I was thinking about habits and how quickly and easily they can be broken even before my mother fractured her spine and I realized her ability to form and follow through on habits had also been fractured.

Was it a series of mini-strokes? Is it the result of two years of isolation and untreated depression? Is it just a natural continuation of her normal tendencies magnified by the aging process?

I don’t know but that simple executive function of being able to think through a task in steps and then do the steps and then keep doing them is gone. It’s life changing for her and for me and for the rest of the family, because we need to be able to do that to feed ourselves, handle money, take care of pets, and keep a house clean.

Even if we form our habits differently we need them. We also need to know when to change them and when to drop them.

I’m kind of a habit junkie but even my habits can get derailed by small things.

My partner moved all my workout props from one corner of the living room to the other not too long ago so the heat vent would be completely clear. A reasonable choice, only now my boxes of props are behind a chair. I pull them out for classes because I need them for teaching but I find myself reluctant to pull things out first thing in the morning for myself the way I used to because they’re harder to get to.

A small change but it creates a cascade. This one is in my awareness now and I’m on the lookout for a fix.

Step one: Awareness

I notice that even when I have time to make a solid breakfast in the morning, I tend not to do it if I didn’t prep it the night before. Why does it make a difference? It’s the same amount of time, and yet…

Prepping things the night before has been a saving grace for me so many times. I prep my food, I lay out my clothes, I pre-pack my bag if I’m going out, I think through the day with my list before I go to bed. Why does it matter? I don’t know, but I know that for me, it really does.

Step two: When you become aware of something that makes things easier, do it even if it doesn’t make logical sense to you.

I spoke with a client who wanted to add a vitamin supplement to her daily pills. The new supplement was huge and hard to swallow so she found herself skipping all of her pills and she lost this very reliable habit with one tiny change!

Step three: If something you’ve added breaks your habit, notice and respond to it.

In this situation you might ask yourself: All those days when she skipped her pills, couldn’t she have just taken the other pills and decided to skip the big one? Why didn’t that happen?

Our habits live in a place below our consciousness. This is ideal because we don’t want them taking up conscious space in our brains. We need our habits to just happen.

This becomes a problem though when we need to adjust them, or rearrange them, or delete them, or add a new one. We need to take what’s unconscious, make it conscious again long enough to make the change, then make it unconscious again.

My client’s pill habit was unconscious (perfect!) so when she added a pill that didn’t work well for her because it was too hard to take (tagging a new habit onto an existing habit is an excellent choice usually for this kind of change), she balked at the new pill because it was hard, and her unconscious just decided without consulting her conscious mind to ditch the whole thing.

Luckily her conscious mind twigged to it after a few days and she ditched the big pill. Adding the big pill isn’t worth it if she loses the whole habit.

This kind of toggling between the two mind states is really tough for us to do, which is why it can help to a) have some kind of plan that you b) track and then c) assess in some way.

How you do that can happen in different ways and it’s important that you respect your own needs and tendencies. Please don’t think there’s only one way. You may need to do a little digging and experimentation to find what works for you and it’s okay to ditch what doesn’t.

It’s also good to know when to let some habits slide in the face of a larger life experience. When I visited my mother back in December, I felt a change coming. She told me her brain felt like it was full of steel wool. I used to be able to talk her through a choice coming up, do some online research or make some calls, and then she could take it from there.

In December, she couldn’t do that. My sense of fear and urgency felt overwhelming. Honestly, they feel even more so now that she’s dealing with an injury which has accelerated our need to react.

But when I get swept up in the (very real! very serious! very present!) urgency of the list, I try to make myself remember that this is my mother sitting in front of me and I will have her only for a limited time.

So when she wants to tell me a story about her childhood instead of dealing with the mortgage, for a moment I put the list down and I listen to this story I may not get another chance to hear.

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