On Habit Formation



“ Everything without exception requires additional energy in order to maintain itself, ”

Kevin Kelly in The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future

Everything requires additional energy, including habits. In the self-help, self-improvement world, habits are considered this “holy grail”. You take baby steps, you suffer, and you cultivate a behavior till it becomes a habit. Then you are done. You can now continue to enjoy the habit and its benefits for the rest of your life. And then you turn towards “habitifying” the next behavior.

Except, that which is not advertised. Habits require maintenance. Constant maintenance. I have found newly formed habits to be that barely-domesticated feral cat. You did the hard work of domestication, training. You showered love, attention. Still, you need to practice eternal vigilance so the cat doesn’t develop feelings of wanting to escape.

But really, is all this effort worth it? Is there an easier way? Is there a way to work with our tendencies than against them? I don’t know… Tell me if there is.

So, for now, I have started to view “building habits” as “test-driving” that behavior. Or more aptly, ‘working on a short project with that behavior’, noting down its pros and cons, and evaluating if the benefits of maintaining this behavior are worth the expense of maintenance.

On Vacations – 200 words project


Here is this week’s 200 words project:

“People try to get away from it all—to the country, to the beach, to the mountains. You always wish that you could too. Which is idiotic: you can get away from it anytime you like.
By going within.”
 
Marcus Aurelius in Meditations: A New Translation

Why do we go somewhere else, on a vacation?
Because where we usually live, our normal habitat is a constant reminder. It cues us sub-consciously, unconsciously and consciously our habitual way of thinking and doing. Going away to a new place removes these cues – and we feel free to act / behave in a new manner, maybe just for a little while before our habitual patterns take over again.
The change of scenery also makes us pay attention to, evaluate, and maybe appreciate or detest our nuw surroundings. We do not take many things for granted when on vacation in a new place. We tend to not be immersed in our heads. We look around – we are outside ourselves.
When on vacation, we know that we are on vacation. The intention is to relax. So it is easier to relax, with intention

The shock of change, the excitement and curiosity that change engenders – and the break away from our habits and our physical possessions – that is what helps us when we get away.

A break from our habits, a break from our stuff, a break from our intent, a break from our heads, being in the moment, back to that excitement and scare of being in the unknown – that is what going away on vacation provides, and it renews and refreshes us.

So, the question is this – how can you get away without actually going away? As Marcus says, “By going within”. But how?

The sub conscious cues are all still there. Maybe if we become aware of all our cues? Maybe if we own lesser stuff? Maybe if we can just be in the present moment? Maybe if we look at the world with new eyes with pre-conceptions stripped away? Is it even possible?

About the 200 Words Project
Once every week, on Monday morning, I will post my ‘200 Words Project’ post where I will ruminate on some idea which caught my interest in the current book I’m reading, or maybe (sometimes) from a blog post or podcast – in 200 words or more, never less!

The goal of happiness – 200 words project


Here is this week’s 200 words project:

“ I find the notion of happiness rather strange … It has never been a goal of mine; I just don’t think in those terms.”

“ I try to give meaning to my existence through my work. That’s a simplified answer, but whether I am happy or not really doesn’t count for much.”

         – Werner Herzog in Werner Herzog – A Guide for the Perplexed: Conversations with Paul Cronin

When it seems like the whole world is engaged in the pursuit of happiness, when the media sells happiness, when it seems like the ultimate goal of humanity is trying to be happier, to read Herzog say that happiness has never been a goal of his – it is quite a shock.

How can you not want to be happy? I want to ask him. How can you say that happiness is not a goal? Truly, how can anyone not aspire to be happy?

But, assuming this were the case, if like Herzog, I was not concerned about my happiness as a goal to aspire towards, how would life be? Would I make the same choices I do now? Would my bad habits and distractions fall to the wayside, since then the brief pleasure of these distractions, the instant gratification, the guilty pleasures – these wouldn’t mean anything? Would I be content with the way the my life is?

If my work was the way I find meaning in my life, what would my work be? What would you and I do?

Would we just toil away towards our work and not worry about things like happiness and contentment? Would the only question be – are we going to do our work or not? Would we make the hard choices easily?

An interesting thought experiment indeed.

About the 200 Words Project

Once every week, on Monday morning, I will post my ‘200 Words Project’ post where I will ruminate on some idea which caught my interest in the current book I’m reading, or maybe (sometimes) from a blog post or podcast – in 200 words or more, never less!

On Point of View – 200 words project


Here is this week’s 200 words project:


“ Point of view is worth 80 IQ points.”

Alan Kay quoted in Badass: Making Users Awesome

I was listening to the Glenn Beck interview with Tim Ferriss, where he talks about short circuiting the system: “Short circuiting the system is a lot easier when you are somebody who is not trained to think like everyone else.”. He talks about Steve Jobs as a prime example on how he used what he learnt in calligraphy and other areas of life to change Apple. People like Steve Jobs and Glenn Beck – they were outsiders, not trained by the academy / industry. That is they have a different point of view.

And then there is Einstein, Newton, Galileo – all greats – all who have made these great contributions to the world – who all had a different point of view.

It is well known that travel, life-changing experiences, near-death events, harrowing, challenging, exciting events in our lives – these have the capability to trigger a paradigm-shift, to totally change your point of view – and look at the world differently.

There are no doubt immense benefits in learning to look with different points of view. But so far, they seem to be a product of who you are, and what happened to you, and your environment.

This begs the question – can one learn the art/science/skill of trying on different points of view? Not in a superficial, vague way, but in a deeply profound, original way? Is this even possible? Can a “trained” person throw off the tinted glasses of learning and see the world in a “fresh” way?

The only inkling I have found – that something like this is possible is in the Buddhist literature and philosophies. This is the idea of ‘beginner’s mind’ – that you start illiterate, then you learn and gain expertise. Then you need to unlearn everything – retain the skill-set but forget your conclusions and look again. Almost like climbing a spiral – where you end up at the same point – just a bit above the point you started, and the view is the same but different.

Can this be applied to other areas of our lives – work, play?


About the 200 Words Project

Once every week, on Monday morning, I will post my ‘200 Words Project’ post where I will ruminate on some idea which caught my interest in the current book I’m reading, or maybe (sometimes) from a blog post or podcast – in 200 words or more, never less!

Three Tenets of Essentialism – 200 words projects


Here is this week’s 200 words project:

“I choose to,” “Only a few things really matter,” and “I can do anything but not everything.”

– Greg McKeown in Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

The first tenet – “I can do anything but not everything”
– The idea of confidence in our own abilities, to do anything that we really want to do and set our mind to. At the same time acknowledging and embracing the limits of being human, the limits of having just 24hrs in a day, and also acknowledging the all-pervasiveness of our greed, our tendency to “do just one more thing&rdquol, to “ldquo; want just a a little more”

The second tenet – “Only a few things matter”
– The idea of knowing that though we can run around in a thousand different directions, if we want to get to one place, we need to use those thousand steps to head in the direction we want. Tis is recognizing that, ultimately, doing something that doesn’t matter to us is just a waste of our time and energy. And what matters to us may not be what matters to someone else. This is the idea of recognizing this, and following our own beat towards what matters to us.

The third tenet – “I choose to”
– When we realize that only a few things matter, and we decide to give up on others, it is a choice that we are making. It is not a lack of ability or scarcity or time. And once this choice is made, we empower ourselves, give ourselves permission to really do what matters to us the most.

These three tenets of Essentialism is a great process for the over-achievers, the super curious, the uber-doers who want to do more and are frustrated in the process due to lack of time etc. This also seems to be the real process for all those who really achieved something – the greats, the Einsteins and Benjamin Franklins and Thoreau’s who are looked up to and who have contributed something great.

So, why not try it?

About the 200 Words Project

Once every week, on Monday morning, I will post my ‘200 Words Project’ post where I will ruminate on some idea which caught my interest in the current book I’m reading, or maybe (sometimes) from a blog post or podcast – in 200 words or more, never less!

The Advice Paradox – 200 words project


Here is this week’s 200 words project:


“The ultimate question of any advice, rules, or traditions is, What do you ignore and why? No one can ever follow it all. This is the advice paradox: no matter how much advice you have, you must still decide intuitively what to use and what to avoid. Even if you seek meta-advice, advice on which advice to take, the paradox still applies as you make the same choice about that advice too.

Scott Berkun in The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work

This is a very important issue in this information age. We have so many ways to improve ourselves, so many suggestions on what to do. But we cannot possibly try it all, be it all, do it all. So what do we do?

We use our intuition to decide what to do and what not to do. But how do we build an intuition or hone what we already have?

A part of it is just experiences. A part of it is knowing ourselves. Another part of it is realizing the difference between what we really are (i.e. really, really knowing ourselves), and what we wish we are (and pretend to be to the wide world).

Then, a couple of habits appear to more crucial than the rest.

One of them is mindfulness – the skill of knowing where our mind is, at this very moment and in the process learning who we really are. A side-effect of this mindfulness is really seeing around us and listening to people around – not just going through the motions completely lost in our head, in our thoughts.

Another important habit is reading books and long articles. When most of the time, we interact with fewer real people and more online persona and these interactions happen in short bursts, reading books gives us a chance to understand other people, what they think and in the process learn about how we ourselves are changing and have changed.

And these two habits automatically help us expand our experiences – seeking those sights and sounds and thoughts and feelings, and beings which take us to our personal edges and help us grow.


About the 200 Words Project

Once every week, on Monday morning, I will post my ‘200 Words Project’ post where I will ruminate on some idea which caught my interest in the current book I’m reading, or maybe (sometimes) from a blog post or podcast – in 200 words or more, never less!

No time – 200 words project


Here is this week’s 200 words project:

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“One afternoon at Garrison, Sharon Salzberg spoke about a Buddhist teacher in India, a widowed woman with many, many children who had no time to sit on a cushion, meditating. How had she done it, then? Sharon had once asked her. How had she achieved her remarkable ability to live in the present? The answer was simply this: she stirred the rice mindfully.”

Dani Shapiro in Devotion: A Memoir

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We complain all the time – about time. That we are too busy. That we have no time for mindfulness. That sitting to meditate, even for 5 minutes is a luxury which we of course, cannot afford. Focus, single tasking is for others, not us. Because we are so busy, really, too busy to learn to concentrate.

Well, for all my skeptical beliefs about religion, most religions of the world do show us a path to this. They say, whatever you are doing, do it mindfully. And so do a lot of thinkers of our times.
How about Joan Didion on driving mindfully. How about washing your dishes and brushing your teeth mindfully – as Leo Babuta recommends. Or drink your coffee mindfully as The Dalai Lama’s Cat recommends. Or maybe you would like Sherlock Holmes to help you with mindfulness?

The idea is simplicity itself. When making that PowerPoint, just think about the PowerPoint and not the meeting which comes after that. In the meeting, concentrate on the meeting and not what email just came in the inbox. When reading the email, just read the email and don’t ponder whether to buy that latest gadget or not. And when eating, just eat and don’t worry about texting that friend who is travelling in Panama city.

The opportunities for learning to be mindful are endless. But here’s the catch….Being un-mindful is easy, it is habitual, and we do that all the time. Are we willing to do the hard thing? And learn to be mindful?

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About the 200 Words Project

Once every week, on Monday morning, I will post my ‘200 Words Project’ post where I will ruminate on some idea which caught my interest in the current book I’m reading, or maybe (sometimes) from a blog post or podcast – in 200 words or more, never less!

The lies of our lives – 200 words project


Here is this week’s 200 words project:

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Carl Jung put it perfectly: “Thoroughly unprepared we take the step into the afternoon of life,” he wrote. “Worse still, we take this step with the false assumption that our truths and ideals will serve us as hitherto. But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning; for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will by evening have become a lie.”

Dani Shapiro in Devotion: A Memoir

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This quote from Carl Jung seems appropriate at almost any phase of life. We are all no longer as young as we used to be. But we are all, still, younger than we could be. What changes us is not just the time passing by but also the steady stream of experiences, responsibilities and aspirations which change along with age and phase of life.

When I was 20, I thought I would live life “this” way. And I am still trying to live life the way I thought I should at 20. But time has gone on ahead. I am older, I have a family. I have a job, I have a mortgage. I have the pleasures of being independent and of freedom and of earning a fair living. I have the additional responsibilities which come with that. But I still cling to the desire for life the way I envisioned when I was 20. And it feels like a cop-out to actually change my vision of life from what I decided for me at 20.

But what I have to remind myself all the time is that at 20, I had no clue what responsibility meant and what are the joys which come along with it (oh, yes. I do find some aspects of responsibility enjoyable). At 20, I didn’t have enough experiences, hadn’t met enough people, hadn’t done enough things, hadn’t lived enough life to actually know about what I was talking about. I didn’t know myself as well as I know myself now.

And so, isn’t it a sign of a smart person who updates when new information trickles in? Just sticking to something because it was “decided” even though it contradicts the newest findings sounds quite crazy and delusional.

And this challenge is going to continue as long as we live. At 60, the wishes of 20 might seem comically absurd, but the wishes of 40 might seem painful because they were not so far off. But they will still be a lie at 60.

And here is an HBR article I found interesting which talks about midlife crisis – which is what Carl Jung is talking about anyway – Why so many of us experience a midlife crisis

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About the 200 Words Project

Once every week, on Monday morning, I will post my ‘200 Words Project’ post where I will ruminate on some idea which caught my interest in the current book I’m reading, or maybe (sometimes) from a blog post or podcast – in 200 words or more, never less!

What is failure – 200 words project


Here is this week’s 200 words project:

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“For instance, if you’re driving a car, and after three hundred miles the car runs out of gas, no one takes offense because the “failure” is inherent to the car, not to you. It’s not your failure to operate the car correctly. We all know that you have to refill the gas tank; that’s just the way it is. So if we think of failure in innovation in the same way—as having to refill the gas tank regularly—we can take it much less personally.”

Sebastian Thrun in Make Your Mark: The Creative’s Guide to Building a Business with Impact (The 99U Book Series)

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This is one of the most beautiful and easily understood analogy for failure that I have come across.

Applying this analogy to my personal failure – of updating this blog as per my published schedule – I can indulge in self-flagellation for this sin, feel useless and give up.
Or, I can understand that this aspect of failure is built-in to me as a human. It stems from the fact that I cannot do too many things at the same time. Also it stems from the fact that I am still learning to be a professional in blogging. And then I need to recognize that this failure is really an opportunity, a lesson, a teaching which points me to where I should look at to improve next time.

From a diesel/gas car which needs to be refilled every 200 miles or so to the airplane engines which need to be refueled every 4000 miles or so to possible future cosmic energy powered space vehicles which never need to be refueled – this innovation can occur only once we hit the failure, acknowledge it and use it as the limit marker and then improve those points of failure, extend those constricting limits.

And all this can be done only if we don’t take it personally. This can be done if we look at it as a marker that it is, telling us “this is not the right path. Try something else” or “You are close but not there yet. Why don’t you tweak something and try again?”

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About the 200 Words Project

Once every week, on Monday morning, I will post my ‘200 Words Project’ post where I will ruminate on some idea which caught my interest in the current book I’m reading, or maybe (sometimes) from a blog post or podcast – in 200 words or more, never less!