I am a cat person. If you are a dog person, I urge you not to stop reading yet. I am sharing my love of cats for a reason. Cats are creatures of habit. They enjoy sleeping in the same spot each day; they even develop patterns for how they walk through a room or approach the food bowl. I live with two felines and watching them got me thinking about the patterns and habits in my life. Where do I act habitually and how are those habits serving me…or not?
Like most people, I do certain things habitually. In other words, there are patterns in my life that I walk through daily. For example, I have a habit of brushing my teeth in the morning when I wake up and each night before bed. I know you are relieved to hear that. I have a habit of turning off the lights in my office before I leave for the day. These habits are helpful. They serve me well. Patterns of behavior like these take the guesswork out of routine day-to-day tasks.
We can also consciously establish new habits to help us reach a goal. For example, I read that eating the same breakfast (or lunch or dinner) every day typically leads to a lower overall calorie intake for the day. I loved reading this since I eat the same breakfast every day – plain Greek yogurt with granola. I like it and it takes all the decision-making out of this all important morning meal. I know the protein, fiber and calorie content of my meal and it’s easy. This habit seems to serve me well.
Unfortunately, however, habits, patterns and routines can also keep us stuck in certain mindsets. Suppose the first thing you do when you get to work each morning is begin answering email. Sounds like a fairly innocent habit, right? In fact, you might think it is a habit that truly serves you, allowing you to be responsive. In reality though this pattern may keep you from tackling the items that are most important to you and your work. It may simply be the path of least resistance rather than a path to success.
Our paths and patterns of behavior typically belie habits or ruts in our thinking as well – places where we go unconscious or get stuck. If I am so ingrained in a pattern of behavior that I do it without thinking, then I have stopped questioning, innovating or creating. When we fall into patterns, we turn off our conscious brains and go on automatic pilot.
Now as I have said before, there are certain times when this serves us, but what about when it does not? The key is being aware enough to know the difference. So, how do you allow for automatic pilot when it helps but disable that feature when it does not? In other words, how can you become consciously aware of your patterns so you can evaluate whether they are positive or negative influences in your life?
This is the crux of the issue and also the hardest thing to address. How can you become conscious of those things you are not currently conscious of? I suggest checking in with yourself from time to time during a typical day as a first step toward more conscious awareness of your habits and patterns. Ask yourself two questions:
- What am I doing?
- What am I thinking about?
When you ask these questions, notice whether what you are doing and what you are thinking about are aligned. If it those are not aligned, then you may have abandoned your conscious awareness of what you are doing and be in an unconscious pattern. This quick check-in will help snap you out of unconsciousness and allow you to look intentionally at what you are doing. Is this something you do habitually? Is it a pattern of behavior? How does the pattern serve you (or not)? If it does not serve you, examine how else you could do what you are doing so that you are more consciously engaged in the action. What changes could you make in this pattern or habit so that it serves you better?
Becoming consciously aware of patterns or habits we are engaged in allows us to question those patterns and to look critically at whether they serve us or simply keep us stuck on auto-pilot. It also allows for the space we need to become more creative. Perhaps we can look at new ways of doing the same thing that might give us more freedom, enjoyment or productivity in our lives. So, I invite you to be open and look curiously at the patterns in your life. And, I’d love to hear what you find.