Habits


Especially in Silicon Valley, we hear about the benefits of meditation.

How it’s good for you, how it changes your way of interacting with the world, makes you more compassionate, etc.

At least from personal experience, all of the above seems to be true.

But it’s still really hard to get started doing so.

I think it’s because something inside humans just rebels against the idea of sitting in place, seemingly doing nothing. It seems wasteful somehow. Maybe even lazy.

In my case, it doesn’t help that I have a problem with procrastination. And yet, I managed (not without difficulty) to meditate almost every day for the past three months.

I’ve discovered building a habit of doing something is far more important than actually doing it. This is one of those things that experience a sort of snowball effect: It’s incredibly hard to begin at first, but once you’re at a certain point, it’s really hard to stop.

Procrastination is part of a larger problem called akrasia, which roughly means “doing things against your better nature even though you know them to be against what your higher-order self wants.”

Akrasia is a consequence of the fact that human beings hyperbolically discount future actions, and so they are totally inadequate at judging the actual future value of them.

Basically, you don’t really know how to judge the value of your actions appropriately. This is why a lot of important tasks that are also somewhat mundane and repetitive tend to be left by the wayside, and end up unfulfilled.

To borrow a phrase from Matt Might, a computer science professor at the University of Utah (who also has a great blog at matt.might.net), the solution to this is to “make the path of least resistance the path of maximum productivity.”

There are countless examples of this. A classic one is installing software that limits how much time you spend unproductive on websites. Another one is to tell all your friends that you’re going to go to the gym because you know the pain of disappointing them, or more likely being ridiculed by them, is far more painful than the pain of actually going to the gym.

For meditation, I like to use technology to automate as much of the process as possible. I use a website that specializes in quantifiable goals. It’s called Beeminder and it makes you record your progress. If you fail to live up to your self-imposed goals, they take your money.

I track a lot of goals with Beeminder. To me, the money I’ve had to pay them for the occasional derailment is more than offset by the positive lifestyle changes I’ve made by forcing myself to continually track and actually do such goals. As it turns out, I’m almost always happier for doing them in the end anyway, despite what my procrastinating inner voice told me.

Now here’s a funny thing: The best way to build a habit is to succeed in doing whatever you’re trying to do. A real Catch-22, isn’t it?

However, you have one advantage: you get to define what ‘success’ is. (For those of you who’ve read Cat’s Cradle, *this is an example of *foma in action.)

So start out by making it something so utterly trivial, it’s impossible to fail at. As you build confidence, you can scale up your goal accordingly, and eventually you have a strong habit and (hopefully) better life.

Most importantly, there’s little chance of you failing and casting a shadow on future attempts.

I started by just committing to literally 15 seconds of meditating every day. That grew into a minute, which became 5, then 10, and within a month, I was meditating for 20 min a day.

The only real requirements for such a process are actually doing it and making sure success/failure is easy to quantify.

So rather than “run every day”, try “run every day for 30 seconds. Running is only counted if I go at least X miles per hour.”

In fact, I’m following such a process right now with this blog post. I’ve wanted to blog since high school but never found the will. This is my attempt to start.

For the past two weeks my only goal was to write at least a single word for the blog post every single day, which I did without any real trouble. One day I just got kind of annoyed and ended up writing virtually the entire thing in about 20 minutes. Now I just have to maintain that level, which isn’t so difficult. Now we’ll see how long I can post regularly (defined as ≥500 words per week) without derailing.

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