The social nature of behaviour change

Is behaviour change individual or social?

A lot of stuff I hear about forming new habits is solo stuff: making your resolution, writing it down, creating a routine, monitoring the progress, realising success. It’s all just you. If it’s about losing weight, I get advice about joining a gym or finding a workout that works for me. If I want to stop smoking, buy a pack of the nicotine chewing gum. If I want to eat out less and cook more at home, well, start cooking in your kitchen, folks would say.

The problem is, it feels very lonely. Yet, humans are social animals. So, it makes me wonder, is behaviour change hard because it’s isolated and anti-social?

The steps to form a new habit are straightforward usually. They’re simple, even if not easy. But there’s no social component to them, where there’s someone patting us on the back every time we stick to our resolution, or others are watching encouragingly as we sweat it out on the treadmill. The monumental feat of showing up, not giving in to temptation and doing what we are supposed to go seems to go unnoticed. No recognition whatsoever.

This makes it feel unrewarding to stay disciplined. Why bother, if no one is noticing the hard work or the sacrifice?

Any habit takes time to form, so during that formative phase (21 or 30 days, depending on who you ask), it’s crucial to be applauded. It’s during this time that it feels like we’re not making any progress while experiencing the deepest pain and anguish as we try to shed our old skin.

I think I would like someone to notice me when I’m on my journey, not just when I’ve reached the destination. The oohs and aahs after melting a few kilos are pleasing, to be sure. My question is, why hold on to them till the end? Why not distribute them throughout. We all know how motivating it is to hear praise. When we hear the compliment, in fact, it reenergises us, we recommit to our goals.

So, here’s a suggestion. If you know of someone who is trying to change something about themselves – learn a new skill, stop doing a bad habit, or something else they want to reinvent about themselves – check in on them from time to time. Appreciate the fact that they’ve been at it for a number of days or weeks. Congratulate them for keeping at it. Acknowledge what a challenge it is and what a champ they are for persevering. You might just be the difference in a smoker turning a new leaf, an overweight person creating a healthier body, or an aspiring writer getting published.



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Sitting with restlessness

We all know restlessness, that feeling of unease. It sneaks up on you like a thief in the night and before you know it, has permeated everywhere. One moment you are cheerful, flowing with life. The next moment, that harmonious spirit is running amok, this way and that. Tables are toppled in disarray, the papers are scattered, black is white and white is yellow. Gnawing at the edges, restlessness sticks its nose in all the nooks and crannies, stirring up irrational anxieties that stay suspended in air like dark, heavy clouds.

At such times, the instinct is to distract. Go for a movie, clean the house, hang out with friends, as if we can drown it out with raucous noise and fervent activity. This works, to some extent. It provides some distance from the uncomfortable feeling, which can help give a perspective to wrestle with it.

That’s all distraction does, though. The best antidote to restlessness, I’ve found, is to sit with it.

Sitting is a common Zen practice. It’s literally what it says, to sit, nothing more or less. Simple, but not easy. Sitting with restlessness means staying with the emotions, looking them in the face. Confronting the unease, which can often feel like fear. Sitting means there’s nowhere else you can go. You’re right there and staring at your fear is the only recourse.

To be sure, distracting thoughts will loom and it is tempting to chase after them. They dissipate soon. The restlessness is still there, waiting for your attention.

The nose itches. You scratch it and feel the relief. That sensation dies down, and you’re left with restlessness.

Try as you might, when you sit, there is no way to escape the confrontation. And that’s such a good thing.

Scary as it may seem, in my experience, once I actually settle down to face whatever is troubling me, it isn’t so scary after all. I stop shielding my face away and give in. I let all the thoughts and fears tumble to the fore, expecting a horde of them to jumble up my sense of sanity. In fact, they don’t. They stand respectfully in front of me, and we gaze at each other. As I look at them, and they look back at me, they don’t seem so fearful. I get curious, and I begin to explore what they are, their edges. At some point, I am so immersed in the exercise that fear is no longer on the scene. Instead, it is beset with calm and interest, the way it is when we make friends with strangers.

Zen writings talk about making friends with your fears. I didn’t quite understand what this meant at first or how to go about it. Sitting is the way to do it. Nowhere to go and nothing else to do, I get to know what my fears are, and as I spend time with them, they lose their fearsome quality. I guess that’s what it means to make friends.

I see a lot around me that can trigger restlessness these days, and I fall prey to it often. I see others around me also struggling with the confusing, fear-inducing elements that have come to define our volatile, unpredictable world. Sitting is the fastest and most effective antidote, for immediate relief and as a vaccination for the future.

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Imperfect fitness sessions

There are good days, and there are, well, not-so-good days. The important thing is to show up.

This is true for life, and it’s true for fitness. (It’s actually the banal things in life that often prove more challenging to show up for, I find.)

Fitness has increasingly become important to me, in such a gradual way that I did not even realise it before it had become a natural part of my life. Just because it is so integral or I’ve been doing it for a long time does not mean it happens easily, however. There are days when it is a challenge to keep up with my commitment to staying fit.

Like today.

I woke up, groggily. It’s getting colder now, so staying under the covers was definitely tempting. Nevertheless, I dragged myself out and tried not to think about anything as I put on my workout gear. I rolled out my yoga mat, and stared at it for a few minutes. Move, my brain said. My body refused. I just stood there, blank. It’s challenging to motivate oneself when the brain and body are not in sync.

Moments passed. My workout flashed through my mind, the exercises I wanted to do, how great the exertion would feel as a reward. Visualizing failed. I didn’t move. So, I thought, I’ll stretch.  Let me start with that. Maybe, once the blood starts moving and the energy is coarsing through, I’ll crank up the machine for more energetic pushes.

I stretched, more than I usually do. I stayed with the stretch, moved into it, and felt it fully. Like a lazy cat, I flowed down the length. Soon, I was gently tugging out a shoulder here, leaning my neck this way and that, breathing into the little movements to occupy them completely.

The workout never materialized; it was filled, instead, with a long-drawn stretch session. Not what I intended, not what I planned on. Still, I showed up. Sometimes, it’s all that matters, reporting for duty. It keeps the momentum, even if at a lower pace than expected, and it’s a vital affirmation to oneself of one’s commitment. That’s the difference between motivation and discipline. That’s the true measure of success – it may not feel like it at the time, but soon enough, with each little step, with each effort to keep moving forward, success is achieved.

(I wanted to share this because I have just written about discipline and how it has helped me with my fitness regimen, a recent blogpost called A thousand tiny choices. That blogpost might feel too perfect, like it’s easy to make the choice to work out every time. I wanted to share the struggle it is to make the choice, and how unwieldy the choice can be. Nevertheless, making the choice, however imperfect, is what matters.)


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An early start to New Year’s Resolutions

It’s going to be New Year’s Resolutions season soon. We’re getting into the throes of hedonism in these last two months of the year. Repentance is scheduled for 1 January.

I’ve written about well-intentioned resolutions before, and how they fall off by mid-February, like clockwork. I’ve realized it’s because they have failure designed into them. Resolutions fail because we haven’t cultivated the habits that enable realizing the resolutions. This came to me the hard way, through personally experiencing resolution flops as well as watching my friends and family follow the same treacherous and inevitable pathway.

Here’s an example of a doomed resolution: I wanted to get published this year. I’m nowhere near that goal. Depressing as that is, I know why. It’s entirely because I haven’t gotten the discipline to write regularly, which would allow me to hone my skill, create a tightly crafted story, and find the publisher and audience that wants to read it. I wanted to jump from non-writer to published author straightaway.

This year, I thought, instead of a post-mortem, let me start early, before the season, so that when the season rolls around, I’m well on my way to stick to those resolutions for sure. I’m not going to wait for New Year’s Day this time.

Here are the 3 things I plan to do, to support a successful resolution:

  1. Small steps.
    Contrary to popular convention, New Year’s resolutions should not be grand and magnificent. Sure, it feels heroic and tantalizing to declare, “I’m going to publish a book!” However, as I’ve experienced, this is just hot air. The way to real success lies in making small commitments, like I will write in my blog 5 days a week. Or, I will write 1 short story every month. Or, I will write something every day, whether it’s my blog, a manuscript or in my journal. Or, I will write for 30 minutes every day, even if it’s garbage. Tweets can count as “writing”, if that’s your thing because it istotally consistent with this maxim of small steps. 140 characters can be your commitment. I’m not a big twitter tweeter, so I already know it’s not a promise I can keep.

    I experienced success with this rule when it came to building up my physical fitness. I was not an exercise person for a long time. And then, gradually, I started exercising. Buying exercise clothes was my first step. I felt accomplished if I exercised 2 times a week. Slowly, I increased the time I spent in the gym. Then, I added new routines, dropping some others. Gradually, over multiple years, I built up my routine to be 4 times a week for 20 minutes. I’m happy with this. I feel strong, fit and active. It is now a part of my life, which I miss if I don’t do it, and which I love, every time I finish a workout.

  2. A routine.
    I don’t have a routine to my writing. I have a vague promise to myself that I will write either in the morning or late at night. I don’t have a designated spot that is my “writing table”. I think these are problematic. On a recent podcast on NPR’s Fresh Air, I heard a sleep expert from Stanford University explain that our brain is highly associative – if we lie in bed awake, the brain starts associating the bed with wakefulness, making it harder to fall asleep when we retire to the bed.
    So, this year, I need to clearly demarcate a spot, where I will plonk myself at the designated hour, armed with my writing implements. It might be my dinner table. It might be my couch. I haven’t decided. I think it will make a difference. Charles Duhigg has written eloquently about the importance of routines for developing habits, in his book, The Power of Habit (highly recommend to read.).
  3. Environment.
    Lastly, I need to create an environment that is conducive to regular writing. I’m going to try to find a writing group. At least, I’m going to follow writers on wordpress, twitter and Instagram (I’m off Facebook, it’s too toxic for me). Being in an environment of people and ideas that dwell on the same topic as the habit I’m trying to form has an encouraging effect.

    I experienced this firsthand with my fitness regimen. I started keeping magazines about fitness around my house, so my eyes fell on them at random moments. I followed fitness enthusiasts on social media. I talked about fitness with friends. With all these little steps, the culture of fitness permeated my surroundings and I was ensconced in it. I started feeling like I wanted to be like these people I admired, I wanted to know more about exercising and staying fit, I began emulating them in small, seemingly unrelated ways – learning new recipes that supported healthy living; picking up small exercises I could do in the office (this I learned from a British Airways in-flight magazine); and becoming more conscious of the way my muscles felt. Even though the people I followed were not physically around me or even aware of my existence, they became my community. Osmosis is a terrific process for nudging along a new behaviour.

This is my plan for 2018. The dream is to get published. However, this time, the resolution is more humble: create a writing routine.


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A thousand tiny choices

Grit. The best four-letter word.

Grit is mental toughness, it is what makes success. It’s not talent – not your naturally endowed intelligence nor or an innate physical strength – that decides if you will rise to the top. Instead, it’s whether you persevere, in the face of setbacks, laziness, negativity.

And what is perseverance if not a thousand tiny choices, made every day, all the days?

I get compliments often about my physical fitness. I appreciate these compliments, but not for the reason you might think. The compliments don’t titillate my vanity. No, the reason why I bask in their warmth is that they feel like an applause for the choice I make to exercise, four times a week, every week. Over and over, I make this choice, and the compliments feel like an acknowledgement of my triumph over temptation, of my tenacity in the face of wavering motivation.

What does this choice look like?

When the bed is cozy, the sheets are cocooning me, and the whole world is asleep, giving me a good reason to stay in bed.

When I’m tired from the day and the TV is waiting for me in anticipation of a blank, drained, passive canvas.

When it’s a beautiful holiday and the day invites me to spend it in any way I want.

These are the choices I don’t make. Putting on my workout clothes, rolling out the yoga mat, and sweating it out for a limit-testing 20 minutes are the choices I do make. They don’t get easier the more times I make them; I consciously have to commit to them every single time.

That’s my grit. Nothing glamorous, not even fun on most days. Not fun in the beginning, I should say. Soon enough, the choice to get physically active feels like a great one, the right one, as the happy hormones kick in, the muscles loosen up, and my body feels alive. The beauty of these thousand tiny choices, made repeatedly, is that they must yield results, inevitably.

Grit is learned. How wonderful is that? You don’t have to be born with it. You do have to choose to build it. You have to choose to choose. It’s possible for everyone, which is the most inspiring realization. And a bit daunting, I suppose, because the onus of lies on you, of reaching to the top, of achieving success however you define it, of realizing your dreams.

But, like all things in life, break it down. Life is a series of individual moments. Grit is a series of a thousand tiny choices. One at a time and soon you’re among the stars.

As a final note, I want to share a post that was written by someone I follow, James Clear. Reading it provoked the desire to write about grit on my own blog. He is far more eloquent and has thorough research too, which tells a superb story about the power of grit. I hope you’ll check it out. I enjoyed his post very much.

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Antidote to an off-day

Some days are just meant for saying “Thanks, Day,” and getting into bed.

Once there, pick up a favourite book and read it again because it will take you down the same memory lane as the last time you read it and were in a good mood. Snuggle under the sheets, feeling protected in your own soft cotton womb. Stretch your arm and leg across the bed to the cool side and feel renewed. Close your eyes and let the jumble of things fall away.

Sweet tomorrow, just a few hours away.


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You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but a new dog can teach you new ways

Sunday evening, the grocery store was crowded, as expected. I was in a tightly packed line, waiting to check out. All of a sudden, chaos erupted as a woman squealed. People pushed each other to step out of the away, shoppers further off stopped what they were doing to look in curiosity. The woman looked desperately around her, searching for whatever had startled her.

We found the culprit very quickly because he was right there. A puppy dog was running between a sea of legs, his tail wagging happily. He moved around cheerfully, trying to make friends among the strangers. He was unaware of the consternation with which some folks were now looking at him nor the shock on the woman’s face at his unruly behaviour.

Soon enough, his owner got hold of him, looking apologetically at the crowd as he pulled the puppy out of the store. The puppy looked confused. Why was he being dragged away from this wonderful place, his face said. However, he allowed himself to be taken out, trusting his owner. Order restored itself, the humdrum of grocery lines regained itself, and we went back to the banality of standing in line and paying for our groceries when it was our turn.

As I walked out, I saw the puppy. He was chained to a bike rack, sitting on his haunches, looking inside for his owner and probably at the people that were milling in the grocery store. He had a relaxed, friendly expression on his face. Ears were up, eyes were soft. He looked curiously, openly at the world around him. What struck me most was the complete absence of the previous episode. No guilt, no remorse, no lingering self-reproach.

It made me think about how we humans, by contrast, tend to dwell on stuff, especially the painful, embarrassing, painful stuff. We mull over it, chew on it endlessly, and refuse to let it go as we parse it and analyse it to groan-inducing, excruciating detail. We talk about it, endlessly, in a recurring loop like Groundhog Day.

Why? That moment is gone. A new moment is here. It is all that deserves our attention. The puppy dog seems to get it. We could learn from it.

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