As I’ve mentioned before, I recently moved to a new apartment. Habits researcher and author Gretchen Rubin writes, in her book Better than Before, that an excellent time to adopt new habits is when undergoing a shift or change in your life: a break-up, a new relationship, a new job, a home renovation, etc. Moving to a new place, it turns out, is actually the #1 time to successfully adopt new habits! So I leaped upon the opportunity to try cementing some new healthy habits that I had been wanting to fully integrate into my life.
One of these habits is going to bed earlier, so I can wake up earlier feeling refreshed and ready to tackle the day. Another is to focus on simplicity; I did a huge purge of clutter and papers before I moved, and I want to keep these nonessentials from slowly re-accumulating in my life, as they so often do. Also, I now begin every morning with two big glasses of water and a green smoothie. I try to write at least a couple hundred words on my creative work-in-progress each morning before I even check my email or work on projects for other people. And I am trying to set in stone a regular routine of going to the gym.
I belonged to a gym close by where I used to live, and I would go there fairly regularly, but it was never something I especially looked forward to. I could never figure out why. It was a nice gym, with lots of classes available and fancy amenities. I realize now that I did not fully feel comfortable there; the atmosphere was a bit competitive and intense, and I prefer my gym time to be low-key and low-stress. This new gym I joined by my new apartment is much less fancy, but much more my vibe: like me, the people who go there seem friendly, a little rag-tag, and much more interested in exercising for good health than for looks.
One of my favorite classes is a Monday morning gentle yoga class. The instructor is funny and upbeat, and the class always flies by and is the perfect way to ease into my week.
Lots of other people must think so, too, because the class is pretty much always filled to capacity. Classes work on a first-come, first-serve basis; when you arrive at the gym, you can ask for a pass to get into the class, and if they have any more available the person working the front desk will hand a pass to you. If not, you’re out of luck!
One week, I was a little late getting out of bed and, even thought I arrived to the gym ten minutes before class was scheduled to begin, they were all out of passes. Rats! I thought, but it was not a big deal. I stashed my yoga mat in the locker room and worked out on the elliptical machine instead.
When I was leaving, about twenty minutes before the class was scheduled to end, another woman was standing by the front desk holding a yoga mat of her own. She spotted my yoga mat and summoned me over. “Were you kicked out of the class, too?” she asked.
“Well, I wasn’t kicked out… there just wasn’t enough room when I arrived.”
This woman shook her head angrily. “It’s not fair! They should have two classes! I got here at the time the class was supposed to start, and I wasn’t able to get into the class! They kicked me out! It’s not fair!” She was like a toddler having a tantrum, blaming everyone else but herself for her predicament.
The manager behind the front desk met my eyes with a helpless expression. I realized this other yogi had probably been angrily complaining to her for the past half hour. And now she was trying to get me to gang up on the manager about the completely fair gym policy.
“It was my fault,” I said, shrugging. “I should have gotten here earlier. But I still had a great workout anyway!” And then I smiled at the manager and headed out the door. I could still hear the other woman sputtering.
This woman, with her countless loud excuses, reminded me of someone familiar: myself, at times. Especially when it comes to my BIG goals. Which, for me, pretty much all center around writing. The truth is, as much as I want to spend my days writing up a storm, on a minute-by-minute level it often feels like writing is the last thing I want to be doing. Because writing is so often difficult! It requires so much thinking and feeling, so much honesty and bravery, and so much willingness to fail, to deal with uncertainty, to feel like you have utterly no idea if what you are creating is going to ever come together at all.
Usually, I find it is especially difficult to begin. To climb back into whatever I am working on. To bridge the gap between the shining potential of the idea in my head and the stark lines of words marching imperfectly across the page. And the act of beginning is often when my excuse-laden self pops up and brightly says:
Oh, you can’t possibly write today! Look how beautiful and sunny it is outside! You don’t want to waste a day like this. Go make a picnic! Go for a hike! Now, now, now!
Oh, look how rainy and dreary it is outside. Why don’t you curl up with that new novel you’ve been wanting to read? Reading a couple chapters will be good for inspiration. Go on, just for a bit. … Oh, why not read for a bit longer? Reading is important for writing, after all.
Oh no, you woke up late! You’re completely behind schedule! No time to write today!
Oh, you woke up early! Aren’t you feeling a little groggy still? Why not get a jump on some other projects, and you can come back to your creative writing once your cup of Earl Grey has kicked in?
Shouldn’t you clean the bathroom? Wash the dishes? Put in a load of laundry? Vacuum the carpet? Your desk is looking quite messy — probably best to organize it first, before you start writing.
Don’t you have a little headache? Your back is feeling kind of sore? Maybe you’re getting sick. You should go back to bed. You should rest. Is that a pain in your gut? Maybe you should eat something. Drink something. Go put on the tea kettle. Go make a sandwich.
Oh, and you should definitely check your email and your cell phone! Can’t miss any messages! It could be something important!
Does this sound familiar to anyone else? I’ve grown to recognize the sabotaging excuse-monster in my head for what she is: afraid. She doesn’t want to sit in the discomfort. She doesn’t want to risk failure. And so she tries to veer me off course. And, on those days (thankfully, becoming rarer and rarer) when I give in and I don’t get the writing done, and I feel guilty and angry for not writing, she always pops up on those days, too. She is filled with those same excuses for why I did not put time into my most meaningful work. She always wants to blame everything else in the world but my own decisions. She is like the other woman who did not get a pass for yoga class.
She has taught me: only by taking responsibility for my own actions, can I change them. Only by recognizing when I am making excuses can I put the brakes on the excuse-train. And only by truthfully assessing my old habits can I build new, better habits.
In a recent podcast with Arch Street Press, Dr. Douglass Jackson, founder of Project C.U.R.E., says, “Figure out what gets you so excited that it gets you up out of bed, puts your feet on the floor, and you just can’t wait to get back to it.”
Writing has always been that something to me. Now, my habits are reflecting this, too.
Ever since that week when I was too late to get a pass, I arrive to yoga class half an hour early. That early, I always am able to get a pass. I walk into the yoga room and lay out my mat on the smooth wooden floor. I have my pick of places in the room. And then I go ride the exercise bike or run on the elliptical machine until it is time for class to begin. Instead of feeling guilty and upset, I feel empowered.
I think that is one of the best ways to feel in our creative lives and our work lives and our personal lives and our whole lives: empowered.
And the best part of all? It is in our power, every single day, to create that feeling for ourselves.