I almost worked “self discipline” into this title, but to be perfectly frank, habit is getting me much further than self discipline during this particular season of life.
I’m at the point in fluffy not-quite-middle-age where if something is going to happen that is good for me, be it spiritual or physical in nature, I nearly always have to trick myself into doing it.
I could fib and say this is only because my domestic obligations are at an all-time high or that I’m suffering from that familiar fourth-trimester sleep deprivation, but the more accurate explanation is that I’m lazy.
How can a mom with five kids and a job be lazy? Oh, it’s pretty easy, actually. It looks like sending my older kids to fetch diapers while I sit plopped on the couch scrolling through my phone. It looks like falling asleep in bed while reading because I am “too tired” to pray. It looks like making a bad food choice at lunch and then mentally shrugging at 4 p.m. when confronted with leftover chocolate chip granola bars from the carnage of after school snack time and telling myself “I’ll start over with good food choices tomorrow” before popping the detritus in my mouth.
Since I lack sorely in self discipline and rightly-ordered passions, I’ve noticed that if I make the good things I’m trying to accomplish sort of idiot-proof, I’ve a much higher incidence of success.
So, for example, during Lent I got into the habit of putting a cute decorative tote basket in front of my place at the dining room table each night which contained my prayer materials: Bible, copy of the catechism, Blessed is She planner, and the Take Up and Read Lenten journal. Because it was there in my face as soon as I came downstairs to sit with my coffee, I dug in and had a little prayer time most mornings, however sparse it might end up being per my darlings’ demands. On the mornings when I’d forgotten to move the basket from it’s daytime perch in the bay window? Nada. I would sit 5 feet away sipping my morning cappuccino and stare at that sucker and prayer time would.not.happen.
Another example. I’m dehydrated more often than not from a strict regimen of breastfeeding, coffee guzzling, kid wrangling, and a strange aversion to filling simple glasses of water to drink from. Some days I would get to dinner time with a pounding headache and realize that I had maybe – maybe – consumed 12 ounces of water all day in the form of a single can of LaCroix. As POTUS would tweet, SAD! Very Disappointing!
I picked up a $4 glass water bottle with a sippy top at Marshall’s last month and started carrying it around the house with me and, what do you know, I’m drinking close to 100 ounces of H2O these days. Sad, right? But also really effective.
I’ve started to do the same thing with exercise. Feeling a little burnt out on my walking routine without Starbucks dangling at the end of the route like a luxurious carrot (more on that later) I was finding my strolls around the neighborhood a little less enticing. I did the math on what I was saving in burnt cups of coffee in a month and reckoned that I could probably afford a basic gym membership to the club down the street if I were completely coffee-shop abstinent. (My entire “fun” category every month is spent on takeout coffee. Speaking of sad…)
So I dug out an old black speedo from a few summers back, tossed a swim cap and a pair of goggles into my purse, and took the plunge, literally. I logged close to 200 laps last week, all because I’ve arranged the necessary materials and started forcing myself to leave the house precisely at 7 p.m. on the nights when it works for our schedule, promising Dave and myself to be back in 60 minutes. It gives me enough time to get the babies to bed and leaves him with some quality time with the older set at the end of the day.
Habit builds on habit. And I’d venture further, saying that virtue builds on habit. When I’m already being good, it’s easier to continue being good.
When I have that big glass of wine on a school night (biiiiig mistake at age 35) I know that the next morning it’s going to be harder to get up to pray. And that if I don’t get up to pray, I’ll probably yell at my kids at some point during the day. And that we’ll be so burnt out on each other’s company from all that yelling that by 4 p.m. that I’ll succumb to the Netflix sirens and surrender my laptop while I cook dinner, feeling hassled and defeated.
I remember hearing Fr. Michael Scanlan, the spiritual powerhouse behind the revitalization of Franciscan University, tell parents during an orientation video that Steubenville was intended to be a place where it was “easy to be good.” By that he meant not that we would be so constrained by rules and regulations that we would have no choice but to behave, but that there would be so many options for choosing the good – and so much positive peer pressure to do so – that it would become a real hotbed of virtue and excellence simply because the true, good, and beautiful was readily available. 24 hour adoration? Check. Three or four daily Mass options a day? Check. Intramural and community building activities through Households and dozens of ministry opportunities? Check.
So yeah, you could show up there a hardened party girl and stay that way, no problem, (Lee’s Place or Jaggin’ Around, anyone?) but you could also throw yourself headlong into the transformative atmosphere of excellence that permeated the campus, and ease into a routine of virtue that was considerably less challenging than the previous four years I’d spent stumbling drunkenly through the more typical college experience at a major public school.
So I’m trying to create a vice-proof, virtue and habit supportive environment in my own home where I am the boss, after all, making it more foolproof for me to misbehave, and less likely to fall headlong into a bag of Doritos* and a late-night Instagram binge session. (Note: Doritos are on the ever-expanding list of things I’ve come to realize that I just can’t have in the house.)
A couple other hacks I’m employing as training wheels right now as we transition from newborn survival mode to new normal:
- No alcohol on weeknights (unless it’s a major feast day or a date night)
- 3 non-negotiable exercise sessions a week. Doesn’t matter how long they take or what I do, just that I do them.
- Instagram only on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday mornings. (I uninstall the app from my phone and reinstall it on those days. Sad? You betcha. Effective? Indeed.)
- No Facebook or Twitter at all. Just posting content there as I create it and then walking away, so to speak.
- No shopping at Target or Costco, for the moment. (Diapers and wipes from Amazon, because I am not tempted to overspend when I shop online, whereas walking into brick and mortar is like entering the lion’s den for my budget.)
- Grocery shopping only on Fridays. Y’all, this one has been HARD. But it’s helping our budget so much. I think I probably saved almost $200 last month from cutting out all the “just one quick thing” trips that always, always result in at least $40 of “oh, yeahs!”
I feel like my thirties have seen me get super into self-knowledge and understanding temperament and personality type (INTJ and choleric/melancholic, for what it’s worth) in an attempt to reprogram the direction of my own life. I guess I’ve been waiting for years and years to just magically “change” or grow out of ___, when actually I’m pretty much the same person I was at 18. I haven’t become more naturally disciplined to go to bed earlier, or less interested in french fries, or more eager to make phone calls I’m dreading. So instead of waiting for me to change, I guess I’m focusing more on “acting as if,” hoping that my tired old self will come plodding along down the path of least resistance I’m working to create. Hey, it works with my kids and a 4 p.m. veggie platter deployed against the whining “I’m huuuuungries” that interrupt dinner prep!
What habit-building hacks have you employed that have made noticeable improvements in your life? Is there an area you thought you’d never see improvement where you’ve been surprised by growth – and grace?