Over the past few years I’ve noticed that my life is full of bad habits. Habits that were destroying my health, stifling my creativity, and hijacking my brain onto constant cycles of anxiety and mania.
A year ago I began giving an honest attempt at disassembling these habits. It has not been easy, but I’ve been generally successful so far. I say generally because what I’m really undertaking is reprogramming my brain. And that takes time — on the scale of years, not months.
There’s a million articles out there on all the different ways to knock out bad habits and replace them with good ones, but this writing is not about Wellness™. And I am absolutely not here to tell you what to do. No one out there knows what they’re doing. I want to share what things have been good for me and have worked for me. My goal was to significantly improve my physical and mental health without becoming obsessed with “productivity”, “fitness”, or “wellness”. I still wanted to participate in social media, read the news, drink and party, and eat whatever I wanted. I just didn’t want to be reliant on bad habits for temporary hits of dopamine. I wanted to want these things less.
How habits form (and un-form)
Let’s kick off with a sprinkling of science, shall we?
You may have heard that your brain is made up of neurons, with connections between them that allow them to fire electrical signals to each other.
What happens in your brain when you practice and repeat things, is that the protective coating (called the myelin sheath) around axons will grow, and the synapses generate more receptors. The myelin significantly increases the speed of the signals between neurons, and more receptors mean more responsive signals.
A signal along an unmyelinated axon vs myelinated. Gif from Wikipedia.
If you’ve mastered a certain skill, you’ll notice the difference between what it was like when you first started learning, and how different it feels to accomplish the same tasks now. Adept musicians, athletes, gamers, and the like will perform most of their actions on what feels like autopilot — they’re not even thinking about the placement of their limbs, or angles of their bodies.
When we build habits, we’re going to try and leverage this phenomena: the act of turning desired behaviours into an autopilot. We want to make good habits so natural and practiced, we don’t have to think about them at all.
Knowing this little biological fact has helped me immensely with my willpower, because it means that every time I do something I don’t feel like doing, I’m training my willpower. I’m growing more myelin and more receptors. Every time I exercise my willpower, I’m making it easier for my future self to do the same thing again.
Understand your motivations
It’s easy to come up with dishonest reasons for self-improvement, even if you’re not trying to. Especially if those reasons go against your personal image of yourself, and what you think you value (rather than what you actually value). It doesn’t matter if your motivations sound stupid. Keep digging, until you find your honest motivations for why you want to accomplish something.
When I wrote down the habits that I wanted to cultivate, I broke down the motivations behind each one. For example, I wanted to sleep and wake earlier because I had a million personal projects I wanted to work on, but no time or energy for them. I felt shitty that my life had become the classic wake up, rush to your 9–5 office job, come home exhausted, watch tv/videos until midnight to try and “relax”, and repeat until “the weekend”. I needed to make time for my own projects. The morning before I go to work was perfect, and I knew that in the past, when I got up early, it just felt great. I wanted to feel good about myself and how I was spending my time. Obviously no one has to get up early in the morning and work on personal projects, you can do what matters to you. This is what worked best for me, your mileage will vary.
Make it visible
The list that you see here is a part of the Trello board that I use for general everyday to-dos.
Put your list where you’ll see it every day. I also journal my progress as comments under the cards — this is a good, light way to track progress without the pressure of numbers (metrics really don’t work for me, they just make me feel bad), and lets me know when something isn’t working, and when it’s time to change things up.
You can also see here that I’ve been working on sleep and exercise way more than the other habits. This is because of something my dad said to me as a kid:
“If your body doesn’t work, how do you expect your brain to work? Your brain is a part of your body!”
As you can see, there’s a lot of habits, so I’ll talk about just three. I’m not all there yet (I don’t think I ever will be), but the key here is small, incremental, and consistent progress. You’ll relapse, backtrack, whatever. That’s all a part of it. It’s taken me two years to reach a point where I consistently get out of bed at 6:15am (something that is normal and mundane for other people), but I’m really proud of myself for getting there. And my friends don’t believe me when I tell them! Embrace your wins, no matter how small.
Over this series, we’re going to
- Sleep, for real, in decent amounts, at reasonable times,
- Take back our control of our attention (and our brain patterns), and
- Regularly move our flesh-prisons and exercise on the regular.