Habit

My mornings are all the same. Go down stairs, let the dog out, get breakfast for my son, prod my son to get breakfast for the dog, make coffee, read the paper. Week day or weekend, this is my routine, my habit, my ritual. When I travel or get busy or sick and can’t engage in this comforting domestic dance I feel a little lost.

I have my work routines, too. They used to include a walk to the coffee shop across the street for a late morning cup of dark roast. But the coffee shop closed, and I now find myself searching for a replacement and finding none of the other cafes are just right. I have deep sympathy for Goldilocks and her quest for a chair, a bed, a comforting bowl of porridge.

Some of my other habits are more directly tied to work output, like my email habit. Before I leave the house every morning I scan all the emails that came in after work the day before. Anything that is answerable in few words without much thought I simply answer. I look for emergencies or things that will take thought and pondering, and I read those emails carefully. Everything else I make sure is marked “unread,” and then I head to work. My first hour or two in the office is dedicated to dealing with emails. I read and respond to the routine emails and leave only the more difficult or time consuming ones marked “unread,” as a reminder to me to deal with them. And finally, after a couple of hours of those more difficult issues stewing in the back of my head as I took care of more routine matters, I am usually ready to tackle the hard stuff.

We all have work habits. Where we like to sit at meetings, the order we tackle tasks, the route we take to get to our desk from the elevator, the time we eat lunch, the people we habitually ask for help. Most of these habits are neither helpful or harmful in and of themselves. The habit gives structure and prevents us from having to make decisions about every little thing we do every day, saving mental energy for real choices. Some habits are self-defeating, though. One of my own unhelpful work habits is keeping a browser open on my desktop loaded with Facebook and the New York Times. Sure, checking them once in a while isn’t a problem, but the habit of leaving the browser open, rather than opening it purposefully for a needed break or to look something up means I reflexively look at Facebook or the news when I get bored or stuck. I’d do better to just sit with my boredom or stuckness for a moment. Distraction-by-internet would be a good habit for me to break.

What my aimless wandering in search of a new habitual coffee shop reminded me, though, is how hard habits are to change. For us in social behavior change this is particularly vexing because most health behaviors have some element of habit. Food, sex, sleep – all of them deeply influenced by habit, or even by its more meaningful big brother, ritual. If I grump my way through my day because I didn’t get to read the newspaper, I should realize that asking someone to do something simple like eat more vegetables or use a condom isn’t so simple at all.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I am going to go try to find myself that just-right cup of coffee.

 

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