The Daily Habit I Never Knew I Needed
A deceptively simple, game-changing practice that I discovered in a most unlikely place.
There is no shortage (especially here on Medium) of writing about daily habits, routines, and practices that promise to change your life. Journaling, meditation, exercise, doodling, and so on. So far be it from me to add more to the already towering stack of things that everyone should supposedly be doing in order to live their best lives.
But I can’t help but share this simple daily practice that I recently stumbled upon. It’s simple but dense with meaningful stuff. It is easy enough to start doing today — even if you’re driving to work, on a plane, or lying in bed. And if my first day doing it is any indication of how effective it is, I would call it a game-changing habit. So here goes.
I recently found myself on the website of the Center for Non-violent Communication. There is treasure-trove of helpful stuff on there — feelings inventory, and a list of needs, to aid in more effectively understanding and communicating your emotions. Of particular interest to me was a page called 10 Steps to Peace. The page lists 10 principles to serve as the foundation for better communication and cooperation between people. The very first one is this:
Spend some time each day quietly reflecting on how we would like to relate to ourselves and others.
That’s it. It’s that simple. I should spend some time — each day — quietly reflecting on how I would like to relate to both myself and to others.
Why It Works
For every one of us — except for hermits, infants, or the deceased — relating to others is a necessary part of life. And we continue to hear more and more about how integral relationships are in a good life and professional success.
Think of it: families, friends, community members, professional teams, clients, or suppliers (which is to say — all of us who are not ) — a lot of the important things in your day revolve around how you interact with others. So wouldn’t it be wildly beneficial for you to interact with them in such a way that you built and sustained better relationships with them?
Even if you don’t think you really interact in meaningful ways with others (which you are probably in denial about), you definitely interact with yourself. In fact, at the root of a great deal of our problems is our relationship with ourselves. We lie to ourselves, we break commitments to ourselves, we’re unreasonably hard on ourselves (over 70% of our self-talk is negative).
To top it all off, we actually don’t know ourselves as well as we think we do. We may weave grand narratives about our intentions, our emotions, our needs, and our knowledge — but when push comes to shove, we often end up being surprised by what is actually going on in our minds. Just ask anyone who has meditated for any significant length of time.
In fact, part of what makes meditation and mindfulness so beneficial is that if you do them right, you begin to relate to yourself differently. You stop identifying with your momentary thoughts and feelings. You come to accept certain felt needs and emotions. You put space in between stimulus and response. That’s exactly what this practice is: a practice of becoming intentional about how you relate to yourself — and to others.
How to Do it
The great thing about this practice is that it is format and tool agnostic — meaning you can just think about it, or you can write, or talk to yourself. Do whatever works, as long as it actually works. And by “works” I mean “achieves the goal of forming an intention of how you would like to relate to yourself and others today.
I’ll just relate how I like to do it. It’s not glamorous, and it would not be a great article for some online business magazine about morning routines — but it seems to have done the trick.
The week I first chose to do this, I had (perhaps unwisely) chosen to buy whole-bean coffee. That mean that when I woke up at 5am — groggy from a short night of sleep and having to do a bunch of stuff before 8 am — I would have to use my hand-grinder to make coffee grounds for my auto-drip machine to work. Normally, I would zone out while measuring out the beans and turning the crank for 5 minutes or so. But the day after reading about this new habit, I remembered to given it a try.
Here’s the simple bullet-point rundown of how I implemented the practice my first day:
- I took a series of 3 deep breaths, with my eyes closed, and tried to just clear my head for a bit.
- I pictured myself as a powerful CEO, in an intimidating-looking office, and also pictured myself as the newest entry-level employee in that same office — facing the powerful CEO.
- I asked the entry-level employee version of myself: how would you like the CEO to treat you today?
- I turned to the CEO and said: if you treat this employee the way he wants to be treated, you’ll get way more out of him, and he’ll work his ass off for you.
- I pictured a few of the people in my life I interact with regularly, and imagined myself as the CEO again, and them as the new, scared employees. I ran the same scenario as above.
- At the end of it, I came up with this:
I will give myself and everyone else the benefit of the doubt. I will relate to them (and me) in a way that seeks to understand and validate their feelings, their needs, and their felt purposes first without judgment. Then, if I desire something from them, I should make the request in the most respectful way possible.
I wrote down my intention the first day, but that’s not necessary. You don’t even have to do the visualization exercise that I did (I tend to go crazy at first with new habits). The purpose of this habit is to be intentional about how you interact with both yourself and others. Rather than simply react — as most of us do to ourselves and others — this habit helps you to act with a purpose.
This practice won’t be magically transformative on the first day. It wasn’t for me. In fact, I still had many reactive and thoughtless reactions — especially to myself (which is how it goes for most people). But I was more aware of when that was happening, because I had firmly set an intention to focus more on how I was relating to others, and awareness is the first step of change.
I’ve been doing this for a week now, and I am finding myself with a little more space between stimulus and response. I’m finding myself approaching interactions with people differently. I am doing more observation of my feelings and thoughts, and here’s the strangest (or coolest) thing. Instead of the largely judgmental and negative self-talk that hurl at myself during the day, I’ve become more of a benevolent observer of my mind.
I still have negative emotions, but I don’t let those turn into full-on moods. I am able to observe “I’m feeling anxiety” and rather than beating myself up for it, and trying to brute-force happiness, I acknowledge it, label it, and tell myself it’s okay that I’m feeling that way. Does it magically cure me? No — not even close. But it does dull the always-sharp edges of negative emotions. These days, I feel what I feel, I do what I can to find out why I might feel that way, and allow it to pass — while I focus on treating myself with compassion.
Unlike meditation, this practice doesn’t require a lot of time, a certain physical position, or tools. You can do this while you make your coffee in the morning, brush your teeth, while in the shower, and so on. And though it might feel weird at first, it is the most natural thing in the world to think about. You relate to yourself and others every day. This practice just helps you become more intentional about how you do it.