How I Changed an Old Habit and Improved my Life

old habits

Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.” — Warren Buffett

For years I worked too much. Although I created financial stability and received recognition as a top performer, long hours deprived me of other experiences I desperately wanted.

Even though I loved my work, 12-14 hour workdays exhausted me. I wanted more time with my daughter and my recently-retired husband, and for traveling and indulging my creativity. Last year, I reduced my Vistage workload by 50%, but, my workaholic self said, “I’m not giving up that easily.”

Almost as soon as I implemented my reduced Vistage schedule, I started a large Enneagram project (so much for cutting back).

Moment of Reckoning

“Habit, if not resisted, soon becomes necessity”. -Saint Augustine

Six months later, I sat beside an old friend during a flight to San Diego. After 3 enjoyable hours of catching up, we finished our conversation. As our plane passed over Arizona’s desert, my internal critic complained:

How dare you waste 3 hours talking with a friend? You know the rule. Airplane time is for work, not pleasure! Now, you have wasted your opportunity and are even farther behind. How stupid are you?”

As the weight of my self-imposed deadline sat on my shoulder like a boulder, I struggled with my internal critic:

“This is ridiculous. I don’t want to feel like this anymore. You served a purpose once. Now, you don’t. Stop nagging me, PLEASE!”

“You think it is that easy to make me go away?”

“No, but could you just give me a break on this flight?”

But…

No, not now.

But….

No! I’m not working.

I looked out the window and marveled at the vastness and beauty of the land below. Its patterns fascinated me. I saw channels where seasonal monsoons had pushed the river out of its bed and scarred the landscape in fanning feathery shapes. Some were large, some small, but all were unique.

Then, I noticed something else in me-a new feeling-awe.

“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”  –W.B. Yeats

Habit Formation

The human brain is a pattern-making machine. It forms habits, or shortcuts, to conserve its energy. To illustrate, assume that you don’t have a GPS and you need to go somewhere new. What do you do? You find a map and plot your route. Your brain needed significant time and energy for this new task.

What happens when you drive to that same place one hundred times or more? The route becomes so engrained in your brain that you arrive home and may not even remember how you got there. Your brain used almost no time or energy to navigate. As Charles Duhigg points out in The Power of Habit, a habit “loop” comprises three parts:

  1. The cue, or trigger, which is a prompt for the habit to engage.
  2. The routine, or habit itself.
  3. The reward, or payoff, which reinforces the habit.

My old air travel routine followed this pattern:

  1. My cue was an airplane trip.
  2. My routine was working as soon as the pilot approved the use of “large electronic devices” and forcing myself to continue until ordered to stow my laptop.
  3. My reward was a good feeling-a sense of accomplishment and respite from my internal critic and guilt.

You change a habit when you replace an old routine with a new one while keeping the same cue and the same reward. Here is my new airplane routine:

  1. My cue is an airplane trip.
  2. My new routine is a pleasant activity of my choice such as reading, conversation, music, or knitting.
  3. My reward is a good feeling-enjoyment.

The hardest habit to change was this first one. After my “Aha” revelation on the plane, changing other bad habits became easier. Examples included redesigning my morning routine, not working on Friday afternoons, and allowing myself to take a 15 day cruise (with no internet connectivity!) with my husband.

Fifteen months after my major work reduction, I no longer feel overworked.  My previous addiction to work caused me to miss many things in my life, but I love my new one, and I’m committed to making the most of it!

“The purpose of life, after all, is to love it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.” –Eleanor Roosevelt

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2 thoughts on “How I Changed an Old Habit and Improved my Life”

  1. Bob McConville says:

    Cheryl, sounds like you`re liberated to some degree from your work load. I`m happy for you. Enjoy your new found time, I know you will fill it up quickly with those projects you`ve been delaying for so long.

    Nice to hear from you,

    Take care of yourself,

    Bob

  2. Mark G. Gardner says:

    I miss you! I never knew you were this much of a workaholic. I enjoyed your post. Well done. I’m happy you are taking time to enjoy all that life has to offer. We don’t have much time.

    I too, was a workaholic for years, but Linda convinced me to take time to smell the roses. Initially, my workload reduction was minimal, as you know, but she continued to persuade me to take more time off. This year, I have not worked a single Friday. Six days a week, we walk, bike, lift weights and swim. We arrive at work between 9:30 and 10 AM. We leave at 5PM. We’re spending three to four months (minimum) in Florida this year. Oh, and business (Avatar, AvatarFleet, Public Service Safety and LLLC) is better than ever!

    This epicure is loving life.

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