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Sow Good Habits: How to Become the Person You Want to Be

A girl in my writing workshop told me that “quotes are cliche.” She may be right, but I love quotes; so I quoted her and I’m starting this post off with another quote. Can’t hold me down, world.

“Sow a thought, reap an action.”

“Sow an action, reap a habit.”

“Sow a habit, reap a character.”

“Sow a character, reap a destiny.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

It’s 1992, Eugene Pauly is at home cooking dinner for his wife, Beverly. Beverly comes home and tells him that their son, Michael, would be coming over. “Who’s Michael,” replied Eugene.

Twenty four hours later, he started vomiting and having stomach cramps, and his temperature shot up to 105. His wife Beverly rushed him to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with viral encephalitis – a rare disease that “inflict(s) catastrophic damage as it chews through the delicate folds of tissue where our thoughts, dreams – and according to some, souls – reside.”

Viral encephalitis destroys the medial temporal lobe, a part of the brain that is partly responsible for memory recall. The damage crippled Pauly’s ability to form new memories or remember anything from the past three decades of his life, but to the casual observer, he appeared to be completely functional:

“Some mornings, he would get out of bed, walk into the kitchen, cook himself bacon and eggs, then come back under the covers and turn on the radio. Forty minutes later, he would do the same thing: get up, cook bacon and eggs, climb back into bed, and fiddle with the radio. Then he would do it again.”

Despite the brain damage, he “still had all the habits he had formed in his youth.” Eugene navigated through life guided solely by these habits. He was on autopilot.

Here’s the surprising fact: Most of us spend most of our lives on autopilot. A controversial study from 1999 said that statistically, we spend 95% of the day in a “non-conscious state.” All this means is that our brains are completing the tasks of the day without being consciously aware of it. Autopilot.

Ever drive somewhere, to work, or the gym, or the grocery store, and then realize that you have no idea how you got there? Non-conscious state.

You might protest: “But I was conscious while I was driving. I was going over my evening/thinking about a project/planning a vacation!”

Well, you’re half-right. Your brain was definitely at work, but it wasn’t consciously involved in carrying out the actual task that you were performing. In this case, driving.

Our habits don’t make up the entirety of our non-conscious actions, but they play a big part in how we act while on autopilot. Opening doors, brushing our teeth, how we act under stress, or when we are emotional, even the thoughts that we most often think – all of these have their roots in our habits.

I believe that we are the sum of all of the little things that we do every day. If most of what we do everyday is habitual, then most of who we are is determined by our habits.

If we want to improve or optimize ourselves, we cannot afford to leave our thoughts and actions to the force of habit. We have to take a proactive role in determining which habits to adopt and which habits to eliminate. This is one of the highest leverage areas that we can influence. By curating the set of habits that we live by, it’s possible to achieve massive results in nearly any aspect of our lives.

If you want to be X – find out what the habits of X people are and start developing those habits.

If you want to be Y – find out what the habits of Y people are and start developing those habits.

All habits boil down to actions. To develop a habit (1-2 at a time MAX), find an action and then do it everyday. Easier said than done right?

Well, to help you on your way. I find that apps like Coach.me and Stickk help immensely.

Coach.me (formerly “Lift”) lets you pick any action and then periodically sends you reminders to practice it until it develops into a habit.

Stickk is a service that lets you add some stakes to your development of a habit. Basically, you put up a sum of money that will be donated to “charity that you hate” of your choice unless you succeed in your goal. This app is helpful beyond just habit building and I’ve used it as motivation to complete some of my goals in the past.

A common sense tip that I just started using is to “set yourself up to succeed.” All this means is that you make it easy for yourself to complete your habit building action for the day.

For example, if the habit you want to build is eating healthily – stock your fridge with healthy food. If you want to build a habit of exercising in the morning, leave your running shoes by your bed and lay out your work out clothes before you go to sleep.

It’s as simple as picking an action and then doing it every day, but it isn’t easy. If it was, then everyone would be doing it. The good news is – it’s completely within your reach. So ask yourself: What kind of a person do you want to become? What are the habits of that kind of person?

Till Next Time

Becoming Batman

Sources:

The Unbearable Automaticity of Being.
Bargh, John A.; Chartrand, Tanya L.
American Psychologist, Vol 54(7), Jul 1999, 462-479.
The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business
Duhigg, Charles
Random House, 2014
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