Kara has had the same hairstyle for…forever. But one Saturday morning, she goes in to her regular stylist, and out-of-the-blue says, “Let’s try something different for a change.”
Nate will admit that he is a routine kind of guy. Work, gym, Friday drinks, weekend steady mix of friends and activities. But one Saturday morning he wakes up and realizes he is absolutely not looking forward for the weekend, or much of next week for that matter. If you ask him why, he says, to his own surprise, he’s bored with his life.
There has been much written in articles about reshaping your habits by focusing on the Keystone Habit: the idea that you pick one major habit that you’d like to break and change, and if you do, you find there is momentum to change many others bad habits along with it. Sleep and exercise, for example, are common ones. Get regular sleep, regular exercise, and you find you are more productive, have more time and more energy to do what you want to do, you’re in a better mood, that in turn improves your relationships. Like a line of dominos, one small push can set off a chain reaction with positive results replacing a cluster of bad habits.
What strikes me when I read these articles about Keystone habits is that the folks who are even reading about them have already started toppling those dominos over. There is a micro-process of change already at work before any serious work even gets started. (One may be starting for you right now if you’ve read this far in the article.)
Developmental experts tell us that most adults go through 6-7 years of stability, with 2-3 years of instability and transition — hence the 30-year, the midlife crises. Sometimes these transitional times start with some new curiosity, or thinking new ways, or coming to a sudden realization of what you don’t like or are finally fed up with. These may then lead you into new directions, stepping-out-of-your-comfort-zone behaviors or major life changes. And if you ignore them, push these them to the side of the road, they can come back stronger later.
Here are some of the common signs that changes are a-brewing inside:
Change of appearance
Kara’s new haircut, an urge to get a nose-ring, or a different fashion look. This is a case of inside change leaking to the outside, encouraging us to try out a new physical persona. While we readily see this in its most dramatic forms in teens, it continues throughout our lives.
Awareness of boredom
Nate may have been on-and-off bored with his routinized life for awhile, but what is important, what is starting those dominos moving, is his seemingly sudden awareness and labeling of these feelings. HIs acknowledgment is the opening of a door, a sign that it is psychologically ready to discover and change.
As Wendall Berry said: “When we no longer know what to do, we have begun our real work. And when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our journey.” The key here is recognizing that we’ve reached the point of no longer knowing.
There’s that famous line from that classic movie Network: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” Sometimes emotional explosions are simple build-up of stress, but sometimes they are more: The result of a life gone off-course, a frustration, that like boredom, is never fully acknowledged until it finally blasts through the surface. It’s an indicator of problems not being addressed, of needs not being met.
Being attracted to someone you normally would not be
Kara meets this Eric at a party, and finds herself drawn to him, in spite of his not being her usual type. What’s going on? We might be tempted to blame it on the alcohol, but more likely there is something else afoot. The attraction is being triggered by emerging needs and part of herself that Kara is not fully aware of.
We can more easily see this dynamic in teens who start to hang out with a completely different crowd. It’s not because the crowd is influencing the teen and pulling him in, it is because the crowd has or represents something that the teen is looking for. Similarly, Kara’s attraction likely says more about her and less about Eric.
Stepping outside your comfort zone
Here Kara doesn’t meet Eric but simply goes to the party rather than staying home as she normally would. Or Nate signs up for a Saturday hiking meet-up even though he hasn’t done any hiking in years, or even more bold, decides to take a mental health day off from work.
Sometimes it is wisp of interest that you follow up on, sometimes an attitude of “Why not,” or a new determination that is pushing you out the door. But what’s important that you’re breaking out, going against your grain even in a small way.
Nate decides not to go to the gym on Saturday morning, not because he realizes he is bored or that there a meet-up, but because he “doesn’t feel like it.” He is, finally, paying attention to how he feels, using his emotions as information in the moment rather than going on autopilot. Will he feel guilty for skipping his commitments? Probably. Is he breaking out in a small baby-step way? Yup.
Fantasies of escape
For the last couple of weeks or months you imagine being with a different partner, living in a different city, having a different job. Important stuff. Your subconscious is telling you that restlessness is astir.
Your fantasies may travel to whatever is the weakest point in your life right now. Bur what’s important is that your fantasies are letting you know that there are problems to solve or changes to make.
Cultivating the seeds
Kara may decide that the new haircut was a good experiment but not one she will likely repeat. Nate may realize that his attitude last week was a result of stress and pulling long hours at work, and is now glad to be back into his steady life. But if any of the above signs persist for weeks or months and you’re not going through a period of high stress, it may be time to pay attention.
What not to do
Ignore or minimize what is happening.
Unless it is truly impulsiveness, zero-in rather than dismiss.
Talk yourself out of “it”.
If you’ve been thinking about that haircut for awhile or looking for another job or going to the party, don’t blow it off by saying that other’s will get wigged out by your hair, that there’s probably not anything out there that pays any better, that the party will be boring.
That all might be true — your friends may look at you cross-eyed, you may, on your job initial search find not much out there, the party may be boring — but that is not the point. Rationally you know that your hair will eventually grow back, you can find some different and possibly more stimulating job if you keep looking, that you can show up at the party and leave after a half hour if it is dreadful. It’s not about the hair or job or party, but allowing yourself to scratch that developmental itch and see where it leads.
What to do
Things are happening. No, you don’t want to hook up with the first person you meet at the party, jump on the next flight to Vegas and get married, or similarly, accept the first job offered to you. You can slow it down, but you don’t need to stop. Instead be curious: Why now? What is my life trying to tell me?
Break out of your routines
Routines can be like old clothes that really don’t fit so well anymore. You don’t need to throw everything out, but can selectively work on discarding what doesn’t work and gradually build in things that do. Have a plan, take baby steps, keep expectations low and then re-evaluate.
Step back and do a big review
Periodically it’s good to step way back from your life and do a periodic big review: How is my life going? What do I need most to change? What do I want in the next year, 2-year, 5-year?
This can help you gain a broader and current perspective. By simply taking the time to ask big questions, you are encouraging, rather than killing, the natural growth process. You are able to pick up on these subtle changes, act of them, rather than waiting to they all ball-up and overwhelm you.
Change is part of life. As they always say, it’s all in the details.
Focus on the details. See where they lead.