Spring-Break that Habit

I'm thinking about habits, good and bad.

I’m thinking about habits, good and bad.

What makes a bad habit?  I mean, some people (probably most people) are perfectly okay with their coffee habit.  Some mornings, I just have to think about my hands wrapped around the warm cup, the familiar smokey-brown smell, the resulting jolt, and I am compelled to get out of bed.  I guess I am in the okay-with-it camp.  But I know a couple cups are my limit.  After that, I get jittery, irritable and snippy.  I can see why lots of folks may think it is not good for them.  But Jillian Michaels (yes Biggest Loser trainer) advocates small amounts of caffeine (in whichever form you desire) for the benefits of appetite suppression, boosting calorie burn and even it’s antioxidants.  Who knew!

This past week was Spring Break, and we flew for a little mini-family reunion in San Francisco.  During that time, and every time I am on vacation, I am aware of how we all have to relearn little things that we take for granted in our own homes.  Where the hell is the light switch?  How do you work the microwave?  How do we get from point A to point B?   And the most mind blowing, where are we going to eat?  (The making of this decision is particularly painful.  There are literally thousands of amazing restaurants, how do you choose one?  And all ten of you agree on it?)  Some people just roll with these little difficulties, others are more anxious.  But it’s all just part of being in a new place.

And also, you know that feeling after vacation, no matter how great it was, when you wake up snuggled in your own bed and you are just really comfy-cozy?  Why is that?  I have stayed in some really amazing places, but, Dorothy was right.  There’s no place like home.  Why?  Author and New York Times columnist Charles Duhigg wrote a book about this very phenomenon.  It’s called habit.  And you have lots of them.  Me too.

Inside your brain is a tiny structure called the basal ganglia which really loves being on autopilot.  I mean, think about all the things your brain has to think about.  You can’t, because your basal ganglia protects you from being overwhelmed by relearning the mundane things you have to do every day like find your underwear drawer and shave your armpits.  As Duhigg says, this is the reason why you can get up in the morning, shower, go to work and find yourself not even knowing how you got there.  Your brain, brilliant little pile of mush that it is, has put you on a trajectory of familiar actions so seamlessly that you don’t even know it’s happening.  And also so you don’t go insane.

Wow.

Okay, so then you go on vacation.  And you have to relearn everything.  But, as Duhigg states, it’s the perfect time to break a habit.  So, there I am in San Francisco, going about my business.  Riding in boats.  Visiting closed penitentiaries.  Walking the Golden Gate.  And all of a sudden, I realize I haven’t had any diet soda.  Not ground-breaking I know.  But drinking diet soda is a bad habit that I have been trying to break for some time now.  It’s full of chemicals and nasty stuff but I can’t seem to shake it.  It’s just so fizzily good.  But I hadn’t had any in 5 days and didn’t even realize it.  Now I’m home and still haven’t had any thanks to Duhigg’s insights.

But what about things that really matter like parenting and building your marriage?  Yep, vacation can help those things too.  Duhigg says you establish habits in a cue, behavior reward continuum.  So first a cue is established, then you establish a behavior to deal with it and then you receive a reward.  (Like first hunger, then you eat and then you feel satisfied).  But in our relationships, those habits can lead to people feeling bad or to making assumptions which aren’t true.  Like on vacation, I realized that I wasn’t giving my husband credit or complimenting him in front of his family.  Then I realized I don’t do that enough at home.  So from now on, I am going to search for cues to give more compliments.  Because who doesn’t love a compliment?

Fast forward through that vacation, all those great memories, photos, laughs and fun, to that moment when you wake up on your own pillow.  The reason, Dorothy, that it feels so damn good is that your brain gets a rest from all that planning, negotiating, problem solving and relearning.  Now the work is to kick that bad habit to the curb once and for all.  To not go on autopilot.

What’s your bad habit?

Gotta go.  These aren't going to unpack themselves.

Gotta go. These aren’t going to unpack themselves.

Thanks Barbara Paulsen for the coffee mug image.  It makes me feel all cozy.

September is the New January, Baby!

Pondering the end of summer:  My daughter’s pool-soaked feet.

Remember that old Staples commercial with the dad dancing joyfully through the aisles of back to school supplies while the children dragged behind miserably?  “It’s the most wonderful time of the year”… Well, there’s something to that, apparently.  And not just for parents of school age kids.  No, as it turns out, September is being marketed by the fitness industry, businesses, and college students as the mark of a new beginning.   It’s September, and it’s time to get your shit together!

As the calendar flipped from August to September, your brains did a collective sigh of relief.  It was a certifiable neuro-exhale.  Our brains are set up to operate on homeostasis, meaning that you are cool as a cucumber and everything is stable.  So back to school is a welcome routine after a couple months of wildly fluctuating schedules, whiny/”bored” children and and incessant consumption of appalingly non-scheduled activities (think: computer games, trips to Dairy Queen, bike rides, jumping through sprinklers.  Oh, the wonderful chaos of it all!)  In the book “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg, we learn that it is our basal ganglia which lays the groundwork for our innate love of routine.  This part of the brain is responsible for, among other things, establishing a loop whereby we start doing things, our brains like it, and then it becomes a habit.  For better or worse.  Because a habit is a habit whether its getting up every day to to exercise or making a call to your dealer to score your next meth hit.

Even if you don’t have kids in school, summer can set up a variety of off-routine activities such as vacations, staying up late because the lengthier days beckon, picnics/BBQ’s, fix-up projects etc.  While all your recreational and creative juicing has been fun, there comes a time when your brain says, “Slow it down!  I need to rest and refuel.”  This is called a stress response and it can be large or small.  Small might be an inclination to take an afternoon nap for a few days straight.  Large might be a tired mother screaming that she’s doing her best to her bewildered children followed by a door slam.  Not that I would know anything about that.  Your amygdala is the part of your brain that gauges a stress response.  It’s what yells “Overload!” when your kids are bickering and complaining.  It’s how you’re feeling when, as I have overheard in suburbia many times this week, you say, “I am so ready for them to go back (the fuck) to school!”

Our brains love predictability and the ability to put things on the “back burner” so to speak.  We all do this, and we are constantly prioritizing.  Do you remember pulling out of your driveway this morning?  Or making your coffee?  Maybe, but most tasks like this are on autopilot.  And your brain likes it that way, thank you very much.  So, now that a new day is dawning, and we are back to familiar routines, how do we infuse some meaning in our everyday lives?  In other words, how do we go about creating rituals from our routines?  Meg Selig of the “Changepower” blog says to make sure your routine carves out the following:

  • Provide a structure:  I have informed my children that they are making their own lunches this year.  We worked on making a list of faves to make morning choices easier.  No, sweetie, whoopie pies are not a choice.
  • Put things on autopilot to add creativity:  I listen to the same playlist every time I write.  New music or voices can’t distract me!  My dog licks my feet sometimes and it tickles and that’s very distracting, though.
  • Protect yourself from self destruction:  Never turn on the tv!  It’s a time suck and there is nothing worth watching anyway.  Except Mad Men.
  • Bring Order:  Witness, readers, the proliferation of chalkboard paint.  Have you noticed its everywhere?  People love writing on their chalkboards, especially lists and reminders like “get more chalk!”
  • Promote health:  Set your alarm for the same time every day.  So you can exercise.  Or write.  Or have 10 fucking minutes to yourself.
  • Give you rest and relaxation:  Read before bed!   Sing in the shower!  Life is good!

Of course if your routine becomes stale or is wide open, change it, loosen it, tighten it.  Do what it takes to get you to your happy place.  But that’s what is so great about September.  Here are some other great things about September:

  • Fall colors like pumpkin orange, burnt sienna and golden maple.  Everyone looks good in them.
  • Crisp cool evenings and warm days.  “Sweater and shorts weather is the best,” said my wise friend Beth.
  • The first time you sit under a tree and a leaf falls delicately onto your lap.
  • New school supplies.  Who doesn’t remember the feel of new notebooks and the promise of new words inside them?
  • “Are you ready for some football?!”  I can hear the theme:  DA DA DA DAAA.
  • Folding chairs occupy a firm place in the family vehicle for soccer season.
  • Apples.  I live in Washington.  Apples.
  • Tossing around halloween costume ideas.  Zombie pioneer woman?  Maybe.  No, you can’t take the idea.
  • Beer.  I know it’s all year but it just tastes best in September.  Not to mention pumpkin ale.  Go.  Get.  Some.
  • Load up on summer clothes.  It’s all on sale, my friends.

It’s also 15 years this September since I married my awesome husband, 11 since my first child and 8 since my second. September  is a truly momentous month for us.  Renewal is always a good thing.  Tell me why you love September, too.

Photo courtesy of Mt. Hood Mama Iphoneography.  Check her out!