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Cultivating habits

I would recommend reading my post about discipline vs motivation before delving into the world habits. It's here.

The English dictionary describes habit as:

"an acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary"

Of course, habits can be negative such as smoking, or positive such as playing instrument every day. Of course our goal is to reduce the number of bad habits and increase the good ones. Procrastination and getting shit done has been a very popular topic for the last five years. Constant barrage of visual and auditory distractions often prevent us from doing what we are supposed to do, and I also had this same problem for a long time. Actually, I still do but it's not such a big scale problem that it used to be.

A common myth of 21 days for a habit to form comes originally from a surgeon Maxwell Maltz, who noticed that it took approximately 21 days for the patients to notice the changes in their body after the surgery. Originally Maltz wrote that "these, and many other commonly observed phenomena tend to show that it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell." Then of course assholes who wanted to become rich with self-help books changed "it takes MINIMUM of 21 days" to "it takes EXACTLY 21 days to form a new habit". This number is fairly easy to sell, as most people can keep up with stuff for 3 weeks.When you look at diets and get-in-shape hoaxes they often talk about 2-3 weeks of period in which you will get visible results.

Philippa Lally of University College London studied habit forming further and came up to a different conclusion. The study examined the habits of 96 participants over 12 week period. Each participant chose a new habit for this time and reported on their progress daily. The result of this study was that it takes approximately 2 months (66 days) until this new behavior becomes automatic. This number can also vary - for some people it took only 18 days and for some it took a whopping 254 days for the automatization of the behavior! What was also found out that habit forming isn't all-or-nothing kind of deal and it doesn't really matter if you skip your practice every once in a while.

Okay, so now we know how long we have to do things until they stick. Next we have to come up with a method to do it. I'm a big fan of two quite popular ones, first one being the 'No zero days' (NZD) and the other one 'The X effect' (TXE). In my opinion, NZD is more suitable for people who have a big problem with procrastination and are less confident about their success. Therefore I'll tell about this method first:

No Zero Days - I'm pretty sure that NZD begun after this massively popular Reddit post. The idea behind NZD is that every day you do something that brings you further to your goals. Your goals could for example be being fit, eating healthy or being super fucking good at playing the cembalo. One pushup, 5 seconds of strumming or eating one asparagus is enough to count it as a no zero day.

Second important thing about NZD is the concept of being grateful to the 3 you's - the past, the present and the future you. Thank yourself for your past choices towards better you and do shit for your future self. Also, try to enjoy the present every once in a while (when you have those non-shitty days). The third thing is to forgive yourself. Forgive the past you for not doing shit about your future and try to fix it by doing something today.

I would probably incorporate some sort of tracking system for NZD, maybe a calendar where you mark all your non zero days so that you can some day look at your 40 day streak of bellydancing and go 'oh shit, I did that'. In general NZD is a very simple concept and the challenge comes from following the decided habits. NZD has it's own subreddit here.

The X Effect - Not quite sure of the origins of TXE either, but I think it was started after Jerry Seinfeld AMA on Reddit where he explained about his methods in writing comedy. He would have this calendar, and he promised to himself that he has to write new comedy bits every day, and once he did, he would mark an X on the calendar for that day. This would create streaks of X's and at some point those streaks become really long and you wouldn't want to break those with empty spaces. This concept was then developed further by a redditor who replied to someone with procrastination problems with this post.

This method also relies on the habit forming and tries to do so in 49 days. In TXE, you draw a 7x7 grid where each square represents one day and each grid represents a habit. For example, if I chose to try quit eating red meat this grid would be the roadmap for the habit of NOT eating red meat. Every day I stay away from red meat I mark an X on one of the grids (the one representing today). If I for some silly reason decide to enjoy a delicious sirloin steak, that day is left blank. Again, this system relies on building those beautiful streaks which many of us enjoy. A lot of people use paper for writing out the grids, I personally use an Android app called 7 weeks. I started using this method 4 weeks ago after doing NZD for a while and it's been working for me very well. My current habits are:

  • Meditation, 30 minutes
  • Learn German, 3 lessons in Duolingo
  • Learn Psychology, 25 minutes minimum
  • Handstand practice, 3 sets
  • Writing a daily journal about my progress

The thing about choosing habits is that they should be something you want to do for the rest of your life. Why pick on habits and then suddenly drop them? Of course there are some situational habits like for example studying for the exam or practicing for a gig, but why leave it at there? Why study and learn something temporarily when you could try to master these things? I doubt that anyone wants to quit their bad habits like smoking only for 50 days.

This system has been very effective for me, as I haven't missed a single X on any of these tasks. The most important thing with both of these methods is that you start with something manageable. For me meditation was easy because I have already done it for quite a long time. I'm also quite fit so handstand practice is just a bit of fun and a new way to exercise. Psychology and German are more "serious" habits which I try to cultivate into my daily life. TXE also has it's own subreddit here.

I'm pretty sure that by now you have a good idea about some habits you would like to practice on. If not, read this post for a ready-made list of things that just might make your life better. Oh, and you should probably pick meditation as your first habit, the arguments for this can read be from here.

Hope this post helped you on your way to new, positive habits. If you have any questions, don't hesitate to leave a comment below.