“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit.” -Will Durant
I’ve been reading a lot about habit-building and I’ve discovered a problem with me: I’m great at identifying big things that need to change. I mean, great at it! I’m a world-class goal-setter. But I lack the attention span to institute wholesale changes in my life. I really need bite-sized goals that can be done repeatedly over the long haul. These sorts of stepping stones to change are more achievable and less soul-crushing should I – gasp! – fail for a day or a week or entirely. So, as I’ve identified the bigger things I want to accomplish or change, I’ve tried to break them down into micro habits that feel doable and will still feed the larger goal. I’ve been amazed at the effectiveness of this system so far. Here’s an example of one (that I recently mentioned on Facebook that generated a lot of emails and questions and led to this post):
Big Goal: Eliminate Clutter (it’s a really big goal for me! I’m super cluttery.)
Micro habit: I will wear the very first outfit I put on in the morning for 21 days.
The thing is, I really love clothes and I have too many options. It is not an exaggeration to say I sometimes change five to ten (!) times (I know), which means my bed was always piled high with the mess of rejects and who has time to hang all those up when you’re trying to get out the door? This one bad habit was creating six days of clutter in about fifteen minutes, which I was coming home to at the end of a long day. It also created stress. The more I changed, the more I felt my blood pressure rising from frustration and insecurity with my decision-making abilities. Finally, this one little habit was breeding discontent. I had trained myself to believe my first choice couldn’t be the best choice, which created a nagging dissatisfaction with a perfectly good wardrobe and worse, with myself in general.
So, I did it. I made the micro habit an essential part of my day and, as I mentioned, it was hard. It was especially difficult on days when I was speaking and felt the pressure of the big screen weighing heavily on my outfit choice. But I stuck with it and you know what I discovered? Once I left the house, I never really gave my outfit another thought and – here’s the bigger piece – neither did anyone else! No one pointed or laughed or told me I should have taken another crack at it. Turns out, at the root of my clothes-changing-addiction is an unhealthy self-focus. (You probably figured that out like three paragraphs ago, but I’m a slow processor.) I wouldn’t have called it pride before, I would have called it insecurity – but they’re really just two sides of the same coin. Here are the wins from this micro habit:
- I have a new awareness of the role clothing plays in my identity. I needed a wake-up call there and didn’t realize it.
- I make more intentional decisions about what I will put on in the first place, which is leading to greater levels of intentionality in other areas as well.
- I have more peace and less frantic in the mornings, which means this is good for the boy who shares my home as well.
- Remember when I said “I love clothes and have too many options”? Yeah, that became the subject of my next micro habit which I may write about soon.
- There has been SO much improvement in the clutter situation – and I’ll remind you this was the only reason I started this experiment in the first place. Turns out, I got so much more beauty than I bargained for!
Have I stuck with the habit? Yep, pretty much. I still have relapses, but I always notice them and recognize the negative things they produce and I think that’s a win as well. Overall, I’m thrilled with the results of this one tiny, little, baby step. So, enough about me – are there any new micro habits in the works in your life? How’s it going?
With hope for powerful habits,
PS: Books I read and really enjoyed on this topic:
The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg
The Happiness Advantage, by Shawn Achor
Before Happiness, by Shawn Achor
It’s Monday and Monday is usually a fresh start for me. I love Mondays.
Today, I woke up feeling hunched over. Pushed down. And the funny thing is, it’s not my immediate circumstances that feel weighty. My life is really pretty solid right now. It’s the stuff outside and the process of determining what gets to come inside.
Politics are driving me crazy. I’m passionate about most things – it’s a good and bad thing in me – and I therefore have a pretty strong opinion about every thing I read or see flying around on facebook. I even have an opinion about your opinion, though I’m better about letting that go than I’ve ever been. Today I’m wondering, how much should I care about this Very Big Deal in our country? How much should I pray, how much should I say, how much more noise does this thing really need?
Social issues are weighty and pressing. Syria, orphans, human trafficking, racial tensions and our country’s divided view of their reality, ALS and other deadly diseases, lack of clean water, the need for young women to get an education…everything is important. Most of these things even carry life-and-death consequences.
And people. People right here in my city are hurting – longing for connection and community. I get emails nearly every day, asking for a coffee meeting to talk about why I think the Bible is absolutely true or could I call someone’s friend who was just diagnosed with cancer or connect with someone’s daughter who just moved to Bend and has no friends. They are all good, kind requests and any one of them is possible in my schedule, but not the bulk of them and so the decision about what to let inside becomes a weight in itself.
When Steve died, I sat down and wrote some things I definitely wanted for my new, single life. At the top of the list: Well-ordered priorities. In my world right now, the priorities are currently:
- My own health and healing – spiritual, emotional, physical. If this one doesn’t work, none of the rest work either.
- Parenting well – the sense of responsibility I feel as the only parent is not something I could easily describe. It’s just very, very real.
- My job, which both pays the bills and provides a great sense of purpose and fulfillment.
- My tribe. They are people who have been with me through thick and thin and have a voice into my life. They often serve as a Steve surrogate, listening to my heart and helping separate the wheat from the chaff. I would say there are about two dozen people in this category and they are GOLD to me and not easily replaced. But like all relationships, they don’t maintain themselves. They require time and nourishment and conversation.
- The ALS Community. I will almost always push an ALS need to the top of the pile. The disease is so vicious and rare, that those going through it are desperate for mentors and encouragers and I want to be one of those, but I do often wonder how to fit it all in.
And then there’s Number 6. Number 6 is where my problems start. It’s the blank space, the open territory that could be occupied by politics or coffee with young women who want to be pastors or research on the Syrian civil war. Number 6 could be almost anything, because after the first five everything else is somewhat equal. But the problem is when, like today, Number 6 becomes weightier than the main list. There’s something about it’s lack of definition that makes it noisier than those others. Maybe it’s because the first five have been around a long time and can seem like they’re doing fine compared to Syrian refugees. That blank space has an of-the-moment appeal that moves my short attention span toward shiny things.
One thing I know for certain is true: I only have a certain amount of seed (time, talent, treasure) to sow and I can’t magically create more. I can only use what’s left after the others are well cared for. Number 6, therefore, is a daily exercise in listening to the Holy Spirit for what I should do with this handful of seed. Where will it land and grow most effectively? What are my motives in sowing? I recently spent hours on a blog post about my current political leanings only to realize: this isn’t going to help anyone. My motives in writing it were, frankly, to spout off and look smart. The end result was two hours of seed, thrown to the wind. Sigh.
So, that’s my thing today. What to do with Number 6. Have you found a good way to order your priorities and deal with the onslaught of seed-hungry opportunities? I’d love to hear about it. Help a sister out.
Confession: Seven months after losing Steve, I have yet to make it through an entire book on dealing with grief. Partly, because I read too many books at once and the grief books are easiest to put down. But more because the minute I run into subjective truth that’s stated as universal, I tend to tap out. I’m not defending that method, just being honest about my response system.
I never want to be someone who spits out easy answers or weary platitudes, but I do want to be a helpful voice in the journey for those coming along behind. I really, really do. In fact, I feel it’s part of the reason I’m even on this spinning planet to begin with. So, I want to share my entire strategy for walking this weird road in one sentence and it is this:
Do what’s working.
If something works, I try to stick with it. If something doesn’t work, I put it on the shelf for a bit and maybe I’ll try that thing later, but for now, I put the bulk of my limited energy into the things that make me the happiest in the long run. Here’s my short list of current Happymaking habits – these may not be happy for you, but I encourage you listen to the rhythms of your life and make a list of your own.
Movement. After five months of resisting running (which I LOVED before), I finally re-prioritized it. Actually, I prioritized walking, which led to running which has led to new levels of health and happiness on nearly every level. Running, for me, involves the great outdoors, fresh air, great music and those beautiful and mysterious endorphins. I try to get a trail (or as a last resort: treadmill) beneath my feet 4-6 days each week.
Social Connection. I made a contract with my introverted self to connect with three people for coffee or happy hour each week. I further promised that I would, in each of these connections, share honestly and transparently about something going on in my life – not everything, but something. Every Sunday, I take a look at how I did with this and determine who I will connect with in the week ahead. This habit has brought so much life and healing and I know Steve – who was the extrovert in our relationship – would be really proud of me for doing it.
Food with Joe. This is a whole, big long story that I will probably write more about down the road, but for now I will say that many failures led to the formation of a new habit which has proven to be a huge success: Eating with Josiah four times each week. We cook together three nights a week (for convenience and fun, we use this company and sometimes this one, and we love it!) and have an official lunch out every Sunday during which Joe gives me an update on his relationship with time, grades, money, friends and Jesus. We’re on our fourth month of this system and I can’t tell you how much it’s impacted our relationship and my happiness level in general.
Sleep. I’m not an awesome sleeper, but both science and experience tell me it’s essential. Honestly, my life implodes without good sleep. So, I’ve had to establish strong and often unpleasant micro habits, like going to bed earlier than I want to and saying no to that afternoon cup of coffee, in order to make it a priority. I’m still not great at it, but I’m learning what works and what definitely doesn’t.
Mornings. Starting the day with solitude is probably the single most important habit in my life. It gives me a chance to think, pray, plan and just sit with the sunrise. This has been true in my life for about ten years, but I wasn’t able to stick with it the last year of Steve’s life because of the aforementioned sleep situation. It’s good to be back to mornings.
There are other, smaller things, like crying when I need to, journaling the journey, talking with friends who are farther down the sorrow road than I am, etc., but these five have been the most consistently effective habits I’ve committed to thus far. Within each one is a list of micro habits that make the big one easier to tackle, but that’s another post for another time.
Wherever you find yourself today, I hope you feel the warm grace of a good God breaking through the icy edges of winter.
With hope for spring,
Well, okay. Full disclosure? Last week was not my very favorite week in all of history (aside: my grandson says “frayvrite” and it’s lodged in my brain that way now, so I hear his cute voice every time I type that word.) I’ve been reading a lot about the science of happiness and one thing I keep running into is this idea that the happiest people are not necessarily those whose lives are going perfectly, but rather those who have learned to quickly and automatically identify the good and beautiful in a world full of hard and ugly. I’m trying to learn to scan my surroundings for happiness instead of scanning for threats and, it may sound like a flimsy strategy, but it’s helped me through some really rough days so I’m keeping it.
I really AM going to write more this week, but for now, here are Five Happy Monday Things.
- Arugula – because it’s delicious, but also sounds like a sunny vacation spot.
- Burt’s Bees tinted lip balm in every single color.
- Fresh starts
- Omnifocus for managing the fresh starts.
- Go, Broncos!
- Bonus: Tonight is Grandma Fun Night at my house! Grey & Finn are coming to make Valentine cookies and Grandma Fun Night is my frayvrite.
What’s making your eyes light up this week?
I met Steve Stern when I was 16 years old. We fell in love when I was 18 and were married one year later. Knowing him, loving him, making a life with him – it’s most of what I know in this world. When I lost him a few months ago, I felt a little like I and all my history had been erased – it was as if I couldn’t see my own face in the mirror anymore. The first month was filled with spinning, spinning, trying to find solid footing. It was so easy to focus on what’s been lost, and very hard work to fully appreciate what remains.
About six weeks in, I sat down and had a good heart-to-heart with myself. I made the decision to stop looking back and figure out who I am now. I wanted to get to know this Bo. Single Bo (which still sounds super weird to me.) Steve will always be such an enormous part of my life because that’s what truly great people do to you. They weave their way into your thoughts and opinions and hopes and dreams, and when they’re gone holes happen. Gaping holes. Scary holes. I’ve watched some sorrow-sojourners fill those holes up with someone or something else so they’ll stop hurting. No judgement on this method, I’ve seen it work for some, but it’s just not for me. I don’t want quick fills. And I don’t want to form this new season of my life around another person. Quite transparently, that means I don’t want to look a certain way or cook a certain way or fold my laundry a certain way because of someone else. Not yet. Maybe not ever. But I’ve been around long enough to know that in the “not yet” and the “maybe not ever”, unknown possibilities are often incubating inside the sovereignty of God. I’m more than content coexisting with that mystery, and in being on a need-to-know basis with Him.
In related news, a few friends have asked about my wedding ring, which I recently moved to my right hand (baby steps) and will eventually put on a chain. I didn’t move it because I’m ready to move onto another person, but because it felt like an important step in the next phase of the journey (though again, lots of people do it differently and that’s perfectly great!) I’m saying yes to this season of life, however scary and crazy and uncomfortable it may feel. I am in no condition to date, so refrain from sending me suggestions. Just know that I am alive and well and trying to lean into the adventure. I can’t change that loss and sorrow are a part of my story, but I can choose to write the narrative around it to include discovery, development and joy in the me that I am now and the me that I will (hopefully!) become.
If you’ve made it this far, thank you. I know this is intensely personal and perhaps even really awkward to read. If I’m honest, it was pretty awkward to write. But this is my story and I’ve come to believe my story is good. And also? I’m grateful for you.