Shifting Habits To Create More Meaning in Everyday Life

by Coach Jill Farmer and Coach Gabriella Dennery MD | Physician Coaching, Podcast

How to start shifting habits to create more meaning in your everyday life.

Learn how to shift habits to create more meaning in your day to day life.

“It’s true. It’s about continuing to actively create meaning in your life on a day to day basis.” -Coach Gabriella Dennery MD

In today’s episode, Coach Gabriella Dennery MD and Master Certified Coach Jill Farmer discuss meaningful habits. We all have habits, some productive and some not so much. And we all know that habits can be hard to break. This conversation is about shifting habits rather than breaking them. It will take time, but the goal is to create new habits or shift old habits into habits that are based on our values. By doing this, we can create meaning in our daily lives. Tune in to this episode to get practical advice and tips to start shifting your habits today. 

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Podcast produced by: Amanda Taran

Please enjoy the full transcript below

Gabriella: It’s true. It’s about continuing to actively create meaning in your life on a day-to-day basis.

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Hi, my name is Gabriella Dennery, MD life coach at DocWorking and cohost of DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast. Welcome to this episode, and I’m joined by my fabulous cohost, and Master Certified life coach, Jill farmer. For our conversation today, we are going to talk about habits, which is a big, big, big, big topic. Let’s break it down a little bit. Because it’s not just about changing habits or breaking habits, but really talking about shifting habits and creating meaningful habits. Because a habit is a habit as a habit, and either conscious or unconscious, something that we just do habitually, like, you brush your teeth, that it’s just a habit that you do every day, but at the same time, it’s like, do we really think about other habits? So, the question is, how do you bring meaning to these kinds of habitual actions? So, I think you have a lot to say about that, Jill. How do you shift the habit?

Jill: Well, it’s a great question, because I’ve actually, this week been thinking about a habit. I really want to shift and it came from a conversation that was in our Thrive group, which is a subscription. We have a community of physicians to provide support through coaching, and group community, and self-paced courses. In that community, one of the physicians talked about a habit, they wanted to shift from spending quite so much time on their phone. And boy that hit home to me. My daughter’s, young adults now, pointed out to me one of the last times we’re together that they noticed that when there was a pause, waiting in line, to order food at a restaurant, standing outside in a group waiting for somebody else to come, that I picked up my phone and checked it like I was missing something in a way that they hadn’t noticed I had done in the past. I was like, “Oh, really?” 

I started paying attention to it. What I discovered is, yes, unconsciously, as you alluded to earlier, I had developed this habit of when there was some quiet time or something that wasn’t happening. My immediate reaction was just to pull out my phone, and check for texts or look for emails or scroll. The problem with that habit is instead of just letting that quiet moment, let my mind wander, which we know good stuff happens when we daydream, that’s when creativity comes in, that’s when our brain is sometimes solving problems for us, noticing interesting things happening in my surroundings, even if it’s just, oh, it’s a beautiful day or look at that tree. We know paying attention to nature is good for our nervous system. I was missing out on all of that because of this unconscious habit I had of pulling out my phone. I thought a lot about habits when I wrote my book on time management almost a decade ago now. 

I was learning about habits and understanding the brain research around habits which said that when we form a habit, it just takes less energy. It’s happening, the neural pathways are there, and things are rolling out without us having to stress or worry about it so much. So, I like the idea of creating habits from things that were meaningful and that served us in our lives. And in that process, I read some stuff about breaking habits, especially those that are really detrimental. But what I learned is that if we can take something we’re already doing, we already have the habit there, quintessentially what we talk about is brushing our teeth. Piggyback a habit onto that habit that something new we want to try. It can really bring more ease and flow to adding a new habit, so that it doesn’t feel quite so hard to make that behavior shift.

And when it comes to shifting a habit or doing something differently, as I’d like to do when it comes to this unconscious habit of picking up my phone, the tool or technique for that is simply being willing to pay attention to what you’re doing, and to notice, or to listen to somebody else reflecting back to you. I’m noticing this about your behavior and get curious about it. And when paying attention to it, I am noticing as I’m wanting to shift the habit. I have to sit with the urge to pull my phone out for a second. But when I can sit with the urge, the urge passes, and I noticed, I’d really enjoying just looking at people’s faces and observing the world while I’m waiting for my tea order at Starbucks or whatever that looks like. What do you think when we talk about shifting habits versus breaking habits, and creating new ones versus kind of shedding or pruning ones that aren’t working for us?

Gabriella: I like the idea of shifting, and creating, substituting as opposed to breaking because breaking sounds so heavy and almost at times impossible. It’s like you’re pushing that boulder up the hill hoping to get to the top. “Okay, if I work hard enough to change this habit, and I’ll just keep pushing up that hill, I’ll get there someday.” Of course, that rarely happens. So, it’s like, well, what is meaningful to me? So, for example, this summer I decided I wanted to brush up on some Spanish, but I was realizing that I was spending a lot of time, especially in the evening, my brain is tired, I’m tired, I’m surfing the internet, and I’m not doing anything particularly productive, and I’m not learning anything. I’m just surfing, which can be fun sometimes, but in the end with my eyes already tired from looking at a screen all day, why am I going to keep looking at a screen all night? So, I said, “Well, if I’m going to look at a screen, let me look at a Spanish language app, and then do that for 10, 15 minutes, at least I’ll learn something.” 

That’s what I started doing. I started substituting this need to surf at night as a distraction to doing 15 minutes of Spanish. Yeah, I learned a few things. It was fabulous and it felt good. At the same time, it’s like, “Okay, here I am shifting a habit. I’m online already, it may not be the greatest time, but for some reason, I can’t let go of that. So, let me shift it to something that will help me and that I’m enjoying.” I think what I like about what you said earlier, when we were talking about this is not just a habit in terms of, is this something that should be good for me, or I should do this, or not do this. But really, what is meaningful to me? I like that word, Jill. I think that’s powerful. What is meaningful, what makes sense to me, and what brings me joy, what reminds me of that joy? I think that that’s important in terms of choosing as you say, consciously, I’m choosing a new habit, a different habit, I’m shifting an old habit into something that brings, something that feeds me. So, that makes a habit of a deliberate choice, which I like a lot. 

Yes, it takes time. Just as it takes time to develop that habit of just surfing for no reason or picking up the phone that every two seconds when there’s a pause, and somehow there’s a pause, I have to fill it. I’m not doing enough if I’m not filling that pause and to be able to say no, that’s not the case. Let me just take a breath. Let me stop for a minute or let me learn something new that I really wanted to learn for a while, but I haven’t done anything about it. So, it’s making those types of deliberate choices. I think over time, Jill, and what do you think, once you start getting into that new habit or shifting that habit, it becomes easier?

Jill: Yeah, 100% of the brain science shows us it does, because those neural pathways already are formed. You said something so important, too. It’s that when we pay attention and then we can discern what matters, what is meaningful to us, we’re more likely to be weaving in our values into how we’re showing up in the world. As you talk about beautifully in the stat course, quick wins to get your life back that you and I co-created for the Thrive program, when we’re using our values to navigate life, it is so much richer, and more satisfying, and leads us to feel so much more success and achievement in what it is we’re doing. So, I think that’s a really important point. 

Another point, I think about as you said, beautifully substituting, one behavior or action for another in the form of shifting habits as opposed to breaking them, it takes us out of that all or nothing thinking where a lot of times when it came to habits, I was like, “It was binary, my attitude about it. I’m either good if I’m doing good things or I’m bad if I have a bad habit.” So, getting out of that all or nothing thinking and noticing, is this meaningful, does this matter to me, so that it lines back up with our values? Is there a shift I want to make in some of my subconscious behaviors and actions that aren’t really serving me or particularly helpful and how do I gently piggyback one behavior on with something that’s already happening that might be in that category of meaningful and of service? So, yeah, that’s all good stuff.

Gabriella: I like what you say about that all or nothing thinking that everything seems to be binary and attaching my worth too, if I’m doing this, then I’m doing the right thing, and if I’m not doing that, then I’m a bad person, etc., etc. It really to take it out of that realm and say, “Hey, I’m a human being and yes, I can. Let me try something else, let me go into something, what am I investing my time into, my time and energy in something that is meaningful to me?” So, yes, there will be times where I miss my Spanish class. I don’t do it. I’ll fall off the bandwagon from time to time and that’s okay. It’s no big deal. Let’s just get back on.

At the same time, it’s reinforcing a neural pathway to continue to reinforce this new habit and it takes time. To allow that time to really be gentle and compassionate with self and to say, “Okay, I’m not perfect, but it’s okay. Keep moving in that direction, and eventually it will become automatic, hallelujah.” I think, that it’s true. It’s about continuing to actively create meaning in your life on a day-to-day basis. I think that that’s such a beautiful process. It doesn’t work in progress, Jill. New habits are a work in progress.

Jill: I think you said it beautifully. Being kind to yourself, compassionate to yourself and noticing, being curious with yourself about what’s serving and what’s not serving, and then being willing to make some substitutions from shifts in order to let go of the stuff that isn’t working or isn’t helping, and enhance the things that make you feel more alive and more connected to who you want to be. 

Gabriella: Exactly. Excellent. Well, thank you once again for joining us at DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast. My name is Gabriella Dennery, MD and I am joined today by Master Life Coach, Jill Farmer, and we had a wonderful conversation about habits, which is something that is near and dear to every physician’s life. I think that it is about infusing meaning in a way that means something to you. And so, I’m excited about this conversation. Thank you, Jill, and I hope you enjoy what we talked about today.

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Jen: Do you ever feel as a physician that you’ve lost the connection between why you went to medical school and what you’re doing now in your career? As a physician, you’re trying to make so many people happy all day long, and you’re trying to accommodate whatever is heaped upon you as excessive as it often is. It’s just too much. It’s exhausting. Sometimes, I feel like I just want to throw the towel in. But what if you had an online community of like-minded physicians facilitated by coaches who specialize in working with physicians to help you get back on track and figure out what matters most specifically to you? 

Amanda: I’m Amanda Taran, producer of DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast. Thank you for being here. Please check us out at and please don’t forget to like and subscribe. Thank you for listening.

Jill Farmer is an experienced physician coach who has been helping doctors live their best lives, increase their success, and move through burnout for well over a decade.

She has delivered keynotes, programs, and training everywhere from Harvard Medical School to the American College of Cardiology.

She has personally coached hundreds of physicians, surgeons, and other busy professionals to help them be at their best—without burning themselves out. Her coaching has supported professionals at places like Mass General Brigham in Boston, Washington University in St. Louis, Northwestern University in Chicago and too many others to list.

Jill wrote the book on time management for busy people. Literally. It’s called “There’s Not Enough Time…and Other Lies We Tell Ourselves” which debuted as a bestseller on Amazon. Her work has been featured everywhere from Inc. to Fitness Magazine to The Washington Post.

Nationally recognized as a “brilliant time optimizer and life maximizer,” Jill will cut straight to the heart of your stress to liberate you from its shackles. She has two young adult daughters. She lives with her husband and their poorly behaved dachshund in St. Louis, MO.

Life Coach Gabriella Dennery, MD OMD is passionate about helping busy physicians rediscover the joy of their calling. She draws on her training as a physician, a musician, and an ordained non-denominational minister in addition to health & wellness and life coaching to offer professionals from all walks of life the benefit of her broad experience and deep insights.

You can find Gabriella as one of the co-creators of STAT: Quick Wins To Get Your Life Back.

The daughter of a psychiatrist mother and a neurosurgeon father, both from Haiti, Gabriella and her five siblings were expected to choose from five noble callings: Medicine, Dentistry, Engineering, Law, or Agronomy (caring for the delicate soil of Haiti).

Gabriella, an innately gifted healer and teacher, chose Medicine and graduated with honors from Howard University College of Medicine, “The Mecca.” Following her residency in internal medicine at Duke University Medical Center, Gabriella moved to New York City to serve as an attending physician and clinical instructor in Harlem and later as medical director and attending physician at SUNY Downstate Bedford-Stuyvesant satellite clinic in Brooklyn.

Her greatest joy as a primary care physician was supporting her patients, shepherding them to Aha moments, and nurturing positive shifts in perspective that measurably improved their health and wellbeing–a strength that makes Gabriella so effective as a coach.

After more than ten years of practicing internal medicine, Gabriella chose to explore the integration of medicine, music, and ministry to promote better health of her fellow physicians by becoming a physician coach. She successfully coaches physicians to prevent and/or navigate through physician burnout, reach career and personal goals, clarify and take actionable steps to achieve their own personal vision, and is well known for helping doctors at all stages of their careers, from students to residents/fellows to practicing physicians. She maintains her work-life balance by playing percussion and violin, composing music, and enjoying a very fun and fulfilling marriage.

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