Habitually Bad at Habits

My brother’s best friend during childhood ate dinner every night at 5:00pm. Every night. Weekdays and weekends. School days and summer break. Every single night. In contrast, my family lived by a kind of vagabond flexibility. True, some days the five of us gathered together around the table at 6:00pm but others we were fending for ourselves and eating at the picnic table at 8:00pm. We were as likely to go out for a linner (late lunch / early dinner) with the senior crowd at 3:00pm as we were to eat brunch at 11:00am and then gorge on snacks watching Love Boat.

As a child I remember being incredulous of his family’s consistency; as an adult, I am in awe.

I suck at building habits. My life is a cautionary tale of one failed attempt after another to build routine and standardization into my life. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the power of positive habits, so much so that I’ve invested in more than a few models and techniques for building them. Here’s just a short list of things I’ve tried to build habits around that have been massive failures:

  • Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day
  • Doing 15 minutes of daily planning
  • Exercising 3-4 days per week
  • Reading every evening before bed
  • Taking maintenance medication
  • Blogging 2x per week
  • Creating an evening facial routine
  • Prepping meals for the following week
  • Writing regular correspondence
  • Keeping a journal

You get the idea. The failures range from work to personal and from things that will benefit me to things that benefit others. It doesn’t matter which aspect of my life it falls into, even when I want to build the consistency of structure, sooner or later it falls under its own weight because I just can’t hold it up.

Lately, I reassessed my Strengths Finder results and found that I was fairly consistent from the last time I took it about six years ago. My five dominant strengths are Strategic, Achiever, Input, Learner and Communicator. I’m willing to bet that Discipline — the strength of routine and structure — is non-existent in my pattern. And I can tell you this, it is truly annoying to know the power of positive habits (Strategic, Input, Learner), to be singly focused on leveraging those benefits (Achiever) and to still be unable to get it done.

Today, I listened to a TED Radio Hour podcast called A Better You that included a segment by Matt Cutts around the power of changing habits in 30 days. He argued that doing one thing every day for 30 days is long enough to build a new habit. After listening I was excited about the possibility of real change — imagine building TWELVE new habits in a year. My brain quickly identified not one but a handful of things I needed to conquer and (in typical Mel fashion) I decided I would do them all in the first month. If one is good than five is better, right? Right?

[Cue Mel’s inner voice: “Wrong you idiot, it’s one thing for a reason. One thing. One.”]

By the time I had walked from my car to my desk I had backed myself off fixing everything that is wrong with me and I had picked one thing. I won’t tell you what the thing is, but I will tell you that today I did it and I marked a big black X on my calendar to show that I had done it. Tomorrow I’ll do it. And Thursday. And Friday. And if I can do it for 26 days after that I’ll pat myself on the back and go onto the next thing and do THAT for 30 days.

So, how long do you suppose it takes to build a habit for building habits?

A Home Rooted in Stories

Last weekend my brother and his wife moved into their new home. Well, new to them. The house itself is more than 70 years old, lovingly built and renovated by the same couple throughout their marriage. You can see their uniqueness throughout the character of the rooms: a great room off the entry perfect for entertaining; a large, private master suite with only a sliding glass door for escaping to the backyard; a central galley kitchen designed for efficiency; small private spaces for hobbies including a dark room, library, office and wine closet. It is the kind of house that leads to questions and wonder in every oddly shaped room, layer of plaster and bricked up window. It is a house begging to share its stories.

I know many of them — the owners were my grandparents.

My grandfather returned from World War II ready to marry his sweetheart and start his life. He told me once that there weren’t enough homes available for the returning GI’s — he just wasn’t able to find a home to purchase. So, being the resourceful person he was, my grandfather moved his new wife and infant son into his parents’ house, bought land from his father and proceeded to build his young family a home. Years later, he could articulate the thinking behind each of the design decisions and the practical evolution as his family grew and their savings made enhancement possible.

When I was growing up we visited their house every Sunday. It was a family ritual that needed no explanation and brooked no argument; few things overruled our 5:00pm trip down familiar roads to my father’s childhood home. I learned the little bit of patience I have from those visits, over the 2,500 hours of amusing myself and my brothers while the grown ups chatted. To be honest, I learned about life without even knowing it. Once during a job interview I was asked what interested me about the automotive industry. I answered, without embellishment, that listening to my father and grandfather “talk shop” had taught me about business before I even knew I cared about business. Family, loyalty, conflict resolution, straight talk — I learned all of that and more as a child at their feet. 

I remember that sometimes grandpa would fall asleep and we would all wait patiently for him to wake up knowing he would smile and assert that he was just reading his eyelids. I remember my grandmother disappearing into the kitchen to come out with plate after plate of snacks (cut fruit, cheese, chips, cheese balls) that we would eagerly devour. I remember getting old enough to be given permission to go off on my own into their bedroom (the only room with a tv) to sit on the bed and watch 21 Jump Street and Star Trek the Next Generation. I remember summers throwing lawn jarts, climbing trees and playing hide and seek under the massive willow tree — the one that was later struck by lightening. I remember one glorious summer afternoon (and only one) when we churned ice cream by hand — it was filled with chunks of Oreo and delicious.

As an adult I created new memories. I got dressed there for my wedding, journeying across the driveway to walk down ‘the aisle’ — a cobblestone path through the grass to my parents’ back deck. We brought our children as infants and toddlers, setting them on the carpet and pulling out familiar toys while grandma brought fresh baked cookies. I remember the warm feeling when my kids first asked if they could go over to “Old Papa’s” house, watching from the kitchen window as they ran across the driveway on their own. They would open the door and head straight to the back bedroom without any warning; grandma and grandpa didn’t mind, their door was always open.

My grandfather only admitted to one time when he and my grandmother had truly disagreed. It was when his business had been taking off and his peers in industry had suggested that he needed to move to an affluent town to ensure financial success. Achievement was important to grandpa and he thought they needed to do it. My grandmother was adamantly against it — she argued that they had to remember where they came from and stay true to their roots. More than 20 years into my own marriage I have a hard time seeing that argument in my mind’s eye. It must have gotten pretty heated, but my grandma was a strong woman and she loved her family more than anything. She won and they didn’t move.

I have a hard time imaging my life if she had lost.

There was a time in my life when I was convinced that my past, present and future would be lived within a few miles of that house. I thought I might be the one to live in their home. My parents were living in my great-grandparents house across the driveway and I had moved home to raise my own young children just a few miles away. I envisioned the changes I would make, how I would be true to the history while building a bright future for my own family. And then I moved away, pulling up roots four generations in the making to start over in a place where we had no history at all.

I would be inclined to be maudlin if not for my brother and his wife. I’ve watched as they have embraced the old while creating a new space totally their own. Walking into the front door brings a feeling of comfortable recognition tied to their own character. The house includes furniture that was my grandparents, pieces that were once mine and things all their own. They’re creating new stories, stories that the next generation will share. I can’t help but think that perhaps it has worked out the way it was meant to — that the house was always destined to come to them. I like that.

Grandma would have liked it, too.

Stop Asking How I Do It

It happened again last week. There I was in a normal business conversation talking about how we were going to take a project to the next level when my colleague looked at me with both admiration and dismay.  She paused, as if wondering how best to proceed and then let the words slide out, “I don’t know how you do it.” I burbled a response and tried to get out of the conversation quickly. Because as I’ve heard versions of that comment over the last couple of years I have one request:

Not to sound ungrateful, but please, stop.

Each time I hear those words I feel a series of strong and generally negative reactions, including:

  • Guilt. Thinking of all of the things that have been sacrificed to do what I have done
  • Humility. Knowing that I have only done what was required and what I am capable of doing
  • Worry. For the work that remains undone and at risk of failure

The woman who said this to me never intended to make me feel bad. Neither did my brother when he asked the same question a couple months ago or my sister when I connected with her online on Friday. Each and every time the words come up they are in the context of thoughtful inquiry; coming from individuals who respect me expressing sincere appreciation. Strangely, I think that makes it even harder for me to respond the right way.

Because the truth is I don’t know how I do it. And worse yet I don’t know if I should.

More and more I am coming to the conclusion that it really isn’t a choice. As long as I can remember I’ve been wired to have a unique combination of never-ending energy, compulsion to achieve and ridiculous positivity. So much so that a colleague once described me as ‘a six pack of Jolt.’ I’ve used the description recently, but now I tend to talk in terms of Red Bull — it makes more sense to Millennials.

But the problem is that those characteristics are not something I’ve worked on or cultivated; it’s not like I read a self-help book to learn techniques or gain capabilities. In fact, I don’t even make a conscious decision to act on or embrace the tendencies. My husband calls me “a machine” and does his best to pull my plug or get me to shut down for periods of time worried that I will run myself right into the ground. But, to quote someone richer and more famous than me, “Baby I was born this way.” I can no more explain how it works than a bird could explain its ability to fly.

I don’t know how I do it, I just do.

Worse yet, every reminder about what has been done instantly brings to mind what hasn’t been done. With only 24 hours in a day, a choice to deliver for someone leaves someone else wanting. My family, my health, my hobbies they have all fallen behind at points in time. I haven’t cooked a decent meal for my family in a month. It’s been three weeks since I managed to prioritize the time and quiet mental energy to complete a new blog post. Three weeks during which other things got top billing in my life; three weeks of aborted attempts and distracted thoughts. No one can actually do it all and being reminded of it just brings that into stark reality. There they are like suspects in a lineup: Mr. Undone, Mr. Poorly Done, and Mr. Not Yet Done.

I don’t do it all, not even close.

Regardless, maybe it isn’t fair to make my discomfort the world’s issue. Next time I will take a deep breath, say thank-you and remind whoever asks that whatever I did, I didn’t do it alone. I have a talented team at work, a network filled with friends ready to step up and a family that is there no matter the cost. And if that isn’t gift enough, I have a true partner on my journey who lifts me up every day, running beside me to pick up what he can and to catch me when I fall. Recently I had an issue at work that required me to go in late at night — he drove me. The next morning I was exhausted from too little sleep and I forgot my laptop — he brought it to me. No critique, no condescending comments, just support in the moment so I could do what needed to be done.

And maybe that’s why I struggle so much with the words, “I don’t know how you do it.” I don’t do it, not really.

We do it.

(Special thanks to Idealist Mom — I snagged her graphic. And, if you want more on this topic, check out her great blog on the same topic with a mom twist here.)