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ellen fromm

Updated 16 June 2020

Humans are creatures of habit. Will Durrant, American writer, historian, and philosopher, once said, “We are what we repeatedly do”. Makes sense. But recent virus related shutdowns have made me question the things I repeatedly do. Did you know that approximately 40 percent of our daily habits are unconscious? They are simply reflexes of routine.

I like routine. It helps me manage my anxiety. Creating structure allows me to be more creative at work. Routine reduces the amount of small decisions I have to make, making way for bigger ideas. Or at least that’s what I tell myself. The Internet both supports and destroys my theory

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Anyway as I am writing this, New Zealand has just announced Level 1. We have no active Covid-19 cases. How brilliant?! Which has meant the last few weeks have seen us getting closer and closer to our old freedoms. But are we ok with that? Legitimately asking, because I’m not sure I am. And from what I’ve noticed, everyone’s a little anxious. No, not just about the return of bras and shoes. But for the return of our old routines. The things we repeatedly did that are no longer sitting well with us.

Maybe for the first time ever, lockdown gave us the time and space to really, objectively look at and question the patterns of our lives. Was our “old normal” really working for us?

 

For some, lockdown was the breakdown of routine. For myself and probably others, routine was the only thing getting us through. Either way, by hitting pause on society we got the chance to try new things. We broke the rules we’d created for ourselves. We adapted to new routines. And boy, while this global pandemic has been rough to say the least, didn’t we love some of our new routines? All the sourdough starters out there are nodding in agreement. 

So I don’t know about you, but throughout this time I’ve noticed a constant hum. The murmuring of systemic shifts people want to see post pandemic. It feels as though we’ve reached a turning point. We’re collectively on the cusp of huge change.

It feels like we have a chance to pivot and create a life that truly makes us happy. Of course we can do that at literally any time. But it feels like New Years Eve right now. I understand this is a weird analogy, but it feels like we’re all setting goals to be “better”. Whatever better means.

Yet, just like the first few hungover days of a new year, our old ways are creeping back in. Mine have sure dug in their claws. I can feel myself slipping back into old habits. But my body is resisting. I am drained. I’m not sleeping. My skin is dull. My systems are failing. Perhaps you can relate? Well, the way you’re feeling now – that uncomfortable feeling in your chest, your dried out air-con eyes, the pure exhaustion – well, those symptoms were probably always there. But now they feel foreign. More evident. Returning to “old normal” has made this stuff pretty hard to ignore. 

So, why is it so hard to create change even when we want it badly, when we know it’s for the best and when we know it’s time? This is a question we need to be asking now more than ever. 2020 has, so far, been an uncomfortable mirror showing us how unsustainable and how broken society is. On so many levels. So how do we drive the change we want to see in ourselves, our homes and in our world – and make it last?

Let’s circle back to routine for a moment. By now you’ve probably sussed that I’m a cheerleader for routine. But from my spot at the top of the pyramid, I’ll also be the first to tell you that routine can be restrictive. When you’re too routined, little changes feel huge. Overwhelming. So you stick to the known. Your daily patterns become comfortable. Even bad patterns become comfortable. Why? Because uncertainty is really, fucking uncomfortable. 

This year has seen everything flip. Everything feels so uncertain because there has just been huge changes in everything we considered normal. But if you really think about it. Change is the only constant. Nothing is ever certain. We’re just very good at convincing ourselves our plans are ‘sure things’.

See, as humans we search for the things that make us feel safe. People, places, things. Our primal brain sees our daily habits as safe, because we do them everyday. That’s what our body is used to. That’s what it knows. Even if our days are full of awful shit, the fact that we do them everyday has tricked our body into thinking we are safe. Our routines, good or bad, assure our nervous system that we’re safe. So when things change, they feel unsafe. Even if it’s the most positive change we could ever make!

So there you have it. The reason uncertainty feels uncomfortable goes right down to how our nervous system is programmed. We can’t fight it. But we can support our bodies to support long term change. So, let’s do it. Let’s create the change we so want in ourselves and so desperately need in our world. Let’s set some post Covid resolutions that actually stick, unlike our New Years ones.

The nervous system is complex but how you support it is simple. Start with being kind to yourself. Go slow. Make one small change at a time. Don’t try and be a completely new human all at once. That’s never going to work. Tip: don’t set daily goals, start with doing something 3-5 times a week. Aiming for more than that is setting yourself up for disappointment. Leave space for life, and fun. Try “crowding out” bad habits with new, better things. This simply means focusing on adding more good in until there’s no room for the bad stuff. I believe slow, conscious, continuous change is how we can improve ourselves, our homes, our workplaces, our societies, our planet. 

Change is not to be feared. Change creates new neural pathways in your brain. The more you repeat these new patterns, the stronger those neural pathways become. The more safe they feel. And before long, all your new, positive, post-Covid things will be simple reflexes of routine. 

The world is changing. It’s hard. But lean into the uncertainty. 

We’re changing for the better.

This article first appeared in Stop Press.