What Happens When Your Habits Stop Serving You?

We’re all in uncharted territory. Our daily habits are useless. What do we do? Maybe the first step is to become calm.

Front cover of Atomic Habits bookI’m reading Atomic Habits right now.

It’s an odd book to be reading at this particular time, from one point of view. The coronavirus has forced most of us out of our daily routines. Habits have dropped by the wayside. We’re working from home—if we’re lucky enough to have jobs. Or maybe supplies considered essential to doing our jobs safely aren’t available, and we have to jury-rig alternatives.

On the other hand, it’s actually the perfect time to be reading this book. Because we have the opportunity, maybe now or in the coming weeks or months, after this pandemic, to consider our old habits, decide which we value and which we want to change, and cultivate new habits. There’s absolutely no way we can go about business as usual.

The chapter I read this week is “The Secret to Self-Control.” James Clear, the book’s author, describes research done with American soldiers who became addicted to heroin during the Vietnam War. When they went back home, only 12 percent became re-addicted after three years. The re-addiction rate for heroin addicts living in the USA is 90 percent when they get home after rehab.

Researchers found that “addictions could spontaneously dissolve if there was a radical change in the environment” (p. 92).

We have a remarkable opportunity right now to observe our habits in their absence, both personally and globally. We are experiencing a radical change in our environment. Willy nilly. The ground has dropped out from under us.

A face mask in a clear box.I realize reflection isn’t possible for many of us right now. I just listened to a story on This American Life about a family of three in a New York apartment, 500 feet in size. Both parents sick with COVID-19. The mother locked in the bedroom to protect their two year-old. The father doing his best to care for his child during what they’re calling “Inside Time.” They don’t have the luxury to reflect right now. Nor do our first responders. Nor do the migrant workers in India who have nowhere to shelter and no way to practice social distancing.

But it’s clear to me that most of us will realize when we’re past this crisis, that we can’t go back to business as usual. We have a chance to craft a new Normal. We can choose new habits on a personal, country-wide, and international level. If we want.

Or we can try to go back to whatever Normal was before this pandemic. And wait for the rug to be pulled out from under us again. Because this isn’t the first pandemic we’ve faced; it won’t be the last.

To put it in the most mundane terms, how many times do you need to stub your toe on a chair before you decide to move the chair to a different place? How many times do you need to dislocate your shoulder before you decide maybe there’s a way you could move without dislocating your shoulder?

How do you create the conditions in which habit changing is possible?

A quality we’ll need to cultivate, both now, if we can, and later, is the quality of calm. That place in yourself you can trust without question. Buddhists call it bodhichitta or buddha nature. It’s the gap between your in-breath and your out-breath. It’s the space of potential, before you act or react. You touch it during contemplative prayer or meditation, or in a Feldenkrais® lesson. Essentially, it’s compassion.

Does this sound like a quality you’d like to cultivate?

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A girl walks quietly on a crowded streetGoing Deeper

If you’re interested cultivating calm, come to Finding Calm, the free online intensive Russ Mitchell and I are offering April 24-26. Come  Friday, Saturday or Sunday, or to all three sessions.

Let’s cultivate calm together.

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