With every passing day, I’m starting to understand the 66-day median when creating a new habit. I have 10 days left before I reach this threshold and today has honestly been one of the most difficult days to get in chair and journal. I feel like I’m rebelling. And I keep thinking about something I read in Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work in which Joseph Heller says he doesn’t beat himself up if doesn’t write every day. That is a dangerous thing to let into my brain when I’m trying to build a habit. My brain is lazy by nature, and it will take a small thing like that and build it out into an elaborate justification to quit.
Obviously, if I’m writing this I’m not going to quit. No matter what. I will write for one hour a day until March 26th. That’s a commitment I made to myself. But I am curious if I will continue after that. I’ve discovered a lot of things through the process so far:
- I can write every day and not run out of things to write about
- The internal censor can be shut off
- I’ve been making a bigger deal out of blogging than I needed to
- My handwriting is atrocious unless I slow down
- I’m decent at touch-typing but I need much more faith in the process. I don’t look at the keyboard because I’m unaware of where the keys are, I look at the keyboard because I don’t trust that I know where the keys are.
- It takes a very long time to build a habit
Not only does it take a long time to build a habit, but a long time of repetitious action is not guaranteed to build a habit. Next Friday I will cross the 66-day threshold and I’m not sure what will happen after that. (I certainly intend to continue writing daily but I suspect I will not aim for an allotted period of time or a specified word count.)
Going back even further I can look to 2016 when I was vlogging on YouTube. I recorded, edited, and posted a video every day for 200 days. Even if I was traveling. Even if I was sick. Even if I was drunk. But even 200 days did not mean I’d built a habit. I burned out and quit. I never looked back. Five years later and the idea of editing video still turns me off.
There is something I failed to consider when thinking about habit-building: proper fit. Am I actually building a habit that fits who I am and what I want? Am I actually building a habit that benefits me? Am I actually building the habit I want?
That last one is a weird one because it draws a line between what we think we want (or should want) and what we truly want. If you asked me eight years ago if I wanted to build a daily jogging habit, my answer would have been yes. Of course, I would say that. It’s what I was supposed to say. It’s what I was supposed to want. But, it wasn’t what I wanted. What I wanted was to be skinny with no work; to be skinny without sweating. What I wanted was to get thin while smoking cigarettes, drinking lots of IPAs, and never ever running.
When we struggle with a habit what we are facing is the truth of our desires. From the first day that I started smoking, I would say I wanted to quit every time I started coughing. You know the words. You’ve probably said them yourself. “I know. I should. I want to.” But that wasn’t the truth for me. I absolutely did not want to quit smoking. What I wanted was to quit coughing. What I wanted was to keep smoking without having consequences for smoking. And that’s what I created. I continued to smoke for 18 years but pretending there weren’t consequences; by ignoring them. My true desire was to smoke cigarettes.
Then one day in 2014 that changed. I actually wanted to quit. I wanted it completely. So I did. I stopped smoking. I quit. I picked the habit up again a week later and smoked half a cigarette. What I discovered as I dragged on the cigarette was I didn’t want it. I thought I did. I asked for one because I was convinced I wanted it, but with every drag, I kept hearing “nope” in my head. After enough of those nopes I realized “Hey, I don’t really want this thing.” So I stamped it out and then I was done. I was no longer a smoker. In the seven years since that day I haven’t had a cigarette or even a drag. Not out of willpower but out of disinterest. I didn’t do anything special, I just actually truly wanted to quit, so I did.
My recent experiments with jogging (see Body Kinks and Jogging Fears) show something very different. They show my rising desire to jog. I’ve never had that desire before in my life but then suddenly one day there it was. It’s not moral superiority. It’s not willpower. It’s just the alignment of what you want. It’s a true fit.
A true fit is a peculiar thing because a true fit is easy. There is no resistance. It’s what you want to do; what you really want to do, so you do it. I jog short distances on my walks because I enjoy it. No other reason. I’ve made no bargains with myself. I haven’t set goals. It simply happens. A similar thing happened with flossing many years back, after a youth of struggling with the habit one day I started wanted to do it and I haven’t had to think about it since. (It bears saying that I’m not prescribing anything here. I’m simply trying to unravel my personal experiences. I am acutely aware that things like alcohol dependency and mental disorders involve many more factors than something as simple as a true fit of one’s desires.)
This is probably a shitty thing to read for people struggling with habits. But what I’m saying is that when we struggle with habits it’s not the habits we struggle with, it’s the truth of our intentions. We aren’t being honest with ourselves. We continually try to shoehorn ourselves into behaviors we wish we had; behaviors we wish we wanted. So we have to battle. We have to lie to ourselves. We have to trick ourselves. We have to create elaborate systems. We have to buy books and hire gurus. We have to force ourselves. We have to suffer. But regardless of what we do, repetition will never alter desire. The only thing that alters desire is having it. We can’t fake our way to it.
Today, like most Americans, I received $1400 from the government. By 11 am I paid $1100 to the bills I’d fallen behind on due to COVID, and then I went to the store and spent $154 on three bags of healthy food. I didn’t even think about it. I didn’t debate. I didn’t weigh whether I should buy a new computer. I didn’t consider doing anything frivolous with the money. Not because I’m a good person. Not because I’m responsible. But because I wanted to. I wanted to be square with my bills. I wanted the stress to go away. I wanted them to stop calling me. And I wanted food that I could feel good about pigging out on. That’s it. Want wins.
What we often refer to as “habits we want” are just aspirations. These are the things we wish we did so that we could be the type of person that does them. In a recent episode of The Talk Show with John Gruber, the host asks his guest John Siracusa. If he ever wished he still wrote his yearly reviews of the Mac operating system. Siracusa’s response is that he misses the experience of having written them, but he doesn’t miss the act of actually writing them. He misses be being the person whose name is attached to the reviews, but he doesn’t miss being the person doing the work to write the reviews. This statement is incredibly insightful because it points out how ass-backward our views of habits truly are.
We think if we suffer through something it will transform us. We think if we set twenty alarms to wake up at 4 am every day, that eventually this will change us into a person who likes getting at 4 am every day. We think if we endure we will no longer need the alarms, but we can’t whip ourselves until we want something, we have to want it first.
Here’s the screwed-up part: I’m not sure how we go about it. Even though I’ve gone through it; even though I quit smoking, I can’t tell you how it happened. With that said, it seems to me that rather than forcing ourselves into endlessly painful routines to build habits, our time and effort would be better spend identifying what our aspirations are, why they are appealing to us, and discovering ways to actually want them. Because when we want them nothing will stop us from creating them.
I wish I could remember exactly what it was that transformed me from a smoker into a non-smoker. It’s been too long to remember what changed but if I were to guess, it was fears over the health of my heart. That was about the time that I first started to experience regular panic attacks and I think they scared the shit out of me. I stopped being able to ignore the consequences. While the panic attacks weren’t a direct consequence of smoking, I didn’t know that at the time. All I knew was something was wrong. It’s not the best way to quit: waiting until you’re afraid that it’s too late, but you’ll take what you can get.
That’s something difficult to think about, isn’t it? How do we learn to want something? It’s not about how many days it takes or what affirmations I need to say, it’s about wanting. So, how do we build a ferocious hunger for something inside of ourselves? And can we?
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