I’ve always considered myself to be pretty useless when it comes to forming new good habits (the bad ones, psssh easy!). You know, habits like intermittent fasting, waking up at 5 am to run a marathon before work every day, or getting through three 400 page books in a week. Habits that you hear about the ‘uber-rich and successful’ doing religiously, which, as it happens, is allegedly the secret to their riches and success (and clearly doesn’t bode well for my chances of a life of luxury).
Although fasting, running and reading 1,200 pages a week isn’t exactly what I aim for, I have always found that I lacked the discipline to introduce even relatively simple habits, like 15 mins of yoga every day. It feels impossibly hard.
However, recently I realised that it’s not that I lacked discipline generally. Far from it, I had spent my entire career being very disciplined about my work habits. I was religious about showing up to meetings on time, checking my emails and Slack regularly, delivering work asked of me. My discipline, however, consistently fell apart when the habits I was trying to form meant showing up for me. If it meant showing up for myself versus others, others would win every time.
I know it’s important for me to develop habits that serve my own wellbeing, but simply knowing the significance of these habits is not enough to make them stick. As James Clear writes in his book Atomic Habits, ‘You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems’ (Eeesh! This line hit me so hard it felt like a personal attack). I know what my goals are and I know what habits I want to create for myself, but I lack the system that allows me to get there.
After a few weeks of reflecting, I realised that while maybe I did want to do more yoga or read more books, what I actually needed was to feel more in control of my day. To create moments of calm, so I had the mental space to stretch my mind while working, and focus on whatever interests four-year-olds after school. Reading and Yoga were habits I wanted to form, but the system I had to build was making space to do those things.
Armed with this realisation, I made some changes. My previous inability to practice yoga once a month has turned into daily stretching and meditation in the morning. I’ve made space for it by not reaching for my phone as soon as I wake up, and I’ve introduced flexibility by accepting that my practice will be different every day. It may be 10 mins or 45 mins. Some days I practise alone. Other days, my 4-year-old is climbing on top of me while I try to do a downward dog or holding my hands to lead me through her own version of guided meditation. I’ve created the space, accepted flexibility, and it’s now something that fits in more easily.
I’ve also read more books over the last month than I have in the previous twelve. No longer having a daily commute took away my ‘book reading system’. By introducing a series of small bedtime habits, I’ve created a system that builds up to the calm I need to settle with a book right before bed.
These small habits, or as I like to call them, my micro-acts of self-care, have unexpectedly given me an outsized return on the amount of time I put into them. My days are now more intentional, I’m calmer, I have space to breathe, I can set better boundaries for myself, and I can prioritize myself with less guilt. And it means I show up stronger in all the other areas of my life.