Habits, anxiety, existential crises (overly dramatic? never)

I’m reading slowly through James Clear’s Atomic Habits.

Side note (I know, I know, I’ve not really even written enough to justify this as a “side” note, but whatevs): I’ve written about this before, which means I’ve been practicing this whole “reading slowly” thing and I’m delighted to say that it’s becoming more habitual (coincidental, considering the topic of the book I’m about to talk about) and enjoyable. Desirable, even. I used to be much more of a reading-to-have-read person. I valued the number of books I read more than I valued an absorption of the content, which meant I read in way that sacrificed longevity for quantity. Now that I value deep learning over achievement, it’s becoming much more common for me to read only a chapter or two at a time, and then to desire to put the book down — not because I’m tired of it or intellectually overwhelmed, but because I feel like I have something deep or wonderful (or both) to chew on and I want to honor its place in my intellectual life.

This is mostly for my analytical nonfiction reading, of course. For fiction I still much prefer the experience of getting wholly immersed in the book for a large chunk of time, not necessarily to read it as quickly as possible but to fully experience and immerse myself in the world. That’s because the aims of the genres are different, though. For fiction, you want to spend large chunks of time in the book in order to get the “feel” of the world. To really understand or appreciate the novel, there has to be a sense of immersion, a unique and recognizable phenomenal experience akin to that of your hometown, or your college campus, or another place that, as soon as you enter it, brings up a certain “sense of place” that you only feel there. That feeling is that place’s or that novel’s calling card in your life. For me, I need to spend at least an hour of initial reading to develop that sense well enough to recognize and jump into it immediately on subsequent pickups of the book. That feel can be lost the longer the book sits, and the further away I experience life from the story.

For nonfiction, the aim is, ostensibly, learning. For some books, like The Warmth of Other Suns (a book I recently purchased but have long wanted to read), this learning is, in part, a story so I fully intend to immerse myself in that story, a reading experience more akin to that of fiction than that of nonfiction. It just happens to be a true story rather than a made-up one. But for books like Atomic Habits that analyze and describe something rather abstract (“how does the brain work when we set habits?” “what does it mean to have a habit?” “what do humans respond to in their environment and why?”), intentionally reading the material in bite-sized chunks allows me to think about the individual revelations in a way that helps those insights become part of my mental architecture. Those insights can be lost in the flow if I don’t pace myself. Since I tend to read more analytical and descriptive books, the ones intended to deliver insight in an analytical rather than demonstrative or narrative way, developing that slow, methodical reading style, and letting that become second-nature rather than effortful, has been hard but so, so satisfying.

BUT I DIGRESS FROM THE ACTUAL PURPOSE OF THIS POST.

You bet your butt that’s a brodart archival book cover on the book. I recently got on the brodart train for all my books with dust covers and I’m never getting off.

I’ve been working my way slowly through Atomic Habits so that I can think and journal through my behaviors and habits in each way he suggests we evaluate them in order to be more intentional about the way we live our daily lives. So far I’ve made a list of all my current habits, a list of the habits I want to pick up based on the person I want to become, and I’ve started to map out ways I can add desired habits to current habits and use the things I want to do (read, watch Netflix, have a glass of wine at night) as a motivator for incorporating my desired habits.

A couple of interesting things have come out with all this daily-life-analysis and introspection. One: I’m already a pretty regimented and driven person. When I decide to do something, I generally do it. I didn’t have any habits I wished to form around grad school, for instance, or even for work. I know what I need to do in those areas and I do them. I have enough accountability in place for each that it makes those habits easier to form, but that was an interesting outcome of me deciding the kind of person I want to be. In large areas of my life, I am already the person I want to be. That’s nice.

The second thing I started to notice were the habits I had formed that do not serve me and my “aspirational self” all that well. I reach for my phone immediately upon waking and tend to be on it off and on all day after that (for work, sure, but also for a lot of non-work, non-essential reasons). I also drink a lot of water at night to make up for all the water I don’t drink during the day, and that disrupts my sleep quite a bit (or else gives me dreams of peeing in public which are FUN). It’s been interesting to think of my habits as building up to the kind of person I want to be and seeing how lots of little things I do throughout my day keep me a little bit from really being or becoming that person.

I am also being very conscious of not becoming too regimented. There is no need to “optimize” every bit of life; in fact, this would be downright damaging to one’s mental health. Life isn’t lived in optimization but in the navigation through the unexpected, the chaos, the tedious, the joyful, and the sorrowful. Certain habits may help that navigation, but habits are not the solution. They should not be held up as salvation. (Clear isn’t at all suggesting this, I just know my own tendencies!) So like my minimalist shopping philosophy — get rid of something for every something I purchase — I am trying to do the same with my habits. I am trying to incorporate a “replacement” strategy of habit-forming rather than a purely “additive” strategy. So instead of reaching for my phone in the morning, I’ll open my tablet and read 20 pages or so. Instead of drinking a second cup of tea in the morning, I’ll drink half my bottle of water. Instead of watching Netflix after I close my computer for the day, I’ll read. I do have a couple of new habits I’d like to form to help set me up for success (get back to daily meal-planning, daily house-cleaning routine, etc.), but the good thing is that I’m already mostly doing those, just in a more chaotic manner. Making them part of a consistent routine will be good for me.

I’ve also been mindful of how my anxiety interacts with my habit-life. I tend to overplan when I’m feeling anxious. That feeling of control doesn’t actually soothe my anxious heart, but it gives that energy a place to go other than towards an obsessing about my faults and feelings of stuckness. So while I love what I’m learning in this book, I want to be cautious about not jumping full-on into a focus on habits. At its worst for me it is a faulty coping mechanism that just sets me up for more anxiety when I have over-habituated my life, then those habits or plans need to be modified because life happens, and then I get anxious because I feel like I’m failing my habits, my plans, and myself.

What has been fun about this process, though, is realizing all the little things that bring me joy in my day. Clear asks the reader to make a list of their “rewards,” the things they enjoy that can act as a motivator or “bundler” with new habits. It turns out that I’m a bit of a hedonist. I have several things that serve as a reward in my life: standing out on my lanai looking out at the ocean for a few minutes. Reading for fun. Watching Netflix with Chris or while doing my morning cardio. Having an evening glass of wine. Going for a SUP on Kaneohe Bay. Going for a walk. Listening to a podcast. Lighting a citrus-scented candle. Taking a koke’e-scented bath. My life is full of little joys and getting a chance to note them all has made me more grateful for the life and experiences I get to call “mine.”

And yes, I wrote this post as part of one of my favorite established habits — a Saturday morning walk to Starbucks for a latte, then walk home to write or research or work on graduate school homework. The walk and work are the two habits I’ve combined, and the Starbucks is the reward. I am pretty good at forming habits, I just need to be more intentional about which ones I form and noticing where current habits are no longer serving me. Lots of our life and selves are revealed in our habits, so these small things add up to have big meaning over time. It’s important to notice the little things.

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