The Merits of Habits

My beautiful friend,  Stephanie Staniforth

My beautiful friend, Stephanie Staniforth

Over the past 2 years I have built a few daily habits and rituals that are significant to me. The longer I practice these things, the more they grow and change, and become essential parts of my routine. 

The Habits

January 2015: Started journaling daily
Late 2015: started meditating daily
January 2016: Started taking 1 intentional photo daily
Late 2016: Started doing pushups daily

Somewhere near the end of 2014, three things happened that kicked off this journey: 

  1. I collected all my empty notebooks and put them on one bookshelf together.

  2. I told myself I couldn’t buy anymore notebooks until I had filled all of them.

  3. I read several posts on Zenhabits about how to develop successful habits.

How I develop habits

In the past, sticking to personal resolutions or commitments has been exceedingly tough for me. With the guidance of Zenhabits, I’ve managed to successfully develop a few new habits. This is a really huge thing for me, I’m quite chuffed with myself. These are the key messages I took from Leo’s work that have helped me succeed:

  1. Start small, really small. My 2015 commitment to write every day was very simple: put words onto a journal page every day, even if it’s only one sentence.

  2. Be forgiving. If I miss a day, that’s ok. Start again the next day. In the summer of 2015 I quit journaling for 2 months. It was harder to be forgiving of myself this time, but I knew i had to if I wanted to continue. I told myself it was in the past, I couldn’t go back and re-do it, so it didn’t matter. I just started again in September and then finished out the year.

  3. Visual reminders. My bedside table has a lamp, my glasses, chapstick, and my notebook and pens. The notebook is there, staring at me when I go to bed. It’s simple to pick it up and write a few words. My phone’s lock screen says “write my way out”, which is my latest mantra to encourage my writing practice.

  4. Triggers. A habit trigger is something you consistently do that is always followed by another consistent action. For me, I always write right before going to sleep. So, going to bed has become a writing trigger for me. Writing has become a sleep trigger for me as well. Once this summer I forgot to take my notebook camping. It genuinely threw off my entire weekend. I did still journal, into the moleskine app on my phone, but it wasn’t the same. I was having an actual minor panic attack before bed, frantically searching for my notebook.

  5. The habit is the reward. Because I have loved writing since I learned to do it, the writing habit is a bit easier for me. Getting to journal everyday is a reward.

I think the most important guideline was start small. While these habits have now evolved, I still maintain these minimum standards:

5 minutes of meditation daily.
1 sentence per day in my journal.
1 intentional photo per day.
1 full plank pushup per day.

What I do when I screw up

There are still days where I fall off the wagon with 1 or more of these habits. But it seems like the longer I have been doing them, the more ingrained they become. 

Writing is a thing I HAVE to do now, I get panicky if I can’t find my notebook. I'm sure there will still be days in the future where I may not get to it, but I'll remind myself of the same things: its in the past, I can't re-do it, all I can do is start again.

Gratuitous adorable dog

Gratuitous adorable dog

Taking a photo every day has gotten easier. Some days I struggle to find a subject or inspiration. My main theme for this year has been to find beautiful in the mundane. So if I’m struggling for an idea, I will look for something in my immediate vicinity, and just start shooting it. And if all else fails, I can always resort to taking photos of my adorable dog.

I’ve dabbled in meditation for a long time, but this is first year I’ve tried to stick to a daily meditation practice. Similar to journaling last year I had a summer drought. I got to 172 days in a row, and then stopped. Attending the meditation and yoga retreat in October has reconnected me with my practice. I’ve had more of a craving for it every day, since the retreat. I’ve also started to notice the subtle effects it has had on my life, which is motivating. I’ve also ritualised this in that I do a short guided morning meditation before I get out of bed, and then I usually do a few minutes of meditation before going to bed. 

Pushups is the habit I’m currently struggling with. Originally I was doing pretty classic pushups, hands straight under shoulders with my elbows out to the sides. I was up to 10-15 a day after a couple months. Recently, I decided that I should start doing chaturanga pushups, hands further back, elbows tight against my sides. They are WAY harder because you’re using different muscles. I’m nearly back at square one, with 1-2 pushups a day. That’s been a bit discouraging. I miss a day or two here and there, and then start again. It wasn’t that long ago that I could barely do one pushup the old way, and now I can do 10 in a row. It won’t take long to get back up to that 10 doing them this way. I’m not in a huge rush. I sort of have a deadline, my best friends wedding is next August. I have the time to build slowly. It takes probably a max of 20 seconds for me to get on the floor, pump out 1-2 pushups, and then head for bed. And, I like doing them. Zero excuse.  I think another part of why I’m struggling with pushups is that they don’t have a trigger. I haven’t committed to a set time of day to do the pushups, so maybe I need to work on that to build my practice.

The benefits and growth I've seen

I have noticed some significant changes in myself since I have started practicing these habits. 

Journaling daily helped me realize that I actually can commit to something. I also started learning how to be more accepting of myself for making mistakes. I gained confidence and started to trust myself more. When I decided to take on the 366 Photo-A-Day challenge I had confidence that I would actually be able to stick with it, because I’d already done the writing thing for a year. Getting halfway through the year of that, while still journaling every day, gave me the confidence to start doing pushups every day. 

Meditation has helped me learn to focus more, deal with strong emotions, and manage depression and anxiety. (There is a 3 part series coming up about my experiences with meditation.)

Doing pushups daily has obviously made me stronger which is pretty cool, because I've definitely been getting weaker and weaker with my sedentary office-worker lifestyle. Its also been reassuring that I'm am still capable of doing physically challenging things.

I think that these small habits have had a really positive impact on my personal well being. I trust myself more. I believe I can accomplish things now. I know I am capable of sticking to something. I actually believe in myself a little bit now.

I just have to make sure I tackle each goal in bite size chunks. 1 step at a time finishes a marathon. 1 brick at a time builds a wall. 1 word at a time writes a book. 1 pushup at a time makes me able to do 10 full length plank pushups, which I’m pretty damn proud of :D

Evolution of habits

These habits have all (save for pushups because that’s so new) evolved into bigger things than I ever thought they would be.

Writing: I’ve gained the confidence to start blogging regularly. My goal for this year was just to post once per month, a collection of my photo-a-day shots for the month. I’ve done that every month. Since October I’ve been aiming for 2 posts a month, the photo post and then something original I’ve written. I’m aiming to maintain this bi-monthly frequency for 2017. 

Meditation: I started meditating regularly in late 2015. This year I’ve gone to the retreat, I’m doing tons of research about meditation, and learning new techniques. My overall focus has improved, I feel like I have more control of my emotional reactions, my ability to consider other perspectives has grown, I’m more forgiving of myself and others, and my level of self acceptance is much higher. 

Photography: I don’t even know where to start. I’ve learned so much this year. This topic will be getting its own post in the new year, once I’ve completed the official 366. Briefly, I have learned that I don’t like doing family portraits, childrens portraits (except my nephew), or events. I do enjoy environmental portraiture, landscapes, and some macro. I’ve also learned that I really love my 24mm lens. I’ve shot almost exclusively with it since I got it.

On the topic of accountability

There is one last topic I feel I need to address, as this comes up in many recommendations about “how to develop good habits”, including many of Leo Babauta’s posts. 

My beautiful friend,  Stephanie Staniforth

My beautiful friend, Stephanie Staniforth

I know that accountability really works for some people. Having an accountability partner can be like having a coach, which is very motivating for many people. It can also add the motivation of not wanting to let someone else down.

But, it doesn’t work for me. I’m a regular canceller of plans. I’m often thrilled when someone cancels on me. I have to find the motivation in me to do something for myself. I need my own selfish good reason to do something. The things I’ve managed to actually follow through on in life, have been things I did just for me. All that said, I don’t want to discount the value of accountability. If accountability helps you stay motivated, then find yourself an awesome accountability partner.

Pushups, for my vanity.
Meditation, for my sanity
Photography, for my curiosity
Journaling, for my verbosity.

(Hah, look, I made a poem. Aren’t I clever.)

So, if you’re considering starting a new habit for 2017, check out some of Leo’s posts. And instead of committing to something grandiose and unachievable, pick something little, and simple, much smaller than you originally think is reasonable.


Further Reading about habits, from Leo Babauta of Zenhabits