Man opening door and surrounded by fire and light

“Life is not an emergency” –Richard Brennan


Have you considered how you would like to do things differently this year in your personal life, career, or physical health? Goals might include communicating better with your partner, yelling less at your kids, putting a cap or being angry or resentful. Have you considered not doing anything? To be more specific, not doing things you habitually do (and which are causing problems). More than just saying, “I won’t get angry anymore,” or “I’ll communicate better” making real changes requires shifting habitual reactions. In order to do this, you must first stop and notice where you are and what you are doing—in essence, stepping out habit and into the present moment.

Most of our day is run on habits; our brains stores thousands of habits in our operational memory. Many habits are not particularly useful, however, and are a result of a stress-response on overdrive. The stresses of modern living take a big toll on our emotional and physical health. This is because our bodies are geared to deal with stress for short periods of time only. Appointments, deadlines, meetings, and obligations are continual stressors in life, however, meaning that a short-term stress response become habitual patterns of dealing with life. The result is that we carry far more stress and tension than we need to. In fact, long-term exposure to cortisol, the stress hormone, causes detrimental changes in the brain and other body systems.

If we are in a constant state of stress, we are more likely to make mistakes or do things we regret, like getting angry at our spouse. Once ingrained as habits, such behaviors undermine relationships. They are also not efficient ways to live since we are constantly going back and fixing mistakes. A client related how that in rushing to get some bags to the goodwill shop in order to make a doctor’s appointment she backed into the loading ramp and then had to deal with the tow truck, rent-a-car, and repair shop. Stress responses take us out of the present moment, which is where life happens, and into a hamster wheel of never-ending busy-ness, affecting how we are with others. Creating a pause before reacting can help you release these habits and help you be more present in your life.

Tips for creating a pause:

  1. Notice your Responses: A simple question directed to yourself such as, “What am I doing that is taking me out of the present right now?” is all that is needed to step outside habit.
  1. Withhold Judgement: Negative comments like “That was so stupid, stop being in such a hurry” are not needed. Negative self talk is unhelpful because it usually reinforces the very habitual reactions we dislike. The act of noticing what you are doing without judgment can better release habitual patterns. Just pause and notice, “I am getting upset, I am in a hurry, my neck is stiff.”
  1. Notice Physical Responses: Stress responses have a physical component: shoulders hunched, head pulled back, stooped over a computer or cell phone, breath shallow or held. Noticing your physical responses helps you stop doing what is causing pain and step outside the habit. (Reading this, can you feel your shoulders relax and posture return to a normal, lengthened state?)
  1. Bring Awareness to the Present: Much of the time life is so busy we are constantly looking ahead to the next thing we need to do, which means we miss what is happening right now. Focus your attention on tasting the food you are eating; breathing the air; noticing the people you are with, the scenery, what your partner is saying. Presence is a gift to your children, your partner, and to yourself.
  1. Pause before Speaking:Changing negative habits by taking a moment to check-in with yourself is especially valuable in relationships. I encourage couples to pause before speaking or responding so that they are not just reacting habitually but are actually choosing to respond with new and more effective skills. A habit of pausing also ensures that when you are listening you are actually listening to what your partner is saying (rather than rehearsing what you will say).

The next time you are tempted to create a new resolution, whether for New Year’s or any other time of the year, first consider what you can not do to be present in the moment. Take a pause in your thoughts and actions in order to let your life unfold in a more natural, aligned way. Life can then be a series of satisfying, present-centered moments unfolding as we bear witness.