“Habit is either the best of servants or the worst of masters”
- Nathaniel Emmons (1745-1840).
In my 20s, I loved being a night owl. Adjusting to the altered hours of parenthood in my 30s took a while to navigate, and to accept.
And now, in my 40s, I consider myself to be a morning person. I utter things like ‘nothing is better than walking at sunrise’, and surprise myself when I am eager to get out of bed on a weekend to get exercising before breakfast. But my love of walking the dog at the crack of dawn didn’t just happen. Are you crazy? Lots of people get old and don’t change their lifestyle choices for the better.
I had to battle through the tough times of finding motivation, summonsing willpower and self-discipline, and deflecting the lure of pressing the snooze button. I had to recognise that I wanted to choose to make ‘walking the dog at sunrise’ a habit, because doing it once isn’t enough to improve my quality of life, and doing it three times a week takes enormous amounts of willpower sporadically and on an ongoing basis. It’s too hard. When it comes to lasting lifestyle change, willpower can fail you just when you need it the most[i].
So if we can’t count on willpower to make the long lasting lifestyle changes we all know we need to make, what can we count on?
Habits. Habits are hard to break.
Have a bad habit, and it controls your thoughts, movements and even finances (smoking is a clear example of one such addictive habit). We think of bad habits as regular practices that are hard to give up– simple examples include turning the TV on when you get home, having a glass of wine with dinner every night, or checking Facebook as soon as you open your eyes in the morning. The Cambridge Dictionary defines a habit as ‘something that you do often and regularly, sometimes without knowing that you are doing it[ii]’. Checking mobile phones for alerts is increasingly becoming a popular habit (and what a waste of time – don’t get me started). Others describe a habit as “an acquired mode of behaviour that has become nearly or completely involuntary[iii]”. No one wants a bad ‘involuntary’ habit, but imagine how good it would be to have a positive, health promoting, ‘involuntary’ habit! - “I couldn’t help it, I just had to go to the gym for a workout”!
Good habits can be the best of servants. It is an important thing to contemplate if you want to prepare for challenges in the future. Good habits can hold you strong if your strength of mind is momentarily challenged and willpower is nowhere to be found. It is of great comfort knowing that you can rely on your autopilot settings to keep you going, employing the health promoting habits you have already entrenched into your life. It doesn’t have to be running a half marathon… it could be doing the three sets of exercises the physio gave you to do while sitting in the lounge room. Super hard to do unless it is a habit.
Consider this. Something unexpected happens in your life that you don’t feel prepared for. It could be the death of someone close, a relationship breakdown, an MS relapse, or a change to your work situation. Any of these things will have a dramatic effect on you. And they should. These are big life events.But if we want to minimise the harm such events will have on your life moving forward, we can prepare now, even if for the unexpected. Because nothing in life is certain. Big things will happen. Things will go pear shaped (not necessarily related to MS). It’s just a matter of time. So why not prepare?
‘Ahhh’ you say, ‘this sounds a lot like you’re telling me to build resilience’.
Yes, that’s exactly what I’m telling you to do. And I think the corner stone of resilience is - you guessed it - HABITS. Lots of habits. A Fortress of Habit in fact. And as you know, a fortress is made of many, many, blocks. And the more blocks of positive habits you have, the more resilient your fortress will be.
You can throw a pear shaped challenge at a fortress and it might take a knock, but it won’t crumble to the ground.
When something happens that is out of your control, you can always rely on what you have control of – the positive habits in your life that almost seem involuntary, and are rock solid.
Ever told someone going through a rough time that sitting outside on a nice day will make them feel better. They are likely to punch you in the nose/raise their eyebrows/tell you that you don’t know what you’re talking about, unless that mindful time outside is already part of their routine… and then they will tell you that it is exactly the thing that keeps them going through the tough times.
Everyone’s Fortress of Habit is made up of different blocks.
Drawing on the resilience literature[iv], here are some examples that you could consider incorporating into your Fortress of Habit. You will recognise a few. Maybe many. How many would you consider habits of yours already? Remember, a habit is a routine that is so entrenched into your lifestyle on a daily basis, that it is almost involuntary. Exercise? Recording moments of gratitude? Mindfulness? Stress Management? Planning and looking forward to something? Problem focussed coping? All of the examples below have been shown to be good for people with chronic conditions. All of them seem easy and straightforward, so why not start some positive habit-forming strategies. Choose one you think wouldn’t overwhelm you and try to do it every day. Don’t go a day without doing it. Don’t make yourself rely on willpower every time you want to get it done. That’s too hard for most. Rather, build a fortress of habit.
Examples of Resilience Building Activities that you can use in your Fortress of Habit
- Social engagement (nurturing meaningful relationships)
- Goal Setting
- Healthy Eating
- Strengths Identification and Development
- Practicing gratitude and Kindness
- Physical Exercise
- Problem Focussed Coping
- Positive Self Talk
- Learned Optimism
- Good Quality Sleep
- Stress Management
- Acting with a Sense of Identity, Meaning and Purpose
- Planning and Looking Forward to Enjoyable Events
Cultivate the lifestyle you know is good for you. Is it good to exercise? Yes – then make it a habit. Is it good to have a cup of camomile tea after dinner (instead of consuming half a tub of icecream)? Yes – then make it a habit. Is it good to make sure you have several things in your diary to look forward to (big or small – it doesn’t matter)? Yes – then make it a habit. Enough examples? Yes – build your own Fortress of Habit.
A Fortress of Habit will assist you in the tough times, it will help challenges slide off you with minimal negative impact. It will keep your resilience up to counter the unexpected. Focus on what you can control in the face of challenges that you may not see coming.
Be proactive. Make it a habit.