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.

Small Changes

A few months ago I had established myself into a routine of daily, if not every other day sitting down and writing for around half an hour. One day I got a puppy… and everything shifted. This small (arguably large I supposed) shift forced me to spend my morning routine within reach of the puppy in case it misbehaved. I could no longer seclude myself in the basement for daily yoga, I had a hard time being undisturbed for a full half hour and the routines I had been crafting so carefully were out the window… literally overnight.

Well now some time has passed, puppy has started to behave more like a family dog, and I’m still not back in that routine. As I look back at how I got started, it seems so hard to do now, so I’m looking at it strategically. The truth is that I didn’t just start writing and doing yoga every day. The truth is that I had been doing short yoga periodically, sometimes meditating and being thoughtful. Then I was making myself write at least once a week for as long as I could. It took baby steps with the biggest change being my desire. I would feel bad when I didn’t do things… I would think about when I could. It all started with the DESIRE to change and then one day I just pushed a little harder. That’s the case right now. I have a timer next to me that says I WILL type for at least 20 minutes. Even if this goes nowhere then I’ll have done this writing and will have started the process.

I look at this across everything I want to be different in my life, no and in the past. Small changes are still changes, the only place shame and pride exist are in my own mind, so why not just do it. YOU might be judging me, but I don’t know that and once I do know, it again is up to me to care about your opinion. The only thing holding me back is my own story, which is a topic for a future post I’m sure!

Years ago I was interested in new age things which led me to look into things that are pseudo-science and widely practiced. On the edge of that was handwriting analysis. It was suggested that someone skilled in this analysis could tell many things about me… and I don’t refute that at all. That being said, I also tried, years ago, to change my handwriting because I thought it was too sloppy. When I look at those two pieces of reality, I’ve always wondered… if I change my handwriting, does that change my personality? At some level, I believe so. At some level, I feel that by becoming more aware of myself, it pushes me to change another part of myself. Changing my handwriting meant I was becoming slower and more deliberate in how I communicated, this change in speed and intent made me more mindful but also more structured and more organized. I still see it when I journal by hand, some days I feel very “put together” and my handwriting is smaller and tighter. Other days I feel rushed and just want to get thoughts down or get the journaling over with and my handwriting becomes wild and erratic.

While I’m not saying that writing differently will change who I am fundamentally, taking the time to affect a certain change has a broader effect across my outlook however temporarily. I liken it to the chaos theory which most will have heard of in Jurassic Park. When a butterfly flaps its wings on one side of the world, it could be a tsunami on the opposite side. Small changes, however chaotic, start a chain of events that have a larger impact. You might have also seen the less critically acclaimed “Butterfly Effect” which revolves entirely around how one small change in your life may affect many unexpected things.

I go into this theoretical physics tangent to just point out that change is always change, however small. If you want to see a difference in your life then it’s important to start, anywhere, in any way possible. Me writing this today will ripple, it might mean I write again tomorrow, it might just mean I pull out my journal and do some handwritten journaling again. By at least starting this, and more importantly by me putting this out into the world, I am back on a path of change… hopefully with the intent in which it is being written. We’ll see, but change is CHANGE.

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!