By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index
Is “normal” just a habit?
I have not heard the term “normal” much lately. And I don’t think it’s because we forget what it means.
Our “normal” is so far in the distance that we are either losing track of it or are mytholizing it.
But I think we forget what “normal” actually means – it just means “what we are accustomed to.”
Our “normal” was working for most of us, but even if it wasn’t, it was what was familiar.
It kind of reminds me of how we as individuals deal with change.
I used to work at what was then called the Tacoma Rescue Mission. I taught basic life skills to adults addressing issues of addiction.
We as a society, or even as the entire world, are going through essentially the same process defining and addressing problems and living in a new way.
The way of recovery, for any of us, is fraught with doubt, confusion and uncertainty.
Our economy is as full of questions as it has been in the lifetimes of virtually all of us.
Commodity prices, employment options and investment possibilities are nothing like what they looked like even six months ago.
In either an individual or collective sense, “normal” is basically a habit – what we usually do and what we expect to happen as a result of what we usually do.
Working from home, or on a reduced or modified schedule has become our new habit. Commuting, for most of us, has changed dramatically or dropped out entirely.
But economic recovery is not so different from substance abuse recovery; we just need to set some new parameters and get into some new habits. There is no way to go except forward.
Habits, good or bad, are just those things we do without thinking about them.
No matter what it is, from smoking cigarettes to that morning cup of coffee, we do it not because we choose to – or even want to – we do it because it has become something like a muscle memory – we just find ourselves doing it.
Habits are great – or at least they can be. I do exercises and a brisk walk most days first thing in the morning. I don’t even think about it. And most days I don’t even remember doing it.
You know that old joke about how few of us remember what we had for lunch yesterday? But why should we? More than likely, we ate out of habit at a certain time. How important is it to take note of it?
Times of uncertainty are a time to re-consider and maybe reorient our life trajectory – in large or small ways.
Almost half of what we do in a typical day is a habit (https://www.npr.org/2019/12/11/787160734/creatures-of-habit-how-habits-shape-who-we-are-and-who-we-become).
But habits, again, can be a good – if not great aspect of our lives.
Ever know anyone with a strong “work ethic”? It’s not that their ethics are so strong – it is simply the fact that work has become a habit – an organizing habit – of their lives.
We are creatures of habit. The more we do something, the easier it becomes and for better or worse, the more it becomes an ingrained part of who we are.
But the thing about habits is that we can decide, we can use the near-gravitational force of habit to take us where we want to go.
Want to lose weight? Make it easy for yourself. Keep those healthy and filling snacks close by. Make it more of a challenge to eat those things you know you shouldn’t.
When I was at the Rescue Mission, I asked my class, virtually all smokers, if they remembered their first time smoking cigarettes.
Of course they did. They thought it was disgusting and made most of them sick.
So how did it become a habit for so many years?
They had forced themselves, beyond an immediate physical reflex, to continue until it became a habit.
If we are capable of making a habit of something as inherently unpleasant as smoking, making a habit of a morning walk or exercise regimen, or saving money should not be that difficult.
“Normal,” in other words, is what we do without thinking about it.
At some level, the more actions we can build into a near auto-response the better. We wake in the morning and, for the most part, follow a routine that we are barely conscious of – or may not be aware of at all.
Changing behavior, whether it is losing weight or quitting a habit, smoking for example, is rarely a matter of “will power.” As much as we might like to assign a higher level of awareness, habit is just a matter of sheer repetitiveness.
The more we do something, the more “normal” it becomes.
It doesn’t even really matter what it is. It could be drinking coffee, taking a cold shower or writing a daily journal.
Forming a new habit is simple. Simple does not always mean easy, but two very basic steps are all you need to set in place.
First, make it easy, if not appealing. Your target habit should be your first and most direct choice, not one of many. Take it in tiny steps.
If you want to quit something, smoking for example, don’t picture yourself quitting forever – just for today. Or even part of today. Even the next ten minutes or so.
There’s no miracle required or massive will power, just make it through the next few minutes. Find something else to do.
And repeat. Do it on a regular basis until it becomes routine.
It takes about two months to embody a new habit (some recovery programs are 28 days).
In other words, rinse and repeat.
From saving money to getting more exercise, it’s only a matter of what you do on a regular basis.
Before you know it, you’ll have a new habit or leave an old one behind.
There’s an old saying that you have to try a new food ten times before you can really decide if you “like” it or not.
Same with a new habit. Try doing a bit more exercise, reading an actual book or going for a walk if you don’t already.
Who knows, like some crazy foreign food that used to terrify you, you just might learn to like it.
The “new normal,” in every aspect of our lives, the way we look at our lives now, is very quickly becoming our accustomed ways.
A year or two from now, when working from home and even eating more at home have become our routine, we might wonder why we would ever want to change.