Habits: stacking, hoarding, discarding

Putting a coaster under my cups and glasses is one of my now unconscious habits.  It returned to consciousness the other day when my daughter asked me why I hadn’t got a coaster. She noticed my non-habitual behaviour as she saw me move my magazine to put my cup on it.  The reason I had no coaster was because I hadn’t yet found any in the caravan we were holidaying in.  Though I subsequently did and happily used them onwards.

That incident reminded me of the handout my running coach set recently, on habit stacking.  I like the principle of it – basically ‘to build a new habit, identify a current habit you already do each day and then stack your new behaviour on top. This is called habit stacking.’  The habit stacking formula is.  After/Before [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].  For example: ‘Before I have my coffee each morning I will go for a run.’  I guess at some stage, I may have stacked my coaster habit on top of my having a drink habit. 

You can stack habits high, James Clear, in his book Atomic Habits says you do this by chaining small habits together.  So mine might look like:

  • Before I have my coffee each morning I will go for a run.
  • After I pour my morning cup of coffee, I will meditate for sixty seconds.
  • After I meditate for sixty seconds, I will write my to-do list for the day.
  • After I write my to-do list for the day, I will immediately begin my first task.

I have a lot of habits – some unconscious – like constantly twisting my hair around my fingers, others conscious – like running 6k each morning and writing a weekly blog.   Each month seems to bring a new habit I want to add in.  In May, I wanted to add in a meditation habit – part of my experiment to manage migraines.  I opted for Smiling Mind.  I used the stacking technique.  So now, after I have got into bed and put on my hand cream I listen to one smiling mind meditation.  It’s worked for every night since I started (helped by a reinforcer on the app telling me what length my day streak is).

Going on holiday is a disrupter of habits.  I try and hold onto them but am forced to give up some. Last week, away with my grandchildren,  I couldn’t run 6k every day, didn’t have coasters, had to eat my non-habitual breakfast, couldn’t write my 3 morning pages each day, and so on.  I enjoyed the disruption because it forced me to ask myself whether I am a habit hoarder.  Are my habits useful?  What do they say about me?  Can I discard some? Am I defined by them?

Thinking about my habits shows me that many of them I’ve introduced to stop me being baffled by choice.  I don’t have to spend time making decisions.  Thus, I am in the habit of wearing only red, white and black clothes so I look coherent and presentable in whatever outfit I’ve got on. I don’t need to waste time looking at other colours of garments and wondering how to put them together in an outfit.

Similarly, I eat the same breakfast every day so I don’t have to think about what to have for breakfast.  I just get it ready the night before, and there’s no decision or time thinking about it involved.   

Until recently, I had exactly the same meal for lunch, and exactly the same (but different from lunch meal) for dinner.  This was to stop me dithering about what to have for lunch, dinner.  I have discarded this habit as I began to think it might be nutrient deficient, and instead substituted a habit of eating thirty plant based foods per week.   

Habit hoarding – clinging on to habits can be limiting.  You can get agitated if you can’t practice the habit.  My mother used to get into a fearful paddy if she didn’t have a cup of tea at precisely 4 o’clock, and half a banana before she went to bed.  I don’t like it if I can’t write my morning journal.  But I’d rather be a person who was able to discard my habits on occasions (or completely) without anxiety.

I’m wondering whether I have habits that I hoard when instead I could usefully completely discard them: perhaps, my habit of discarding 9 items per month, or, maybe, my habit of saying ‘Good Lord’, as an exclamation of surprise.  (I have several verbal twitches I could discard).

I got a lovely piece the other day by Oliver Burkeman ‘Against Good Habits’, one of his email newsletters.  He suggests that trying to build habits can stand in the way of getting things done.  It’s an avoidance.  He says, rather than trying to build a habit of writing daily for 15 minutes, just write something now.   He sets the challenge, ‘What’s one think you could do today, that you know would be a good way to use a small portion of your time, and would you be willing to actually do it? I’m precisely not talking about relaunching your meditation practice but instead just meditating once, today.’

As I was wondering about habit stacking, habit hoarding and habit discarding, my running coach sent another handout talking about identity based habits.  The idea is that your identity emerges out of your habits and behaviours. Every action is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.  What you do now, in terms of habits, is a mirror image of the type of person you believe that you are (either consciously or subconsciously).    

To change your habits and behaviour for good, you need to start believing new things about yourself. You need to build identity-based habits – ones that help you become the person you want to be.  James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, says, this may mean changing your beliefs: your worldview, your self-image, your judgments about yourself and others.

Hmm – food for thought.   Am I happy with my current identity?  What is the identity I might prefer?  This isn’t an easy question. Like most people I have a number of roles, each with attendant habits.   I categorised these and found ten distinct informal roles emerged – student, writer, administrator, gardener, runner, beekeeper, family supporter, networker, community worker, property manager (keeping my accommodation maintained!)  

On some roles I have less ingrained habits than others.  This suggests that my identity around that role is less strong – student is one.  I’ve tried to build a habit of studying whatever the current topic is for an hour each day, but that often goes by the board.  In this case,  I do rely on Burkeman’s technique of occasionally doing something e.g. do a plant revision quiz, as the mood strikes me.

On the other hand, running – over the last 30 years I’ve been a pretty consistent 35 – 40k weekly runner.   So, maybe my identity is stronger as a runner than as a student. What now?  I’ll keep an eye on my habits, I’ll see where to stack more to build the identity I want, where to stop carefully hoarding and which to discard.

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