Forming a habit

One of the things I love to do is watch videos on productivity. I love YouTubers that talk about ways in which one can improve one’s life. I love TED Talks (even the ones I don’t necessarily agree with entirely). I am not a very productive person. None of this comes naturally to me. I am inherently lazy and I hate doing anything that makes me uncomfortable. I am trying to change that though. I think I said sometime before – when I was talking about the Butterfly Man – how the biggest favour you can do to yourself is picking something and committing to it. Don’t get distracted, cut out the white noise and focus on what is important to you. From all my informational and motivational video binging I think I have something else to add to this. Summed up, the trick also involves consistency.

I just got done with watching James Clear give a talk on how we should strive to be “1% better everyday.” For those of you who know, this is also, broadly, the central theme of the wildly successful book called ‘Atomic Habits’. If you didn’t know, and this is the first time you are hearing this title, I suggest you check it out. It makes a lot of extremely valid points. Anyway, back to Mr. Clear.

The talk is centred on habit formation – and how we can trick ourselves (maybe trick isn’t the right word) into forming good ones. There are apparently four stages to habit formation; (1) noticing, (2) wanting, (3) doing and (4) liking.

In order to form a habit you need to first notice that you need a change. You will never want to get into the habit of working out if you do not think there is anything wrong with your lifestyle. If you do not notice something that needs changing, it will never be changed. Bit of a no-brainer. A habit I want to change? My drinking habit. I want to cut alcohol out of my life entirely at this point. But for me to get to this point of wanting to form a habit of sobriety, I had to first notice there is something wrong with my life as it stands now.

The next stage is wanting. Just to be clear this is not the same as wanting to make a change in your life, or wanting to transform your life, or wanting to become extremely rich. Let us face it, most of us want to change in some way or the other. No, wanting here means wanting to indulge in the habit in the first place. For example – the idea is not to want to be fitter. The idea is to focus on wanting to work out. Being focused on the end goal is a recipe for disaster from what I gathered. I want to build a library. This is the end goal. The habit that will lead me to build up a library is making a list of 5-10 books I want to read every month and purchasing them at the beginning of the month.

Then there is the ‘doing’ bit. This is pretty self-explanatory too. You have to keep it up. Clear says a very interesting thing in his talk. The reason so many of us form bad habits so quickly is because the ‘reward’ is immediate and the ‘cost’ is delayed; as opposed to good habits where the ‘cost’ is immediate and the ‘reward’ is delayed. There are days when I don’t feel like keeping up with my reading habit. There is no immediate reward there. The cost is obvious – it takes up time, effort and some form of energy (if you can call lying on your ass all day that). The reward is far removed. I may, at some point in the future, at some party, get to sound marginally wittier than the people around me. On the other hand, spending the whole day watching YouTube videos (which ironically is all I have done today) has the immediate reward of stimulation (I think) but a delayed cost of having wasted many days doing this instead of something productive. You get my point.

The last stage I think is to actually like the process. Why would you want to form a habit if you are not enjoying either the process of the habit formation or the end result? Makes no sense.

There is also this really good YouTuber who spoke about her version of incorporating these steps into your life (it is also sometimes referred to as the “billionaire algorithm”). At the end of the talk though, Clear specifies that simply watching a ton of motivational stuff won’t get you anywhere, you have to be willing to actually take the steps and make the changes. That is the stage I am currently on, so we will see how it goes. The watching motivational videos stage that is, not the making changes stage.

We all have a pattern

I am sure we have a lot of patterns. I want to talk about the one all of us have in common. The pattern we all follow, and that eventually makes us feel like we are stuck, that we won’t ever be able to do anything new or anything worthwhile.

I don’t usually start my day with such depressing thoughts, but I stumbled upon an article while I was drinking my morning coffee. Oh, side note, morning coffee is a whole thing with me now. When I was working I would drink coffee only for sustenance. To keep myself awake. I would drink anything that had coffee in it – and honestly, I have had some pretty unappetising variations of the beverage as a result of this attitude. But now, I really take an interest in my coffee. I try to look up the different brands of coffee. I have even gone to the extent of exploring buying coffee beans and making the entire drink from scratch. I look up recipes for the kinds of coffee I can have – sometimes moving by geography (I’ll tell you about these recipes someday). This newfound attitude about coffee has made the whole experience so much more enjoyable. I guess this is what people mean when they say we need to romanticise the mundane. Like should look like a studio Ghibli film. But back to the topic at hand.

The article said there is a reason – a pattern all of us follow – that makes most of us fail at whatever we start. There are stages to this process of failing.

The first stage is the beginning. Everything looks good at the beginning, and who doesn’t get excited to start something new? Like the excitement I felt when I started researching options for my masters education. Every programme looked better than the last one. I would get excited just looking at pictures of students smiling in sunny avenues (no doubt fake pictures) and imagining all the fun I will have once I get into this school, or get into that programme.

The second stage is when you start to see progress. Checked this box too. Say, every time I start a painting, my favourite part is over-lining the pencil sketch with a black marker / black paint. It makes the painting come alive, while at the same time enough of it remains unfinished that you can imagine how pretty it will look once it has been finished (it rarely ever looks that good once it is genuinely completed). Progress excites me, because now I can imagine how the end result might look without actually having put in the effort.

Progress makes us happy, and this leads to the third stage of becoming cocky. If you start from zero everything is going to be an achievement. It is much harder to stay on the course and stay consistent. This is where the real hard work starts. I know they all say that starting is half the job done, but I disagree with that. I think starting is about 30% of the job and the rest is to keep the momentum going. This is when things start to slow down, and stuff gets boring. I think this is also where a lot of people give up. I know I certainly do – for a lot of the projects I start. If you saw how many unfinished paintings sit in my studio, you’d know. There is something thankless about this stage of progress, and I think it takes a lot of internal conviction to keep going. This is where we lost motivation, and that eventually leads to the end of that project.

The thing then to do is to figure out the why of any project you may pick up. Apparently the worst reasons for doing anything are fame and money. We all know this internally, yes, but it does get hard to stay focused on other things. Like with this blog. The reason I started this blog was because I was lonely and I had a lot of things to talk about but I didn’t want to disturb my friends with it. I love to consume media – but I did not want to be a passive consumer anymore; I wanted to think about the things I was consuming and talk about them constructively. Lastly, I wanted to become more comfortable with putting myself out there, and improve my writing style in the process, if possible. I think that is possibly why this project has gone on longer than most of my other projects. So, maybe that is good advice.

I haven’t summarised the whole article, but here is the original one in case you are interested.