habits

If you can’t explain your idea to a five year old, you don’t understand it as well as you could.

Some say that those who can’t do, teach – and this might be true of some poor teachers.

What seems more likely to me is that those who can’t teach, can’t really do.

Perhaps they can perform in a vacuum, or regurgitate quotes and information they’ve been incentivised to memorise. But when it comes to passing the baton, they flounder.

True masters tend to be excellent teachers.

Why?

Because excellent teachers tend to be excellent students.

If follows that when playing any infinite game the teachers and the students come out on top.

Make a habit of breaking down the things you do and the things you think know into the tiniest details.

Fail to do so, and you might find yourself trapped in a cage of ideas too grand for your even your own comprehension. A sad place to be.

Become fluent in the language of that detail, and you’ll be able to share what you know with anyone.

Refining a technique minimises the intensity required to execute it.

This refinement is achieved through practice.

Practicing techniques is most effective when you’re able to apply them thoughtfully.

It’s difficult to apply a technique thoughtfully when you’re applying it with maximum force; so when we practice, it’s usually at around 70% intensity.

This princilple applies to physical techniques, like Jiu-Jitsu submissions, but also to mental techniques.

When you’re trying too hard to force a submission, you’re compensating for bad technique, and your overall progress suffers.

Try too hard to write, and you’ll never write anything. Try too hard to meditate, and you won’t get much out of meditation either.

Consistent performance at 70% is worth more than sporratic performance at 100%.

For certain pursuits, like Jiu-Jitsu, it is sometimes required that you are able to perform a technique at 100% intensity.

This requires occasional testing of the limits of your technique. This extra 30% intensity should be a bonus, not the norm.

The potency of your 100% depends on how consistent your 70% performance has been in practice, not how often you practice 100% exertion.

When you operate at 70%, you leave yourself enough resources to notice mistakes and implement feedback.

Fail to leave yourself enough bandwidth to consider the limits of your technique, and you might never master it.

Remain playfully engaged with improving through every chance to practice, and you’re guaranteed mastery of any technique with enough invested time.

Once mastery is achieved, your technique at 70% will well exceed the technique of most others clumsily operating at 100%.

Mastering the art of practice is the key to mastering everything else.

Build good habits. Master yourself. Do things you love.

Then persist.

The reason lottery winners wind up depressed is that our happiness depends not on what we have, but what we have in relation to what we’re accustomed to.

It’s why a getting a NutriBullet is so exciting… for about three weeks.

Once having a nice blender is something you’re accustomed to though, you’re far less likely to actually enjoy using it.

Image result for nutri bullet
Photo: Michael Hession

The shine on 20 million dollars lasts a little longer, but the novelty of driving an Mercedes wears off just like the novelty of blending spinach seamlessly into smoothies.

This isn’t the same at the bottom end of the financial scale.

Not having enough to get by is horrendously taxing on one’s happiness.

Once your basic needs are met, satisfaction lives in the process.

Setting big goals is less about achieving them than it is about the happiness we enjoy taking strides toward them.

Lean the instrument, write the book, make the ruckus, or play the sport because the pursuit itself delights you.

I’ve been trying to spend less time aimlessly bouncing between social media apps while using my phone.

The problem I’ve had in the past is that every time I’ve tried to detox, I’ve relied on discipline to keep me from sliding back to subconscious scrolling.

There is one trick which I’ve implemented that has had a huge lasting impact;

Delete everything non-essential from your phone’s homepage.

And I mean everything.

Keep your calendar, important emergency contacts, and maps if you use it a lot.

The rest should remain buried beneath the search function of your phone.

By forcing yourself to use the search function on your phone to type in the name of the app you’re trying to open, you’re far more likely to be making conscious decisions about what you’re doing on your phone.

This seems counter intuitive at first. Why would you strip away functionality from your phone’s perfectly good user interface?

Aren’t I wasting time searching every time I need to use an app?

And it’s true. It takes an extra five seconds or so to open Instagram, every single time. But they aren’t wasted.

These five seconds act as a barrier which protects your attention.

Five seconds is enough time to consider what your purpose for opening an app is; is there a specific reason I’m doing this, or am I burning time while avoiding another task?

It’s a buffer, a tool to help you make active choices about how you spend your time.

If this sounds like too much hasstle, try installing a screentime tracker like Flipd.

I was resistant too. But after coming face to face with the time I spent across these apps each day, five seconds stopped sounding so bad.

Hobbies are things we regularly do for pleasure.

They tend to be fun, nieche activities involving some form of social element. Our hobbies recharge us – in part because it doesn’t matter if we’re bad at them.

Pursuits are like hobbies, except for the fact that gradual improvement is at the core of our enjoyment of them.

Going bowling with your friends for a laugh once a fortnight is a hobby. After a few months, perhaps you’re a better bowler than average. Some nights you might even get lucky and put together an impressive score. But the vast majority of your time bowling would still be considered leisure time.

If you were treating bowling as a pursuit, while you might still have the same fun fortnightly game with your friends, the majority of the time you spent thinking about bowling would revolve around the question;

How can I be better?

You’d find time to practice on your technique, you’d probably invest in your own ball and shoes and you’d study footage of professional bowlers with awe.

You’d be obsessed with progressing and improving, because becoming a better bowler is the fun part of pursuing bowling.

All pursuits require the processing of feedback in order to innovate our approach to the activity.

In bowling, the feedback is clear; you either knocked the pins over or you didn’t.

Until you can score five perfect games in a row, there’s technique to work on.

When you find a pursuit you’re passionate about, there is an intense gratification which sprouts from putting in the work to improve. You bowl to get better at the bowling.

The fortnightly hobbyist has no interest in the intensity or focus required to pursue bowling.

When bowling is a hobby, the fun is showing up. The fun is the bowling.

When it’s a pursuit, the fun is the result of consistently showing up. The fun is the bowling because it’s making you better at the bowling.

Idenfying these patterns in the things you love to do and making clear decisions about what you’re willing to suck at is can liberating and quite valuable.

Pursuits demand tenacity and a refusal to fail. They’re high stakes and hard work, but far more gratifying tham hobbies long term. Pursuits are a commitment to growth.

Hobbies provide a special kind of short term satisfaction which we all crave. They’re low stakes and relaxing. Hobbies are the time where we can give ourselves permission to fail. The results don’t matter because taking part in the activity is it’s own result.

We should all have both hobbies and pursuits, but we should also know the difference.

Making the bed is usually the last thing on my mind in the morning.

If I’m not rushing to the gym, I’m usually calculating how long it will take to get changed and brush my teeth as I try to figure out whether or not I have enough time to scoff breakfast before leaving the house.

Obviously, this is far from an ideal morning routine.

(I’m working on it)

We should make our beds in the morning not just because it feels better to come home to at the end of the day, but because the feeling of accomplishment associated is one of the easiest ways to set yourself up for a productive morning; which can snowball all the way throughout your day.

“If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.”

Admiral William H. McRaven

Making your bed is a low hanging fruit; you can enjoy significant benefit despite the fact it takes next to no time or energy.

When we’re able to build habits around these low hanging fruit, the little effort it does take to accomplish them reduces even further. So much so, that eventually you won’t even have to think about them.

Making your bed after you wake up should be as intuitive as washing your hands after you use the bathroom; if it’s not completely automatic, something is probably wrong.

Build habits around the small things you can do which provide the largest benefits, and you’ll be constantly generating your own wellbeing.

What’s your low hanging fruit?

Have you always kind of wanted to meditate, but never got around to it?

Ever wanted to exercise more often, but just couldn’t seem to muster the motivation?

Want to be a writer, but never find the time to write?

Treat yourself like a professional, and do the work. Then keep doing the work until it doesn’t feel like work anymore.

These things take ten minutes out of your morning. Unless you’re a parent to young children, (in which case, why are you even here? Go get some rest) there is really no excuse.

A doctor washes her hands before every surgery whether her hands are dirty or not.

It’s not something she thinks about doing, it’s something she does.

That’s what a professional does.

I don’t want an authentic surgeon who says, “I don’t really feel like doing knee surgery today.” I want a professional who shows up whatever they feel like.

Seth Godin

We have to hold ourselves accountable to building these habits, especially around the things we care about.

I don’t yet make my bed every morning, but I will. Because I care about having good days.

I didn’t used to write every day, now I do. Because I care about my practice.

This stuff is simple, but far from easy. The ball is in your court.

Don’t ever stop striving to be a work in progress.

Be a professional. Do the work.

When we ruminate too intently on the pains our future might hold, we experience a portion of that pain in advance.

People with empathy internalise the pain of others when they witness suffering. It helps us to connect, to understand one another, and to care for eachother.

When making a decision, we usually consider the effect it might have on others. In doing so, we are essentially imagining future versions of the people our decisions may effect, allowing us to empathetically consider the potential outcomes of our actions.

We are so good at this that we usually do it intuitively.

I don’t take an online yodeling class at 1:30am because I can imagine that my neighbours (and their baby) might find it difficult to sleep in the presence of such glorious sound.

Unfortunately, there is a little glitch in this otherwise wonderfully human system; we can’t help but also imagine ourselves as a future person. We possess an inescapable and often rather concerning future self.

Anxiety is the pain we absorb while empathising with our future selves.

Harbouring a bit of this pain is sensible, but too much acts like poison.

We consider people ‘anxious’ when the pain they are experiencing in advance is disproportionate to the actual risks their furute presents.

“There are more things … likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”

Seneca

Your anxiety is as useful as it is actionable.

If you can’t do anything to address a concern, there is zero gain in accepting preliminary pain on your future self’s behalf.

You’ll have to deal with it when your future self arrives at the worrying destination, so what sense is there in experiencing the pain twice?

Getting stuck empathising with future you is dangerous because this process feeds upons itself.

Once painful worrying becomes a habit, you might find yourself worrying about the worrying.

All of a sudden, your introspective empathy has turned toxic, and you’re so caught up inside yourself that you can barely muster the energy to look out.

Illustration by Catherine Lepange from Thin Slices of Anxiety: Observations and Advice to Ease a Worried Mind

There is no simple fix to this cycle.

It’s a grueling, often shameful, thing to break.

But it can be done.

I suggest starting with one of these:

We are the accumulation of our long term habits.

If you have long term bad habits, the best thing you can do for yourself and those you care about is to replace them with good ones.

Habits are the things you do which make you, you.

Sometimes people get habits confused with goals, or with jobs.

‘I’m going to write every day until I’ve written my book,’ is not a habit.

‘I’m going to write everyday,’ is a habit.

Any habit with an end date is not a habit.

Goals get accomplished when your long term habits are good ones. Good habits put you in the best position to do good work, and good work leads to accomplishing big goals.

Bad habits provide short term relief and stunt long term progress. They get in your way.

Identify your bad habits and turn them into good ones.

Mine worst habit at the moment is c(ocaine)reating mess when I’m stressed, so I’m trying to turn tidying up into something I do to relieve stress.

It’s going to be hard work forcing myself to do it, and even harder work to find joy in it.

But it’ll only be hard for another week or three, then I’ll be dusting for the hell of it.

Your brain is as malleable as you allow it to be. Grab it like a ball of play-dough and get to work.

If you’re still having trouble, harness the power of accountability. Tell ten people that you’re going to change, and you probably will.

If ten isn’t enough, tell more and more people until the thought of letting the all down, admitting defeat and telling them you’ve failed is so exhausting that you might as well just do the work and make the change.

When your habits serve your goals and keep you happy and healthy in the process, life is at its best. Don’t get complacent.

Be the change you want to see in yourself, then worry about the world.

(To be clear, I was joking about the cocaine.)