Habits that Matter

From two different newsletters this week (one of them James Clear’s), I came across a version of this question: What is the single habit you’ve adopted–good or bad–that has had the biggest impact on your life? For one lady, it was checking her bank balance before leaving the house every morning. For another, it was doom-scrolling social media last thing before bed. One habit helped establish order in a chaotic financial situation, the other…

My “biggest impact” habit would be sitting down at the computer to write new pages immediately after tending to pets in the morning. No social media, no email, no jig saw puzzles, just fire up the computer, open up the work in progress, and go. Once I’ve written a scene or two, then I can let the world intrude, but new pages come first.

Neurology supports making creative work a first-thing-in-the-day priority. For about 90 minutes after rising, our brains are still trailing alpha waves, and we’re switching easily between task-oriented thinking and random mental motion. Associations between distant ideas are more likely in that state, and for many writers, this how we find plot twists, great dialogue, and other fun material.

Psychology supports tending to the creative work first, because the day will intrude–is snorting and pawing right outside the mental door the instant we rise–and if as a writer I yield to lower priorities (the day job, house work, exercise, all of which try to feel urgent all the time), then at days’ end, what mattered to me most–new pages–didn’t happen. If I planned some writing time, but let life (or solitaire) lead me astray, I end my day on a downer.

So my decision, years ago, to put new pages first thing in the day–even if it was a go-to-court day, even if the house was a mess, even if I hadn’t slept all that well–turned out to be a smart move. I am not hopelessly rigid about it. A migraine, a series of sleepless nights, company, and so forth can perturb my schedule, but I still try to get in at least five writing mornings a week.

If I tend to that, the housework, socializing, errands, grocery runs, and so forth don’t feel as if they are robbing time from the activity that makes my lovely little life possible.

And as for bad habits… I bought a scale. Let’s leave it at that.

Do a few critical habits help anchor your day? Are there some honored in the breech? Some aspirational habits? Time to start building the ARC list for Lord Julian’s debut mystery, A Gentleman Fallen on Hard Times!


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16 comments on “Habits that Matter

  1. I HATE to exercise so I started making it the first thing I do every morning. It began with an AARP (yes, I’m that old) video of a 10-minute whole body workout from Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s trainer. I figured there was no valid reason I couldn’t try something for 10 minutes, since I’m retired now and actually have free time. Since it involves weights, I only did it 3 times a week but I also started a stretching routine every day from AARP. While I had to stop doing the whole body exercises a couple of years ago due to lots of pain from my osteoarthitic knees, I was able to restart some of them after steroid and gel knee injections. Both my orthopedic surgeon and my physical therapist (okay, and me) attribute those exercises to the very good recovery I have made from my total knee replacement earlier this year. To brag (which I hope I haven’t done already), I was able to get to 0 degrees flat within 2 months of my surgery, and my younger sister, who had her surgery a year earlier, didn’t reach that milestone for 7 months.
    I had tried exercising at various times of the day over the years and nothing stuck because something (okay, everything) always was more important/interesting than exercise. But by doing it first thing, I can pretend I’m still asleep and I get it out of the way, and I actually do it! I’m amazed at that myself.

    For bad habits, I’ve been doing my hardest to weed them out, rather than add them in. My biggest bad habit since I retired was staying up to all hours (usually due to just-one-more-chapter) and sleeping in to all hours. But again, I made myself go to bed and get up at regular times every day.

  2. Logging time ambling on my treadmill desk. Even if it’s simply the duration of a YouTube video, it always makes me feel good. Had to stop it for a few months due to a recent batch of procedures & I’m really missing it.

    Sign me up for Lord Julian, please? I’m dying to meet him.

  3. One good habit that my husband and I have enforced for the past 6+ years is a one hour fitness class that we take twice a week. It’s a lovely class, led by a wonderful gentleman, combining aerobics, calisthenics, stretching, weights and balance that also brings together a group of seniors who have become friends. Additionally, we recently added an hour of Pickleball and an hour long Essentrics class to our week. I wouldn’t say that we are “hopelessly rigid” about it, but we are pretty good about scheduling other stuff around our exercise. I know that many aspects of how we age are built into our DNA and many are just luck, good or bad, but we are determined to do as much as possible to tilt the wheel in our favor. And the classes are (mostly) fun as well. As far as bad habits? I, too, have a scale! Stay safe. Stay well everyone!

  4. Is Pickleball both a good habit and a bad habit? My husband and I jumped on the Pickleball bandwagon by taking lessons last February. We live in a cold weather state, so we were looking for a way to get out of the house, get some exercise, and socialize. Now that we can get outside we play 3 times a week. We’ve met some really interesting people and we are getting solid exercise. However, I would play everyday if the rest of life didn’t get in the way. This is the downfall of a Pickleball habit!

  5. The first habit that I actually metabolized into my being for my greater good was to make my bed every morning. I think the reason is that it separated down time from up time. This is not to say that I am massively productive during the day but when I don’t go lie down during the day unless I am unwell and every night it feels a little bit luxurious to climb into a neatly made bed.

    My biggest negative is turning to junk food to manage stress…

  6. Oh, I’m anchored. One dog and 5 cats. I get up every morning, let the dog out, and feed the dog. Then I feed the five cats, clean and replenish the water bowls, and clean the little pans.

    There is no way they will let me forget the most important tasks of the day.

  7. Solitaire is a quick time sink; I tend towards Two Dots and always give it up for Lent! (The irony that I haven’t been to Easter service since 2019 isn’t lost on me…) I’ve started to spend at least 20 min doing something creative-fiber arts related usually, even before work-and I don’t like mornings. Makes the day seem more manageable somehow.
    On an aside, Just returned to CO from the east coast, and Colorado is lots lots greener, even though there were showers in south-central PA when I was there.

  8. The only exercise I can reliably make myself do is walk. And if I don’t do it first thing once the weather gets warm it does not happen! So I walk at least a mile before breakfast. The big plus is that it seems to be good for my brain. Even if I am physically tired, I think better and faster after walking. I also often listen to audiobooks then which is a reward in itself!

    My worst habit is almost life long. Biting my finger nails. A terrible habit and mostly happens while reading and I don’t even know I’m doing it…
    And speaking of reading I am very excited about Lord Julian! I just loved Lady Violet, so I’ve been chomping at the bit for those books to roll out. I would love an ARC!

  9. I follow James Clear via his email too! I love his book. I anchor lots of tasks to a defined event, and had no idea this was even “a thing” until I read a couple of books about habit formation. I have a lot of bedtime habits that have helped me to get better sleep!

  10. I take a few minutes to clear my mind of any thoughts before I log into work. This comes after letting the dogs out , feeding them and my breakfast. I might chill out on the back deck with a cup coffee or in my quiet living room.
    I try to start each work day with a positive attitude- it helps me navigate the work day.

  11. Your comments on putting creativity first based on neurology and psychology findings makes the most sense to me for why I should start writing after the cats are fed and before anything else. I have heard the adage to write first thing, but not a good reason why. Being an Analytical-Creative, I now can understand why and will try this. I often give myself a book problem before sleep so it would be best to tap into answers first thing in the morning. DUH!
    The one habit I do have that has worked well for me is my version of intermittent fasting. No breakfast before 9am and nothing to eat or drink with calories after 9pm – only drink an herbal tea, like chamomile tea. This has helped with my digestion since being a Chair Pear (not a couch potato) I have a slow metabolism and am basically an exercise sloth.

  12. I think I have more aspirational habits than currently helpful habits. Flossing? I’m very good at remembering to floss and taking my herbs for hot flashes. Not to brag, but I am a little bit of an overachiever on the unhelpful habits though. Luckily not a lot of actually really bad habits, but not cleaning is the worst. I am tired, and I hate cleaning, and I try only to minimal success. Dishes, laundry etc get done but really cleaning is a sporatic activity. Lots of good intentions, little follow through.

  13. I’ve recently retired and have been constructing a new lifestyle. Mine needs boundaries. I’ve been reading mostly while planning my new lifestyle in the background of my mind. It’s been fun to have a clean slate. However, I’ve gained twenty pounds. So, I need a list and a schedule. Those two things have gotten me through many journeys.

  14. I’m trying to develop the habit of getting up at the same time every morning. My sleep habits have been very irregular; I’ve been getting up anywhere from 1:30 a.m. to 5:30 a.m. So I set an alarm for 4:00am. That seems like a good time.

    Why so early, you ask? Because, I actually *do* have a good habit of going out for a walk first thing in the morning, before sunrise. It’s summertime, and this is Arizona-both good reasons for the early hour.

    For decades, my husband and I went out walking/hiking first thing in the morning, as much daily as possible. Now that he’s gone, I’ve put out the effort to continue. That daily habit is probably the one that has had the largest and most beneficial impact on my life and health.

    Now to just get a handle on some of the bad habits……sigh

  15. Many years ago I decided to make New Years Resolutions that stuck. My resolutions have been: floss every night; walk an hour a day; have good sleep hygiene; things like that. Sometimes it takes me two years (like the time I decided to ask myself “Who asked you?” when tempted to give advice or telling myself “That’ll do” when tempted to be perfect when no one else cared — these took two two years and I still catch myself.)

    Many people have mentioned exercise. I like to walk after work, it helps give me an end to the work day and a beginning to the evening.

    I didn’t know about being creative earlier in the day either, thanks for sharing that!