Lent 2012: Breaking the Cycle of Bad Habits

I’ve been in a bit of a rut recently.

I’m sad about what’s happening with our dog. While I’m excited about my book finally being out in the world, I’m intimidated by how much effort goes into marketing, with results that are rarely immediate or even noticeable. Every week, I have a manageable to-do list. Every week, Friday rolls around and the list has not gotten much shorter.

Sunday’s New York Times magazine featured a cover article about how retailers such as Target collect information on shoppers’ habits, and use that information to gear promotional mailings to customers’ habits and needs. The article included this explanation of the three-step process involved in ingrained habits:

First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop — cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward — becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become neurologically intertwined until a sense of craving emerges.

I have developed several bad habits that are influencing my mood, health, and productivity. These bad habits include:

  • Spending too much work time clicking around aimlessly on my computer, reading articles, checking blog stats, and doing other stuff that I can justify as work-related, but that just wastes a lot of time.
  • Failing to exercise often enough.
  • Taking a mid-day nap when I’m home alone all day working. I justify this because I wake up very early (between 4 and 5 a.m); I am a much kinder mother when I have an hour or two to myself before my early-bird children wake up around 6. But while I don’t think it’s unreasonable to nap midday given that I usually only get about six hours of sleep at night, naps leave me off-kilter for the rest of the day, as I scramble to finish up necessary tasks before it’s time for the kids to come home from school.

Lead me not into temptation...

One cue for these behaviors is my preference for working on our den couch—a place I associate with comfort and relaxation, which makes web surfing and napping more appealing than focused work and plunging into a cold pool to swim laps. Another cue is that I take my pain-relieving medication at certain times, which has a sedating effect. The sedating effect is only apparent if I’m sitting still. If I’m up and moving, I don’t feel sleepy. In fact, I feel energized, because my joint pain is controlled. But if I take medication, and then sit on the couch, the combination of the couch’s “relaxation” cue and the medication’s “sleepiness” cue steers me toward activities that don’t require much effort. Thus, mindless web surfing and the occasional nap have become routine.

The reward of mindless web surfing is a shot of adrenaline when I read something positive about my writing, or find an article that is perfect for a blog post I’m writing. Dozing off is its own reward, especially in a completely silent house. I don’t often get to sleep without being woken abruptly by a child or an animal.

To give this a spiritual spin, I believe I am bogged down in that old-fashioned sin of sloth. I am scattered and apathetic and reactive instead of focused and energized and proactive.

So my Lenten practice this year is to first notice the cue-reward-routine cycles that are enabling my bad habits. And second, to begin to break those cycles, I’m going to make the following changes:

  • After my initial e-mail check/blog reading in those wee early-morning hours when I’m up before my kids, I will put away my laptop until I have: 1) gotten the kids off to school, and 2) either gone to the pool for a swim, or done a household chore. I should get back to the laptop by 10 a.m. at the latest, which gives me a good four to five hours of work before the kids get home.
  • I will work at the kitchen table. I work on the couch partly because it is much more comfortable for my achy joints. But that comfort is precisely what tempts me to relax by clicking around mindlessly or dozing off. Working at the table will force me to work more efficiently, and take more breaks, during which I can do a few things on my to-do list, such as make phone calls, take the dog for a walk, or dust and vacuum a room.
  • I will change my medication schedule to avoid sleepiness during the same hours that I am sitting still and working. My goal is to reserve the medication for those times when I have the worst pain—mornings and evenings—thus avoiding mid-day sleepiness. I will make this change gradually to avoid unpleasant withdrawal symptoms, because anyone who takes these medications long-term becomes physically dependent.

In addition to breaking the cycle of some bad habits, I’m going to beef up my newish practice of “praying the hours” using Phyllis Tickle’s excellent book series titled The Divine Hours. I pray the morning office most days. I’d like to add the midday or vespers to that. I used to feel that reading prayers written by someone else was lazy and not very meaningful. But I’ve found that using these beautifully written, thematically consistent groupings of prayers and scriptures has infused my prayer life with new energy. It makes prayer easy, because I don’t have to first decide how I’m going to pray. And while sometimes my heart is most definitely not engaged fully in praying, I get great comfort from the scriptural promise that the Holy Spirit is praying within me.

We also like to undertake a family Lent discipline. Last year, it was striking the phrase, “I want….” from our conversation. This year, we’re not going to spend money on non-necessities. That means no buying new iPod songs, no allowing the kids to pick a candy bar at the drugstore check-out, no ordering pizza when we have perfectly good food in our refrigerator, no picking up a few items from the clearance section when I go into a store to buy a gift.

So those are my Lenten disciplines this year, to combat sloth, pray the hours, and cut out spending on non-necessities.

Yours?

About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • Judy Spak

    Ellen, thank you so much for your thoughtful and reflective piece. I have been struggling with my preparation and follow-through with my Lenten practice. Your approach has given me food for thought as well as inspiration. Thanks!

  • Mary Caler

    I can soooo relate to the doing stuff that seems work related, but really just wastes time. I spend a lot of time “looking” at my data and not doing anything other than that. It seems justifiable, but is really just me spinning my wheels rather than doing actual work. I also relate to the struggles of working at home.

    This year for Lent, I’ve decided to give up playing games on my iPhone. I feel sheepish admitting that, as a 30-something. haha! But, I often “take breaks” form staring at my data to play a game on my iPhone and it’s a silly waste of time I could be spending doing something practically, or more importantly, spiritually productive.


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