But when you think about it, the secret
of our success as a species wasn’t our good looks; having the biggest claws or the sharpest teeth. In fact, we weren’t really all that gifted with any of those things. As they looked over the menu, lions, tigers and bears probably weren’t all that impressed with us as they watched us walk across the savannah. I can hear them laughing, “Look, two legs…yeah, that’s going to work”. But it did. We survived because we were wired to learn like no other life form on the Planet.
As a species, we humans figured out to how to solve survival problems with our brains. Being in a physical world, we learned to adapt; to learn one ‘something’ and use it later that afternoon to learn a new ‘something’. After a week or so of watching bears in the water, one of our ancestors connected the dots between sharpening sticks, spearing fish and lighting fires. Ta-da, we learned how to make dinner. And once we discovered dinner in front of a fire, we connected the dots again and we, as a species, figured out how to multiply. And now? We cover the Planet.
In the course of all that learning and adapting, our brains came to understand that not every task or problem required the full mental power residing in our craniums. In fact, over the centuries, we’ve developed all kinds of ways to conserve valuable mental energy. One of those fascinating mental conservation mechanisms that interests me most is ‘habit’.
In and of themselves, habits have no physical form…you can’t see them on an x-ray. They are not reflexes like breathing or jumping around after stubbing your toe on the dresser.
Despite our labels for them, habits themselves are neither moral or ethical. They don’t care what we call them. Habits are learned; practiced; adopted and reinforced over a long period of time to serve a host of very specific purposes. In fact, once established, they become largely involuntary. Simply put, habits serve our brains by exercising auto-pilot over behaviors that don’t require our full and dedicated attention. How many times has someone asked me, “Why’d you do that?” “I don’t know…I wasn’t even thinking about it”. Bingo! Meet the Habits.
Having lived the life I’ve lived thus far, I know first hand, the stubborn and singular compulsion a Habit has to live on forever. Habits don’t care who you are. They don’t care if you pick your nose or chew your fingernails down to raw bloody nubs. All a Habit cares about is survival, their own survival. Try to kill, lose or change one and you’re facing a truck load of uphill climb. It’s work. Like bad relatives, they don’t want to leave.
Conversely, killing a good Habit is pretty easy…all it takes is some laziness and a general wish to lessen yourself – for whatever reason. So how do you go about installing a new Habit that will simplify your life or serve you in some positive way?
Let me take you through a simple two-step example I learned the hard way. If it leaves you a little smarter than you were before you started reading, than I’ve done a good thing.
Dot One: Over the years, I’ve been told that I can sometimes be absent-minded. While I would love to disagree, I can’t. [I hate it when that happens] Anyway, I had a bad Habit of whenever I came into the house, dropping whatever I was carrying wherever I happened to be when I stopped moving. Sometimes it was on top of the washing machine or on the kitchen counter, the dining room table, on top of the TV or tossed on the bed in our room. Wherever I stopped, I dropped. You’re smiling, you can already see what’s coming next.
“I can’t find my keys! I’m late!. Aww come on…did you put them somewhere? Have you seen ’em.”
My partner’s mom used to watch me go through these hoops ALL the time. And please understand that she loved me like her own. That’s why I call her ‘mom’. But loving me that much didn’t stop the ‘mom’ part of her from rolling her eyes back as she watched me blow through the house on a frenzied search for my keys – time after time. To her credit, she kept her own counsel about my antics until one day in June.
Let me tell you something else about ‘mom’. While she wasn’t much for a lot of words, she turned into She-Rah, Princess of Power when it came to garage sales. I had tagged along with her to a few of these sales before. When it came to knowing what she wanted and what she was going to pay, she made the navy seals look like boy scouts. Others sensed it too. Crowds would roll back like the Red Sea and let her walk right up the dollar-table. Her jaw was firm with no intent of taking any prisoners.
She and a friend, had spent another adrenalin pumping morning in one of the ‘good neighborhoods’…the ones where they threw out the ‘good stuff’. By the goofy all-knowing smile she was wearing as she came into the house, I knew there was something up her sleeve and it had something to do with me. I felt like one of those amateurs at the yard sale…I was a little afraid, but I wasn’t quite sure why.
“Here, this is for you.”
In her hand was a short key rack that looked like it was meant to be wooden. Its’ form even spelled out the word “Keys”. With a few hooks running down its side, my salvation had arrived. Imagine that, a place for everything and everything in its place. I gave her a hug and she acted all embarrassed; but I could tell she was feeling pretty good about her master stroke (and the fact that she had talked the seller down to $1).
Soon mounted right by the door, I made a promise to start hanging up my keys every time I came into the house. And I did. I kept forgetting at first, but my family members had a real skill for reminding me with just a look. “Oh yeah” and I’d turn right around and go back to the door. It became a ritual of sorts. And after a few weeks? No more frenetic amber alerts for my keys. The new habit had taken root and one small little part of my life that had kept me from starting the car, got easy.
Even though she passed away several years ago, the silly little piece of common-sense she bought that sunny afternoon still occupies its’ rightful place by our front door. Every morning and night, I get to touch what she picked out for me that summer day. Neat that a gentile can have his own form of a mezuzah.
FAST FORWARD to Dot Two: Now is the time of the year when Chicago weather is beginning to change with the leaves. For several days running, it had been in the 40’s in the morning when I left for work and in the upper 70’s by the time I came home. No big deal…I’ve got a new jacket. Excellent. I get to wear my new jacket to work. I felt like a third-grader with a new backpack on the first day of school.
“How was work today?” “Fine” and I launched into a few sentences of update. “Where’s your coat?”
Aarrrrrrrggggghhhh! “At work.” “Good place for it…what are you going to wear in the morning?” And with that simple observation, I knew I’d been in such a rush to get home; and the weather was so nice, that I had completely forgotten the very thing I’d worn with such glee when the day was young.
The next morning? I went to work without a coat. “This will remind me…this is my penance for my absent-mindedness.” And as the day unfolded, it turned out to be another dazzling Indian Summer day in Chicagoland. “Where’s your coat?” No way? Way! I had forgotten it a 2nd time – in a row. This transition thing wasn’t working out for me very well at all. Now what?
My spousal unit must have read the anxious look on my face. “Why don’t you start putting the car keys in your coat instead of your briefcase...” The heavens opened up and I realized ‘mom’ was alive and well and standing in front of me. It was brilliant! “Excellent. ‘Cause I’m wearing the coat when I turn the car off. And I can’t get home if I can’t start the car. So leave the keys in the coat…I can do that”. Since then, I haven’t been without my coat in the morning or at night. Victory is mine!
What happened? I had learned one behavior with the key caddy and with the help of my loved one, connected the same concept to a new dot. I learned a new habit and my life had gotten simpler.
No matter what the Habit, you can adapt this same technique to your own situation the next time you need to start a new habit or retire an old one. It all boils down to inserting some sort of ‘interrupt’. While it varies for everyone, you’ll be amazed how much easier your day-to-day life will be 3-6 weeks from now.
For what it’s worth, here’s are a few of the ‘interrupts’ I use:
When I start getting a little overwhelmed during a stressful situation, I casually lean down and touch the ground between my feet. The action reminds me to stay centered.
When I feel like flipping a less than courteous hand signal in traffic, I do the sign of the cross instead. And while I’m not Catholic, it really catches people off guard which, I will confess, is part of the fun. But that’s the point. In adopting an ‘interrupt’, I’ve depressurized what could easily be a Mad Max road battle and made it funny.
Or how about another ridiculously simple ‘interrupt’? Living with a tremendously gifted culinare, we now use smaller plates at dinner time. That way, we’re eating really good food; earning our ‘clean plate club’ sticker and eating less without really realizing it. New habits…habits that serve instead of owning us.
Forever the over-thinker, I now realize how often my Habits masqueraded as my own thoughts and kept me from reclaiming ownership over my self…”it can’t be that simple”. It is never simple to unlearn what has become almost involuntary. But I have done it and will continue manage my habits till the day I die. So can you.
Next time you can’t find your keys, think of me. Connect your dots. Pick a new habit and have some fun with it or better yet, pick an old habit and start laughing at it – either way, you rule.
You are needed. Grab your keys. It’s time to show up.