Practice vs. Habit

The sweet dark...

Last night I got back from a ten-day trip. As I was unpacking, I smiled as I unloaded a tiny tin of tea (with a spoon-shaped diffuser) that I’d been gifted. It is going to fit in perfectly with my plan for the next 18 days, to wean myself off the coffee habit. I’m not the most voracious coffee drinker I know, but I definitely have a chemical dependency on the caffeine. With some time at home before my next trip it’s a good time to endure the headaches and irritability and fatigue and break the coffee habit.

That tin of tea was going to be a “step down”. It’s not that I’m giving up coffee, I’m giving up the addiction. After all, moderation in all things, and I can point to studies that show that I shouldn’t stop drinking coffee. You may remember that I linked my coffee to my journaling habit, as well – so if I mess with the one, what would happen to the other?

Also, notice the past tense that began that paragraph?

Sometime You Use the Force, Sometimes the Force Uses You

Habit is a force. Like most forces, it is not inherently good or bad – it is all in the way it is used.

I tried to give myself a treat this morning by sleeping in. Silly boy, three hours jet lag is just enough to foil that plan, but at least I lolled in bed and read until my 7:30 wakeup.

I rolled out of bed, feeling a bit rushed, so I decided to combine breakfast and morning coffee instead of journaling. I muzzily worked the espresso machine in the kitchen, but it’s been a while, so the pull was a little slow, and I made a mental note to check with a barista friend of mine about how to fix that.

I looked at the mail that had arrived in my absence as I ate a bowl of oatmeal and cranberries, sipping the Americano. At 8:20 I grabbed my computer, the bubbling idea of today’s blog post urgently telling me it needed to hit the screen now. Across the room, I caught sight of the little tin of tea.

I looked at the tea.

I looked at the cup of coffee next to me.

I remembered that whole “decaffienate” idea.


Same Story, Different Cast

It’s pretty obvious what happened. My practice of slowing down to make coffee in the morning became a habit, not a practice.

What’s the difference? Paying attention. If I say I’m going to “practice” guitar, and I sit down and play “Jack & Diane” (the first song I ever learned) for an hour, it’s not really going to improve my technique unless I’m paying attention to it, trying something different, changing chords, styles, finger techniques. Pushing myself.

That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with playing the same song for an hour. That can be fun, cathartic, or just entertaining. To be an effective practice, though, you have to think of your intent. If you’re not paying attention to the practice and just going through the motions you are robbing yourself of one limited and entirely nonrenewable resource: Time.

So what is the purpose of your practice? Maintenance? Improvement? Change? Whatever it is, if you don’t pay attention to it, you might find yourself (hypothetically, of course) on an airplane flying across the country, weary from ten days of intensely passionate work.

A Hypothetical Notebook

You pull out an old notebook, something that has been in storage for years. A journal, perhaps, with only a few entries in the beginning, from four or five years ago. A time of great personal upheaval, and like any good journal, it is your voice talking about your concerns and troubles and problems.

As you sit there and read the journal, you might recognize so many of the same themes, the same issues, the same problems – sometimes the same wording. The places may be different, the people’s names have changed – but overall, you may get the impression that you’ve made absolutely no progress whatsoever, in spite of moving, writing, meditating, exercising, studying, in spite of everything it’s the same damn problems filling your mind now as then.

A hypothetical situation, of course. But there’s nothing hypothetical about how it makes you feel: like crap. It feels like you’ve been wasting time. You may think of Buckaroo Banzai’s philosophy: Remember, no matter where you go, there you are. You may begin to realize that can be something of a curse.

Accentuating the Positive

When something goes right,
Y’know it’s likely to lose me,
It’s apt to confuse me,
Because it’s such an unusual sight…
-Paul Simon, Something So Right

Possibly there’s a good side to a practice becoming a habit. Incremental change is a powerful thing, and there can be some changes that happen so subtly and slowly that you don’t realize it until it comes up and slaps you in the face.

Case in point: this morning, as I was reading the aforementioned mail with the insidiously prevalent coffee, I had three items:

  • A shiny new copy of Chris Guillebeau’s upcoming book the $100 StartUp, sent to me to review prior to the launch on May 8th.
  • My copy of a signed contract for a foreword I’ve been asked to write for an upcoming anthology from an editor I’ve admired for years.
  • A hand-written letter on fancy stationery from a person with whom I’ve been tentatively dipping my toe into a very deep pool of emotional involvement.

None of which was a huge surprise (except the letter, but even that wasn’t a shock, just unexpected).

And then as I sat there, looking through these items, I realized what wasn’t there. No junk mail. No bills. No overdraft notices. No school fee notices, or angry letters from unhappy clients. I had a book that an author I admired wanted me to review. I was being asked by an editor to not just write a story, but to invite the readers into the room. I had a letter that represented a huge step past the fear of love towards…something that wasn’t fear.

All of this had happened because of small changes – small habits, like this blog – that I did, even when I didn’t wanna. There had been a qualitative change in my life, and it hadn’t come as a surprise.

Sometimes, I guess, the good stuff is so subtle you just sort of miss it, unless you’re paying attention.

Maybe I need to practice that…

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