Building a habit is like building a fire

I’m not really the world champion in self-discipline. In fact, I’m a pretty lazy dude. Actually, I think we’re all mostly lazy. It may be human nature.

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I’ve found in my own life that while self-discipline is certainly important, it gets way too much attention in self-development circles, more than it deserves.

Self-discipline is like the scraps of newspaper we use as kindling to make a bonfire. So what’s the actual bonfire in this analogy? Easy, habit. However, the logs that make up the bonfire proper are perseverance.

Kindling is incredibly important to get the fire going, but if you build a bonfire using only scraps it’ll burn out in no time at all. And if you only have big logs without kindling, you’ll never get the fire started.

In the same way, we need the right balance between discipline and perseverance to build habit.

Most of us know the feeling of burning out on something. Playing an instrument, drawing, meditating. We decide that from now on, we’re going to do an hour of running or three pages in the journal every day.

We may even manage a few days before our discipline simply runs out and we give up with our tail between our legs.

It’s true that self-discipline is like a muscle, in that it gets stronger the more you use it, but it has definite limits. It always runs out in the end.

That’s a mistake I’ve made way too often, but I’ve made a lot of progress in habit building since the early years.

The trick is to start small. So small that it’s easy to keep it up. There’s a point in time (21 days has been thrown around a lot, although in my experience it depends as much upon the person as upon the habit itself), where discipline is hardly necessary any more to keep up the habit.

When my meditation habit of two hours daily was still in its infancy, I had a hard time of it. I was too ambitious, really. I decided I wanted to do 30 minutes of medition every morning before work. A worthy goal, to be sure.

But at this point, I found it hard enough as it was to wake up for work at all, let alone make space for another 30 minutes in the morning to sit and do nothing.

Apart from that, I was having difficulties sitting still for 5 minutes, so 30 minutes were quite a stretch.

I would manage to keep it up for a day or two at most, and then I would give up. But I kept beating the dead horse so to speak, and tried again and again. Not only did I not manage to build the habit, I was steadily corroding my self confidence by failing again and again with nothing to show for it.

Not until I decided to change the rules of the game did things start to get better. I decided that to start with, ten minutes before work would suffice. It still felt like a bit of a hassle, but convincing yourself of sitting for ten minutes when you’re groggy in the morning is exponentially easier than convincing yourself of 30 minutes.

I had been trying to light the logs of the bonfire directly, and nothing had happened. As soon as I started to use smaller goals as kindling, the fire started to mature slowly.

After a few weeks I was so accustomed to sitting for ten minutes that adding another ten minutes was easy enough. And then another ten minutes in the evening before bed. And so on until I reached an hour for each session.

It took a long time, don’t get me wrong. It took a year of steady increments and not missing a day to build the two-hour-daily habit.

I didn’t say perseverance was easy, but it is effective. Slow and steady wins the race, as the tortoise said.

To conclude the bonfire analogy, as soon as you have a fire, no matter how small, making it bigger is no big deal. Steadily add bigger and bigger pieces of wood until you have a raging inferno.

And so it is with habits. They seem impossible at the beginning, until we create managable goals. The rest is just sticking with it, adding onto the baseline.

I wish you all the luck in the world with building your habits, but as we both know luck on its own gets us nowhere. It’s what we do with the luck we have that makes the difference.

Much love.

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