For several years now I have tried to give up the habit of looking at my phone when I first wake each morning. I know it’s supposedly bad for productivity and for mental health, but it just never happened no matter what I tried. Then, for some reason, over the break, it happened. OK, it wasn’t just some arbitrary thing. Two things converged to make it finally happen.
The first was the continued insistence by myself that it was something I needed to do to at least see if it was indeed the boon everyone says. A lot of things aren’t, you know. Walking doesn’t release any positive dopamine. I never get an exercise high at all, I mean absolutely never. Journaling for positivity doesn’t work at all, ever. And there are several other “sure-fire fixes” for my depression/anxiety/PTSD that absolutely never worked for me. But I hadn’t tried this one, couldn’t get myself to do it at all, so I couldn’t make a judgement.
The second was a line from James Clear, the author of the wildly popular book–so popular I had to buy it because it will be years before I can get it at the library–Atomic Habits, that crystallized a lot in my mind and released me from much of the negative self-talk in my head in a voice that sounds exactly like my mother’s for some reason. Essentially, you can’t build good habits in a negative environment.
The idea that all the years of my attempts at building habits and failing could be possibly broken down to a negative environment was immediately self-evident and equally freeing. It brought everything I’ve been trying to do into focus and suddenly broke me out of a stupor I couldn’t find a way out of on my own.
I’ve always struggled with the admonition that you don’t start new habits because you are lazy and lack the will-power. It makes no sense because I am not lazy and I do not lack any level of will-power, much to the chagrin of my extended family. So when I heard James Clear say that, my mind recognized it as the problem and the path forward was illuminated by a 600-megawatt spotlight. (600 MW is apparently a typical output of an entire coal plant, just for reference.)
This is part of what helped me get so much done over the break and helps me to continue to try to maintain all that work even though I am starting already to get dragged down by the depression and anxiety that school intensifies.
Then I decided to set up a daily routine that began with NOT going on my phone first thing.
I wasn’t going on social media anymore first thing because I left Twitter after taking a hiatus during finals and discovering that I didn’t miss it at all. But I do read the paper the first thing in the morning. I have a subscription the the LA Times and it shows up in my inbox every morning at about 3 AM. If you have ever read a newspaper you know that it is effing depressing. Starting my day in the traditional way, coffee and the newspaper, has not been any better for my psyche than social media.
At the beginning of the month, a few days before school started, I set up a habit tracker for this. According to it, I failed the first day. Not surprising. It was a Saturday. I have a feeling I’m just gonna dump it on Saturday. I need to sleep a little and maybe just rest my brain and stay in bed.
The habit is not just “Don’t go on my phone first thing.” The habit is, “Get out of bed, get your coffee, then sit down at your desk and write.” And more days than not, this is exactly what I do. This morning I really didn’t want to do it. But because, of course, Saturday I didn’t, I forced myself up and I’m pretty sure I feel better for it.
The remarkable thing is that in looking over my tracker for the past couple weeks I do not have a negative attitude about the days I failed, even the “failure” of the first day. Most of the days I “failed” were due to being sick or some other extra-ordinary circumstance. For example, Edison deciding that they needed to work on the lines in the middle of the night, in the middle of winter, in the middle of the school week.
I took the little kids to stay in a hotel, completely unaware that my use at home of a heated mattress pad on my mat to keep me warm has been actually helping my muscles and joints relax and feel no pain. It was about 1 AM when I realized that and about 2 AM when I decided to take something for the pain and discovered all I had was Excedrin, which, of course, has caffeine. I didn’t sleep at all that night.
I’m still working on not beating myself up in other areas, like work or in talking, ever, to anyone, at any time. But at least in this one thing I am just doing it and getting it done.
The negative talk is something I got from my family and from my church. My family is cruel and vicious. They love to tear everyone down. They hate when people they want to dominate are successful so they treat you like crap if you try to do anything good. They take hating to an incredibly low level. But it’s been 13 years since I last spoke to my mother and 18 years since I last spoke to my father. Not as long since I last spoke to everyone else, but long enough you’d think, so why, now, did I finally overcome it?
The importance was in someone else giving words to what I already knew to be true but no one else seemed to believe. Most people teach that you just have to have the right mindset to overcome these problems. Growth mindset, positive mindset, etc, are all supposed to cure you of these issues. It sounds simplistic, and it is. The idea that your mindset can cure all your problems is like saying that all you have to do to not be poor is work harder. (In case you don’t know, poor people work way harder that Jeff Bezos ever did.)
Having support in our struggles is important and rare. Most people in the culture around you are as much victims of that culture as you are and so they dole out the same advice that is dragging you down. To have someone, and in this case someone in the dominant group, give words to what you have been trying to formulate in your own mind, is freeing.
This is why persistence is important. You can’t give up. You can’t stop trying. I know it is hard. Sometimes it’s so hard I curl up in my bed and pull my pillow over my head and think all sorts of terrible thoughts. I get how hard it is. But quitting is not my style–witness 25-years in an abusive marriage as exhibit A.
I found this when looking for a good “James Bond” inspiration for something we did in training on Friday. I think this sums up my attitude perfectly.
That is why I am still here. I somehow struggle through the horrible thoughts and the horrible times. I do this by trying to educate myself knowing that there is an answer, I just need to keep looking for it.