Why is it so hard sometimes to do things we know we should do? Why is it so hard sometimes to do things we want to do? There is a gap between desire and fulfillment, intention and action. We get stuck in procrastination and we don’t know why. We don’t know how to snap out of it and just do the things. This is part of why there is such a thing as New Year’s Resolutions, and also part of why most people believe they don’t work. We have pure intentions in one hand and the capability to act on them in the other hand. What we don’t seem to have is the ability to clap our hands together and catalyze action and intention into a single substance.
Some people have an easy time of it. They get to all their appointments on time. They’re organized. They’re physically fit. They seem to be able to get from place to place without static-clung underpants falling out of their sweaters in the middle of the day. Unlike me, when they put their sunglasses on their head, they don’t then knock the second pair that were already up there onto the floor. They’ve got it together. However many ducks they have, they’re lined up in a neat little row.
Obviously, I don’t see myself as one of these people. I might look like One of Them to you, if you didn’t happen to see me trying to wear two pair of sunglasses at once, putting a second pencil behind my ear, or putting a second earring in the same hole. I lived my life as a chronically disorganized person with some attention deficiency. With considerable focus and effort, I have gotten fit and organized, and I’m even on time to appointments about 80% of the time. It turns out that it makes life much easier. Every crisis of entropy tends to knock over a series of other dominoes, causing additional problems. When I can tiptoe through the array without kicking any of them over – dominoes I know full well are staged and ready to tip – I can breathe easy, knowing how much trouble I’ve saved myself. So, I think I have attained some insights into why everything seems easy for certain people, and challenging-to-impossible for others.
Those who seem to have it easy have acquired what the rest of us have to learn. The best analogy for this is the study of foreign languages. We acquire our mother tongue, and perhaps 1-4 additional languages, depending on where we live in the world. After a certain age, we learn other languages in a classroom. Some people acquired habits by a sort of osmosis, and they never had to go through a questioning period of evaluating whether what they were doing was efficient or effective or not. When things work, it’s self-explanatory. They acquire habits of getting ready and getting out the door quickly. They acquire habits of eating healthy foods and not eating unhealthy foods. They acquire habits of putting things away and cleaning up. They walk around in this world that is missing the obstacles and mini-disasters the rest of us keep tripping over.
The difference between the Easy Habits people and the rest of us is that their threshold of action is in a different place. They notice things earlier in the timeline. For instance, someone who never started smoking will never have to quit. Someone who never gets a cavity will never have to get a filling. Someone who never makes a late payment will never have to pay a late fee. Someone who never gains excess body fat will never have it to lose. Someone who never has an issue with chronic disorganization or compulsive acquisition will never have clutter to clear. These aren’t moral issues. Entering adulthood with a full portfolio of Easy Habits just means life is easier. It’s just an easier way to do things. It doesn’t mean someone is bad, good, or neutral – just more efficient.
That leaves the rest of us. We wrestle with issues that don’t seem to respond to our efforts. We promise ourselves we’ll “be better” or “do better,” once again framing a matter of efficiency into an epic moral battle of Good and Evil. The question is not whether it’s “good” or “bad” – or whether I myself am “good” or “bad” – it’s whether it WORKS or DOESN’T WORK. Was it effective or ineffective? Were the results desirable or undesirable?
There are a lot of obstacles on the path to learning new habits.
Say the issue I want to work on is being chronically late. “I don’t want to be late all the time.” The first thing we want to do is to reframe what we DON’T WANT into what we DO want. I don’t want people judging me and lecturing me about punctuality. Well, that’s still not what I do want. What do I want? I want to have the reputation of a punctual person. I want to arrive with enough time for peace of mind. I want to be free in my heart. Anxiety, get out of my life! Wait, back to what I DO want. I want to be on time for everything with enough margin or space cushion to relax and enjoy myself. That sounds good.
Okay, next step. What do I think is causing my problem? What do I think will work in getting to my goal? The problem and the solution may have little or nothing to do with one another.
I’m late because my sense of time passing is different from others’ sense of time passing. Research supports this: Punctual people estimate one minute as 58 seconds in duration, while chronically late or disorganized people have an internal feeling of one minute as lasting the duration of about 90 seconds. We think we have 50% more time than we do, and the punctual people around us can smell it! In exactly one minute, they intuitively know that we are One of Those People and we’re going to make them late. And they’re right.
I’m late because I sleep too late for the amount of time it takes me to get ready, because I’m tired, because I’m a sleep procrastinator. I think it takes me 10 minutes to take a shower, but really it takes 17. I know what I want to wear, but I don’t realize until I’m partway assembled that some of those garments are in the wash, or I’m missing one of the shoes. I haven’t given myself enough time for my basic routine on the best possible day, and I DEFINITELY haven’t left enough of a buffer for the least little interruption or issue.
I’m late because I’m chronically disorganized. I’m perpetually running out of groceries. Half of my wardrobe is on the floor because I can’t/don’t keep up on the laundry. I might be out of gas. I can’t find my keys or my gloves or the papers I needed to bring. I have emergency errands that should/could have been done days ago. My kids need something. My pets are making an unholy mess. Every time I go out the door, a to-do list as long as my arm trails after me. I walk in a cloud of anxiety and dread, a day late and a dollar short.
I’m late because it’s okay with me to be late. It’s part of my identity. I’ve become highly skilled over the years at giving a sincere, heartfelt apology. I believe that people should lighten up and let go and forgive me. There are worse things to do than to be late. I’m not there for the time everyone else has spent stewing and wondering if I’m okay and waiting on me, and I don’t have to feel compassion for their inconvenience. I let them down and I don’t truly care enough to make a change. I let myself off the hook.
If I want to be on time, there are a lot of potential places to start. I can start with organizing and clearing the space by the front door and going through my daily bag. I can start with a nightly bedtime ritual that includes writing a to-do list, checking the weather report, laying out tomorrow’s clothes, packing a lunch, and preparing a breakfast. I can start by going to bed 5 minutes earlier every night until I’m getting enough sleep. I can start by standing in front of a mirror, looking myself in the eye, and saying ENOUGH NOW.
What we’ve seen by dissecting one desire for change is that it touches on every area of life. Punctuality involves getting enough sleep, using a timer to figure out how long it takes us to do things, planning the day ahead of time, having the stuff we need where we need it and removing stuff that’s in the way, and having a routine for things like buying groceries, doing laundry, and filling the gas tank. Success at the punctuality habit is going to take more than just deciding to be on time, a.k.a. making a resolution. It takes focus and dedication and inquiry and a certain amount of research and experimentation.
Punctuality is one example of a complicated problem with multiple inputs. There is a long list of Perpetual Problems, at least one of which everyone who ever lived has faced at one time or another. Financial problems. Career problems. Romance problems. Parenting problems. Weight management problems. Physical fitness problems. Chronic pain or illness problems. Organization problems. Pet training problems. A problem in any area ripples outward until it impinges on other areas. The reverse of that is that resolving any problem in any area also creates unexpected side benefits! For instance, a nutritional deficiency might cause sleep loss, chronic pain, distraction, poor workplace performance, weight gain, and low energy, resulting in a messy, disorganized house and cash flow problems. “Getting organized” can result in weight loss, debt repayment, improved credit score, improved punctuality, more sleep, and smoother relationships. Resolving any issue tends to lead to greater peace of mind. It also results in transferrable skills, a new mental framework that usually proves effective in the context of other problems. Budgeting skills lead directly to food log skills. Meditation skills lead directly to anger management skills and strategic planning skills. Body awareness leads directly to personal environment awareness. It ripples outward, resonating throughout our world, rippling onward to the worlds of those around us.
We reach the threshold of action when we start to understand what to do. We start to realize that action is a good idea. We feel impatient to start. We want to rush to the improved outcome. As we sample and test out new ways of thinking, planning, and doing, their benefits become obvious. We start to internalize these new behaviors. They form a new foundation on which we can build additional helpful habits. We stop seeing these habits as boring, restrictive, depriving, onerous, and distasteful. We start to feel them as attractive, useful, even natural. We act because we finally want to take action.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.