One of the problems when we want to install a new habit, it’s the delayed reward that comes with it. The costs of a good habit are in the present while the reward is potentially somewhere in the future. In general, with bad habits, it’s the opposite.
Unfortunately, our brain hasn’t changed much from our prehistoric ancestors. Because their primary goal was to survive, our brain favors the present more than the future.
This is why for most of us it’s easy to slip into bad habits while it takes a lot of effort to start a new one.
However, being aware of this we can trick our mind adding an immediate reward to the habit we want to start. Something that makes you feel good as soon as you finished the activity you want to transform into a recurring practice.
But there’s a caveat.
The reward must be consistent with your identity and the one habit you want to create.
If you want to create the habit of training every day to get fit, you can’t use ice cream as a reward. It would send contradictory messages to your brain.
The more the habit becomes natural for you, the less you’ll need the reward. The simple act of doing your practice will be rewarding.
For me, the challenge is often the reward. When I started this writing habit, I printed a simple grid of 90 squares, and I challenge myself to tick all of them in 90 days. Seeing that “X” every day was my immediate reward. It made me feel good enough to keep going until it became natural.
In the early 1990s, the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio and his wife Hanna where studying patients with brain lesions that were affecting their ability to feel emotions but not their reason capabilities. They observed that when emotions and feelings are impaired, we are unable to make decisions.
Anytime we need to make a choice, we all want to make the most reasonable and objective one. This is particularly true in working environments. We are often pushed to leave our emotions out and make rational choices. The incredible amount of data to which we have access at any moment should always allow us to make the right or at least a good decision.
But does it?
I remember when we had to choose our second flat to rent in London. We spent weeks browsing websites, talking with agencies and viewing options to find the perfect fit. In the end, we choose one that ticks all the boxes. We never really enjoyed that place. After one year we started looking again. Only this time we left more space to our feeling. We ended up with the most unexpected, and a bit fool choice, where we had our best time in London.
What would happen if, instead of ignoring them, we observe and become aware of our emotions and feeling?
“It is emotion that allows you to mark things as good, bad, or indifferent.” — Antonio Damasio
Last night was the last one of probably the most important traditional celebration in Valencia; las Fallas. It’s a week full of music, colors, people, dancing, folklore, and firecrackers. For the duration of the celebration, the city is filled with beautiful monuments, called “Falles” made of cardboard, wood, and polystyrene.
You can find some photos online, they are unique pieces of art. Some of them took a whole year to be built.
The closing act of this week is called the “Cremà” (Valencian for “burning”).
During the last night, all the “falla” monuments are set on fire. They are all wholly burnt.
The first time I experienced this celebration, I was surprised. What is the point in dedicating so much effort to something and then burn it down in one night?
Now I know that things don’t have a meaning on themselves. We give meaning to them. What really matters is not the object, it is the relationship that we have with that object. Through the “cremà” people in Valencia fill with meaning the monument they create.
It’s an excellent reminder to myself of the importance of anchor anything I do to a meaning.
I am fascinated by the paradox of human behaviors. And they are everywhere.
Everyone wants to be heard, so we all talk louder and louder (figuratively on social media, for real in meetings) and as a result, nobody listens.
When we are drowning in a problem, we double the effort. But as the instructors teach in swimming lessons, the more you move to stay afloat, the more likely you’re going under.
When we feel lost, we go anywhere to find ourselves. Yet, when we were kids, they taught us that if you are lost, you should stay where you are until your parents come and find you.
We want for everyone we love to be happy, so we sacrifice our own happiness for them. And if they do the same, what remains, in the end, is only the sacrifice, while the joy is gone. What would give more pleasure to someone that loves you, to see you happy?
I don’t have a magical recipe, but lately, I found that there is enormous power in taking a pause to step out of the race and just observe.
I just came back from a conference where incredible people and leaders discussed how to make the world a better place. Last week millions of students all over the world walked together on the streets to ask adults to do something instead of just talking. A terrorist attack in New Zealand reminded us of the fragility of peace.
Before all these big challenges it’s easy to feel small and powerless.
What can I do? What can a single person do?
One of the speakers at the conference said that “without peace at the individual level, we can’t create peace in the world“.
We cannot change the world without changing ourselves before.
So, the question shifts from how can we make the world better to how I can make myself better.
It all starts within.
A friend reminded me that the best gift I can give to the world is to fully express my potential. And love.
Our brain is a fantastic predicting machine.
It is continuously assessing the environment against what it already knows to find patterns to apply. Anytime an action creates pleasure, it contributes to the creation of a pattern. When anything generates pain, the brain puts an alert label on it so to be ready to recognise the threat in the future. It is part of our natural survival instinct.
This process makes us very efficient. Being aware of it we can use it to our advantage to create patterns that help grow and become the person we want to be. There are plenty of good books and programs on how to develop positive habits.
Once I watched a video of a personal trainer, explaining that our body works in the same way. Every muscle is designed to obtain the maximum result with the minimum effort. When we do the same exercise over and over, our body learns how to perform it using the minimum energy possible. As a result, we experience a peak in muscle development. This is why is a good thing to change often the exercises you do. To confuse your body, so it has to break the pattern, learn something new and grow.
It works the same way for our brain. Sometimes we need to create chaos and unpredictability to force our mind to be creative, to find new connections and patterns. In short, to grow. When we don’t have references, when we cannot use what we know to find a way forward, we are forced to create new connections, explore new possibilities.
It is scary, I know.
But once our creativity is released, the reward is incredible.
I’ve lately been to a conference where people where talking about the right to work. A “decent work” is also the 8th of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations in the 2030 Agenda.
I heard people saying that every person has the right to access a decent work.
But what is work?
In the 2030 agenda, the 8th goal full title is “Decent work and economic growth”. So, work is related to economic growth.
Are we saying that we all should have works that contribute to economic growth?
The dictionary says that work is an “activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result”. There is nothing in this definition about compensation or economic reward.
When I take care of my garden, am I working?
When I dedicate my time to listen to a friend in need, am I working?
Maybe it’s just me, but sometimes I have the feeling that work is mostly seen as something we have to do in order to earn enough money to do what we want to do. Every study says that machines will do more and more of our work. Maybe we should ask ourselves what work in the first place is.
One of the good things about travelling is that it forces me to reassess my habits.
Our life runs on habits. And of most of them, we are not aware.
Without automatic habits, we would have to think deliberately before doing anything. That doesn’t sound efficient at all.
Luckily for us, our brain and body have the incredible capacity to identify and implement patterns that allow us to function efficiently in our environments.
Automatic habits are vital elements of our life, as long as they are good ones. With good ones I mean the patterns that help us thriving and improve the quality of our life.
But the same process also works for bad habits. The ones that don’t support our growth but impact negatively on our life.
When behaviour becomes automatic, it also becomes invisible.
So, most of the time we are not aware of our habits, nor we can’t distinguish a good from a bad one.
Any change begins with awareness.
There are three practices that I found helpful to gain awareness about our automatic habits.
Introspection, using a tracking system and travelling.
The first one helps you take a pause and observe your life from a new perspective.
A tracking system can help you notice the effects of invisible behaviours in your daily routine.
Travelling takes you to new environments and disrupts your habits. In my case, it forces me to reassess my morning rituals to understand which ones are essential.
Last week I was in Rome and, no matter how many time I’ve already visited, I’m always in awe before the majesty of the buildings, temples, fountains, squares, churches, palaces. Everything in Rome is monumental.
I was reminded of this article I read about the positive effect of experiencing awe in our life.
Being before a temple that is more than 2000 years old, forced me to redefine my perspective on time. It the same feeling I had when I was driving in Patagonia. That vastity redefined my perspective on space. Art is another source of awe, a glimpse into the vastity of human beauty and creativity.
According to Amie Gordon, PhD, Principal Research Scientist in the Emotion, Health, and Psychophysiology Lab at the University of California-San Francisco, awe is about novelty and vastness. Something that doesn’t fit with what we already know and forces us to change our perspective.
It would be easy to think that the only sources of awe are external experiences.
But look at children, they live in a state of awe. Because they know less they create the experience of newness and vastity our of everything.
We should learn from them the art of being inspired.
My mind is blank this morning.
I don’t know why, but I couldn’t come up with anything to write about.
So, I decided to write about colours.
I am at a friend’s house, in the countryside.
Outside my window, I can see, amidst the green, some beautiful yellow flowers.
They remind me something inspiring I head last Saturday from an Eskimo shaman.
He said that all human beings should always see themselves as a big circle.
A circle has no beginning and no end. And when we are in a circle, we can all see each other, and no ones are showing their back.
To explain the idea of the circle, he said that the sun rises at the East and it colours the sky in yellow.
Then it goes up in the sky and showered everything with white light.
When the sunset arrives, everything is coloured in red. And finally the sun rests for the night, and everything is black.
Yellow, white, red and black.
Like, he said, the different people who live on this planet.
Less than an hour later in the same conference, a scientist told about the stories of the first astronauts who saw the Earth from the space. They were all impressed by the blue and green.
This morning, while looking at these yellow flowers, I can’t think of anything more beautiful than the colours of life.