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Every other month or so, I start a new life. The moment typically arrives after the laundry pile has grown too tall, I have doomscrolled too much, and physical exercise stops at taking out the trash. Then, I declare at the dinner table, to the tune of snickering and eyerolls: “Just so everyone knows, I’m starting fresh.” Tomorrow is a better day.
Given my record of failure, I sometimes wonder why I relaunch with such enthusiasm. This time will be different! This time I really will become a wonder of discipline, knowledge, patience, grace, and joy. I will listen more and rant less. I will act now and not later.
That intro to Python programming that I spotted on YouTube, let’s do it! I should be able to squeeze it in at 10 p.m., after being awake since 6, seeing three kids off to school, drinking six cups of coffee, dealing with a five-alarm work crisis, driving an hour round trip to soccer practice, speed-cleaning dinner dishes, and reading bedtime stories to a philosophical 9-year-old who just realized that one day she will grow old.
Or, perhaps, I should simply start by picking up the dog poop that’s been sitting on the brick patio for three days. I see it every time I look out the window and it’s irritating as hell but God forbid I would grab a bag and just remove it.
Thankfully, I’m not alone in this battle. The war on bad habits is native to humankind, a psychologist reminds us in Psychology Today. Many of us (my husband claims to be a shining exception) simply have an uncanny ability to dive head-first into the pool of deplorable behaviors.
That’s why I have a growing mound of clothes next to my bed — Hey, at the end of the day, I just want to sleep! — although I would, in the long run, be better off if hangers and shirts reunited at bedtime. That’s why I obsessively check Twitter — It’s my time to relax! — although the posts often leave me in a thundercloud mood. And, to be honest, it’s also why I write this right on deadline — I was too busy earlier! — although I know the rockstar sensation of finishing days in advance.
This is all the more irritating because I’m getting on my own nerves. Why do I waste so much time on dealing with the inevitable fallout of all of the above when there are books to read, order to relish, places to go, podcasts to play, ideas to realize, and Python to learn. To cite the psychologist:
“We possess the ability to master almost any craft and succeed at virtually any endeavor. Yet instead of elevating us to lives of superhuman quality, habits keep most people struggling just to get by. Why? Because the habits that come most naturally to us tend to be bad for our long-term health and happiness.”
The good news, he says, is that humans are thoroughly capable of turning the tables on this unfortunate dynamic. We do, after all, learn to perform quite complex tasks with little to no conscious effort (like driving a car). If the lure of an immediate reward (I get to sleep rather than hang clothes) can make the brain habitualize a behavior, it can — with the right type of coaxing — also adopt habits that typically require marathon-level persistence (eating healthy) and result in many of us reverting to our bad old ways.
So, for my next new life, I’m adding internal reinforcers like constructive self-talk and visualization to the equation. I’m happy to report that as I finished up this piece, I finally grabbed a bag and cleaned up after our dog. This just may be the beginning of the rest of my new life. If not, rest assured I will enthusiastically embrace another reboot.
Ulrika G. Gerth is a Swedish native who lives in Massachusetts with her husband and three daughters.