The last time I published a post on HabitLab was in late 2014. It’s now mid-2015. Yikes.
Oh, the irony. Person who writes about habits struggles to maintain a writing habit.
For part of that time, I had some reasonably good reasons for not publishing. I was trying to unpack my motivations for blogging and whether another activity might better serve those goals. I was struggling to learn how to support a loved one with a complex, poorly understood, maddeningly frustrating illness, and myself through it all.
But those reasons don’t account for all of the time that I put HabitLab on the back burner.
Rather than beating ourselves up, we can use our personal stuckness as a stepping stone to understanding what people are up against all over the world. Breathe in for all of us and breathe out for all of us. Use what seems like poison as medicine. We can use our personal suffering as the path to compassion for all beings.
In March 2013, while visiting family for my cousin’s wedding, I started a totally ugly, dramatic fight with my mom. Normally, I pride myself on being the calm, rational one. In family fights, I was often called in to play the role of mediator and judge.
But this time, I lost it — in public, at a shopping mall. I went batsh*t cray. By the time my parents managed to herd me to the car, I was crying and howling, snot streaming from my nose. I blew it into my shirt sleeves because I didn’t have any tissues on hand, or was too angry to accept tissues from anyone. Pretty awful, right?
In my experience, breaking a bad habit has proven far harder than creating a good habit.
Intuitively, it makes sense. If the bad thing that you do is a habit, it means you’ve done it many times before. The neurons associating the trigger (a.k.a. cue), the behavior (a.k.a. routine), and the reward have fired many times, and thereby strengthened into a reliable channel.
The reward loop
Creating a new habit doesn’t have all that mental baggage. You’re starting with a blank slate. You’re the architect of the new habit, so you decide the triggers and rewards for yourself.
With a bad habit, though, the bad habit wasn’t something you explicitly decided to design. The triggers and rewards are often ambiguous or unknown to you.
The Odyssey is one of the greatest ancient Greek epic poems ever composed. It tells the story of the Greek hero Odysseus and his ten-year journey home after the Greeks’ victory in the Trojan War.
As part of his journey, Odysseus and his crew of men must navigate their boat through waters that belong to the Sirens, beautiful femme fatale-like creatures. They sing such alluring songs that sailors who hear them inevitably shipwreck themselves on the rocks of their island, never to return home again.
Now, Odysseus, who’s succeeded at a variety of trying quests already, figures he’s going to be the first man to find a way to BOTH listen to the sirens’ songs AND make his way home to his loyal wife.
He hatches a grand plan to tie himself to the mast of his boat with some rope. His men, meanwhile, are all commanded to stuff their ears with beeswax so they never get tempted in the first place.
Long story short, Odysseus goes through a major withdrawal-like episode, trying to escape to pursue the insanely enticing music.
It’s funny how some books can totally change your life.
When I was younger, the novels I read were my favorite teachers, my best friends. They inspired me to aspire to be a certain kind of person, someone with integrity, compassion, and courage. They reassured me I wasn’t alone. Some author out there, I felt, knew me to my core. How else could they have written a story that so perfectly echoed my thoughts and worries? In which a nerdy, awkward, outcast kid like me could become a hero?
I still hold my childhood books dear, but as I’ve grown older I’ve found myself turning to a different set of books to help me make peace with my fears and to help me become the hero I want to be.
A few times a year (New Year’s, my birthday, and every time I picked up a self-help book), I’d set a big list of goals that I wanted to reach. Many of them were the same goals each time. Meaning, I’d failed to reach them the previous time around.
For some reason, I just couldn’t reach them. They seemed like reasonable goals. I assumed something was wrong with myself. I wasn’t motivated enough, I thought. I was doomed because I lacked self-control and discipline, I told myself.
It didn’t occur to me that something might have been wrong with the goals that I’d set.
I recently finished reading The Motivation Hacker by Nick Winter. It’s a step-by-step saga of how a 20-something coder/startup founder pursued 18 challenging missions (including learning to throw knives, launching a hit iPhone app, writing a book, and going on 10 dates with his girlfriend) simultaneously over three months and achieved most of them.
It’s an energizing read, and all the more impressive that he wrote it in a mere three months. While reading, I oscillated between feeling incredibly inspired about life’s potential and insanely jealous of the author’s ability to achieve his goals. It was as if I’d made a new funny, kick-ass friend and got to pick his brain whenever I needed a source of extra energy.
For such a slim and inexpensive book, it’s packed with useful, paradigm-shifting perspectives, making it one of the highest ROI (return-on-investment, a measure of cost vs. benefit) books I’ve read this year.
The biggest takeaways for me were:
How important it is to keep things feeling fun and exciting. He says that if you’re feeling unmotivated, you shouldn’t blame yourself or just try to slog through your tasks even harder. Rather, feeling unmotivated is a helpful sign from your subconscious that you need to stop and either (a) reconsider whether the goal is one you want to achieve anyways, or (b) find a way to make things more fun (“hack” your motivation). One such technique that works for inherently boring tasks is to challenge yourself to complete them in record speed.
The Procrastination Equation by Piers Steel, an incredibly useful framework for understanding the factors contributing to how motivated (or unmotivated) you feel about a goal, thereby giving you a better handle on what to do to get more motivated. I’d encountered the Procrastination Equation before, but Nick Winter’s usage of it throughout the book helped further my practical understanding dramatically.
I’ve very likely underestimated the number of goals I’m capable of simultaneously pursuing. I’ve deliberately not pursued certain goals that are really meaningful to me, like learning Korean, because I’d assumed I didn’t have time or attention to spare in this stage of my life. But I most definitely can spare 5-10 minutes a day, which is enough to start making some concrete progress on the language-learning front, especially with tools like Duolingo, Memrise, Quizlet, and Anki. I realized that personal goals that are totally unrelated to health, career, or relationships can still be worthwhile to pursue if you find them meaningful and exciting. I mean, Nick made time to learn knife-throwing and longboarding, for crying out loud! So I can make time for learning Korean at the very least, and possibly in the future for composing raps or learning to freestyle.
That said, I’d be hesitant to recommend it to people who already feel overwhelmed with life and are just trying to get back “on track” (whatever that might mean). I felt that way not so long ago, and I think if I’d picked up Motivation Hacker then, I’d have just walked away feeling even worse about myself, rather than more motivated.
In my opinion, starting a book/program and realizing, “I’m not ready for this yet,” is totally fine. Not just fine, but greatly self-aware and mature. Acknowledging where you are and not beating yourself up about it is a huge feat in and of itself. By being honest with yourself about your current abilities, you can craft more realistic goals and plans to get you to where you want to be. I hope to write more on this later!
The concept of a success spiral, like most behavior change ideas, is pretty obvious at first glance. Chances are, you’ve already experienced a success spiral in some area of your life, perhaps without even knowing it.
Yet success spirals, when used deliberately, are one of the most powerful techniques I’ve ever encountered for creating a new habit.
I started HabitLab to surface and share tools, techniques, and stories that can help people change their mindset, behavior, and reach their goals.
As someone who’s struggled over many years (and continues struggling!) to reprogram my thought patterns and habits, I’ve encountered some resources that have totally changed my life. I want other people to find these resources earlier than I did. I also want to keep trying out and sharing new resources, both for others and for myself.
The world is getting more and more addictive. Companies are developing ever more ways to get you addicted to their products. These products are often useful in moderation, but it can be hard to stop once you’ve gotten the core value you originally wanted out of them.