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Trelawney Goodell
writer and editor of business, technical, and web content
Seattle, Washington
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How to keep good habits from getting in your way

Everyone has habits. We’re used to thinking of habits as good or bad. But sometimes a habit gets in the way simply because it is a habit.
Written Jan 29, 2011, read 2251 times since then.
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For many problems, the best solution comes from a fresh perspective. But how do you shift your perspective? There are a number of ways. You can imagine yourself as another person with a different set of beliefs and experiences. You can consciously force yourself (as yourself) to walk around the issue and see it from all different angles. You can talk to people you trust to get their opinions. But, if none of these work, then you need to try something new.

Try mixing up your morning routine.

There are a few reasons that I love this technique:

  1. It’s easy.
  2. You don’t have to know exactly what you’re trying to accomplish. You’re just making yourself more open to possibilities.
  3. The results are often surprising.

How routines limit us, and what to do about it

I first read about the idea that simple, good habits can limit our perspective in Bonni Goldberg’s Beyond the Words. She describes the concept of Fixed Functionality and how Ben Reynolds applies it to writing: “Ben’s idea is that if we challenge any aspect of our functional fixedness by making a change, we can create a shift in our perceptions.”

I did a little research, and it turns out that the term is originally from psychology, Gestalt psychology, to be exact. When someone is functionally fixed about an object, he can only imagine using the object for one purpose. So, if you hand a man a book when he needs a paperweight, he will wonder why (or start reading it). When someone is not functionally fixed, an object can have many uses. For example, a book can make a very nice paperweight. I think MacGyver might be the poster child for being “unfixed.”

When we take the idea from objects to ideas, the importance of remaining unfixed takes on new meaning. As entrepreneurs, one of the worst things that we can do is get fixed in our thinking. When we stop thinking creatively about business issues, our business stagnates. We need creative solutions to stay on top of the day-to-day business and to plan strategically.

My attempt to get "unfixed"

I decided to change my morning routine to test out the theory. Instead of checking my e-mail (either on my phone or computer) first thing, I sketched with pencil and paper. I was curious to see if delaying both technology and the voices of the outside world would have an effect. Would I be more focused? Would I be more creative?

Notes along the way

I found a few things right away. I have pretty vivid dreams, but my tendency to wake up and get going on something usually pushes my dreams out of reach. Sketching first thing helped me tap into my dreams. One morning, the image of a butterfly was foremost in my mind. I had been dreaming about a butterfly spreading its wings after emerging from a cocoon hanging on a branch. The butterfly went from mind to paper quickly. And soon words and phrases followed. Spread your wings. Prepare to soar. I had been pondering the idea of becoming more. These ideas went into my dreams and then emerged more powerfully.

I chose to sketch on the sofa in the living room. An unexpected bonus happened when our cat saw the chance to snuggle in next to me. She didn’t get in the way; instead she curled up next to me and started purring. Other mornings, she had meowed for attention, and it caused stress. By sitting with her for fifteen minutes, she got the together time that she needed, and helped me feel calm at the same time. The fact that just being on the couch with her satisfied her need for attention illuminated that there is usually more than one way to fill a need—or solve a problem. I was stumped on editing/rewriting a document, but the ideas are flowing now.

Sketching has rekindled my desire to create. I’m carving out time to work on my novel. And blog posts and other writing assignments feel easier and more satisfying.

Most of my sketching had been capturing a real object as realistically as possible. Sketching as a morning practice expressed my thoughts and ideas. It let me look inside instead of outside.

The last day of my experiment, I slept late and couldn’t ignore urgent e-mail and phone messages. They were both about new opportunities, which was great. But, they were flying around in my head, chasing each other. I had slipped back into reactive mode. I wrote a quick haiku in lieu of sketching, but I found that it didn’t have the same effect. Writing in the morning taps into my conscious mind, while sketching taps into my subconscious mind.

The results of the experiment

After sketching in the morning, I felt calm and grounded but also excited. Those feelings stayed with me through reading and responding to e-mails, phone calls with potential clients, and reading other people’s writing. I started from a solid place, and everything else flowed from there.

Conclusion

Sometimes, the smallest change can have the biggest effect. And you never know until you try. I plan to shift my routine every once and a while to see what happens.

Your turn!

I dare you to make a small change this week. And I’d love to hear if getting unfixed opens up new ideas for you!

Learn more about the author, Trelawney Goodell.

Comment on this article

  • Owner/President 
Chicago, Illinois 
Brad Miller
    Posted by Brad Miller, Chicago, Illinois | Feb 03, 2011

    I know I'm not being creative here, but I'm going to do what you did. I'm going to start my day by sketching.

    I'm run a graphic design firm, but I'm also an oil painter. In school I was really into keeping a sketchbook, but these days I spend my free moments checking my email on my phone.

  • writer and editor of business, technical, and web content 
Seattle, Washington 
Trelawney Goodell
    Posted by Trelawney Goodell, Seattle, Washington | Feb 03, 2011

    Just because I sketched doesn't make it off limits ;) Sketching is creative!

    Isn't it funny how the things created for convenience steal the moments that we could do other things? I know it's a choice... but I used to bring a book with me to the bus stop or the DMV. Now, I usually just stick with the BlackBerry. Sure it's smaller and does more. But is it improving my life? I read a lot less often now...

    Enjoy the experiment, Brad! I'd love to hear how it goes.

  • Spiritual psychotherapist and healer 
Seattle, Washington 
Rachel Whalley, MA, MFA, LMHCA
    Posted by Rachel Whalley, MA, MFA, LMHCA, Seattle, Washington | Feb 04, 2011

    Great experiment, Trelawney! I'm inspired to try the same. I reach for my smart phone in the morning, rather than meditating, which I've found I just can't get into when I'm just waking up.

    But sketching would be a lovely way to make my transition from asleep to fully awake.

    Cool! Thanks for the idea.

  • Carpet Cleaner 
Mountlake Terrace, Washington 
Steve Borcherdt
    Posted by Steve Borcherdt, Mountlake Terrace, Washington | Feb 04, 2011

    Dear Trelawney,

    I recently changed my routine without knowledge of this article. Instead of running to check my online activity, eating, showering or anything else I start the morning reading. A cup of hot tea to ease the cobwebs and a book to focus my thoughts on ideas. I heard that the purpose for reading is not the ideas presented in the book, though they may be profound, but to search the ideas created in your mind that are perfectly suited to your situation.

    This morning a quote from a friend reminded me that conversations of great minds involve ideas, good minds involve events and small minds in people.

    So, by starting my morning with good ideas I have the whole day to think about those ideas. I can choose whether or not I talk about those ideas, events or people. Getting started right is important.

  • writer and editor of business, technical, and web content 
Seattle, Washington 
Trelawney Goodell
    Posted by Trelawney Goodell, Seattle, Washington | Feb 04, 2011

    @Rachel: Thanks! I hope you try it out :)

    @Steve: Tea and reading sounds like a lovely way to start the day! I like your focus on what ideas the reading sparks in you rather than just the written material itself. I tend to read after all my work is done for the day. Perhaps I should shift that around to see how my day progresses!

  • Professional Voice Over Talent 
Smithtown, New York 
Susie Schwarz
    Posted by Susie Schwarz, Smithtown, New York | Feb 06, 2011

    Change...change...change! Such a hard concept to accept sometimes when so much of our world seems in constant flux. Keeping some same-ness in our everyday routine can make sense of the chaos.

    However, I do agree with your point that some change, albeit small, can create a new paradigm of thinking, problem solving or resolving.

    Huuummm! Words to consider.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • VOIP Expert 
Seattle, Washington 
William Fulton
    Posted by William Fulton, Seattle, Washington | Feb 07, 2011

    I am going to try this during the next several days and I will let you know my experiences with it.

  • writer and editor of business, technical, and web content 
Seattle, Washington 
Trelawney Goodell
    Posted by Trelawney Goodell, Seattle, Washington | Feb 09, 2011

    @Susie: It's true that routine can help us as well. And, to be honest, this practice of breaking out of our normal routines only works because we have normal routines. :) Thanks for your comment!

    @William: I can't wait to hear how it goes! Have fun :)

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