Imagine, for a moment, that you could see your own life from above, as though your home, neighborhood, and workplace were little dioramas with open roofs.
Your miniature self isn’t aware you’re watching, and exhibits all the habits you do. With a kind of embarrassed concern, you watch your hapless self wake up, hit snooze a few times, then sit up and read Reddit on your phone for twenty minutes (or whatever you normally do). You watch as you interact with the world, making some good decisions and some bad ones.
You’d learn a lot about yourself just from seeing your everyday behavior from the outside. How much time you actually spend staring at electronic devices. How you’re more argumentative than you thought. How often you cut your workouts short so you can get on with lunch. How you almost never clean behind the couch.
Now imagine you could intervene in subtle ways, not by making choices for your mini-self, but by changing the surrounding environment. You could move an object in a room your mini-self will visit later, maybe putting a bag of cookies in the cupboard that would otherwise be sitting out when you get home from work. You could position a birthday card where it might remind you to call your mother. You could quietly delete Reddit from your miniature’s phone.
Over time, small changes like these might be all you need to guide your mini-self to a significantly better life. None of them give your mini-self any more resolve or willpower, but they do set up a different succession of triggers throughout each day, each of which leads to predictably healthier behaviors, and a predictably better life.
If each of us was given even two weeks of this kind of top-down management, it would change our view of self-improvement forever. Our consistently self-defeating behaviors, and the routines and triggers that lead to them, would become obvious. Without even trying, we’d notice dozens of places we could improve our lives, even without any gains in courage, skill, integrity, or any of the other qualities we associate with lasting improvement.
Ah, when I use my phone as an alarm clock, my day starts with browsing Facebook.
When I have a great day at the gym, I tend to treat myself to junk food later.
When I go for a drink after work, even if I leave early I tend to watch bad TV all night.
After watching your mini-self stumble in the same places repeatedly, and struggle to make the simple, healthy choices you want it to make, you’d begin to see self-control differently. It would become obvious that human behavior depends much more on unconscious routines and conditioning than it does on conscious intentions or resolve.
Your attitude at 5:30pm, when you ultimately decide whether you’re going to the gym, depends on many more factors than your desire to get fit. It depends on how your workday went, the tone of your last conversation at the office, what podcast you listened to during your commute, how you slept, whether you caught Rocky on TV the other day, whether it occurred to you this week that your father died early of heart disease, and countless other factors that aren’t being given credit for their role in whether you end up skipping your workout or not.
We attribute our successes and failures to choices—good choices make for a good life—and we tend to think of choices as causes, rather than effects.
But our choices have causes too. The choices we’re able to make are constrained by what’s going on in our heads at the precise moment the decision point comes up: our mood, energy level and expectations of success.
How often we can choose to do the healthy and productive things we want to do depends on our routines and lifestyles—conditions that are in place long before the decision moment arrives. Of course you usually skip the gym: given your current routine, you’re at your most worn down at 5:30pm, when the decision gets made.
The conditions simply aren’t there for a gym habit. Sometimes a surge of willpower can override the weariness, but it won’t be there every day.
If we could regularly see our lives from above, we’d probably move away from a “just do it” sort of self-improvement philosophy, where we believe character and resolve are the vital (but so often missing) factors.
Instead, we’d begin to see improvement as a matter working diligently on the causes of our choices, because there’s much more leverage to be found there.
Why did you skip Spanish practice Wednesday but not Tuesday? What was different? Were you cranky because you stayed up after drinking coffee too late? Did you feel rushed because you tried to get it over with before your show came on? There are clues here.
Does reading the newspaper first thing leave you feeling impatient and pessimistic—and conflicted about working on your side business? Do you tend to skip your Wednesday-night obligation half the time because it feels like an annoyance, given your overloaded Tuesdays and Thursdays?
Minor changes on this level can set up decision moments that are much more agreeable. We are capable of a lot more than we think, because we tend to mistake the limitations imposed by our routines and lifestyles as intrinsic personal limitations. (I just can’t stick to cardio routines—believe me I’ve tried.)
This is why high achievers so often have unconventional habits. Look how different many of their regimens were. Kafka did most of his writing in the middle of the night. Dickens insisted on several hours of exercise daily. Maya Angelou wrote in rented hotel rooms, not at home.
Clearly these people recognized the enabling and inhibiting effects of seemingly unrelated environmental details on their abilities, and spent a lot of time experimenting with them. Their eclectic routines didn’t arise by accident.
With intimidating goals, the common wisdom is “attack the corners”. But we tend to look for those corners only in the task itself: begin the book by beginning the outline, and begin the outline by jotting down possible topics. But maybe the book’s first step is changing your bedtime, to take advantage of more clear-minded morning hours.
Our choices are products of our mental states, which are products of the details of our lives. Nothing is disconnected. Good lives do come from good choices, but good choices need fertile ground to germinate.
Good self-improvement, then, resembles caring for the field more than planning the harvest. Or maybe that’s what planning a harvest really entails.
Photo by JD Hancock
Camp Calm registration opens next week
The fourth season opens for registration soon. Camp Calm is a simple, email-based program for establishing a small, consistent meditation practice in about a month.
It’s meant for people who:
1) don’t know where to start
2) have tried to meditate but find it difficult or confusing, or
3) have never been able to do it consistently, for whatever reason
Click here to get on the mailing list if you might be interested—I’ll be sending out updates shortly after this post airs. As usual, mailing list people will get the first chance to register. (How does it work?)