How To Start (And Keep) A Healthy Habit
The idea is to will yourself to do something, but something you have no emotional investment in. This builds up a fortitude of the will that you can then apply to things you are emotionally invested in.
Out With the Old
This is the time of year when we focus on new beginnings (natch), but it’s also worth spending some time reevaluating old commitments to see if you’re still actually committed to them. This is one of the most useful lessons I took from David Allen’s organizational classic Getting Things Done ($18, Amazon). Allen refers to everything you have to do, or want to do, as an “open loop.” Open loops, no matter how small, take up some space in our brain. That’s space that you can’t use for other things. So any time you can close one of those loops you get a little bit of energy back. As anyone who has done the exercises in Allen’s book can tell you, there really is something very energizing about clearing your mind of all those loops (not only by doing them, but more importantly by making a decision about what to do with them).
This applies not just to things you have to do but also things you think you want to do. Maybe you think you should learn Spanish, but you haven’t done anything to actually learn Spanish. Admitting that you aren’t actually committed to the idea enough to do the work of learning Spanish can help close that loop. And letting go of that feeling that you should learn Spanish just might be the thing that frees up your mind enough that you decide to take up paddle boarding on a whim. The point is that the new year isn’t just a time for starting something new, it’s a time for letting go of the things from that past that are no longer serving you.
In many ways this is the antidote to that ever-so-popular slogan, “just do it.” Just do it implies not thinking about it, not deciding whether what you’re about to do is what you really want to do or should do. Maybe don’t just do it. Maybe spend some time remembering why you wanted to do it in the first place, and if those reasons no longer resonate with you, just don’t do it.
If you like this idea, I highly recommend getting Allen’s book. It goes into much more detail on this idea and has some practical means of letting go while still keeping track of those things in case you do decide, years from now, when you’re paddle boarding through the Sea of Cortez, that now you really do want to learn Spanish and are willing to do the work.
Do the Work
As one of my writing professors used to say, to be a writer you have to park your butt in a chair and actually write. To be a yogi, you have to do yoga. To run, you have to run. There’s no easy way around it. You have to put on your grown-up pants and do the work.
However, on the flip side, as Clear points out early on in Atomic Habits, the way to change who you are is to change what you do. “Each time you write a page, you are a writer. Each time you practice the violin, you are a musician. Each time you start a workout, you are an athlete.” Each time you do the work, you become the future self you want to be.
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