I’m writing my next book, Better Than Before, about how we make and break habits– an issue very relevant to happiness. Each week, I post a before-and-after story submitted by a reader, about how he or she successfully changed a habit. We can all learn from each other.
This week’s story comes from Penelope Schmitt, who, as she notes, lives with her 90-year-old mother.
Bureaucratic, medical, and business tasks take up more and more time for those who are older. Doctor appointments abound, and business management goes on and on. I hate these tasks, and have been finding that doing things for TWO people that I hated doing even for one person, and that myself, was pretty burdensome. Last week, I hit on this blindingly simple idea:
ODD days: I do everything I can to complete business that needs to be done for Mom, shopping or doctor appointments or whatever. I don’t think I’m even going to care if I sound like a nutcase asking for appointments on calendar days with odd dates. ODD days are her days, and I have a special commitment to go the extra mile for her on those days–to make her life pleasant, as well as to take care of her business.
EVEN days: I do everything I can to complete business that needs to be done for ME. I do something special that is fun for me alone (like a manicure, or a walk at the mall). I do not have to do one single non-emergency bureaucratic task for anyone else but me.
In one week, this has resulted in me having the fortitude to address dreaded tasks for her, because after all, tomorrow is MY day. And it has also resulted in me getting my own business done, because tomorrow I won’t be able to. I feel more free to enjoy the things that I am doing to make my own life feel better, and I feel that the ‘indefinite sentence’ of taking care of her business has been lightened by 50% because I do not have to address it (or choose to ignore it) every day. It is only my job every OTHER day.
What a revelation.
There are a few things that I think are worth noting about this Odd/Even approach.
The Strategy of Treats: it’s a Secret of Adulthood for Habits: When we give more to ourselves, we can ask more of ourselves. By specifically acknowledging that her needs were just as important as her mother’s, and finding time do the things she wanted to do, Penelope was able to be happier, and also more helpful to her mother.
The Strategy of Scheduling: for most of us, there’s a magic to seeing something on the schedule; if it’s on the schedule, it happens. So, especially for people who have trouble saying “no,” the Strategy of Scheduling can be very helpful–they can schedule time for themselves. Scheduling allows us to make time for everything that we value, by putting it on the calendar.
The Strategy of Clarity: when we know exactly what we’re asking of ourselves, and exactly what we want, it’s easier to keep a habit. This Odd/Even approach is very clear. It makes decision-making and planning easy. It eliminates a lot of hesitation and uncertainty. Making decisions is very draining, and one of the chief benefits of habits, generally, is that they eliminate decisions.
This idea is so simple, and so appealing.