My Obsession with Habits
And how I started journaling
When I was a teenager, I was drawn to journaling. I found the notion of keeping a record of my experiences and the meaning I found in them such a romantic one. I remember one of the first times I sat down to journal. My entry was vivid and carefully crafted. It recounted my day with rich interpretations and infused every moment with meaning. I felt good. I was doing it!
The next night I sat down to write again. This time, however, I had less to say as if I had this bucket of words and I was getting close to the bottom. I needed more words, but they weren’t there for me.
By the sixth day, my journal entry was two scribbled sentences and I had lost my motivation. Writing had become a chore. I had started out my journey into journaling thinking this was the only thing I could possibly be doing and now, I hated it.
A few months ago, I was back home to see my family in Boston and my mom wanted me to clean out my old notebooks. I sifted through scores of old school notes, looking for the occasional existential anecdote or doodle drawn during a boring Econ lecture that was worth saving. To my dismay, what I also found were 7 or 8 journal attempts and they all followed the same pattern. One ambitious first entry (twice on New Year’s Day) followed by a sad trail of dwindling inspiration. This was looking very pathetic.
A few years ago, when I was training to be a yoga instructor, I learned about a concept in Hinduism known as Sanskara. Wikipedia defines it as “imprints left on the subconscious mind by experience in this or previous lives, which then color all of life, one’s nature, responses, states of mind.” It’s been explained as grooves in sand. Every time you do something, it’s like deepening that groove. Essentially, I saw it as habits.
I learned the power of positive habits or routines best when I started doing yoga. When I started doing yoga, I only went one day a week. Over time though, I slowly increased this to three days a week. Then one day, on a dare with a friend I increased this to every day for four months. It became harder to NOT do yoga than to do it.
Since then, I found better ways to implement habits in my life. I heard about Matt Cutts, a Google employee who started challenging himself to do something every single day for thirty days. I started experimenting with this. My parents live in Boston and I’m here in San Francisco so I decided to take a picture of something from my life every day and send it to my parents so they’d know what I was up to. Another time, I wanted to be more focused and I meditated for 5 minutes every day for a month.
One day, I stumbled across Atul Gawande’s TED talk on healing medicine. For decades, there had been many simple mistakes made in operating rooms at alarming rates. Surgical instruments were being left inside people, wrong body parts amputated, antibiotics not administered at the critical time period to prevent infection. The crisis was so great the WHO put together a task force to address the problem. Checklists were suggested as a potential solution as it had worked for decades in aviation. They ensured that steps got done in the appropriate order, no steps were missed and that flight attendants and pilots worked together in the face of a task as complex as flying a plane. The implementation of checklists in surgery lowered morality rates in ORs often by greater than 40%
I was impressed by the power of checklists and I saw an opportunity for them to aid in the creation of positive habits. Three months ago, I had left my job to start a business and I was lacking the structure my previous job had afforded me. I decided to start my own checklist, albeit for a much less complex task than surgery or aviation, a morning routine.
I put together a checklist three months ago which I magnetically stuck to my refrigerator. Among other items, it consisted of eating breakfast, washing the dishes and leaving the house. The last item probably being the most crucial as it ensured I didn’t remain in my pajamas for the rest of the day.
This list slowly evolved to include meditating, drinking a glass of water and planning out my day. What I realized over the first few weeks was I no longer improvised my mornings, they were already planned. No effort went into what I needed to do when I woke up. I had a list that would ensure I would be nourished with a good breakfast, focused from a 15 minute meditation session and I have a good plan from my day’s work. And over time, this list became habit.
The whole point of habits is that you start moving tasks that you need to do from the conscious part of your brain into the unconscious part so that your conscious mind can focus on the actual task at hand. The conscious and planning mind is limited by how much attention it can muster and aids like good habits reduce how much it has to deal with. If you want to learn more, “Thinking Fast and Slow” is a great book on these systems of cognition.
It worked so well for the first month that I decided to try a night routine as well. I called it my “Good night” routine. While writing that up, I had this realization. What if I added journaling to this list? Maybe the one habit that had eluded me my entire life that I was almost afraid to attempt, could be become habit. I figured, why not?
It’s been over two weeks now and I’ve been journaling every single day. You may say that that’s not very long, but it passes the first week which I hadn’t done before. I committed to two lines every day, because I realize habits need to start small, but I usually end up writing at least a half page in my Moleskine. The best part of this habit was that it was effortless. All I had to do was add it to the list and it would simply get done.
I realize that this may not work for everyone, but checklists have worked for me to create the routines I’ve wanted to add to my life and ensure a fresh start to the day. Maybe this will help you too.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Flannery O’Connor, one of my favorite writers:
“I’m a full-time believer in writing habits…You may be able to do without them if you have genius but most of us only have talent and this is simply something that has to be assisted all the time by physical and mental habits or it dries up and blows away…Of course you have to make your habits in this conform to what you can do. I write only about two hours every day because that’s all the energy I have, but I don’t let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place.”