When I was a kid one of my mother’s friends lost her husband to a heart attack. She had young kids, younger than my brother and myself, no job, and was suddenly alone. When tragedy or illness strikes and you are a parent, you do not have the luxury to sink into depression, to grieve in bed for days crying. You have to feed your children. You have to take care of their emotional needs. You come last, if ever, on the list of things to take care of. This is how it is.
I was with my mom visiting the woman a couple years after the death. She had a new job and her kids were doing fine. I don’t know if she was dating or even remarried but she looked very different. She was healthy and enjoying her life again. My mother said to her, “I don’t know how you did it.” And she said, “I didn’t expect too much of myself. My mother told me; ‘Every day, wake up, get out of bed and make your bed. If you do nothing else, every day, do that. That’s all you have to do.”
Man, that’s nothing! I said to myself, eavesdropping. I wish I had that little to do!
“But you did much more than that,” my mother reminded her.
“Yes,” she said. “But if I thought of everything I had to do I would get overwhelmed and break down. The list was too long and I had no energy. All I could stand was to think of one very simple thing to do. Anything more than that and I was in a heap of tears.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Well,” she said. “Once I made my bed, it looked very nice and I didn’t want to mess it up again, so I had to occupy myself. So I made breakfast. After breakfast, I cleaned up. After cleaning up, I got the kids to school. Once the kids were at school, I was dressed and out of the house, moving around. The activity gave me energy. I focused on one thing at a time, the very next thing I had to do. And I lived like that for a year. I got a job, I paid the bills, I took care of the kids. But I didn’t put pressure on myself for any of that. I didn’t pressure myself to worry about them getting honor roll or finding the perfect job. If I made my bed in the morning, I was a success.”
The choices you make have a snowball effect. We focus on the big choices while letting little habits go. We eat crap, we have irregular sleep habits, we skip a workout. Other times we look so long at the big picture that we can’t get going. Our dreams are so big and so distant, we are overwhelmed. Yet, when we accomplish many little things every day. The little things add up to big things over time.
The choices you make on a daily basis get you on the course for where you will be in years to come. Good habits take you to very different places than bad habits. Good habits can be a simple as flossing or as complex as a fitness routine combining cardio and weightlifting five times a week. Bad habits can be as simple as speeding or as complex as cheating on your spouse.
The one thing they have in common is that the habits, whether they are good or bad, influence your direction in life. The widow who made her bed every morning was set on a course of productivity.
What is your course? How do you start your day?
Identifying and eliminating your bad habits will also lead to changes in other areas of your life. For me, when I eliminate my bad habits, I also eliminate my bad influences. Am I staying up too late? Am I wasting too much time on social media? When I remove the influences the unnecessary things disappear. The truth is, anyone who does not have my phone number is probably not important enough to me that I should be spending time on them or their dramas. Yet how much time to we spend checking up on who is going through what or snooping on their lives?
It’s easy to see how one bad habit can lead to other bad choices. It’s harder to see how one good choice can lead to many more good choices. The reason is because self-improvement is a lot of little steps that all complement and feed each other. But bad decisions tend to be dramatic. However if you look closer, when you see someone who has made a terrible error, if you had access to the routines of their life you might find they had a lot of bad habits: making excuses, tardiness, disorganization, blaming others. Self destructive people never take responsibility. If they did, their ego and pride would make them seek improvement. But if it is not their fault, their ego is not at risk. Blaming someone or something secures their victim status which absolves them of responsibility. It also ensures their destruction.
If you want to improve your life, take responsibility for everything in it and focus on the small steps until they are so routine you can devote more time to big steps. And if you are a parent, remember that the habits you teach your children now become a part of their character when they are older. Folding their shirts is not a tedious punishment or unnecessary distraction on “appearances and vanity” it is a habit you instill in them to take responsibility for their belongings. Don’t wait until you’re good at something to get started. Start now and get good as you go.