Dealing with a Broken Streak

Tracking my meditation in the Ten Percent Happier app.

Last week, I picked up my phone one morning and saw a notification from the Ten Percent Happier app reminding me to meditate.

Aaargh! Somehow, I had forgotten to meditate the day before, thus breaking a long streak I had put together. Over the previous few weeks, I had meditated every afternoon or before bed. Each day that I used a guided meditation on the app, a circle was filled in under my profile. What a satisfying feeling, watching those rows of solid red dots multiply. I was approaching a personal-best streak, longer than any run since I first started meditating regularly several years ago.

And then…there was an empty circle glaring at me. At first, my brain wanted to seize on this small blip as an excuse to throw in the towel. What’s the freakin’ point, anyway, right? After berating myself for a few seconds, I stopped to ask a different question: What does a streak even mean?

As someone moderately obsessed with numbers, I find it fun to count how many days or times I complete an action. And as I try to build new habits, daily tracking helps encourage me to stay the course. The knowledge that I was working on a streak led me to meditate on nights when I was tired or cranky and just wanted to go to sleep (or watch late-night TV). If I’m honest, though, numbers can get tied up in my self-worth. A long streak produces evidence of my value as a person.

But the thing with tracking streaks is that they almost always get broken. And then, you can’t let that disappointment in yourself get you derailed.

The streak itself, the number of days, is meaningless. It’s just a number. Okay, maybe a particularly long streak demonstrates that you are dedicated and disciplined. But does a missed day or two say the opposite? Are you suddenly lazy and weak?

As a member of several online recovery groups, I’ve witnessed how hard it can be when weeks or months or years of sobriety are interrupted. Some folks chose to keep counting, tallying up the number of days they didn’t drink that year or in general, without returning to zero. All those sober days did have an impact, after all, and there is no rule that says you have to erase them.

That morning, looking at my phone, I decided that I would not let my broken meditation streak make me feel as if I had failed. The progress I had made in building a stronger meditation habit had not vanished. Meditating more frequently had already made its mark on my ability to handle stress and to live in the moment, which was my goal. Not a row of red circles.

I will still keep an eye on my streaks for motivation purposes. But I promise that I’ll keep my tracking in perspective and remind myself what’s really at stake: my health and well-being.   

My 2021 Year in Review, Part I

Since launching this blog five years ago, I’ve made some big changes in my life and tried lots of new things. But some days I feel like I’m not doing enough.

I’ve been unemployed for more than a year now. Acting as my mother’s health advocate/personal assistant keeps me pretty busy. Plus, I’m trying to fulfill my longtime dream of becoming a writer. At the same time, I’m trying to accept moving at a slower, gentler pace, which seems to suit me. Still, it’s hard not to feel like I’m behind in a race, and I’m never going to catch up.

While scrolling through Instagram this morning, I encountered a post by author Glennon Doyle that suggested: “Instead of thinking about how far there is to go…consider how far you’ve come.”

So, I decided to review what I’ve been up to in 2021 and give myself credit for all the things I’ve done. Surprisingly, I ended up with so much stuff, I’m doing this in two parts!

If you’re not into me bragging on myself, then I’ll see you in the new year. Otherwise, let’s get started…

Writing

In case you don’t already know, I’ve written a memoir. I started 2021 with about 33,500 words already in my manuscript, and my book now stands at 64,500 words. With all the chapters I added and subtracted, there’s no telling how many words I actually wrote this year.

At the end of spring, I recruited a bunch of people to read my manuscript and provide me with feedback. A total of 10 people have read the whole book so far, including an editor who delivered a very thorough critique. I edited my book a total of five times, and right now it’s with a proofreader.

I joined the Maryland Writers Association and several online self-publishing support groups. I’ve reached out to other writers who have published independently and learned a lot from them. I even got started working on a cover with someone I met through one of my groups. Originally, I thought I would publish my book by the end of this year, but that didn’t happen. And that’s ok. Hopefully I’ll get it out in early 2022.

Since the inception of this blog in 2016, my posting has been sporadic at best. So, I set the ambitious goal of posting 40 pieces here in 2021. It looks like I’m going to hit 35, which is pretty darn good, if I do say so myself.   

Included in these posts was Snowed In, a six-part suspense story—the first time I’ve written fiction in ages! I’m hoping to do another serialized story next year, and it might even feature some of the same characters from Snowed In.

I’ve been working on developing a daily writing practice that’s just for me. Journaling has never been my thing, and I still have to remind myself to do it, but I’m getting better. I find that journals with prompts are really helpful. This year I completed What’s Your Story by Rebecca Walker and Lily Diamond, and next year I plan to do Get Untamed by the aforementioned Glennon Doyle.

All in all, I feel more like a “real” writer every day, and that is what’s most important (though a royalty check would still be nice).

Sobriety

This year I celebrated four years of living alcohol free. Removing drinking from my life has been a game changer.

First of all, I don’t think anything I just shared about my writing would have been possible without me embracing sobriety. Alcohol was a big hijacker of my time, energy, and brain space. Quitting was an investment I made in myself, and the returns continue to build.

I wrote a lot about this in my memoir; it was extremely helpful to get my experiences out of my head and try to make sense of them. Hopefully my words can help someone else in 2022.

Habit Shifting

For years now, I’ve been tinkering around with a framework to help balance my life. Habit shifting is a big part of this, and in 2021, I developed a process called An Intentional Life. I contemplated turning this framework into an online course. Alas, I did not have the energy to do both that and finish my book. Instead, I wrote up the process and posted it on this blog in four installments.

Every week this year I updated my “Colorful Week” board, which helps me track the habits I’m developing. About two-thirds of the way through the year, I could see which habits had begun to stick and which ones were still sitting on the sidelines.

Two habits that started to become ingrained in my routine were yoga and meditating. I no longer had to push myself to do them—they were becoming almost as automatic as listening to my favorite podcasts.

But I needed to get more cardiovascular exercise, something I’ve long struggled to incorporate into my life. So, in September I joined a local fitness studio where I can take both yoga classes and cycle (spin) classes. Since then, I’ve been averaging four classes a week. I’m enjoying the indoor cycling classes way more than I thought I would, and I’m feeling great!

The last habit on my goal list that wasn’t getting any love was crafting. I’ve never been a particularly crafty person, but I wanted to start doing something that would hone my hand-eye coordination. And I was longing for a creative outlet that would be different from writing.

I tried knitting early in the year, but it was not for me, so I gave up on crafts for a while. Then, I ended the year strong by finally completing a gift for my mom that turned old jewelry into an art piece. Who knows if I will continue in this vein in 2022, but at least I gave myself the chance to see how much I enjoy working with my hands to make something beautiful.

Part II: Reading, tech use, and connection

What Scary Things Can Teach Us

For the past 14 months I’ve been writing and editing a book about my life. This memoir tells the story of how self-doubt, drinking, and anxiety kept me from chasing my dreams. I am 56 years old, and this is my first full-length manuscript.

The young woman who chose creative writing as her major in college, and who relished the praise she received from her professors, would be dejected to learn that it took her more than three decades to finally write book number one.

Don’t get me wrong—I am proud of many of the things I’ve done over the years. During my most recent read-through of the manuscript, I noticed a number of times when I didn’t let fear get the best of me, when I took on challenges that were outside my comfort zone.

But those scattered moments of pluck were not enough to build a solid foundation of confidence that could sustain a writing career. It took years of self-exploration, sobriety, the death of a dear friend, and a worldwide pandemic to finally get me to draft this book.

After the writing came the endless editing. Just when I thought the revisions were done, they were not (and possibly still aren’t). Once my work was in good enough shape, I recruited people to read my manuscript to make sure I wasn’t deluded in my belief that it is worth publishing.

And, because I’ve written a book that recalls real scenes with real people whom I love and respect, I decided to reach out to some of the more prominent people to give them a chance to read the passages that involve them.

Sending your book out into the world before it’s perfect (is it ever?) is terrifying. At least it has been for me. I still have several more steps in the creative part of this process, and one of them is the most difficult step yet: talking with my mom about the chapters devoted to our complex relationship. I’ve been putting this off, and I cannot procrastinate much longer.

I know from the earlier steps I’ve already taken that I can do things that scare me. When I do scary things, I usually learn something about myself. One of the things I learn (almost every single time) is that I am brave and strong—braver and stronger than I could have imagined.

And when you keep doing things that intimidate you, you get to discover over and over how brave and strong you are. And who wouldn’t want to confirm that fact over and over? I think maybe this is a lesson we are meant to learn.

Over the past several years, I’ve taught myself that it’s ok to be frightened of doing certain things. I don’t have to pretend that I’m not scared in order to do these things—I can acknowledge my fear or discomfort and then do them anyway. An open and willing mind can lead me to take desired actions, and taking those actions produces an increasingly positive mindset.

In other words, the more I do this, the easier it gets. I only have to look back to yesterday or last week for proof that my heart can pound and my stomach can twist itself in knots and I might lose some sleep, but I will not fall apart.

Sweating the Small Stuff

My retired mom, who lives with me, came upstairs one day and told me she had had a very stressful morning. I asked her what happened, and she explained that she couldn’t find her cell phone. She looked and looked and finally realized that she had made the bed with her phone under the covers. So, she had to unmake the bed, retrieve the phone, and remake the bed. She wasn’t running late for anything, but she was huffing and puffing about what a setback this had been to her morning, and clearly it had affected her mood.

This was about 10 years ago, not long after my mom first moved in, and I remember at the time thinking that this sequence of events did not seem particularly stressful. It sounded exactly like that spilled milk we are told not to cry over. I even told this story to a co-worker and watched her eyes widen as she clearly agreed with me.

Over the past decade, I’ve thought a lot about my mom’s tendency to get flustered by life’s typical ups and downs. I reflected on how she often felt tired or unwell when I was a kid. It almost seemed like life itself was making her exhausted. Maybe because it was.

I’ve been trying to develop greater empathy for my mom, and my own current circumstances are helping me see things from a new point of view. After years of working at demanding jobs, I am currently unemployed. Now, when I get anxious, most of my stressors seem minor compared to my former work-related dilemmas.

When you’re an anxious person, like me and my mom, you often look for things to get stressed about. If you “require” a constant flow of tension in your life, your only choice is to find it among your daily experiences. The things that stress you out end up being proportionate to what you have going on in your life.

Some human beings are more sensitive when things going wrong. Even trivial mishaps and slights can mess with our day, and we want to say, “eff it.” Sometimes we do say eff it, and we give in to our worst habits and coping tools. These behaviors—like drinking, binge eating, scrolling on social media, or shopping—can be soothing in the short-term but not so efficient or healthy in the long-term.

I’m not saying we handwringers are a weak subset of people, but we react in extremes way to frustrating stuff. Some might call this a lack of resilience, but I think we’re actually a pretty resilient bunch. Maybe the issue is that we aren’t skilled at putting things in perspective, so everything feels like a good reason to throw up our arms. But I don’t think calling this a perspective problem is helpful, either, because it implies that we could get over ourselves if only we realized how insignificant our lives are in relation to others.

What if we decided, instead, that everyone’s emotional strain is valid? That stress is relative, and that’s ok. I think that’s a good start—by taking each of our anxiety levels seriously. By retiring the directive, “don’t sweat the small stuff.”

Then, if we want to diminish our reactions to stress and stop leaning on those short-term coping behaviors, we can work on that. We can take deep breaths and remind ourselves that this, too, shall pass. But, in the meantime, if we want to vent like my mom did that morning, we should do so without fear of being labeled a drama queen.

Let’s Talk About Talking to Ourselves

A while back, a friend of mine told me he was going to try to stop talking to himself. I was horrified—why would anyone want to do such a thing?!

I have been chatting with myself since I was a kid. As an only child, I spent a lot of time alone in my room talking to my dolls and acting out scenes. I also had pretend friends with whom I carried on lengthy conversations inside my head.

Decades later, I still speak to myself out loud when no one is around. I do this pretty much every time I am driving by myself in the car and often in the kitchen.

If you’re anything like me, you talk to yourself in order to rehearse a presentation for work or to practice your answers for an upcoming job interview.

In addition to these scenarios, I tell myself stories from my life. Some of these stories are unpleasant, like the events leading up to my friend’s early death. Reliving such memories is like being voluntarily stuck in a nightmare, but at least I know the outcome.

Not all the stories are negative. After I quit drinking, I used to pretend that I was being interviewed on a podcast, and I would go over the steps that led up to my decision and the challenges I faced. I did this over and over, kind of like playing a favorite song.

Clearly I was in need of new material. Brain space is precious, and I was wasting my creativity by repeating the same old stories.

I decided that I would make an effort to explore new ground whenever I talked to myself. At first, I resisted and pouted. But it got easier and more natural in no time, thanks to these three templates:

Kid therapist: I pick something that has been bothering me, and I try to get to the root of the issue. Basically, I act like a little kid and keep asking “but why?” after each answer. The theory is that you should be able to ask yourself at least four or five whys before you get to the good stuff—the real reason why you can’t stop stewing over something. I did one recently that went on for nine whys!

Burner shift: I pick an idea that has been sitting on the back burner of my mind and talk through what would be required to move forward. What could be shifted from the front burners to make room for this project? I try to envision the potential obstacles along the way and how I might work around them. And I envision the potential rewards that I would experience, not just at completion but during the process as well.

Writing detective: Let’s say I’ve come up with a topic for a blog post, but I haven’t stared writing it yet because I’m not sure where it’s going. I play the role of a dogged detective who is questioning me to solve the mystery of what this piece is about. This process almost always helps me locate the main points of the piece, and I usually come up with some good turns of phrase as well.

Recently I was driving, and I caught myself starting to narrate one of my old stories. I was delighted to realize that it had been a while since I had hit replay on one of my top hits.

I will probably keep talking to myself until the day I die. Here’s hoping I manage to keep it fresh!

The Accidental Thumb Experiment

Yup, that’s my hand. I used Nexmuse to make the X-ray look even cooler.

Six years ago, I injured myself in a gardening-shears incident. No, I didn’t nearly cut a finger off or anything that dramatic. I just clipped with such vigorous force that the tendon in my left thumb became inflamed.

In the following weeks, I put additional pressure on the sore spot by going kayaking. Eventually, my thumb became locked in a straight position, something known as trigger finger. Forcing it to bend created a popping sensation inside that made me shudder.

You might already know this, but our “opposable” thumbs are really important. You appreciate this once your thumb becomes nonfunctional, even if it’s the one on your non-dominant hand. You can’t turn doorknobs with that hand, open jars, or do anything that requires a firm yet flexible grip.

My doctor referred me to a specialist, who gave me three shots of corticosteroids in my thumb over the course of 16 months. The shots failed to work, leaving surgery as the last option. By the time I completed post-op physical therapy, my thumb had been messed up for at least two and a half years.

During this time, I happened upon a podcast interview with Dr. Neha Sangwan, the author of a book called Talk Rx: Five Steps to Honest Conversation that Create Connections, Health and Happiness. Dr. Sangwan explained that before her patients are discharged from the hospital, she asks them five questions designed to help them avoid returning to the hospital with the same ailment. The questions include: Why this? Why now? What else in your life needs to be healed?

I asked myself these questions, and they led me to conclude that I was working so hard on our yard, all the while ignoring the pain that was developing in my thumb, because I was still feeling out of place in our new home and neighborhood. I didn’t think I was worthy of living in a house that was so nice compared to my previous residences, and I thought I needed to prove to my neighbors that I belonged.

Problem solved, right?

Fast forward to last fall, when I injured my right thumb. I was using kitchen shears in a similarly obsessive fashion, trimming fat from meat. Again, I followed this up by paddle-boarding a couple days later, further irritating the same area.

The soreness started to transition into stiffness, and I could tell that the popping was coming soon. The same doctor administered a shot, and this time it worked. I was so relieved!

I asked myself Dr. Sangwan’s questions again. Perhaps I was preoccupied with how much fat was in my food because I am fearful of gaining weight—an issue that has troubled me since adolescence. Plus, my perfectionistic tendencies make it hard for me to know when to quit.

This past month, some friends were coming over one Saturday. With both thumbs in working order, I indulged my itch and did a little trimming in the yard, promising myself that the minute I felt any discomfort I would stop. Well, I went a hair or two beyond that threshold. And then, a couple days later I aggressively used the kitchen shears.

So, here I am, my thumb is sore and getting worse, and I have an appointment with the doctor later this week.

What was I thinking?! Well, clearly I am still insecure about my home and my weight (among many other things).

Addressing my self-doubt is a lifelong process, but in the meantime, there are things I can do to minimize the damage I cause to myself.

I am now well aware what actions I need to steer clear of—I know that once I get a pair of hedge clippers or shears in my hands, I will go overboard. And once I hurt myself, I don’t let up on other activities that I know will make the issue worse.

This situation reminds me of my drinking. I had to finally admit that my dreams of being a take-it-or-leave-it drinker were just that—dreams. Some nights I could stop after two glasses of wine. But other nights, there was no off switch.  

Thus, I chose to say good-bye to alcohol. I could have kept trying to make moderation a reality, all the while hurting myself and wasting precious time. Or, I could quit and start reclaiming all that time, health, and peace of mind.

Some (maybe all) of us have behaviors and impulses that we struggle to regulate. We might fear that ditching them entirely says something unsavory about us—that we are weak, that we didn’t try hard enough to find the right balance, that the object of our preoccupation is running the show. I don’t think that anymore.

In an interview with Kathy Caprino, Dr. Sangwan says: “Your body is talking. Are you listening?”

I’ve decided to listen to my body and to reject those actions that produce negative results. I have more than enough data from this six-year experiment with my thumbs, and I’m going to use it to set healthy new boundaries for myself.

The Next Best Thing to Stopping Time

At least once a week I grumble to myself, “I wish I could make time stand still. Why can’t the world stop spinning for just one day?” Then, I picture people freezing in place while I get caught up on my errands, so that I can eventually unwind.

That word eventually is key. For some reason, my brain is convinced that I can’t truly enjoy relaxing or doing something fun unless I have nothing important hanging over my head. And my definition of important is generous, so it’s darn near impossible to achieve the state of tranquility I’m seeking.

I might even delay going to the bathroom in order to put on a load of laundry, answer a couple emails, and wash a few dishes—until my bladder is about to burst.

A couple weeks ago I was standing in the kitchen, agitated about something, when I said it again: “I wish I could stop time.”

Instead of bemoaning my lack of magical powers, I decided to explore that yearning.

For as long as I can remember, being responsible has felt like carrying a backpack full of bricks that I cannot put down. Those bricks represent all the things I need to do or think I should do, plus my concern with performing each task to a precise standard.

While I was pondering this self-oppressing sense of obligation, I remembered that I was about to celebrate four years of sobriety on May 12. Aha! The connection between the two emerged in a flash.

For decades, I used drinking to stop time. Not really, of course— I know alcohol doesn’t prevent time from moving forward. But consuming vast quantities of it puts you in a bubble of sorts where time marches on around you, but you stand blissfully still.

I thought about all the times that alcohol allowed me to switch off my brain and cast time aside. I might be out at a restaurant with my husband waiting for a table, but as long as we were having drinks at the bar, the time ticking away didn’t seem so bad.

Or, I might be hanging with friends, and as the booze took hold, we didn’t care that we had some place else to be (including bed). All that mattered was the alcohol-induced timeline we were inhabiting and the way it was slowing down and stretching out endlessly.

If I came home from a stressful day at work, sitting on the couch with a glass of wine that I kept refilling made the night feel longer, looser.

Stopping time with alcohol worked temporarily, but it introduced its own set of problems—not the least of which was a net increase in my anxiety rather than a decrease.

In the years since my last drink, I’ve found healthier ways to relieve my stress—I write a lot about those strategies here on my blog.

And without realizing it, I’ve also been experimenting with pausing the world. I discovered that Pilates, yoga, hiking, kayaking, and paddle boarding give the over-thinking part of my brain a breather. Engaging in these activities truly is the next best thing to stopping time.

Removing alcohol from your life is not the final answer. Being sober is for figuring things out. Every year or so, a new question or a new answer presents itself.

So, this year I’ve acknowledged that only I can grant myself permission to chill and have fun without running through a gauntlet of chores first. And finding healthy ways to slip from the mental bounds of time is critical to my well-being.

It’s Not You, It’s Me: One Year Since Losing a Friend

Tami and my cat Gretchen

About 10 years ago my friend Tami and I were in the basement of my townhouse so that she could visit with my cat Gretchen. My other cat, Mo, was up on the main floor. The two cats had become incompatible, so my husband and I were rotating them every 24 hours, and it was Gretty’s turn to be in the basement (which I would like to point out was a finished and relatively pleasant basement).

Tami was holding Gretty, and she looked at me and said, “You know, this situation with the cats is more about you than it is about them.”

I was flabbergasted. My reply was weak and forgettable—probably something like, “Um, ok, whatever you say.” Then I changed the subject because I did not want to argue with her.

Over the years since that trivial incident, I have crafted sassier comebacks in my head—none particularly worth sharing. I’m not sure why that remark bothered me so much. Now that Tami is gone, having passed away a year ago today, it still lingers in my mind alongside weightier memories.

A woman in my grief group told us how her therapist often asks, “Why do you think that bothers you so much?”

So, I’ve asked myself that question. Why did her comment bother me so much that I still recall it clearly ten years later? The answer is that Tami was at least partly right. When the cats would fight, I couldn’t bear to hear Gretty’s cries—she sounded like she was seeing the very gates to hell. That sound made my bones ache. I did not have the guts to let the cats duke it out and settle their conflict.

A reunion did happen gradually and by accident, as people came over and left the basement door open. For a couple blissful months, the cats coexisted again. And then Mo startled Gretty one day, and the truce was over. Sometimes Gretty would pee on the floor when she was afraid of Mo, so I don’t think the decision to keep the cats apart was entirely about my own neurotic tendencies.

Tami’s remark to me that day echoes as I grieve her loss. Her death haunts me, as the unexpected death of a 54-year old woman is likely to do. I am sad. I feel guilt. Most of all, I am mad. Mad at a long list of people, including her. I hate being mad at someone who I loved and who is no longer on this earth. My anger feels righteous, earned—but as Tami might argue, it really does say more about me than it does about her.

My reactions to her life choices were largely due to my own insecurities and angst. I was afraid we would lose her, and we did, but my fear did nothing to stop that.

A part of me wants to dig through both of our failings, turning them up like soil, letting them sift through my fingers as I try to glean something of use. There will be plenty of time for that later.

For today, I will say that only a friend like Tami can challenge you in that way, and I miss her dearly. 

Standing Up to Cravings

When you do the hard work to break a bad habit or addiction—like smoking or drinking—you will likely recognize the same thought patterns that kept you stuck as they pop up around other behaviors.

For example: I am a salt freak. I cannot adequately stress how much I love salt. My placemat at the dining table is covered in salt. If I eat tuna salad on top of lettuce, I will probably salt it at least 10 times throughout the meal.

My blood pressure has never been high, so I wielded that salt shaker with abandon for decades. Recently I read that there are other negative health risks associated with sodium besides high blood pressure, so I decided to experiment with cutting back on salt in my diet.

In addition to reading the labels more closely on packaged food and reducing the amount of salt I add while cooking, I promised myself I would refrain from using any salt on my meals until my taste buds were restored to their factory settings.

This experiment started about a month ago, and it’s been a challenging four weeks. Suddenly, a salt drama queen was unleashed inside my head. You want me to eat cooked veggies without salt? she screamed. Wait, no salt on scrambled eggs?! What about a baked potato? Surely, we can make an exception for chicken salad. A little bit won’t hurt!

My salt queen has been describing everything I eat as boring and bland. She has even suggested that all the color has been drained from my (our?) life. How will we survive this wasteland devoid of salty goodness?

More black pepper? Yes, please, but not the same. Mrs. Dash? Nope. Maybe hot sauce? That seemed promising until I checked and saw that most of our hot sauces contain a fair amount of sodium.

My salt abstention is reminiscent of giving up cigarettes ten years ago and alcohol four years ago. In all three cases, the physical cravings were amplified by the mental and emotional links that had solidified over time.

Each time, my mind did not want to go through the readjustment period required to break those links. To me, so many foods are supposed to taste like salt. Just like long phone conversations with friends were supposed to be accompanied by cigarette after cigarette. And dinners at restaurants were supposed to feature a free flow of alcohol.

Not only that, but my use of alcohol and cigarettes had become deeply intertwined with each other. When I first quit smoking, I didn’t think I could drink a bottle of wine without going through a pack of cigarettes. Well, I proved myself wrong—I went on drinking smoke-free just fine. Then, when I quit drinking six years later, I found a way to continue eating nice meals out without alcohol.

So, now I find myself disentangling the consumption of myriad foods from copious amounts of salt. It sounds like a minor thing, but sadly it is not. My salt queen has calmed down some, but she still thinks our meals have been downgraded to black and white.

When you try to remove a longtime habit from your life, you realize how important it has become to you. How it has grown like ivy, spreading and twisting itself around many parts of your life. How a voice inside your head has been put in charge of its defense.

Deeply ingrained habits can be detached from your life, but first you must stand up to that stubborn voice, and you must be willing to sever every last vine.

The Non-Magic of Making and Breaking Habits

Drinking coffee was not a regular thing for me before 2020. Caffeine has an intense effect on my nervous system, so for decades I rarely consumed coffee.

With the pandemic lockdowns, I suddenly had more time each morning, and the soothing ritual of grinding, brewing, and sipping coffee appealed to me. So, I found a local business that roasts flavorful half-caf and decaf blends and started ordering their beans.

This custom became part of my day pretty quickly. Before I knew it, I was already looking forward to my morning cup of joe in the early evening.

My new coffee habit emerged organically, but those that don’t can be challenging to establish.

A couple months ago I decided to initiate a pre-bedtime routine of using the Waterpik, brushing my teeth, and then rinsing with mouthwash. At first, I wondered when this practice would ever become automatic. I resented the extra time and effort it took when all I wanted to do was slide under the covers.

Even now, as the habit is finally taking root, some nights I negotiate with myself: What if I skipped tonight and went to bed with fuzzy teeth? Would just one time hurt?

Once a habit has solidified, it can be tough to quit. Three and a half years ago, I decided to remove alcohol from my life. I hadn’t intended to build a drinking habit, but the ongoing repetition in my late teens and early 20s ensured that it took hold. For decades, I drank several times a week. And then I tried to defy all that training.

At first, there were so many triggers that made me want to drink again. Birthdays and anniversaries, dinners at nice restaurants, Friday evenings after a long week—all of these markers were intimately linked with alcohol. I had to power through each one to break the habit.

This Thanksgiving weekend, I was working on a craft project and out of nowhere came the thought that I should have a drink after I finished.

For most of my adult life, long holiday weekends were for drinking—this pattern included drinking earlier in the day than usual and consuming alcohol for three or four consecutive days (something I didn’t usually do). For me, this merriment typically started off fun but did not end well. Yet here was an echo, surfacing after nearly four sober years, telling me a drink was in order. Talk about power!

For many years, I taught my brain that multiple glasses of wine paired well with talking on the phone with friends, that beer went hand-in-hand with playing darts, that alcohol was part of brunch and eating oysters and dancing at weddings and sitting by the fire.

My mind got the message that numerous activities were not reward enough without a drink before, during, or after. Luckily, this not-so-magical trick is a clue to how we can sever old habits and nurture new ones.

We must look for the associations. They are the support posts that we put down along the way. If we want to disassemble an entrenched habit, we must detach it from these props. We can do this by repeating the action, like eating brunch, without the habit. Remember, this is how we got into said mess, by repeating the activity with the habit.

Our desired new habits will need their own support posts—even something as simple as a time of day, like my bedtime teeth cleaning ritual.

Not all habits will be as immediately pleasant as drinking coffee. But if we tether them to something sturdy, we will persevere.