Measures for making and breaking habits

‘How long does it take to form a new habit?’

People often ask this question, but it isn’t useful. Habit formation depends less on duration and more on frequency. In one week, a person who does 10 push-ups everyday will get much farther than somebody who only pushes-up 10 times during the weekends.

When it comes to making new habits, a more useful question is ‘how often does it take’.

Yet, the question of ‘how long does it take’ is still useful, when we speak about breaking habits.

When it comes to breaking habits, duration makes sense. If you want to break a habit of snacking on potato chips, each day you go without snacking on chips is a small step towards breaking the habit.

Think of forming habits in terms of reps. Think of breaking habits in terms of duration.

The key to learning a new language

We are taught to understand communication as ‘using the right words’.

Our language courses insist on correct grammar, spelling and pronunciation. For every spelling or gramatical error, we are penalized in the classroom and in the examination.

However, on living in Germany and learning German, I have learnt that communication is less about using the right words and more about getting the right response.

When I tell the waiter I don’t want an egg in my ramen, does she understand? When I ask for the toothbrush aisle, am I pointed in the right direction? When I tell my client that their deadline is unrealisitic, do they follow? In all these cases, I receive instant feedback. The person either responds correctly or has a blank look on their face. When I see that blank look (or egg yolk swimming in my ramen), I try again.

Doing this repeatedly is a far more effective means to learn German than to bury oneself in books and grammatical rules. Besides, this is the method used by the undisputed champions of language learning – children. My German grammar is still not perfect. I would probably fail an examination that tested its level of correctness. But that hasn’t gotten in the way of my being able to work, present, negotiate and persuade in the langauge.

The way we were taught language in school is problematic. Only too often, I meet people who have learnt a language in school for years, but can’t use any of it. The classroom approach penalizes mistakes so much that we are conditioned to not use a new language until we are perfect. But language, like currency, is less about perfection and more about utility.

Communication isn’t about using the right words. It is about getting the right response. Sure, those two things are related, but the subtle difference between the two compounds into the large difference between a fluent speaker and a flustered student of a flawed method.

Touristification

In the past, travelling to a new place meant several challenges.

  • Adapting to a new climate
  • Trying out a new cuisine
  • Struggling to communicate
  • Navigating through an unknown city
  • Planning the trip without the internet

Today, most of those struggles have disappeared. Travel has never been easier, thanks to the internet, globalization and cheap flights. In effect, we have turned almost all travel into tourism.

While travel is arduous, tourism is convenient. Yet, the difficulty lends meaning to the experience. With tourism, convenience replaces the struggle and pleasure replaces the joy of discovering a new place. If you are in a new country, but eat your own cuisine, speak your own langauge and never get lost, how new is that country after all?

Tourism makes travel more convenient, and thereby robs it of meaning. In today’s convenience-centered world, touristification is rampant. It transcends travel and into nearly every other realm.

Useful harm

We benefit from acute harm in moderation.

Exercise involves harming the body just a little bit, in an acute burst. Everytime we perform a yoga routine, we destroy a tiny part of our body, which grows back stronger and more flexible.

A tricky mental problem stretches our brain muscles and makes our head hurt. This eventually leads to the brain forging new neural connections and making us smarter.

It’s fun to perform tasks just out beyond our current capabilities. Too easy, and the task is boring. Too hard, and it is stressful.

We have always benefited immensely from periods of acute harm interspersed with rest and recovery. Most ancient traditions have periods of ritual fasting and periodic hardship. This property of the human body to become stronger in the presense of stressors is called hormesis.

Yet, in modern times we seem to have forgotten about this. We equate the easy, the safe, the comfortable and the convenient to better. In the process, we live longer, but age faster. Further, we have traded away acute and irregular periods of stress for chronic and continous stress – like the stress of having a 9 to 5 in a toxic work environment. Since we don’t have periods of recovery, this barrage of stress continually weakens us.

We are antifragile beings – that which stresses us turns us stronger. Yet, the opposite is also true, for in the absence of these stressors, we grow weaker everyday.

Inspiration: Antifragile

The obstacles are features

Have you achieved anything worth celebrating without overcoming serious obstacles?

We mistake obstacles for being entirely negative, but they aren’t. In the absence of obstacles, anybody could have succeeded. It is the obstacles that set us apart. Therefore, the obstacles are features, not bugs.

Serious obstacles are part of any worthy pursuit. If your life is filled with obstacles, it might also be filled with opportunity.

What should I do today?

I have the entire day to myself.

I could go shopping, cook myself a nice meal and eat it while watching a movie. Afterwards, I could curl up in bed for a nice nap.

But it’s bright and sunny outside – a great day for walking to the new restaurant in the neighbourhood and lounging in the park with a book. Or maybe, going for a run.

What about my side-project? My website could certainly use a few hours of tinkering. My guitar could use some new strings and some strumming.

I could also finally get rid of all the clutter around the house, sort out the paper slips on my table and defrost the refrigerator.

How about I stock up on provisions and meal-prep, so that I free up my evenings for an entire week? Or how about I pay my friend a spontaneous visit?

There is so much possibility in an empty day. But this is also a curse. To choose one set of things is to reject all the others. And the list of things you reject is invariably larger, and often more tempting than what you actually do.

The Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) is a dark cloud that looms over a prosperous life. The best antidote to FOMO is commitment.

Fighting fire with fuel

When an avid smoker sees a graphic warning on a packet of cigarretes, they feel anxious and troubled. When they feel anxious and troubled, they are likely to light up again.

When an obese person is led to feel guilty or shameful about their eating habits, they feel insecure. This feeling is likely to reinforce unhealthy eating.

Guilt and shame are often seen as a means to changing somebody’s behaviour.But if guilt and shame are the cause, how can they also be the solution?

Skill growth and decay quantified

Growth compounds. If you improve 1% at a skill everyday, by the end of a year, you are 38 times better at it (1.01^365).

However, this doesn’t strike us as being realisitic. I improve a little everyday at computer programming, but I certainly haven’t seen a 38x annual boost in productivity. My own experience corresponds to an increase of about 0.05% a day, leading to being about 6 times better at the end of a year (1.005^365).

But decay compounds as well. If you fail to practice, your skill decays at a steady rate. If a skill that decays at 1% per day, only 3% of this skill is retained after a year (0.99^365). Thankfully, growth and decay are asymmetric. Assuming that decay happens at a rate of 0.01% a day, a skill that isn’t practiced for a year decays to 70% of its original value. This value feels more realistic.

Further, it is much easier to revive a decayed skill than to learn a new skill. Assuming that this revivial happens at the rate of 1% a day, a skill that has been neglected for a year can be revived with just 36 days of practice.

Of course, this math is simplistic. Yet, it reflects the key to building and retaining skills – a routine of daily practice for new skills, with regular refreshes to keep the old ones alive.

Weed out bad habits

Bad habits are more dangerous than good ones, since they are self reinforcing.

A toxic work environment can be a source of stress. This stress can cause us to eat unhealthy. Unhealthy eating can affect our sleep, and thereby slash our productivity. Bad productivity can lead to more stress at work. And so it spirals downward.

When cultivating a garden, it helps to clear out the weeds first. To improve your habits, ruthlessly eliminate the bad ones so that you create the right conditions for the good ones to grow.

What is our identity?

The word ‘identity’ derives from the Latin words ‘essentitas’, which means being, and ‘identidem’, which means repeatedly.

Our identity is merely how we show up consistently. It is that which we do day-in and day-out.

There is nothing fixed about our identity. If we wish to change our identity, we merely need to act differently – today, tomorrow, and for long enough that we are no longer in doubt.

Inspiration: Atomic Habits

The key to overnight success

For the first five years, a bamboo plant looks small and unassuming, as it builds extensive root systems underground. And then, the plant explodes ninety feet into the air in six weeks.

As a programmer, on most days, it seems like you’re making no progress as you inch along from error message to error message. And then, on one inspired evening, you accomplish several days worth of work in a few hours, leaving the keyboard smouldering.

Success is a product of tiny, incremental improvements. On a day-to-day basis, it will seem like you aren’t making progress. But one day, these increments compound to produce powerful results.

When people see this, they will call you an overnight success. But the key to overnight success is days, months and years worth of improvement in tiny increments.

Inspiration: Atomic Habits

Fear crowds out reason

How can a nurse comfort a terrifed patient who is about to receive an injection?

‘Millions of people get an injections every day. They are all fine.’

‘You have already received dozens of injections in your life – this is merely another one.’

‘This needle is a special needle that is designed to not hurt.’

These are perfectly good reasons. Yet, the patient is often just as terrified after hearing them.

Fear crowds out reason. To supply reasons to a terrified person is like trying to add new clothes into a messy wardrobe. The wardrobe needs to be organized first so that you can add something to it.

When we talk to a fearful person, we need to address their fear and arrange it so that it can accommodate reason.

The rise and the fall

We do not rise to the level of the race. We fall to the level of our training.

We do not rise to the level of the examination. We fall to the level of our study.

We do not rise to the level of the interview. We fall to the level of our preparation.

We do not rise to the level of the live performance. We fall to the level of our rehearsals.

We do not rise to the level of our goals. We fall to the level of our systems.

Inspiration: Atomic Habits

When are we done?

Projects fail when we fail to define when they are done.

A pot of dal is finished the moment we garnish it with chopped coriander. But projects defined as ‘organize home’, ‘eat healthy’, or ‘workout more’, have no clear finish. When there is no clear finish, why bother starting?

Even habits can have finish lines in clearly defined routines. A routine to meditate for 10 minutes daily, or write and publish a daily blogpost have no finish dates. But they have finished definitions.

We move forward when we finish things – not when we start them.

Blessed ignorance

Every website that is selling a product or a service has testimonials from customers. Books often come with quotes of what people think about it. Products on all e-commerce platform come with ratings.

We often think that our decisions are grounded on solid reason. But only too often, we are simply doing what everybody else around us are doing.

Sure, this is a useful heuristic, for there is wisdom in crowds. However, crowds of humans are also often prone to foolishness. When a crowd of people rush to buy a stock is probably the worst time to buy it, for the stock’s price shoots up and it ends up overvalued. When a crowd of people rush to sell a stock is probably the worst time to sell it, for the stock’s price plummets and the stock is undervalued. Bubbles and scams are caused by masses of people rushing to buy and sell.

Propaganda is an instrument used to feed off the behaviour of masses of humans. If one friend of your tells you something absurd, you are likely to dismiss it. When the second friend repeats the same absurdity, you wonder. When the third friend states it, your defences break down. You can get people to believe anything as long as there are enough other people who believe it too. Flying chariots, virgin birth, people rising from the dead – human history is filled with such examples.

Mob frenzy is a fundamental human failing – when we see enough people doing something, we cannot help but do it too. A robust way to protect your own decisions is to stop looking at what everybody else is doing – on the news, on social media or on television.

Counter-intuitive productivity

I saw this wonderful internet post that draws an important distinction, when applied to building software.

image

Most teams I have worked with are on the left hand side. Yet, excellence sits squarely on the right hand side.

Fast is different in the short-term and the long-term. In the short-term, the left side is faster, and therefore, it is tempting. In the long-term, ‘doing it right’ always outperforms ‘quick and dirty’.

Don’t steal problems

A healthy sign of a well functioning team is that its team members identify problems. When somebody points out a problem, they have merely uncovered some potential to improve.

Here’s the crucial bit – a good team environment helps people solve their own problems. The person with the problem is given the time and the resources to solve whatever is bothering them. The onus on solving the problem always lies with the person who raised it.

It is tempting to solve people’s problems for them. But when a person solves their own problem, they feel empowered and are more satisfied than if somebody else hands them a solution.

When somebody has a problem, don’t steal it. Instead, help them solve it.

A 21st century superpower

Our world is changing so fast, that even with a year of professional experience, it is possible to turn into an expert within a narrow area. Therefore, every professional has something valuable to contribute their community of peers by merely sharing their work.

Why should we share our work?

  • It is easier than ever. The internet has made it so.
  • There is plenty of demand. That problem you have spent a year solving is one that several others are currently struggling with.
  • It builds your reputation. Job offers find you, rather than the other way around. And you no longer need a flimsy piece of paper to represent you.
  • You get more than you give. Your contributions attract feedback and alternatives that are often better.

Most importantly, any professional skill that we build today is based on the work of several others who went before us. To contribute to that professional community is your means to give back.

How can you give back? Through articles, presentations, portfolios, open-source contributions, wikipedia edits, mentoring. The opportunities are endless.

Contributing to your professional community is a 21st century superpower that is vastly undervalued.

The Lindy effect

All perishable things have an expiration date. They age as time passes. With some non-perishable items, the opposite is true. The longer they have been around, the longer they are likely to last into the future.

This phenomenon is called the Lindy effect, and it applies to a variety of non-perishable things.

The longer a piece of technology has been around, the longer it is likely to survive into the future. The CD-Rom has already come and gone, but the wheel is as old as civilization itself, and is likely to last as long as civilization does.

The longer a book has been in print, the longer it is expected to stay in print. Last year’s bestseller might not stay in print during the next decade. But ancient epics like the Mahabharata and Homer’s Odessy have been in print for about 3000 years, and therefore, are likely to stay in print for another 3000 years.

People are perishable, but their legacies can be non-perishable. Most of our grandparents will be forgotten along with us, but the legacies of Isaac Newton has been around for 500 years. Buddha, Krishna, Jesus and the Pharoahs of Egypt have legacies that are thousands of years old. Those legacies are likely to last thousands of years more.

If you’re betting on longevity, don’t pick the latest rage. Pick the oldest.

Lean into uncertainity

Why do traffic lights have countdowns? A countdown doesn’t make a traffic light change faster. Yet, it makes the wait more bearable.

Uncertainity makes us feel uncomfortable – that is why our simplest appliances come with user manuals and we can track the precise location of our food-delivery order on our smartphones.

However, mitigating uncertainity can come at a cost. We all work for businesses that are far more profitable than our salaries reflect. Even as this profit fluctuates, our salaries remain predictable and we pay a large premium for this predictability.

More importantly, the things that feel most meaningful are always uncertain. If a project is sure to succeed, pulling it off doesn’t seem meaningful. We derive meaning from achieving in the face of uncertainity. Even a lottery that is rigged in your favour isn’t fun anymore.

We feel uncomfortable when the solution to a problem is unknown, the path to the end is unclear or when something we are trying might not work.  May we use that discomfort as a signal to roll up our sleeves and lean in.