The life changing magic of changing your habits

I recently listened to the audiobook of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying by Marie Kondo.[1] I was struck by her emphasis upon the potential for tidying your things as a means of changing your life. Specifically, she points out that as one’s possessions form a record of one’s decisions over time, the act of going through (and discarding) possessions enables one to put to rest any decisions that now seem wrong or outdated.[2]

What if changing habits was a bit like the process in Marie Kondo's The Life Changing Magic of Tidying, shown here?

As I read the book, I was struck by three things:

  • This is a principle-based approach to dealing with physical objects;
  • Kondo is absolutely correct; one’s possessions are a physical record of one’s choices;
  • This is a great metaphor for habitual behaviour patterns.

Let me explain.

The trouble with shoulder bags…

I’ve worked with a couple of female students recently who have come to class exhibiting a really interesting shifting of weight in the torso to one side. I made a guess, and was correct both times: they had both been devotees of shoulder bags, and had shifted their torso to accommodate the weight of the bag on their hip. In both cases they’d stopped using shoulder bags months before, and switched to backpacks; the weight shift in the torso, however, remained unaltered.

Why did they do the weight shift in the first place? It is tempting to blame the bags, but not everyone who uses a shoulder bag feels the need to shift their torso to one side. So we need to look not to the physical object, but rather the person’s reaction to it. In both cases my student decided – on some level; they weren’t necessarily aware of it – that the weight shift was a good idea and would help them carry the bag.

Habitual behaviours are decisions.

All well and good. Except… Why did they continue to shift their torsos to one side after ditching the shoulder bag? The solution is quite simple: they stopped noticing the weight shift. It became so much a part of their everyday existence that they stopped registering the sensations telling their brains what was going on. As FM Alexander said in 1910,

What I wish to emphasise in this place is that the evil, disturbing habit which it is necessary to eradicate is in the ordinary experience both permanent and unrecognised.[3]

The shift of the torso is an example of a behavioural shortcut – the little choices that we’ve stopped even noticing that we make every day. They are decisions that we just keep on making because they are easy and simple. But how many of these decisions are there? What if much of our behaviour is like the rooms that Marie Kondo helps to tidy: filled with the clutter of decisions made long ago and that we’ve stopped even seeing? If this is true, changing our habits is no different to tidying our physical spaces. 

Changing your habits is like clearing clutter

I’m not going to go so far as suggesting that you take a look at your behavioural patterns and ask, “Does this spark joy?” But I am suggesting that part of the job of changing habits is acknowledging that the things you do are there for a reason. At some point that raised shoulder or shift of the torso served a purpose; it got a job done. So, in the same way that Kondo suggests having a bit of self-compassion over the purchasing choices her clients have made over the years, I am suggesting that a little self-compassion goes a long way when changing your habits. You can make new decisions safe in the knowledge that the person you were did they best they could, and that all those decisions can be altered. As Alexander puts it,

the mode of functioning which is substituted, but which may nevertheless be spoken of quite correctly by the same term of “habit,” is as subject to control as the routine of a well-organised office. Certain rules are established for the ordinary conduct of business, but the controller of that business must be at liberty to break the rules or to modify them at his discretion.[4]

Take control and decide what is appropriate for you now in each circumstance. You can always change again later.

[1] Yes, I know I’m very late to the party on this book. I’m really not one for joining trends!

[2] I can’t give an exact location, but this observation occurs at about the 3hr 20 min mark in the audiobook.

[3] Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, NY, Irdeat, 1997, p.60.

[4] ibid.