Perturb the Pattern

Are you a creature of habit?

Most of us are. We like to do certain things in a certain way. We agree that some habits are good, such as brushing your teeth twice a day, fastening your seat belt, and going to the gym. Other habits are considered bad, like smoking cigarettes, biting your nails, or constantly looking at your smartphone. The ability to form habits helps us to organize life and routine tasks so that we can turn our attention elsewhere.

And that, of course, is the down-side of habits: your attention is elsewhere. Habits can lead to mindless and repetitive behavior, whether or not the habit is a “good” one. For that reason, Moshe Feldenkrais said, “Do not make your habit a compulsion.”

Even good habits need to be dusted off and re-examined every so often. One interesting way to explore your habits is to simply notice moments during the day when you are doing something — anything. Which coffee cup do you select for your morning jolt? Which shoe do you put on first? How many squirts of soap for hand washing? You will be amazed at how many choices you make during the course of a day, without even thinking about it!

Then, change something. Anything. Pause a moment before putting on your shoes, and see if it feels strange to put the other one on first. Park your car in a different spot, sit in a different booth at the diner, shake things up a little. You might discover something new, if only that you are more versatile and resilient than you realized. Even if you return to your habitual way of doing things, the quality will be improved, you will understand more about yourself, and you will appreciate the strength of your habits.

Some people experience a bit of anxiety when they diverge from their patterns. I remember my first encounter with the idea of noticing, and then gently disrupting my personal patterns. I was on a college campus for a conference, and by the second day I had already established my walking route from my room to the conference center. I noticed that in the public restroom, I always chose the third stall on the left, if it was available. I started making different choices on those little, insignificant patterns. I felt exhilarated, as if the world had completely opened up with new possibilities. What ELSE was I doing without thinking, I wondered? What ELSE could I improve, even if I thought it was “engraved in stone?”

I ran into someone recently who said, “I guess I’ve just always done what I thought I was supposed to do.” Now, in vibrant mid-life, she is questioning and considering her habits, letting go of those which no longer serve their original purpose, and forming new ones that will potentially bring her joy and satisfaction. There is great value in perturbing habitual patterns – even good ones.

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