The Examined Life in Practice, Step 4: Build Healthy Daily Habits

So what if one starts to "question everything" and to "think for yourself"?

How do you stay mentally healthy and keep effectively pursuing joy?

I am looking at these steps:

1) look at the way the individuals and groups that form your intimate and social circles affect you.
2) begin the process of deliberately building healthy, safe relationships.
3) start from where you are and who you are.
4) build healthy daily habits.
5) let yourself imagine a better tomorrow.
6) walk forward with continuity and kindness toward that better tomorrow.

Step Four: 
Our daily habits are like the fixed recurring expenses in a balanced (or unbalanced) budget.  They are the ways that we take care of the basics of life in ways that form the foundation for the extras of life, and when our habits do not cover some aspect of living that requires regular attention, we end up with problems.

I am addressing this part of living as my fourth step (instead of as an earlier step) because we learn and reinforce habits from and through our community, and because adjusting those habits requires a growing knowledge of who you are and where you are.  When we see that our personal resources of time, energy, and circumstances do not lead us to good daily and weekly habits, we need to be able to figure out WHY before we figure out what to do about that.

The Values and Habits of Your Community of Origin
Before you can remember your daily life, you lived in an environment and routine created for you by your parents and/or caregivers.  You internalized their rhythms of sleep and activity, their times and rituals in preparing and eating food, their ways of interacting with each other and with you, their times of personal grooming and housework, and every other observable aspect to you of their daily lives.  You absorbed their real values as they demonstrated them to you through years of these routines.

Not far along the way, they worked to incorporate you into this small society in which they lived.  They tried to get you to sleep when they needed to sleep and eat at times that worked to not disrupt the rest of their habits.  They tried to groom you and dress you in ways that fit their culture's values.  They tried to teach you to interact in ways that fit into their own community.

Morality, for many of us, never goes beyond what we internalized at that young age: good people adapt to the community around them, learn to do what is requested of them, and learn eventually to teach others to do the same.  Bad people question those routines and interactions and get in the way of a smoothly-functioning life.   For a small child who is just learning to walk and eat and play and form friendships, this is a good and healthy place to start.

For those of us who are adults, morality must go beyond this construct if we are to actually build healthy daily habits, because our world is never the same as the world that we were born into, and because it is not possible to build effective daily habits for ones adult self unless one has a morality that considers whether ones daily habits are contributing to the life one wants for oneself and ones community.  To consider this, we continue the habits we were taught until we have reason to believe that they are broken.

The habits we were taught are broken if the life or community they produce is chaotic in some way or leaves basic needs unmet in some way.  If there is some large gap in a needed resource because of our habits, or if there is some obvious task that needs to be done but is neglected because of habits that were never previously needed, then it is obvious that habits need adjusting.

The habits we were taught are broken if we find ourselves unable or unwilling to continue certain habits in the same way that we were taught.   This may not  be evidence of changed circumstances or resources, but rather evidence of shifting values or different personalities.  This requires discernment and is why healthy community and healthy self-knowledge are so important.

Creating and Tweaking Health Habits

We begin with the habits we have today, which either mimic what we were taught to do, or show our rebellion against what we were taught to do, or reflect our best attempts to develop habits to this point that would take us where we want to go and make us who we want to be.  If they mostly work, awesome!  If not, put down the 20 objects you are juggling and pick up just one, in this moment.  Leave the others.

You are allowed to let things deliberately "fall apart" for a few hours or days as long as you feed the baby or dog and do nothing criminal.  Your goal is to quickly get up to speed in meeting the responsibilities that only you can meet.

So consider your basic responsibilities.  You need to to care for your own body and health.  You need to groom yourself and dress yourself.  You need to pay your bills.  You need to do your share of housework and care for any vehicle you use.  You need to maintain basic relationships and care for any persons or animals or plants that are dependent upon you.  And you have other basic responsibilities you can add to this list.

Then consider your daily and weekly habits, and how well they address your basic responsibilities.  What does not work?  Why?  What can be changed?

Next, ask for any help you may need in making changes that will be effective, and ask for permission to neglect any responsibility that you really cannot fulfill and that someone else could take over.  Keep doing the daily things that work, and stop doing the daily things that get in the way of it all.  Remember, it is a budget, and if you have more responsibility than time and energy, something is going to be neglected.  Choose deliberately what to neglect so that you do not let life or others cause you to neglect the things you personally most value.

Daily practice:

Each day is an opportunity to spend your time and energy on the things that will create the life and world that you want to experience during your life and that you want to help leave for those who come after you.  Your daily habits will either help you accomplish that, or will keep you enmeshed in someone else's vision at the expense of a shared vision -- or worse, will be a reflection of your inner rebellion against following their vision without doing the work to create and live your own vision.

Each day will be a give and take between the habits you create that allow you to be in the moment and grow wise and strong, and the unexpected daily circumstances and interruptions that force you out of your plan and habits and into reality.   You get to juggle your plan, your reflection, and your responses.  You get to decide when to lower your expectations of yourself or change your view of reality.  You get to acknowledge new information about what brings you joy and new information about what exhausts you.  You get to do a daily accounting for your resources and time and energy and what you spent them on and how you grew them and how you shared them.  Or you get to put your head in the sand and let it all go away, unexamined.


The steps toward the Examined Life in Practice begin with our community, but ultimately belong to each one of us individually.  We are taught daily habits by our community before we even know what it is to learn.  There are societal pressures and internal pressures on each of us throughout our lives to simply conform to societal norms, and to show that primarily by our daily habits.   And in our daily habits we determine whether we are actually living an Examined Life in Practice, or whether we have just enjoyed the mental exercise of analyzing the life we share.

Paint the life and world you want to see, one brush-stroke at a time.  Your habits are those brush-strokes.

Step back and look at what you are painting each day.

Then pick up the same brushes, mix the paints for the next layer, and add the next layer -- stroke by stroke.

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