The art of habit


Photo by @evogamechanger

I gave a talk yesterday at a cool little one day education/innovation event in Brighton called Spark Festival. I banged on (at length) about societal failings, my own failings… typical cheering stuff for a hump day morning. I haven’t been on a soapbox for a while, and it felt good to remind myself why I do this stuff (especially as it so happened that my shame-and-screw-up blog post was published on the Guardian’s site the same day).

During my prep for the talk I came across a quote by Aristotle. I’m not normally a fan of quotes—they often come pretty damn high on my wankerometer. Especially if they’re Ancient Greek ones, translated into jaunty English. But sod it, I liked it. So here it is.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit.”

There are lots of habits I like to instil in others (developing character strengths, soft skills, left-leaning, open-minded-thinking, beard-stroking tendencies, yada yada). But there’s currently one I’d like to instil in myself: being a better dog owner. Specifically dog walker. And swimmer. Not dog swimmer. Just swimmer. I mean, I just would like to develop the habit of swimming. And writing clearer sentences from the get go.

So that’s where I’m at.

Bacon bagel

The #Flourish40 framework

Bust pancakeYou’d think with a shake’n’bake pancake mix from Betty Crocker, things couldn’t go wrong on Pancake Day. But, oh. Oh, they did. Flapped and scrapped and scraggy and squashy. Ah well. Not the greatest of starts to my last day of languishing for the next forty. Goodbye bacon! Goodbye mindless browsing of Facebook! Goodbye Cbeebies! I’ll see you on the flipside of this, my little 40-day attempt at ultra-flourishing.

Quick recap: a number of little things recently inspired me to supercharge my flourishing. So I’ve set about developing a non-mind-numbing, hot-paced self-improvement programme for the next six weeks. In other words, it’s money-mouth time.

Yesterday evening, alone and a little cold (our heater had broken and I didn’t bother to fix it, it seemed fitting), I drew up a list of habits I wanted to change and activities I wanted to do. Yup, it was kinda a bummer. But I’ve also been a bit smug recently about some of the good stuff I’ve been doing (like lots of running, which for a non-runner is fairly impressive, well done me), so it was good to humble myself a little.

Bad habits list

Instead of mulling on the fact that I’m a bit crap about quite a few things, I spent a long time figuring out how to create a beneficial, achievable habit-busting and habit-boosting framework for the next forty days. I wanted to gamify my life a bit, but not too much that it would feel contrived. That’s a tricky balance to strike. And I wanted, more than anything, not to turn into a psycho, zealous, holier-than-thou bore. Goodness knows if I’ll manage that. But I’ve come up with some sort of plan, including my daily three strengths I want to focus on. And I’m here sharing it with you, so you can get involved too, should you so wish. Download the aptly-titled Flourish40 pack (either as a Word doc or a PDF) and see what you reckon.

The framework

  1. I write down a list of habits I’d like to change. I try to frame them all positively, and for each one I try to think to myself why I want to make those changes. For example, “I’d like to spend less time looking at screens, especially when my kid is about because it would be better for both of us if we interacted more.” I also note down a number of activities I’d like to do that I currently don’t. Such as, “I’d like to read more than two books a year.”
  2. I review my list of habits and activities and try to group them.  I decide to focus on improving three of Spark+Mettle’s strengths each day, and then to have a weekly strength theme too.
  3. For me, my habits break down into things around food and nutrition, things around spending quality time with others, and things around getting my life in order. I attributed ‘mettle’ to the first (food and nutrition) because I need a whole lot of grit not to eat meat for 40 days. The second one was more obvious, it was all about positive relationships. And the third I labeled ‘agency’ as getting my stuff in order will help me stay in control of where I’m heading.
  4. I break these habit-busters down into three achievable goals, and note down each day if I haven’t reached them. The aim is to get a clean sheet each week, for six weeks. Here are my daily three.
  5. With the activities, I whittle them down to a list of ten things I would like to do each week, that I currently don’t. I decide over the course of each week how I’ll go about doing them, and how to tie them back to the week’s theme. For example, my first week’s strength theme is ‘spark’, so I figure my book for the week will be Ken Robinson’s “The Element”.
  6. An alternative way to go about the activities is to write down each new activity on a piece of card, and then pick one at random each day. Some might take a few days or hours to complete, some might be really quick, so I could note that down too. But with a kid, spontaneity needs a little more planning. So this isn’t going to be how I roll. But it would be a lot of fun. Especially if you got other people to come up with activities for you.

For me, it all kicks off tomorrow. Right now I’m off to scoff my bacon bagel and watch the Simpsons and ignore my dogs.

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