Alex Chiri's Blog

Healthy habits

habits

The transition to working from home here in Sweden was sudden like everywhere else, little earlier than in other places and the measures towards COVID-19 notoriously mild. Still, my daily routine was turned upside down. I was quite euphoric towards the idea of working remote 100% for the time of the epidemic and annoyed by the general state of denial of people at large, denial that this will be the new order for a while. Even with all the stuff I read about working remote before the pandemic, I underestimated how much things would change and how long it would take me to adjust (still working on it).

The general state of confusion, lack of quality information about what is going on and what is the perspective for the future are stress factors that can numb you and make time pass without noticing, you enter a state of low entropy as described in this beautiful short writing. Time passes fast, an endless repetition of the same events, purpose can slip away.

I realized after about 2 months in this state that I pretty much dropped most of my daily habits that kept me in decent shape physically and mentally. I was not exercising, I was not reading any meaningful stuff, I was not listening to any podcasts and still seemed like I have no time.

In comparison, “before”, I was doing a 10 minute meditation every day, running 7 km once a week and going to an intense Power Yoga class about 3 times a week, listening 3-4 podcasts per week and reading 2-3 books per month. All of these stopped, I was still reading, but mostly fiction. A distraction among others.

So, I was mostly distracting myself, without putting much effort into restoring somehow the activities that gave me energy and kept me healthy. Truth is that all these activities were based on habits that I developed in time. And all of them had really good triggers - they initiate you to do something habitually. Most of the triggers went away when working from home and I made no effort of reprogramming them. I was gaining weight, not feeling that energetic and with a mostly pessimistic demeanour. All of this, while having everything I could wish for, really. What reason could I have to lose sight of what is important so easily? Truth is, none.

But I decided to change that and here’s what I’ve done so far.

Action!

Restored habit 1: daily meditation

I wrote about [[2017-03-25-habits-and-every-day-work|forming habits]] in the past and I find them extremely important for being able to be effective in anything. The trigger of a habit can be vital and in many cases it’s what makes the difference between doing something or not. Some triggers can be natural (for example, waking up) and some are artificial (like a calendar reminder). Both can have ups and downs. For example, using the moment you wake up as a trigger to do your daily meditation can be very convenient, since you wake up every day (ideally). The downside is that it is based on a mental agreement you set with yourself to do something when you wake up, there is no reminder or anything that tells you “MEDITATE NOW!”, so it can be weaker sometimes, but it is reliable, it is independent from time and it depends on a natural event that occurs with the frequency I wish for my developing habit. To help even further to have the habit to happen, I would prepare things in advance so it is super easy to get started with your habit when the time comes, maybe prepare the cushion in place before going to sleep, together with a timer or headphones or whatever I used for the meditation. This was a habit it was super easy for me to pick up again, I’ve been wondering why I dropped it in the first place, but that requires some more… uhm… meditation. I wrote [[2018-12-16-on-meditation-and-journaling|here]] about what I found meditation useful for after practicing the lazy-version-app-powered meditation daily for several months.

Restored habit 2: jogging

The next habit I wanted to bring back is running outside the house and ramp up the distance gradually as I get back in shape. I’m not fond of running, I hate the starting part when you get into rhythm and try to regulate your breathing to keep up with the pace (or the other way around). But the feeling after is amazing, I have no idea how it is to be on drugs, but I assume it is comparable, minus the bad parts. On top of that, I can listen to podcasts while running. To top things up even more, I ordered some new headphones for running, some that don’t fall off when sweating like crazy. If it’s not clear what I was doing here, was that I am building my motivation to get this started, since this is not exactly a pleasant activity to me, but it keeps me healthy. Combined with several rewards that I setup and remind myself of (new headphones, memory of pleasant feeling after, opportunity to listen to podcasts) half of the work is done! Now to build a trigger. Since my schedule was hectic (almost an excuse), I left my trigger rather flexible, which is not always a clever idea. But if you set yourself too strict rules and you for some reason break them repeatedly, then the trigger will most likely stop working. Set it too flexible, then it might be too easy to ignore. In this case, I was really looking forward to trying the new headphones and listening to some podcasts from my queue, so I went for a milder trigger: I created 2 tasks for running in my weekly schedule, that I had to do somewhere during the week. At the beginning of the week, I am setting a day and time for these, based on how my calendar looks like and then I stick to those. That worked well, this was a successful attempt at baiting myself to do stuff! I could’ve went for a more definite approach and say I run every Wednesday and Friday morning at 8am, but since my work schedule had some unpredictable appointments in some weeks, I preferred the more flexible approach so I don’t make a commitment and then have to double down on it. Two habits restored, one more to go!

Restored habit 3: Yoga practice

The one habit that helped me push through dark stressful winter days and make me lose weight as a bonus was practicing Yoga several times a week. This is not the typical relaxed Yoga I’m talking about, but what is called “The Rocket”, a style of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga created by a Yoga teacher who was also the personal Yoga instructor of the Grateful Dead rock band. It is very intense physically and sweat is guaranteed. What is also guaranteed is the amazing relaxed feeling after (at least in my case). Regardless how busy my brain was before the practice, regardless how much nonsense I accumulated during the day, at the end of the session my mind was empty, I was relaxed and with a general feeling of good. In non-COVID times, this would be something I would do together with my wife after work, at a gym close to our offices and it would have a definite start and end time. Plus, this was something we could enjoy and do together. During COVID times, this was out of discussion, for obvious reasons. So with all the triggers gone and all the other things going on, this was rather easy to stop doing. Picking this up again was very similar to running: I found an old audio recording of a class of our Yoga instructor, I created 2 weekly tasks and made a commitment at the beginning of the week to when I would be practicing in our living room. Also, this was an opportunity to test how well do my new headphones endure even more sweat! It’s not as fun as being part of a group and do this together, but you still get most of the benefits, and this is what matters!

What next?

What will it be next? Well, consistency is key. I need to stick to these for a while before they become ingrained in my schedule. Summer is rather a different kind of time here in Sweden, where I have more control over my schedule, but I expect this to change once the autumn starts. I expect to keep adjusting these habits based on what happens in my life. As long as I don’t lose focus and I welcome change, I know from previous experience that I can stick to these for a long time. At some point they become second nature, until they need to be adjusted, then another accommodation period comes and so on.

Talking about focus, I am a big fan of Cal Newport and his work on Deep Work. There are a few practices he advocates that I want to pick up to further improve my productivity and be more resilient to the changes around me. But more about that in a next post!