Friday, July 27, 2007


As anyone who has read my blog for any length of time knows, I'm a strong advocate of de-cluttering but I realized something today which showed that I'm far from perfect at it. My husband and I have had two pair of tweezers for years. One has a tip which is bent or corroded in such a way that they are ineffective. The other works okay so we only use them.

For well over a decade now, my husband and I have been searching the tin box we store the tweezers in, picking up one and putting it back into the tin if it's the "bad" one. This pointless behavior is something we do out of habit. The logical thing to do is to throw away the pair that doesn't work and I finally did that today. But habit is a persuasive mistress that kept us making a pointless little choice for years.

While vacuuming today, I started to think about how much of our lives are conducted on auto-pilot because we act out of habit. Sometimes such habits are unintentionally destructive. If you turn on the T.V. or radio and leave them running in the background while you do something else out of habit rather than because you are sincerely interested in the programming, you waste energy and you divide your attention and risk prematurely exhausting your attention span from over-stimulation.

With television in particular, we grow so used to it droning on in the background that we forget how to stare off into space and daydream or think of nothing and get a mental cleansing. If reading books has any great advantage over television, it's that you have to actively want to read and attend to the process whereas T.V. is so effortlessly entertaining that we leave it on out of habit.

What is perhaps worse about habits though is that they end up robbing you of the pleasures of certain experiences. If you drink coffee everyday out of habit, you stop really enjoying the experience of the smell and the taste of it and just mindlessly drink it down. The same goes for other sorts of eating habits. In fact, overeating is likely contributed to in part by the habit of eating without paying attention to the experience of tasting the food or your body's cues that you are getting full. The first bite of anything is always the best and by the third, you are seeing diminishing returns on the pleasure of any gustatory experience but we mindlessly consume certain portions out of habit.

Habits are comforting though and they provide structure to our lives. There are good habits as well as bad ones but even the good ones can benefit from a regular analysis and alteration, particularly if you find yourself becoming a slave to your dutiful attention to such habits such that they either cause you stress or become destructive. You'd be surprised how often people complain about having to do something at a certain time of day or day of the week which they could just as easily choose not to do or to perform at a different less troubling time.

Our thinking can become so rigid at times that we forget that we have a choice about the patterns we fit our lives into. For instance, one of my students was complaining to me that she was beginning to get stressed because of too frequent e-mail exchanges with an English-speaking friend of hers. He would send her a message and she's respond immediately then he'd zip back a reply right away. It reached the point where she was getting 5 messages a day which took her a long time to compose replies to because of her limited English skills. Since she always responds immediately to e-mail, it never even occurred to her to change her habit and reply the next day to slow down the pace of the correspondence.

As for me, I'd been doing my student data and lesson content entry on my PC for the past two years. However, I started using the Macintosh full-time for nearly everything over the past several months and reserved the PC for game-playing only. Consolidating the majority of my work on one machine cut down on the keyboard and monitor swapping. The exception to doing all my "work" on the Mac was my student record keeping which I continued to do on the PC. As I pointlessly swapped to the PC today, I realized that this was a mindless habit. I can do e-mail and Excel work equally well from the Mac so I finally copied over the necessary files and made the switch.

If you're more interested in pragmatism rather than mental breaks, you can also look at your habits to see where your choices in spending could be altered to save you money and add variety to your life. For instance, I drink Diet Coke with lunch and dinner everyday but the truth is that I like iced tea quite a lot. The tea costs about 1/5 what the Coke is costing but it never even occurred to me to make it because I was following my routine. The same may go for how you travel to work, particularly if you drive a car and could take a bike ride. You also may find that services you pay for regularly like cable television or newspaper subscriptions are well past the point of diminishing returns and could be canceled with little loss to you.

Perhaps one of the worst habits we all have in this day and age is getting up and sitting in front of our computers. The first thing we do is read web pages or check e-mail. I'm guessing that checking or pecking at ones cell phone is another of these sorts of habits (but I don't have one so that isn't an issue for me). There are certain experiences we rob ourselves of by allowing ourselves to be drawn to our devices everyday out of habit. You could be having breakfast at a table with someone you love making eye contact and having a real conversation. You could be in the kitchen making the kind of breakfast that takes more than 5 minutes to slap together. You could stare out the window as you drink your coffee and think about something creative or personal rather than being spoon fed the thoughts or ideas put forth by others on their web pages.

If we take the time to break our most mentally-consuming habits, we can find that even daily experiences feel more "alive". I'm not trying to speak poorly of watching T.V. or using the computer but I do feel it's good to do these things because you really want the content rather than because it's there and you're consuming it almost thoughtlessly out of habit. My husband has actually been building on this sort of idea for a few years now. When he finds himself sitting in front of his laptop reading it without real interest or finding no true pleasure in it, he puts it down and reads a book or sits back and meditates. I can't say I've become as good at it as he but I do believe it's worth continuing to try and follow his example.


Anonymous said...

Shari, I agree entirely with what you say, and can contribute my own experience. I should walk briskly half an hour four or more times a week. The most I can do is three, and I can do that only on the treadmill, which forces me to maintain a certain pace. At the same time, I can listen to all kinds of things through headphones, and for a long time I used the occasion to listen to languge tapes. Why waste valuable time?

I have found, however, that when I listen to classical music, my mind goes off in all directions. I can think about the day and what I want to accomplish, how I should phrase something, what I should be writing. I become (I believe) more creative, so when I reach the desk I am physically and mentally stimulated. The time has not been wasted after all.

Wally Wood

Miko said...

I don't have a cell phone either. Those things suck your soul!