Sunday, July 6, 2014

Keystone Habits

I make my bed every morning. I didn't use to. Back when I was a kid, it was something my parents made me do, along with eating breakfast, taking regular showers, brushing my teeth, going to school. The sorts of things kids don't do automatically because they think it's silly or don't see the point.

When I got older, left home, I stopped for a long time because I still didn't see the point. After all, it's kind of silly. Not many people see your bedroom, after all, if you're a social antibutterfly* like me. My friends aren't the sorts of friends who spelunk through the cordoned off rooms of my apartment in my absence. I go on dates over periods best measured by geologic time scales so I don't often have to contend with the girlfriend factor. You can't walk into a crowded room and tell which of the troglodytes within make their beds and which don't.

And even when you do make your bed, you just mess it up the next time you sleep in it. It seems to be an exercise in futility. It's stupid and a waste of time.

The thing is, it isn't. After some time, I learned about keystone habits.

Keystone habits are minor things you can do every day which encourage you to make better decisions later on. In and on themselves, they're pretty trivial. But if you do them regularly, your whole life improves.

Making your bed, for example.

The first thing I do after I wake up (after relieving myself of roughly three quarts of urine, that is) is straighten out my bed. It's something I can do on autopilot these days. While I'm making my bed, it gives me a chance for my brain to wake up. I'll consider what I'm going to do next. Make coffee. Shower. Knock something off my to-do list. Write. Maybe plan ahead to the things I'm going to take care of at work.

If I make my bed, it makes my bedroom neater, more tidy. I'll see a mess on the floor (cast off jeans, socks, whatever) and straighten it out, if only to make the rest of the room as neat as my bed is now. If I've tidied up my bedroom, I'm more likely to pick up other shit around the house later on.

When I go to bed, I see that it's made and it reminds me of everything else that's not quite pleasant I've taken off my list today. Also, I sleep better in a made bed than the rat's nest I used to fall asleep in before I got back into the habit.

That little spark of neatness trickles out to the rest of my life, in other words.

More than that, that little something, that thing you "have to do" first thing in the morning, gets the ball rolling for the rest of the day. You're less likely to procrastinate. If something comes up that you can take care of, quickly, you tend to take care of it rather than putting it off. After all, to paraphrase Mark Twain, if the first thing you do in the morning is eat a live frog, then nothing worse can happen to you that day. It's preparation.

In itself, it's nothing. Easily the least important thing I do every day as part of my routine. It's not like brushing your teeth, for example, which adds years onto your life and vastly improves the quality of your health. It's not even as important as daily meditation or reading something every day, or exercise or laundry or what have you. But if you do that one minor thing, it'll make you 10% more likely to do other, more useful things.

Keystone habits take all sorts of shapes and forms. Not buying much junk food, for example. By not having chips and cookies around, I tend to snack on fruits and vegetables more. I pack my gym bag first thing in the morning, put it right in front of the door so I have to trip over it on the way out. That way I don't forget my gym clothes when I go to work and I'm much more likely to go work out at the end of the day. Things which are kind of silly and minor, but they set you up to make better decisions later on.

Without these things, I go to my default behavior which is largely determined by my stupid monkey brain, the part of my subconscious which hates exercise and healthy food, which has lousy hygiene and wants me to fail at a lot of things. My monkey brain is closely related to the Oatmeal's Blerch.

Keystone habits are sort of like primitive fulcrums. Things which require very little effort which you can do almost on autopilot. They are the equivalent of force multipliers for your lifestyle. It's a very minor thing which has enormous trickle-down effect, like automating your savings contributions or using the magic of compound interest to pay for your retirement. You have a specific trigger situation (roll out of bed), a very little amount of perceived work (takes 30 seconds) and then a long tail afterwords (well, I did THAT, I might as well do THIS).

So make your damn bed.

* A social antibutterfly is the quantum opposite of a social butterfly, a strange creature made of positrons and dark matter, whose very presence can annihilate parties and relationships.

Totals: 759, 863, 615, 515, 1121, 595, and 917. Solid effort.

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