The Incredible Power of Habit

I think often about those of you who are new to this work. I myself feel so blessed to have been raised by hippies and given a good education in DIY homemaking. The values and the habits of green, ethical, DIY living are second nature to me. I wonder what it must be like to jump, feet first, out of mainstream America and into such unknown territory. I think about those of you who read and identified with Why Are We Doing This? but who are still at the outset. Why is a good question, a vital question. But moving forward from there, how do you do it? Especially for those of you who are parents and whose time and energy are so acutely limited.

I have wanted to write directly to you for some time, to give you my two cents of advice on your monumental task. But I wasn’t sure what I could say. What kind of advice is really useful anyway in this world of vastly distinct personalities and situations?

In my experience the psychological aspects of this kind of work are the biggest hurdles. Learning to execute the tangible skills takes time and energy, no doubt. But learning to maintain a lifestyle which is considerably more difficult, more time consuming, more physically sapping and certainly more austere than the standard is very challenging. We could probably all list out the skills we need or want for our DIY homemaking, the skills we aspire to– cook from scratch, grow a garden, keep chickens, fix stuff, build stuff, make stuff. But what are the qualities that enable people to incorporate all those skills into an every day real live life? And to keep on doing it for the long haul?

These psychological qualities are much harder to lay your hands on. I have thought quite a lot about what these might be and, although I have no doubt there are many more, I offer up this small list: thrift, efficiency, organization, creativity, generousness, flexibility, courage, perseverance, wonder, and the ability to take pleasure in simple things. These basic virtues are fundamental to everything else. And although you cannot change who you are– you cannot learn to be organized like you can learn to make yogurt– you can work to become more organized. You can identify that organization is a weakness, acknowledge that yogurt making will function better if you stay organized, and consider it an opportunity for improvement. (Ahem. This is an entirely theoretical example.)

I feel that the tangible skills of DIY are quite adequately represented in books and blogs, but people rarely talk about these fundamental homesteader qualities— perhaps because they are considered inherent to our personalities, immutable. Nevertheless I think it’s important to recognize them, to give them the credit that they so absolutely deserve. Because although change on this level is hard and slow, it is also real and lasting.

Furthermore, what I want to say today is that these psychological building blocks are a perfect place to start. right. now.

Whether you live on your dream homestead or in a studio apartment, whether you grow all your own food or eat frozen pizza every night, you can work on the virtues necessary for the lifestyle you aspire to. No space is too small! No budget or investment necessary! It’s the ultimate ‘start where you are’ opportunity.

But how? How do you change such fundamental personality characteristics? This is where we circle in to the meat of this post. The only tool I have yet identified to effect change in myself. The incredible power of habit.

Although this well might not be true for others, for me habit is what brings it all together. I can sit around bullshitting all day (oh my can I!) and pine away for change all night, but the only thing that really makes it happen is the slow incorporation into my daily life of habitual thought and action.

What got me started on this post idea was eating vegetables. I was lamenting yet another bag of my good garden veggies languishing in the fridge and composing a post in my head about how the deceptively simple habit of eating more vegetables is an essential first step toward a more sustainable life. Growing a garden is great, and if you have the dirt I encourage you to give it a try. But I can tell you one of the biggest and most common gardening challenges, it’s one they basically never discuss in gardening books– Eating what you grow.

Most of us were raised on a very meat and dairy based diet. Even myself, although I adore veggies, I have never gotten my head around planning dinner (let alone any other meal) based on the veggies. They remain an afterthought and therefore if anything rots in my fridge, it’s usually green. So if I were going to recommend a first step to aspiring gardeners, it would be simply incorporating veggies into your daily belly-filling consciousness.

The more I thought about that post, the bigger the idea grew. Thinking about the habit of eating vegetables led me to the habit of wondering what’s in the fridge to eat rather than wondering what you want to eat and going to buy it; which led me to the habit of making do rather than buying something.

Doing without or creatively making what you already have work are absolutely habits. They are thought patterns that you lay down in your mind. It takes time, first you have to rip up the old one (buy whatever you want, whenever you want it), one pesky brick at a time. Then you have to lay down the new one, one pesky brick at a time. But once you are going on it, it gets easier. You gain momentum. Actually what you gain is habit. The habit of making a habit. The habit of being conscientious.

I warn you, it can get annoying. After a while it will be ingrained in you to think about everything you throw into any trash can anywhere. You will size it up and add it mentally to everything else in the trash can, and every other trash can on the block and feel a pervasive, occasionally engulfing guilt. But all those thinking moments will start to leak into other moments, and eventually you will find yourself rewired.

Eventually. It can take years. A lifetime really, a work in progress. Have you ever heard the Redbird song, Patience? “I spent all day yesterday watching the grass grow. What I learned is that grass really grows slow.”

Yes, ma’am. Slow. But darned if it doesn’t grow in the end. And grow and grow and grow.

How to Become a Punk Ass DIY Housewife

  1. Start small.
  2. Establish conscientious habits.
  3. Have patience.
  4. Take joy in small pleasures.
  5. Keep at it.




26 thoughts on “The Incredible Power of Habit

  1. such a thoughtful and lovely post, calamity. only thing i might add is *prioritize*…in my experience i can get caught up in alla the good and righteous shit i want to get done, become overwhelmed, end up not doing anything at all (LAME). i found if i really focus on my priorities (ie: gardening), then i can let the rest slip by the wayside, not feel guilty and *still* get something (anything!) done, while slowly building/adding to my habits/day-to-day/ideals, etc. xo times infinity!

    1. oh my! how could i have left out prioritizing?!?!?!? lack of it is one of my biggest pet peeves/issues with our dominant culture! i have it (literally) written down in my list of topics to write about as soon as i can find time. it certainly deserves it’s own post, but also deserves to be in this one. think i might edit it in now ;)

  2. This is all very true, touches on a whole lot of things and is excellently put.

    When presented as a – God help me – lifestyle I do think the whole homesteader thing can look a bit daunting, a bit “other people.” Starting little is important. I’m not good at it, myself, but it’s what I advise too.

    I hate the lack of “now you have to eat it” in garden books too, and know of more than a few garden bloggers who have no idea what to do with that chard once they’ve picked it. It’s insanely frustrating to me to see show gardens in magazines and books that depict half the lettuce in various stages of bolt. Sure, the lettuce pagoda is pretty, but we’re showing the “ideal” garden as one that’s not even harvested. What the hell is the point there?

    I have a lot of thoughts on this “eat what you grow” topic, including that many people are actually kinda-sorta afraid to eat their own food because it might be dirty as compared to what’s for sale at the shop. I’m not kidding.

    The habits thing also reminds me of the Confessions of a Tiger Mom article that made such a splash a few months back. One line I remember is the Chinese mom saying something like, “Asian moms understand that nothing is fun until you are good at it.” Whatever else I may have thought of the article, I loved that line – I just thought it had so much applicability to so many things. It is just more fun to do something you’re successful at – writing, jam-making, computer programming, frugality, ditch digging, whatever – but getting to good takes consistent, diligent work…it takes habit.

  3. Some weeks I do really well; meal planning, yoghurt and bread making, I’m caught up with laundry and the house is vacummed. Other weeks – I slump into disorganisation and the house is a disaster area. I guess this is where habit and routine could come in handy – to get me through the rough patches :-)

    We used to waste alot of veges but we’re alot better these days (and getting over a lifelong hate of silverbeet/chard has been a bit part of that lol) also, I’ve been enjoying trying out recipes from that river cottage ‘veg’ book.

  4. I am not a homesteader, by any stretch of the word, but as is often the case with your blog, your wisdom so seamlessly lends itself to all aspects of life… gets me thinking of my own. Thank you!

  5. So many of my lovingly tended green things have rotted in the fridge, while I went out and bought other food. It’s a constant struggle (and one of my new year’s goals) to grow more AND eat more greens. One book that I found inspiring was Farmer John’s Cookbook (and if you haven’t seen his film, “The Real Dirt on Farmer John”, DO IT!) He waxes poetically about the food he grows and then follows that with an out of the box recipe, season by season! True Love!

    1. oh! i loved the movie, but didn’t know there was a cookbook. i’ll get right to the library for an ILL.

  6. Ah! “You cannot learn to be organized like you can learn to make yogurt” I laughed out loud. I’m fighting that good fight right now.

    I’m heading into the fifth year of my homesteading adventure, year three of doing it full time – and it has taken me this long to realize that the disorganization of my artist’s spirit does not jive with my bread-baking, seed-saving, child-chasing, chicken-herding, diaper-washing real life.

    You are so right – you can have all those DIY skills down-pat, but if you can’t keep a steady head, habits, schedule, whatever, through the inevitable ups and downs you’ll be bawling over a mound of unfinished laundry – and not eating your veggies!

    Thanks for the laugh and the reminder to finish bunging out my closet . . .

  7. Did you write this just for me? My biggest problem has always been my own stupid refusal to get organised, mistakenly confused it for bohemian artsy spontaneous living in the momentness. And But it doesn’t serve me too well since with four kiddos it just means we get caught out a lot, causing stress, confusion and wasted time. We even stooped so low as to go to the dreaded McCrapfood the other day cos we got caught short due to my poor meal planning. I think sometimes when the pursestrings are fairly free its easier to get more relaxed about food and waste, which is about as uncool, ungroovy and unboho as it gets. Living in the moment turns out to be pretty unsustainable really so I’m doing some real growing up, and I think I’m going to really enjoy and feel better about life being a little more organised, less wasteful, and eating more mindfully. Cheers for the encouragement.

    1. i always write just for you mf ;)
      i always wished i was a spontaneous artist type, finally gave it up and accepted that I am a (sometimes poorly executed) efficiency type.

  8. I’m definitely at the starting small stage, but what helps me most is focussing on the new skills, making each one in turn my passion until it becomes second nature. I was crazy about sourdough bread; I read blogs, experimented, watched youTube videos on kneading(!) until I really had it down. It took up loads of my time and I relished it. And then it slowly because second nature, a natural part of every day and now I make all our bread without thinking of it as an ‘extra’. Now if I but a loaf I feel kind of weird!

    Right now I’m all about preserves, and plantin out my veggies. By next year that will be built into the everyday as well.

    I think it depends on personality- for me it works to embrace my inner geeky-obsessive!

  9. This rings true for me (including @shadymama’s comments about prioritizing). Organization is definitely not my strength, although once I get a habit going, I’m pretty good at making it work– I decided I would bake all our own bread, and I’ve kept that going pretty well. Small successes like that give me a push to try new things, and once I have them down, make them part of our routine.
    Have you looked at the Tamar Adler book, An Everlasting Table? Her approach to veggies (prepping and cooking a whole week’s worth at once) has given me a lot to think about in terms of my meal planning. I did better last year than I have in the past, but I know I can do even better.

  10. completely bizarre. Right before I sat down to check out my blog links (ones I visit often) I grabbed a piece of (Fairtrade) chocolate, and glanced at the kitchen all tidy and ready for tomorrow and thought gee… that’s one thing I’ve manage to do – make a habit of doing it before bed, usually somewhere around dinner time.

    Then as I walked from the kitchen to the back room and sat down I thought maybe I’d post about the power of habit. You know, how stuff you never thought you could or would do/be able to do, you CAN do once it becomes a habit – and then it’s not even dogged effort any more… it just ‘is’…

    and then I spotted your post and went darn that’s bizarre! So maybe I won’t post on the power of habit now, lol, because you have. I might just link to you instead ;) We’ll see.

    I hear some little feet are awake… so I’ll be off but thanks for ‘posting my mind’ lol


  11. I’m just starting to “make do” rather than “go buy” when I don’t have an ingredient for a recipe. It’s hard for me! I’m not one of those cooks who can easily say, “Well, I’ll just throw this, this, and this in a pot and it’ll be fabulous!” But I finally had a realization when I was making chicken soup a couple of weeks ago, and that is that I don’t have to make chicken soup exactly the way my mom does it. I didn’t have even half of the veggies hers calls for, so I threw in whatever veggies I had (sweet potatoes, carrots, onions, garlic, cabbage) and it turned out fabulous! When I told her about it she said, “Can I have your recipe?” That’s probably one of the best compliments I’ve ever gotten.

  12. Oh what a true post! For me the ‘habit’ of organisation is the big one. But, the stuff about eating what you grow – so true! I used to be a vegetarian, so you’d think I’d be better at this, but if something rots in my fridge, it will still be something in the vegetable crisper draw.

    We have recently realised we are dead broke, having lived beyond our means for the past two years while I was on maternity leave wit kid #3 (who is currently sitting on my lap making this very hard!), so we are currently trying really hard to develop the habit of eating what is in the cupboard/fridge/garden and buying as`litte as possible. It’s hard.

    BTW I am experimenting with being logged in to wordpress to see what url will come up, an old or current blog? but this is kirsten from narrating kayoz (listed on your readers’ blogs page) and

  13. Love. Seriously agree that you just have to start. If someone had told me one year ago that my 5-yeaR-old son would choose to try Peas on his own and LIKE them after I gave up over 2 yrs ago, I would not have believed them.

    Start small, and keep moving forward. It’s like anything else in life, especially child rearing, you start small, and build up skills to match the challenge.

    Habits are where it’s at!

    p.s. I’ve decided to nominate you for the Versatile Blogger Award – kind reminds me of a chain email from 1999, but I’m playing along to simply spread the love. Feel free to play along (deets on my blog), or just feel the pat on the back.

  14. You know, I grew up vegetarian and try to feed ourselves a vegetable based diet (though I’m coming to accept that this far north, a winter time diet high in meat and dairy is a really healthful and comforting thing! Not to mention using less resources to transport…). I always thought it was weird that people couldn’t figure out how to feed themselves a diet that wasn’t focused around meat, but now that I eat and enjoy it I find myself thinking about meals in the context of being based around meat.

  15. Great post! On the eating from the garden books try Tender Vol 1 and 2 by Nigel Slater. Chef and gardener. I borrowed them from my library (in OZ) and just love them.

    Will be very ‘tactfully’ (ha, ha) asking for them for my birthday!

  16. Sister CJ, your writing sings to me. I was not born in to this world of reduce, reuse, recycle. I was born in to a world run by wolves that ate their share and then the share of the poor bastard standing next to them.

    It is soooo habit, so much is a dedication to just the getting of things done, the way you know that they should be. I wake every day knowing I COULD be just like my neighbours, who hop in their 4 wheel drive/SUV’s, go down to the mall and buy a bulk amount of $4 shit that I don’t need while dying my hair and skin with petrochemicals that I’ll wonder if later caused the cancer I’d be growing.

    But I know it’s not the way the world should go. I just can’t, in good conscience, raise my kids to think that milk should be $1 a litre at any cost, and to think that it’s ok to have kids their own age make their clothes for them for $1 a day. I just can’t.

    And I do fall off the wagon every now and again. Like tonight, when my extended family invited us out for tea and the kids ate a fairly ridiculous amount of soft serve icecream after a belly full of wedges that I’m pretty damn sure were fried in vegetable or canola oil.

    But it’s not about beating myself up about it all tomorrow, like you are saying, it’s about picking us all up, brushing us off, and starting afresh like it didn’t happen.

    Thanks for a gorgeous post CJ, that truly tells the folks like me that, well, it’s ok to be a folk like me.

  17. Calamity, Sweet lord, you literally took the words from a post I’m slowly muddling my way through. At least, our conclusions are the same. I love what you say about our values being the thing that needs our attention, rather than always our actions (though of course the two go hand in hand…) And you have me thinking about how we try to change things externally. the garden example is great. It’s easy to embrace the joys of gardening (at least on principle), and it’s a whole other thing to value that homegrown, free veggies enough to actually eat it. Sometimes deep down we still only think store bought food or goods are really worthwhile, and it can take time to grow genuinely away from that old thinking.

    1. someone else mentioned i had stolen her post idea telepathically. please write yours and then put a link in here! i would love to read anyone else’s thoughts on the matter. all of my writings are just a moment in the timeline of my thought pattern, subjects i get obsessed with and must tease out, certainly not end products. and i adore conversation, as much as it can occur here-in– bloggers bouncing ideas back and forth. we grow together.

  18. Holy moly, I just wrote about the whole problem of “eat what you grow” last week. And I swear on my favorite chicken’s fluffy butt that I did not read this first.
    To what Erica said about being afraid to eat what comes out of your yard – true story. My husband is still struggling with this; although, he makes a valiant effort and usually keeps his squeamishness to himself. He does have the good sense to look sheepish about it on the occasions it comes up.
    I’ve started posting daily #eatwhatyougrow posts to my twitter/FB to help keep me accountable.

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