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Good habits affect us, but we forget

August 6, 2021

I’m back. As you might’ve noticed, I’ve stopped the practice of publishing every week. I’ve decided to stop putting out low-effort pieces weekly and to start giving more thought to my writing. I think spending more time writing each piece (which is difficult to do on a weekly basis with a day job) will increase its quality. Sacrifice regularity for quality, I say. Hopefully, you will notice the difference.

Once something becomes a real habit, I forget how I’ve felt before it was a habit. I start feeling like I am on a self-imposed treadmill. Since the benefits are not immediately apparent, I then start questioning why I’m doing it in the first place. It’s easy to forget what it was like before starting the habit.

Usually, the cycle goes something like this:

  1. Realizing that I would benefit from adding some habits to my life.
  2. Proclaiming that I will form some good habits.
  3. Sticking to these habits for a couple of weeks or even months.
  4. Not seeing any immediate benefit from sticking to these habits from day to day.
  5. Proclaiming that my life has become too orderly, too planned and that I’ve become some kind of a machine. Consistency is overrated! I want freedom!
  6. Stopping doing these habits.
  7. Realizing that I’ve become too lazy, too negative, and too passive.
  8. Going back to step 1.

I’ve started lifting weights again, after quitting the gym because of Covid-19. I’ve forgotten how good I feel after the gym and all the benefits I get from making it a habit: I become more confident, positive, and generally more chill. As I wasn’t training this past year, I’ve become really cynical, anxious, and negative.

These kinds of changes are difficult to notice. Not only will no one give you any feedback, but you also won’t notice the changes yourself since you are gradually becoming worse off. (This might be the biggest reason why most people get fat as they age - gradual changes are difficult to notice.) Since it’s such a small change from day to day, you won’t notice it and will just assume that this is just how you’ve always been. It’s easy to forget about the benefits a good habit gives you.

We are peculiar creatures. In the summer we find it impossible to imagine winter temperatures and having to wear heavy jackets in order to stay warm. In the winter, it’s the opposite — we can’t imagine walking around in t-shirts and the crazy heat. Yet, where I live this cycle happens every year. No matter how many times it happens, I can’t help myself but forget about the opposite weather. Somehow I can’t relate to my past experience even though it happened just six months ago. I remember it happen, but I forget how it felt. It’s like it happened to someone else.

I think this is caused by what Harari calls “multiple selves”. I think he is right when he says that there is no singular self: we are not individuals but “dividuals”. The mainstream thought, on the other hand, believes that there is the authentic core of our being that we hear when we mute all the alien voices around us. But, according to Harari, each of us has at least two selves: the narrating and the experiencing self. The narrating self plans and retrieves memories, while the experiencing self is our consciousness from moment to moment. I think this problem with forgetting the good effects of habits is caused by this separation: the experiencing self feels the good effects, but the narrating self forgets them.

The narrating self thinks long-term, but the experiencing self fucks it up. The narrating self wants to quit smoking, the experiencing self lights one up since it feels the need after a beer or two. The narrating self wants to eat healthy, the experiencing self orders pizza at 10 pm. The narrating self understands the intricacies of social media and how it’s engineered for maximum addiction, the experiencing self refreshes the feed for the 10th time. The narrating self understands that cheap dopamine won’t make you happy, the experiencing self craves it. The narrating self plans to wake up at 6 am, the experiencing self finds excuses when the alarm rings and continues laying in bed. The narrating self wants to sacrifice short-term pleasure for long-term benefits, but the experiencing self doesn’t let it happen.

No matter how much your narrating self plans, the experiencing self has to bear the consequences. However, if these two selves understand each other well enough, life becomes easier.

I think journaling and note-taking are tools for improving this understanding. Foucault calls this “Hupomnemata”:

Hupomnemata, in the technical sense, could be account books, public registers, or individual notebooks serving as memory aids. […] One wrote down quotes in them, extracts from books, examples, and actions that one had witnessed or read about, reflections or reasonings that one had heard or that had come to mind.

He thinks having your own Hupomnemata is valuable for improving the relationship of oneself with oneself. Foucault:

[…] the intent is not to pursue the unspeakable, nor to reveal the hidden, nor to say the unsaid, but on the contrary to capture the already-said, to collect what one has managed to hear or read, and for a purpose that is nothing less than the shaping of the self.

This helps with remembering what experiencing felt when it executed the plans from narrating self. This feedback helps the narrating self change how it plans things since it sees the effects. Feelings don’t stick in memory long enough.

Life is a sine wave, as any self-help guru would tell you. Journaling has helped me realize that when I’m sticking to positive habits, I’m usually around the maximum positive amplitude.

“Why did it take me so long to restart this habit?” is the question I keep asking whenever I return to the good habit that I’ve quit. This happened with my most important habits: waking up early, taking cold showers, and working out. It also happened for writing.

The hardest part of returning to the habit is actually restarting it. Objects at rest tend to stay at rest. Quitting the habit makes you lose momentum. It invites what Pressfield calls the Resistance and now you have to fight it next time you want to do the activity you have done habitually. Pressfield:

Resistance will tell you anything to keep you from doing your work.

It’s easy to forget how you’ve felt before you’ve done the habit which makes the habit appear useless. Thinking that the habit doesn’t change you is a fallacy. A habit does change you, but the change is gradual and so it becomes invisible.

Want to talk more about this or any other topic? Email me. I welcome every email.