The Magic of Habit-Forming

October 5, 2010 § 10 Comments

Stop for a minute and think about the last thing you did that was fun, fulfilling and felt natural.

Maybe it was cooking your favorite meal from scratch without referencing the recipe, or strumming a song on your guitar with ease, or flowing through your yoga class. Maybe you were tired or sweaty at the end, but it felt good when you were doing it and you felt a sense of pride when you finished.

Now, ponder this: how many times did you do that thing before it came to you naturally? Before your hands knew how many tomatoes to chop, before your fingers knew which chords to strike, before your body knew how to fold itself into downward dog – all without thinking about it too much?

Knowing hands cooking a homemade meal

Often we talk about habits in negative terms: the bad habits we need to kick because they’re holding us back. But there are so many good habits that we form throughout our lives that enrich our daily experiences.

This realization hit me the other day in the garden. I’ve been “blessed”, shall we say, with the warring traits of obsessive anal-retentiveness and chronic forgetfulness, so I write everything down. I mean everything. If I don’t write down that we need sugar from the grocery store, two days later I’ll have measured flour and baking soda for a batch of chocolate chip cookies (like these tasty ones here) when an expletive escapes my mouth as I suddenly remember that we’re missing a key ingredient.

So when I started gardening, I wrote it all down: what I’d planted and when it needed to be watered, fertilized, pruned and harvested. Every Friday I’d write my plan for Monday, noting that I needed to fertilize the Meyer lemon that week but not the jalapa pepper. And every Monday I’d reference that plan religiously, checking off what I did, both for a sense of satisfaction and to recall that I actually did it.

Our Meyer lemon rejuve-ing...more on that later

But this week, I walked outside on a misty Monday morning having forgotten to look at my plan. I filled the watering can, toted out the fertilizer, snipped away errant shoots and pulled weeds. An hour later, the plants were happily satiated and cleaned up.

Jalapa pepper bounces back in our September heat

"Bright Lights" Swiss chard lives up to its name

And then it hit me: gardening had become a good habit for me.

It was such a small thing, but it felt a bit like magic. Just seven days ago I was nervously looking at my notebook before making each move in the garden, and now my hands just knew what to do, and when and how to do it. (And so far, the plants haven’t died on me.)

You could say, Gosh, gardening isn’t rocket science; it’s not that big a deal. And in some ways, you’d be right. However, one thing I’ve realized is that when we allow ourselves to revel in even our smallest accomplishments, it can improve the quality of our lives, because they’re signs that we’re learning and growing. And really, who doesn’t want to feel like they’re moving forward?

Dahlias are off and running!

So, here’s my suggestion to you for this week: Remember, two and a half minutes ago, when you started reading this post and conjured up that image of the thing you did that was fun, fulfilling and felt natural? And how just a few weeks, months or even years ago, you didn’t know how to do it? Hold that for a moment, and celebrate yourself for having experienced the magic of forming a good habit.

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§ 10 Responses to The Magic of Habit-Forming

  • [...] 2 — Map it: What step(s) can you take in the next one, three and six months toward realizing your dream(s)? To form the habits that will let you live your dream(s)? (See my post on the Magic of Habit-Forming here.) [...]

  • [...] while others looked more like squashed caterpillars. Ahh, well…we have time to let the magic of habit-forming apply to making pasta from scratch! Kneading the silky [...]

  • Amy Rosenblum says:

    I have been thinking about this post all week for a couple of reasons. The first is that I love the simlicitiy and obviousness of good habits. Thank you for calling this idea out. The other reason I keep coming back to your words is because when I’m in our first garden at the end of the day, I keep wondering, ‘What do you suppose Stephanie’s garden notebook looks like?’ Have you posted your garden water/fertilizer notes or your project plan for those of us who haven’t reached the habit forming stages? I you’re willing to share, I would love to see it. Hope Italy is awesome.

    • Amy, Thanks for stopping by and for your thoughtful comment. Not sure that my garden notebook is as organized as my workplans in my work days :-), but I’d be happy to share it. Will get on that when I finally return to SF at the end of October!

  • naomi says:

    thank you for this perfect post! your thoughts are in total synchrony with my own as i finished a much-delayed sewing project last night. there is nothing like the elation of “holy crap, i made/grew/did this!” it is a shame that it is those wonderful good habits that are neglected first. my goal is to be more diligent about making time for my personal enriching activities so that they can take on that natural easy flow. what a good influence you are :) thanks for being you.

  • J.R. Biersmith says:

    You’re spot on with this, well put.

  • mai truong says:

    I loved this post. Thanks so much for sharing! I think the most recent “thing-that-has-become-natrual” is my work. Just a few months ago it took me a whole hour to just figure out how to print a document in my office! But I also remember the feeling from yoga and surfing, since those are the newest hobbies of mine. It is an oh-so-lovely feeling, isn’t it?

    • Mai, Congratulations on getting to a place where you feel like your work comes naturally and you feel good about it. I’m still in the process of feeling that way about yoga, but it feels awesome when I can flow into a pose without thinking. Not sure I’ll ever get there with surfing, but I admire people who can surf — it looks incredible.

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