Building better habits

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit” – Aristotle

I am a creature of routines and rituals. Whilst I enjoy indulging the occasional impulsive whim, most of my days would be fairly easy to predict. 

Every day, I wake up at a similar time and complete the same morning routine. I do a little physical and mental exercise before I check my phone. I write my diary whilst I have the same breakfast. I make the same sandwiches before I set off at a similar time and take the same route to work. When I arrive I have a short routine of making a cup of tea, stretching and meditating before I check my to-do list and set off into the garden to start my work for the day.

Don’t get me wrong, every day is unique, with something new to see, something new to learn and something different to enjoy, but by creating a regular structure to the day and making these activities habitual means I now do them as if on autopilot, freeing the rest of my concentration, willpower and energy for more cognitively demanding tasks.

One habit I have developed and refined since I started at Dew Pond House is my end of day routine. The process of cleaning and returning the tools to their correct place in the shed and tidying my working area each evening as I work my way through a mental checklist means I am reassured that all the tasks for the day are finished and everything is back where it should be.

When I used to do gardening rounds I had the annoying habit of leaving one tool behind in the garden when I left. In many cases this would be somewhere we may not be returning to for another two weeks. I quickly built a routine where tools were checked off the van at the start of a job, and back on at the end, to reduce the need for return trips. 

The topping and tailing of the day with these routines makes me feel as though I have given the day the best possible start, and have completed everything I need to at the end of the day. I can then switch off from work for the evening without any nagging thoughts I have forgotten to do something. 

They are not always good habits. Like many people I have developed the annoying habit of reaching to check my phone whenever I feel my attention waning from the task in hand. The trouble is, making bad habits is just as easy as making good habits. So how can we go about building more useful habits?

The first step is identifying our habits. By taking notice of our regular patterns of behaviour we can start to notice the different elements of the ‘habit loop’ and find a way to convert our routines into beneficial ones.

We first need to identify the triggers that initiate our repetitive behaviour. By recognising the ‘trigger’ and the routine associated with it, we can use that same trigger to prompt another, more beneficial behaviour.

The middle part of the loop is the behaviour itself, the action we want to alter or replace with a new routine.

The final part of the habit loop is reward. If the reward when we perform our routine behaviour is positive, it will become associated with that behaviour and we will naturally want to repeat the action the next time we experience our trigger. 

I recently used this principle to train for a half marathon. I hated running when I was younger, but have since managed to create a habit loop that enabled me to train regularly and last weekend, I completed my first ever half marathon.

Usually my alarm would go off and I would get out of bed to turn it off. One of my initial reactions would be to start checking my email, and before long my concentration was lost to it. Simply by placing my running kit by the phone I knew what needed to be done and I was quickly able to replace the habit with a new one. There were days when I struggled to stick to it, but I reassured myself every step I took was one closer to my goal. Eventually I began to look forward to my run. The run itself got the blood pumping and the drop in blood pressure gave a shot of endorphins which acted as a reward. When I got back, I would give myself a glass of juice as reward, and post my run details on Facebook. I know for many people it may seem annoying, but the little kick of dopamine I got every time I received a virtual pat on the back from one of my friends as a like or comment meant the reward was further reinforced throughout the day, making me even keener to get out and run again.

Even after I have completed my goal of running the half marathon, that positive habit of wanting to go for a run before I dip into my phone each morning is still there and will become even easier every time I complete the loop. Now I just need to create a new habit that will stop myself checking my phone every few minutes during the day.


Water and the garden

This year, spring has been fairly dry and apart form the occasional shower we have had quite a few dry days. The rapid warming of the atmosphere in the spring will inevitably bring more typical weather. In March and April, the weather can change rapidly and a warm, sunny day can quickly change as the garden is battered by sudden sharp showers. It’s no fun getting caught out in the rain, so I recently replaced my old, torn and leaky waterproofs for a brand new pair. Unfortunately, if there is anything that is guaranteed to bring about a spell of good weather, it is preparing for the worst (and vice versa).

Perversely, I hope that the rain does come at some point. Water is essential to life in the garden and a dry Spring could trigger that sanction most feared by British gardeners, a ‘hosepipe ban’. Whilst I can keep my seedlings and potted plants going with a watering can, keeping the newly planted shrubs from drying out will become an endless task. I recall being told, when i was training as a gardener that; ’watering a garden is like adding salt to soup, too little or too much and it is all ruined.’ 

Thankfully, in temperate climates like the UK, we know it is never long before we will see the rain again. Our green and pleasant land is only this way because of an abundance of water. In areas where rain is much more infrequent plants have to adapt to make the most of things whilst the going is good. The deserts of California have recently come alive as the rainstorms have triggered a rare ‘superbloom’ when everything tries to complete its life cycle of growing, flowering and setting seed before the valuable resources disappear once again.

The ‘Dew pond’ is central to the story of the estate where I work. Originally, the garden would have been part of the common, used by locals to graze their livestock. Dew ponds were constructed by digging a large hole and lining the bottom with puddled clay so the rainwater would collect and provide a place for the livestock to drink in the summer. There is still a chain of ponds across the common, and we are lucky enough to still have one in the garden, after which the house was named. 

When the garden was re-planted, the pond had fallen into disrepair and had become little more than a swamp, over-run by vigorous plants and silted up from years of fallen leaves. The pond was cleared, relined and is now replanted with plants suited to the damp conditions like rodgersia, petasites japonica and rheum palmatum. The margins are now filled with reeds, flag irises and pontaderia, and the deep water has floating lily pads where the moorhens are often keen to build their raft-like nests. It is now home to a huge range of different wildlife. In addition to the pair of moorhens that call it home and a couple of mallards that make regular visits we have several species of newts breeding in the pond. In the summer, the air above it becomes filled with dogfights between the many different dragon and damselflies. The pond is possibly one of the most biologically diverse places in the garden as it provides so many different habitats, from bank to margin, to deep water in just a few meters.

Water can be gentle and graceful, able to fill whatever vessel it is placed in and when calm it exudes the essence of tranquility. It can also be incredibly powerful, able to carve huge gorges through the earth and rip chunks of coastline away from the mainland. This makes it one of the most powerful of the elements.

Water is so fundamental to life, it’s no surprise that almost every culture has celebrated it and personified it by creating hundreds of aquatic deities to worship. The reverence of water takes many forms, from the awesomely powerful Poseidon of greek mythology (Neptune in the roman) who was also responsible for earth quakes, the well-dressing of the peak district, or the beautiful mermaid-like ‘Selkies’ of Scots folklore who might decide to run off with your husband, or wife unless you discover their seal skin like coat.  When I was growing up, we would often be warned away from stagnant, green water, for fear that ‘Jenny Greenteeth’, a river hag with green skin and sharp teeth might grab your ankle and drag you under. I think it was probably more to discourage us from playing in a dangerous place. 

In his book ‘Waterlog’, the great nature writer, Roger Deakin, tried to travel the British isles, swimming our rivers, lakes and the sea as he went to discover more about our relationship with this element. One of the most poignant feelings I got from reading his book was just how disconnected we have become from the water that surrounds us. Throughout the book he describes how people were shocked when they found him doing something as perfectly natural as swimming in a river. His passionate writing inspired me to try swimming in more lakes and rivers myself. After years of swimming lanes in a bland municipal building, to be able to see the world from a ducks-eye view feels liberating, subversive and allows us to reconnect with this powerful element in a uniquely tactile way. 

The urge to create

One of the strongest drives we experience, is our desire to leave our mark on the world, the materials, tools and medium are almost irrelevant. Whether it is through a picture, a piece of music, a sculpture or the written word, we often find fulfilment in the power of sharing our experience through our creations.

The power of imagination and creativity are probably some of the greatest and most unique qualities we are born with but unfortunately, as adults, our creative pursuits are not always encouraged and even more rarely developed. When we are children we have plenty of time for play, to tell stories, make up games and draw pictures. Through our schooling and the rigid systems that are used to measure our relative achievements in maths, science or the languages, the focus starts to become more about the collection and memorising of facts, rather than how these tools can be used to best effect.

Innovation is always a product of creativity. It is only when we are able to step outside of the normal narrow confines imposed upon us by society and think or act in a different way that we can create something truly unique. 

In his 1943 paper “A theory of human motivation”, Abraham Maslow espoused his theory of a ‘hierarchy of needs’. This is often described as a pyramid, with the most fundamental needs at the bottom. The pyramid starts with physiological needs like food, shelter and sleep. The next level of the hierarchy is safety, including personal security, financial security, health and well-being and resilience against adversity. Once our physiological and safety needs are fulfilled, the next level of the hierarchy is love and belonging, found through friendship, intimacy or family. We all have a need to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance from a social group, otherwise exclusion can lead to social anxiety or eventually depression. The next level is self-esteem. We often feel a strong desire to be recognised and respected by others. This could be through a profession, charitable works or a hobby which give us a sense of contributing to a cause greater than ourselves. In some people this may manifest itself as a need for status, fame, prestige or glory, but in others it will manifest itself as a need for competence, mastery, independence and freedom.

The top hierarchical level of the pyramid is occupied by self-actualisation and self-transcendence. This is possibly the hardest both to pinpoint and achieve. It refers mainly to a person feeling that they have managed to fulfil their potential. This can be very specific to different individuals. Maslow returned to this aspect in later years in many attempts to refine and redefine it. He came to the conclusion that this is where the human need for spirituality arises from, our need to relate to “oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos” (Farther Reaches of Human Nature, New York 1971, p. 269). It is here that we find our need to express our experience through creation.

Gardening is one creative activity people of any age, ability or knowledge level can enjoy and get something from. To create a garden is to mould our environment, cultivating the wilderness and using the materials of the natural world to create our own vision of paradise. The process of shaping the earth to form a space, of growing a plant from a tiny seed, of nurturing and caring for it all are creative acts and through practicing them we can gain that sense of self-actualisation and self-fulfilment we search for. Ultimately, this is why we are driven to garden. 

A different perspective 

Last week, I was lucky enough to have a visit from a group of garden design students at the garden where I work. Since it was first constructed, the estate has acquired more land, and the new areas are soon going to be developed. The students were asked to visit the new section of garden and come up with ideas for its redesign. 

I have been taking care of this area since it became part of the estate, so I was on hand to answer any queries about the garden they might have. It was fascinating to see their reactions to the space and the kind of questions they asked. It offered me a unique ‘second opinion’ on the garden that I don’t usually have access to. When we try to see something from a different perspective, it can be as though we are seeing it for the first time again. Things become so much more interesting, with a whole new world of detail revealed.

This part of the estate has become home to my veg patch, compost heap and log stack. It comprises the more ‘functional’ and less ‘attractive’ elements of the garden. There is a large lawn, which I have ensured doesn’t get out of hand, but I don’t spend a lot of time on it. The students all noted it is now mainly made up of moss and weeds. What they couldn’t see was that during the spring it is transformed into a patchwork quilt of colour, buzzing with bees as the prunella, daisies and black medick start to bloom. In summer, when the formal lawns nearer the house are starting to flag, the moss means it still looks lush and verdant. 

Yesterday, I shared the picture above with my friends. It is a close-up, taken of the same moss that has come to dominate the lawn. I thought it was an interesting image, showing the huge variation of colour and texture in something we often overlook. It struck me how by looking at the moss in a different way, what appeared to be a problem to one group of people, becomes an object of beauty when it can be viewed from a different angle.

It made me think about how our upbringing and social influences effect the way we think, creating our own unique cognitive biases. These are the cultural and social ‘filters’ through which we view and interpret everything in the world around us. We are often led to believe that many things in life are black or white, right or wrong. Unfortunately, as we learn from experience, it is rarely that simple. Depending on our perspective, it is quite possible for something to be both right and wrong at the same time, and it can easily alternate between the two over time. A ‘judgement’ can only ever created by a person making a judgment at one moment in time, and as such it will never be free from their influence.

By trying our best to see things from a different viewpoint, we can hopefully build up a more detailed picture, and perhaps gain a better understanding of exactly what it is we are seeing.