The flow of our habits

The flow of water carves rock, a little bit at a time. And our personhood is carved, too, by the flow of our habits.

This quote comes from an essay by Jonathan Safran Foer in the New York Times titled: How Not to Be Alone (published 8 June 2013). The essay is about technology eroding human connection, but this one sentence is what I want to focus on.

The nature of habits is that they are shortcuts around the hard work of thinking consciously about every little thing we do, how we act, the expressions we use, how we speak, even how we think (see Unhelpful Thinking Styles). In many ways we are, to other people at least, the sum of our habits.

Initially, to form a habit we shape our behaviour, consciously choosing certain actions and thoughts over others. With sufficient repetition a habit forms, a preference is established of resorting to the habit rather than the hard work of something that is new or different to us. Each habit we have causes slight changes to our brain, reinforcing the neurological pathways which cause the habit to occur and reducing the threshold to trigger the habit so it runs efficiently given the appropriate circumstances.

The sum of hundreds of habits we all perform every single day wears a groove in the matrix of society. Multiply this by hundreds of thousands of people each running in their habitual groove and social norms arise, trends occur such as the generally bad attitudes of Dunedin drivers, the laid-back nature of most Polynesians, the brashness of Americans.

Because our habits wear a groove through our lives, they are very difficult to change. Obstructions can be ground down by the persistence of following a habitual track which requires less energy than altering course. This is most obvious in older people who have deeply ingrained habits that they are not even aware of. But it is not impossible to change habits, it does take great persistence and determination to make any changes stick

My typical approach is to go through each day without giving much thought to my habits. But if I consider the effect my habits could be having on the person I will be in ten years time, I need to decide what aspects of me now I want to nurture and what needs to be deleted. Then I need to look at which habits cause the attribute I don’t like and how I could change my habits to support better attributes. (There is a good bit of unfinished thinking here!)

Screen free time

retro-TV

A second goal I am making in my attempt to be a better version of myself is to avoid electronic devices for an hour before bed. There is evidence that the light from certain types of screens such as LCD computer screens and mobile phones can suppress melatonin release in humans, causing difficulty falling asleep for some people. I’m not sure that this is a significant problem for me, but I do know that using the computer in the hour before I’m due to go to bed causes me to delay my bedtime. I get distracted by social media, interesting stuff on the internet, games and even useful things such as writing a blog post.

I should be using that last hour of the day to wind down, read my Bible, pray and get organised for the morning.

For me it is a little complicated by working odd shifts – my work day can finish at midnight, or bedtime can be 9:30am in the morning. But the principle still works, nothing I would be doing on the computer or my phone is so important that it should be allowed to displace time with God or my wife. Yet this is what I have allowed to happen for some time now and the cost has been too high.

To make this work I need to know when my bedtime should be, and possibly set an alarm or reminder to prompt me to turn off whatever gadget is grabbing my attention an hour before bedtime.


Image: Shutterstock

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More and less in 2013

2013 on palmsWell, a new year – time for resolutions, a fresh start, renewed energy – all that jazz. For me it is just another day at work.

However, despite my own cynicism, the start of a new year does mean something more than ‘just another day’ to me. After the draining rush and stress of Christmas and the ‘end of year’ wind up, there is a sense of needing a fresh start, a chance to get things moving ahead on the right foot. Fortunately for us who live ‘downunder’ we get to start each new year in the middle of summer so there really is a chance to nurture new growth, to get out into nature and unwind a bit, or read that book we were given for Christmas.

As yet I haven’t made any resolutions or specific goals for 2013, but I did drag out my old notebook in which I’ve written goals for years already gone by and noticed a few interesting patterns:

  • Some big goals that initially appeared out of reach have been achieved, particularly ones regarding jobs and income.
  • My goals of eating and spending less are the ones I put least effort into reaching!
  • Personal challenges that God has allowed into my life have forced me to work harder on some ‘personal development’ goals that had been on my list but slightly neglected – should have done that work sooner!
  • External pressure is a huge motivator for me to work on my goals; for example, I had a goal of studying the psalms more deeply which was neglected for several years. Then our church began preaching on the psalms and so that year my goal was more than fulfilled.
  • Spiritual growth/disciplines such as Bible reading and prayer are super important, hard to measure, never ‘complete’, and difficult to sustain without external motivation.
  • Small daily steps working on personal values can get me a long way, conversely – neglect of daily discipline can lead to wasted years.

So, goals for 2013?

I’m still not sure what my goals are for this year. There are a few ideas rattling around in my head but I’m suspicious that their origin is more from my own heart than anything God is wanting me to aim for. Last year was pretty tough so there is an obvious desire to try to make this year better, whatever form ‘better’ might take.

An idea which may be worth pursuing is of making 2013 to be a year of ‘less’. Less incoming clutter into my heart, mind, inbox, and hard drives. I’m a compulsive gatherer of information, to the point of becoming overwhelmed by too much to read, listen to, think about, process. I also eat too much and spend too much so aiming for less in 2013 seems like a good plan.

To immediately contradict myself, I also have a goal of more blogging here on Words of Eternal Life. Having not posted anything here for weeks means that ‘more’ should be easy to achieve! Over the last few months I’ve considered a couple of web projects that have diverted my attention from this blog but my focus is now back here and I’m keen to infuse some more life into this site. I’ve got a few plans of what I like to blog about this year but will keep these to myself until the writing has been done!
2013-sand

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Image: iStock