I SUCK at building habits.
Maybe it’s my hyperactive brain, maybe it’s laziness, maybe it just being human; my repeated attempts to build myself into an autonomous being of success were scattershot mishaps; affirmations, reams of writing and hours of meditation.
None of them stuck.
My ability to build habits never really resulted in the dream I had for myself. I’m sure you’ve had a similar one. You know, the one where you’re perfect.
Unsurprisingly, that never really worked out for me. But over the years of neurotically chasing that ideal, I learned that building habits in personal development is more of a paradox than it is a robust design. The more you try to engineer you future through thousands of habits, the more you bog yourself down and don’t confront the real issues that guide and affect change.
There’s no use having thousands of habits that individually build in all directions when all you ever needed was one. That’s an inefficient and vulnerable design.* The art of habits lies in doing less, and being more organic, rather than doing more and imposing structure.
But in today’s haphazard, high stimulus world, how are we to find our way to what we want? Is it as easy as simply setting down habits, or are our efforts to change more vulnerable than we realize? Is it less of a straight road to follow, and more an untrod snow path – where we don’t know where we’re going?
In my own life, I’ve learned that development is the latter, not the former. It’s about going out into the unknown, trying something new, and seeing what sticks. And when it comes to the habits that are going to help you – you only ever needed one.
YOU VERSUS THE WORLD
When we go about our lives, our brains can get lost in a sea of thoughts and emotions. Someone on the subway gave us a funny look, our partner is taking too long to respond and that guy on Love Island had bigger arms than us. It’s a scatterbrain cacophony of thought and feeling that flash like a constant firework display in the mind – on the surface this is harmless, but where thought and feeling meet our actions soon follow. It is in action this that the dark truth of personal development resides. Your efforts to develop yourself aren’t just vulnerable – they’re doomed.
Our experience of the world is a blend of three things:
- What we want
- What we feel
- What’s happening around us
We might want to be some guy with an awesome dating life, but if we feel too anxious to talk to the opposite sex – that want is going to be overridden and we won’t be talking to anyone. This effect is compounded when you consider the sheer volume of stimulus you receive on a daily basis – let’s say you’re already an anxious guy around women. That’s not so bad, we can manage that.
But then let’s say, and this isn’t unreasonable, that walking around your day you see advertising of better-looking guys, living better lives, some girl you look at looks away and you internalize it as rejection, and by the time a good opportunity to meet someone shows up – your self-esteem is so far in the dumps you don’t have a chance in hell of seizing that opportunity.
Like I said, doomed.
The truth about personal development is a truth about the way you experience who you are. Alongside you wants and conflicting emotions creating your day to day experience, the world is also actively shaping who you are, day in and day out. You aren’t the only force sculpting your future.
And if you haven’t realized this, you’re probably not the dominant force.
Now I imagine this sounds pretty shitty, and well, it is. But there is hope – and it lies within your fear.
What could possibly go wrong?
FOLLOWING IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF FEAR
Unfortunately, the only road sign to getting what you want is your own fear. That crippling anxiety and pant-shitting terror isn’t just an awful experience, it’s also a compass that’s pointing exactly towards what you need to be doing right now. As Joseph Campbell once said, ‘the cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.’
That business idea you’re too scared to pursue? That girl you’re too scared to approach? The fear you feel is a simple one – fear of the unknown. You don’t know what will happen, as it exists outside of your certainty, so you, I imagine, do exactly what I or anyone else would do in the face of uncertainty – you tell yourself ‘I couldn’t do that.’
So, you don’t.
The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.
But here’s the thing. Personal development hinges on the fact that you do in fact do whatever it is you’re afraid of. If you don’t, you probably just do the easy things – dress nicer, read a little more – but ultimately never change. Just one of those guys who cleaned up the surface level stuff, but never confronted what it was he’d told himself he was. Which, I’d wager, if you want to develop yourself is probably this:
‘You aren’t good enough as you are.’
And when it comes to a belief like that, the only way to beat it is to confront it head on. But if we are to allow our fear to show us the way, to show us the action we need to take – how are we to expect ourselves to do that when we’re actively being shaped and moulded by forces beyond our control.
Sounds impossible, right?
Well, actually no.
CREATING YOUR OWN MOMENT
The world is a constant barrage of stimuli. Impulses, decisions, queries, and sensations are all being shot at you, all the time. Every second of every day. And in a world where the average human has a shorter attention span than goldfish, well, then you get an idea for how much of a disaster that is.
And that’s just outside of you. Inside, your insecurity and fear are waging a constant, relentless war against who you are, and who you want to be. Every step of the way you face distraction, and every step of the way you face definition and certainty from your fear.
‘I can’t do that.’
‘I will fail.’
‘I’m not good enough.’
It’s a way of living that I like to call Autopilot; A constant stream of unconsciously governed direction, and unconsciously determined self-definition.
If that sounds terrible, it’s because it is. But like I said, there’s hope.
Y’see, the thing about self-definitions is they’re not actually real things. They’re just language you’ve applied to associations you’ve made with your feelings. Feelings that are caused from you pursuing change (read: discomfort)*, and magnified by the stimuli of the world.
No, you aren’t your feelings. You aren’t the stimuli of the world, and you aren’t even you. All you are is right now. You are happening right now. You’re not your past, you’re not future, you’re not that name they called you at school and you’re not the affirmation you told yourself this morning. No. You are happening right now.
And that is all that matters.
The world, your fear, and your dreams may be acting against you – but you always have your choice. You always have your ability to do something different. Autopilot will never take you where you want to go. Autopilot will take you where the world and where your fear wants you to go.
Autopilot will keep you in a box. But you can get out of that box.
You can’t beat the world, and you don’t need to beat fear – what you do need to do is recognise that they’re there. Recognise and identify the forces that are acting against you.
I want you to try something.
Allow yourself to stop whatever you’re doing. And just sit within your senses and emotions. Don’t identify with any of them, just identify that they’re there, and let them pass you by. The sensations of sight, touch, taste, smell, and sound – allow them to return you to right now. Allow them to take you from your head, and into where you are right now. Now look upon your thoughts and feelings as they really are. You’re often not anxious out of any real fear, you’re anxious because this is something new.
Now from this place of detachment, ask yourself one question.
‘What would my ideal self be doing right now?’
He’d probably be working on that business idea he had, working harder at his job, maybe he’d be asking for that raise, or getting more of his writing done. He’d probably be talking to that girl. He’d probably he asking her out.
He’d probably be feeling the fear, and then doing it anyway. Instead of allowing it to hold him in place, he’d be using it as a guide to point him in the right direction. He’d do whatever the fear was trying to pull him away from.
When we detach ourselves from the world, we begin to realise that we are being acted upon – and we give ourselves the chance to steady the ship. We give ourselves a chance to point ourselves back in the direction we want to be going.
Instead of holding onto thousands of habits as the world thrashes us around – we simply hang on to one. Our desire.
And isn’t that what living’s all about?
This single habit, getting back in touch with your ideal self, will take you where you want to go. It will cut through the distractions, the fear, and the insecurity, and allow you to set your own compass and follow it. At first, it will be difficult, but eventually, through persistence, you will have developed a habit of connecting your action to your real desires. And that is how you maintain consistent development and change.
It’s that simple. The hard part is just doing it.*
*Habit’s are also invariably something we learn by mimicking others. But their way isn’t always our way.
*Fear is a good thing, it means you’re actually trying something new.
*Here’s a cartoon horse, and a talking uh, man to explain.