Habit Energy

Good morning, League of Wildness!

My dad once told me, “Life is like a roll of toilet paper. The closer you get to the end, the faster it goes.” I’m in my 40s, and already finding that to be true. I sometimes find myself feeling panicked, worrying about making the best of my time. The other day, I suddenly realized it was dark outside, and wondered where the three hours since dinner had gone. I don’t know what I even did. We ate dinner, watched Jeopardy, and then three hours of my life had disappeared. Three hours I’ll never have the chance to live again.

I often think of my life in terms of currency. On one side of my “life coin” is time. The other side is my health. If I use my time wisely and take care of my health, then I retain the ability to chase my passions and be present with my loved ones. Yet most of us seem to have too little of both time and health and we seem unable to figure out why.

Last week I got caught up in a discussion online about time. Someone had posted about activities that bring joy to life and lower stress. Dozens of the comments were related to not having enough time. It seems like a lot of people feel that their time doesn’t belong to them. They feel stuck in a “Wake up, go to work, take care of kids, have dinner, go to bed” cycle. Many of us work tirelessly every day in hopes of eventually retiring and enjoying life. However, so many people I’ve known who finally reach retirement age end up facing unexpected health issues. Why do we seem to not understand that who we are at 75 will depend on what we do right now, whether we are 20, 40, or 60? 

I looked up some recent statistics on how we spend (AKA waste) time in the US:
The average adult American spends 2.5 hours a day on their phone. On top of that, we spend another 2.5 hours a day watching TV. That’s 5 hours on an average day. 35 hours in a week. 150 hours in a month. And 1,825 hours a year. Even worse, the average US teenager spends 7.5 hours a day on their phones! 

If someone asked what we’d do with 35 extra hours every week, we’d probably have a lot of big ideas.Yet we spend almost as much time mindlessly doom scrolling and vegetating in front of the tv every week as we do working. Then we blame outside forces that we have no time to enjoy life and take care of our health. We do a lot of mental gymnastics to ensure ourselves that it's not our fault because someone or something else is siphoning our time. 

This morning I sat in the house trying to think of a topic to write about for this article. It’s a beautiful spring day and I could have used that hour to go for a walk – and probably thought of a topic sooner. Did I use that hour wisely? Nope. I waste more hours than I want to admit and I hate that. I spent an average of 2 hours a day on my phone last week. I don’t even like using my phone, so I was surprised by that. 

Often we use our phones in smaller chunks of time that add up. When I was waiting at the eye doctor for 10 minutes, I used my phone. What else was I supposed to do?? But then I thought about what I used to do before I had a phone with me all the time. I spent time observing, pondering ideas, or talking to my kids rather than all of us sitting on our phones, disengaged from each other. Even though we don’t think of the few minutes we spend on our phones (even if we do it 50 times a day) to be a big deal, I think there is something to be said about that loss of time we used to spend daydreaming, reading, or talking to each other. Any time we lose to mindless activity matters. 

In an email with Dan the other day, I mentioned the term “habit energy” which to me means those habits that are so ingrained in our life that we don’t even realize they are habits. They are on autopilot, driving our lives without us even thinking about where they are taking us. Our phones have become part of that mindless habit energy. Our eating habits. Our movement habits. Being stressed to the max is a mindless habit that we pretend is a badge of honor.

When so much of our lives consists of this mindless habit energy, we can’t be honest with ourselves about where we came from. We are perplexed about why we gained 40 pounds or why everything hurts when we walk 2 miles when we used to walk 5. We also tend to convince ourselves that we are doing better than we are. We give ourselves a lot of credit for the side salad we ordered while ignoring that we had it with a family-sized serving of pasta. Bad news: the plate of pasta cancels out any benefits of the small bowl of ice berg lettuce drowned in ranch dressing.

How do we change our habit energy?
I think the first step is to be honest about what our habits even are. You wouldn’t cook frozen pizza if you didn’t buy it, so, how does the pizza get in your shopping cart, and why? Why didn’t it occur to you that you could have called your friend while on a walk, or thought about your work project while rucking? Likely because of that habit energy. You just do what you always do, and it’s going to take a crow bar for you to dislodge those habits.

Investigate your habits
How did the pizza land in my cart? I went to the store hungry. I’ve mentioned before that my number 1 rule about going to the store is don’t go hungry. Even if I have to go close to dinner time, I will have an apple and a big drink of water before I go so that I’m not famished and defaulting to what the food scientists hope I will - craving sugar and fat. What are your defaults when it comes to foods you grab, and how can you change them? Are you actually saving time (or money) by eating convenience foods? Likely not. You, like most of us, are likely just living life in a default state. We just need to shift how we think and stop assuming that we have good reasons for the habits we’ve developed.

Why didn’t it occur to me to take a walk while I was thinking about a blog topic? That has to be a shift in my thinking. I can’t guarantee that I will remember to ask myself that. But I do know I always write emails on Wednesday, so I can plan to take a longer morning walk every Wednesday. 

How much time are you actually spending on your phone and watching tv? Most phones have screen time tracking built into them, and if it doesn’t, you can find an app. Smart TVs might have something like that as well. I use Apple and have the Screen Time setting turned on on my phone and my MacBook. I look at it every Monday to see where I spent my time and what I can improve. You can also use it to schedule downtime and set limits for various apps. As Dan said the other day, it’s distressing when you realize that your habits are not aligning with your values, so dig into what that looks like for you.

As I’ve stated many times, tracking habits to find a baseline works best for me. I won’t know if I am improving if I’m not sure where I’m starting, especially with those automated habits. Tracking your habits can be challenging because you may unintentionally change your behavior to influence the data. To get accurate results, give it a few days and be truthful about your typical daily routine.

Find an accountability partner
Do you find you and your friends or spouse talk a lot about what should be different in your life, but then do nothing about it? Become partners in improving your habit energy. Don’t just talk about going for a walk next week, go for one now. Go to the store with your spouse if you can’t help but bring home Cheetos. If you have time to talk to a friend on the phone, you have time to walk while you do it. 

Practice mindfulness and/or meditation
I think this one gets a bad rap because people think it only means sitting in a meditation pose. For me, seated meditation is great. But some people find it’s not for them. The point of meditation is to develop a single focus, to focus so intently on something that everything else fades into the background, including your thoughts. This can happen in a lot of ways other than seated meditation. If you are a runner, you have probably been in *that* zone. You know the one. It’s the same whether you are hunting or creating something,  you’re just in the flow, engaged in life in a way that we too often aren’t. That’s basically what meditation is. You can do it when you’re walking, when you’re sitting in traffic, pretty much anywhere. Training your brain to focus is a great skill and eliminates so many distracting thoughts. I also has proven benefits to brain health. 

Mindfulness is simply being in the moment. Bring your awareness to what you are doing, no matter how mundane it seems. Ensure that what you spend your time on aligns with your values. No one likes to pay taxes, but I enjoy the benefits of what our taxes provide, so I can prepare taxes with awareness in that way. Do you throw dinner in the oven while you are fuming about something that happened at work? Or do you focus on the action of making dinner and nourishing yourself and your family?  As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future—and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.” I think about that quote often. How many minutes of my life have I lost already?

Being present means we are more aware of our habit energy and can stop ourselves from going through years of our life in a mindless, automated state. Then there is no surprise how we got to where we are and we can control where we go tomorrow.

“Not how long, but how well you have lived is the main thing.” –  Seneca

A few books that might be useful:
Mindfulness for Beginners
Atomic Habits
4,000 Weeks

Make a mindfully wild weekend!


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