The force of habit

Never cross a Jedi nun compliments of http://dudewheresmydeathstar.blogspot.com/

I had an interesting revelation this morning when I woke up. I got to bed late last night, getting caught up in watching Friday night t.v. instead of going to bed like I should have. I felt like I needed a break, but I got caught in that boob-tube vortex that eventually had me watching UFC fighters discussing the challenges of their lives and telling the camera about how they were just going to power through the pain of their torn ligaments like true warriors and never give in to defeat.

I’m tempted to riff on the hazards of ignoring your injuries and “powering through” (I know a lot about that nonsense), but what I really want to talk about is what occurred to me this morning.

See, it’s been a very tough week. I started having trouble around Tuesday, when my normally scheduled neuropsych appointment didn’t happen. My neuropsych is out of town for a few weeks, and I won’t see them until the 2nd week in April. I’ve gone this long without a consult in the past, but I had a really hard time with it, and I went back to weekly appointments as soon as I could.

During this past week, my emotional lability has been pretty intense – up and down precipitously…. all over the map. And pretty intensely, too. I truly felt like quitting my job for most of the week. I’m usually slow to anger, but this week has been extraordinarily bothersome. Normally under typical work conditions, I am pretty solid and able to focus in on my work and I can get a lot done. This past week, however, there’s been the combination of my neuropsych being away and a pretty massive project being dumped on me that is about ready to drive me nuts. I’ll spare you my snarky bitching (for now) — the bottom line is, I got caught off-guard by a lot of details that didn’t even occur to me beforehand (but I am pretty sure I should have thought of). Basically, I am learning as I go with this project, and it’s extremely high profile and can’t be done wrong, so I’m on the hook.

At the same time that my neuropsych is out of town. And my spouse is working weird hours, so we see each other about every other day or so.

Talk about feeling left out on a limb. It really feels like I’m being fed to the lions, here. Just hung out to dry with no backup or support. At least that’s how it feels.

Anyway, I’ve been behaving really badly at work — not exactly a paragon of professional competence. Oh, sure, I’m capable, and I can totally do this thing. But I’ve been very vocal about how f’ed up this whole situation is, and I’ve been so pissed off by what seems like unbelievable incompetence and sloppiness by others who have been dicking around on this project for the past 8 months — la-la-la-la-la I think I’ll fly to Germany for a few days… hmmm… I think I’ll fly to France… la-la-la-la-la fiddle-dee-dee  — that it’s seriously clouded my judgment. And I am really irritating everyone around me. Seriously. They all want me to suck it up, because everybody has to deal with this stupid shit and they manage to keep it together, but my point is that we’re all a whole lot better than this, and lack of leadership and foresight and basic intelligence and discipline by the people “in charge” has created this stupid situation that is pretty amateur and needlessly stressful and is just so indicative of how out of touch management is with what it takes to actually get work done. Geez, it’s like they’re off in la-la land. Permanent vacation. Yeah, our leaders…

It’s just stupid, and I’m not handling it well.

So, all that aside, I have been wondering why the hell I haven’t been handling this well at all. I’ve been in similar situations a number of times over the past two years, and it’s never affected me as much as this project has. The timeline is obscenely tight, yes. The people I’m working with are behaving like buffoons who are more interested in covering their asses than actually getting anything done. But that’s a given. So, what’s different this time?

Well, a number of things, actually. First, my neuropsych is out of town, and that’s throwing me off. Also, I have been getting up really early and going in hours ahead of when I normally do. I’ve also been staying late. And I haven’t been exercising as regularly as I used to. I’m off my cadence, and it’s throwing me off, big-time.

Many of the most important things I do to take care of myself and keep myself balanced are not in place. And I’m not doing well with it. When I was thinking about it this morning, I was thinking that it’s because I depend on those things to keep me balanced and sane — that the exercise and sleep and schedule I usually have are essential to my well-being. And that my visits with my neuropsych are required for me to get along in the world.

But then I thought about it some more, and it occurred to me that it’s actually the disruption of my habits that have sent me over the edge. It’s not the lack of input from my neuropsych that’s throwing me off; it’s the lack of that regular appointment in my week that’s throwing off my cadence. I’ve gotten attached to — and dependent on — a certain cadence to my days and weeks, and when that’s disrupted, I go over the edge.

Which is a bit lame, if I say so myself. Just because things are different for me for a few weeks, I can’t keep my sh*t together? That’s a little sad.

On the other hand, when I step back from the situation and don’t make up some judgmental definition of what a loser I am, I can see another side to this — the power of habits, and the need for me to create better habits for myself that will help me live my life better, instead of convenient habits that are like mind-numbing drugs — where, if they’re taken away, I start to piss and moan like a cranky teenager.

See, here’s the thing — habit is a hugely powerful force. Our habits train our brains and our lives to do certain things in certain ways — when we do things often enough and long enough, we can reach a point of “unconscious competence” where we don’t even have to think about what we’re doing. We just know how to do it, like brushing our teeth or starting our car. When we start out, it can take us some time to figure out how to do what we need to do — remember when you were a kid, learning to brush your teeth, and you couldn’t seem to master that movement of up-and-down with the toothbrush? And how many times, when you were learning to drive, did you crank the motor too long, so that the starter screeched — or you stepped on the gas so long that you flooded the engine?

It happens, those things at first, and getting past them is all part of learning. But eventually if we do these things long enough and often enough, and if they are important enough to us in our lives, we do reach a place where we don’t have to constantly think about them when we do them. They become part our lives, our overall competencies. They become habitual. And the neural connections in our brains that enable us to do them without having to consciously think about them… well, those become a regular part of our lives, sometimes as though they were never NOT there.

That’s the power of habit — important things in our lives become so much a part of who and what we are, that we can’t imagine them not being part of us. And since my habits — like my Tuesday neuropsych appointments and my regular daily schedule — tend to become so central to my life that when they’re interrupted or changed, I start to seriously freak out, I can see now that I need to start creating some new habits. I need some larger, even more powerful habits that will help me carry on, even when things around me are not optimally scheduled or managed.

Seriously. I need more resilience. I’m way too brittle to be 100% healthy. That much is clear to me, after this past week. I’ve got to come up with better ways to handle my stress and strains, than relying on a set schedule for getting by.

So, what to do?

Well, first off, I need to evolve my morning habits. Because of my work, there is no guarantee that every morning I’ll have the time to do a full cycle of weight-lifting. Sometimes I have to shower, grab a cup of coffee and a quick bowl of cereal, and bolt. On other days, I can exercise – I have the time. So, what I can do is actually slightly increase the weights I’m lifting on my “on” days, so that the days when I’m not exercising first thing, my body is recovering and I’m not feeling like I’m missing an important part of my day by not lifting.

Another thing I need to do is stop checking Facebook, first thing in the morning. That’s a losing proposition, because so many of my “friends” use FB as a soapbox or a bitch session — it’s where they air their grievances or “share” some slice of ridiculousness. One of my friends has a bug up their ass about politics, and practically everything they write is a crusade of some kind or another. I agree with much of what they say, but they’re so rammy about everything, it’s pretty wearing, even for me. That is no way to start my day. So, that bad habit has got to stop.

Another thing I need to do is actually feed myself — do some uplifting reading while I’m riding the exercise bike. Feed my spirit, feed my head with good things, useful things. Get myself in a positive and pro-active frame of mind, first thing in the morning. I need to do things that will strengthen my hope and resolve and attitude, not drag it down.

There are so many really positive sources of information and ideas out there, I really can’t see why I should waste a lot of time listening to people haggle of stupid crap that’s going to change eventually anyway. All the complaining about things that cannot be changed… How about changing the things that can be changed?

So, that’s what I need to do with myself. Create new habits, each day. Start small — just little things, like reading something uplifting first thing while I’m exercising, instead of scanning the bitchfest that Facebook has become. Strengthening my mind, as well as my body, first thing. Making that a priority.

And making it a habit. Making a deliberate habit of doing something good. Making a deliberate habit of taking care of myself and my dreams and my goals, first thing in the morning, before I do anything else.

Now, I have been an intermittent reader and a big fan of the site www.zenhabits.com (which has since become succcess.org), and maybe that’s where I picked up the focus on habits. Actually, I think I’ve always been serious about habits — it’s just been such a part of my life and my outlook that it’s taken up residence in the back of my mind and become one of those “unconscious competencies” that I don’t quite notice — and value — so much, on my own, unless someone else is drawing my attention to it. When someone else talks about it, I remember it in a new light, and that brings it to life. The thing is, with sites like succcess.org, I have something to read while I’m riding my exercise bike, first thing in the morning. There are plenty of other folks online, too, who are running blogs or podcasts about personal improvement and successful habits, so there’s really no reason why I shouldn’t start out my days like this.

Of course, when I’m tired or out of sorts, it can make keeping that focus a bit more difficult. But I often find that so long as I just start… keep it simple and just do it… I do get the energy I need to move forward.

That’s the force of habit — doing something so frequently and regularly, that NOT doing it becomes more uncomfortable than doing it — creating those neuropathways, those synaptic connections, that thrive on and feed the regular cadence of good that I bring to my day.

So, enough bitching about my job. I’ve got to get my act together and just buckle down to get this project done. Quit wasting time being hard on myself. Quit wasting time worrying about all those things I cannot control, and invest the time in myself, my attitude, my hope and promise. That’s a far better use of my time — an investment, rather than an expense.

Speaking of better uses of time, I’ve got to get ready to go have coffee with an old friend I haven’t seen in quite some time. It will be interesting to compare notes…

Onward.

4 thoughts on “The force of habit

  1. I don’t know who and where you are on the planet. I am only dropping a response to say,”Hell-yeah-Reed-Y’all!”. You and myself have much in common, in regards to looking younger, and the diplomatic surrendering of social graces. I survived a skull depression that sent fragments into the pre-central and post-central regions of the brain. My creativity has sky rocketed. My ability to get depressed is gone. I say that I am “blissed off”. When I have feelings of sadness, it’s more of a frustration than choosing to respond by staying indoors and avoiding people. The accident was in August of ’98. Skateboarding on UGA campus, doing “coffins”(now called luging) , my back leg was pinned by the back passenger tire. This caused me to whip up and slam into the quarter panel of the vehicle. The depression is about 2″x4″ and on the top left of my head. It drove a piece of skull about 1.5 cm into my brain a good ways down, which were removed in two operations. Whatever transmitters were severed ended up helping my long term functioning. Still have no plate, had no rehab, had no paralysis, but have had a lot of pains over the years while my remapping was taking hold. This has opened up functions and abilities that were not there before. I am using more of the processes. From a surreal point of view, I have trouble with my strangeness of the apathy towards others, in the sense of caring about the need to be accepted by my peers. So, I have to focus quite a bit more to weigh out the dynamics of any relationship in order place values into any giving equation. This may require some change of my choices in order to save their feelings or discomfort they may have in their lives. Still difficult to understand why people are overly concerned about their stature amongst their peers. Living in fear can only bring about a controlling personality. The adage, “Fear breeds contempt”, has never been at the forefront of my mind until 14 years after my injury. Get in touch with me if you like, I live in Texas.
    Mike Salvador South
    1∞6

  2. Hey Mike, nice to meet you. Very interesting what happened to you and how you have adapted. Each day really is a whole new chance to learn something different – and provided I don’t wear myself out, it tends to stay interesting and keeps me on my toes. The whole thing about wondering what others think of you… it’s not something I can really worry that much about — I’ve had plenty of opportunity to practice, I guess. I seem to be surrounded by people who really, really care about that. But it seems to me they are prisoners. And I’m not interested in that.

    Stay strong and be well.

  3. HI Bb. I can completely identify with your rough week when your neuropsych and spouse were away. I think you are totally onto it when you say the habits and routines changed. With a frontal lobe/executive function injury, it is extremely mechanically difficult for you to quickly and flexibly change tack. Other people in your life need to know that and perhaps help you set up and alternative routine if they go away. It sucks the way we feel low self esteem and blame ourselves, the mechanical difficulty can also cause emotions to be all over the place as well.
    I think you might be a little hard on yourself about your lack of resilience. resilience is in the brain and if for example some of your injury is to your left frontal cortex, then you could have a mechanical lack of resilience. It would be completely natural, and actually the right instinct, to head for where the habits are (eg work) when these people were away. but I completely agree with you about finding alternative habits, I have found some myself eg copying down quotes (including zen) with slow and careful handwriting into a quote book. When I remember and actually do it, this is great. This week a woman who managed a rehab centre I attend was turfed out by her employer. Like you, I have been flooded with fluctuating emotions all week. Thanks for opening yourself up. I completely understand about the confidentiality. I used to think we should all be completely open about our brain injury to everyone, but experience teaches otherwise.

  4. Emotions all over the place — yeah, pretty much. That change in routine, although it was not that “big” of a deal, really threw me off, and it’s hit me pretty hard to realize just how dependent I am on routine. I like to think I’m independent and flexible and I can roll with it, but this time that just didn’t happen.

    I do tend to underestimate the difficulty I’ll have with seemingly simple things. And then I get really upset that it throws me off. Which also upsets me. So I spend a lot of time being upset, and it just drains me. I just have to get back to basics and focus on that. Just put all the extra stuff out of my head and concentrate on setting myself up for consistency and stability. The rest of the world is going to do what the world does, so I need to keep my own act together and build up my own stockpile of resiliency.

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