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 cue, habit, reward formula. Cue 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 cue 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).

Is this moment over yet? Reflections on a 10-day silent Vipassana retreat

Meditation was always something reserved for my ideal self, the self that was ten pounds slimmer and religiously followed a budget. So I was intrigued when my friend said he never could meditate before the retreat, but after it, he regularly meditated an hour or more. I wanted to try it. But finding a spare ten days with no internet connection? That took me five years.

Leading up to the retreat, I figured I should meditate to prepare. So I set an alarm for ten minutes. No problem, just ten minutes.

Hmm it’s been a while. Maybe my alarm isn’t working. I should check.

Do I really need to che–

Oh look, it’s been four minutes. I have six minutes left.

Hmmm maybe this is good enough.

Yup, my meditation practice was like that. So it came as no surprise that the first three days were incredibly difficult. I felt like I was breaking my mind, forcing it to PAY ATTENTION. Just focus on the breath. There’s the breath, there’s the– HEY! STOP SINGING TAYLOR SWIFT SONGS.

“The mind is in the past or the future. It’s never in the present,” said S. N. Goenka, the teacher. Or something like that. I’m not sure, they wouldn’t let us take notes. Or write anything. Or read. Or run. Or do yoga. Or speak.

But I was rarely bored. Struggling with my mind was immensely entertaining. It wasn’t pleasurable by any means, but it did a great job occupying my attention.

I expected I would spend the whole week in some great peace. And there were moments of that. There were moments walking through the forest where I would watch each tree coming closer and closer and then passing behind me. And there was nothing else but that experience.

There was a moment watching the late afternoon sun through the leaves when I realized that all I needed to be fulfilled was to be present. All my yearning for money or possessions or status or love was just a misguided substitute for just. being. here. Totally aware.

From that experience, I felt myself change. My goals were different. I saw myself in a garden being present. The ego and greed and desire melted away. Or at least some of it did.

But getting to that stillness took hours. Hours of suffering, hours of commanding myself to not move, hours of guilt when I’d let my mind scamper hungrily out of the present.

Halfway through the retreat, I felt I could access any childhood memory. All the random moments I assumed I would never remember came flooding back. My mind loved presenting me with memories because I would drop the meditation to pay attention to them.

I came to distrust my mind. You know the super weird, random stuff you get in dreams? Well it turns out you also get that stuff when you’re meditating for hours on end. Images of pandas came out of nowhere. What’s with the pandas, mind? (No answer.) Then there were lots of images of cats. Not any cat I knew. Just randomly generated cat images. Striped cats. Cute cats. Cats gazing at me, wondering what I was doing.

My favorite mental image was of me as a child, drawing with a crayon over the meditation hall walls. Drawing a line portraying the hills and valleys of my breath rising, falling, rising, falling.

I’m glad no one told me how hard it was. It was so. hard. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I kept expecting someone to jump up and run out of the meditation hall, screaming, “I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE!!!”

But no one did.

I was impressed by my fellow meditators. They were into it. They were committed. They were inspiring.

Then there was the weird shit that happened.

One day I got out of the meditation hall and couldn’t find my shoes. Did someone take them by accident? Then where were the shoes they had? I couldn’t figure it out. I searched and searched. Eventually, I decided to walk barefoot back to my tent for my other shoes. All over the stones and the pine cones. Ow ow ow ow. Later that day I discovered my shoes outside the bathroom, right where I had left them earlier that morning before going to meditate. This would mean that either: I would have had to walk really far barefoot on stones and pine cones without noticing, OR some magical thing had magically transported my shoes from the meditation hall back to the bathroom.

I still can’t decide what happened.

One day we were watching the video instruction of the teacher (the majority of the instruction is by video recording of Goenka filmed in the early 90s. Surprisingly, it works). Suddenly the entire room changed to look like a palace in a spirit world. I saw the image of Goenka floating above me, still the video but suddenly as if he was coming through space and time to speak to me directly. He was talking about karma. He was talking to my soul about karma.

And then there was the night that I was completely sure I was going insane. I started getting paranoid. Who is this organization? What kind of organization takes all these random people and houses and feeds them and teaches them torturous meditation techniques for ten days without payment up front? Everyone is silent! I can’t talk to anyone! I can’t trust any of these people. The fear and anxiety mounted. I felt like I was about to break. I need to leave tomorrow. As soon as it’s light, I’m going to leave.

But the next morning I felt fine. Okay, maybe I’ll stick with it. Only six days left. By the sixth day, I was stable enough in the silence of myself that I let the material come up. I cried and released. It was hard, but I felt free.

Several weeks after the retreat, while I’m not enlightened, I do feel a change. I’m more able to sit with situations that make me uncomfortable. I was driving through traffic and I just hated it. It was dark and an unfamiliar highway and traffic and I was late and it just felt so uncomfortable and overwhelming.

And my mind said, “This will pass.”

And I breathed and felt the sensations of my discomfort and just was present. And it passed.

This whole life is uncomfortable and uncontrollable and an infinite loop of desire and aversion. And I don’t know the answer or the meaning to it all, but breathing and feeling sensation is like finding a home in the quiet eye of an inescapable storm.

Interested in having this type of experience yourself? See dhamma.org for information on Vipassana meditation retreats. There are tons of locations around the world and all retreats are by donation.