You are what you repeatedly do… (Part 3: The Best Time To Begin)

…Therefore excellence is not an act, but a habit.”  Aristotle.


Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin

Following on from the awesome foundations in Self-Knowledge, and Pillars of Habits, Rubin goes on to propose the best time to implement a new beneficial habit.

“The most important step is the first step.  All those old sayings are really true.  Well begun is half done.  Don’t get it perfect, get it going.  A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  Nothing is more exhausting than the task that’s never started, and strangely, starting is often far harder than continuing.” p. 103

This strategy really cuts to the heart for all of us procrastinators, who use what Rubin terms, “Tomorrow logic”.  I’ll start next week/month/year.  When this is right, or that is finished, or that person does _______ first.

Now is an unpopular time to take a first step.” p.104

This may perhaps be more true in the spiritual life than in any other.  I hear it said: “I’ll think about God when I’m old/have kids/retire/get sick etc. etc.”  Spiritually healthy people, just like physically fit people, know that the best time is now to address these deeper issues in life.

“Tomorrow logic wastes time, and also may allow us to deny that our current actions clash with our intentions…we tell ourselves, absolutely, I’m committed to reading aloud to my children, and I will read to them tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow – just not today.” p. 104

Rubin suggests when a task seems overwhelming, to take smaller more manageable steps and gradually increase it.  Take the small step now and gradually work on your goal over time.  She does, however, go on to clarify that the small step approach does not work for everyone.  Some respond far better to major, radical changes all at once.  Some of our greatest Saints were those who did this.  Think: St Paul, St Augustine, St Francis of Assisi and the amazing St Mary of Egypt.

Icon of St Mary of Egypt with scenes from her life.Source

As well as addressing procrastination, the concept of starting can also trigger a change, which may be another reason for putting things off:  the fear of change, even good change, can be a powerful form of enslavement.   She strongly suggests developing a habit of transitions which can assist in this area.  This can simple transitions, such as from waking to sleeping : the bedtime ritual, or from work to home: the coming home ritual, or from rest to exercise: the warm up ritual.  Another interesting observation about this:

“For many people, transitions often trigger the urge to snack or drink.” p. 109

Ain’t that the truth!

Emphasis is also placed on the stopping component of a habit, as it can be hard to start, but even harder to pick up again once we stop.  Citing the example of exercise and how a break in routine can easily derail a commitment, I could also see how this plays out with the practice of the faith.  How often have I committed to a particular prayer schedule only to find so many other things crowd it out quickly, and then it becomes difficult to start again.  One of the benefits of a novena, like the one we say to the Holy Family, is that there is a definite start and finish, so it becomes less difficult to stop during the nine days, as I know there will be a stopping point at the end.

“The fact is, while some habits are almost unbreakable, some remain fragile, even after years.  We must guard against anything that might weaken a valuable habit.  Every added link in the chain strengthens the habit – and any break in the chain marks a potential stopping point.” p. 111

Revisiting the start of a habit is the concept of the “Clean Slate”.  Starting something right can often leave lasting impressions, so  look for opportunities when a change in circumstances may be an opportunity to instil better habits, or even harness the power of the clean slate by actively changing something in your surroundings which will prompt a positive change.

Rubin also emphasises the “Strategy of the Lightning Bolt”, which is not really something we can decide to do, but rather something that just happens to us.  Often overlooked in the “slow implementation of habits”  approach, if a lightning bolt hits you, such as a major shock or change or life situation that jolts you into action, make the most of it to implement lasting better habits.

In the next section Rubin addresses the issues of, “Desire, Ease and Excuses” in habit forming… stay tuned!



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