One of the big things that stands between us and our pursuit of the ‘perfect’ work life balance is breaking the old habits that keep us stuck in familiar territory.
Breaking habits is hard to do.
Though I touched on it briefly in my article ‘structure’, this age-old derailer of well-intentioned plans deserves a closer look so we can help you crack them once and for all. Let’s begin with a little brutal honesty…
List out every habit that’s hampering your success
I mean it – every single one. I know uncovering habits can be uncomfortable, but this is about progress. You’re trading a little discomfort now to save you the frustration of being stuck later.
If you’re struggling to put your finger on exactly what your bad habits are, make a note of all of the things that you do regularly that have started to leave you feeling stressed or uncomfortable or totally out of alignment with the person you feel you want to be now, or the way you want to behave. If you’re still not sure, look back over some of the times you feel you’ve made things harder for yourself, missed an opportunity or felt as though you let yourself down; what are the themes that keep coming up?
Embrace your habits (even the ones that keep you stuck!)
Yes, you heard me correctly. The first step in letting go is acceptance, and what easier or more graceful way is there, than to appreciate every one of the habits you have?
Habits can often be traced back to a genuine desire to keep us safe or to help us live a better or more comfortable life. Choose one habit you would like to change and walk yourself back in time – can you pinpoint when they began? What was happening in your life that gave relevance to that habit and which caused it to take root?
One of my most pervasive habits is a dedication to working ‘hard’. When I look back over my life I can see exactly where it began. I was 17, a new parent and faced with what I saw as a choice between just two futures; one where I would be dependent on others and one where I wouldn’t. I chose the latter, knuckled down and that’s where my 30+ year habit of working harder and faster first took hold.
As I continue to build my coaching and training business that habit is out of step with how I want to work. The work I do is challenging in its own way, but because I love it, it no longer feels as though I’m working ‘hard’. At least not in the sense I’m used to recognising. Because of that, if I’m not careful, my mind and body registers that as an imbalance against my habitual way of working and responds by topping me up with more commitments, more work, more priorities. Sound familiar?
Decide which to update & which to let go of
Habits are our body’s way of committing to memory those things that enable us to conserve our energy and preserve our lives. Do anything long enough and eventually it will become a well-worn emotional, mental and physical path. Have you ever been half way home and realised that you can’t recall much of the trip so far? Scary, but it happens. That habit making machinery is working 24/7 in the background, slowly committing your repeated behaviours to memory so you can free up your conscious mind to work on more pressing – and more irregular – situations. It’s a great system but it can get clogged with outdated habits that are long past their use by date.
What I realise when I look back on my habit, is that over time it has been incredibly useful. It helped me to get my degree, secure my first job and build a strong career. Without it, I would’ve missed some incredible opportunities. When I remember that this habit is largely responsible for creating a wonderful part of my life, my attitude shifts from annoyance to gratitude. I’m able to reflect more honestly about whether there is some part of it that still works for me, that I can continue to craft into a habit that is more relevant now.
Start small & nurture new habits
In a day and age when speed is valued, the thought of doing something ‘slowly’ can sound counter-intuitive and for some of us, even hard! Sometimes, remembering that those habits we’re trying to update took years to embed themselves helps us to realise that creating new ones takes time too and is worth every minute we invest.
Begin by choosing just one habit that will give you a real sense of progress, pride and satisfaction. Practice it. Nurture it as though it were a seed you’ve planted. Be patient while you wait for the roots to find their ground and for the results to break through the surface.
Know the signs you’re slipping, so you can gently course correct
No matter what the habit – there will be signs that you’re sliding back into familiar ways. Decide what those are now so you’ll recognise them when they appear as small sign posts whose role it is to course correct you.
We can tend to be very unforgiving of ourselves when we’re trying to do something new but rather than punish ourselves, forgiving ourselves the slip and reminding ourselves to stay the course is a much more pleasant (and more effective) way to learn something new.
Maybe you didn’t make it all the way through your ‘to-do’ list today, but maybe you made a bigger impact in some areas than you’d hoped. Or maybe you were able to respond to something that came up which has sown the seeds for something bigger, further into the future.
Remember earlier when I mentioned that my attitude towards my habit shifted from annoyance to gratitude? When you can embrace your habits through the appreciation of what they’ve contributed to your life, catching yourself slipping feels less punishing and more as though you’re slipping back into an old pair of slippers that you’ve outgrown. The guilt is replaced by a gentleness that makes forgiving yourself for the slip and gracefully course correcting an easier and infinitely more powerful process.
So which habit will you choose to update or let go of to make way for your work life balance?
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