The Habits, Part 3

I’ve now spent two long posts complaining about everything around the whole idea of productivity, time management, and, most importantly, habits.

That’s enough of that. Time for some solutions.

Sometimes, moving forward requires going backward a bit and looking at where we’ve been. It’s kind of a way to get traction, I guess.

So I’m going to backtrack a bit and revisit old territory…

I think this habit journey started back in January 2017 when I set out to get healthy. Establishing a list of habits was a way for me to bring some kind of structure to the chaos I was living in. Everything around me was in shambles, and I had nowhere to go but up. That simple list of things to do every day was my way of controlling some little corner of my broken world. Interestingly, I think the control was, in itself, self-care. I needed something I could control, and those five little elements of personal care were things I could control. As a side effect, those things helped me get healthier.

But ever since I started freelancing again, I’ve been struggling with how to create space in my life for work. I just cannot seem to find a good rhythm or schedule or method to reliably do the things I need to do to really give freelancing the best shot I can give it to be successful.

I spent most of last year frustrated over my time issues. I set out in 2018 to tame the distractions and hopefully create an environment that would allow me to work without sacrificing anything else.

My big realization?

It can’t be done.

The truth is that this is not a time in my life when I can dive whole hog into any single endeavor. I am not in a position to work 40ish hours per week. I don’t have the space to train for an intense athletic endurance event. I cannot devote large gaps of time to reading, writing fiction, or volunteering.

And yet, I want a little bit of all of those things. I want some balance in my life.

When I think back to 2017 and the first habits I established, I realize that they had a few things in common:

They were achievable: I focused on the habits, not the goals. I didn’t set out to lose 60 pounds. I just set out to exercise every day and track my food because I wanted to feel better. I didn’t set out to read through the Bible in a year. I just wanted to read it a little every day, and I followed a basic plan to give me structure. And as for taking vitamins, eating breakfast, and showering… Well, those were easy enough. I was just reminding myself to do stuff that I should be doing anyway. I could look at any 24-hour period against those five things and think, “Yeah, those are doable.” I set myself up for success. I am convinced that if I had set out to lose 60 pounds, I would not have succeeded.

They weren’t time-dependent: I didn’t care when I did the five things, only that I did them. (Well, okay, I guess breakfast is kind of dependent on time, but “morning” is still a pretty big window.) That gave me an entire day to get them done. I know that a lot of people swear by various time-blocking methods and such, but I have found that my life just does not accommodate such things. I can’t tell you why except to say that everything is too unpredictable, maybe? Or maybe it’s just the way my brain works. When I tackled those habits, I just said, “okay, you have to do those five things sometime today.”

They were short-term: I was going one day at a time. Just one day. It was a success if I did those five things for one day. Two days–great. Three days–woo hoo! I was on a roll! I didn’t look past the day in front of me (at least, not at first).

But I also planned ahead: Interestingly, I did learn to plan ahead. If I knew I had an appointment or a camping trip coming, I would move my planned workouts around or make a plan for a substitute workout, like a hike instead of a jog. I packed vitamins in my camping gear so I wouldn’t have to remember to do it when I was actually going on a campout. I downloaded my planned Bible reading to my phone if I knew I’d be out of cell range.

I was kind to myself when I didn’t do them: If I missed a workout, I didn’t beat myself up. If I forgot my supplements–oh well. One day won’t kill me. And Bible reading could be caught up easily if I wanted to stay on schedule, but if not? Well, I just pick up where I left off if I miss a day. I learned to be kinder to myself. Historically, as a perfectionist, I have not been kind to myself. But by letting each day stand on its own, I took away the tyranny of the habits and made them friends instead of enemies. They were there for my benefit, to make my life better, not worse.

So this year, I’m going to take the approach to habits that has worked with me in the past:

Small, incremental changes that I know I can achieve: I have a list of habits I want to work on this year, but I’m only taking on one at a time. I’m using the habit tracker in my planner. Each month has space to track three habits, so I’m using that to work on one serious, “this is the month” habit and set myself up for the next habit by making a small change now. (This will make more sense later.) The habit tracker seems to help. It makes change easily trackable and visible.

Focusing on one day at a time, but knowing the general direction I’m going: The habit tracker helps with this, but I’m also giving myself the same latitude I did before when it comes to my time each day. It doesn’t matter when I do the things, just that I do them. If something comes up or I have appointments or obligations, then I make an alternate plan.

Setting myself up for success: I kept trying to confine all of my work hours to only when the kids were gone, but every time some minor thing derailed my day, I’d lose momentum. So instead of setting myself up for failure by insisting on doing the exercise, breakfast, spiritual time, and shower while I get children out the door so that I can devote a reliable six hours to work before picking kids up, making dinner, doing the evening drives or volunteering or events or whatever before collapsing in exhaustion, I’m going to try a different method. If mornings are full of kid stuff, then exercise and spiritual time will happen when they’re gone, and work will happen in the evening. If kid stuff needs to happen in the evening, then work will happen in the morning. And you know, if my personal rhythms are just off one day, then so be it–I’ll knit and read and exercise and do work on the weekends. Each day is different in my world. Why should I try to force it into some mold that only works about one day out of 30?

Keeping my promises to myself: This is honestly the biggest revelation I had when writing this post. Establishing new habits or breaking old bad ones is about keeping my own promises to myself. And keeping promises to myself means that I’m someone worth promises made and kept. I don’t know why that never occurred to me till now… But you know, honestly–and this is something I wish I had realized when I was younger, and it’s something Ethel and I have talked about at length–we have to model to our children that it’s okay to take care of ourselves, that it’s okay to pursue our own interests, that it’s okay to be separate entities from them. Keeping my promises to myself is part of that. I’m not saying I should neglect them. I’m saying I shouldn’t neglect myself in favor of them.

Practicing kindness: I’m too old and too tired to keep beating myself up over failures. Well, some of them, anyway. Baby steps. In any case, when it comes to this habit stuff, tomorrow is always a fresh start. As long as I wake up in the morning, I can try again.

So if you’re still reading this… I’m going to start posting about each habit as I tackle it. I’ve already tackled the first one–prayer. I’ll blog about that soon, but I need to think about how to say what I want to say…

In the meantime, for future reference, here are the nine habits I’m going to work on in 2019, all with an eye toward becoming more intentional about my time:

  1. Regular prayer
  2. Daily fiction writing
  3. Better sleep hygiene
  4. Less alcohol in my diet
  5. More reading in my day
  6. Better control over my screen habits (get over the electronic time wasters!)
  7. Less sugar in my diet
  8. More uplifting language
  9. Daily knitting or crocheting

As I wrote this out again, I realized that not a single one of these habits has anything directly to do with commercial freelancing (though one could argue that daily fiction writing, better sleep, more reading, and control of screens will help improve work quality and productivity). I do have some work habits I intend to tackle. Next week’s blog will be about those.

None of these are going to be 100% “fixed” by January 1, 2020. I’m not deluding myself about that. But I think I’ll be able to look back at my habit trackers in my planner at the end of this year and see some progress. And really, that’s all we can really expect, right? Progress?

One step at a time…

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