Some years ago, I went to see a physio about recurring headaches brought on by neck tension. When he was done poking and prodding me, he taught me a set of neck stretches. “Do these for five minutes every day,” he told me, “and you shouldn’t have to come back here.”
Years later, I still do those stretches religiously as part of my morning routine and my neck is much happier. In theory, it would be brilliant if all my problems could be solved this way: take up some small, daily habit and never have to worry about mess, stress, health or happiness ever again.
Recently I went back to the physio with lower back problems. But this time, when he finished up with, “Let’s look at some simple preventative exercises…”, my heart sank. The very thought made me want to execute a hard reverse out the door.
So what’s changed? Simple: I’ve hit habit overload.
A day in the life of a self-improvement nut
Alongside my daily neck stretches, I currently do five minutes of daily core exercises (for my sacroiliac joint, which I damaged once and which has proved – as the physio warned me it would – to be a recurring problem if I don’t maintain it). Fifteen minutes of daily morning pages (a creativity booster from The Artist’s Way). Daily statement of my core values (a psychological trick for boosting self-confidence). Daily email checking to keep my inbox from spiralling out of control (which is does anyway). Daily mindfulness and deep breathing. Daily thirty minutes of exercise. Daily twenty minutes (minimum) of writing.
And that’s before taking into account anything so prosaic as going to work, or making dinner, or trying to keep the house clean.
Small wonder the lower back exercises lasted barely a month before I abandoned them for the sake of my sanity.
Habits, habits everywhere
Over the years, I’ve learned to view the phrase “it only takes X minutes a day!” with a deep and abiding suspicion, and I feel sure I can’t be the only one.
Because the problem with these “simple”, supposedly life-changing habits is that there are just too many of them. They proliferate like tribbles: Gratitude journals. Affirmations. Reading. Walking. Meditation.
Health practitioners recommend them. Workmates and relatives gush about them. Magazines and websites and social media won’t shut up about all the little ways I could be making my life better if only I was willing to put in the time.
Everywhere I look, I’m bombarded by messages about how important these magical lifehacks are, and how easy. Surely, they imply, it’s only laziness that’s keeping me from my perfect life.
What’s stopping you?
It’s true that many of these habits are good for you and it’s also true that each, on its own, is a small commitment. But like the proverbial straws on the camel’s back, too many little things can take a big toll.
When we try to pick up new habits, there are other costs involved besides time. Costs to attention and memory to learn and practise unfamiliar tasks. Costs to willpower to keep at it if the task isn’t a particularly enjoyable one.
We don’t have to cram too many “simple” habits into our day before their combined weight becomes overwhelming.
So what’s the solution? Take up daily brain-training on top of everything else?
Managing your habits
If, like me, you genuinely enjoy finding small habits that improve your life, don’t despair – it’s possible to navigate the ever-present quagmire of “simple tricks” without getting bogged down! Here are some strategies that have worked for me:
- Focus on solutions you want to prioritise – what’s important to you? For me, neglecting my core exercises will lead to ongoing physical pain, whereas abandoning my lower back stretches just means I might have to go to the physio occasionally. List your habits by importance to you (forget what anyone else says about them) and, if you’re struggling with your current load, think about scrapping habits that have less of an impact on your life.
- Learn to say no – at least on the inside. As much as you might love self-improvement, you’re not going to improve anything if you get so overwhelmed you can’t keep up with your existing habits, let alone any new ones. So when well-meaning friends and doctors suggest yet another good habit you must try!, it’s OK to smile and nod and give yourself permission to just not.
- Spread out your small habits through the day. I made the mistake once of thinking, “I’ll just do all these things in the morning and get them over with” (for reference, I am not a morning person). The result was that I felt overwhelmed before the day had even begun, and forgot a random half of the things I was supposed to do on any given morning.The best method I’ve found is to divide up my day by naturally-occurring breaks in my routine (e.g. start of the day, morning commute, lunch break, afternoon commute, bedtime), and choose a couple of daily habits to do at each break. Be specific, so you can’t get caught up each time choosing which habits to practise. You should know, “it’s lunchtime, that means I’m going for a walk and repeating my positive affirmations to myself.”
And one more tip, speaking from personal experience: avoid associating lengthy or difficult habits with bedtime if you’re the kind of person who already avoids going to bed!
Small habits can lead to big improvements in our lives – but only if we recognise our limitations and take care to avoid habit overload.