What I Talk About When I Talk About Practice

It is en vogue to look down or criticize adopting new year’s resolutions. As a fitness professional and someone who writes and podcasts about living a more engaged life, I have observed an increased emphasis on the adoption of healthy or positive habits. I do not intend to disparage either new year’s resolutions or habit formation. If you are trying to better yourself and increase your quality of life, I’m a supporter of that effort no matter when you initiate your renewed direction or if your focus is on the small unconscious behaviors that make up so much of our lives. What I do intend to advocate for is an intentional, repeated effort that lasts over a long period of time. It may have immediately observable impacts or it may take a long time. It could have a specific outcome attached or the pleasure could be within the act itself. What I’m talking about is Practice.

A distinction between a habit and a practice is that a habit is a repeated behavior that is done without thought; a practice is a repeated effort that is intentionally engaged over a period of time. 

We can easily think of both good and bad habits. A common habit people generally want to stop is biting their nails. It is a reflexive behavior that some individuals develop at a young age and carry over into adulthood. People don’t think about how biting their nails will be satisfying, they are simply in a state of thought and then they realize their fingers are in their mouth. Not a socially graceful habit. A habit that I often advocate for adoption is drinking a glass of water first thing when you wake up and last thing right before you go to bed. As someone who has helped people exercise for years, I am no longer shocked when a person makes the statement, “I don’t drink any actual water throughout the day.” I am not shocked due to the acceptable nature of this statement, but due to its frequent applicability. A controversial claim: living things need water. If you’re a person who drinks no actual water throughout the day, you should drink some. An easy place to start is to have one glass right when you wake up and your mouth is dry and one right before bed when you have a regular habit of brushing your teeth or washing your face. You may have to apply effort to remind yourself at first, but with time it will become a thoughtless act. A healthy habit.

If you want to stop biting your nails or start drinking more water, great. I support you. These are positive habitual changes that you can stack to make an improvement in your life. However, the positive impact of your conscious experience of life may be limited. As I noted before, a habit is a thoughtless repetition of a behavior. The reflexive nature of a good or bad habit means that you won’t have a conscious experience of the good or bad that is present or absent in your life.

Enter in the adoption of a practice. A practice is an intentional engagement in a behavior that is repeated over time. The conscious intention of a practice makes it distinct from the mindless nature of a habit, be it good or bad. A common application for the use of practice is in one’s adoption of meditation or yoga. It would be a rare person who just falls into meditation without some intention to begin, indeed I know of no historical examples. Similarly, even the most naturally flexible person does not just find themselves holding contortions and controlling their breath without intending to seek out a position. Both of these practices take intention, thought, and repeated effort. That last component can be a sticking point. Everyone feels their mind race and their muscles tense when they start meditation and yoga, respectively. It is only after repeated efforts that individuals start to experience comfort in the practice. What is more, I would add the adoption of a practice is generally hindered, not helped by attaching a specific time bound goal. You will be able to sit as long as you can sit. Your thoughts will come as they come. You will be able to hold a position as long as you can. You’ll be able to express a position when you can. Striving for numbers will not help, engaging the practice will help. Despite this lack of immediacy in return, you rarely hear people complain about the lack of benefit to their quality of life from an engaged, rigorous practice.

I don’t have a formal meditation practice. I don’t do yoga. I don’t pick those examples as the only practices to be advocated for. What I do have is an intentional and engaged practice of physical activity that brings me joy and positive experiences just in the act of completion. I do have mindful practices that I engage in daily that I enjoy and gain insight from that is a positive experience unto itself. I don’t have a specific, measurable, or time bound goal from either, though that sort of goal setting is a seperate part of my life. My practices are my practices. My life is better simply for having engaged them because my conscious experience of them is positive. What I would advocate for for anyone looking to bring more quality in their lives is not to only identify specific achievements to hit or mindless habits to shed or gain, but to seek out an intentional repeated behavior that will bring you benefit just in virtue for having done it, be it physical, mental, spiritual, or social. Find something that will make your life more full just for having engaged your time in that manner. That’s what I’m talking about when I talk about practice.

Shout to Allen Iverson.