Habit trumps all.
All self-improvement efforts are ultimately irrelevant and ineffective if they don’t evolve into habits or routines. A string of yoga classes you did last year? Worthless. A meditation retreat you completed two months ago? Now adding nothing to your peace of mind. A two week cleanse? Why bother?
This is a frustrating reality of maintaining a biological, constantly regenerating organism. You can’t build your body or mind like a house; there’s too much flux.
There are crucial moments in the development of a human being where the environment can exert a permanent effect. Early-childhood education, prenatal nutrition, and a loving family home are all important. But in adult life, what matters far more is what we do every day.
Is this an obvious concept? A truism? It seems like it is, but it’s contrary to the way health, fitness, and personal development practices are presented to us. Lose ten pounds in two weeks. Participate in a ten day intensive, life-changing meditation retreat. To me these two pitches sound exactly the same. Do something for awhile, then stop doing it and watch any positive effects fade away.
Is it implicit, in the “improve yourself temporarily” style pitch, that the behavioral change will be permanently implemented? I don’t think so. The pitch is usually to expend a great amount of willpower over a short amount of time to see fast results. But if the practice is unsustainable — either because it requires too much effort or because it overstresses the organism — then it won’t be continued. The id will rebel. The results might be ugly.
Personality is not monolithic; we careen through life propelled by a chaotic network of warring motivational subcenters. On good days our frontal cortex mediates the disputes and we present the world with something resembling a rational, consistent human being. It’s a false front. Free will is mostly illusory. At best we can steer ourselves a little, modifying the well-worn pathways that control our behavior so that our habits better serve us.
The superego-heavy approach, where we whip ourselves like racehorses, compelling our bodies and minds to conform to whatever high expectations we have set up for ourselves (or others have set up for us), can work for a period of time. There’s nothing wrong with driving ourselves hard, especially if we believe in what we’re working for or towards; if the result will pay lasting dividends to ourselves or our loved ones or all of humanity. But if this period of intense self-control is not followed up by a more relaxed interval — either a conscious letdown, a vacation or stay-cation, or at least some relaxation of standards — then our subconscious minds may grab the reins and force the issue. We act out. We break down. We hit creative blocks. We burn bridges. The reptilian brain, in its lowly position at the bottom of the spinal totem pole, still wields a great deal of power. Respect the id.
HABIT AS LEVERAGE, OR WORK MULTIPLIER
I’ve discussed the idea that willpower is a commodity; we only have so much each day to spend. The workaround is establishing a habit. Habitual behavior doesn’t require willpower — it’s the default setting. It’s cruise control. If we can find ways of eating, sleeping, working, relating to people, and even thinking that serve us well, it’s in our interest to habituate those behaviors. That’s where the willpower comes in — making the change.
I say this not as a paragon of good habits, but rather as someone who’s interested in seeing the effort that I do expend go further. Essentially, I’m lazy. I prefer both rest and recreation to back-breaking work. I don’t mind work itself, but I hate pointless work, or work that doesn’t produce something of lasting value.
Deciding what is a good habit requires some degree of analytical thinking and experimentation. Whatever analogy you want to use to describe our genetic, cultural, and historical predestination (“the hand we’re dealt” or “the set of tools we’re given”), the fact is that there is no single best way of living that works for everybody. A lot of this has to do with what we like to do. An exercise regimen based on jogging won’t work if you hate jogging. Okra may be in high in vitamin C, but that won’t benefit you if you can’t make yourself eat it. Making money by selling a product online and building your website via targeted marketing won’t work if you hate analyzing web traffic.
We can force ourselves to do things that we hate doing, under the auspices that those things are “good for us,” or “smart things to do,” but ultimately we’re just burning willpower for no good reason. There are hundreds of ways to stay fit and hundreds of ways to eat healthfully. It makes sense to search the permutations until you find a method that you don’t detest.
On the other hand if we spend time and effort “locking in” effective behaviors that we essentially like to do anyway, repeating them so often that they became second nature, then that nervous system modification becomes a neurological asset.
With more effort we can also habituate behaviors we dislike. This can play out one of two ways; a soul-crushing self-loathing feedback loop, or, if we’re lucky, we come to “like” what we’re good at and do every day — our sense of preference is as malleable as anything. It’s worth remembering that the job is the reward.
In either case, behaviors we habituate are going to multiply the results of our efforts. When we spend willpower, we’re going to get more bang for the buck.
DENTAL HYGIENE, MENTAL HYGIENE
I read an interview with David Lynch in which he marveled at people’s unwillingness to dedicate a little time each day to meditation. People are willing to dedicate five minutes a day to dental hygiene so that their teeth don’t rot. Yet they are unwilling (or don’t know how) to spend a few minutes clearing their mind and communing with the infinite. The benefits of meditation include lowering blood pressure, improving immunity, increasing focus and recall ability, increasing empathy, and probably dozens of other positive effects. So why don’t we all meditate every day?
Meditation isn’t hard … but culturally there is no expectation to do it every day (at least in the United States), so it’s up to the individual to establish a routine. You also have to pick and learn a method, either from an ancient tradition (zazen, vipassana) or a more modern derivative. But the key action to establishing a habit is to pick a time and a place and do the same thing, every day, until the behavior becomes as second nature as brushing your teeth at the bathroom sink before you go to bed (hopefully you do that, or the equivalent, already).
CLOSING THE GAPS, MY OWN HABIT-BUILDING INTENTIONS
I should note here that I haven’t yet established a rock-solid meditation routine for myself. I keep waffling on the time — morning or evening — and end up only meditating three or four days a week. The benefits I perceive when I meditate (even if just for a few minutes) are so enormous that it’s insane for me not to close this gap.
Writing every morning — another behavior I’m still working on cementing. Too often I end up checking email, reading news feeds, responding to a client request, or getting distracted by one of a dozen other projects. When I do write in the morning, it colors the entire day. Even if I only write a few crap paragraphs, I still feel a sense of accomplishment that stays with me regardless of what else happens that day.
Why wouldn’t I meditate and write every day? Both behaviors pay obvious, immediate dividends. While I take 100% responsibility for my own behavior, I don’t believe that I control my own behavior 100% — “I” am a chaotic network of warring motivational subcenters. But to the extent that I can actually steer myself — to act as a fully conscious human being — I see value in establishing both behaviors as more-or-less permanent aspects of my daily routine.