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The Fragility of Habits
It suddenly occurred to me one morning in mid-August that I had not done a single pushup in several weeks.
For over six months, I cultivated a very modest habit of doing ten to twenty pushups first thing in the morning, even before taking my first sip of coffee. As I walked by the island in my kitchen, it became automatic to drop down to the floor and do my pushups before reaching for the pot of coffee that automatically brews every morning.
What happened to kill the habit?
I moved and no longer have an island in my kitchen. So, poof, the habit dissolved into thin air without any recognition that it had dissolved. My new habit was based on a subconscious visual cue that, once removed, erased the habit. As in the Parable of the Sower, my habit was like a seed that had germinated, but it germinated in poor soil and did not endure.
I picked up the pushup habit in January after reading James Clear’s Atomic Habits. Unlike most self-help books, Clear’s techniques actually work, as I described in more detail in a book review. But I am now convinced that for good habits to flourish, they must be repeated a sufficient number of times and we must be cognizant of the cues that trigger the habit and any changes in environment that might change the game.
Not all of my habits are fragile. The morning after I moved, I still went on my daily run of eight miles, modified only slightly due to being located a few blocks away from my old residence. I still wrote my journal entry, continuing the morning pages habit that I started in late 2019. And the rest of my morning was filled with the rest of my routines. I only missed the pushups, and it was not a conscious decision at all.
One of the techniques that can be used to ensure that habits do not fall by the wayside is simply logging what you are doing. If I had logged the number of pushups every day in the morning pages entry that I made immediately after doing pushups (and drinking coffee), my habit would not have been broken because I would have seen the reference to pushups in the prior day’s entry. It is probably wise not to rely on a single visual cue, such as walking by the island in your kitchen, if the habit is important enough to maintain.
Now I must make an admission: Pushups were not the only broken habit related to my move. I also have not sent out a Rational Reflections newsletter in seven weeks after publishing on a weekly basis (or even more frequently) since the beginning of 2020. But this was a conscious decision. I broke the habit because I was too busy with my move and other related tasks and decided to give myself a couple of weeks off. No harm, no foul, right?
Well, the issue with breaking a rhythm, whether consciously or subconsciously, is that you risk falling out of your routine as one week becomes two weeks and three weeks. Suddenly, your habit is interrupted, and it is difficult to get back into gear. After a long absence, there is a tendency to delay writing because the bar seems to get higher and higher with each passing week. You want the return of the newsletter or blog post, or whatever other public habit to be very good since it has been a while. And that bar keeps growing over time.
The truth is that writing Rational Reflections was beginning to resemble a “job”, something I have assiduously avoided for over a decade. Writing a “weekly links” newsletter took my focus away from reading and writing about more enduring topics and I felt more and more compelled to follow the “news”, discarding my own advice on how to stay informed amid incessant noise, thereby exposing myself to endless streams of twaddle.
It is perhaps a curse of the human mind that makes bad habits very hard to break and good habits very hard to maintain. But the duration of the habit matters. If my pushup habit had endured for six years rather than six months, chances are that it wouldn’t have been subconsciously dropped so easily. My running and journaling habits are clearly more enduring.
As for writing newsletters and articles, the way to resume a habit is simply to start doing it again, which is what this post has done. Although it isn’t some great masterpiece of writing and took under an hour to write, it represents the resumption of a long-held habit. I am not certain what form my public writing will take since I need to recalibrate what I am writing with my actual interests rather than morphing into taking an (unpaid) job as a news aggregator. But I do have things to say as long as I don’t make the bar in my mind so high as to preclude posting anything at all.
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