It takes 30 days to form a new habit, or so the ubiquitous ‘they’ would say.
Things ‘they’ also say:
Create tiny goals.
Increase your performance, bit by bit.
Change your environment to remove anything which might change your course.
Don’t be so hard on yourself.
Just do it.
Fake it till you make it.
But what they don’t tell you is how to stop your habit, or your pursuit for perfection, from becoming an obsession.
I’m going to tell you a bit about my experience with creating goals, acquiring obsessive and destructive behaviour, and how to spot these before it’s too late.
I was a teenage dirt bag
I was a slacker in high school. You would never find me in PE class or leading the debate team: I much preferred to skip class to go to Maccas, or watch The Crow at a friend’s house instead. I wasn’t stupid – far from it. I was just bored, and I hated other kids. Because of this, my parents are pretty happy I turned out ok. And it makes sense that I'd go on to be a freelance copywriter, and not work for someone else.
But I digress.
When I got into university, I had no idea how to write a proper essay and manage my workload. Although I'd always received great results in the more creative subjects, correct structure, formatting and referencing were completely foreign concepts to me. I'd been too busy lurking at the local Westfield, where I was learning to evade store security and acquiring an impressive nail polish collection...for free. I had about 7 years of academic achievement to catch up on.
So I became the hardest working person I knew. My goal was to receive a Distinction average across all subjects. With an almost non-existent academic acumen, I had huge knowledge gaps to fill, and foreign habits to form. Like sitting down and reading academic texts and handing things in on time. Oh, and actually attending class.
My plan went like this: I organised my days by the hour, committed to each and every assigned reading and more, and always, always started assignments early. I would study when I got home at midnight from my shift at the German restaurant, and I’d go to every lecture, even if I’d been out the whole night before.
I think you know where this is headed.
The desire to form good habits turned into obsessive behaviour. And because life often gets in the way, I felt that one minor hiccup would derail my habits entirely. Pity the fool who interrupted a particularly tricky Derrida reading, or the friend who dared text when I was transmitting Distinction average gold out onto paper. Anxiety, anger, frustration and fatigue set in. I tried to remove all distractions – a social life, relationships, normal, human, emotional needs – because seeing that Distinction on my paper (because yes! We handed in physical essays back in 2009!) was as exciting as a 21st birthday invite.
But you can’t keep up perfect for long, especially if structure and institutionalised learning are largely foreign to you.
I believe many people call this burning out. It felt more like a car crash, if I can use that metaphor to describe my sudden snap.
Create habits, not obsessions
There’s a fine line between passion and obsession. I’m yet to find a definitive explanation for what separates one from the other, but what I believe is this:
A passion is something which fuels you. Pursuing it will add colour, joy, energy and creativity to your life. An obsession, on the other hand, is something which depletes these resources. It masquerades as passion, because originally that’s what it was. But an obsession is a beast of a different nature: it’s driven by fear.
And I was driven by an excruciating fear: I just wasn’t good enough unless I was in hot pursuit of my goal.
I’m not wont to tell many people this, but I’m back studying again. As a post-graduate student, I know how to do things different this time.
I’m not perfect, and I still get those days where I can feel my heart about to burst through my chest, or my motivation buckling under the weight of a hefty to-do list. But I have a few mantras and mechanisms for keeping myself from taking a detour to Complete and Total Anxious Nightmare-town. So not worth a visit.
1. Do your personal best
Use benchmarks, yes, but know your limits. You do you, and let the other guy spin their wheels however they please.
2. Life comes first
One of my biggest regrets from my undergrad degree is turning down FREE tickets to Splendour In The Grass…because I had an essay to write. I want to punch me so bad. Study is important, but so are stories. And I literally have zero road trip with strangers stories. I would like to amend this.
3. Watch your moods
As anything with depression or anxiety will tell you, declining mental health is a slow and steady decline. There are people out there who do wake up one morning with an entirely different frame of mind, but for others, depression, anxiety and stress build up over time. It’s such a slow process, that you actually don’t even realise until you’re in the thick of it. Monitor your happiness levels on a daily basis, then reassess after a few weeks to see how you’re doing.
4. Make small changes
What they said was true: create tiny goals to avoid overwhelm. Whatever your goal may be, work towards it in increments.
Trying to tone up? Go for a walk once a week. Then twice a week. Then four times a week. Then throw in some cardio.
If I had learned the art of mindfulness in my undergraduate degree, I estimate that I would have been 456% more productive and happier. I discovered the benefits of meditation towards the end of my degree, but better late than never, right? Meditation stops me from becoming overwhelmed when my to-do list is three days long and compiled into 6 hours. I recommend the Smiling Mind app for simple techniques, or Erin Kyna’s guided meditations for more powerful mental shifts.
That’s not to say I’m perfect. Sometimes I remember to use these tools, and sometimes I forget to meditate and turn into a workaholic monster with a billion, soul-crushing deadlines. But I’m working on that as a habit in itself, too: learning to slow down. Because there’s really no quick to do that, is there?