Monday, 14 January 2013

On Good Habits

They say if you want to create a habit, you stick at whatever it is you want to do for at least 21 days in a row.  After a while, your brain gets used to it and you start doing it without thinking.  This is particularly recommended for positive things such as taking up meditation, journaling and physical exercises.

Matt Cutts, in his Ted Talk called ‘Try something new for 30 days,’ finds that picking up an activity (like biking to work, taking a photo a day and writing a novel) and sticking at it religiously for thirty days not only makes him healthier, more productive but also increases his self confidence.  Telling people that you’ve just finished a novel, for example, can make you sound a lot more interesting than just saying you’ve spent your days doing the same old thing at the office.  After completing a hike up the Kilimanjaro, he even finds himself an exciting person.

The key to this of course, is to start doing it consciously and work your way until it becomes second nature and you begin to miss it or feel guilty if you don’t do it.  You can also do it for giving up bad habits, such as smoking, adding sugar to your tea and snacking on fried food.  Self restraint, focus, discipline and the motivation to achieve your goal are essential to make this exercise work.  These in themselves as we all know are desirable traits to have as productive and successful individuals.  There is nothing I admire  more than people who cannot start their day without a 10k jog round the block.

In my case, unfortunately, this kind of attempt almost always fail, not so much because I lack the self-discipline and find it difficult to resist temptation.  It is because I’m not very good at goal setting, even with goals I set for myself.  Once anything becomes a goal (hitting the treadmill, writing a haiku a day, being a good listener, waking up at the crack of dawn) it metamorphoses from being a ‘desire’ into an ‘obligation,’ thus changing the fundamental nature of the goal.  I am ashamed to say that being conscientious is not my forte.

When I feel that something becomes an obligation, even the most pleasurable thing, such as watching one good film on the DVD a day and consuming a piece of dark chocolate on a daily basis, becomes a chore and a bore.  Though I think it’s not so much about having a low boredom threshold as a pathological condition; sometimes I think my mental model is fundamentally flawed.  While most people would gain pleasure and a sense of achievement at having accomplished something or fulfilling a goal, I find having a goal and then fulfilling it actually devalues the whole process and takes away the fun and meaning of the activity.

This partly explains why I will never be good in a structured organization, for example, or in anything that requires one to demonstrate a willingness to climb up whether the career ladder or social position.  I find the rewards and satisfaction that come with achievement not so attractive.  At times, off-putting even. 

A professor once told me that people do things because of three things:  love, money or glory.  Beneath every action, there is always one of these motives in different shades and degrees.  You can also say that the reason people do things is because of the rewards; the feeling that there is a sense of purpose and meaning in it.  I often hear people say they do things, especially good things  (like charity, hard work, pray, help other people) because they want to go to heaven, earn more money and to feel a sense of achievement.  None of which I find all that inspiring or particularly attractive incentives. 

Which makes me ask myself, what is it that makes me want to do something and actually get it done?  I find that the answer is the same one that I used to give when I was a petulant child:  I do something because I want to and not because I have to.  And the less purpose, reward, expectation or obligation attached to it, the greater the enjoyment.  The meaning of the action comes from the freedom from having those constraints.  If, for instance, I am expected to pray a certain number of times a day in order to be admitted to the kingdom of heaven and all the rewards that go with it, I quite happily forego the offer and dwell in purgatory.

On the other hand, it does make me good at doing things I choose to do for absolutely no reason, and for a lot longer than 21 days.  Such as not eating what was once my favourite food, the tomato, which I haven’t touched for over a decade.  I cannot remember the reason, but probably because I couldn’t be sure whether the stuff is a fruit or a vegetable.
(Desi Anwar:  First published in The Jakarta Globe)

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