Some time ago, I was reading a book by Gretchen Rubin when I came across this phrase: The days are long, but the years are short.
These words resonated with me — not least because at the time that I read them, I was the mother of two pre-schoolers. My days seemed to be filled with repetitive, mindless tasks that revolved around keeping my children happy, healthy and (by obvious extension) clean, and that work — because it definitely is work — was often relentless and mind-numbing. The days were long (and the nights could be even longer), but the years were flying by with alarming rapidity.
Don’t get me wrong: being a parent is — without question — the single most rewarding role I have ever taken on, and this post is not about to descend into an extended diatribe about just how hard those long days and nights can be. (Besides, in my experience, even when a child has behaved absolutely diabolically while awake, that same child can somehow, miraculously, completely restore your faith in and love for them once they are soundly asleep — particularly if they stay that way for an extended period.)
No, the reason I recall that maddening yet magical part of my life is because I chose HABIT as Blue Jai’s Word of the Month for August.
What now? Parenting is a habit?
Not at all. But I have been reading Gretchen Rubin’s book Better Than Before, which tackles habits and habit formation head on, and brought to my mind the wisdom of the ancients, specifically this observation from Aristotle:
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.
Now that my children are growing up and increasingly self-sufficient, I would prefer not to think about the tasks I performed with increasing Aristotelian excellence when they were smaller, save to say — as a random example — that I reckon I could wrangle just about any kid into a five-point harness car seat while blindfolded. Possibly even one handed.
Aristotle’s adage did make me think, however, about the things that I repeatedly do now — because these, my friends, are my habits. Sure, there’s all the obvious basic personal hygiene and basic living habits like showering daily, cleaning my teeth morning and night, eating a decent breakfast, that sort of thing. But what else, I wondered, do I do every single day?
Well, I read…and I write…and…if I’m totally honest I probably check my social media accounts…
I mean, what do you do every single day?!
And that brought me to another one of Aristotle’s little gems: Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.
When we know ourselves, we know what repeatedly do. We recognise our habits, good and bad, and know which of these we want to cultivate with further repetition and which we want to eliminate. One of my friends, for example, makes a habit of keeping a gratitude journal, of taking time each evening to record what she is grateful for every single day. She also encourages her children to say what they’re grateful for too, and even if they don’t yet write it down she’s hoping, by repetition, to help instil the same habit in them.
Another friend makes herself a properly brewed cup of coffee every single morning. For her, this is a good habit: not only is it something that she enjoys drinking, but she also enjoys the ritual of making it. For her, it is an important act of self care (not to mention the fact that it provides a caffienated kick-start to her day). And that’s where self-knowledge kicks in too — my friend also knows that drinking coffee all day long is not good for her (or anyone), so she relishes that morning cup all the more.
Needless to say, the same combination of repetition and self-knowledge can assist in a business setting, too. Religiously checking your business bank balance won’t improve your cashflow, for example, but billing clients regularly, offering multiple methods of payment and chasing your debtors often will all help. It’s about knowing what you need to do, and repeating the necessary actions to make those things happen.
So I ask again: what do you do every single day?
Does it match up with what you know you could be doing every day?
Because, just like when I wrote about eudaimonia and human flourishing, I think those ancient Greeks were onto something. Sure — for a modern take on it, check out Gretchen Rubin’s book (she really does unpack the whole habit bag, even if I did get slightly annoyed about her frequent references to wearing yoga pants all the time), but I think — as usual — what we’re all aiming for is what human beings have been aiming for for thousands of years. And yes, the Greeks had a word for it too:
So I wish you well with all those things you do repeatedly this August, and with the habits your self-knowledge asks you to cultivate in the future.
Sophrosyne here we come!