When Life Gets in the Way
Thought I’d write something a bit different this week, especially in light of me not writing a post last week.
Sometimes, habits have to be broken because life gets in the way.
These past two weeks I’ve had long, fairly stressful, work days as well as a very complicated house move due to factors outside my control.
With the amount of time that I had available to myself severely diminished, I found it very difficult to fit in everything I wanted to. In addition, during that free time I did have I was pretty exhausted.
A lot of the time, these situations can be avoided by some good forward-planning. It’s easier to say then do, however, but we’ve got to make sure that we aren’t letting things slip that we know are going to come back and bite us later down the line. It’s not worth the stress that will be inflicted on us.
When there is no other choice though, we’ve got to work out what habits we need to keep, and those we need to drop.
The first type of habits that we should try to keep are personal care ones. These are the things that feel like rewards, either during or after. Classic examples are the simple things like brushing your teeth and showering, or slightly bigger things like exercise or reading. The reason we want to keep those are that we want to make sure we’re not burning ourselves out by everything else going on in our life. Especially if it’s a period that’s going to last a few weeks.
The next type of habits to keep are those which are moving you in the direction you want to go in. Whether it’s practicing your singing or job applications, it’s important that you keep going with these so that you don’t get bitter about your current situation for restricting your forward progress.
That’s probably all you will be able to do. You might even have to curtail some of the above so you’re not able to do it as regularly as you would normally (my case being a perfect example: down from 1 post every week to 1 every two weeks).
The key with this is reminding yourself what you need to pick up and when. The latter might be quite tricky to definitively know – e.g. next Sunday. But as long as you’ve made a note of your habits that you need to pick back up, the next time you found yourself with more spare time than normal you’ll remember to start again.
As always, it’s difficult to get going again, especially on any habits that you paused entirely. At this point, remind yourself why you’re doing it in the first place, couple it with some benefit if needs by, and get cracking. Nothing good in life ever came easy.
How to start forming a direction
There’s no point deciding what habits to pick up, or get rid of, if you don’t know what you’re trying to accomplish.
Working out an overall goal is a big task. Frankly, I also think it’s pointless. There are a number of things that could happen to you over your lifetime, even tomorrow, that will prevent you from achieving your aims. If it happened tomorrow that wouldn’t be so bad, but five years down the line when you have committed so much will leave you bitter and angry that all your energy was for naught.
Instead, rather than focusing on a specific goal, think about an overall mission. This mission is not reliant on certain roles or jobs, but rather is outcome-led.
To take a very banal example, rather than “I want to be a doctor” it could be “I want to help people”. Now, this example is too simplistic and will not help when making decisions and choices (I’ll explain this more in a moment) but you can see it’s not reliant on something that is outside of your control. You could fall greatly ill in a year’s time which prevents you from undertaking medical school. Or you may find that the sight of blood causes you to faint. If your identity was tied up with becoming a doctor, this would majorly impact your mental health and leave you feeling like a failure.
Rather, if your direction was “I want to help people”, if either of this situations arose above then you could find numerous other things to do to fulfill that aim. Therefore, once you have set your direction, you’re able to keep to it.
That direction will change and refine over time. But setting something early on will make your life much easier. I talk about decisions and choices above, what I mean is that every action you take should reflect your direction in life. Obviously not all choices in life are going to have an angle where your overall direction plays in (trying to get a person you likes phone number doesn’t really line up with helping people, unless you’re massively egotistical). But many decisions do.
Of course, this is also where specificity comes into play. In a given situation, “I want to help people” may still give you several different options to pick. Such a phrase is too broad to be useful in setting direction.
The framework I was provided was to frame it as ‘I want to …so that…). That first bit might be I want to help people, but then the bit after reflects what the outcome of that help is. I want to help people so that…they care for others/they achieve their dreams/they expand their knowledge. Again, I want to help people is a bit too simplistic, so here’s my current one to help provide some ideas:
I want to help people to see their potential, so that they become the person they can be.
It’s not perfect, but it doesn’t need to be. You’ll refine it over time and tweak it slightly.
Once you’ve nailed down the wording, that’s when you can start working out what habits you need to build to realise it.
In next Sunday’s post, I’m going to write about anxiety and fear. These two things will be the biggest blocker to you actually fulfilling your potential. They never go away, but you must overcome them to achieve what you want to achieve.
Recognising your bad habits
Self-awareness is a tricky thing to learn. In my unscientific experience, everyone has a level of self-awareness about themselves which stops at a certain point. Without consistent attention, the only way to understand yourself better often comes from interventions from others.
This is not a good way to learn, because it normally results in some emotional harm for yourself or for others. It will happen – as humans we are not perfect and are prone to constant mistake – but whatever we can do to mitigate this and learn about ourselves unilaterally the better.
When it comes to self-awareness, there are two key aspects which must be kept in mind:
- Self-awareness is not about self-criticism.
I won’t get into a debate about nature vs nurture now, but everyone was shaped by things outside of their control both due to their DNA and their environment. It is therefore unfair to criticise yourself for character traits or habits that are outside of your control, particularly when they came from particularly bad experiences in childhood. Once recognised, however, it is then within your power to do something. That’s not to say it will suddenly be a quick fix (in fact, due to it being something from childhood, it will normally take a long time to change). But not to at least be on the path to fixing it is wrong.
2. Self-awareness is not about overthinking
The issue with being too aware of yourself is that you overthink every decision, or every act. This will either cause you to take no action, to take the wrong action, or to be too late in taking the right action. It will also cause you a lot of grief and a loss of confidence as you try to understand yourself in an unnecessarily deep way. Humans are complicated for sure, but overthinking is not the cure for overcoming your bad habits because your trying to change the way your brain thinks. Taking on entirely new habits and modes of thinking requires an open mind, and that’s what will cause you to overthink. Both because you don’t necessarily know what you are doing, and because your brain fears new experiences, overthinking is something you’ll battle with. Knowing that it will happen, just let it wash over you (easier said than done) and carry on with the plan you made beforehand.
With that in mind, here’s my recommended steps for realising what your bad habits are:
- Work out what good characteristic you want to develop. Depending on where you are in your life, this will vary wildly. Something either social (making new friends) or something skill based (getting to a moderate-level knowledge of a language) are classic ideas, but base it under what you’re trying to develop yourself into
- Talk yourself out of it – let all those voices in your head tell you why you can’t do it. Make a note of all of those reasons down
- Now do the opposite – list all the reasons why you have what it takes to complete the task you’ve given yourself. Depending on your level of self-confidence and the complexity of the task, this may take a length of time. Give yourself the time do it properly.
- Systematically go through each of the negatives and try to figure out which ones are actually true, and which ones are false and just your brain being afraid of new actions. Use your positive list to help out here
- For those which you say are true, now come up with a set of actions for each that would prove them untrue. You may need to start very granular – if you think you’re a bit of a grumpy arsehole, then going to party with nobody you know is not a good start. But smiling and wishing good morning to people as you walk through town is a good start, and will begin the process of changing the beliefs you hold about yourself
- Of course, it’s just not about new habits – you need to get rid of the bad ones too. Refer to my previous article for advice on this
Over time, you’ll develop a more nuanced understanding of yourself. It’s also really important to know where some of these characteristics of yourself developed from. You may be able to recognise it yourself, but here also is where a psychiatrist can be a great help. It’s very important that you don’t misdiagnose where your approach to life has come through, and certainly that you don’t blame others if they turn out to be the source. You’re trying to rid yourself of bad behaviours, not create new ones.
My personal reckoning came when I had been working in my first job for about two years. Without realising it, I had become a massive arsehole – I was constantly stressed, aggressive to colleagues, friends and family, but also internally massively struggling and hating myself. I pinned the blame on everyone else around me, but that didn’t cure anything.
Luckily, someone new joined the team – someone who didn’t take my shit, but also didn’t leave me to just be an arsehole. He told me straight and it changed my whole outlook. I built a way out of the job, fixed friendships, fixed my self-confidence and am in a completely different place in my life now two years on. I wish I had the self-awareness at that point to have recognised what was happening to me before I got to that point, but as I said earlier none of us are perfect.
I am going to use the next article to start talking about how you can work out a bit of a rough idea of who you want to be, so you can start removing those bad habits that prevent you from getting there.
Bad habits come about by two methods: we actively choose them (knowing or not knowing they are bad), or come about as a method of avoiding something that we fear or otherwise don’t want to do.
These type of habits will always have negative connotations to the success and happiness in our lives, but their impact might not always be so obvious. Putting off meeting your friends because you’re suffering from social anxiety (rather than dealing with it) won’t have a huge impact in the short-term, but in the long term they’ll stop considering you a friend at all.
You also might be buried under a mountain of bad habits. If you’ve spent most of your life not doing things you’re afraid of, or don’t know how to do, you’re going to have developed a very limited perspective. If your life outside of work don’t involve anything fulfilling, even just socialising, then you have weighed yourself down with too many bad habits.
The key method to start dealing with bad habits is to first acknowledge them
Acknowledging bad habits
You will never be able to know all your bad habits just by sitting down and thinking about it for half an hour. Overtime, you will gain an understanding for what they really are. Especially if you have had those habits for years, realising they are bad is going to take a long time. You’ll often need others to help you spot them.
So let’s try and find one. Look at the small bad habits in your life. These are the things you always feel slightly shitty about doing. It might be not making your bed in the morning, taking ages to respond to a friend’s message, ordering in takeaway too often instead of cooking.
Once you’ve found one – and I do mean just the one – let’s go about dealing with it.
Dealing with a bad habit
For the purposes of demonstration, I’m going to pick something really basic – brushing your teeth twice a day. In this case I’m brushing once a day, and for a pretty short amount of time at that.
There are two methods here that will help – positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement.
Let’s start with positive. Everytime you brush your teeth, think about how it makes you feel. You should feel just a bit better about yourself – cleaner, you can go out and see people etc. You should feel more confident.
With that, you should also take an action. After brushing your teeth, go for a short walk, or go to the shops and grab yourself something you like. This will make you associate reward with brushing your teeth. After a while, you need to stop doing this – and it will be fairly easy to do so, once you’re into the habit of brushing.
The other method to help is negative reinforcement. Realise how rubbish you feel after not brushing your teeth – lazy, unhygenic, whatever feeling or emotion you associate with it. I don’t feel you need to do a punishment action for something like this, but realise what it restricts you from doing – or from doing with more confidence.
The key, obviously, is maintaining this change in habit
Tips to maintain change
- Realise habit change is not easy. Habit change is a windy road. For some smaller bits, the change will be easier. For harder pieces it will take much longer. When I was trying to break out of the habit of playing video games for 5+ hours a day (when I should have been looking for a job) it took me about 6 months. And the day before I stopped? I played 7 hours. As long as you are maintaining your methods where you make your good habits feel good and your bad habits feel bad then you will get to the point you want to
- If you’re going to do a few habit changes at the same time, make them related in some way. Find what relates them – two classic categories are laziness and social anxiety. By dealing with a few things at once, you’ll feel like you’re making much quicker progress at dealing with that character trait – which is ultimately what habit change is trying to do. There’s no point making your bed every morning if you’re only getting up 10 minutes before you have to login for work. Don’t start every habit change the same day, but begin them all within a few weeks of each other. When I started job hunting again, I began exercising again, wearing proper clothes during the day, keeping my job hunt to 9-5 and reading in the evening. I was trying to create a routine, and so establish myself as someone who could be in work and get a job
- Use tools to help you. Whether it’s a calendar, a to do list, or a diary, work out a way where you can cheer yourself on in breaking old habits. I wrote in a diary regularly while I was trying to do things to deal with some social anxiety that had built up over the covid lockdown. With overcoming anxiety, I knew it couldn’t just be about building the habit but also about realising that things were improving as I knew it would take at least six months to improve. It also is now something great for me to refer back to and see how I got myself out of that state.
- If you can, replace the bad habit with something good. Don’t just stop watching shitty tv every night and either a) do nothing or b) replace it with going out and getting drunk. Find a habit which gets you to where you want to go next, even if it’s small. Or spend time on some of the things you already love
Hopefully that’s been helpful. My next article I’ll publish on Sunday and will go more in-depth on acknowledging what your bad habits are.
What is a habit?
A habit is a type of behaviour which is a consistent part of your life, whether in how you act or what you do.
It’s a well known word but one that is infrequently used. For the most successful in society, we assume they are born with their current talents. It makes sense – we don’t see the journey of how they got there. The hours spent practicing, failing, breakdowns and breakthroughs are habits which brought them their success.
Unfortunately, this mistaken assumption of ours leaves us to believe we do not have the capability to achieve our ambitions. It has made the word habit used to describe things we currently do, rather than to describe things we could be doing.
It’s also used in quite a narrow sense. The habit of making your bed in the morning, the habit of going to the gym a few times a week. We need to take a more holistic view, and realise that habits can be developed to help in, in my view, four distinct areas:
- Baseline activities – Key habits
- Who we want to be – Character habits
- What we want to achieve – Purpose habits
- How we spend our downtime – Relaxation habits
Key habits can be broken down into two distinct types.
The first is habits needed to be a functioning member of society. For some of you reading these will appear trivial, for others this is the key starting place to rebuilding yourself.
These include things like brushing your teeth twice a day, showering regularly, and being tidy.
Without these, it’s impossible to begin to develop other habits effectively.
The second type of key habit are not essential, but will make your life a lot easier. These include things such as habits around how you manage your money, knowing how to cook well and being able to fix things yourself.
One of my early philosopher teachers taught me our beliefs are not defined by what we say, but what we do. This is applicable across our full range of character traits too.
Now of course, we are each predisposed to certain ways of acting. If you’re an introvert, you can’t “habit” your way into becoming an extrovert. If you’re loud and extravagant, then becoming quiet and modest is going to be a tall ask.
That is all largely irrelevant, however. The key is start with who you want to be, and then to work out how such a person who act. Once you’ve done that, you can divide that into certain habits you would need to build.
One of the key character habits that is universal is confidence. No matter the type of person you are, you should be confident and comfortable in your own skin. This is one of the things that will bring you long-term happiness – if you don’t like yourself, how could anyone else?
But by working out who you want to be, and building habits to create you as that person, you will become confident. If you’ve achieved the type of person you really want to be, how could you not be confident in yourself?
The final bit that I want to raise, which I will cover in much greater detail in another post, is that of fear. If we’ve acted a certain way for a long time, we’re certain that we are who we are and it’s simply not possible to change that. But that’s a perfect example of a habit – and just like you can build good habits, you can break bad habits too. I have a firm belief that many of us have a great deal of capability, but we bury it under mounds of bad habits derived from fear and things we believe about ourselves.
If you are able to find your purpose fully in your work, that is fantastic. It’s extremely rare and you have done a great job to get there.
For most people, however, their work can only fulfil a portion of their purpose, can only provide so much enjoyment.
Your purpose habits refer to the time spent aiming for a lofty ambition which has no other reward other than simply having done it. It might be writing a book, running a marathon, or something much bigger like building your own house.
These habits are the hardest. There is almost never any immediate reward, which in our current society of instant gratification makes it that harder to keep these going because we are so used to short-term pleasure. The reward, however, is unbelievable. I ran an 100km ultramarathon. It took me close to 15 hours. The high that I was on after lasted for months and it completely rewrote some fundamental beliefs I had about myself. Now whenever I face a difficult challenge, I remind myself that I completed that and it makes whatever I’m currently facing feel accomplishable.
You don’t want to have really more than a few purpose habits going on at once, so you can devote the appropriate amount of time to each. You also need to start small and build up – don’t start your DIY ambitions by building the house unless you’ve built a shed first.
It’s just as important to have time to refresh yourself as it is to be working towards something. We simply can’t work constantly, but we do need to know how to use our time off well so that we can hit the next day as effectively as the ones prior to it.
Everyone has something slightly different they need. It’s important, though, that you’re still choosing habits here which actually do help. It’s easy to sit watching videos on your phone for an hour, and I’m sure for some people that will give them the rest they need, but for many I think there are better options.
Understanding the different types of habits helps us to understand what to work on first. Naturally a lot of this overlaps – by working on your character habits you’ll approach your passion projects in a different way. By working on your purpose habits you’ll improve on your basic habits.
Next time I’m going to talk about bad habits – and what can be done to break them. I’ll be sharing a few personal stories and what worked for me.
Habits have had a massive impact on my life. Whether good or bad, they have shaped what I’ve achieved and how I feel on a daily basis.
Bad habits put me in a sad and lonely place for much of my life. I wasn’t aware that I could control them, thinking that this was simply the life I was given.
Good habits have transformed my life to a point where I’m on the journey to being the kind of person I want to be. I’m still a long way off, but I know that by following the routines I have in place that I will continuously improve and end up as close as possible to where I want to be.
We are often led to believe that it is what we think and say that defines our actions. But, really, our actions defines what we think and say. And we can choose our actions. By choosing new actions, who we are as a whole will change.
I firmly believe we’re all much more capable than we give ourselves credit for. Unfortunately, as we hit adulthood, we create beliefs and develop a mindset that says we can’t do this or that because of certain reasons. In most cases, those reasons are fabrications, developed by fear or past bad experiences. The longer we continue to believe those reasons are true, the stronger they will get and the weaker we will become.
In this blog I’m going to feed in my personal experience with habits, as well as what’s out there in the science in this space (and behavioural change more broadly). I have three goals with this blog:
- Help you recognise and dismantle your bad habits
- Help you work out what good habits you want, based on your goals
- Help you build and maintain those good habits
If this somehow develops into a community, I hope that guidance and ideas will come from everyone – not just me.
I will post to this blog at least once a week. I may, from time to time, post about other interests just to mix it up. I have quite a broad range of things I’m into and enjoy talking about, so while those posts may largely be for the purpose of entertaining, they may also intrigue you enough to develop an interest in them to as you seek to work out your goals.
Until next week,