On forming Forever Habits

Several years ago, I found myself in the predicament of being unable to read nonfiction books. I could, of course, read the words just fine, but the act of sitting and reading one page after another stirred an overwhelming anxiety: I knew so little and learning took so long. Each sentence I read was a tiny drop in a bucket the size of a rapidly expanding universe (a metaphor which reminded me of astrophysics, another subject I’d like to learn, but how long would that take???). Turning each page felt like confronting the utter meaninglessness and pointlessness of my small, stupid existence.

So I’d shut the book and walk away.

When I realized I was stuck in a self-reinforcing cage of ignorance, I became motivated to overcome it. I decided that, no matter what, I would read for 30 minutes every day for a month. As a visual reminder of my commitment, I got a calendar and crossed a big X through each day after completing the reading.

And even though reading was still uncomfortable for the first few times, I got through my resistance pretty quickly. I stopped paying attention to my universe of ignorance and instead started paying attention to all the exciting new ideas rushing into my awareness.

The first book I read during this month was The Power of Habit. In it, Charles Duhigg argues that we have limited conscious attention and willpower to make decisions, thus the majority of what we do every day happens out of habit. He concludes that if we use our limited willpower to create our habits, we can effectively program our lives.

I was sold.

The author suggested you could form a habit in 30 days, so I got a big calendar that showed all 12 months at once. I made a list of 12 habits I’d like to adopt and chose one new habit for each month. And then I sat back to install 12 new habits, easy as crossing one day off after the next.

But… it didn’t work like that. Meditation didn’t stick around long once the 30 days were up. Journaling, gratitude, avoiding sugar… these too quickly evaporated from my life once I moved onto my next pet habit.

In fact, the only habit that stuck around from that year was my first habit: reading. But… that’s ok, reading has been a pretty great habit. Heck, if I could adopt one new habit every year as helpful as reading, I’d be thrilled.

But still, what happened with those other habits—why didn’t they stick?

The Power of Habit prescribes a queue, habit, reward formula. Queue is what reminds you to perform the habit. Then, after performing the habit, you’re supposed to get some reward to incentivize you to repeat the habit again. Y’know, like training dogs.

I peered into how that model was at play in my successful reading habit:

In my month of 30 minutes of reading per day, I had been quick to find a hack: audiobooks. If I just put audiobooks on while driving, I didn’t have to change anything else in my life to meet my reading time quota. Were audiobooks as nerd-sexy as the physical variety? Definitely not. But, whatever worked.

And worked it did. Quickly I found myself listening anytime I feasibly could—walking, driving, cooking, eating meals, cleaning.

So the queue for my reading habit was being a situation where my body was occupied with a task but my attention was free.

I didn’t need to ladle out treats after each reading session—the reward was intrinsic in the reading itself. Every time I read I would be rewarded by shiny, new fun ideas in my head. (This echoes Naval’s advice that, to build the habit of reading, you should read whatever you are most interested in, even if that means beginning by reading trashy novels. He advises to build up a sense of enjoyment of reading, so skip anything boring or tedious, and never feel compelled to finish anything.)

In the charmingly anecdotal Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin argues that you should never use extrinsic rewards to reinforce habits. From my own experience, I have found this to be very true:

One evening in high school, after reading something about using rewards to get yourself to do something, I ate a bowl of ice cream to prod myself into cramming for a pre-calc exam. Fast forward 15 years and I’m still unravelling the compulsion to pair the endorphin rush of a sugar high with tackling tough work. Looking back, I wish I would have instead committed to just 20 minutes of study (“it’s just 20 minutes, after that I can take a break”), set a timer, and afterwards reward myself by reflecting on how good it feels having faced a challenge head-on.

So when I was recently building a habit of regularly hitting the gym, I looked at how to build in a reward that would keep me hooked on the habit. I knew I didn’t want an extrinsic reward of, say, a smoothie at the end. So instead, when I was leaving the gym I would consciously think positive and affirming things. Like, “Wow, look how on top of things I am. Most of my life I’ve struggled to regularly work out, but here I am. Things must be going well.” So the reward became my feeling positive about my ability to achieve my hopes for my life, which was far more motivating than any treat. This reward also helped motivate me to go to the gym when I was tired or grumpy: I knew I would feel better after going.

The other thing that helped me form a gym habit was not making it too hard. Previously I tried to start an exercise habit by jumping into high-intensity programs that I would participate in with maximum enthusiasm until I overexerted myself and had to drop out due to injury or just having run out of enthusiasm for intense unpleasant experiences.

So this time I instead decided that I was forming a habit of going to the gym for the rest of my life. Because it was a lifetime habit, the intensity of any one workout didn’t really matter—what mattered was that I enjoyed going to the gym and that I worked out in a sustainable fashion. The goal became not to have a great workout but to just show up. My workouts weren’t efficient, I wasn’t getting ripped, but I was enjoying myself and coming back. And 20 years of consistent easy workouts will do me better than 20 years of occasional intense exercise. And so working out became less about the workout and more about the habit of arriving at the gym even if I didn’t feel like it.

This focus on the long view made me realize: I don’t want to focus on short-term behavioral change. I don’t want to do a Whole 30 or a sober October. I don’t want to prepare for a marathon or lose 10 pounds for a wedding. I don’t want to do anything where I use short-term enthusiasm for a short-term result. I want to use every ounce of my enthusiasm for better behavior to build permanent automatic daily actions.

Like with building the habit of meditation:

The day after completing my first 10-day Vipassana retreat, I committed to sitting for 45 minutes each morning and evening. I sat silent and virtuous, confident that my devoted meditation practice would become the calm groundedness I would build a meaningful life upon.

This routine lasted for a whole (very lovely) 1.5 days.

So when I took up meditation again, I took it up with the view of making it a forever habit. I decided that I meditate because I always meditate. If I stopped the habit, I would just start it back up again as soon as I noticed, just like how in meditation you come back to the object of meditation whenever you find yourself lost in thought. And instead of 45 minutes, I aimed for just 5 minutes. After all, unlike 45 minutes, I really can’t argue that I don’t have 5 minutes.

Interestingly, with the attitude of lifelong commitment, I finally started seeing benefits from my meditation practice. I started “waking up” in my everyday life. I would find myself standing in the kitchen drying my hands and I would just start watching, quietly observing. Or I would find myself in a surge of emotion and step back and watch my breath, waiting for the storm to pass. And one morning I felt an overwhelming sense of peace wash over me. I could see how one could remain calm and peaceful even as the world goes to hell. This was the peace described in all those books on meditation I had read in lieu of actually meditating.

I see habits now as a lifelong practice: Pick the habits you want to cultivate and do your best to water them every day. If you stray from your habits, come back and begin at them again, because they reflect your values and your values are always there, an endless source of enthusiasm for the activities that best reflect your authentic self.

On failing to be the change you wish to see in the world

Chris Jordan, Midway

Several years ago after watching a video, I deliberately erected a bubble of ignorance around environmental issues. This video, not four minutes long, showed that birds on a tiny remote island were dying. Their corpses decayed to reveal a skeleton stuffed with an assortment of colorful plastic rings and caps and doo-dads.

I was depressed for months after watching it. I didn’t want to be in a species so careless and cruel. These birds… just following instincts to eat. And this plastic… used so flippantly, each piece just one thoughtless moment in one person’s life.

I resolved to stop consuming single-use plastic. I was determined. I would do it! And yet all that determination dissolved a mere 48 hours later, buckled by a mundane desire for some food dressed in plastic wrap.

But what was worse than my personal plastic consumption was my livelihood: my job was literally to sell (more and more!) glass bottles with little black plastic caps. Black plastic caps that would exist for thousands of years as false food for undiscerning mouths.

Here I was, the person stuffing an increasing quantity of plastic caps into these birds stomachs.

Hello, I am the problem. 👋

**

I didn’t know how to deal with discovering I was the villain. I didn’t mean to be the villain—I had obtained that job from the sincerest desire to find a way to make a living doing something good in the world. The bottles I was selling were from a company trying to protect endangered plant species by supporting their sustainable agriculture. “People, planet, profit”—I thought it was possible. This job was supposed to be my way of making a difference.

With the new information about the problem with plastics, I should have dropped everything and devoted my life to pursuing better eco-plastic solutions and their adoption. But I was tired and busy and stressed, and honestly more than a little worried about money. The hard thing to do was figure out a way to help. The easy thing to do was to just shut my eyes.

I followed the path of least resistance. I made my eyes blur over environmental headlines. I found a few organizations working on solutions and sent money to those better, stronger people who were capable of keeping their eyes and minds open when looking at a problem.

And that’s how I lived with myself without changing much.

I told myself: things aren’t black and white, good and bad. It’s a complicated world in shades of gray.

I told myself: humans are just one step in the process of evolution, and we’re making all this plastic for a new type of microbe that will eat all the plastic and evolve into some new line of plastic-based life form. After all, we’re literally taking all the remains from species past and creating plastic with it. We are nature itself in the process of self-transformation. Yes, it looks like death and destruction, but this is how nature is. And the sun will eat the earth one day, anyway.

I told myself: everything will die and nothing lasts—why not sell some plastic bottle caps before the heat death of the universe?

These stories helped me hide from my disappointment that I was not a better person who would drop everything and spend my life fighting plastics in the ocean. I was no person of virtue; I actually did not really care; I was too weak to overcome the inertia of my selfishness, apathy, and averageness. And even this bitter news wouldn’t motivate me to change my behavior. I would suffer only the mildest of inconveniences to care for the earth and its beings.

I told myself: Only rare humans succeed in spending their lives doing something other than following their evolutionary impulses. My averageness really does make sense, statistically.

**

Several years later, I had made a nice life on this foundation of stories. It wasn’t perfect, but it was… good. I had puzzled out something of a career. I had discovered the lively and livable Berlin, escaping the US and the constant reminder of Trump’s election. I had even at last tracked down a shampoo that spun my frizz into ringlets 2/3 washings.

I was one of the billions whose life seemed to promise getting better. I turned the pages of Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, grinning at how lucky I was to be born at the feet of unrelenting progress. I drifted to sleep dreaming of how I would one day improve the conditions of factory-farmed animals, own an apartment, and cross Tokyo off my must-see list. The future was bright.

It was in this phase of optimism that I decided it was stupid to willfully keep myself ignorant of environmental issues. I was stronger now. I could handle the truth.

But, as I turned the pages of The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, a book that translates the science of climate change into its likely consequences, I learned that while I had been getting stronger, the truth had been getting more unbearable.

Re-envisioning my future as a future with climate change felt a bit like a mother being informed she would miscarry. An expecting mother, excited for a beautiful next chapter in her life, receives news that there are… problems. That future she was so sure was right around the corner was… a dream. And while reorienting herself to this new bleak reality, it dawns on her that she still has to go through the motions of delivering a baby anyhow.

Likewise, the happy life I was looking forward to was in a world that would not exist. The world that would exist was one with increasing millions of displaced people, food and water shortages, and regular catastrophic weather events—all of these forces making peace and prosperity that much more difficult.

The world was fucked, and like how the mother of a dead baby had to deliver it all the same, I had to keep up the act of paying rent in an unfolding tragedy.

I had not taken action years ago, I had not helped humanity find a way to reconcile endless economic growth with a finite environment. And now we—everyone busy and stressed and tired and worried about money—are on a fast track to a really shitty reality.

And my life, if my previous actions are a reliable predictor, won’t help a thing.


Afterword: This post was written as an exercise to examine my frustrations and hopefully see beyond my blinding feelings of guilt and hopelessness. Writing it helped me to start letting go of my anger about my past inaction and renewed my commitment to help protect the environment. Instead of feeling like I have to do everything to help, I am focusing on what I can do right now. So for now my focus is on avoiding animal products, avoiding flying whenever possible, hosting clothing swaps to promote reuse, and donating a % of my income to organizations who are making meaningful change.

If you’re interested in these topics, here’s some things to check out:

5Gyres is an organization that helps spread awareness on the issues of plastic.

Cool Earth halts rainforest deforestation and thus climate change.

Giving What We Can is an organization that promotes donating 10% of your income as a way to create positive change. Giving What We Can was eye-opening to me because I realized that without changing much in my life now, I can work to empower others to make a difference.

The Uninhabitable Earth is a great article that covers the 101 of why to care about climate change. If you want to dig more into the details, the book under the same name is likewise stellar (and beautifully written).

“Digital Minimalism” by Cal Newport

Cal Newport is probably the current “thought leader” whose convictions I am most sold on, but despite numerous rereadings of Deep Work, I’ve failed to live up to the practices he prescribes. In Digital Minimalism, Newport attempts to help people like me close the gap, providing mindsets and strategies for fighting back against the digital empires making a killing off our time and attention.

Instead of arguing for a black-and-white “just quit social media,” like he does in Deep Work, in Digital Minimalism Newport takes a more nuanced approach and provides convincing arguments to help you rethink your time on social media and the internet and evaluate how your online habits can best serve you.

What value does social media bring to your life and at what cost? If you are looking for social connections, you are much more likely to be satisfied by having real real-life face-to-face interactions. In fact, your brain has evolved to do such a thing. As Newport illustrates—going to see a new mother will do more to bring you closer to her than a hundred “so sweet!” comments on her Instagram photos. Newport recommends a zero-sum game: use social media for what singular benefits it provides, and don’t use it one second longer. Instead, spend your life on activities that serve your values best.

Newport argues that a lot of the reasons why we pour our time into activities like social media, online streaming, and video games is because we have failed to cultivate our leisure lives and we’re just defaulting to whatever requires the least amount of thinking.

I was always of the mind that, especially as an introvert, I needed a lot of unstructured downtime in order to rest and recharge. But with Newport’s insights, I’ve become aware of how, although I do feel rested after a weekend spent mindlessly browsing blogs and tweets, I don’t feel especially satisfied. While it feels nice to let my attention scamper freely, it feels draining to put so much precious free time into activities of such little consequence. (“What am I doing with my life? Why do my goals always feel reserved for ‘someday‘?”) The weekends that feel most satisfying are those where I do something new that’s a bit outside my comfort zone, make a significant contribution to a personal project, or actually do something to contribute to someone else’s day. Often the route to such satisfying activities is paved with thoughts like, “Oh, I wish I could just stay home,” and “maybe I can abandon this for Netflix.” So I’ve started putting conscious attention into figuring out what it is that I want to spend my free time on, being aware that I might need to overcome some internal resistance to make new activities happen.

Newport says doing “high-def” activities that use your body in 3-D space and/or in-person social activities are usually the most rewarding. (He recommends taking up fixing things yourself… I promptly ignored that recommendation.) For my first go at filling my schedule with high-quality leisure time that reflects my values, I decided to try the following:

  • attend a public speaking meetup twice per month (social and dedicates a few evenings to my goal of speaking publicly sans panic attack).
  • review other upcoming meetups each week. Attend one once per week (pursues my goal of learning and meeting new people).
  • replace Netflix with high-quality videos, podcasts, or board games several nights per week (pursues my goal of learning and spending quality time).
  • attend two writing meetups on the weekend (gives me the satisfaction of making progress on my writing projects, definitely one of my values).
  • instead of listening to an audiobook while cooking, pay attention and try new recipes (gives me some mental space and also helps me focus on my goal to become a better cook).
  • use Duolingo on the tram (gives the feeling of a fun game while making progress on my goal to learn German. Deciding on just one activity for the tram saves me from the irritating habit of switching from reading to chat to email while I wonder what to do with my commute time).
  • replace idle evening and weekend blog and Twitter time with learning Python (harvesting wasted hours into pursuing a goal).
  • replace solo gym or run time with group training or yoga classes (more satisfying—social interaction and better workouts).

Newport also discusses the importance of solitude. Not physically being alone, but being alone with your thoughts—no podcast on your headphones, no blog in your face, no checking your phone (not even to find the next perfect track on Spotify!). Newport goes as far as suggesting taking long walks without your phone (the horrors!). I tried this and discovered that, while I usually dedicate my walking time to becoming more informed by listening to podcasts or audiobooks, without any input I would start to coming to my own answers and unearth my own wisdom. It was like the process of solitude was a way to find the backbone of my mind—the convictions of my own being.

While I really wish Newport had commented on workplace chat (e.g., Slack), he did give me an insight that I found useful. Ever since reading Deep Work I’ve been struggling to get myself to stop checking work chat frequently. My cycle of constantly interrupting my work by checking chat destroys the periods of deep focus that I crave. Even with all notifications off, I find checking work chat really difficult to resist. Newport’s insight is that our brain is wired that when we receive a message from someone online, our brains interpret that as a tribe member at the campfire saying something to you. It would be rude—and risky to your survival—to not immediately answer that person. And I realize that this is how I feel. When I close chat with the aim to do a good chunk of uninterrupted focused time, even though I’m doing it to better complete the work I was hired to do, I can’t help but worry that there’s something urgent going on and people will think I’m not working or don’t care if I don’t answer them right away. I hope that having this understanding of why my brain is reluctant to being away from chat will help me be okay with keeping chat to predetermined time windows and protect the remainder of my work hours for concentrating deeply on one single task at a time.

Besides work chat, the other digital activity whose addictive nature negatively impacts my goals is Twitter. The problem with Twitter is that the barrier to entry is so trivial, and yet there’s some illusion that the witty comment that it took you almost no time to think up will get you ahead. Ahead of what, exactly? Sure Twitter can be helpful in getting a job or a book deal or influencing people, but you know what’s way more helpful for that? Spending that time, unfractured, doing hard work that cannot be replaced by any number of witty hot takes. If you want to actually be socially influential, take the time you would spend on Twitter and use that instead on actually developing relationships with people, learning what they’re working on, and helping them.

Despite my convictions on this, I’m still figuring out how to overcome my Twitter addiction. It would be easiest if I could just leave Twitter and never look at it again, but my job entails being on the social media platform, and having a personal account is helpful to promote tweets or interact with someone’s comments. (Also, like I said: I’m addicted.) Attetmpts to make my personal account for only work-necessary conversations quickly spins out and I find my time being edged in by Twitter’s endless stream of D-grade content. For now I’m hoping that filling my schedule with high-quality leisure activities will help me adopt new habits and edge out the Twitter grind, but I probably need to think of better techniques to prevent my time from being sucked up by the platform. If you have any suggestions for how to take advantage of Twitter’s benefits while mitigating its strong negatives, email me at alex at [this domain].

Anyway, those are my takeaways from the book. I highly recommend you read Digital Minimalism as well as Deep Work. They both have good audiobook versions, are well-written, and imho contain some of the most important ideas for anyone trying to do anything of consequence in our current digital age.

Some thoughts on travel

2017-2018 was the first time that I seriously traveled. When digital nomad blogs told me I could have a glamorous life working remotely and building a business from exotic locations, I made the leap.

Hong Kong

I felt both ashamed that it took me so long to dismantle my ignorance of the world and humbly privileged to do so—guilty knowing that it’s untenable for most people to travel widely, and if everyone were to spend so many days with their bodies propelled into the sky by gallons of jet fuel, the environment would be in even greater peril.

Dresden

There’s some perception in the American psyche that countries outside of the United States are unsafe. I was scared to leave home and travel alone. I ran through disaster scenario after disaster scenario, trying to figure out how to prepare myself.

Chiang Mai

I traveled to relatively safe countries, but it was interesting to notice that I never felt any more unsafe than I had in the United States.

Paris

Instead of dangerous situations, I found kind and helpful people wherever I went—like the couple in Chiang Mai who returned to me the two thousand baht I had somehow overpaid for my monthly room.

Poznań

Travel is a way to discover that the world is full of people you can be friends with if you take the time to get to know them. Most people are likable, clever, and have a new perspective to show you.

New York City

Another American perception is that everyone is trying to come to the United States. No. Everyone in the world is trying to find a better life, which often means going elsewhere.

Austin

European and American 20-somethings flee the cost or cold of their home cities and flood Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Lisbon, and Ho Chi Minh City. San Franciscan tech workers flock to Austin’s cheap rents. The children of rural farmers come to the cities for better jobs. The Polish come to Germany or the UK and the Ukrainians come to Poland.

Berlin

And people seemingly from every European country plus 20 more come to Berlin. Nowhere is staying the same, nor has it ever stayed the same for long, depending on your perspective of time.

London

There’s no culture to hang onto, everything has always been changing. The only decent thing to do as a country is lead the way in helping everyone become better educated, more able to create value for others, and supported to help the next generation thrive.

Chiang Mai

Having settled in Berlin, I am so grateful for how hospitable the city is to its English-speaking immigrants. I think often about how truly challenging it would be to come to the United States without knowing English. I have the greatest respect for countries who help immigrants and refugees make a home in their lands.

Amsterdam

Travel is a way to dispel any ignorance about there being a best city or country. Each has its own virtues and shadows. Each has its own spirit that’s so palpable those first few weeks, but after months simply becomes a part of you—the air oxygenating your blood. And I think most places can become home, if you give yourself enough time for everything to become familiar.

Barcelona

Slow travel is vastly better than a week-long sightseeing blur. Staying for months in one place allows your immediate perceptions to mellow and the place as it really is comes to live inside you. In some ideal life, I would love to live in one new place every year, seeing the place dressed in all its seasons.

Kowloon

But despite the amazingness of travel—moments like standing in Hong Kong streets gaping up at the mile-high apartment complexes, a tower of dirty AC units, thinking about all those lives and at last seeing the absurdity in your sense of significance—despite experiences like that, there’s that cliché about how changing your outer environment doesn’t make you happy.

Tenerife

(Apparently part of getting older is kicking yourself over the decades it took you to learn the wisdom in the clichés you’ve brushed aside all those years, arrogantly thinking you understand or that they don’t apply to you.)

Tachileik, Myanmar

As I watched the outer landscape change from city to city, sometimes getting what I wanted and sometimes not, always my mind was there, looking for problems, seeing dissatisfaction in any landscape.

Barcelona

The photos don’t show the exhaustion of trying to find an affordable roach-free, quiet bedroom during peak tourist season, or the gnawing anxiety of trying to figure out what it is you’re doing searching from place to place, or the feeling of homesickness that surges with every sight of a plane overhead.

Prague

And so I think it’s ideal to travel extensively both outside own’s home and inside own’s mind. Yet I also have come to appreciate not doing any of that and just treading water in the mundane. The scared animal of my being likes routine, security, a sense of purpose in a tribe.

Paris

And I find that when I have a stable home and get into a routine, I start making progress in my life, using the momentum of the days to fight my bad habits, and slowly shape the weeks and months into something that might be helpful to someone.

Rome

And I guess that’s what inner and outer exploration is about to me: gaining perspective so that you can better see reality and understand how to make use of yourself and your time here.

Puck, Poland

When the years tamed me

I used to think that a strategy for success was throwing every ounce of my being at something. And so I’d live off caffeine and sugar and spend every waking moment working at something. And what I focused on would slowly become successful, but I as a person would not be successful.

Begrudgingly, I’ve come to accept I’m the parent to a body that I never asked for and don’t particularly want. And this body wants rest and movement and routine and nutrition and sleep and being with people, and it throws tantrums if I disobey its needs.

Life is easy the hard way and hard the easy way, or so they say.

And so I reluctantly accept the responsibility of being a parent to myself. So I show up at the gym and do the exercises promised to make my back stop hurting. And I try to resist checking for notifications and incoming messages and let my dopamine-addicted monkey mind sustain periods of concentration long enough to get something done. I try, again and again, to get up the will to prevent desiring sugar by not eating sugar, simple and stupid as any addict trying to trade desire for peace. I put time and energy and care into being in a relationship because I realize that my fantasy of being perfectly fine alone is… a fantasy. And I make myself sit still and watch my breath, inhale and exhale, inhale exhale, inhale exhale, inhale exhale, inhale—oh look at this amazing thought, wow let’s think about that—wait no! Inhale exhale, inhale exhale, inhale exhale… and I detach a bit and I stop being this annoying, wanting self, at least for that moment.

And I start thinking that getting old might not be that bad if this is what it is, releasing the fantasy of what life could be if only, and finding contentment in the ordinary struggle of what is.