Common wisdom is that it takes 21 days (or 30, or 60, or whatever) to change a habit. But perhaps you’ve noticed that even when you manage to create this kind of shift, things don’t seem that much better. Here’s why.
Most of our habitual patterns sit on top of our stories and beliefs about ourselves and the world around us.
Let’s use the example of Reggie, who always seems to have too much work on his plate. Reggie notices this problem and wants to change it. So he starts to take a look at what he’s doing that is contributing to this being the case.
Reggie finds that he says yes to every request that comes across his plate. Any time someone asks him to attend a meeting, he’s an automatic yes. If you ask Reggie for help moving, he’ll be a yes, even if it means canceling something he was looking forward to in his own life. If you knock on his door, it doesn’t matter how important the thing Reggie is working on is, he’s going to make time for you.
All of these things make Reggie a welcome addition to the office. He’s always willing to help out, and always has time for you. However, the impact of this tendency is that Reggie never has time for himself. While he’s great for everyone else, he experiences growing frustration, franticness, and resentment at the rest of the world for always needing his help.
Reggie sees how he does these things, and concludes that he needs to start saying “No” more, and so this becomes the new habit he attempts to create for the next 21 days. Reggie posts notes reminding him “Say No” everywhere in his field of view, and practices saying No to incoming requests.
What Reggie can’t see is the underlying story that all of this operates over top of. Why is it that Reggie is an automatic yes? If you ask him, he’ll likely answer something along the lines of “That’s just the way I am”. That’s the level at which Reggie’s inquiry ends.
But if we were to dig a little deeper underneath all of this, Reggie may have an underlying story that he’s not pulling his weight, and that, if he’s not helping someone, he’s not providing value. He may have learned this story from his parents growing up, from the training he got in school, and from watching the people in his family live their own lives.
This story is determinative for Reggie. Even if he changes his habit to the new one, where he says No more often, he hasn’t addressed the underlying story. In fact, he’s just layered a new habit over top of the old one.
Initially Reggie was the expression of fearing he may not be pulling his weight, and saying Yes to everyone in order to manage this fear. Now, he’s moved into a different experience.
Because he hasn’t shifted the underlying story, Reggie is now the expression of fearing he’s not pulling his weight, and saying No to people over top of that.
Reggie now has more spare time, but it’s filled with guilt and feelings of worthlessness.
Sure, Reggie has spare time now, but it’s now filled with guilt and concern about his value.
When this doesn’t give him the reprieve he’d hoped for, he has one of two choices available: Go back to the old ways, or, figure out some way to numb the pain he now feels about himself and his choices.
There’s no winning here. Either way, Reggie is stuck inside the existing story.
Changing the pattern at the surface level doesn’t really change our underlying experience of life, and it’s the underlying experience of life that we are really seeking to shift.
So, when you are trying to change things up, here are couple of inquiries that may serve you:
1. What are the reasons you take on the habits you are seeking to change? How do they serve you?
Don’t let yourself off the hook with this inquiry by saying “Oh, they don’t serve me at all”. They do. You wouldn’t be doing them otherwise. Really hold your feet to the fire, and get curious about the payoff that may be available when you carry on these patterns.
2. What is the underlying experience you are craving in life, from changing these patterns? What are you really hoping to create for yourself?
3. What is the story (or stories) you have about that experience you are seeking to create? What does it mean to you if you were to sit in peace? What beliefs do you hold, that might have you keep that shift at arm’s length?