Habits are hard to establish, and can be even harder to break.
I can’t tell you how many people I know who struggle to maintain their ideal physique or do work they’re proud of, not because they don’t know how to eat right and exercise and sit down and create amazing things, but because their habits are out of whack. They can live up to their expectations for themselves part of the time, but not all (or even most) of the time.
This is because creating habits is a different skill set completely than, say, painting, or playing ultimate frisbee. You can become good at something without working at it consistently. Just as you can easily habitualize without necessarily getting anything out of it. Not all habits are useful, just as not all skills necessitate habitual training or practice.
But it is at the intersection of skills and habits where we tend to find those who are most dedicated to their craft. You can be a great painter without painting everyday, but if you are a great painter, and you do paint every day, chances are you’ll become an even better one. Through repetition we can achieve amazing things, and as such, the ability to form habits from nothing is an incredibly valuable supplementary skill to develop. To habitualize.
Of course, not all habits are valuable or even intentional, and anyone who’s struggled with breaking the chains of a coffee or alcohol addiction can tell you that severing habitual ties can be just as tricky as tying them in the first place. Once firmly rooted, a habit can seem like part of you, and removing it just as difficult as cutting out and extracting a chunk of lung or patella.
It’s for both of these reasons, the pros and cons of routines and patterns, that I work hard to own my habits. To control them, even when doing so is uncomfortable or painful or odd.
Recently I started drinking coffee because I wanted to build a habit around waking up, eating a light breakfast, and having a cup or two of something caffeinated and not terrible for me. But as this has become a habit, as my iced coffee order has become predictable at local coffee shops and my morning presence expected at an outlet-adjacent table far from the front door, I’ve also made sure to manage the habit. To make sure the ties that bind it to my day don’t become so strong they can’t easily be severed.
In this case, that means cutting the ties periodically. I’ll go for a few days without coffee, wading my way through withdrawal symptoms (which, in coffee’s case, is a charming combination of a heavy headache and lack of motivation) to emerge on the other side, not needing the drink, and able to rationally analyze whether or not I want to continue having it as a part of my life.
Other habits come and go on their own, based on where I’m living, or who’s around me. When I wake up, I stretch and do a little morning workout routine. But when I wake up next to someone, I don’t. This gives me the same freedom of re-analyzation as intentionally breaking my habits to get a clearer view of how valuable they are to me, but without the force of will required to do it sans-provocation. It is, however, an opportunity worth taking, and finding yourself handed such a thing shouldn’t go ignored or un-utilized.
Our habits help shape us, and help us shape our paths. More than that, they help us shape our environments, our habitats, through the repetition of positive or negatives acts.
That means anything you do habitually is more powerful than doing that same thing just once or twice. Make sure your habits are the kinds of things you want to influence your life and direction. To do otherwise is to trust your destiny to fate. Or worse, someone else’s idea of who you should be, and where you should be going.
Update: April 9, 2017
I still drop coffee from my routine periodically, and find myself wary of any new habit or ritual I adopt. I’m a lot more accepting of them, these days, and have opened myself up to the possibility of having some habits that I can’t necessarily do reliably from anywhere I might find myself. But I still like knowing I have the power over life and death for these habits, and it makes me feel more capable of culling the ones that don’t pull their weight.