Last Friday night, around 8:00 PM, I was tired. It had been a full day for me and a stressful one for the world. I was ready to get into my pajamas and snuggle with my baby girl on the couch with a mug of tea and some mindless television.
Instead, I cleaned the bathroom.
Let that sink in. I was tired and stressed. I needed comfort. And instead of allowing myself that comfort, I cleaned the bathroom.
Why did I do this? Well, here’s how the conversation went in my head:
Leanne, side 2: “You’re the one who wrote that in the planner. It can just as easily be done another day.”
L1 (feeling panic): “But it has to get done.”
L2: “It looks fine. It could even wait until next Friday.”
L1: “But… I have to check it off for today.”
L2: “No, you don’t! Just erase it! Or ignore it!”
L1: “I’ll feel better if I just get it done. I’ll go to sleep happy that the house is clean.”
L2: (Rolls eyes, caves)
Leanne 1 seems a little insane, right? And yet I let her win. This has been happening to me over the last few weeks, just as it happens every January. I set big goals, and want to make big strides to accomplish them at the start of the year. So I go crazy with my day planner and over-schedule myself, then can’t let myself not do the things I’d planned. I start to become obsessed with the number of boxes I have yet to check, and the amount of time it will take to do them. I keep making my life harder and harder, until at some point, (usually in mid-February) I start to rebel. I am forever grateful to Gretchen Rubin for providing a name for this phenomenon, which is unique to habit “Upholders” like me (a small part of the population; you can find out your habit tendency here). It’s called Tightening, and it refers to when a person allows her habits to strengthen, rather than weaken, over time. Some people might call this Perfectionism, and I certainly am a recovering Perfectionist, but I feel it most in terms of habits (even good ones) which is why I think Tightening explains it better.
It took me many years to understand Tightening, and I’m still struggling with it. For example, I’ve tried Weight Watchers a few times, and I’m always a champion for the first 4-5 weeks. I calculate my Points perfectly, input every recipe into the system, and avoid things with a nebulous Point value like the plague. But as I start getting good results, I begin to cut even more corners and try for lower Point values, and that’s just not sustainable. So eventually, I rebel against it, and end up erasing a lot of my progress when I give it all up.
I’ve found that I have to be very, very careful about making something a habit, or I’ll end up with situations like I had on Friday night, where I couldn’t just let myself relax. January is the worst month for Tightening, because I’m always pushing myself.
I’m trying to think of a solution to this problem- one that doesn’t involve setting a goal or a habit! I need to “loosen” myself. There’s a circular argument going on in my head, where I think I should just stop making so many plans and trust myself to get the essential things done (which I probably would), but then I worry that I’ll forget to do something important (which will probably happen occasionally), and also miss that little thrill that comes when I check off a completed task.
Does anyone else experience habits strengthening over time? How did you release yourself from the habit?