Tuesday, February 10, 2009

On Forming Habits

I have always said about myself that I do not form habits, either good or bad, very easily.

This is mostly true. I have no large, harmful habits that I need to do away with-- I don't smoke, drink, cuss, abuse my family, watch too much tv, or overeat.

I do have a few small ungood habits: leaving the dishes on the table after a meal till later; a tendency to stay up too late; leaving my clean laundry in the basket till I've worn most of it, to name a few.

As far as good habits go, I think I am lacking somewhat. For starters, those bad habits are the flip side of a good habit that I really should have, as in, I should clear the table right after the meal, and put away my laundry immediately.

However, as I looked back over the last twelve months, I realized that I have actually started some new habits. One is the habit of daily prayers, which I started almost exactly one year ago, and a very good thing it's been.

Four months ago I started getting up with DrummerDude at seven o'clock in the morning and packing his lunch for him. That has been a big change for me, since it involves (aside from getting up an hour earlier than I was used to) several other "by-product" habits, namely, cleaning out his lunch box every day, planning for his lunch, and going to bed at a good time for getting enough sleep.

Almost exactly a month ago I started another new habit: Cleaning my kitchen sink every night before bed. This one, to be honest, has nearly killed me. And I've learned something about myself and my difficulty with forming good habits. To make a habit stick, I've discovered, there can be no exceptions. That has been my problem.

Taking the sink cleaning as an example, here's how my habit-forming scenario goes:

First night-- I clean the sink enthusiastically. I'm happy to be turning over a new leaf.

Second night-- oh yeah, clean the sink.

Third night-- you know, really I'm too tired tonight. But, I'll do it anyway.

Fourth night-- I'm too tired, and it's getting late, and I can do it in the morning.

Fifth night-- I'm too tired, and it's late, and really, the sink's not that dirty.

Sixth night-- We had to be gone all evening, and really, I can't be expected to WORK now. It's past bedtime and I need my rest or I'll be a mess in the morning.

Seventh night-- I didn't feel good today so my kitchen's a mess, and cleaning the sink is too big of a job tonight. Maybe if I just go to bed I'll feel better in the morning, and tomorrow I can start again.

What then happens is that I THINK I have a new habit, but it's only in my mind. I only actually DO it once in a while. And after so and so long of this, the habit dies an unnoticed death in my mind as well, and much later I think, what happened to my habit of doing (whatever)? I guess I'm just one of those people who can't form habits, sigh; but really, that's good because that means I don't form BAD habits either, right?

When I figured out what was happening I realized two things. One, this line of reasoning is not helping me. And Two, there can be no more exceptions. (I suppose some people would say "no more excuses," but that way of looking at it makes me feel too guilty, which is not helpful either. "Exceptions" implies that there are good reasons for not doing whatever it is.)

My new determination is that now I'm not going to let those reasons hold me back from accomplishing my higher goal. With that in mind, I have been successful in cleaning my sink every night. That's why it has nearly killed me. There were many nights when I felt I just COULDN'T. But I gritted my teeth and did it anyway. Some nights I discovered that I really wasn't that tired and I ended up pretty much cleaning up the whole kitchen and being pretty proud of myself at the end. Other nights, I really was that tired, and I ended up just stacking the dirty pans on the counter so I could scrub the sink, and then going to bed.

I had planned to start a whole new regimen of house cleaning, but after a week or so of sink-cleaning I had a revelation about myself. I am my own child and parent, wrapped up in one. Therefore, I have to learn to manage myself. Part of me wants to make excuses exceptions, and the other part of me has to hold myself to the line and say no.

On the other hand, the parent side of me also needs to know when to let myself off the hook. Hence, the nights of stacking the dirty dishes to the side in order to have the clean sink.

And since all this is so, I realized that I had better not start anything new till I have conquered this one. It takes a lot of inner energy to tell myself "no exceptions" and stick with it.

After reading all this over, I find I have left myself open to some criticism. Such as, why in heaven's name do I leave the dishes till bedtime when I'm too tired to do them? Well, I don't know. My excuse is that I'm too tired after supper, after spending an hour cooking, to then spend an hour cleaning. I'll just wait till I get my second wind, I think to myself. And before you know it, it's bedtime, and I frantically load the dishwasher and hightail it to bed. Hey, at least I've been running the dishwasher! And now I have a clean sink-- I'm getting better!

1 comment:

Ornery's Wife said...

Personally, I have no problem with leaving the dishes till the next morning. I know lots of people think that is bad, and if I can get motivated to get them done before bed, that is better, but I don't sweat it.

Most of my housework is actually just a little behind. Life intervenes, and I am just not that worried about a bit of dust, dog hair or an unmade bed or two. Relationships are so much more important, and they take undivided time.

I've learned that for anything to become a habit there has to be a LOT of positive reasons, and I have to "stay connected" with those benefits or the new habit will die off.

Congrats, though, on accomplishing your sink habit. That one lasted me about two days and then I forgot about it. :)