Tuesday, April 10, 2012

a creature of habit has no real protection

[this post is dated april 5th, 2012]

i write today sitting atop moving ground - no, that can't be right. indeed, i am in relative motion with the ground, soaring away from the horizon and into trees. well, okay, now the horizon appears directly left, which means we're going north (right?).

that's how i've been telling where i am lately. new york is all about east and west - everytime i get off the subway i do a quick and rough assessment of where the sun is and then try to figure out whether the numbers ascend or descend going to the west (they ascend).

anyway, i'm on a bus to ithaca, NY from new york, NY. i've never published anything while bouncing  up and down on the roads - i'm kind of worried as to what this level of turbulence will do to my hard drive. i'm going up to visit some dear friends at cornell university, but i never realized how peacefully smooth midwest buses seem to be in comparison.

i have been in new york and 21 for about 4 days, and as such, i've been thinking a lot about habits.

it started when i recorded the song "bait n' switch" by the shins back in september at their concert, and resurged when it became one of my favorite songs on the new album (plug, plug, plug). the lyric that plunged me into this rumination adorns the title-slot of this blogpost. it stuck out to me because i tend to really respect people who have good habits. the lyric, however, captures the instability that exists within a person who steadfastly adheres to habits over time - when you do something again and again without thinking, you may unknowingly steer yourself into ruin. that's what happened with my bad posture, anyway.

this book i have been listening to - thanks to an accidental subscription to audible.com and a chance listening of an NPR radio program documenting the author - is all about the science of habit-formation. written in the style of blink and other such gladwellian work, the power of habit by charles duhigg, more or less takes the reader through case studies of people who utterly transformed their habits and have emerged as triumphant, better versions of themselves, and of organizations and movements that have succeeded by analyzing the habits of their own bureaucratic inner-workings and of their customers.

listening to this book in the time of my birthday and in one of the most statically dynamic cities on earth has created me a whirlwind of self-reflection.

if you had to sum up a person, you might describe them via their habits.
he always kept a pen in his breast-pocket. 

she was painfully severe to her youthful students, but a baby never failed to crack her hardened face into a grin. 

she is hopelessly punctual. 

even on the stillest day, his hair is windswept. 

the very concepts of "going through the motions" or "with the flow" or "being stuck in a rut" speak to the nature of habit.

some habits are neutral. for example, i have a tendency to stop everything when i see a beautiful baby child just to coo at it and then resume life just as quickly. me and like 10 other people i know share this incredibly relaxing leg-shaking habit. every time i order noodles, i order the same thing even if i don't know if i want it. these simple acts of sameness provide a sort of order in my chaotic, sometimes haphazard existence. and it's easier than trying to be or do a different way.

at 21, i realize that most of my habits are not intentional. rather they are half-grown reactions to life. yes, the tendency toward entropy. there are not many habits i have put into place to make me better, other than the compulsive need to study and do schoolwork in light of a deadline, or that showering-teethbrushing-sometimes hair-brushing instinct. also, i have this particularly good habit where i respond to emails and texts responsibly and quickly.

those that are intentional, however, blend seamlessly into my day-to-day existence and bring me a lot of happiness. it infuses so much joy into my day to listen to music that i know i like on my way to class.

another good habit is is acknowledging, greeting and smiling at other people. talking to people or not talking to people is a habit like any other. in some classes, i am pretty bubbly and interact freely with my peers. but then there are classes in which i never got into the pattern of speaking with my peers, perhaps out of some intense focus i've had on the material, on being distracted by something else, or a fear of poli-sci majors. in those classes where i don't have the habit of chatting with people, i find it incredibly difficult whenever i do want to ask someone a question ("when is that due?") simply because my habit is inaction.

(digression begins.) but as the lady (whose name incidentally was janice stewart) at ellis island said in her rather unorthodox introduction to the this-is-what-happened-at-ellis-island video, "it doesn't cost you anything to talk to people. it doesn't cost you ANYTHING to ask how someone's day is going, and you may have given that person just what they needed."

it was true. (/digression)

but my habits are mostly bad. so much hedonism... staying up late, writing blog entries on a whim instead of doing homework, drinking too much coffee, writing long emails to friends detailing the actions of others who surround me, not reading for class, messing up my room simply because i don't feel like putting everything in specific places (that's how things get lost!)

according to duhigg, bad habits cannot be extinguished - they can only be replaced. a habit is built around a cue and a reward, associated in a Pavlovian way. something triggers your habit, and some good feeling is associated with the result of the action. however, a habit isn't real until a craving for that reward is established.

to put it more simply, if you eat 2 bags of flaming hot cheetos and like them, you have not created a habit. but if you eat 1 bag of flaming hot cheetos and then super crave them for like 4 days and then buy another bag of them and eat them and repeat this process until it gets to the point where you see a bag of cheetos and start salivating and emptying your pockets, you have a habit.

so how do you get rid of this habit?
you can avoid looking at bags of flaming hot cheetos. you still have the neural capacity to salivate over the bag, but you have removed the cue. OR you could make it so that you associate a cheeto cue with something else that delivers the same reward but is not cheetos. maybe you can listen to your favorite song whenever you see cheetos and knock-down your initial reaction to the cheetos that way. you can also replace your bad habit with new habits that offer even stronger rewards. maybe when you crave cheetos, what you really crave is excitement in the middle of your busy schedule, which could be accomplished by a brusk walk around the building or a change of scenery or texting someone you think is cute.

anyway, that is some food for thought. i really want flaming hot cheetos now. new york is wondrous. 

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