Author: fellow Healthy Habiteer
What is Mindfulness?
Let me first reassure you that I don’t know the answer to this question.
If I learned anything from three years of teaching English as a second language it is that words mean whatever we think they mean. A phrase could mean one thing to the person saying it and something completely different to the person listening. If you disagree, just think back to the last miscommunication you had with someone via text message when you couldn’t tell if someone was being sarcastic or insinuating something else by what they were saying.
For me, mindfulness doesn’t mean much more than thinking critically about yourself. It is being aware of what you are doing and why you are doing it.
I find it interesting that both mindfulness and habit formation have become two trendy movements in the modern day as they are basically in direct conflict with one another. Where mindfulness promotes being aware of and thinking about what you are doing, building a habit promotes the removal of thought to make certain activities automatic. The opposing nature of the two make them perfect to discuss together.
The Positive and Negative Effects of Habits
Both mindfulness and habits can provide positive and negative effects. You could ask just about anyone and they wouldn’t take too long to tell you about a bad habit they have struggled to get rid of. A habit isn’t just something you do on a regular basis, it is a craving you have. That is why the things that are truly entrenched habits are so hard to break and get rid of for good.
A great book to read on habit formation is The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. This book outlines how the fate of many companies rely upon the molding of a consumer’s habits. The story behind the marketing of toothpaste is a particularly interesting one. Mindfulness vs Habits; where habits -and preferably healthy ones- aim to minimize effort and thought to achieve a certain end. Mindfulness aims to analyze the intention, effectiveness, and virtue of an action, activity or habit. Both are vital. Just like our energy in each day is finite, our mental willpower and capacity to make decisions are limited as well.
Without building habit into our lives, we would diminish our capacity to make decisions before the morning was over. Just think about all the things you do in the morning that you don’t think about. Brushing your teeth is not a decision, you just do it. Eating breakfast is not a decision, you just do it. Going to work is not a decision, you just do it. The route to get to work doesn’t need to be thought about either- it is a habitual path. This is why doing things like planning your outfit for the next day and planning meals for the week can be effective in creating efficiencies. Getting dressed and eating are certainly things you don’t need to convince yourself to do, but you do need to decide what you’re going to wear and what you’d like to eat. If those decisions are already made for you before the day begins, you’ve already saved yourself a great deal of decision making capital.
The Importance of Mindfulness
Where habits hit an extreme, mindfulness becomes important. If we never paid any mind to the habits we were forming, there is a likelihood we wouldn’t have too many healthy ones. Since habits are formed through a cycle of trigger, response, and reward. It is much easier to fall into the bad habits that provide a quick fix (i.e. drinking alcohol or eating sweets). Probably the number one habits people struggle to break are with nutrition and fitness.
The shortest path to pleasure is through lounging with your favorite bag of chips or flavor of ice cream -or both- and binge watching that show you’ve been meaning to check out on Netflix. Before you know it, you’re two bags deep and on to season two. There is a reason the next episode in a series comes on automatically if you don’t stop it (can you tell I’m talking from experience?).
Like with most things, the art is in finding the middle ground.
I don’t mean to demonize Netflix or any other indulgent habit. They have their place. But, without some awareness of our actions and habits we would end up watching eight straight hours of ‘that thing I just thought looked interesting’ without even thinking twice about what else we could be doing. The eating and binge-watching habit from above is hardly a problem for some people because they’ve already trained themselves to crave a runner’s high or a good burn from a session of lifting. Through appropriate planning and repetition they’ve formed their own trigger, response, and reward loop that serves their purpose.
Marriage Between The Two
What I have found most effective in marrying mindfulness and habits is setting goals. Only when we know what our end game is can we appropriately judge how effective our actions are. This also allows us to design our own trigger-response-reward cycle that will lead us to the best habits for the results we desire. Then, the onus returns back to mindfulness for making sure that these habits are keeping us on track and moving us along at a pace we feel is appropriate.
Mindful habits could be one of the best things to habitualize. The practice of thinking about your goals and the habits you have in place to achieve them is a powerful practice in making sure that you are keeping yourself on track. Furthermore, just being mindful of your goals, why you want to achieve them, and where you are in relation to where you started can be a perfect way to keep yourself grateful for progress and sure you’re still working towards something you actually care about.