I had my first experience of fatigue-syndrome (“burnout”) back in 2005. I had been under a lot of stress for a long time, and when I was assigned yet another stressful task at work my brain just… shut down. From all the activities I was used to being able to handle, I went to needing the best part of a day to put together a cup of tea. I never realised before that how many different parts there are to the everyday tasks! Take that cup of tea:
- First you need to boil the water.
- And then remember to turn the heat off when it’s hot, and not leave it to boil dry (after a few misses we bought our first electric kettle, which turns itself off).
- Then pour the hot water into the teapot – while it’s still hot, once it’s cold again it does no good.
- And oh! before that you need to put the tealeaves in. Kind of bland taste without it.
- And then remember to take the leaves out after a reasonable time – preferrably before the water has gone cold again. To long and the tea will have a very bitter taste. A kitchentimer helps (provided that you remember to set it, of course.)
- And then hopefully remember to drink the tea while its still warm…
Miss any one of the steps and you won’t have that nice, hot cup of tea to drink. (The cold tea in the last step can of course be redeemed by heating the cup in the microwave. Repeat as needed…)
This was the first time I realized how much of life that is built out of habits so ingrained that they are practically invisible. Actions that are completely automated, so that the mind can be on other things. Unless the mind for some reason no longer can keep it that way so that you are forced, as I was, to think about every step consciously or miss some.
Thankfully the brain is plastic, and with time and rest healed and started to take care of the routines again and let my mind be free to wander. But the experience gave me some insight into why habits, routines and automatically performed tasks are important. Without our brains ability to build them, we would have very little time to think about things beyond what’s right before us. And while mindfulness in the moment is a good thing in many ways, the ability to think ahead – and to the past – is also important.
This capacity for building automated tasks can be very useful, if you consciously build the routines that are helpful. (And equally bad, if you unconsciously build bad habits.) If you manage to build habits that help you be healthy and get closer to your goals, you won’t have to work hard after that – once the habit is formed, it will just be a part of the background and you can think about the rest of your life while automatically keeping healthy and getting closer to your goals. Like magic.
That’s what I’ll be focusing on this month: deciding what habits I want to build, and how. As well as getting away from those that come in the way of my dream of a simple, joyful life.