Building effective habits take time

Afterthoughts: The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin

An easy way to share our mental wealth

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At the start of the Covid-19 lockdowns, I told myself that I wanted to take the time to build some good habits. It is now three months since making that commitment, and the progress I have seen was not what I was expecting. Naturally, I procrastinated and spent the first couple of weeks doing some soul-searching, what exactly did I want make a part of my everyday life?

By the end of the first fortnight, I had the following in mind:

  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Journalling
  • Reflection
  • Exercise

I then spent another week researching (procrastinating) the best ways to build such habits and eventually stumbled across Atomic Habits by James Clear. That book lit the path towards building a consistent habit; it was my guidebook and I followed it to a tee (I still have the cheatsheet pinned up on my noticeboard above my desk). One of Clear’s main points was that it was hard building habits more than one or two at a time – safe to say I was incredulous. Here I was, with all the time in the world, sans a job, and the will (or so I believed), there was nothing against me.

I started with daily reflection in early April, after about a week, I added writing and journalling into the mix, and reading a week after that. Exercise, however, I have not been able to trial into my daily routine until last week. I want to note that for each habit, I followed each one of James Clear’s suggestions, which you can read more about here.

The daily reflection was not too bad. I suppose a large part for this is that it only took 10 to 15 minutes of my time. I had a list of prompts suggested in the Science of Wellbeing course on Coursera and managed to do it every day since. As of June 16, my streak for consecutive daily reflections is 69. Not too shabby, I say. It has reached a point where I cannot go to sleep without first answering the same eight questions.

Feeling confident, I then added writing and journalling into my daily routine. With both, I had strict minimum requirements for it to “count” as being done for the day. For writing it was publishing one blog post, and for journalling it was a word count of 750. These two were, by far, more difficult, especially in the first few weeks. After the energy and enthusiasm of starting and doing something new, diminishes, it became a little bit of a slog. Journalling was straightforward, as online wisdom encouraged that you write anything down. Getting to the word count was not too bad, in fact, on most days, it was kind of fun. Even on days where I did not have anything to say or think about, it was nice just writing down random thoughts.

The writing, in comparison, was the opposite. In the first couple of weeks, I would spend at least two hours writing e.g. thinking of a topic, research, writing, editing, and publishing. Some days I was really into it and I think it reflected in the quality of the output, but most days I was just trying to fulfil the minimum requirements. Two hours a day might not sound too bad, but consider that I had never written for pleasure before, only for school or university. It was an entirely new experience and skill for me. I would say, however, after a month or so integrating this, the lows became higher and the highs still were high. So on average, it was a pleasurable hobby. As of June 16, my streak for consecutive daily journalling and writing stands at 64.

About a week after starting the daily writing and journalling, I forced myself to read books daily. My minimum requirement was reading a book for at least 1 hour a day. Reading online articles or blogs did not count, it had to be a book. This started off as a challenging endeavour, the books I began with were just the ones I found on the bookshelves at home. Not necessarily things I would willingly read, but due to lockdown, I couldn’t go to the library, so I had no choice. After a week or so, I discovered Overdrive and Kindle and my world opened up. In trying to find books to read, I stumbled across Goodreads and it has been smooth sailing since. Finding books that interest me is so much easier now, and the habit stuck fairly quickly.

As of June 16, I have finished 20 books since lockdown started – that is more than I could have ever imagined. When I made my Goodreads account, it asked me to set a reading goal for the year, and I thought 12 was reasonable, given that I hadn’t read for pleasure since I was 11, so I put that. When I surpassed that milestone within a month of starting my reading habit, I felt on top of the world.

Exercise is a tough one, and I cannot tell you why it took me so long after starting the other habits for me to commit. In hindsight, the most likely scenario was that my mental load was at or near capacity. Given the state of the world, and the trying to build those four habits, I was mentally petered out. Now that lockdown has lifted, my habits are still sticking, and I have been able to come back into the world, and see friends. Last week, I just said, screw it, I am going to start exercising tomorrow. It is been just over 8 days now, and I have exercised everyday. I am more than happy with my progress on this habit, and will wait until it feels natural until starting the next week.

In hindsight, I probably could have built the habits sooner. If there is a will, there is a way. I am, nevertheless, buoyed by the progress I have made. Through these habits, I have re-invented myself to myself. I know see myself as someone who writes, someone who reads, and someone who is thoughtful and reflective. Seeing this progress only fuels my tank to continue to add additional and refine existing habits. I guess, what I am saying is that, changing your habits takes a long time. For me, it took three or so months.

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