Towards an Identity Model of Habits: Part I

My buddy James is a vegetarian.
I am not a morning person.
I’m a reader of fantasy books.

Remember those statements, ’cause I’m going to reference ’em later.

In the last few years I’ve been experimenting with various models of self improvement. Before I officially started this project I assumed that motivation was a significant catalyst for self change. After seeing it as a perennial problem (I can get psyched up for gym going starting on New Years, but it peters out pretty quickly, and the cycle repeats next year) I switched to other things.

I dabbled in gamification, because I saw its addictive properties as lowering willpower thresholds. Like motivation, it worked, but only for a while.

I’ve since focused on habits for the last two years, and though I’ve had a great deal of success, they’re only foolproof in relatively basic and linear behaviors. When things get complicated that paradigm just isn’t enough.

How are they not enough?
The linear model – what BJ Fogg advocates, of starting a Tiny Habit, reaching that hook point of automaticity, then naturally increasing difficulty, repetitions, or length of time until you achieve mastery – doesn’t seem to fully work all the time. Or rather it really falls a part when you’re pushing habits to mastery, which I see as another vector of effort (regimention/willpower and endurance/forming a habit being the other two vectors).

That vector involves plateaus in skill and the maddening frustration of constantly doing a task that is at least slightly above your current level.

It also runs into trouble when you’re dealing with families of skills. I advocate this not only because families can support each other, but in a world where time is of essence (we die, our bodies wear out), skills that have an accrual across time are necessary to start now to gain the benefits of daily minimums across time. If I start a habit of cardio 30 minutes a day, I may not master it. I might not get my goal of a six pack until I nail my eating habit. But for as long as I’m exercising, I’m accruing secondary cardio “points”.

Pushing skills in the vector of skill advancement throws a huge wrench into the equation because of habit harmonics. A dissonance starts – extra effort in one skill affects the solidity of other habits.

But the biggest problem with my current model is that it doesn’t attenuate in more complicated behaviors.

Let’s go back to the original three statements.

My buddy James is a vegetarian. When we go out and eat he avoids meat. In all scenarios. After the bars while tipsy and ordering pizza late at night, when going to a restaurant with friends with crappy vegetarian options, even in one place that had amazing pork tacos.

I do the same thing with fantasy books. It’s not as though I decide to read them – I HAVE to read them. It’s not even a choice. I need to have those few minutes before bed to scratch that itch and if I don’t have at least an option loaded on my Kindle, I start to get all itchy. The world is not right.

The inverse is important to analyze – I’m not a morning person. My waking up early is either a fluke or a deliberate preparation if I need it. Morning people are morning people because they enjoy it or they just are that way – it’s totally independent from fluctuating conditions. If they’re out late the night before, they still wake up early.

For all three – it’s an identity that’s welded in. It’s not what you do, it’s part of who you are, which not only makes it stronger, it also is able to somehow adapt incredibly well to changing conditions. Choice is also almost entirely scrubbed out of the equation.

For me this becomes an issue with eating and getting up early. All the other habits I consider foundational are easy. Working out – no problem, barring travel, it’s once a day at a certain time. Same with writing, meditating, and if I add flossing or recording finances. It’s a matter of if-then protocols – implementation intentions.

For eating that gets insanely complicated – it’s multiple times a day, across changing circumstances, etc. I believe it’s the reason I’ve had to scrap the habit several times, even when I’ve maintained it for close to a year. It just never stuck. And this is a big problem – eating is incredibly important for health, energy, and weight loss. It also has the biggest impact for whether I can socialize well later in the program – I don’t want to go out to meet people and, because of lack of willpower, blow out a previous habit of making good food decisions.

mask by 派脆客 Lee, tack by Zaheer Mohiuddin, welder by Per Hortlund

Early to Rise - The Habit of Getting Up Early

Up until now I’ve considered my big 5 foundational habits as Eating, Exercise, Writing, Recording, and Meditation.

But I knew that getting up early was something I wanted to nail as a habit. I’ve never had problems with it when I have to, but I have normally - as a freelancer, I don’t strictly NEED to.

And that’s interesting in and of itself. If you’ve been forced to do something your entire life, can it truly be called a habit? It can be - I remember when I worked in an office I’d start getting up early on the weekends. On the other hand I know of many high school athletes who had to not only get up early, but were forced to exercise. For the overwhelming majority, it wasn’t a behavior that stuck - it barely lasted past the first year out of college.

I believe habits implemented just by yourself are horrendously difficult. I also think they have the benefit of being truly yours.

When I was a kid my mom harped on me on many things, and oddly enough her voice has now become mine. Many of those behaviors are on my list of habits I wish to form, including this one.

But getting up early foundational?

When I describe a habit as foundational it means I view it as one that has overarching benefits long term, whose solidity positively affects other habits I’d later implement.

Learning calligraphy, for example, isn’t very foundational - it’ a cool enough skill, but it’s not necessarily a base for anything else, except perhaps general artistry. Eating right, or exercise, however both contribute to general well being, promoting energy and drive for any other behavior I might want to add to the mix. Meditation is even more central because it promotes emotional control to a process like habituation, which is itself fraught with mood swings. Recording provides an anchor for all skills, and writing is just a personal important thing to me.

So why sleeping? I’m finding more and more that getting what I need to do done earlier makes me feel freer. I’ve currently gotten into a bad habit - mostly due to jet lag - of staying up late and getting up late. What I find is that I’m constantly rushing. And this prevents me from doing the little behaviors that contribute to a good habit. Like what?

I’ve been meaning to post a video of myself rowing to submit to a forum so I can make sure my form is right. I’ve been meaning take body measurements so that I can see fat lose as it occurs. I’ve been meaning on taking daily pics of myself to measure progress.

Lydia gets up earlier than me, and she wants to get out earlier as a break. That’s fine - it’s something I want to, because getting out get’s me into the sunlight and generally boosts my mood. But if I can’t finish what I have to do quick enough I take shortcuts. It’s not practical when living with someone else (I’d like to do a post completely on how other people’s habits can bolster or break down habits, much like habit harmonics).

Also, although I stay up later, I don’t really do anything except putter around on Reddit. And if I intend to do anything social, or go out, that window is just closed down - the window of bookending for the “morning” becomes very small.

Lastly, there’s just something good about finishing habits while there’s still daylight. And there’s something immensely satisfying and relaxing about having the rest of the day before you.

The real question is: just how foundational is this?

 I feel it adversely affects my mood - I feel like I’ve wasted the day as soon as I get up late. I feel it adversely affects my eating, because by the time I get up, Lydia is already hungry because it’s lunch. If I had to make it into a hierarchy I’d say it’s either on par with meditation or exercise. My meditation isn’t really affected. My exercise is a little because I don’t measure myself. It affects my recording because I don’t really have time to do it before needing to go out. 

The reason why this is important is because I’ve just collapsed my eating habit. I’ve just started my rowing habit, and that’s going really well. I’m faced with a decision - should I managed my sleeping first and THEN add eating?

If I go back to an old post - “Sandbagging Continued” - I describe how Lydia suggested a method to evaluate the importance of habits. I called it a sandbagging ratio, which is how much habits give vs how much they take to implement.

I definitely believe that getting up earlier is easier to implement when compared with eating. It gets a little complicated to habits of instance - I have to manage what I do at night as well as the morning. But it definitely beats regulating everything that goes into mouth despite changing scenarios.

In my next non recording post I’m going to go through suggestions I’ve read on how to get up early and how to implement it.