Herding Cats: A Simple Method for Working with the Disorder of Our Lives

Forming new habits is a powerful way to improve our lives, and can be unexpectedly difficult
By Leo Babauta, www.zenhabits.net
August 21, 2018 Updated: August 21, 2018

Good habits can compel us when motivation does not, like well-trod steps that lead to success. Bad habits, meanwhile, can hold us in ruts that leave us repeating unwanted patterns.

Changing our habits is difficult. Even if we have some success, there are two problems that often come up when we want to develop new good habits.

First of all, our habit efforts get sidetracked. We don’t seem to have the conditions to repeat a new habit often enough for it to really take hold.

You feel like you are constantly in a state of transition, and life is always in flux. What you really want is a sense of stability and consistency, but you can’t seem to find it.

In this case, the common question is: how do I develop the discipline to be more consistent without all kinds of starts and stops and constant flux?

Or a second common problem could be that you’re doing relatively well, developing one habit after another, but then your life seems to be pretty full.

The question becomes: how do I fit all of these habits into my life? I want to exercise, meditate, cook healthy food, write, hike, and read every morning, but there’s just not enough time. Especially when you factor in eating, chores, showering, work, and so on.

So what do these two problems have in common? They might seem like two different problems: one person feels like everything is a mess, and the other just wants to find the right order for everything they’re trying to fit into their life.

The common factor is that things don’t feel like they’re in order, and there’s a sense of uncertainty and chaos/disorder that causes some anxiety/stress.

The solution to both problems is the same, then:

  1. Realize that this disorder and chaos is actually the norm for this process.
  2. Accept uncertainty and disorder, and relax into them.
  3. Stay with your intention despite the chaos. Keep pushing into the discomfort with it, going forward, while being compassionate for any missteps or interruptions.

In the end, it’s like herding catsthings are going to be disorderly, and if you accept that and relax into it, you’ll have a lot less stress while still trying to get the cats to go in the right direction.

Let’s talk about the disorder and chaos, and how to accept the fact of them. Then we can talk about how to herd the cats (our unruly daily lives).

Accepting the Disorder of Our Lives

When things are up in the air, it can feel like we’re in transition. “Once I get past this trip/project/illness/visit from my in-laws then everything will settle down!”

But here’s the truth: our lives are always in transition. There’s always messiness. There’s always going to be something interrupting our set habits, schedule, routines. There is always disorder. We’ll always feel uncertainty because of all of that chaos.

This is the simple fact of our lives. And yet, we want order. We want simple answers. We want the perfect daily routine, the perfect set of habits, the smooth ride of a Japanese bullet train.

This desire for order, simplicity, consistency, and perfection in the face of the reality of disorder, complications, interruptions, and messiness is the cause of our anxiety. This is the root of our stress, frustration, and our disappointment with ourselves.

Let’s be clear about that: we cause our own difficulties and stress simply by not accepting the way things are. We are the cause of the anxiety and frustration, not any external factors. This isn’t something to feel shame about, but rather a fact to rejoice: we have the power to remove that stress by simply accepting the true nature of our lives.

Things are always in transition. Things will always be messy and disordered.

And that’s not a problem.

It’s nothing to worry about.

It’s actually a thing of beauty. Think of nature: it’s not straight lines and smoothness, it’s chaos and random growth, it’s blooms and disruption, adaptation and flow. It is so beautiful, because of its disorder.

Once we see the beauty in the disorder of our lives, we can accept it and relax into it. Instead of struggling and holding tightly to our ideals, we can relax our grip, relax our bodies, and just breathe. Loosen our hold on how we wish things were, and just be in the middle of the chaos in a relaxed open awareness.

Relax into the disorder. It’s a warm jacuzzi of a bath.

How to Herd Cats

So we’re accepting, we’re relaxing, we’re enjoying the beauty of it all. Wonderful! Now what?

How do we herd the disorder of our lives in some semblance of  direction? How do we get the cats to go somewhere we’d like them to go?

If we accept that we’re herding cats and not running a bullet train, we can work with the chaotic nature of our lives. We know cats aren’t going to follow directions or go on a schedule. We know the nature of cats, and to expect them to act like a bullet train is ridiculous.

With that in mind, let’s talk about a method of herding our unruly lives:

  1. Set an intention. Think of this as a direction you’d like to head in. You want your life to go in the direction of better health so you have an intention to take care of your health with exercise and a diet full of veggies.
  2. Start herding the cats in that direction. Intention is nothing without action. So start moving things in that direction—it might mean setting reminders, asking for support from family, putting notes to yourself around the house, having your running shoes next to your bed, finding a workout partner, finding some good healthy recipes, etc.
  3. Try to keep the cats going in the right direction. Continue to try to keep your intention, for as long as you can. Things will go astray (we’re herding cats here, c’mon), but for as long as you can, keep them going in the right direction. Keep adding more structure, reminders, accountability, rewards, etc.
  4. When things go astray (they will), don’t get bothered by it. It’s a part of the process. Relax into it, and just start again. Yep, you herd me (ha). Just start again, going back to Step 1.

There’s no Step 5. You just keep setting that intention, keep taking action to go in the right direction and stay on track. When things go astray, relax and don’t be bothered. Continue the process. It’s not really “starting again” actually, but just continuing the herding.

It’s that simple. When things go astray, it’s not a problem. There’s never a problem, it’s all just beautiful chaos with a loving intention.

What about the 2nd person (from the beginning of this article), who wants to find the perfect order of habits and routines? They are herding the cats of their day—there isn’t a perfect order, it’s just continually experimenting, continually trying new habits, continually learning what works and what doesn’t. And what works this month might be different than last month.

And accept the limited time of each day. The hours are finite, even if your ambitions are not. You cannot do everything, so stop pretending you can and blaming yourself for falling short.

All you can really do is prioritize. Or try to.

Think of the habits, routines, tasks, and chores of your day/week as the cats you’re herding. They don’t want to be put in order. You can try to organize, which is totally fine, but just don’t stress too much about getting things in the right order, organized properly. Just herd the chaos of your day, with loving intention. Learn to love the flow, instead of wanting things to be set.

The wild flow of our lives is a thing of heartbreaking beauty and joy.

Leo Babauta is the author of six books, the writer of “Zen Habits,” a blog with over 2 million subscribers, and the creator of several online programs to help you master your habits. Visit Zen Habits.

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