Some notes on habits

This article is not one of the type “I woke up early with the Rocky IV soundtrack for six straight months and I turned my life around. Here’s how you can do it too“. I love that kind of article, but this article is not of that kind.

Rather, here I’m summarizing practical knowledge about habits I’ve gathered during 2017-2019. It will probably change and expand with time.

All the below has worked for me, but some (or all) of it might not work for you. You can definitely take any parts that you like and discard the rest. I’m putting these notes in the hope that you might something useful in them.

Which takes me to my first point:

It is refreshing and useful to think critically about habits

For the longest time, whenever I read about habits, especially when reading something that had worked for someone anywhere, I thought “I could do that too!”. Quite uncritically, anything that I felt could help me become more productive, was something I should try out. And if that didn’t work, then it was my damn fault for being such a fun-loving hedonist (and better luck next time).

But the why, the how and the what of habits is essential. You don’t just pick up a habit. A habit is like a financial investment. You need to understand what you are doing. Some investments may be good for other people, but not for you, because of different knowledge, risk profiles or tax situations.

The idea here is that whenever you consider habits, you should avoid the knee-jerk response of following them; rather, consider them carefully. Action is good at the beginning. But thoughtful action is so much better.

To direct thought, however, we need a good emotional core. This takes us to the why of habits.

Why develop habits?

For the longest time, when thinking about why develop strong habits, I pictured myself as an Uberhuman gazing down from a crag, with a look of exhaustion and endless pride; you can almost see the abs of steel below the shirt. This image, compelling as it may be to myself, is a mere narcissistic fantasy that is not actionable. That Uberhuman might be a photoshopped version of me, but not the real me. I live in the Netherlands. There are no crags anywhere.

Rather than focusing on a point in the future when I’ve become perfect and am celebrating it by riding a train to the nearest crag in a tight shirt, I’m developing habits based on how I want to feel every day (or most days) about what I’m doing, how I’m working, how I’m living. Present focused, not future focused.

I read somewhere an article on someone’s motivation to be in good physical shape – unfortunately, I forgot the reference and do not have a link. The point was that this person’s motivation for working out wasn’t looking sexy. Their true motivation was to remain in good health and, particularly, to avoid as much as possible having to live the second half of their life with chronic pain, unlike most people past middle age nowadays.

I’ve thought and felt for the longest time about why I should live my daily life on a certain way. I found two whys that seem to complement each other well, and cover the essence of the matter:

These whys complement each other in a yin-yang manner. The first one embodies my type A ambition, my drive, my desire to share my talent, outlook and energy. The Rocky IV soundtrack, in short.

The second one is my fun loving nature; sneaking out in the middle of a workday to do something fun. Daydream creatively about something subtle that might take shape years, decades or centuries from now. Take time for a call with a friend, or some time to read a book to my daughter. It is the feeling of being relaxed, unhurried, open to creative vibrations, in the abundance of time.

One is strife; the other one is flow. I cannot have one without the other. They cannot exist without the other. So this is my deep why: I pursue my habits to develop a balance between strife and flow.

I cannot recommend enough that you take time to find the deep why for the habits you want to build. It might take years, but it’s OK. This work is rewarding in itself.

Another way to think about this is through negatives. The opposite of strife is feeling like shit for having no willpower and not applying myself; and the opposite of flow is to be stressed out and hurried all the time. You might find it easier to focus on how you really don’t like to feel, and start there to find your whys. In the end, habits are about living the good life.

We’re all in this together, but you’re also on your own

You don’t need a habit to get up to go to work, because you’ll eventually get fired if you don’t show up. Habits, however, are your own. You can get help from others, but a lot of the thinking and the effort for your personal habits has to come from yourself. Society won’t impose them on you, and at times it might be amused or even hostile to them.

I think that personal habits are your personal infrastructure. They make things possible, in the same way that a network, a road system, the post office, administrative law and environmental standards make possible a society.

Habits, like these types of institutions, are the blank canvas in which society takes place. The canvas enables the work; what you do in there is open. Because there are roads, you can build a business that trades with another area; you decide on the price and the market, the road simply makes it possible for you to reach it. With habits, it’s the same.

You don’t want your road network to be too constrictive; at the same time, it should be well paved. So you need effective habits that enable and not get in the way. Habits should enable freedom, not curtail it.

Habits are not a substitute for purpose and deeper questions of how you want to live your life. But at the same time, and especially if you’re in a particularly rough patch, a bit of habits can get out of the pit just enough for you to start asking bigger questions.

Fight the right war(s)

Find your itch. The authentic one. It could be multiple ones, which is a blessing and a curse I happen to have as well. Don’t seek empty success. Find something that is part of you and your personality. It’s there. Otherwise, habits will keep you running in circles.

The starting point

Logging! For some reason, putting things in writing makes them more real. I tried keeping habits with and without logs, and logs make habits stick. I suggest having a light log, either on paper or a digital one. If you use a digital log, I very strongly suggest just using plain text.

Logging has two effects on habits: first, it allows you to review what happened in the past, so you can learn from it. This is inestimable; you won’t be constantly reviewing your logs. But periodic checks are very illuminating. Second, putting things to paper makes you more likely to do the habit, because you get some sort of dopamine boost when you write down that you actually completed the habit. I can’t explain this, but I’m sure the cognitive psychology literature can.

Your two voices

I’m reminded of a story. It was late at night; some friends and I were partying in another city. We decided to catch a train and we had to run intensely for a few minutes to catch a train home. We made it to the train just in time, with seconds to spare, which saved us from an hour long wait.

After the run, I was OK. Some in the group were still reeling from the run, since they went from drinking and smoking to sprinting for ten minutes. One of my friends, however, wouldn’t shut up about how happy he was about the fact we made the train; how we saved an hour of time, which could be used for sleeping, watching a show, or waking up earlier the next day.

My eager friend wouldn’t stop talking. Just before arriving to our city, he turned to another friend in the group, who was clearly exhausted and dehydrated from the run: “don’t you feel happy about the time we saved? I feel so happy!”. The other friend responded, not even looking him in the eye: “Your happiness makes me want to throw up in my mouth.”

These two friends are two voices that you’ll encounter in yourself in different days. Some days you’ll perform a habit and then you will not stop congratulating yourself on how accomplished, efficient and happy doing that habit has made you. Some days, you will hate everything, yourself and the damn habits. You’ll be tired, hangover, in low spirits.

When you are in low spirits, the worst you can do is try to muster the eager voice, because it will be shot down mercilessly.

The point is to see habits not as just something you do when you feel good; habits should be all-terrain. Habits should be something that both voices (the eager and the exhausted) can relate to. Which brings me to the next point.

Habits should be all-terrain

Habits should be like an AK-47. Light, cheap, efficient, incredibly reliable, works on every climate, easy to clean, easy to fix. When you’re thinking about what habits you want to build, think of a AK-47 instead of a nuclear reactor. Think Jason Bourne, not Batman.

In my experience (and based on multiple authors that have written much better and well researched things about habits), an all-terrain habit has two characteristics:

Simple: simple means that a habit is very easy to understand. You’d think that any habit is easy to understand, but vagueness can and will sneak into them. It is easier to fast two days a week than to fast some days per week. It is even better to fast Mondays and Tuesdays. Daily habits are easier than 3x per week habits. When you make the habit crystal clear, no interpretation can talk you out of half-assing it. You’ll know whether you’re doing it or not, even if you’re having a day with very, very low willpower.

Rewarding: demand an enormous amount of output from your habit. Habits require time and effort; some of the effort is saved by simplicity, but not all of it. The effort and time you spend in your habits should be enormously rewarding to all other areas of your life. See how you can do more with less, until you get to a point where you’re confident you’re getting amazing results with comparatively little input.

The big guns

I find that there’s two elements that have made my habits stick longer and yield more results. They are:

Sequence: sequence is tremendously useful. Habits are not a disconnected set of actions; the order in which you do them can enormously influence the outcome. I have a set of daily habits (some of them are very short), and instead of juggling them mentally every morning, and procrastinating on the ones I don’t feel like doing, I do the habits on the same order every day. Some habits actually started as separate habits that I have bundled into one. Sequence makes things simpler. And while it may make them a bit more boring, it frees an enormous amount of mental space. I sometimes alter the sequence on certain days and you’ll probably do the same thing too – the important thing here is to find a sequence, incrementally improve it, and stick to it. Sequence makes habits as a whole simpler.

Frequency: I’ve found that for many things, frequence is more effective than volume. For a binger like me, this is counter-intuitive. But 5 minutes of language studying a day are 2-4x more effective than a full hour of study on Sundays, despite taking only half the time. The definitive formulation of the idea comes from Bernhard, a piano teacher in the Pianostreet forums. Frequency makes habits more rewarding, in terms of the output they generate.

Freedom, not management

I know my habits are working best when I’m not thinking too much about them. If they become the center of my attention, there’s something that is not right. The center of my attention should be what I do when I do something, not the fact that I’m doing it for X minutes before activity Y and after activity Z.

I encourage you to pursue habits that enhance your creativity and your focus on the areas that interest you. If your habits make you micromanage yourself, you might want to reconsider them.

Some concrete things that work for me and might work for you as well

Be grateful

Even when you find good habits, some days will have you feeling that you’re behind; you might be even angry, because unexpected things (good and bad) happened and got in the way of your daily structures.

For this feeling, there is an antidote. Gratefulness.

I can be grateful, and so must you be, for even one singular phrase, one transcendent moment.

Be grateful for every day you live, for every habit you complete, even if it’s an easy one and you have been doing it consistently for a decade. Be grateful for surprises, good and bad. Be grateful for your mistakes, because they’re teaching you something. Be grateful that you have a chance to live, to practice, to interact, to experience.

Thank you for reading!