Habits and Engagement

Angela Chaney
Angela Chaney

I have a habit of snacking (or pouring a glass of wine) while I’m making dinner. I also have a habit of halfway listening to my daughter when she tries to talk to me while I’m working, nodding and glancing at her while still (somewhat) focusing on what I’m doing. I have many, many more habits…as I’m sure all of you who are reading this do. Are all my habits bad? Of course they aren’t. My habit of giving a quick thanks to the universe every time I notice it’s 3:33, for example, helps me stay grounded and practice gratitude. But plenty of my habits are getting in the way of me living a fully engaged life.

On the surface, a habit seems to be the exact opposite of being engaged. You perform habits without really thinking or paying attention, right? And being engaged means you’re paying attention to the moment 100%. So it seems habits and living a life of engagement cannot co-exist. But you know what? That isn’t really true. Because, according to James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, we need habits to free up space in our brains to be creative (and engaged.) Every time we face a decision, it takes up energy and space in our minds until that decision is made and committed to. The only way to circumvent this process is to…you guessed it…form a habit. When we form a habit, the decision-making is already done for us, no energy (or brain cells) needed.

Habits and Engagement Wine Glass 300x199 1

Let’s take my habit of pouring a glass of wine or cutting a nice slab of good cheese while I’m making dinner, for example. I formed this habit because I just didn’t have the mental room to have this discussion with myself every day at 5 o’clock:

Me: It’s time to make dinner. Should I pour a glass of wine?

Also Me: No, you don’t need the calories and it’s a Monday.

Me: But I had a really long day and that would really taste good.

Also Me: Well, maybe…but won’t you feel better about yourself if you have water instead?

Me: Sure, but I have that new Sauvignon Blanc I really wanted to try and it’s been chilling in the fridge all day…

Also Me: Okay, okay, I see your point. But you could save it until tomorrow until Jill comes over for dinner…

See where I’m going here? This back and forth in my head could go on for a loooong time and, while it is, I’m not using my brain for anything else useful. So what happens? I don’t even think about it and automatically pour that wine as soon as I start getting out dinner ingredients.

While my habit of doing this isn’t necessarily having a negative effect on my life, it would be healthier in the long run if I was able to nip it in the bud. Also, I want to have a mindful relationship with wine, food, and all the other good things in life so I can fully enjoy and appreciate them. When the good things in life become habit, you lose something. They just aren’t special anymore.

So how can I change this habit and still free up space in my head to think about more important things? It’s not to get rid of the habit. It’s to form a different, better habit. In this case, that would be to pour a glass of sparkling water or open a bag of baby carrots as I started to get out ingredients for dinner. No decision-making necessary, just a small shift to a different habit.

We need habits to live an engaged life because being engaged takes energy—energy you need to free up by eliminating 80% of the decisions you have to make in a given day. Do you ever wonder why some people wear the same outfits all the time? Or why others always have the same thing for lunch? It’s so they don’t have to make those decisions and can use their brains for more important things. Here are some more no-brainers I (try) to implement throughout my week:

–I get up at 5 am and work out during the week. Every day. No matter how I feel, how little sleep I got, or how much I’d rather sleep in.

–I don’t snack. Ever. I eat my meals and then I’m done.

–I don’t nag my husband about things I think he should be getting done…no matter how much I want to (or how long he’s been putting something off.)

What decisions do you spend way too much time thinking about? What more could you accomplish when you put 80% of these decisions on autopilot? How much more could you engage with those around you or with a creative project you’re really into if you cleared this space in your head?

So back to my bad habit of halfway listening to my daughter when she tries to engage with my while I’m working (something that happens frequently because I bring her into the office with me.) It just won’t work for me to do the “Ok, this is fine this time, but next time she tries to talk to you, you TOTALLY have to listen” thing because I’ll just have an excuse the next time. Or, worse yet, she’ll get so tired of only being halfway listened to that there won’t BE a next time.

Instead, I am developing a habit of turning to her and saying, “I really want to hear what you have to say, but I just need to get to a stopping point in what I’m doing. Five minutes, okay?” Not only does it teach her a little patience, but it also says, “I care enough about what you have to say that I want to give you my full attention,” which is a huge parenting deposit into her account. AND I’m able to finish what I’m working on, which is a deposit in my own account. But again, for this to work and to free up my attention so I can really engage with her, I have to make this a habit. I must give his answer every. Single. Time.

Bad habits aren’t easy to break and good habits aren’t easy to form. But they are necessary if you want to live a life of engagement. It’s only with an open heart, a clear mind, and energy for interaction that we can be fully engaged and habits help us get there.

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