This post is part of my 30 blogs in 30 days series. More details here.
The more deeply a thought or action is tied to your identity, the more difficult it is to change it. It can feel comfortable to believe what your culture believes (group identity) or to do what upholds your self- image (personal identity), even if it’s wrong.
On December 31, 2019. I wrote this in my journal.
As resolutions go, these seem pretty pedestrian. However, the point was not to create a drastic change. Those type of decisions are empty aspirations. I did not want to just lose weight, or just read a book. I wanted to be an active person, a reader, and a type of person who writes in journals. In short: I wanted to reshape my identity. To achieve this goal, I cultivated good habits and worked my way up
James Clear, quoted above from his book Atomic Habits, lays out 4 rules of habit formation:
- Make it obvious.
- Make it attractive
- Make it easy
- Make it satisfying.
While these follow the action model in sequence, I did not have to devise my good habits in the sequence. So I started with rule 3.
A Low Bar
What separates active people from inactive people? The former are active every day. They have a habit of moving around, either in the gym, on the field, or in the proverbial outdoors. They are practitioners of good habits. To be an active person, you must not only be active, but do so consistently.
To achieve consistency, I set these as my lower-limits for their respective activities. A bare minimum. Nobody just writes one word in a journal. Nobody just goes on the treadmill for just 5 minutes…except on the bad days. Setting a low-bar helps me stay consistent while also keeping myself accountable. This was my way of following rule 3; I set the bar low enough to never avoid these steps.
There is also another aspect to devising these goals; my own enjoyment. Dr. David Burns wrote in his seminal book on Mental Health, Feeling Good:
the majority of life’s satisfactions do not require great achievement at all. It takes no special talent to enjoy an average walk through the woods on an autumn day. You don’t have to be “outstanding” to relish the affectionate hug of your young son.
I want to be a reader, but I am not shooting for a PhD. To cultivate a good habit, first it has be appealing as well as challenging. This is where habit stacking comes in.
Creating Good Habits Out of Bad
The stereotype of the sedentary lifestyle is the Couch Potato; a person who sits in front of the TV for hours, not being active. Exact opposite of my aspirations. But TV is so damn entertaining! Will they really kill Ned Stark! Is the Professor going to go mad! Will Ertugal be able to save Halime this time!
Thanks to portable electronic technology, we don’t need a TV to watch TV. Since January 1, 90% of my TV viewing has been on the treadmill. I am mostly watching children’s cartoons because they are inoffensive in public and also are 10 minutes per episode, so I can pace my treadmill sessions. I have also watched sitcoms and some longer YouTube videos(the playback speed control is a godsend). I took a bad habit and paired it with a good one, to fantastic results. This is called Habit Stacking. And you can do it too. Doesn’t matter if your vice is Cartoons or Korean Telenovelas or the news.
What about the other habits?
There is very little friction involved, at least for me, when it comes to reading. Reading is already attractive and easy for me, and I am usually satisfied when I read a good book or an article . The only step involved was making it obvious. So I just started carrying a book or a Kindle with me everywhere. Journaling
I have read something every day for the past 6 months, for at least 15 minutes. Whether it is a print book , an article saved on Pocket, or PDF of a technical document. I have been able to be on the Treadmill, or some other cardio equivalent almost everyday. The days when I was travelling in the air(remember when that was common) and a few days during Ramadan, when mustering up the energy for even 5 minutes wasn’t possible.
Journaling has been the real pain point for me. I was never really able to make it obvious, never found a easy and frictionless app that allowed me to get what I wanted from the activity. I have now settle on the simple digital template of the 5-Minute Journal in my note taking app.
However despite COVID19 pandemic, despite the lockdown I have managed to reshape my identity; I am the type of person who is active, and who is a reader. And I am confident that with enough work, I can reshape my identity further into someone who speaks Arabic, or French. I can be the person I want to be by leveraging good habits. And so can you.