The Power of Habit: Update

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Habit Update!

Sticking with this exercise was actually more helpful than I thought it would be. I realized that I’m not really eating more than a normal amount of calories in a given week, but it’s very unbalanced in the day to day. When I’m on the wagon and eating healthy, I’m only eating about 1000 calories a day, which IS WAY TOO LOW for my height. I’m about 5’7′ and should be eating about 1800 calories a day to just stay alive. It helps make sense of my habits a lot more because I wasn’t understanding why some days I would binge on cookies and sugar. It was literally because my body felt like it was starving and was trying to make up the difference.

Also, I have way more emotional eating than I would like to admit in public. After a long day at work I would go straight for the wine and chocolate. One of my friends brought it to my attention that I tend to not allow myself to have fun with things. If I’m playing music or watching a movie, most of the time I’ll start to feel guilty and angry that I should be doing something more important like blogging or trying to pay off my student loans more quickly. I think the reason why I tend to eat so much sugar is that it’s one of the few ways I actually let myself have a good time. I realized that I tend to connect down time or relaxing with eating desserts.  Even though I consciously know I shouldn’t be doing that over the years it’s become a habit for how I deal with stress. My job has been so stressful in the past couple of weeks so it makes sense that I’ve been craving a release from that pressure.

I’d really like to redirect the pattern though because it’s not healthy or helpful for the goals I’d like to accomplish. This week I want to try and exercise instead of going straight for the sugar. I’m signing up for the gym tomorrow and I’m going to go straight there after work. I’ll have to pack a bag the night before so I don’t have a reason to avoid it. I don’t want to turn it into another huge battle I have with myself though. If there’s a day where I’m super exhausted I’m not going to feel bad about it either. It just means that my body needs a break and I’ll go the next day. One rule that I keep hearing in the fitness community is to “never skip 2 days in a row” so I’m trying to apply that principle. Some days your body really does need a break, but if it’s 2 days or more then you’re less and less likely to stay on track.

It’s weird that I actually like working out, but almost never do it because I feel like I shouldn’t. It’s part of this battle I fight with myself that I don’t deserve to accomplish the goals that I want. Even though I want to lose weight and get healthier, the stupid negative voice in my head tells me that it’s selfish and superficial to want these things so then I never do anything about it. Most of my friends were skinny in high school and they were even more miserable about their bodies than I was being 50 pounds heavier so I assumed that it didn’t matter either way what size I was because I would still be unhappy about it.

My friend has been trying to get me to see that being unhappy really is a choice. When I went to Mexico to help build houses, one of the things I remember the most was how happy the children were running around the village and playing games with each other. If you’ve never been to the West Coast, the dirt is different than the rest of the country. It’s thin and sandy so as the children were running around they were naturally kicking up dust clouds. They were filthy because it was the end of the day and they must have been playing around for hours. I remember being so amazed by that since I had never seen kids look so happy especially when all they were doing was playing around with dirt.

Kids in the United States have piles of toys and then they complain that there’s nothing to do. I’ve worked with kids a lot in the US and it’s always the worst part of the job to hear them be so jaded with life at such a young age. Yet when you go to a poorer country, they’re ecstatic to be alive because there’s no expectation that they deserve awesome toys every day. They’re happy and eager to make the best out of the day.

The same thing really applies to adults in the US. New York City is amazing. You can literally find a club for any hobby you can imagine. If you’re into restoring old timey clocks you can do a quick search and find 3 different meetups within the next month. If you want West Nigerian food at 4 in the morning, there’s probably at least one place in Harlem that will deliver. Maybe you’ll have to take a cab there, but if you really want it there’s always an option.

I’m not saying that I’m above other people in this aspect either. About half the time I’m just as miserable as everyone else here whether it’s because the subway is delayed and I have to wait an extra 5 minutes or I spent too much money on shoes and it’s a pain to carry it home. Yes, that was how I spent my afternoon yesterday.

My point is that complaining about being overweight or unhappy is a part of a choice that you make every day and I don’t like either option so I’m choosing to fix it while I’m still young and the habits aren’t as deeply ingrained as they could be. It’s probably not going to be easy, but I think it will be worth it. One day I’d like to be so happy that I’m not bothered by the small things.

The first step is to cut out the stupid stuff that I know isn’t working and try to replace it with things that would make me happier. I created this blog to get started with the ideas I’ve had in the back of my mind for years and never had the bravery to pursue. The point isn’t to become a fitness fanatic overnight. It’s more to see if I can start living a happier life in the way that I would really like it to be. There’s no pressure on this challenge. If I hate going to the gym then I’m going to stop and try something else so I’ll see how it goes and then report back in another two weeks!

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Hamilton Grange

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Hamilton Grange in the Upper West Side is one of the way lesser known historical sites of New York City. It was the residence of former Secretary of State, Alexander Hamilton. As one of the founding fathers, Hamilton was known for being the hot head of the group and challenging them on the issues. Even though he was orphaned at a young age and had no wealth of his own, Hamilton was smart and ambitious so he practiced law and helped found the Bank of New York among many other things. He hadn’t lived at the Grange very long when Alan Burr challenged him to a duel for messing with his election campaign. He died the next day at 32.

When he moved to the Grange, Hamilton complained that it was too far from the city, which only went about as high as Canal Street. The Upper West side wasn’t there yet so the surrounding land was marshy lowlands.The Grange stayed in his family for the next 30 years and then went into forclosure. It was bought by a nearby church and redesigned so that it faced the street. Over the years, the city became more populated and extended until it covered the entire island and the boroughs. Today the house is situated between a couple different projects called the Hamilton Heights.

The house was built in a contemporary Federal style that was popular for the time. It focused on a Greek revival style using an ordered classic design. They were attempting to create a new state founded on democracy so naturally they tried to imitate the Greeks and Romans.  To build a new kind of state, the popular design plans were very symmetrical and even. The facade is very plain when compared with the European designs of the time.

When you walk past it, the house looks misplaced. It’s perched on a hill looking like it could slide off at any moment and the surrounding area would have been unfathomable to the Founding Fathers. There are noisy high rises with thousands of people rushing by that take no notice of the old house.  It was almost destroyed dozens of times until it underwent a huge restoration project about 10 years ago.  Now instead of servant’s quarters, there’s a visitor center.

I like the site because houses tell history in their own private way. Styles may change and people redecorate, but the structure remains constant like a time capsule while the rest of the world changes around it. New York City is known for being new and innovative and yet there are thousands of historical sites spread around the city. When you stumble upon one you may not notice like some of the plaques or lesser known places. Hamilton Grange could have been forgotten. They could have demolished it to make room for another sky scraper. Instead they built a neighborhood around it and named it after Alexander Hamilton.

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Book Review: The Power of Habit

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About a year ago, I wound up at a TedX event at Columbia Teacher’s college on 122nd street in the Upper West side. Most of the attendees were students at the school. A few people like myself had turned up maybe because they had nothing better to do on a Friday morning. I was still looking for a job at the time so I was trying to find ways to distract myself from the fact that I was still looking for a steady job months after I moved to the city.

The event was amazing. One of the speakers was a real Life of Pi refugee from Vietnam that was left stranded on a raft in the middle of the ocean trying to escape the communist regime. His name was Home Nguyen, he walked out onto the stage with a stack of dollar bills in his hand and threw them into the air. Watching the money rain down was an uncomfortable experience. I realized how much attachment I had to money that I had never accepted before. Being unemployed for a long period of time makes a person constantly stressed about how they will survive.

The point he was trying to make was how little money mattered in the big scheme of the world. As a child alone on a raft, he had a life changing experience that the world was a large pulsating complex creature. Most people in the modern places forget how alive the earth is because they’re so far removed from nature. Away from all the noise, Nguyen could hear the waves crashing and the heartbeat of the world. There was a calm that came over him as he realized his life would be temporary and he could only try to give his best. If that meant dying out there he made peace with it. Because of the experience, he has always known the shallow nature of wealth.

The last speaker was a guy named Charles Duhigg, who came out with a smile on his face and joked about how he could never follow that story. He’s a writer for the New York Times that became known for a book he wrote called The Power of Habit. The talk stuck in the back of my mind for months until I bought the book about a week ago (Now that I have a job I can afford to waste money on books instead of waiting to get them from the public library).

The basic principle he explained is that most people’s habits are unintentional loops.

They go from:

CUE—->ROUTINE—->REWARD

The start of the loop is a cue brought on by a subconscious need for something. It can be something basic like craving a particular food or needing conversation.  The cue leads to a routine such as buying a candy bar or calling up a friend to get the reward (satisfaction) in the brain. It becomes more difficult to break a routine the more ingrained it is into a person’s daily habits.

The best way to break the loop is to recognize the craving and develop replacement habits. For Duhigg, instead of buying a chocolate chip cookie every day, he realized he was craving a break from work so he set a daily alarm to take 10 minutes off and chat with a friend.

I’ve been trying to change a lot of my habits in the past year. Some have been easier than others. In college I used to smoke cigarettes, which was a way to take a break from studying and hang out with my room mate instead. Now that I don’t live with the same person and I’m out of college that habit was fairly easy to drop. Others like eating junk food when I’ve had a stressful day at work have been a lot harder to break.

For the next two weeks I want to keep track of all my food habits. Any time I eat something I’m going to keep a log of it (without judgment) to help figure out if I’m eating something at the same time every day or if I’m just being lazy because I don’t have any food in the house. It should help with seeing any patterns that I’m doing unintentionally. I’ve been trying to “get healthier” for way too long without much result.

After two weeks, I’ll write another post to see if it’s helped me realize anything or if I’ve changed any patterns as a result of keeping the log.

I highly recommend this book if you have a habit that’s driving you nuts or if you’ve been trying to lose weight for an extended period of time with no success. It’s very insightful for the kinds of routines that you forget about because they’re so common. Most of us don’t think about our food choices because they’ve been ingrained since childhood. It’s the reason why children of overweight people are much more likely to be overweight.

There are thousands of behavior patterns that you don’t even think about on a daily basis. If you’re able to replace them with something else you enjoy doing then it becomes more likely that the good habit will stick because it doesn’t take much effort. Willpower is seen as a finite resource meaning that if you pick too many difficult patterns to break you’re more likely to fall off the wagon and give up on all of them. If you pick small habits, what Duhigg calls “small wins”, and cultivate them religiously then it becomes easier to build up the kinds of habits that you want.

Part of this I’ve already been using to develop the habit of blogging. I like reading. I’ve been reading about a book a week on my daily subway commute. So I’ve been writing about the books I’ve been reading in order to cultivate my blogging skills. It’s been the easiest way to start a habit that’s so unfamiliar to me by using other habits that are already a part of my life. For the next couple of weeks I want to see if I can apply this principle to eating better and exercising more, without freaking out too much if things don’t go according to plan. Part of changing habits is in the failure and persistence to find a way that works for the individual the same way “one size fits all” never seems to fit everyone.

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Book Review: The War of Art

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The War of Art was recommended to me by a friend when I explained how difficult it was for me to get started writing. Every time I sit down to get started, the voice of resistance has a megaphone projecting all the negative comments I can possibly think about myself. Not until recently did I realize that most people go through this and especially creative people are prone to the voice ruining their great ideas.

Pressfield says that most people have these internal patterns of resistance that are so ingrained they don’t even notice. Little by little they find ways of coping with alcohol, food, or sex. Some people attach themselves to a successful spouse and live in their partner’s sphere of influence in order to avoid responsibility for never following through with their own dreams. There are so many people that lose their interests as they get older. With each year they fill up their houses with stuff or gain another 10 pounds shoving junk down their throats.

One of the main themes of the book that I liked was the difference between the amateur and the professional. What makes a writer a writer instead of a person that sometimes writes? Pressfield argues that it is the commitment to wrestle with the muse and churn out new work every single day that makes a person a professional writer. If you make it a daily priority and get paid to do it, then you’ve become a professional, which can be applied to any type of artist.  For me, I know I’m in the amateur category right now, but I want to go pro!

The resistance is never going away. The way I choose to deal with resistance is something I do have control over. I choose to be a professional writer. Part of that means that I haven’t chosen an easy path so it’s going to be a struggle and I’ll have to recommit every day because the voice wants to see me fail.

Books have always been an important part of my life. Eventually if you read enough you start to believe you can write something yourself. I’ve been wanting to write for years and never got around to it for lame reasons like I was too busy or I had nothing interesting enough to say. It’s time to declare war on the voice and be on the offense for once. I’m not saying I’ll be any good. In fact probably most of the stuff I write will be terrible, but if I’m very very lucky maybe I’ll write something good one day.  It’s the type of struggle that’s important to me so I have to pursue it.

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Book Review: Outliers

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Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell is one of those books I’ve heard so much about I thought that I’d read it already. When I settled in to actually read it, I realized it was every bit as interesting as people had described to me and yet I wonder if anyone fully understood the argument.

The way people have been referencing Outliers as a justification for their own inadequacies seems like a misunderstanding. Gladwell illustrates that there are thousands of books that teach you the so-called secrets of successful people, but very few talk in specific detail about the background and steps taken by individuals to achieve their success.

One of the problems I have with “self-help” books is that anyone can write them and most of them are copying the information of their peers. Very few actually have practical advice that someone can implement on a daily basis to achieving their goals. The rest are only fueling the anxieties of people desperately searching for answers.

The case study about computer billionaires is something people should read before blindly idolizing Steve Jobs or Bill Gates as geniuses. Yes, they’re both very smart guys, but they also had the good fortune to grow up in towns that would become hot spots for technology. Along with intelligence, they also had the means and opportunity to pursue their interest early on in their career. Many people from their generation wouldn’t even know what a personal computer was for 20 plus years and everyone knows a year in technology is a huge amount of time. In the next year they’ll come out with a dozen new improvements to the cell phone that we suddenly won’t be able to live without so imagine a 20 year jumpstart.

When Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were experimenting with computers, most of us were told by our parents to “stop it” and focus on school (That it could be whatever it was for you; sports, art, movies, theater, or taking apart the toaster). My friend calls this “faulty wiring” meaning that the lessons we learn as a kid get downloaded into our brains and prevent us from having the same level of enthusiasm for life that we did as children. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that every child I’ve met has a natural interest in learning and yet most adults refuse to learn new things. They’ve been taught to stop.

The main argument that Gladwell makes is that the top 1% of successful people were born in prime conditions to surpass other people. As a mathematician he makes some fascinating calculations about the high percentage of first generation Jewish immigrants  in the 1930s becoming professionals and the culture of honor codes in certain areas of the South that I can’t even begin to do justice.

However, I don’t think his point was that anyone not born with these prime conditions should immediately give up because they’ll never be good enough. That’s more of the faulty wiring talking you out of pursuing your dreams. Although these people were born into prime conditions that doesn’t mean it was easy. Not every child of a Jewish immigrant becomes a doctor or lawyer and not every genius becomes a success. Even though talent exists about 10,000 hours of focused study are what sets apart the outliers from everyone else.

A child of musicians is more likely to get a head start on 10,000 hours of music the same way a child of engineers is going to get a jump on computers. That doesn’t mean that a child from the inner city that loves computers shouldn’t bother learning about them. It makes being a success less probable, but not impossible. The importance of dedication and hard work should not be overlooked.

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Most athletes are born with talent, but there are thousands of great players that get weeded out from playing at the professional level. The difference between these two is the commitment to a life around the sport. Olympic athletes spend hours training every single day. Instead of drinking at parties or traveling with their families, they are in the gym constantly working to improve their skills by a fraction.

For me, I’m more inspired by someone willing to put in hours a day to work on their skill than someone that peaked in high school and quit when the competition got tough. I’m not sure if most people think this way though. They love to idolize the genius to be so high above them because it allows them to not be held accountable for their choices. Outliers argues the opposite. After a certain level of intelligence, there is no other quality more responsible for success than opportunity and willingness to put in the work. After 10,000 hours almost anyone could be an expert. That idea could change everything. Instead of putting your dream career on a pedestal, what if you put in the practice instead? There’s a reason people can’t stop talking about this book.

 

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