I am your constant companion. I am your greatest helper or heaviest burden. I will push you onward and upward, or drag you down to failure. I am completely at your command. Ninety percent of the things you do might just as well be turned over to me, and I will be able to do them quickly and correctly. I am easily managed, show me exactly how you want something done and after a few lessons I will do it automatically. I am the servant of all great people and alas! of all failures as well. I am not a machine, though I work with all the precision of a machine, plus the intelligence of a man. You can run me for profit or run me for ruin — it makes no difference to me. Take me, train me, be firm with me and I will place the world at your feet. Be easy with me and I will destroy you.
Who am I? I am Habit.
It is her habit to turn left. Every morning, as soon as I carry the Maltese down the front steps she starts the insistent wriggling until I put her down on the walkway. Then she trots down the pebble-stone path to where it meets the driveway, banks left and makes her way onto the lawn.
Lately, however, she turns left too soon and smacks into the clump of low bushes. She sniffs at them, her sense of smell attempting guidance where her eyesight has failed her. She back peddles and tries again, and again, moving a few inches to the left each time. Always to the left, when her spacial reasoning should direct her to the right to clear the line of bushes. But reasoning, spatial and otherwise, doesn’t exist in a dog with dementia.
Eventually, she finds a space in between the bushes and bursts through to the grass, momentarily stunned at her success. She sniffs the grass for just the right spot, circling, backing up, restarting, and when she finally decides yes, this will do, she squats on her left leg while lifting her right (she’s got arthritis in that knee). Business completed, she walks across the grass to the edge of the driveway. And, though our front door would necessitate a right turn, she turns left again.
She speedily crosses concrete and makes her way up the path to the little cabin where she used to live with my mother-in-law. Every morning for a year she has made her way there, then somehow senses no one is home. She turns around and nervously works her way back down the sidewalk. I meet her at the driveway.
When she sees me, it’s as if she suddenly remembers she is not all alone in the world. Joy! She bounds across the driveway, leaping over the seams in the concrete as if they were foot-high jumps (and maybe in her brain they are), careful to keep me in her sight as we make our way back to our front door.
At the first step she always hesitates, working up her courage. Then she hops up one step, two steps. On the landing she pauses again before she jumps the last step as if it’s much bigger than it is. Like a furry pop-fly ball she arcs through our doorway and lands softly on home plate.
For the past year I’d been wanting to write something about Holly, who joined our household after my mother-in-law died. But there is so much wrapped up in this little package I could never figure out where to start. Enter 38Write, the 38-hour writing adventure spurred by Kristin Bair O’Keeffe over at Writerhead, and the assignment she gave us: Write about the habit of a person or being in your environment.
Here are three habits I’m attempting to add to my daily routine:
- Rising at 5 am
- Writing morning pages
And three habits I’m trying to lose:
Some of these I’m succeeding at better than others. I’ve only seen 5 a.m. thrice in the last 7 days but haven’t missed a morning of writing pages and meditating. I’ve made it two weeks without coffee despite a stretch of wet, cool weather that made me think I was in Seattle. But it’s too soon to tell about dairy (I’ve made it a couple of days but I miss you, Greek yogurt). And I’m still gearing up to give up wheat (oh how I loves me a samwich).
Given where I am in the process, I was happy to come across this article by Leigh Newman: The No-Gimmick, Fastest Way to Make Real Change. She walks us through the “3 Tiny Habits” approach newly developed by B.J. Fogg, a social scientist and behavior researcher at Stanford University. According to Fogg, only three things will change behavior over the long term:
- Option A: Have an epiphany
- Option B: Change your context (what surrounds you)
- Option C: Take baby steps
It’s hard to create an epiphany (although I’m hoping that reading Wheat Belly might help), so that leaves changing context and taking baby steps. And when he says baby steps, he means seriously teeny tiny steps. So minuscule you’d think “but that’s hardly doing anything!” And that’s the point.
Identify an action that is so minuscule it takes almost no effort, and do it for five days. Newman wanted to run every morning. Waaayyy too big. Her revised tiny action? Just putting on her running shoes. I think writing 3 morning pages is, in a writer’s world, fairly tiny and that’s why I’ve been able to accomplish this habit. They don’t have to be good pages; I can be half-asleep and merely whining about how tired I am.
Attach that action to an anchor. So that you remember to do the tiny habit, execute it immediately following an old one. Something crisp and precise. “Before breakfast” is too vague. Newman put her running shoes on after she pushed the “on” button on the coffee machine. I’ve kept at my morning pages, I now realize, because I do them immediately after I get my cup of tea.
Then force yourself to celebrate. Do something physical to affirm the tiny thing you’ve done. Pump your fist. Do a happy dance. Declare “I rock!” The emotion of celebrating glues the tiny habit because your brain wants to feel happy. You’re teaching your brain that doing the tiny habit makes it happy. It’s all about building competence and confidence. I need to work on this step.
Fogg has his habiteers choose 3 Tiny Habits instead of one so they can see why some habits fail and learn from it. I see now that my 5 a.m. rise time isn’t working because I haven’t attached it to a crisp anchor: namely, my own alarm. I’ve attached it to my husband’s actions, which vary day to day.
One important thing to note is that Fogg’s “3 Tiny Habits” approach only works in adding a new habit, not getting rid of one. But you can create a new habit to block the old one. I see now that giving up coffee worked because I added the habit of green tea. Skipping the Greek yogurt on my oatmeal was unbearable until I substituted Coconut Milk. Yesterday I substituted a rice wrap for sandwich bread and it turned out pretty well.
I’ve no idea how to tackle pizza, though (the double-whammy of dairy and wheat). But when I figure out how to replace it with a new Tiny Habit, you’ll know I’ve succeeded from my celebratory “WOOOHOOOO! I AM FABULOUS!”
instead of coordinating it!
Last year at this time, co-coordinating the Pennwriters Conference nearly cost me my sanity and definitely lost me five pounds (okay, that was an unexpected side benefit). This year, I’ll actually get to enjoy the fabulous keynotes and workshops. And the drinking will be social instead of self-medicating. So sign up and I’ll see you at the bar!
The 25th Annual Pennwriters Conferenence, May 17 – 20 in Lancaster, PA
Here’s a sneak peak at this Sunday’s episode of Oprah’s Next Chapter: America’s Most Unusual Town. The show is about Transcendental Meditation in Fairfield, Iowa — the real town behind my novel, Maharishiville. Tune in and let me know what you think!
As I took down my birthday card shrine from the kitchen window sill (the annual exhibit officially closed March 5) I noted something troubling. The level of mockery inherent in the choice of greeting card grew in direct proportion to how long the sender had known me.
So while I received this lovely card from Patty, my friend of two years:
My friend Traci, who has known me for 25 years, felt the need to give me this (in person, no less, so I could witness her laughing hysterically at what a brilliantly dead-on description of me it is):
And lastly, my older (take that!) sister Susan, who’s known me all my life (notice how I sidestepped my age), sent me this little reminder of my early childhood:
In case you can’t see it, she has crossed out “dirt” and written in “dog food” because one time — ONE time — I accidentally ate a couple of handfuls of puppy chow. It was in a cereal-shaped box and I couldn’t read yet, so give me a break. But will I ever live this down? No. It is now family legend, passed down to future generations with glee.
In closing, I’d just like to say that I know these cards were sent with love because, as Elbert Hubbard said: “A friend is someone who knows all about you and loves you just the same.” So watch out, friends (and family), because your birthdays are around the corner.
Just to recap, Exhibit A was the fact that I’m missing this gene. Instead, I have a little too much of the Midwestern gene (Exhibit B):
The first time I took my husband (a Californian) to Iowa to visit my extended family, we stayed with my cousin Brad and his family. One night while all the kids were goofing around, Brad’s oldest son locked his little brother out of their bedroom. Brad parented the situation by saying this: “You know that door is not supposed to be locked but you locked it anyway. You know what that tells me? You were just showing off.” His contrite son hung his head in shame and apologized. My husband turned to me and said, “Wow. That explains a lot.” He meant about me.
Showing off. Perhaps THE worst thing you can do as a Midwesterner.
Mom bought you new school clothes? Don’t wear them right away. That’s a little show-offy. There are girls whose mothers can’t afford to buy them clothes. Slowly ease that new top into the rotation, so if someone asks if it’s new you can honestly say you’ve had it a while. (This strategy, by the way, did not go over well when my husband — then my high school sweetheart in CA — gave me a nice jacket for my birthday and when he picked me up for school I was not wearing it. It took me weeks to convince him that I really did like it, I just didn’t want my friends without boyfriends to feel badly.)
Likewise, if you are a Midwesterner and you have a talent, you are humble about possessing that talent. Never, under any circumstances, do you toot your own horn. You go about your business and hope someone notices what you’re doing and likes it and they toot your horn. It’s a multi-step process that is feels antiquated in today’s I-wrote-a-book-so-I-selfpublished-it world. But it’s all we Midwesterners have to work with.
Leap and the net will appear. — John Burroughs
This extra day on the calendar seems the perfect time to do something daring. Or exhilarating. Or at least outside one’s comfort zone. What do you say, are you with me?
It took me a month to write that letter. If you’re wondering why, a good place to start is my post “Why I Suck at Self-Promotion, Exhibit A.” (The SNL video is hilarious. And so true.) Instead of a that gene, I have a different gene, one specific to Midwesterners (Exhibit B will featured in an upcoming blog).
Will Oprah care about our newfound connection or my novel? Will she herself even read my letter? I don’t know. But those are worries for another day. Today was for leaping.
How did you leap?
I don’t remember this tradition, but I think it’s awesome:
This is Future Farmers of America Week and holding with tradition at Fairfield High School, FFA members drove their tractors to school. After school, the tractors will parade around the square. Addison Taglauer, standing, drove a circa 1940s homemade tractor that was built at the county yard by his great-grandfather and great-uncle. Taglauer explains how to drive the mini tractor to Justin Godwin who drove a much bigger tractor today.
Photo and news from the Fairfield Ledger, serving Fairfield and Jefferson County, Iowa.