“I am on a diet.” Thus announced James Beard, the famous “Dean of American Cooking”, in one of his weekly articles. He went on to say, “To someone who has spent more than seventy years eating as he pleased and where he pleased, Prohibition has come as a shock.” No longer would he load his foods with the cream, butter, cheeses, sauces, fats, and oils he loved and which gave him so much pleasure. Now, greatly overweight and suffering from serious health issues, his doctors gave him strict orders for what he could and could not eat. But James Beard had the right attitude. Instead of lamenting about his restrictions, he began exploring a number of low-fat, low-salt alternatives, substituting herb- and spice-based seasonings for his meals. (There was a happy ending. By changing his eating habits and establishing new, healthier patterns, he continued to enjoy and write about foods for many more years.) I am not on a diet. Fortunately, I have no immediate, health-based reason for losing weight. However, I am going to do something that is comparable in its impact. I am going to give up my morning coffee for thirty days. Now, this may sound like a pretty unimportant and very minor announcement but, for me, it definitely is not trivial. Let me explain.

Beginning each day with several cups of coffee has been a daily pleasure all of my adult life. I cannot remember when it was not. For most years, there may have been only two or three days when, due to unusual circumstances, I did not begin my day with coffee. Starting each day with several cups of hot coffee – black, strong, and bitter, or with cream and sugar, or (my current preference) with no sugar and only a tiny bit of creamer – has been one of the few constants in a life which has held considerable changes over the decades. Indeed, I devoted lengthy passages in my book China Bound to discussing this change in my lifestyle after I came to China in 2004. For a period of a few weeks, I had no morning coffee to transition me into wakefulness with a caffeine jolt. I even described the elation I felt when, two months after I arrived, a package arrived from America with real coffee, coffee filters, and other implements for making drip coffee.

Looking back, I can see that beginning the day with coffee has been a morning ritual for many years. Perhaps the keyword is “ritual”; I go through the same motions in the same order to get the same results each time. A fundamental element of my start-up routine is to wake up and immediately make a cup of Starbucks coffee (which I can purchase locally in CQ). It is real drip coffee, freshly made according to my preferences. After making the coffee, another important element of my morning routine is to then sit quietly, sipping the coffee and relishing the beginning of a new day. Sometimes, I read and think; sometimes, I enjoy the coffee while I am working on my computer or planning my day; sometimes, I look out my window and watch the city wake up.

In the past, when I was childless, I would take my coffee and go outside to sit on the balcony. It was a suitable time and place to reflect on all the changes in my life and on the current objectives I wanted to pursue. Now, with two roommates (wife and son) who jealously cherish every last moment of sleep, I have learned that discretion calls for me to stay in my home office with the door closed and to remain as soundless as possible while they sleep those few precious extra minutes. They enjoy their sleep while I enjoy my coffee as a solitary pleasure.

Early each morning, as I quietly perform my morning ritual of boiling water, preparing the filter, measuring the coffee grounds, and watching the hot water dripping through the grounds to make that marvelous, life-giving elixir, I am doing more than merely starting a new day. I am adding to a long, long row of days – some good, some not-so-good. But all of those small increments cumulatively formed the person I have become and the lifestyle I enjoy today. That marvelous coffee aroma, so familiar and so tantalizing, connects me to other days and other cups of coffee – and to the homes, friends, jobs, relationships, cars, pets, and hobbies from the times and places when I was enjoying those former cups of coffee.

So… after I have just explained why my morning coffee is such a valued and important ritual, why did I begin by saying that I am going to give up my morning coffee for thirty days? Yes, when my current coffee supply at home is exhausted, I will go morning coffee-free for 30 days. For my friends, let me assure you that there is no health-based reason for this decision. (And, I admit that I am going to stop writing at this point of my first draft to make another cup of coffee before continuing; I haven’t quit yet.)

Why? The reason is simple enough. Although I have no health issues currently that coffee might affect and I do not drink excessive amounts of coffee each day, I have decided that it has become too much of a habit – and that’s my concern. My comfortable ritual has become an intractable habit. Periodically, we need to review our lifestyle choices and, in doing so, to consider what other options and activities we might be sacrificing because of our current patterns. Specifically, I need to consider if my time spent sipping and reflecting might be better spent on other things. The economists call it the opportunity cost. But this exploration isn’t a mental exercise; it requires a physical action to make it meaningful.

Additionally, there will be the satisfaction of proving that I still retain sufficient control of my life that I can voluntarily give up an established habit – even one that is also a cherished relic from my old life. My morning coffee cup is also filled with good memories and associations; it always makes me smile. However, I want to prove to myself that morning coffee is a choice and a pleasure, not an unthinking habit. In doing so, I will confirm that I can still choose new directions, large and small, for my life. I want to show that I still control my life. Morning coffee is not important; controlling my life is.

In two or three weeks, when my current supplies are consumed, I will stop completely and without a gradual withdrawal. When I resume my morning coffee ritual after thirty days of being coffee-free, I expect to really, truly enjoy it again. By then, we should be completely past the summer heat. Boy, will that coffee taste good on those crisp, cool autumn mornings! This pleasure will be enhanced by the recollection of other crisp, cool autumn mornings in other places and times. Moreover, I expect to relish the coffee even more because of its absence for one month and because it is, once again, a choice.

So, dear readers, this may seem a rather trivial subject as you read these words. Giving up my morning coffee for thirty days is not a big deal. What is a very big deal, however, is the ability to control my habits, even the tiny little details like my daily ritual of making coffee. But, this must be proven with action, not merely words. Then, by extension, if I can do this with my morning coffee, I can do it with other habits as well – bigger and more important habits and daily behaviors. While examining the habits to suspend, we can also consider what other things we might do with that time.

What do you think? What entrenched habit would you choose to give up for thirty days to prove that you are still in control of your habits – and your life?

P.S. As I got really metaphysical about it, I even began to dissect some of my habitual ways of thinking, not just doing. I am currently working on a blog article which was prompted by a recent podcast listening experience. This, in turn, led to a close examination of some of the primary, subconscious elements from which personality is formed. “Heavy,” as Marty McFly would say. Shifting gravitational fields. Stay tuned…