Sometimes my actions feel automatic. The moment I wake up, I check the time on my phone and then stager out of bed to make a hot cup of black coffee. The taste, the smell and the energy I receive grants my day kickstart.
I’ve been performing theses same actions daily for years now. I can safely say that my morning actions have become automatic. When an action becomes automatic it is considered a habit. So, I’m considered a habitual coffee drinker that relies on caffeine for stimulation and sensory pleasure.
Our daily actions whether conscious or subconscious, positive or negative turn into our habits. Habits may bring us true happiness, empowerment and joy, whereas, others may leave us with a bad taste in our mouths. Isn’t it rational that we try to cultivate habits that bring us value and disregard the rest?
Now, I wouldn’t classify my morning coffee as a negative habit, but it could easily get out of hand. Automatically making my third or fourth cup is a little too excessive in my opinion, so there is still conscious control of the habit. As Oscar Wilde said “everything in moderation, including moderation”.
However, this was not the case with my excessive social media usage. Reaching for my pocket to obtain god-like information to drown my monkey mind became almost automatic. This habit is different from my morning coffee because it was hindering my productivity by feeding my mind with irrelevant Instagram stories that made me compare my life to someone else’s altered reality.
To realise the good habits from the bad, we must bring awareness to the table. In this world of constant stimulation, we mustn’t lose ourself in the noise of society. We need to search and discover our unique selves in some form of solitude. This is the only way we bring conscious light to the darkness in our minds.
Through internal reflection, via face to face conversations or journaling, we can articulate our habits into view. When I bought awareness of my excessive social media use, I realised it was a productivity disruptor, and that’s was the first step. The next step was to alter or change this habit to align with my goals. This was done by practising digital minimalism.
Bit of Purpose
Ask ourselves existential questions such as; what is the meaning of my life? And what is my purpose on this planet? May bring waves of anxiety or the enlightenment of an answer.
When I asked myself the same questions two answers echoed back; the meaning of life is to give it meaning and my purpose in this life is to live, learn and lead. My purpose allowed me to formulate clear goals. Theses goals guide me towards liberation, transformation and an awakening of my mind, body and spirit. With these clear goals set we can begin the habit cultivation processes.
“We have two lives, and the second begins when we realize we only have one.” – Confucius
Reflection and awareness enable us to articulate clear goals. With a clear goal, we can decode the daily actions we need to cultivate to achieve these goals. When the brain is given a clear goal, focus and energy are directed only towards the single action, distractions are disregarded. Within this state of uninterrupted concentration, we find flow and enjoy the process of achieving this goal.
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” – Lao Tzu
Goal 1. Run a 100km Ultra marathon
My goal for this year (2020) was to run a 100k ultra marathon. Now, this is a tough goal to set and most would not dare to set it. However, when you open your mind you enable the process of decoding to begin.
With only a 50k ultra under my belt, I knew I still had a lot more learning to do until I could achieve the 100k. So, to get more experience on long runs I signed up for CULTRA a 60k ultra marathon that climbs around 2,500 meters in elevation in Cameron Highlands.
This goal required me to form multiple beneficial habits and skills;
- Running – a lot of running
- Yoga – active recovery and the mind-body connection
- Meditation – cultivates mindfulness and equanimity
- Nutrition – you are what you eat
- Research – form, stretching and nutrition
- Discipline and focus
Goal 2. Create Financial Freedom
Another goal of mine is to achieve financial freedom. This goal has been in the back of my mind for two years now but, never implemented. However, with a potent design thinking session with my girlfriend, sparked powerful self-discoveries that were reflected upon.
With almost nonexistent knowledge about the financial sector, investing posed financial risk of losing my money. To minimise this risk, the first step was knowledge acquisition. My daily action was to study stocks and investments for 20 minutes a day. Slowly with the cultivation of knowledge and talking to friends, I took the next step and invested my money.
Power of Risk
Goals like these involve a significant amount of risk; physical risk through injures, social risk of failing in-front of friends or financial risk. Most people shy away from risk because its comfortable to stay in areas of comfort. Risk allows us to enter flow – a potent intrinsic motivator that demands focus, mindfulness and constant improvement. With risk on the table you wont stagnate, you’ll move, you’ll cultivate the habits to minimise the risk.
Habits that cultivate well-being are staples on my to-do list. The act of writing down the daily responsibilities brings a stream of clarity to my day. Checking off actions on the to-do list brings a wave of accomplishment. Knowing that I’ve achieved all the actions required to meet all my goals builds my reservoir of empowerment and confidence.
An example where I got everything on the list done:
The Habit Cultivation Process
The process of habit formation starts with a cue followed by a routine and lastly a reward. Cue’s trigger the habit process and rewards ingrain them. Every time I enter a library (cue), my mind knows its time for deep work (routine), productivity, flow state or a cup of coffee after is the reward. Essentially, the habitual practice of cue, routine and reward gives birth to habits.
I’ve created a beneficial habit by walking into the library. However, habits can also be negative such as; You see a pack of cigarettes (cue), you smoke (routine) which creates dopamine, relaxation or a cognitive boost (reward). Left to its own devices the habit process will ingrain itself as part of your daily activities.
To change the routine of smoking or any other negative habit you must beware of the cue that triggers the process. This awareness of the cue has led many smokers to change up their cue and rewards. Cleaning your environment so you don’t see cigarettes reduces temptation and increases energy for well-being. Switching your cue to find your running shoes instead induces a routine of running and the countless rewards associated with exercise.
Habits are enforced by our external environment. Ideally, we should optimise our environment and cultivate habits that aline with our goals. Personally, incorporating the philosophy of minimalism, I’ve turned clutter into mental clarity and productivity. I like my environment to be clean, quiet and minimal, this is the reason why I practically live in this library. This is one of the places I find the most flow and deep work.
To quit smoking cigarettes I cleared it out of my house and dissociated myself with smokers (hard to do when both my brothers smoke like a chimney). Initially stepping back from the cue that triggered my habit allowed me to drop the routine. Now, I can be around smokers and still resist the urge.
Once you have bought awareness to the actions that aline with your goals you can stack them. I use the principles of habit stacking to develop my daily exercising routine.
- Put my running shoes on (cue)
- Go for a run or cycle (Routine)
- Runners high (reward)
- Yoga 10mins (routine)
- Deep breathing and relaxation (reward)
- Take a cold shower (routine)
- Make a nutritious smoothie (reward)
A simple cue such as wearing my shoes enables the habit process from the beginning. Each step has its reward which leads to the next routine. Habits do not have to complex or fixed. Use your creativity and personal needs to create a stack that’s sustainable, actionable and adaptable.
In short, set clear goals and aline your daily actions towards those goals. To re-enforce a routine, be aware of the cue and reward. Through repetition, these actions become automatic habits. These daily actions may seem granular, but overtime small increments compound to profound changes.
Aristotle wisely said “we are what we repeatedly do. Then, excellence is not an act, but a habit”.