The Power of Starting Again
There's no way around it - forming habits is tough. This is the time of year when many people will vow to make positive changes, and though I'm no fan of New Year's resolutions, January 1 does feel like a natural reset point. We all know how easily those big, annual goals fall away, though, and it doesn't help that we constantly get in our own way.
My perfectionist tendencies are well established, so it's no surprise that I find lists, streaks, and other goal-based metrics helpful in forming and maintaining habits. But there is a definite dark side to this approach. When a day is missed, an item isn't checked off, or a long-running streak is broken, it can be easy to give up entirely. By focusing on the failure, large or small, good and valuable progress is ignored.
These days, I'm fighting that tendency with two simple words: start again. None of us will ever be perfect, and we can't go back in time to handle the past differently, no matter how much we want to. But if a thing was worth doing before, it is probably worth starting again, even after some time away or at a reduced frequency. 5 days a week instead of 7, 40 weeks a year instead of 52, picking up a good habit again after days, weeks, or months away - these are much better than letting a good practice die.
During seminary, I began to find value in beginning my morning prayers with a brief period of silent meditation. It's the kind of positive habit that was beneficial and simple to build into my daily routine... until it wasn't. I'd oversleep one morning, rush to an early morning appointment the next day, and before I knew it, I'd fallen out of my practice. I've continued in fits and starts, frustrated by my inability to keep my streak up. Our metric-based, app-enabled culture doesn't help with this, and the otherwise excellent Ensō timer is always happy to remind me when I miss a day and have to start over. But is meditation only helpful if it happens every single day? Of course not. It's a good practice, and that's true as often as I do it.
Last week, I noticed that I've completed more than 400 sessions in Ensō since I started using the app. And while there's nothing wrong with continuing to work towards greater consistency, that's 400 meaningful experiences I would not have had if I had given up my practice because I didn't do it every day. Missing a few days or even longer isn't failing. Refusing to start again is.
Of course, the same principle can be applied to all kinds of habits. And yes, I'm setting some goals for 2023, though not based on daily completion. But when I inevitably suffer a setback, I'll try not to give up. Instead, I'll start again. The cumulative result is well worth it.