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On Habits (+ Feb 2022 NMR)

I've been doing New Month Resolutions for more than two years now, with moderate success. I've started remembering my dreams; I learned to whistle (badly); I got into (and subsequently lost) a habit of playing piano to the point to where I could play one of my favorite tunes; I experimented with various diets and health advice; and more. In the first year (2020), NMR was largely focused on experimentation: what have I not tried, what advice have I not explored? The second year (2021) was more focused on habits: going to the gym more, not picking my nails, drinking enough water, etc. Both have their merits. Most things dropped off, some things stuck, but it's been a fun adventure and it gives me something to look forward to as I mark the months.

This past year has gotten me thinking a lot about habits, both good ones and bad ones, and how we build and break them. The conventional wisdom seems to be that you either have a habit or you don't--which is to say, you either do X automatically (barring some exceptional circumstances), or you exert effort to make X happen. But I've come to realize that it's more complicated (everything is a spectrum). A better picture than this two-box image includes a middle option. I posit three levels of "habit":

  • Advanced habit: something you do automatically without thinking about it (e.g. a routine of waking up at 7AM or looking at your phone when you go to the toilet). These are the easiest because they're already ingrained in your psyche and your routine. If these are bad habits, then they are the hardest to break because you do them without thinking.

  • Intermediate habit: something you do with some regularity, but which easily comes undone if you fail to check in regularly (e.g. reading before bed or blogging). If your routine gets disrupted, these are the first to go; for example, if you take a vacation and stop reading before bed, you might have to start from scratch when you return.

  • Low-level habit: something you need to keep compelling yourself to do, lest it drops off your radar completely (e.g. a strict diet or attending a boring but useful foreign language course). These take consistent effort to maintain, and you likely can only keep a few of them going before they either move to Intermediate (good!) or drop off your radar entirely (bad!).

The category for each example is ambiguous and will vary with the person, but I hope you get what I mean. Low-level habits are lead weights you carry each day; intermediate habits are balloons you need to occasionally tap to keep in the air; advanced habits birds which soar without your intervention. Lower levels can be raised to higher levels by application of greater effort; higher levels naturally fall, quickly from Intermediate level and slowly from Advanced, but they all fall if neglected too long.

There's of course an unspoken fourth category: Neglect, wherein the "habit" isn't even on your radar anymore. It can take a lot of time to dig something out of the Neglected category. In terms of effort, the four categories constitute a U-shaped trajectory: low-to-no-effort in the Advanced and Neglected categories (for opposite reasons), high effort in Low category, and low-to-medium effort for Intermediate.

Comme ça:

The goal must be, then, to maximize the height of your habits on this scale, while minimizing your effort. Effort and will-power are unsustainable, finite resources; use them only when absolutely necessary. If you are having trouble managing your habits, you might think about changing your focus: if everything is Intermediate or Low, you are exerting a lot of effort keeping the balloons in the air. You might be better off focusing on a few stronger ones to get them to Advanced, then use the excess time to improve on the others.

Or, if you're really struggling, the first thing to do might be to let a few Low-Level habits drop. It's hard, but if you do it with purpose, you can use the strength you recover to propel other habits you've prioritized. Use this tip with caution, and don't just use it to give up on stuff. Do Your Best and all that.

The whole thing is, in the long-enough run, unsustainable; you can't keep everything going if you have to always exert effort. That's why many people (rightly) suggest to change your environment to more quickly make progress. Put your gym clothes by the door.

Last bit of advice that has worked for me lately. Sometimes I find myself with motivation to do the good thing, but in the minutes or seconds it takes for me to get out of my chair to do it, my brain intercedes with excuses. I think, "Actually the gym would be nice, I think I'll go", and my brain responds, "But shouldn't you do X task you've been putting off?" or "Isn't it lunchtime though?" or "Why not wait and go tomorrow?" In that moment, when excuses start bubbling up, STOP, GET UP, and DO THE THING. Don't talk yourself out of the good thing! If you find motivation, go with it immediately!

If you think this framing is useful, stop here and write out a list of habits you'd like to improve. (The way I set this up, they should all be framed as positive, e.g. if your goal is to drink less alcohol, write that, rather than "I drink too much alcohol.") Place your habits on a chart like the one above, and try to do it honestly. What are you still exerting effort to maintain? What have you neglected that you'd like to get back to?

Then, starting now, redouble your efforts to make it better.


The above is how I'm planning to frame my upcoming New Month Resolutions. How has my distribution changed? What am I focused on this month? What can I let go for now?

To start, here is my distribution as of Feb 1, 2022. (I've intentionally ignored work-related habits.)

Note that I reserve the right to add new habits to the mix, or drop them entirely if I don't think they are relevant anymore.

I've set up my life to make social media and caffeine a minor part, by adding timers to apps in my phone and by mixing half-decaf into my blend (respectively). I bought a Kindle and I'm riding the new-device wave to make reading books a breeze. (Book reviews on Twitter will be coming this year!)

Drinking water has dropped to Intermediate, as has my morning routine and [redacted 1]. On the other hand, Meditate and Read (Blogs) have risen because I've been focused on them.

Gym and Japanese have recently risen from Neglected, Eat Healthy has dropped, and Don't Pick Nails has been hovering in Low for a while. I haven't practiced piano in months, and my blogging time has been null lately (sorry!).

But everything is in flux, and this is a new month, so it's time to focus up. Here are my resolutions for Feb 2022:

1) Meditate every day (effort: high). To make it more salient, I will vary my practice by day of the week:

  • Monday: 10 min silent meditation

  • Tuesday: 10 min meditation with Waking Up app.

  • Wednesday: 20 min meditation with Waking Up.

  • Thursday: 10 min silent meditation.

  • Friday: 10 min Metta meditation.

  • Saturday: 10 min meditation with Waking Up.

  • Sunday: Walking meditation ("one loop", ~10 mins)

2) Catch up on WaniKani Japanese review items in first week, stay caught up (effort: medium).

3) Track my water consumption, and consume 12 8oz glasses (= 4 bottles) of water / day (effort: low).

I'll report back next month!

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