Many of us don’t see the full impact the habits in our life have on our wellbeing. We know habits play a role in our life but most people assume this role is limited to a few bad habits and automatic routines like driving to work.
These are certainly habits, but our habits are actually much deeper and more ingrained in our lives. Habits determine much more than deciding if we bite our nails. They determine who we are and how happy we are.
In Start Here, Master the Lifelong Habit of Wellbeing, authors Eric Langshur and Nate Klemp, PhD state, “If you are like most people, you probably spend the bulk of your time on autopilot, going from one email to another, from one errand to another, from one meting to another, until finally, at the end of the day, you fall into literal sleep. This is how many of us live our lives.”
What these authors are showing is that habits aren’t some small aspect of life. Habits actually drive most of life. We are actually mostly on autopilot from the various habits that we created subconsciously.
When we check our email on our phone we probably just assume that is what we have to do to make sure we don’t miss something important. But what we are really doing is creating a new habit. We form a routine where we constantly check our emails.
The authors do a great job of explaining why this interferes with our happiness and wellbeing. If we are letting our stream of conscious thought rule our lives, we fail to be present and be fully immersed in anything. Instead of being 100% in the moment and focused on what we have in front of us, most of us are being constantly pulled away by these habits, checking emails, thinking about something that happened the other day, responding negatively to someone around us etc.
A lot of people fall into this scenario. They feel guilty that they work too much. So when they are at work they keep thinking about being home with their family. They never get 100% focused at work because they would rather be somewhere else.
Then when they are with their family or friends they worry about work. They think about tasks that were left undone or feel guilty that they aren’t working on that big upcoming report.
One way to change this is to start to be 100% focused on the task at hand. It takes a lot of practice and work to make this the habit, but it is possible.
Jim Tressel, former Ohio State Buckeyes football coach and current President of Youngstown State University, wrote a book that talked about how he was able to get the focus of a group of young football players to be so locked in that they were able to succeed at the highest levels.
He talked about making sure they understood that whatever they were doing, they had to compartmentalize everything so that conflicting thoughts weren’t creeping in. When they were taking that calculus final they weren’t thinking about the upcoming rivalry game. When they were playing that rivalry game they weren’t thinking about their calculus final.
While this seems like an obvious thing, most people that I know have a very difficult time staying focused on the task at hand and not jumping to various thoughts throughout their day. Today with cell phones constantly buzzing with the latest social media news about a friend or a text to pick up the kids after work, it is even more difficult to be this focused.
But if we can explore and improve our habits then we can start to calm the incessant need to check everything and jump around from idea to idea. We can start to make focus a key element of our daily routines.
The systems and habits approach to improvement is a great method to start to improve our daily habits and routines around a goal. But it also is a great way to start to change these patterns of thought and behavior in order to be more focused, more productive and happier.
Here is an example from my own experience. Years ago, I felt like I was always trying to remember important tasks. I would think about that bill I had to pay. I would think about the upcoming assignment at school. I would think about the work shift coming up.
I expected to be able to keep everything in my head. So in order to remember all of these things, I kept them all top of mind. Letting them slip back into my thoughts usually meant I would forget. Or it would cause stress because I would know there was something important to do and I just couldn’t remember what.
The solution for me was to always carry around paper and a pen. Nowadays we can probably just use our cell phone but before cell phones were attached to our hip at all times, I needed a way to remember a task to do. So I created a system.
The system was easy. I would always carry this paper and pen with me. Whenever I remembered something important I would write it down. On one side was all of the to do list items that I had to do as soon as I could. The other side was a calendar of the next 2-4 weeks.
Something incredible happened when I started to do this. First I wasn’t missing important tasks. Everything was getting done and nothing was being dropped or forgotten.
But the more incredible thing that happened from this new system of organization was that it cleared my mind. I didn’t ever have to try and remember all of these things. I was confident that they would get done and done at the best time. It left my mind open to be present or think through higher-level problems in my life.
The openness that it created now allowed my mind to focus on bigger things. I could brainstorm a work problem with much more clarity. I could build out advanced systems concepts to help me improve efficiency with a part of our operations.
Then I started to build this system out more and more and more. I started to use a calendar online since I could now access it anywhere at any time. I had a unique way to process emails where I would read it and if it weren’t a quick, 2-second response, I would copy the email and put it into a calendar and schedule a time to take care of it. Then I wasn’t losing important emails in the flood of unimportant messages and spam advertisements.
I wouldn’t forget the email and I was confident that it would get addressed. But I wasn’t limited by 1) do it immediately or 2) keep it top of mind until it gets done. Now I could spend a second or two on each email processing them to determine the best way to make sure I never just forgot about something important or let something get buried in my inbox.
Creating systems can be an incredibly beneficial skillset that can allow us to be more organized, more efficient and more effective. But if we aren’t versed in how to create systems to solve problems what happens is that we just form these systems out of habit. Whatever we do today, we do tomorrow and we do the next day. Then this pattern starts to form into habits that we don’t think about but that rule our day.
To improve wellness start to explore the systems and habits approach to improvement. You will find all sorts of ways that our habits are currently interfering with our ability to be happy. If we can change those habits and build more productive systems, we can start to take control of our own happiness.