Change: An easy gritty howto

Habits are the undercurrent of your life. If I ask you, if you were happy. You would either reply yes, or no. Either answer is wrong.

When we look at habits, happiness is a different context. For example, let’s take the world’s favorite bad habit: Smoking.

A few of you who smoke would say, I love smoking. I haven’t anyone say it, and I don’t think I can say that either. Are we happy smoking? No. Unless you’re more “evolved” and have a “holistic perspective” of how mental fortitude is the balm to any physical damage, you would say no. We’re all aware of the damage. Everyday, and with each puff.

But this is not about smoking, it’s about the habit of smoking as a example, to guide us into what’s more important. Change.

When we talk about change in our lives, we’re talking about our life situation and circumstances. We we are also aware that these would not come about unless we change. Becoming more productive, risk-taking, hard-working, smarter, more educated, quitting smoking and quitting fast-food, becoming more physically active, becoming more empathetic and listening, becoming….a better you.

But “change” is a funny word. If it were as simple as a lane change, we would not have been writing and reading immense knowledge and research on this topic. CEOs talk about change, Gurus talk about change, Politicians talk about change. You and I talk about change.

Why do we talk so much about it, and not just change, is not a mystery. It’s hard.

But “change” is hard, is like saying running is hard. Why is running hard? Because it’s uncomfortable. It puts you out of breath and make your legs ache. That’s what’s hard. Putting ourselves “out of comfort”.

Being “out of comfort” is hard.

Change is not. Change is the outcome of being “out of comfort”.

So this article is about putting yourself “out of comfort” the easiest way possible.

But before we begin, a fair-warning.

Ego is the enemy.

Though it’s universally true, “ego is the enemy” is very “present” when we look at change. The motivator of change in a lot of contexts is also “glory”. How much more “pretty” you’ll look when you lose weight, or how much more “powerful” you’ll be if you be wealthy. It’s what we use to pull our self up, and look at the “grass on the greener side”, and be motivated to cross the fence.

But please don’t let it get in your head. Ego and glory are empty without a narrative on the heroics of your process of change.

The way you went cold turkey and didn’t give up even during your break-up, or studying late nights while working days. It adds to the achievement. It brings the wow. Getting insanely rich, working hard and smart and killing deals is more “attractive” than “I inherited it from dad”.

It’s this narrative which will cause problems. The way outlined later, is very humble. It’ll allow failure, it’ll bend, it’ll stop, it’ll bow out. It’ll be most boring change story to tell.

It must be. It’s the “easy way out”. You can’t capitalize a cocktail guest’s attention with that story.

But it’ll work.

Being a turtle.

We all know the story of the hare and the turtle. But seriously, it’s the most amazing and life altering tale that humanity is blessed with.

No one gets it though. They don’t because no one wants to be the turtle.

Even though he wins.

No glory in that story. Stupid limping turtle wins, not from him own effort. He wins because the hare got sloppy.

So the moral becomes “Don’t be like the hare”, when the true moral was “Be a turtle”.

The hare had too many reasons to drop out and rest. He had a significant and overpowering lead. Almost a joke of a race. It must have been in a circus, just to humiliate the turtle and get a laugh out of it from the sheer hilarity that a turtle can even beat a hare. Of course the hare decided to take a break. We would too.

Turtle, knew the insurmountable odd, but kept walking. That’s remarkable. You would quit. I would quit. I won’t even go through the starting line in the face of absolute failure. But the turtle did, and kept going. Not knowing till the end that he had won.

There is a humble yet powerful glory in this. Far less interesting, and far more gritty.

But enough morals. Let’s get to the science.

Habit as a feedback loop

I talked about happiness as we know, and happiness as a different entity in the context of happiness.

We’re not happy smoking, or eating or sleeping. But it generates a physical happiness. Not a egoistic happiness that you may get from a achievement, or a creative happiness that you get from great work but a very mild short-termed “happiness”. Imperceptible to our conscious in most cases.

It then follows a feed-back loop. So let’s take smoking. You smoke, Your mind becomes foggy, and energy levels drop. You feel tired more and you take breaks a lot. Activities become stressful from the lack of energy, which generate frustration and you smoke more. Gym’s out of question as you’re too tired anyway from all the carbon monoxide sucking your oxygen from your blood.

Now it’s get stuck around a point. Think of it as a loop around an center. An orbit. We will continue to orbit this point till we make a change.

And it’s stable. You don’t increase smoking and you don’t increase your healthy habits. Change in either balances out. You may smoke more today, because it’s a bad day, but you’ll back to normal tomorrow. And the other way round. You may workout and be busy with other fun things and you can forgo a smoke or two. But you’ll be back to your “routine”.

Consider another orbit. You still smoke, but..

You’re working out and you have a higher oxygen level. Your brain is clear and have a lot more energy. You have clarity around your work and can put in more hours at a stretch without needing a break. You get home earlier and have time for gym as well. More energy to you. A nice feedback loop.

Now put in cigarettes in above picture. You’re automatically smoking less, because you’re less frustrated and more energetic. But you still do, one or two or perhaps 4 during the course, a far cry from your chain gun like habit guzzling cartridges of cigarettes like ammunition.

It’s stable. You can picture it, and you will realize that this orbit is possible.

How do we switch orbits?

Abrupt changes are hard because for a little while the “happiness” goes away. It’ll take 20 days for the brain to recover from a smoking habit, and those 20 days are hell. Even though the first 3 are worst, life will still throw hard-days at day 15, which will make you come crashing down.

Same for waking up on time, the first 10 mornings will be nightmarish. Same with over eating and cutting sugar, the first 10–15 days will be bad. You look at your habit and imagine the cold-turkey consequence, you’ll know it’s hard.

But “The change” is not hard.

The abruptness is hard.

The hare jumps and runs. But loses, because he tires out in the long race.

Be the turtle. Let’s take one baby step at a time.

The hare (cold-turkey) is certainly glorious, but because it’s so hard.

You’re not weak. It’s hard.

It’s hard because “normal” humans cannot achieve it. If you can’t win it, you’re normal. That’s why “it” is “hard”. If normal people could achieve it, it would not have been termed “a hard habit to break”. Winning it, makes you “special”.

It’s great to be special, but how to change if you’re not. That is, assuming you have tried once or twice or 20 times… which in case of smoking, is the average per year we try, even though it’s for an hour. Different for different habits.

So let’s change the easy way.

Pulling the loop.

The feedback loop is powerful. It hold the loop together. The more powerful it is, comes from how hard it is to switch orbits. How “stuck” it is to the orbit.

Smoking → Feeling tired → Frustration → Smoking → Hating life → Chilling out → Smoking

You need to introspect on your loop. It may not be the above exactly. But if it’s a habit, there is a loop. If you have tried and failed to change, there is a loop.

The same loop could be around a healthier orbit. But the change is easily 20 days cold-turkey. (that goes for every habit, even getting up on time)

So Climb, if you can’t jump.

So how do we move up the orbit, if not by jumping. (And then crashing back down)?

By taking mini steps.

Less Smoking → Less Tiredness → Less Frustrations → Less breaks → Less Smoking.

But less smoking is an action. You keep feeding this, you’ll keep moving up the orbit.

Be the turtle, make small changes, and never stop. Keep walking. Don’t run. Don’t exert.

Hike slowly, without effort. Stop, take a breath. Allow yourself to fall back. Slip down, get up, it’s ok. Cut the drama. Fail, and take it slow. Without the self-lecture on “Being strong”. Without the “hopelessness”. Without the “I’ll never win”. Keep moving.

Be the turtle. The moral was always that he should have quit, he should not have agreed to this race, he was stupid to even run.

But he did, and he crossed the finish line.

Putting the rubber on road.

Ok, so let’s take simple scenarios and habit.

Waking up early. You wake up at 9, and you want to wake up at 6.

Examining the feedback loop.

→ Wake up late → Hurry across the day→ Get tired → Chill out with TV or facebook → Sleep late → Wake up late.

Start sleeping 5 minutes early. If you sleep at 12. Sleep at 11:55. Don’t worry about waking up right now. That’s hard. We don’t do hard.

Continue moving up your sleeping time, and you’ll one day start waking up 15 minutes before 9. Around 8:45.

Keep going. Keep sleeping earlier and earlier and earlier, 5 minutes at a time.

Change your routine. Start watching TV first thing in the morning. Have a laugh, do your facebook, read your book first thing instead of ending your day with it. Do a bit in the night, Do a bit in the morning.

Notice how you’re literally “flowing”, instead of jumping. Shifting the habit, bit by bit.

Zen Buddhist call it “Kaizen”. Your bank calls it a recurring deposit. It works.

It’ll take time. It’ll be boring. But it’ll be faster. In the next 6 months you’ll be free. As opposed to the normal, trying to get it next month or next week, and “being strong”, only to crash again, and again and again.

It’s been years, hasn’t it? If you were turtle, you’be there yet. Sink that in for a minute. Imagine the money you would have had today if you started investing the day you got your job. Or how thin you would be if you had just started walking 20 minutes and losing a pound a month. Remember how long you’ve been trying and then multiply it with the turtle’s rate of change.

I would bet you’d be surprised. You’d have hundreds of thousands, or at least a few thousands. You’d be at a very nice weight. You’d be running at least a mile a day.

1% change. Everyday. That’s 100 days for 100%. For anything, and that too if I don’t count compound interest.

Just make a 1% change. Say no to a cigarette once a day. It’s not about how many you smoke. Controlling that is hard. Just once in your day, like a “good deed” you have to say no.

Saying no once a day will increase your ability to say no. With saying no 2 times, your “ability or will” will increase.

Build from that. Say no twice but when you’re ok with saying no for one. If there are days when you couldn’t say no, that’s fine. Do it the next day. Keep moving.

Slowly but surely, you’ll be saying no, to all but one in a day. You can still fall back to smoking the entire day. It’s fine. Next day, or after a couple of days, come back. Start again with saying no twice, or if you feel that’s hard, saying no once. Drop back. The good part is, it’ll take you less time to get back to saying no to all except one sooner, than it took last time.

If you’re not ready for the magnitude of change, and you fail, lower your target. Build and train with that. Then trying raising it a bit more.

I’ll end now, with a story which is may not be true, but still is theoretically possible,

A boy was young, and the father bought small calf. The boy would lift the calf and would train to lift the calf everyday.

The calf grew up, slowly, and so did the boy and his strength. When the boy became a man, the calf had become a bull, and he was known throughout the kingdom as,

The man who can lift a bull.