When’s the best time to quit smoking or start a new exercise routine? Strangely enough, on vacation. Why?
Because to change, you must interrupt your patterns. A vacation takes you out of a familiar environment and jumbles up your routines, making it easier for you to break existing habits.
What else has interrupted our patterns lately? Oh, right, the 7-billion-person lockdown experiment we’re just emerging from.
Sure, this pandemic has brought a great deal of sacrifice and hardship, but it’s also come with major silver linings.
For many of us, this has been the pattern-interrupting kick in the behind that we didn’t know we needed. Now it’s time to watch your actions carefully to avoid backsliding into the habits that were holding you back before lockdown.
Here are 10 bad habits you’ll want to watch out for and avoid as we emerge from our social isolation.
1. Living on Autopilot
Ask me in early March if I could give up my daily Starbucks trip and start writing from the chaos of home, with a 2-month-old baby. Well, I bought a Keurig and heavy-duty headphones and proved that humans can adapt to anything.
The downside of being a highly adaptable species is that we can dig ourselves a deep groove without realizing it’s so deep, we’re underground. Once lockdown hit, we were all forced to examine our longstanding routines. Mine involved too much garbage time: Netflix and Instagram. Now I play guitar for my daughter.
Let’s not be satisfied any longer with living the same day over and over again and calling that a life. Let’s not take for granted our virtually limitless freedom and infinite buffet of opportunities.
“I wish I had worked longer hours,” said nobody ever on their deathbed. Ambition: good. Achievement: good. But what was living at the office last year costing you? How many hours did you squander in those long commutes?
Worse yet, what is jam-packing your consciousness with endless tasks doing to your mind? At best it makes Jack a dull boy, and at worst it robs you of the chance for spontaneity that is essential for a fulfilling life.
The pandemic hit the big ole’ pause button for all of us, and I appreciated the reprieve. Stop scheduling every minute of your day, running from task to task. Protect the free space in your calendar and mind like you guard your freedom, because they are one and the same.
3. Being Self-Focused
The Chinese have two different meanings for the word “selfish”: the Machiavellian version familiar in the West, and one that means “doing what benefits you.” Let’s encourage the latter, because who else but you is more responsible for your well-being?
But a focus exclusively on your own wants and needs is the root of all the world’s ailments. When we clamber up the career ladder, we neglect family and friends, robbing ourselves of emotional support networks and love. When we walk around town ignoring passing strangers, when we constantly judge and see others as “the other,” we forget that we’re all part of the same Two-Legged Tribe.
Lockdown gave us a greater appreciation for our loved ones and even for strangers, because we were all in it together. Let’s not lose that empathy.
4. Tolerating Low-Value Tasks
A long time ago in a world far away, when we were still allowed to leave our houses, I made time for every coffee date with a loose acquaintance, to go to trivia (the word literally means things that are unimportant) every Wednesday night, and to spend 30 minutes on the phone with the cell phone company to save $10.
Then the pandemic gave us a gift: We were forced to examine how we use our time. I remembered the creed of the Essentialist: do less, but better. Separate the “vital few” from the “trivial many,” and be ruthless with your time.
Time is our most valuable resource because it can’t be created. The same can’t be said for money. Quit tossing precious hours in the trash bin of rush hour traffic or inane meetings. Quit saying yes to BS and allow only high-value tasks into your life.
As a teenager, I proved how cool and smart I was with sarcasm and clever nihilism. Now I see that this was only the sleight of hand I used to hide my insecurities.
The danger of using negativity as an occasional crutch is that it easily becomes our default state. The brain is as malleable as putty, and those neural pathways become reinforced quickly, especially as a young adult.
The result for me was a long and messy battle with depression. Only after years of study and dedication to the self-help path have I realized what Robin Sharma articulates better than me:
“You truly cannot afford the luxury of a negative thought—not even one.”
Plant one negative seed and it can fast become a mind full of tangled weeds. Negativity eradicates energy, pushes others away, and worse, robs you of the joy that is every person’s birthright.
Be the bouncer at the door of your mind and refuse entry to thoughts that don’t serve you. Take as much care with your words, too; they become your reality.
The word procrastination is tossed around in self-help circles as carelessly as disruption and pivot are in Silicon Valley. But what does it mean? It’s not laziness—extremely effective people dabble in it. It’s only a signal that negative emotions like anxiety and overwhelm are stronger than your motivation.
Unchecked procrastination is a lot like death—it keeps you stuck in a purgatory that robs you of your dreams, relationships and joy. Does talk of mortality make you uncomfortable? Change that perspective: Reminding ourselves daily that life is finite is a powerful inoculation against taking life for granted, and creates a thirst for living.
To counter procrastination, use Neil Fiore’s unschedule, which asks you to schedule fun playtime before your work. That way, your brain will know that life won’t be one endless chore. Practice this and you’ll watch your stress drop while motivation rises.
7. Taking It for Granted
The freedom to go outside. Our health. The supply chain. Air travel. Haircuts, restaurants, even coffee! I took all of these conveniences for granted before March.
Science writer and historian Michael Shermer calls the space between World War II and 2020 our “75-year nap” because we haven’t faced a truly global crisis in that time. The Dow Jones has continued its upward rise and conflicts have mainly been “over there.”
Then a virus emerged. Overnight, all of the good fortune that we had pushed into our semi-conscious, and expected to last forever, was put in jeopardy. Our choice now is to go back to focusing only on what’s lacking in our lives, or to use this crisis as a call to start counting our blessings.
8. Taking It Too Seriously
When I was building a startup to bring solar lighting to African villages, a company promised me $1 million in seed funding. Then they took it away. That night I raced to the bottom of a bottle of whiskey, as if hurting myself could hurt them. In the morning I realized the insanity of taking setbacks to heart. In that moment, I decided never again to do anything without having fun with it.
Maybe you’ve lost a job or a business in these last few months, or are mentally struggling with isolation. We’ve all lost something recently, if only our freedom. Pain in any life is guaranteed, but suffering is optional.
When you can learn to accept the setbacks, you say no to adding suffering to the pain. Learn to laugh, play and see the beauty of life in all its shortness.
9. Wasteful Spending
When bars and restaurants are shuttered, malls are ghost towns, and planes to exotic destinations are grounded, how can you not save money? My wife and I love the extra cash in our pockets, and it’s caused us to re-evaluate our needs. Is a $100 dinner the best way to enjoy time together? Our $10 trip to the driving range yesterday was just as much fun.
Ask yourself: Do you truly need those 20 orders a month from Amazon? To fight downtown traffic and pay $20 to park in front of a trendy restaurant? Spending is not perfectly correlated to enjoyment. You don’t need as much as you think you do to be happy.
Perhaps all that stuff—the big house and the impressive trips paid for with credit cards—are actually blocking your joy?
10. Being Apolitical
Wait, don’t run away! Yes, politics has a bad rap. But that’s because what we call politics usually describes the co-opting and distorting of our systems. At its root, politics is simply how we organize our society and limited resources. In other words, the most important subject in all our lives.
Above all, this pandemic and the BLM movement has shown us the importance of good and bad leadership. Politics determines whether we can leave our homes and open our businesses, the quality of our police, the equality in our society, even who lives and dies.
We can no longer afford the luxury of being uninformed and unengaged. It’s my hope that, no matter your party stripes, we all become more involved in the world around us.
Bonus: 5 Habits to Embrace
Preventing yourself from backsliding into your old habits will improve your life drastically. But knowing what not to do will take you only partway to wisdom.
Here are five categories of habits that can fill the vacuum once you’ve kicked out the bad apples.
1. Sanity Activities
Call this self-care, leisure or living life to the fullest. To operate at our peak of creativity and productivity, all while being happy (which is the point of life, right?) we need to support our own mental-emotional equilibrium. These are excellent ways to stay sane in an insane world:
- Take a real lunch away from your desk. “He’d wolf down a sad sandwich while typing with one hand” is not what you want on your tombstone.
- Take regular baths. Heat and Epsom salts rejuvenates your body and spirit. Twenty minutes of peace and quiet in a place you can’t use your phone does wonders for your mind.
- Music. Create it or consume it. Just make time for it in your life because a song can change your whole mood, perspective and energy in a moment.
- Play. Arguably, every living creature plays. It’s natural, and it helps us grow. It keeps life from turning gray and boring.
2. Relationship Boosters
You should never look to a romantic partner to “complete” you or fill a void, but a loving relationship can be a bright flame of joy. You get out of a romance only what you give. Here’s how to invest:
- Date night. Time together does not equal quality time. Protect at least one night a week for just you two, without outside distractions or everyday concerns. Never stop dating your partner and you’ll never drift apart.
- Massage.Without physical touch, you’re roommates, not lovers. Massage is just one way to reconnect with your partner.
- Eat at the table. True conversation happens across the dinner table. No TV and no devices, please.
- Walk together. Closeness is built by sharing a journey. Every walk can be a daily journey and a chance to talk while your energy is high.
3. Physical Activity
To paraphrase Tony Robbins, a healthy person has 100 dreams; an unhealthy person has only one. All the money and time in the world is useless without your health. And without physical activity, you will inevitably lose your health. Make time each day for at least some movement:
- Daily reps: As soon as you roll out of bed, do 10 push ups or squats. It will wake up your nervous system.
- Stretch: Being flexible is an antidote to aches and pains, moves your lymph, and in the long run, will help you avoid injury.
- Walk or run: No matter how fast you go, you’re lapping everyone who’s on the couch.
- Skip: You can buy an excellent jump rope for under $20. Skipping is far more efficient cardio than running or biking, and you don’t need to leave your house to do it.
Our happiness is tightly linked to the quality of our relationships. You can’t take your money or accomplishments with you. You can only leave behind people who will remember you either fondly or not. Make time for this:
- Pick up the phone. Texting is utilitarian. Hearing a friend’s voice brings you closer. You don’t need to schedule it, just dial.
- Start a tradition. Pick one night every week. Start a book club, a happy hour or a gaming session. It will become a habit you love.
- Porch visits. Sure, hugs are off the table for now, but a conversation across six feet can be exactly what you need to lift your spirits.
- Go camping. Parks are opening all over the place, and north of the equator, the weather is mighty fine. Sitting around the campfire is the perfect social distance bonding activity right now.
5. Spontaneous Adventure
Thank you, COVID, for messing up our routines and breaking our patterns. This is the perfect time to fall in love with acting on a whim.
- Drive without destination. Pick a direction, and go.
- Ditch your schedule.Healthyroutines and being organized are commendable—but scrap all that once in a while to go to the beach.
- Explore a new podcast. You don’t need to leave your house to investigate the world. The quality of podcasts in 2020 is ridiculously good.
- Move the furniture.When you change your physical environment, your perspective changes. Put the couch on the other wall and see what happens to your brain.
Jump on Board
Opportunities are like buses—they come along every 10 minutes, but if you don’t take ‘em, you don’t go anywhere.
I know I can’t be the only one who has been, for a long time, secretly hoping for some external event to come and shake up my life. We all wish that the opportunity wasn’t packaged as a horrible virus, but in any crisis, we have a choice: use it to grow, or let it destroy you.
Our negative patterns have been interrupted bigtime, and that’s a huge gift. Do not waste it, get on the bus.
Photo by @Stephanie.kauffman/Twenty20.com