The dictionary definition of practice is: Repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill so as to acquire or maintain proficiency in it. We usually associate this with particular kinds of skills, like playing an instrument, learning a sport, or being a doctor or lawyer. As such, the common definition of practice has a decidedly aspirational quality — you practice something “so as to acquire or maintain” proficiency. But, there is a more subtle form of practice, one where you replace the above phrase with “which leads to.” You can think of this as unintentional practice. Any time you repeatedly perform an activity, this leads to you becoming more proficient in it, whether you intended to or not.
Why is this important? Because fundamentally, you are what you practice. You are your actions, words, thoughts and feelings — these are the fundamental ways you interact with the world, others, and yourself. When you do something repeatedly, it defines who you are. On the other hand, if you are not doing something repeatedly, then it could hardly be considered part of your core self. For example, one day you may give your spare change to a beggar. Does that make you a generous person? Hardly. But if you do it every time you have an opportunity, or if you volunteer regularly to help the homeless, then most people would agree that you are a giving person.
If you are what you practice, it makes sense to make sure that what you do repeatedly is directly connected to what you want to become. If it’s not, then you’re diligently becoming proficient at something that’s just not you. You’re practicing being someone else — a recipe for unhappiness.
To see how your daily practices profoundly affect who you are, I recommend adding a new practice to your repertoire, something I call the Daily Practice Challenge. Here’s how it works: every day, for 30 days, take 5 minutes at the end of your day to think about and answer the following questions about one particular activity you do daily. I recommend you do it in writing.
- Every Day, I _____
- I am practicing _____
- It makes me feel _____ because _____
- This is (good/bad) for me, and I (should/shouldn’t) continue to do it (this way).
- Here are some ways I could improve on this: _____
One last rule: you can’t repeat the same activity on different days — every day, you must come up with something new that you do every day. You’ll spend the first week or so catching all of your obvious activities, and then you’ll need to go deeper to come up with new ones. This is where the real gold lies. As you get further along in the 30 days, you’ll have to start paying closer attention to what you do, as you are doing it during the day, so you’ll have something to write about that evening.
Some more guidelines:
- You’ll find that there are some things you practice that you’ll want to continue, and some that you want to give up. Try not to focus too much on one kind or the other — sprinkle in some good habits with the bad.
- Don’t just focus on outward actions, try to think about things you say on a regular basis, habitual thought patterns, and regular emotional responses.
- Get detailed. Don’t just write, “Every day I brush my teeth.” Instead, say something like, “Every day, I brush my teeth twice: first thing in the morning, and last thing before going to bed. I use Colgate Fluoride toothpaste and an Oral-B Extra Soft plastic toothbrush, brush for 1 minute total, and brush before I floss.” Etc. The details will help you really evaluate this practice, understanding whether there is any part of it that is not in line with your beliefs. Maybe you’ll want to change toothpaste brands to a more natural one, or find a replacement to the plastic toothbrush. Whatever it is, unless you call out the details, they’ll likely go unnoticed, and unchanged.
I recently wrapped up 30 days of doing this nearly every day. Almost exactly half of my practices were “good” and half “bad.” They were pretty equally distributed across activities, thoughts and emotions. Here’s an example of one:
- Every day, I check Facebook many times, esp. if I’ve posted something.
- I am practicing feeding my ego, getting attention, allowing myself to be ruled by my compulsions.
- It makes me feel either elated or let down depending if there is a “piece of candy” waiting for me. Regardless, I feel pretty empty afterwards.
- This is bad for me, and I shouldn’t continue to do it.
- Here are some ways I could improve on this: Maybe set a specific time window to check, and if I miss it, too bad!
As a result of this reflection, a few days later I gave up checking Facebook altogether. If I had not done this reflection, I would have happily (or, unhappily) continued to obsessively check Facebook, even though it was not good for me.
The Daily Practice Challenge works because it forces you to really look at what it is you do, day in and day out. By coming up with a new activity every day, you end up really examining your daily life, and going deep, to your thoughts and emotions. It also forces you to evaluate your practices, and re-make a “go / no go” decision about things that may have become habitual when they shouldn’t have.
At the end of your 30 days, flip back through your reflections. Find your improvement suggestions, and if you haven’t already, start to implement them, one by one. And, maybe, take the challenge again. After all, making self-reflection a daily practice is “good for you, you should continue to do it.” 🙂
Once you’ve gone through the process once, you can also try folding in these variations:
- Instead of just focusing on things you do daily, try shifting the time scale, to either longer or shorter time periods (minutes, hours, weeks, months, years).
- Instead of just focusing on things you already do, try changing the questions to shift the focus back to an aspirational one: Every day I should _____. I will be practicing _____. It will make me feel _____ because _____.