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If it ain’t broke… but what if it is?

The sneaky trap of habits

A client tried something a few weeks back: three full business days in the office without carrying his "I write everything in here" notebook.

This is the notebook he keeps his ever-expanding list of to-do's in, his tracking of what happens in meetings, bullet points and 2x2's that he drafts quickly in-between meetings, the ideas that come to him in the elevator, the list of meetings he has yet to schedule, his notes from our sessions...EVERYTHING.

And one day while we sat across from each other, mid-note, he closed the notebook and pointed to it saying: "This thing is running my life. And it's ruining my life."

He feels entirely subject to what the notes tell him to do, void of attentiveness and presence with his team, any long-term original thought or mental white space. He said: "Just because I can write everything down, doesn't mean I should. I’m so busy notetaking I’m not paying attention, and then all day long this thing tortures me, reminding me of what I have left to do.”

He’d picked up the notebook habit from his manager, who had picked the idea up at an executive education course and was nearly evangelical about the practice of tracking lists and thoughts down in his notebook. I let him talk, like so many clients do, about best practices that just don’t work as well as they’re supposed to, or at least not as consistently as they’re supposed to.

“The thing is,” he continued, “I actually think I know what the most important things are I need to spend some meaningful time on, and what my teams needs me for this week. I don’t need the notebook to tell me.”

In an experiment, for three days he left the notebook in his backpack and wrote 2-3 notes for himself on an index card he carried in his pocket.

He thought of this as a reset, not a total abandonment of more meticulous note keeping, but a few days off to tend to activities that required more attention and focus, giving himself a break from the tyranny of the notebook, and of a habit that wasn’t working for him right now.

Later that week, a former student asked me what I was looking forward to this fall. Thinking of my client, I decided this September is a chance to check in on some of my own habits. I want to understand if the habits I've developed are serving me as much as I'd hoped they would, and in which ways they may be trapping me without my awareness.

Like many of you, I keep up with what landmark thinkers, performers, creatives, and other wise people have done or do to be happier, healthier, better at what they do. And this can result in a huge list of habits and practices I’m trying to fit into a 24-hour day (exercise, meal planning, journaling, breathing exercises, gratitude practices, reading great works, direct sunlight, tracking my to-do’s, networking, dedicated creative time, more breathing exercises, checking in on my finances…), while also trying to leave room for presence and spontaneity. That’s a lot of stuff!

And like my client, I'm not necessarily bailing on habits (yet). I'm simply taking the process of investigation seriously.

A few questions I'm asking myself:

  • Is this habit really for me, or about something someone else finds useful? Did I run this against my internal barometer of values, purpose, clarity, and desire, or just adopt a best practice because someone said it was a good idea?

  • What’s the result I’m getting from this? Am I healthier or more satisfied emotionally, physically, spiritually, mentally? Are the outcomes worthy of the effort? What would have to change to make that true?

  • Do I enjoy the habit intrinsically? Otherwise said, if there was no voice telling me “I should” and no one (including me) could measure the output, would there still be pleasure or benefit in the habit itself?

This is a work in progress for me. So far, it has me digging deeper into creativity (it feels amazing and expansive) and pulling further away from grinding through a complex morning routine (definitely someone else's joy, not mine).

I will keep notes and share some of them on LinkedIn and Inside Job.

Thinking about this for yourself? I'd love to hear about it.


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