patterns and habit-building

One reason I find blogging helpful is that it helps me see bigger patterns. Thinking about why September & October were more challenging than previous months, I skimmed some previous posts, and decided that I’m probably struggling a bit with the transition from short-term Big Life Changes to sustainable long-term habits.

“Short-term” might not be quite the right phrasing, but my first six months went really well. I had a lot of motivation, the amazing feeling of constantly surprising myself, and, perhaps most importantly, a clear trajectory. Thing started out unbelievably, embarrassingly hard, and got easier; I went from drinking a lot, every day, to drinking a (usually) moderate amount occasionally; I went from terrified to confident, from freaking out to bursting with pride.

I wrote a number of things to celebrate the six month mark, and then the seventh and eighth month rolled around, and I had to keep it up. I didn’t just get to pour energy into this for six months and retire to rest on my laurels, I had to keep plugging away, and in an unfortunate coincidence of timing, both months presented specific challenges that required extra effort on my part. No wonder, really, that I found the whole thing a bit more challenging, and felt far more ambivalent about this entire enterprise in general. The “one day at a time” mantra is ubiquitous for a reason, and it seemed clear to me that I was wobbling a bit at the idea that I’d really have to keep this up forever.

Then again, maybe not. Now I am solidly ensconced in my familiar routines again, back home and with no travel looming on the horizon, I’ve slipped back into my new habits with barely a twitch. Not drinking at all most days (sick dog, overload of things to do, and persistent depression notwithstanding). Enjoying most of a beer while out for dinner at the place down the street, and having to consciously draw my own attention to how slowly I was sipping it, and how I found that “enough” point 3/4 of the way through and set it down for good (neither thing accidental, but rather, specific skills I’ve practiced quite a bit — and not coincidentally, in this particular bar/restaurant more than most).

Habits are amazing things. They also depend on contextual cues — we’re triggered to act out our habitual behaviors by specific surroundings, situations, locations, and so on. Small wonder that during two months with a lot of unusual contexts, I struggled more. At home, everything is a cue to do things other than drinking. Wander off into new territory, and my brain scans desperately for cues about what to do…and not surprisingly, tends to come up with that old fall-back, why-not-have-a-drink(or-ten). The drinking habit isn’t gone, just because I’ve replaced it with newer habits, but it takes more unusual circumstances to really make it persuasive.

There’s an a solution, I think, though probably not a perfect one. One piece is to keep practicing my new habits in a lot of different circumstances until they generalize. Another is to put together some specific plans for certain “unusual circumstances” that are fairly predictable (e.g. camping, staying in hotels, flying on airplanes, hosting guests, visiting family) so that I can eventually build solid habits in those situations too. And maybe, one piece is to accept the fact that during certain times, in certain situations, old habits are simply going to make themselves felt, and that I don’t always have to respond perfectly. Hmm, accepting imperfection, that tricky thing again.

 

 

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