Merlin Mann, in an excellent talk about fear:
The Universe doesn’t care if you’re scared.
Grow old enough, and everything becomes a habit. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, you’re too old to learn something new, you’ve been there and done that – we have sayings that point to life as a long-term habit. We get in the habit of breathing, and that’s the best we can ask for.
Routine, habit – do something enough times and it becomes like muscle memory. Toss a football every day and it becomes natural. So does riding a bike. Or using keyboard shortcuts. We don’t have to re-learn how to take a shower or drive a car. It’s all routine.
Those routines can become harmful, too: smoking, bad relationships, never trying something new. Sometimes habits become comfortable (or, worse, mindless) and get us in trouble.
I’ve thought a lot about habits lately because, at least in the past few months, I’ve broken so many of them. And not just little ones, like biting fingernails, but big ones, like driving a different way to a different job every morning.
When I lived in an apartment, I had the same morning routine: get up, eat breakfast, start the coffee, take a shower, get dressed, come downstairs and drink the coffee, then head to work. Now all that takes place in a different house, and the change in location has forced me outside of the normal routine. Now, I have to think, “Where are my shoes?” And, “Did I remember to make the coffee?” Nothing is automatic anymore because I’m learning a new routine.
That’s extremely stressful for me. There came a time, early last week, where the stress caught up with me and I came down with a light head cold. Part of me thinks my body gravitates toward routine and habit so much that when I’m forced to think about my routine, my wiring goes berserk.
But given enough time, everything becomes a habit. That initial stress never lasts long, because eventually the brain figures out a new groove and settles into it. It might take some time.
What I’ve learned is that even though it’s difficult to wiggle my way out of that groove, it’s far better to suffer a bit of discomfort and unease than plant myself in some habit and become complacent. This gets me in trouble especially in relationships. And after eight years of working at the same place, I noticed that my work grooves were becoming too deep for comfort, too.
The Fear caught up with me when I bought this new house. There were a few times where the little tickle in the back of my brain sparked some stress-induced thought, like “Why the hell did I do this? This won’t turn out well.” Really, that thought came from living in the same apartment for six years. The routine was so comforting that, even though the new house is a fantastic life change, my brain had a hard time letting go of the groove.
I was scared to switch jobs. I was scared to buy a house. I was scared to break up with my girlfriend last summer, because life with somebody seemed better than life all alone. Scared, scared, scared. And it all had to do with habits. With settling into that damned groove.
That’s not to say that The Fear doesn’t creep in now and again. I still wonder what the hell I’m doing. Don’t we all?
But as Merlin says in that talk (and a lot in his fantastic podcast): what’s the worst that could happen when you break your habits? When you try something new? When you shake things up and learn and grow as a civilized person? No one’s going to eat you.
The fact is, taking a new way to work now leads me to a better job in an environment I love. Yes, I live a bit farther out of town now and have to spend a bit more in gas, but I own a frackin’ house that I can do whatever I want with.
Eventually my habits (and probably yours) will become so ingrained that I’ll be that old guy who won’t learn new tricks, forgets to make his bed, and is still a jerk on Facebook. Maybe not. The point is, now is not the time to be settling into any well-worn grooves. No, it’s time to be brave, drink a beer, and get out there and try something new. The Universe doesn’t care if you’re scared.
It’s been an incredibly stressful month or two for me. I’ve had so much to think about, and so many little decisions to make. But that’s being an adult, right? And while life is a little harder than I’d like right now, soon – I feel it, because I’m getting old enough now where I have some wisdom and life experience to back it up – it’s going to be way great to be alive.
So maybe the good habit is not being afraid to break the bad ones.