My coach keeps leveraging this great metaphor of a tree as we discuss establishing new habits. (What? You didn’t know coaches had coaches? Oh yes! It’s vital, I wish everyone could have a coach to help them navigate their life. I also love the image that in order to do what we do, it is most effective if we have other’s helping us similar to how we help people, and they have others helping them… all the way down the line! For us to live our best lives, we need the support – but not approval – of one another. I love that. Anyway, I digress…) The metaphor goes something like this – as you start a new habit you plant a seed. As you continue with the new habit you feed it, and the more you tend to it, and care for it (and perform the new habit) the deeper the roots grow, and the stronger and more resilient the habit becomes. Eventually the roots become so strong a flower blooms, or a tree bursts into leaf – metaphorically the results of having that new established habit.
I love this metaphor for a lot of reasons. Nature always gets my attention, so its a pretty spot on attention grabber for me, but more importantly so many aspects of the metaphor stand. Stop purposely practicing the habit too soon, and the roots aren’t established enough to survive the “lack of water.” Approach the new habit with a poisonous mental attitude and at “best” the habit will grow deformed and sickly. Not only that, have you ever planted a garden that turned out to be WAY too big for you? You just couldn’t keep up with the watering, and weeding, and general maintenance? How do you fix that? You either continue to poorly neglect everything, or you have to let some of it go, so that you can give what you prioritize the care and attention it needs. New habits are exactly like that as well.
When it comes to trying new things I tend to be an “all in” person once I make the decision to do it. What this means functionally is that instead of focusing on one new habit, as the first in a series of new habits I need to acquire to reach my goal, I take on 8. Then like the big garden, they all wither away. Neuroscience backs this up and cognitive scientists recommend working on only one or maybe two new habits at a time. Which sounds slower to my impatient brain, but in reality, which is slower? – successfully establishing new habits one after another, or repeatedly being unsuccessful in establishing any of them!
There is another part of the metaphor – and I almost always picture a tree in various parts of its life cycle because I love trees and they work perfectly here – that often gets missed, but I think it is really important. If we grow new habits by giving them attention and care, how do we get rid of old habits?
This is where the metaphor kicks into overdrive for me. In order to lose old habits we have to stop watering the tree. We have to stop caring for it and let it die.
Oh…… now I’m sad.
Now it makes sense why it is so difficult to transition to new habits, part of us wants to keep the old habit alive. “Hey! Don’t kill this tree that has been a comfortable resting place for so long! Hey! Do you hear me!?” All the while you have to walk over and tend the new tree, the new habit that will better serve you now. If you don’t have focus, it is so easy to give in to the voice, and the sadness (at some level) of losing something comfortable. Sometimes you chop down the tree in a fell stroke, sometimes it slowly withers, but in both cases the thoughts and reactions to the death of the tree need to be sorted, or you may be distracted and not tend the new tree as carefully.
This concept that every time we change something about ourselves we may also need to mourn the loss of what was is very challenging for me, but has also revolutionized how I think about the challenges I face while doing self work. Instead of “What is wrong with me? I really want to give up TV why is this so hard, why am I not managing to do this!?” if I think of the tree it makes more sense, and I am kinder to myself, and more successful over time – “Ok, this is hard. TV has been a very comforting tree for a long time, and I’m sad I’m losing it. Also it has provided me with shade and leaves, and a place to hang my swing so now I have to find new ways to address those needs. Plus I need to tend this new tree, which is kind of hard, doubly because I’m still sad about the TV tree…” and so on. It makes sense, and what I can understand I have a lot better chance of addressing.
So as I think about the goals, habits, and thoughts I’m working to grow, I often think, “What am I watering right now?” as a way to help me stay focused, and as I falter from the practices I want to foster it is easier for me to understand why, and how important it is to set up clear fences in the beginning, because otherwise you may just walk by the dying tree and make yourself miserable, instead of focusing on the beautiful trees and flowers that are blooming as they grow big and strong.