Skills require time to attain. There's no magic pill to become stronger; we have to go to the gym consistently. If you want to learn Russian, you need to study, practice, and probably spend some time in Russia. If you want to become a better writer you can learn some good practices, but you ultimately have to produce a lot of writing before you'll be any good.
But what about habits like diet change, sleeping habits, and introversion? While we may not all be able to speak Russian, we all have the innate ability to wake up early in the morning. Our mouths will all accept healthy food. We all have the physical ability to walk up to a stranger and begin talking.
Why do these switches often take so long to flip? Why is it a gradual struggle, rather than an instant change?
Two Sundays ago I woke up at my usual time: noon. The following Monday I woke up at 9am, and since then have not woken up after 10am. Most days I get up around 8:30. I'm an early riser now, and expect that I will be for the rest of my life. Instant change.
If you're an early riser, this probably doesn't sound like a big deal. But if you know me, it's huge. I haven't had any sort of job or school that required me to wake up early for ten years. I consistently stayed up on my computer until four or five am. I tried to become an early riser before, but it never lasted more than a few days and it was a constant struggle.
It wasn't until this recent change that I realized the two key components required to make instant lasting habitual changes.
A Good Reason
I never had a good reason to wake up early before. My only real motivation was that my parents made me feel guilty about waking up late when I was younger. That lingering guilt, pitted against no real logical explanation for the benefits of waking up early, was never enough to motivate me.
The same is true of when I first tried to eat vegan. I did it on a lark and lasted two days, until a waiter put cheese on my salad. Oh well, I thought, there's no point to being vegan anyway.
I found my good reason for waking up early in an unexpected place. One of my favorite things to read online is the IamA section on Reddit, where people say what they are ("I am a dog trainer" or "I am a really fat person") and people ask questions. It's really fascinating to read things from different perspectives and think about how other people live.
Two weeks ago I was reading an IamA from a guy who was severely depressed and cured himself without using any sort of medication. I have strong thoughts on depression, including the idea that treating it with medication is a bad idea, but since I have no personal experience with depression I don't really talk about it. I was interested to hear from someone who had experience and dealt with it the way I would.
His advice was good, and one thing he said really struck me:
"Going to bed a little earlier and getting up a little earlier does wonders. You wont feel as exhausted, which is paramount in feeling good. Plus, you'll have a few more hours of daylight."
That last sentence hit me. There are more things to do when it's sunny out. Sunlight is the best way to get/synthesize vitamin D. Operating hours for things like ski slopes and restaurants are focused during the daylight. I try to eat in as natural a way as possible, but my sleeping was going against nature's cycle.
Waking up at noon meant that I was sleeping through approximately HALF of the available sunlight it my life. Yikes!
Diet change was the same way. I'd always heard that it was important to eat healthy, but since I was always skinny I figured I was healthy. Wrong. I read a couple good books that explained why eating healthy was so important, and completely changed my diet within a day.
If you have a reason but it isn't exciting, compelling, and urgent, you probably need to keep looking, or forget the habit. I saw a lot of guys get into pickup for the wrong reasons. Most don't want to be "players", but they saw that as the end goal of pickup. Instead of realizing that they actually wanted a girlfriend and pickup was an efficient way to get one, they'd break when things got tough, justifying it by saying "I don't want to be a player, anyway."
Pick the right reason.
Clear and Unbreakable Rules
Instant habitual change requires the motivation that a good reason provides, but it also needs clear and unbreakable rules.
When most people decide to eat healthy, that's as far as their planning goes. Then they're faced with a wonton salad buried under fatty dressing and think, "Well, it's a salad... that's healthy enough..."
That doesn't work. A better set of rules is:
- I won't eat anything with any sugar in it.
- I won't eat anything with any refined flour in it.
- I won't eat anything with bad oils in it.
Those were my rules, which I followed religiously for two years. It made the transition easy, because I made the decision on what to eat ONCE, rather than wrestling with it every single time I sat down at a dinner table.
For my goal of becoming an early riser I looked at the root of the problem. Why was I sleeping so late? Mainly because I would stay on my computer until I couldn't possibly keep my eyes open anymore. This was doubly bad: in addition to staying up late, I was also messing with my circadian rhythms by exposing my eyes to the bright light of my laptop.
My rule is simple: no computer after 11pm.
I stick to this rule no matter what. If I'm mid sentence on a post and the clock flips over to 11:00, I shut down the laptop and put it away. If I have tons of work to do but have dinner with friends from 9-11, I don't get back on my computer.
Exceptions do more harm than good. Once you break a rule once, it's easy to break it again. One night I was in the middle of fixing a bug for my new software (announcing soon...) and knew that if I stopped working, my beta testers were going to get weird messages until I woke up the next morning. Still, I didn't break the rule. The incident actually helped overall because it made me mindful in the future to plan my work better.
Breaking the Habit
I won't always stick to my no computer after 11pm rule. In the beginning it's important to stick to your rules 100%, but as time goes on it becomes less important. Once a new habit replaces the old one, the old "bad" behavior becomes the exception to the habit, rather than the other way around.
A good rule of thumb is to only break the habit once you don't want to anymore. When I first started eating healthy food, all I could think about was eating egg rolls. Now I eat unhealthy food 1-2 times per month to retain my ability to process bad food, and I dread these "cheat meals". Eating a cheeseburger is no longer a threat to my healthy eating habit.
In the future I'll dislike using my computer after 11pm, but may occasionally allow myself to do it if a project needs to be finished or an email has to be sent.
Today could be the last day that you smoked, ate unhealthy food, woke up late, read junk web sites, or swore. It could be the first of many days that you cooked for yourself, exercised, wrote part of a book.
Coming up with good reasons to change requires the ability to look into the future. What will your life look like with this new habit? What will it look like if you don't change? Think about those two images, and understand that the only way you get to choose which one becomes reality is by changing habits.
Defining clear and unbreakable rules requires looking into the past. What rules could have been applied to your past to make this habit as easy as possible to stick to? I knew that requiring myself to set an alarm for 8am every day would be difficult, but that turning off my computer early would cause me to wake up early consistently.
Don't be afraid to make your rules a bit easy, especially if you don't have experience sticking to them. A foundation of easier rules makes it easier to build up with harder rules. I imagine that within a year I'll be turning my computer off at 9pm and waking up at sunrise.