Practice Makes Perfect- But What Are You Practicing?
Practice Makes Perfect- But What Are You Practicing?
I remember an accomplished horsewoman brought me up short one day when I told her that “practice makes perfect” and she replied “no, PERFECT practice makes perfect”. What an irritating rejoinder! WHO is perfect? But, she was right. Which brings me to reflect on this question in a larger context: how we live is composed of a set of routines that can be broken down into habits of being and doing. Each of us has a morning routine, a workflow for the job, a routine for helping our kids with their needs and routines for other matters such as spiritual, relational and fiscal matters.
Even in our most mundane roles, we tend to do things in the same old way day in and day out. I have the same basic grocery list, cleaning routine, meal preparation and car care tasks that I’ve used for several years. The store that I prefer is small and no frills. But I can get in and out in about forty minutes. The house gets cleaned first by me in terms of organizing, laundry, dusting and decluttering. Then bathroom, kitchens and floors are all done to complete the maintenance. Cars may change occasionally, but I’ve got the same old car shop and the same old oil change place that I’ve had for years. Taken all together, these routines form the patterns that I live by. Odds are, you’re somewhat the same in your approach. These routines that we don’t have to think about very much keep the mundane machinery of our lives running. Not a lot of extra effort is expended in deciding what to do. It’s unnecessary because it’s already well known.
Conscious engagement is the gatekeeper of wisdom. For every habit that is on autopilot, I derive benefit only to the point that the behavior in question allows. I’m not going to find an abundance of organic food at my small store, though many of my preferred products there do fall into that category. I could do a deeper, more organized cleaning if I were willing to shake up my “once and done” approach and incorporate rotating in some of the less frequently addressed tasks like cleaning the baseboards or recycling items we don’t use frequently. My car shop is good, but they tend to upsell me when they can do so and it’s not always a strictly necessary repair. It’s obvious that I’m not living ALL of the areas of my life in the most optimal way possible. The trade-off is that my routines serve me by conserving the energy that I’d expend engaging with them consciously as to how they could be made better. If I wanted a home like Martha Stewart, I’d have to adopt a different set of routines composed of different habits that are built upon different behaviors.
Every area of our lives should have at least a modicum of conscious engagement. Periodically, it’s necessary to review how to clean better, cook better, organize better, shop better and just plain old live better in the spaces and places of our daily lives. One habit that is detrimental, left unchallenged by our conscious mind, can have a real felt impact when its cumulative cost is revealed. One glass of wine several times a week isn’t a problem for most of us. One piece of cake per week? Likewise. What happens, though, when one glass becomes two or three or four…? Or one piece of cake becomes a daily dessert with more generous portion sizes thrown in…? One charge on the credit card that’s paid off in a timely fashion won’t break the financial bank. But living off of the cards without paying them off will. Habits, left unchecked, tend to creep because behaviors, once engaged, tend to repeat. Then it’s twenty pounds later or several thousand dollars in debt later or an overtaxed liver bordering on cirrhosis and the impacts are more plain.
So it’s good to unplug from engaging with every single behavior that is practiced on each occasion of its occurrence. That gives us the margin needed for deep work, high demand contexts and overcoming obstacles that tax our resources. But- we need to regularly assess our behaviors and our practices. Doing so can uncover behaviors and beliefs that don’t serve us anymore. Or even entrenched behaviors and beliefs that are hurting growth and optimal development.
When the cost of behaviors that don’t serve us well impacts on our felt experience- often in times of crisis- we may begin to distance ourselves by intensifying the dysfunctional dynamic. Let’s face it, change is uncomfortable in the best of times. Most of us don’t wake up and decide that TODAY is the day that we’re swearing off of booze, credit cards or that toxic love interest unless we’re first confronted with real evidence that the pain of the present pathway that we’re pursuing exceeds the anticipated agony of adjusting to a new way of being and doing.
And our lizard brain tends to frame it as agony, not merely pain or discomfort. I mean, “WHAT IF…?”, right? “WHAT IF” is a BEAST for most of us when we’re faced with the prospect of needed change. So we tell ourselves a story. “Things are bad, sure. There’s pain here. It’s a mess. It’s unpleasant. But CHANGE? NO way. THAT is scary! At least this is the devil that I know. Who knows what I’d be dealing with if I try it a different way? I mean, I am already exhausted and I can’t afford the energy and focus that change requires! No. Not now. I can make things work here for awhile.” So we put the prospect of the future that might require effort and focus under a microscope, maximizing its negative potential to the greatest possible extent. AND we put the present into a telescopic view, one that keeps things distant, hazy and illuminated. I mean, it’s not perfect, but it’s “life”, right?
So, we put things off, adding pounds to our body, dollars to our debt, damage to our liver and an ever intensifying shame matrix that goes like this… “I can’t change. It’s futile. I also can’t stand THIS. So I’m going to distract myself a little…”. With more food or booze or gambling or pills or porn or playing around with that toxic family relationship or love interest. Because while engaged with practicing the current behavior pattern that’s based on the current belief set, we’re numbing out any consciousness of the real costs of our decisions. We’re in action. We’re “doing life”. But in a way that totally sucks and isn’t going to get us anywhere that we really want to go. Failing to reach our full potential. Foolishly discounting the cost of the present while inflating the effort required for real change. Futilely practicing the same old-same old behaviors and beliefs. Stuck.
Remember Superman? Yeah. He could do ANYTHING unless there was kryptonite on the scene. Fly. Lift the heavy stuff. Catch the bad guy. Stop the train. Save the world. When the present dynamic reaches a point where it steals our resources of talent, time and treasure- it’s time to find the kryptonite and remove it. Your lizard brain has decided to keep the kryptonite around. It’s familiar. It hasn’t killed you yet. It’s a distraction. But- remember who you are in the face of it. And who you REALLY are without it. You can push past the behaviors and beliefs that hold you back. You can reserve your energy, engagement and focus- or at least the preponderance of it, for things that matter. You just have to trade in one story that you’re telling yourself for a better one, that’s based on better, more serviceable beliefs and that is accompanied by more optimal and optimistic behaviors.
First, stop telling yourself how bad the pain of change is. Embrace it. It’s the gateway to the perfecting of your craft of living and to the future that you desire. Get clear with respect to what you believe and refuse to tolerate whatever is holding you back. Your personal kryptonite. Whether it’s a belief, a behavior, a mindset or a relationship is irrelevant. Get rid of it. When you get down to the core of why you’re stuck, you’re going to find that once you deal with deconstructing the reasons for how you got there and what the story is that is keeping you there, the momentum to get going on better personal practices will already have started to generate. Then, it’s a matter of finding the right support, setting up some accountability and being compassionate and caring towards yourself. You’re a sacred being and you should treat yourself with the utmost of care, compassion, integrity and respect.
If you are struggling and feel overwhelmed, reach out. The world is full of connections that can support your growth and your quest to optimize your life. Keep us in mind, too. We’re here to help.