Habits, habit formation, and habit change are currently having a moment. Which is great, since habits are the bedrock of our daily lives. Habits govern the thoughts and actions that we do and think day in and day out. Since they shape the direction in which our days are headed, they ultimately shape the direction in which our lives are headed.
Powerful stuff, right?
This is why I want to caveat something very important about habits–if they are not created out of purpose and intention, they will ultimately shape your life in a direction that you did not actively choose for yourself.
Speaking for myself, there have been times in my life when I’ve fallen into habits that did not ultimately serve me. I synthesized a bunch of information about what I thought traditionally successful, healthy people were “supposed” to do, and I started behaving and thinking accordingly.
Although I had experienced body image issues since I was a pre-teen, it wasn’t until I reached high school that I started compulsively exercising. Based on messages from the media, the news, and well-intending family members and friends, I formed a belief that I had to formally work out each and every day in order to maintain and/or manipulate my body size (depending on my specific level of body confidence at a given point in time). I carried this habit with me through all of college, where I compulsively ran 4+ miles or did barre each day, and also through my first two years of employment.
As someone with a full-time corporate job, I found myself consistently getting up between 5 and 5:45 AM to fit in a work out before my day started. This was absolutely, incredibly exhausting to do day in and day out. Of course I took days off here and there, but I was pretty diligent about fitting in my morning workout–and if I did skip it, I’d mentally obsess throughout the day. As a result, I was a mental and physical zombie on most days–tired from not getting enough sleep the night before, and from pushing my body to do an intense workout, no matter how awful it felt.
But that’s what healthy, fit, successful people do, right?!?
Not sustainably! As an additional by-product of this compulsive exercise, I had awful digestion and the basic symptoms of depression. With recent research establishing the importance of the gut-brain axis, I am firmly convinced that I was bringing these feelings of despair upon myself by not giving my body adequate rest and by constantly stressing about fitting in my workouts. With all of this physical and mental stress, I wrecked by gut health. All because I adopted a habit that I thought would (somehow magically?) make me a fit, healthy, successful person by conventional standards.
To get back to the overarching point of this article, here’s where I went wrong–not only did I adopt a habit without identifying what I really wanted to get out of it, but I also stuck with it even though I knew it was no longer serving me.
My first offense was that I never stopped to think, “What do I want out of an exercise regimen? Improved energy levels? Increased strength? Fun?!?” In forming the habit, I failed to give it the degree of thought it deserved. I failed to shape the habit in a specific way that would align with my personal goals, values, or desires. I failed to consider the potential limitations of the habit, such as my personal energy and stress levels, my schedule and time commitments, and my overall priorities.
Thus, I never established any boundaries or parameters for the habit of working out daily at the crack of dawn. Instead, I went balls to the wall. And it caused me to burn out, hard, in multiple areas of my life all at once. A little more mindfulness and intention up front would have saved me the physical and mental exhaustion that accompanied this habit.
Additionally, I never stopped to re-assess this habit. I never gave myself the permission to reflect on what this habit was doing for me, for other people in my life, for my career, for my physical and mental health…not at all. That’s another aspect of habit formation that I think is lacking attention–regular check-ins. If I had periodically (maybe once a week or so) sat down and thought to myself, “Is this workout routine working for me? Is it furthering the exercise-related goals I set out for myself? Or is this specific habit no longer serving me? If so, what can I do to change it?”
I firmly believe that this type of reflection is absolutely critical in preventing from yourself from repeating a habit, over and over again, until you just plan burn out. First, you need to give yourself permission to honestly assess whether or not the habit is working for you. Then, you need to take the time to reflect upon how it affects various aspects of your life. From there, you can decide to maintain the habit, or you can brainstorm ways to tweak it so that it does serve you moving forward.
All in all, do I think habits are awesome tools to establish the life you want for yourself? Absolutely. Habits are the nuts and bolts of each and every day. However, without the proper legwork up front and throughout the process, habit formation can very plausibly set you up for dissatisfaction.
In forming a new habit or in changing an existing one, give yourself ample time and mental space to deliberately assess the goals and intentions you have in mind for that specific habit. From there, you’ll have the direction you need to build the specific habit from the ground up. With self compassion and a willingness to change, regularly sit with yourself to reflect on the habit you’ve formed. Over time, you’ll find and establish the habits, routines and rituals that best serve your personal goals, needs, desires and values.