Saturday, February 18, 2012

Routines, habits, and patterns

As winter makes its way past (and we all hope that it occurs sooner rather than later), we have a pretty good sense, now, of how the new year is shaping up. Changes related to resolutions that we made may have begun to occur, while some other ambitions fell by the wayside. That tends to happen with behavioral goals. Inertia is easier to support than activity. Someone joked that while hard work may eventually win the day, procrastination has an immediate payoff. It's hard to beat that kind of reinforcement sometimes!

You've probably noticed that our language has a variety of ways of referencing an event or an activity. For example, take doing one thing day in and day out. Is it a habit or routine? Is it a pattern? Or perhaps the same behavior might be associated with a pejorative referent--a rut. Any behavior can be spun to reflect a positive, neutral, or negative tone. And we may then end up reacting to the descriptor that we used rather than to the behavior itself. 

If we listen to someone who goes on and on about a distressing subject, the expression may be characterized as a rant. Ranting and raving are associated with lunatics, and that image is less than supportive. What if the emotional expression was called "venting," instead? Blowing off steam. The boiler analogy is a bit more favorable. Or if we walk away thinking, "he really needed to get that off his chest," well, then there is a whole different connotation involved. It sounds more supportive!

Exercise, fulfillment of creative endeavors, behavior change for health reasons, all of these things and more require initial steps to be taken, reinforced, and supported to continue. Few people would call daily exercise or going one more day without smoking as a rut. Positive routines. Good stuff! 

But what if the new behavior has not yet become engrained, or maybe not even yet initiated. What if the old habits, the inertia, the ruts, are difficult to overcome? Starting with a new sense of perspective might be helpful. What if we called the old habit not a rut, but maybe a drainage ditch? Or, maybe a pothole? Potholes can certainly be more easily overcome than ruts! Or, what if we step aside from the topographical descriptions altogether and consider that perhaps there have been some barriers that have prevented change?

A barrier could be a mountain, in which case we are no better off than when we felt stuck in a rut. But what if the barrier was a sawhorse? Or a gate with a latch that simply needs to be lifted and then the gate freely opens? What if the barrier is a toddler's bicycle on the path? We can deal with that!

Change is assisted by language. Language can help us feel stuck or can help free us. A good place to start is with awareness of our language. Millions of these ideas, images, and thoughts go through our minds, and they take on an automaticity. It's hard to challenge what we can't recognize and sometimes we have to slow things down so we can catch the words that we use. Two strategies come to mind.

First, write things down. This could be stream of consciousness thinking without organization, or it could be more systematic, like a diary or a journal. Or it could be stopping at random points during the day and doing a mental check in...what am I thinking right now? Jot a few thoughts on a memo pad. 

Second, enlist the help of a good listener. Tell him or her what it is that you intend to do, and ask him or her to help catch perceptions that aren't quite so favorable, looking for those key words like rut, raving, crazy, and so on. Words that address the barriers that seem to be out there. Consider asking the person not to help fix the wording, but only to point them out when they arise, as you have asked.

See if there are different emotions that are associated with different words, different descriptors, and different perspectives. They help set the tone for the more healthy behaviors.

Next time: dealing with patterns.