In ridding ourselves of the courthouse and marketplace we do not rid ourselves of the principal worries of our life. Ambition, covetousness, indecisiveness, fear, and desires hardly abandon us just because we change address. They pursue us into the monasteries and schools of philosophy themselves. Neither deserts nor caves nor hair shirts nor penance can extricate us from them. That is why it is not enough to remove oneself from people, not enough to go somewhere else. We have to remove ourselves from the habits of the populace that are within us. We have to isolate our own self and return it to our possession. We carry our chains within us. We are not entirely free. We keep returning our gaze to the things we left behind.
Energy cannot be created or destroyed. It can only be transferred or transformed from one form to another.
The first law of thermodynamics
Sometimes I’ll delete Instagram from my phone for a while. Or set up blockers to keep me from looking at the web version of Twitter (since Tweetbot does a pretty good job of keeping me from falling down rabbit holes).
The other day I put Instagram back on my phone for a moment to check a message someone had sent me there, and within a few taps I inadvertently opened a video with spoilers for the new season of The Owl House.
At which point my brain kicked over to “In for a penny, in for a pound” and I fell down a rabbit hole with the app for several minutes.
The little lifehacks and quick fixes don’t work for me. There are plenty of others who feel the same:
Because bad habits provide some type of benefit in your life, it’s very difficult to simply eliminate them. (This is why simplistic advice like “just stop doing it” rarely works.)
Instead, you need to replace a bad habit with a new habit that provides a similar benefit.
I haven’t found the right replacement for some of the habits that don’t actually bring me any real joy (even if they bring me dopamine). Maybe that’s because I haven’t adequately figured out what need they’re trying to fulfill.
An app or a social network isn’t designed for an individual, but for a broad sense of what humans need and desire. When I let idle moments default to distraction, I lose definition.
I’m no longer here, in this space, doing and thinking and being. Instead I’m riding a current of other people’s decisions and thoughts. Surrendering to it.
And it’s not enough to try to run and hide from it.
Part of what got me to finally write down some of my larger thoughts on Frozen was the release of Frozen 2. While I’ve only seen the new film once, and I haven’t processed it enough for a deep dive, it still hit me hard enough in the theater that I need to work out how part of it fits in with some other ideas I’m digesting.
I won’t look too far ahead It’s too much for me to take But break it down to this next breath This next step This next choice is one that I can make So I’ll walk through this night Stumbling blindly toward the light And do the next right thing
I’ve written before about being kind to your future self, but lately I’ve needed to go further than that. I’ve needed to elevate some of these habits toward the notion of ritualized behavior.
In Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit, she makes a great point about the power of personal ritual:
I begin each day of my life with a ritual: I wake up at 5:30 A.M., put on my workout clothes, my leg warmers, may sweatshirts, and my hat. I walk outside my Manhattan home, hail a taxi, and tell the driver to take me to the Pumping Iron gym at 91st Street and First Avenue, where I work out for two hours. The ritual is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab. The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual.
It’s a simple act, but doing it the same way each morning habitualizes it—makes it repeatable, easy to do. It reduces the chance that I would skip it or do it differently. It is one more item in my arsenal of routines, and one less thing to think about.
If you make something a habit, you’re saying that it needs to be done, and it has meaning. If you have something to do that has meaning, then you are giving yourself a purpose. If I wasn’t here, this wouldn’t get done. If I’m here, this needs to get done.
Sometimes it’s incredibly small for me.
Setting the timer on the coffee pot before I go to bed to tell myself to wake up when the coffee is fresh. I don’t want to waste the coffee, and I don’t want to miss the opportunity to drink it.
Making overnight oatmeal and leaving it in the fridge so that I tell myself that it matters that I take care of my body and not just eat something in the morning, but eat something that’s good for it.
Checking off boxes in a habit tracker I keep in a notebook, so that I can look back and see that I’m keeping up to the commitments I make to myself.
With that last one, I’m building off ideas from James Clear’s book Atomic Habits. One of the hardest things to gauge when depression asserts itself is if the thing I’m doing in the moment is worth it; if I’m making any progress toward something that matters to me.
Some days I don’t get much time for bigger projects. I might wind up only being able to carve 15-20 minutes out of a particularly busy day to get any writing done. But treating it as a necessary habit grounds me in the idea that those 15-20 minutes still have value.
In Clear’s book, he talks about incremental progress as being similar to making a small shift in the direction of travel:
The impact created by a change in your habits is similar to the effect of shifting the route of an airplane by just a few degrees. Imagine you are flying from Los Angeles to New York City. If a pilot leaving from LAX adjusts the heading just 3.5 degrees south, you will land in Washington, D.C., instead of New York. Such a small change is barely noticeable at takeoff—the nose of the airplane moves just a few feet—but when magnified across the entire United States, you end up hundreds of miles apart.
It’s about that idea of playing the long game: If I work a little bit every day, no matter what, it will eventually matter a great deal. And it’s a reminder that if I want to see the dividends, I need to show up not just today, but tomorrow. And the next day.
But it’s also about another point that Clear makes in his book: Habits aren’t just about outcomes, they’re about identity.
I can turn my actions toward ones that support the person I want to be, or I can sit here, mired in the depressive inertia.
It can feel like swimming against the current. It can feel like the effort isn’t carrying me forward.
But that’s only the present moment. That’s not the long game.
You push against the current every day, and you can strengthen your body against it. You push against that current enough and you learn how to keep swimming.
I am not just working to keep moving, even when it’s hard, but to embrace momentum itself as a goal.
Plans are useful to help determine what needs to be done next. Goals are helpful in clarifying direction. Constructing a sense of identity helps give these actions motivation and purpose.
But measuring the distance between now and completion only creates frustration unless there’s momentum.
Which brings me back to the message of Anna’s song. Sometimes the fog is too thick to see through, and that next step is all you can see.
But you can see that next step, and you can take it.