creative efforts. It can also happen in how you’re viewing yourself, that pain in your side may be “side cancer” or it might just be a sore muscle. If you stub your toe on your way out the door it might be because it’s Friday the 13th and there’s a day of bad luck coming your way, or you might have just been rushing and didn’t pay attention to your footing. That person may have cut you off in traffic because they’re mean or they hate you, or they might have failed to see you and then cursed themselves for their idiocy for the rest of their day. We don’t always know the other person’s story, we don’t always know the full circumstances of each event in your life.

Rather than presume the worst, try instead to assume the best or at a minimum just go with the neutral result. Maybe the compliment about your hair is genuine and the person making it really likes it, maybe its more than that, maybe that person is having a bad day and your effort to beautify yourself has uplifted them. Maybe that person has been admiring you from afar for months and just worked up the courage. Maybe when you stubbed your toe it will remind you for the day to slow down and pay attention, maybe that little misstep causing pain in your morning will make you mindful when merging on the highway and not try to dart in front of a fast-moving truck. Maybe if youl’re going to go past face value, you can just spin it to be better than your initial assumption.

Of course, presuming something better is at fault, is just putting a positive spin on the same thing… the assumptions we tend to make. You’re switching negative self-talk into positive assumptions or even wishful thinking. While that can be good for self-esteem, it can be dangerous on it’s own as well. Your most healthful, mindful approach will continue to be to just acknowledge that the thing happened, then release it from your mind. A compliment? “Thank you.” and move on. A pain? “Ouch”, and move on. A random disruption in your flow? “Dang. Darn. Whoopsie.” and move on. Mindfulness is being present in this moment, it isn’t ruminating on past events leading up to it or dwelling on events for the rest of your day. Pretend you’re just a stick floating down a stream, just float and be present.

When you’re “In it”

Sometimes you’re so deeply entrenched in some distracting, non-mindful state that it can be hard to extract yourself. You might be stressed, anxious, angry or just distracted. Even if you’re aware of it, pulling yourself back out can be very hard. This past Monday started with an emotional morning for my son, he didn’t want to school and I was forced to be the bad guy and make him go. As we battled, I managed to stay disconnected enough to not be angry and he was so mired in not wanting to go that he was sad and fearful. On that day, I was blessed with mindfulness and he was a victim of his emotions. (Emotions are fine, good and valid… I made sure to tell him so.) Without making him stop having emotions, we got him to just breathe through things. It wasn’t pretty, but with an audible intake of breath and then an audible release, he was able to move one step at a time to the car so we could leave. One breath. Just this. It wasn’t easy for him and I’m proud that he did manage to push through it. Within 5 minutes on the road, he was back into himself, accepting of his fate and unfortunately trapped with me and my lecturing.

I don’t always get to be blessed with a detached, stoic self. This past weekend, I watched a documentary, “Do you trust this computer“, which got me thinking about the state of politics and general social dis-ease as it’s affected by technology. Sadly they ended their movie on the negative things that have happened, rather than opening with that… so, of course, it’s what I dwelt on. My day had a nagging anxiety hanging behind all of my actions. I soldiered on, but it wasn’t until I really stopped and looked that I realized that I was letting it push my buttons and exacerbate my stress. I couldn’t just shrug it off, or detach myself once it was there. While I can’t say that it fixed me completely at the time, I did stop everything, move to the basement and let a guided meditation app walk me through 10 minutes of clearing my brain. It did calm the anxiousness, it did help de-stress, but I had to take actions. Much like my son’s audible breathing, I had to take additional steps to calm my mind.

My third incident recently, sadly doesn’t have as awesome an ending. I was at work and had big plans to finish several tasks, but I also had so many great internet distractions to observe. Knowing that I had a looming deadline coupled with the need to finish some of my day-to-day responsibilities, I still found myself opening a new tab in a browser and either looking at funny cat gifs, flipping through project ideas on Pinterest or distractedly watching movie trailers for this summers big blockbusters. I know step one of repairing this would be to just close those browser tabs, or maybe disconnect from the internet. Unfortunately when the boredom monster comes to play and when I’m being a master procrastinator I have the hardest time finding some mindful practice that pulls me back. This is my biggest demon to overcome, and it happens both professionally and personally. I’ll say the best answer is probably to step away from a computer or device that causes the distraction, do something “analog” that gets me thinking or focused, then come back. Sometimes this can be a walk, more often it works best if I can just take 10-15 minutes and journal in my physical composition book. If you have a suggestion, I’m open to that as well.

Mindfulness, for me, isn’t a constant state. I’m often just “Mindfullish” and it hangs around the periphery of my awareness. I’m OK with that, I live in a world full of emotional things and I appreciate those exciting moments that are buried within a passionate reaction. I tend to expect that being fully mindful, monk style, means that its always level and there aren’t the spikes of highs and lows so I balk at pursuing it. I go back to my mindful practice as a toolbox, or whenever possible, as just a practice. The two examples above are pulling tools out of the toolbox. When I’m breathing while taking a walk outside, or when I’m soft gazing down the road while driving, I’m practicing my ability to disconnect from those emotions and just be. If I can get good at being present in the non-emotional moments then I can reference back to that when things do get emotionally charged.

The balance of practice in calm times and the actions I can take when charged up is what mindfulness is all about for me. If I can’t detach and “just be” when there is nothing to distract me then how can I expect to step back from excitement.