4 lessons in habit building
I recently completed my 30 day challenge to meditate every day. I wish I could say I “accomplished” that goal, but the honest truth is that while I did fail, I did meditate a lot. Far more than I have in recent memory.
That said, here’s 4 things I learned about trying to build a habit.
It’s no secret that your immediate environment often affects your outcomes. As many of us have transitioned to remote work in our careers, this is especially the case. A dedicated workspace, a clean surface, and an uncluttered area all lead to more productivity with less hassle.
This is no different with building habits. Where you hone the habit and the condition of that area all influence how often you’re able to complete your goal. For me, I changed my meditation spot three times during the 30 days. While that’s not many in the grand scheme, there were a couple days where I wasn’t sold on my sitting spot and in fact didn’t end up meditating those days. The uncertainty alone was enough of an obstacle that I didn’t end up doing the work.ACTION
Dedicate an area to where you’ll be completing your daily work. If you’re trying to be better about eating or cooking for yourself, clear the area of junk food or anything that would remind you of junk food. Have your kitchen utensils clean and organized neatly so you reduce the friction to start cooking. Make your space sacred and your brain will treat it as such.
Another factor of your environment is visual aids. This is a big reason the Opus Calendar exists - its presence in your home, on your desk, or in your bag all help signal to you the work that should be done. I noticed on days when my calendar was prominent near my sitting spot I ended up meditating. When I took it on the road or moved it into another room, that wasn’t always the case.ACTION:
Whatever you’re working on, have your Opus Calendar, or whatever visual aid - another notepad, a food scale, etc. - near where you’ll be performing the task . Stack the deck in your favor.
Activity > Depth when reflecting
Core to building any habit is reflection. Whether you do that in a journal, in your Notes app, or in conversation with friends, reflecting on your progress and struggles will 10x your ability to actually build and maintain a habit.
Throughout my meditation challenge I tried my best to reflect deeply on how the day went. Some days there weren’t enough lines on the page as I had tons of thoughts on the session overall, how I could improve my practice, and other random thoughts that came up. Some days I reflected on my progress and doodled charts on how my sit affected my energy for the rest of the day.
NOTE: As part of the Opus Calendar is the Reflection section to write out how the day went. Whether you’re trying a new diet, or just trying to be more cognizant of your energy and mood throughout the day, the Reflection is there for you to capture insights, ideas, and anything else you’d like to mention on your journey overall.
But some days, I had absolutely nothing to say. I had meditated that morning for 15 minutes and that was it. I performed the habit, but no new thoughts about my routine overall had percolated. I stared at the empty Reflection section and felt defeated. But what I realized - at about Day 15 - was that the content of the Reflection didn’t matter so much. What mattered was taking the time to consider the Reflection prompt and search my mind for any new insight. If I hadn’t uncovered anything, fine. The important thing was that I asked myself the question.ACTION:
Reflect every day on your progress, if able. If you had a good day and you’re happy with it, write that. If you had a terrible day and need to vent some stuff on paper, do that as well. But if nothing groundbreaking happened and you simply performed the work, be ok with leaving it blank. The important thing is to ask yourself how you did, and then turn the page.
It’s been a couple weeks since I finished my 30 days dedicated to daily meditation. I’m sad to say that I’ve only meditated a handful of times in that time. My forcing function - my Opus Calendar - has gone away, and I haven’t filled that absence with anything else. I’m not forced to check a box or reflect on progress anymore, so when push comes to shove, I’ve let my budding habit slip.
That said, while it’s easy to dismiss an exercise as unsuccessful when you fall off as soon as I did, it’s far more important to think about the long term.
In that 30 day period I meditated more times - 14 - in that one month than I have in the last year. That’s powerful. That’s something to build on. And while I haven’t been as consistent without my forcing function, that mechanism CAN be replaced. Whether it’s another Opus challenge, a small checkbox on my hanging wall calendar, or a text to a friend, I can get back on track.
I’ve felt what it’s like to focus on developing one thing exclusively, and my muscle memory will soon return.ACTION:
Habit building is a long-term game. Think about how you want to operate in 6 months, or something you’d like to be consistent with in a year. Create a forcing function to help you get there. Be intense as you can starting out, but keep the long term in mind. The only thing that matters is the daily work. If you missed yesterday, today is here for you to change that.
I hope these lessons serve you! If you have one you'd like to share, let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.