They say if you want to create a habit, you stick to whatever it is you want to do for at least 21 days in a row. After a while, your brain gets used to it and you start doing it without thinking. This is recommended for positive things such as meditation, writing in a journal and physical exercise.
Google engineer Matt Cutts, in a recorded talk called “Try something new for 30 days” on ted.com, finds that starting an activity (biking to work, taking a photo a day, writing a novel) and sticking to it for 30 days makes him healthier, more productive and increases his self-confidence. Telling people that you’ve just finished a novel, for example, can make you sound a lot more interesting than just saying you’re doing the same old thing at the office. After completing a hike up the Kilimanjaro, he even finds himself an exciting person.
The key is to start doing it consciously and keep at it until it becomes second nature — to the point that you miss it or feel guilty if you don’t do it.
You can also do it to give up bad habits, such as smoking or snacking on fried food. Self-restraint, focus, discipline and the motivation to achieve your goal make this exercise work. These are desirable traits for productive and successful individuals. There is nothing I admire more than people who start their day with a jog around the block.
Unfortunately, I usually fail at this sort of thing because I’m not very good at goal-setting — even with ones I set for myself. Once anything becomes a goal it metamorphoses from being a “desire” into an “obligation,” thus changing the fundamental nature of the goal. I am ashamed to say that being conscientious is not my forte.
When I feel that something becomes an obligation, even the most pleasurable thing, like eating a piece of dark chocolate on a daily basis, it becomes a chore and a bore. I think it’s not so much about having a low boredom threshold as a pathological condition; sometimes I think my mental model is fundamentally flawed. While most people would gain pleasure and a sense of achievement at having accomplished something or fulfilling a goal, I find having a goal and then fulfilling it actually devalues the whole process and takes away the fun and meaning of it.
This partly explains why I will never be good in a structured organization, for example, or in anything that requires one to demonstrate a willingness to climb, whether the career ladder or social status. I find the rewards and satisfaction that come with achievement less attractive.
A professor once told me that people do things because of love, money or glory. Behind every action, you’ll find one of these motives in different shades and degrees. You can also say that the reason people do things is because of the rewards; the feeling that there is a sense of purpose and meaning in it. I often hear people say they do things, especially good things (like charity, hard work or prayer), because they want to go to heaven, earn more money and feel a sense of achievement; none of which I find inspiring or attractive incentives.
Which makes me ask myself, what is it that makes me want to do something and actually get it done? I find that the answer is the same one that I used to give when I was a petulant child: I do something because I want to and not because I have to. And the less purpose, reward, expectation or obligation attached to it, the greater the enjoyment.
The meaning of the action comes from the freedom from having those constraints. If I am expected to pray a certain number of times a day in order to be admitted to the kingdom of heaven, I’ll happily forego the offer and dwell in purgatory.
But if it makes me good at doing things, I choose to do them for absolutely no reason. And for longer than 21 days; like not eating what was once my absolute favorite food, the tomato, which I haven’t touched for more than a decade. I can’t remember the reason for that, but it’s probably because I was never sure if it was a fruit or vegetable.
Desi Anwar is a senior anchor at Metro TV. She can be contacted at desianwar.com and dailyavocado.net