This morning I discovered one of Gretchen Rubin‘s newer books in a book store in Ubud on Bali where I am currently enjoying life. As a regular listener of her podcast ‘Happier’, I had of course heard a lot about ‘Better than Before‘. I love to read her books when traveling solo as they give me the feeling of having an inspiring, deep, thoughtful conversation with a friend. I love how Gretchen picks up one question or concept, obsesses over collecting all there is to know about it, and finally shares the essence of her insight. All I have read by her circles around self-development and awareness – in a refreshing, unpretentious way. I really only put down her books to write down a note or ponder on a thought… ‘The Happiness Project’ was with me on Hainan earlier this summer, so I decided Bali was a good time for ‘Better than Before’.
As it often goes when traveling, life just hands me the book I have to read right there, right then. ‘Better than Before’ elaborates on the concept of habits, and gives insights in how to develop or change them.
One essential insight that Gretchen shares right in the beginning of the book really resonated with me (one of those moments where I had to put down the book!):
“the real key to habits is decision making––or, more accurately, the lack of decision making. […] Habits make change possible by freeing us from decision making and from using self-control.” (p.7/8)
This appears intuitively right. Habits save time and energy. Gretchen argues that we subconsciously turn back to our habits – especially in times of stress – and that it is therefore rewarding to build good habits that will make our lives better in such situations, rather than making it worse. She goes on to describe that she realized she is a ‘whole-hearted habits embracer’. Which got me thinking – am I quite the opposite?
“A ‘routine’ is a string of habits” (p.14)
Routine is the word that probably least associated with my current lifestyle. I am about to make my sixth international move in 3.5 years. I have lived on three different continents in the last 18 months and I my travels are more global than ever. It is true: Whenever I get to a new place, be it for a short visit or to stay, I try to adapt to the local culture. But more than developing new habits, I would say this is adapting or even changing behavior to whatever the current setting requires.
There are very few habits that I uphold location independently: Brushing my teeth, taking a shower (but day time and frequency vary), calling my parents every 1-3 weeks (even that habit I have not been very stable with… shame on me) – uhm … can charging my phone count as a habit?
Well, I guess it’s safe to say that today I have no set of habits that would qualify as a routine. For the longest time, I simply and purely loved this fact. I take pride in my conscious decisions relating to every little thing I do. I am feeling guilty admitting that I sometimes find myself frowning upon other people’s routines. Declaring deep inside that this is not for me.
When I was little (really little, maybe five?! I was definitely in Kindergarten), I was arguing with fate because I realized my own mortality, and the fact that I could only have one life. I was frustrated by this prospect – how was I supposed to fit in all the experiences there are in the short amount of time I was given? (No thoughts a five year old should have maybe, but it is what it is). Today I realize that by not letting myself fall into habits, but exploring new things, and gaining new experiences small and big every single day, I get to live my life as if I had hundreds. Nothing is blurring together, (basically) every day is lived to its fullest. And I would never want to miss this.
Ironically enough, my childhood and teenage years were defined by a very strict routine. As a competitive, pretty professional swimmer I had my workout routine, my eating routine, my sleeping routine, my studying routine. Self-discipline is definitely a word that people who knew my younger self would have associate with me. Now that I think about it, people probably still do. It helped me achieve great things, not only in sports but also in my education. And while I am happy to have quit my attempted career in sports (Why?? I ask myself today, knowing that I was never really a sports person – ironically), I am forever grateful for the character traits and skills this experience has fostered within me.
I follow through. I ‘have my shit together’, as people tell me. I plan ahead, I have a all possible scenarios lined out in my head. All possible consequences neatly calculated, with an escape plan lined up for each and every option. When I was younger this was almost an obsession. Control freak? Maybe. Or just well prepared.
But I have grown and while these traits are still important to me, I have also learned to let go. I review. I question. I improve. I adapt.
Sometimes, just sometimes, I even grant myself the adventure of being unprepared. Especially when I travel. When there are no responsibilities lined up and I don’t care to check any of the boxes I am supposed to check as a tourist. It’s a newly gained freedom that I indulge in.
Back to habits. Habits seem to be quite the opposite of decision making and self-control. I love making conscious decisions and being in control of my life. So it is easy to neglect the idea that any good could come out of having a routine. When people tell me that one day, I will want to settle down for good, I encounter two different reactions. Most of the time everything inside of me is screaming: YOU HAVE NO IDEA! Even when I am in a better, more relaxed and accepting place, I am likely to think: Hmmm… I don’t know about that, but if I do, I’ll accept it gracefully and it will be the right thing to do.
But lets face it: Not having virtually any routines is incredibly energy consuming. Thoughts are cruising the highways of my brain all day, every day. It’s like a never ending rush hour. Funny enough, I have discovered Yoga and meditation for myself a couple of years ago, and found calming my mind a wonderful experience, even lacking the deeper insight into why that might be.
As stereotypical it may be (writing this piece here in Ubud on Bali), I want to share on of my favorite Eat, Pray, Love (Liz Gilbert) quotes:
“The other day in prayer I said to God, ‘Look––I understand that an unexamined life is not worth living, but do you think I could someday have an unexamined lunch?'”.
Having finished up my studies in China and Sweden, I am currently traveling. Sometimes faster, sometimes slower. But without checking many boxes, just living and loving it. For the first time in forever, I have the prospect of building a routine in the near future. It comes with the responsibility of a real person job. A package deal if you will.
My first reaction was to be pretty terrified. It will take me some time to realize that I can actually unpack my bag. Maybe buy a personal item or two, to use in my own personal space. Possibly even own furniture again, even though I am not sure if I’m quite there yet (too much of a commitment!). — Side note: I am great at committing to personal relations, I’m not a weirdo. But a friend of partner doesn’t necessarily require me to not move, whereas an expensive, big bed does… —
After being done with being terrified, I realized that I did not have to change my life. No-one can take the things I have discovered about myself and the world away from me. Maybe, if I allowed myself a few habits, my mind could focus on different things. Maybe not every single meaningless decision in life requires a plan B, C, D, and E. And just in case F. Maybe, just maybe, building a good, healthy routine will give me the peace of mind to let go and focus on the essentials… I don’t think I need to be scared anymore to fall back into a pattern of ignorance just because I might do some things repetitively. I guess – as usual – for me the middle path, a peaceful balance of habits and new experiences, would be the most rewarding. A new routine that will be worth exploring.
Let start a conversation, drop a comment. I’m really excited to hear your thoughts on this. Do you love your habits and routines? Can you not sit still and need to explore new things every day? Or do you maybe find yourself in the middle?