When good habits fall apart

All it took was a few weeks of business travel for me to throw my good habits out the window. I ate and drank too much. I slept less. It felt like there was no time for exercise or meditation or writing in my journal.

I came home a few pounds heavier, and even weeks after my return, it seemed I had abandoned the good practices I had taken so long to develop.

Oops.

Although this was upsetting, it was also fascinating. One element of what I do for a living is to help people develop new habits and a new mindset. I see how difficult it is for people to establish and maintain almost any habit. So experiencing my own relapse provided me with an opportunity to experience how to fix it.

Falling off the wagon

Crash Of The Radio Flyer by Gene Ritchhart

The habit checklist

As I was studying habit change, I found that much of the research tends to point to the same findings. One book, Coach Yourself, compiled the advice into a simple list that I first wrote about on January, 2014.

“This short list summarizes the basic approach towards changing anything in your life.

  1. Take small steps towards your goals
  2. Set some realistic, achievable goals
  3. Structure your life to help you attain your goals
  4. Allow yourself to fail sometimes without turning it into a catastrophe
  5. Look at the areas where you’re successful
  6. Reward yourself for your successes
  7. Focus on your achievements
  8. Enlist the support of friends
  9. Chart your progress
  10. Picture the way you’d like life to be

Where my previous attempts at change failed, it was because I attempted too big a change too quickly, overreacted to my failures, lacked peer support, or missed some other element on this simple list.”

The road to recovery

So as my good habits were falling apart, I simply consulted the habit checklist. Here are the things that helped me get back on track.

First off, number 4: “Allow yourself to fail sometimes without turning it into a catastrophe.” Seeing how common it is to relapse to old ways, I didn’t make a big deal of it. Rather than waste energy berating myself for something quite normal, I focused on taking steps to fix it.

Then on to number 3: “Structure your life to help you attain your goals.” If I wanted to drink less, then I should keep less wine in the house. If I wanted to exercise more, I should schedule when and where I would do it. Shaping my environment in simple ways made future decisions much easier.

I still needed to act, though, and that’s where my favorite, number 1, came in. “Take small steps towards your goals.” I first wrote about “touching the treadmill” in 2013, when I realized that the most powerful principle in developing a new habit is the progress principle. A small step towards your goal gives you a sense of your control, leads to increased motivation, and empowers you to keep going. So rather than setting a goal of  “doing everything I used to do,” I simply aimed to do things once as a way to get started.

Having taken a few steps, it was checklist item number 9 that helped me be mindful of my habits each day: “Chart your progress.” Ben Franklin talked about his “resolutions chart” in his famous autobiography, and I wrote about “How this one simple chart made me happier in 6 weeks” a few years ago.

“What happened is I became mindful of my happiness. Put together, all the resolutions on my chart made for a powerful shift in what I did and how I thought. Instead of thinking of happiness as something I would find, it has become a state I am actively trying to create. In a few minutes each day, the chart reminds me of what I need to do to maintain balance in my life and, when I’m out of balance, what adjustments I might make the following day. I gradually became happier after a few weeks.”

I also wrote that “I might maintain a resolutions chart for the rest of my life, just like Ben Franklin,” and indeed I’ve maintained a chart each week since then.

What’s right for me may be wildly different than what’s right for you. The path you take will also be different. But for most of us the secrets of developing and maintaining the habits that make us happy can be found in a simple checklist.

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p.s. Speaking of habits, I’ll be taking time off from writing this Saturday blog and focus more on writing the second edition of Working Out Loud. My next post here will be on September 10th.

Will my weekly writing habit “fall apart” as a result? It’s possible but unlikely. Writing is now like being a vegetarian, more deeply wired into who I am and what I do. While I was on the business trip that undid my other practices, I was able to write and stay meatless without much thinking at all.

See you in September. 🙂

Growing up racist

The contradictions are what confused me, seeing how people could be nice and hateful at the same time. It started with my own father.

I was born in The Bronx, in an all-Italian section between Pelham Bay and Throggs Neck. That’s my house in the photo, where I spent hours in the 1970s playing stoop ball in the summer.

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When I was six years old, we were doing a class project about Martin Luther King. This was before there was a national holiday for him in the US. I had to cut out pictures from the paper, and I showed one to my father. He looked at it, cursed, and tore it up. Confused and upset, I went to my mother. “He’s angry,” she said. It seems he was remembering his brother, who died in an accident in the army and was forgotten. The attention on Martin Luther King’s sacrifice seemed unjust to him.

Growing up, I was surrounded most by older kids. I remember playing basketball at the local park, when one of them spotted a black teenager walking on the street outside. They screamed at him and chased him, telling him to get out and never come back. They were celebrating when they returned, and talked directly to us about “cleaning up the neighborhood.” “We keep the older ones out,” they said. “It’s your job to chase the younger ones.”

I learned just how serious people were about keeping our neighborhood “clean” when we awoke to sirens one summer. The house two doors down was on fire. People were talking about it the next day, trying to find out what happened, and heard the fire was set on purpose. “They were going to sell the house to black people.”

One particular memory haunts me. I was walking with a small group on Tremont Avenue to get pizza. We noticed a young black kid about my age, maybe twelve years old, riding his bike. One of the older kids took a chain that he carried with him and threw it at the bike, where it caught in the back wheel. The kid fell in the middle of the street. Our group yelled at him, and he scrambled to pick up his bike and race off.

I remember thinking that his bike was just like mine, that he was a kid, just like me. I felt ashamed and afraid, but I didn’t say or do anything.

These memories are surfacing now as I see the same contradictions in people forty years later. I’m not suggesting I’m better than my father, or better than the people I grew up with. It’s just that racism has been part of my experience and has shaped me. Somehow, we all took solace in finding an enemy.

One important thing I learned, something that gives me hope, is that the enemy we picked had to be people we didn’t know. Growing up, we were taught to hate Puerto Ricans, too, until a lovely Puerto Rican family moved in and we became close friends. Fairly quickly, we no longer thought of them as Puerto Rican, but as individuals. I still remember their names. 

We were also outraged at people who didn’t speak English, yet we honored my grandmother, who had come from Salerno on a boat in the early 1900s, and spoke only Italian for the rest of her long life. What was seen as a disrespectful lack of assimilation by an enemy was viewed as respecting tradition when done by people we knew. Women, too, could be the enemy. It was almost a game to mistreat women, yet men would go to extreme lengths to protect the purity and honor of their sister or girlfriend. It was common to have the word “Mother” as a tattoo on your arm. My father had one.

Identifying racism in other people is easy, but am I doing anything to change it? If the incident with the little boy on a bike happened today, would I stand up to the aggressors, or just shake my head in silent disapproval?

I’m sure I have conjured up my own enemies in my head, whether it’s people of a certain race or a certain political party. Them and the people who support them. There is no shortage of potential enemies. Railing against them may provide some comfort or validation, but it also makes me angry and afraid. It’s a trap. 

Just last night, I came across this passage in a book that talks about exactly this. It’s aptly titled, No Time to Lose

“We’re so preoccupied with our own comfort and security that we don’t give much thought to what others might be going through. While justifying our own prejudice and anger, we fear and denounce those qualities in others. We don’t want ourselves or those we care about to suffer, yet we condone revenge on our foes.”

That same book offers a way out of the trap. It’s the unending practice of empathy and compassion. To stop the cycle of hate and fear, we need to get to know them better, till they become us. It’s difficult and uncomfortable, but the alternatives are much, much worse. 

The Clock Test

You walk into a conference room at work that you use often, look up, and notice that the clock has the wrong time. It’s working, but it’s off by more than 20 minutes. A week later, you’re in the same room and notice that the time is still wrong. What do you do?

  1. Nothing.
  2. Complain that the time is wrong.
  3. Notify someone that the clock needs to be fixed.
  4. Try and change the time yourself.

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Now imagine the clock in your kitchen has the wrong time. Would you answer differently?

My own results

If you’re like me, you would fix the time in your home right away. But at work, your answer would be different.

I was able to take a version of this test quite recently when I was in the gym in my building and noticed the time was wrong. I was slightly annoyed, and wished that someone would fix it. I thought of telling the handyman, but it was too much effort for such a small issue.

A week later, the time was still wrong, and the same thoughts ran through my head. Then it hit me: I could fix it myself. So I walked up to the clock, lifted it off the wall (it was just hanging on a screw as many clocks do), and set the time.

This one trivial act made me feel a bit more empowered. It also made me wonder why I hadn’t done it sooner.

Control and motivation

It’s a small example of the link between control and motivation that Charles Duhigg (author of The Power of Habit) wrote about in his latest book, Smarter, Faster, Better.

“Motivation is triggered by making choices that demonstrate to ourselves that we are in control. The specific choice we make matters less than the assertion of control. It’s this feeling of self-determination that gets us going.”

Certain environments systematically rob people of their motivation by removing the opportunities to make even simple choices.

“In some workplaces, for example, control is embedded in a process and even the smallest actions require approval from someone else. Or, possibly worse, there’s ambiguity about who can decide what, and decision-making is negatively reinforced as people ask “Who gave you authority to do that?”

A feeling of learned helplessness spreads throughout the organization. People start to believe their “locus of control” is external instead of internal, It’s “they” and “them” who are responsible for decisions, and never “I” or “me.””

At home, it’s clear that I can make certain decisions and take actions. But at work? More than ever, we need people who will “Fix the clock” but we create corporate environments that tell us otherwise.

Did you give different answers to The Clock Test depending on where the clock was located? What made you decide to take action in one environment but not the other? What would it take for that to change?

Three days of lightness 

When I first read about the exercise, I knew I wanted to try it.

All you do is to pick a word that embodies something you want more of in your life, like courage or confidence, joy or lightness. Then, for three days, you keep that word in your mind. (The exercise recommends writing it on your hand or attaching it to your clothing.)

I chose “lightness.” If there’s something I want more of, it’s to be more relaxed, to treat the little things as little things, and to surf uncertainty with a smile instead of intense determination.

I was going to an amusement park with three of my children, so that seemed liked a good time to practice. I wanted it to be fun, and yet I could sense I was tense just getting out the door. So, throughout each day, I just kept asking myself, “What would it mean to be light in this situation?”

When there was traffic that made a three-hour drive much longer, I thought of lightness, looked at the beautiful surroundings, and talked with the kids.

When my plans to be at a certain place at a certain time fell through, I reminded myself that such things happen all the time. Instead of getting upset, I just made new plans.

When my youngest was complaining about something that seemed trivial to me but important to him, we came up with ways to make things better.

On the second day, I put my phone in a locker, and didn’t think about checking it.

We rode all the rides, with the kids taking turns choosing the next one. When it was a water ride and I didn’t particularly want to get wet, or a roller coaster I wasn’t fond of, I thought What would it mean to be light in this situation? Then I smiled and got on the ride. It felt liberating.

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On the last night, we stayed until the park closed. My pedometer said we walked for 12 miles, which must have been forty thousand steps for my little boy. We got ice cream afterwards to celebrate.

Of course, there were times when I forgot about lightness, and my habits took over. When it happened, I shook my head and committed to doing better next time.

I first discovered the exercise in a lovely, helpful book titled Pathways to Possibility and learned how apt the title was. Just keeping a word in my mind changed my perspective. Lightness was a choice, and it was a choice I made much more often throughout the three days.

I hope I remember that word. I hope you try the exercise too.

A stranger in a strange land

The story, written in 1959, takes place in an Ibo village Nigeria. I read it while traveling in Germany, where I’m working with new clients. I finished it today on a train to Köln.

My experiences on my trip and the experiences in the book could not be more different. Yet I was surprised that some of my reactions were similar.

A portal to another time and place

Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe, follows the life of Okonkwo and his clan. It’s a world completely foreign to me. Besides the words and names I couldn’t pronounce, everything was unfamiliar to me, from the food and customs to how they related to each other and their view of the world.

Each time I came across something new, I found my instinct was to judge it, to take comfort in labels. Their gods were “ridiculous.” Their food “disgusting.” Their ideas and customs “primitive.” It was a riveting story, and yet I felt the need to rationalize the differences.

Things Fall Apart

A modern business trip

My reactions were extreme because the differences were extreme. Yet on my trip I noticed the same need to label and value things. Good or bad. I like it or don’t like it.

Traveling in Western countries, the contrasts are more muted, and so are my reactions – to the language, the different foods, even to the prevalence of soccer and smoking. I had minor opinions on everything from the architecture to how people drive to how the trains and taxis work.

I have enjoyed meeting so many lovely people here, and had some wonderful experiences. But reading the book made me mindful that I still had a need to deal with the small differences somehow. Though I liked to think of myself as an open person, it was as if putting things in neatly labeled boxes was a strategy for making sense of the world.

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Something to practice

Towards the end of Things Fall Apart, a missionary arrives, trying to change what people believe and how they behave. He’s challenged by a group desperate to maintain the ways of the clan and fighting to keep their distance.

“He does not understand our customs, just as we do not understand his. We say he is foolish because he does not know our ways, and perhaps he says we are foolish because we do not know his. Let him go away.”

When I read that paragraph, I put the book down and thought about my own ways and habits. What if, instead of judging things that weren’t familiar, I just accepted things for what they are? Instead of labeling the differences and keeping a safe distance, what if I got closer and asked more questions?

Being more open and curious seems like a better way to live, and something I’m committed to practicing.