Don’t think: the beauty of habits

Since my adulting confessional last week, I’ve been swarmed by people pleading with me, “Ruth, you’ve gone from being completely disorganized to being only mildly disorganized. How do you do it?! Please, please share your wisdom.”

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Please?

Ok, literally no one has ever said that to me. But I did have several people tell me that my adulting struggles struck a painful chord in their soul, so I thought I’d share the magic word that helped create a semblance of order in my chaotic life:

Habits. It’s all about habits.

Realizing that I needed order in my life was a humbling experience. But realizing that you need something is not the same thing as actually acquiring it. Given that I love to sit, the biggest obstacle in my quest to acquire order was the sheer amount of mental effort I knew would be involved. Organization involves details, and details suck my mental energy like streaming multiple shows will suck your data plan.

I started thinking about what would deliver the greatest results for the least amount of conscious effort (I don’t mind unconscious effort – it’s the conscious stuff that kills me).

The answer I arrived at? Habits. With enough repetition, habits can – to some extent – automate your behaviour so that you spend very little time actually contemplating what you’re doing. (Obviously, this can be good or bad: bingeing on the Real Housewives every night while drinking nacho cheese from a jar can be a contemplation-free habit, but it probably won’t improve the quality of your life).

I arrived at this realization about habits somewhat randomly. Having children changed many things about me (skin elasticity, sleep quality/quantity, sanity levels, etc.), including my attitude towards cleaning. Z, my first, was an extremely mouthy baby. If she saw anything intriguing on the floor – coffee beans, magnets, spiders – she would immediately insert it into her gaping maw.

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Even the forest wasn’t safe from that mouth

Constant vacuuming became a necessity. Four years later, she is no longer hoovering the floor, but I still vacuum every night. I’d formed a habit. Our house is tiny, so the entire process of heaving the vacuum out of the cupboard, unwinding the cord, plugging it in, running it around the main floor, and putting it away takes less than ten minutes. If I analyze every night whether the floor really needs to be vacuumed, whether I have the energy, and whether it is really worth the ten minute commitment, it is such a drain on my brain. But if I do it without thinking every single night, it takes very little effort, and no thought. Plus, it results in a clean floor.

This may sound obvious, but for a sloth like me, it was a revelation. Results with no mental effort. I immediately started thinking about other ways that I could make my life run more smoothly by acquiring additional habits. I soon learned that bingeing on habit formation is similar to bingeing on nacho cheese: too much of the good stuff makes you want to explode. I overdid it. Because as effortless as habits can be once they’re fully formed, launching them can take a significant amount of mental work.

After I recovered from my binge, I approached habit formation with more trepidation, but I was still determined to use habits to reduce the friction in my life. And I can see some real improvements: I make my bed every morning. I complete my physio exercises every night. I read my bible every day. I have a meal plan. Once I’ve decided that something is important enough to qualify for a daily habit, my mantra is “don’t think about it.” I overthink everything, so I have to specifically tell myself that the decision is made, and thinking is over. The payoff is that reducing the mental effort a task requires makes it far more likely that I will repeat the task the next day.

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Sorry, Todd: thinking is over. I’ll never paddle again.

The road hasn’t been smooth. Lots of my habit attempts have failed (like the time I said I was permanently done with sugar. Oops.). And obviously, habits aren’t the answer for every situation. But I can see that my life runs much more smoothly than it did five years ago, and habits are a big part of that. So if you struggle with adulting, I’d recommend forming some habits (that don’t involve nacho cheese). And like me, you can go from being completely disorganized to only mildly disorganized.




 

If you’re looking for some good advice on how to form habits, I recommend Gretchen Rubin’s bestseller, “Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives.” Lots of practical advice and great personal anecdotes. I also found Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit” a fascinating (and more scientific/less personal) take on habits. And of course there’s the ubiquitous “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” but I can’t comment one way or the other because I stalled out on the first chapter.

 

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