Habits

It occurred to me the other morning that habits are a powerful tool. Though most of the time we think of habits as being bad, I believe habits are, in and of themselves, neutral. It may simply be that we have more of, or notice more critically, our bad habits. Anyone who has struggled with a bad habit probably noticed that *we* don’t actually have habits so much as *they* have us. This is why we hate bad habits so much; they seem to have us snookered. And, we only can seem to notice the negative effects after the bad habit has played out. Yet, this post is about the good habits, not the bad ones.

The habit I am most fond and proud of is the habit of waking early(ish). This sounds insane to a natural night owl who could be found reading until early morning hours and would regularly sleep until 11 am the next day. If I “go with the flow” this is the natural pattern which only takes a few days to fully develop into near nocturnalism. I won’t go into what might be creating what’s arguably an *unnatural* circadian rhythm for a human being, considering that for the past million years or so our species woke and rose at dawn along with the rest of diurnal creation. (There is in fact a very small percentage, 0.15%, of the population that may truly suffer from what’s called Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome (DSPS). (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delayed_sleep_phase_syndrome).

I’m sharing all this background because a few months back I decided that I was going to take more seriously a pledge to, let’s just say, “meditate”, on a daily basis. Anyone struggling with performing a consistent daily practice has made similar promises himself. I had found that to follow through with similar commitments in the past consistently, I simply *had* to complete it in the morning *before* the day’s activities began. Otherwise, the odds were severely reduced. To illustrate, I used to have a personal deadline which was to meditate before going to bed. Unfortunately, that deadline often merged with sleep. Now, that being said, I do have a good friend who has set a 2 AM meditation deadline for himself. Also a night owl, he has found if he waits past 2 AM he is unlikely to follow through with his commitment.

And, I have a wacky morning bird friend who once made some suggestions to set an alarm and, without hitting snooze, actually get up. One day I decided to experiment with getting up at 7 AM for just one week, rather than snoozing in until 10 AM. One reason that kicked off this experiment was that a day started off in the morning has always felt better than one started off at noon, despite equal numbers of waking hours. The other major reason was that in an attempt to more efficiently set up the body-mind for a daily meditation, conditioning it to the same time each day made enough sense to outweigh all the counter arguments. So I began the experiment.

It wasn’t long until I noticed several unexpected side benefits. The most significant of which is the hallmark of a habit: mental submission to the behavior of the habit. By the end of the first week (!) the mental arguments against getting up and meditating at that early hour began to subside. When the alarm went off the habit took over and I got up and began the routine.  This took a surprisingly short amount of time to happen. I decided to continue the “experiment” and have thus far been subjecting myself to this habit for some time now. At this point there isn’t so much as a murmur of discontent nor argument with what’s about to happen anymore. My body and mind have submitted to the habit.

The other more minor side effect is that I’ve been going to bed earlier. Since I was unwilling to negotiate on the waking time, I’ve found in order to have enough waking brainpower I can’t afford to go to bed much past 10:30 or 11 PM too often in a row. While going to bed earlier seems a harder habit to establish than waking earlier, I have noticed less desire to spend the late evening/nights frittering away my time.

In the game of trying to outwit nature and define ourselves, every little bit helps. I’ve found that this bit has helped a lot in consistently carving out some time to put first things first(er).

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