Epistemic Status: looking back at a decade. Assumed Audience: someone curious about why people are doing things.
Reflection on habit-conscious
This piece is not yet-another motivational or productivity hack. I'm not gonna tell you what to do. Instead, It is a personal reflection on habit forming, which I've been consciously doing for one decade (For context, in 2013, I wrote a blog post titled "30 Days of Challenge, an Alternative to New Year's Resolution - For Fun", which in retrospect marks my journey on experimenting with myself. The post was embarrassingly hard to read and has been stashed in my archive forever).
In my twenties, I was obsessed with life hacks. I think coming across this TED talk triggered it. Since then, I've been experimenting a lot with my life; I've tried to go for 30 days without eating rice, the Movember, 30 days cycling for 10k, etc.
I found it refreshing to try something new and reflect on how that makes me feel. I prolong some self-experiment that I liked or ditch things that made me feel awful (like 14 days without opening Twitter, ugh). It felt like a low commitment, no punishment, fun, and a game between you and yourself.
It made me understand what keeping a focus is; you either increase the traction or reduce the distraction. It was also liberating. Having some structure makes me feel that no matter how chaotic life is, at least I have one tiny aspect that I can control. The realization was long before the Atomic Habit book was even being written.
Fast forward ten years later, I have known more about habit, felt its actual benefit to my life, and experimented with a lot more life hacks with myself, such as tricking my body into increasing its temperature as high as possible to help the blood cell not worrying about warming up the body, so that they can be where the illness are and fight it. It's about distributing the bandwidth so the blood cells are not stretched too thin doing so many things in the body. Lol.
I'm doing all this to gain a little control amidst the chaotic life. To understand my sphere of influence and focus on things I can control. I noticed that stoicism is preaching about this too;
Building structure → putting a pattern into life → spending less mental bandwidth on repeated things → spending more mental bandwidth on more complex things.
There was an anecdote where Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg used the same outfit every day, which was said to focus their energy on thinking about bigger stuff (honestly, I think that was actually an effort to caricaturize them, kind of like why anime characters use the same outfit on each episode. Props to the PR team).
Regardless, it was all a real effect that I experienced. I automate some parts of my life, so I don't have to think about it as much, and putting a structure in the form of habit, enables it. It was a selfish and ruthless way to achieve inner peace. Now imagine me having a scheduled slot to "have fun" or "try random things" eww, right? I know. I was also grossed out when I thought about it. But hey, it works, at least for me.
Personal habit development framework
In this reflection, I'd like to synthesize three ways of developing and keeping a habit that works best for me:
→ Iterative self-discovery. I believe the more I understand myself physically, emotionally, and psychologically, the more I can condition myself to be in a desired state of mind. I called it iterative because today I was different from myself 5-10 years ago, so keep discovering is the key. Journalling is a powerful tool related to this.
Understanding physical-self includes asking;
How does that feel on my back muscle if I woke up on my right side?
If my nose was blocked, which side could help alleviate it?
How many cups of coffee could I handle a day before getting too jittery?
How do my energy level rise and sink throughout the day (or even crash)?
If I eat a lot of carbs before bed, how does that makes me feel upon waking up? (it becomes so gassy)
Understanding the emotional self includes asking;
Why do I feel a certain way?
What is the name of this feeling?
How long do I usually feel a particular feeling, and what makes it recedes?
How intense was this emotion?
Understanding my psychological self includes asking;
What is my tendency when I'm stressed out?
What makes me stressed out?
How do I visualize myself?
What makes me motivated/demotivated?
And often, it was a cross between the three;
If I had a short sleep, how does that makes me feel upon waking up?
What meal could I plan to eat for lunch that could hype me up to go through the mornings?
→ Sudden start/stop (i.e., going cold turkey). Gradual change didn’t work too well for me. It was easier to swing to the other extreme of doing/not doing, then adjust to find the middle ground. It's easier for me to start now than wait for Monday or the New Year to do something. It was also easier for me to stop drinking too much caffeine now instead of gradually reducing the cups. The sudden change helps block me from finding more excuses to turn back.
→ Reframe. As I shared in the first publication of the Meaning Making Machine, reframing things help me to see things from a not-so-bad perspective. "Fasting for 20 hours" sounds awfully starve-inducing, but switching my mind to "eating for four hours non-stop" helped me to start intermittent fasting, and after trying it for the first time, I thought to myself, "huh, it's not so bad." Writing a daily journal felt hard, but capturing a paragraph of what happened and how I feel in the morning, a paragraph after lunch, and a paragraph in the evening feels much more doable.
Aligning the identity
Since five years ago, I've picked up a lot of habits that I continue until now. I also ditched a lot because I didn't feel like integrating it into my lifestyle. Building a habit for me is not only about doing extraordinary things once, then struggling to keep them for the rest of my life. It's more about experimenting with what I want to integrate as part of my life. Thus, it should be compatible with my other existing lifestyle that I liked, easy enough to be done automatically or effortlessly, and make me feel good to identify with it in the long run as part of my core self.
The Atomic Habit book has a useful working principle on this. It said that if you want to change your habit, you must be willing to change your identity related to that habit. It conveniently tracks back to my framework of iterative self-discovery.
Upon reflection, my deliberately kept habit can be grouped into four categories; Mind, Food, Movement, and Rest.
Deliberately split proportion about being productive, creative, and consumptive — of things, information, etc. More about this trifecta, maybe in a later publication. For me, being productive is basically about managing energy to be as efficient as possible. Consuming is about absorbing things, and the worst is if it is involuntary. Creativity (creating) means synthesizing what I have already consumed/know (things, information) to make something new.
Read one chapter of anything every week. Share what I found interesting. Read less news.
Read/watch/learn something I'm unfamiliar with or outside my realm of interest every week.
Discuss with books/articles/videos. Don't stop at reading and understanding; have a dialog with ideas. This includes connecting with what I already understood—there is no need to finish a book or read it sequentially from cover to cover.
Regulate breathing for 5 minutes daily to give space to observe thoughts instead of thinking about them.
I think about food often, so intermittent fasting is perfect for me. It helps me think less about what to eat.
Ensure there are greens and eggs in every meal. This also helps me think less about what to eat while having the meal fulfill fiber and protein needs.
Limit caffeine to one cup, and drink max at 10 am. Reading about Chronopharmacology helps me understand how caffeine works in the body.
Eat beef only on weekends—Opt for more fish or chickens.
When possible, don't choose sugar.
Spam the day with water or tea.
Acting outside-in. I'll probably elaborate more in a later publication. I found that I could basically influence my mood by changing my physical situation (i.e., walking, taking a shower, or sunbathing could really get me out of a rut and how I feel about the day, even after a shitty sleep the night before).
Build muscle to help with metabolism and strength of the body structure: no more neck pain or back pain.
Walk a lot. During working days, my favorite trick is to drink a lot, forcing me to walk pretty far to the bathroom very often.
Understand my energy pattern and what might affect it. For example, I will have a predictable energy crash after over-consuming sugar or caffeine during the day.
Taking a timed 15 minutes of nap to rejuvenate my afternoon energy which usually is the lowest. It works best during work-from-home setup.
I learned how to fall asleep in 2021 (yes, there are steps to falling asleep), and I have been using it daily. I call the technique; "follow the pink elephant." It consists of getting comfortable in bed and then following where the mind wanders. When my mind pops up a thought about a pink elephant, I would recognize it but do not think about it—observing the thoughts forming and changing down the rabbit hole until I lose consciousness. My prompt usually started by visualizing a footstep down a spiraling staircase. I was concerned about the long-term and unnoticed effect of sleep deprivation, as it was linked with the decline of empathy among many.
Microdosing intermittent rest. Instead of taking a long break and feeling overwhelmed afterward, I opt-in for taking one day off once a month or keeping the boundary of work and life separated after a particular hour. It keeps my energy level balanced. Breaks are essential, but timing them well is an art of its own.
Separating between feeling and reacting. It has helped me to buffer between feeling things and reacting to things. It helps calms me down far easier by giving me space to think before reacting.
Things I Enjoyed in the Past Week
Working at Cafe for a specific task
I found that working in a cafe works best if I already have specific executable work to do. Come → order → sit down → time box (let's say 45 minutes) → do the task quickly → go home. Coordination or planning work didn't work well for me in a chaotic situation like a cafe. An empty and quiet place does.
Your Name OST album has helped me to focus and push through my work this week.
Questions for Next Week
I got feedback that this section could be elaborated more. The question below is a question I asked myself and want to ponder for the next week.
At the same time, I invited you, dear readers, to share (perhaps through the comment box) if these questions trigger something in you. For next week, the questions are:
What is one thing you want to experiment with yourself, and why?
If you could freely do one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?
What kind of work do you do best at a cafe, office, or home? Is there a pattern?
New: Ask the Void
I'm experimenting with a Q&A format to gather questions and think about it for a section in next week's publication. So if you have questions to the void, leave it through the comment box, and let me pick one to dissect it for the next week.
Great post as always! Just wondering though, how do you practice this "This includes connecting with what I already understood" in real life?
and another one... could you elaborate more on how you observe thoughts instead of thinking about them? I don't quite understand it. What do you do after you observe them?
*Context is in section 1. Mind from Aligning the Identity