With the exception of three lovely evenings at yoga, it has been six months since I charged up my mp3 and headed off to the gym for an hour’s endorphin rush. Sure I’ve kept active in the garden, and the warm weather inspires a few more walks with attached dogs than does bitter January; but considering the fact that my triceps have burned for two days since I decided to show off my prowess at push-ups to a laughing friend, it seems that trench digging is just not going to give those arms the conditioning they were used to during the winter. The point is, what with puppies and summer and one thing or another, I lost the habit months ago, and it’s going to take an inordinate effort to get back on track.

Good or bad, habits structure our lives. From coffee in the morning to grabbing a quick snack when the television starts its siren call in the evening, we are quite comfortable setting the cruise control and letting routine take over. So, bearing in mind that once set, a habit is fairly easy to follow, it only makes sense to build good ones – and see that we don’t lose our momentum when life posts inevitable detours.

A gardener benefits from good habits just as surely as anyone else. Ten fleeting years ago, I began the work on my front garden, uprooting lawn and cement walkways for sunny borders and gravel paths. The soil was new, the plants were healthy and each morning before seven, I prepared one cup of exquisitely black coffee and wandered outside as I sipped. And as I meandered through my kingdom, I would pull up the odd bit of crabgrass, a lone pigweed, or a cluster of clover roots gripping soil with tenacious fingers.

By the time I had watered the pots on the deck and taken a few minutes to dead head a geranium or two, the last sip was consumed and it was time to begin my day. This daily exercise in weeding and watering, coupled with the pleasure of observation, began each and every morning without fail.  It made that cup of coffee a true experience, and kept those beds weed-free with minimal effort on my part.

This continued for several years until the fateful day that I bought a laptop to make my late night and early morning scribbling more convenient. Slowly, those weeding mornings took back seat to sitting on the deck checking the news, the weather and my email – and perhaps typing up a few thoughts on the state of my schleffera. The coffee remained a constant, but now I was inclined to consume it faster and found myself yearning for a second cup where one had once been more than adequate. My well-formed and well-worn habit began to change; and consequently, my garden grew weedier and I grew jumpier (when I say “black coffee” I mean “black coffee”).

The intimacy that my garden and I had shared in the early hours diminished as I began to create a new, less active habit, complete with the feelings of guilt triggered when a breakfast-hungry child would invade my quiet space and find me exercising nothing more than my mind and my fingers.

One would think that it would immediately occur to me that standards were slipping – that something needed to change. But unlike good habits which fill you with happy righteousness that you just can’t wait to share (or rather, boast over), bad habits tend to move just under the radar. By the time you’ve figured out what’s happened, you’re usually sunk – and it takes more than a day’s salvage effort to get the ship righted again.

Let’s just say that there was a very large hole in the bottom of this particular ship.  It took a great deal of discipline to get the masts back up and the bow pointed in the right direction. It certainly took far more effort than it had to build the habit in the first place. Far more.

These days I am back in the garden in the early mornings, taking a few minutes here and there to tackle what could be hours worth of work if allowed to get out of hand. And, now that the afternoons have grown cooler, both triceps and biceps have been getting a moderately demanding workout – putting off the day when I must once again build the good habit of regular, strenuous exercise. Boy, it’s going to be a long winter.