Habits: The What Matters Less Than The Practice

There’s no reason to intellectualize a good habit. Keep it simple.

With so much information at my fingertips, I often feel conflicted about what habits to cultivate, what skills to develop. Whether it’s deciding what to eat or what exercise regimen to adopt, I have a tendency to read all the literature, watch all the reviews, and think about the optimal solution. But after the joy of these deep-dives passes, decision fatigue and paradox of choice set in. I’ve avoided the real work. The what matters less than the practice.

For about a decade, I read about meditation. I felt the dopamine hit of having the conceptual understanding of why it was good for me. I had something to talk about with friends. I had a certified-fresh piece of advice I could bestow upon others. But I avoided the simpler, more important thing: sitting down, closing my eyes, and actually meditating. The shift to practicing has provided far more for my soul than talking about and researching it ever did. Reading, watching, consuming content about habits feels good. But that feeling is like a knock-off two-dimensional screengrab of how you feel when you do the thing. Knowledge is conceptual and fleeting. Wisdom is experiential and eternal.

But my brain likes the intellectual rumination, It’s safer. No failure, no struggle, no judgment. But also, no risk and less reward. When I avoid the work, I miss the high highs (and low lows) that come with the practice. The simple act of practicing a habit is plenty difficult in itself. And it stimulates the soul in a far deeper way.

Learning about habits is like seeing an amazing magic trick and learning how to do it. The act of learning a magic trick is difficult. It requires research, repeated viewings, and careful analysis. For example, a 10-year-old would have a hard time replicating a David Blaine slight of hand. And afterwards, there’s a certain satisfaction in knowing what the magician is doing, seeing the misdirection while it’s happening. You may even be able to replicate the trick to a friend after some time. But the practice of doing a magic trick once you know how is simple. There’s a certain emptiness that sets in once you’ve figured it out. The challenge is over. Time to move on to the next knowledge domain.

Doing a habit is more like learning to play chess. The rules around how to do it can be explained in a minute. But the mastery of the craft will take years, even though each game starts out identical to the last. The act of playing chess is simple. A 10-year-old can learn. The practice of doing it is difficult. But the practice is the whole point. There’s a feeling that is hard to talk and write about. You can improve through a better conceptual understanding, but the wisdom only comes through doing it.

The elegance of a habit is in its simplicity. So don’t intellectualize whatever you choose to do or stop, whether journaling or avoiding junk food. Treat your brain like you would a child. Keep it simple, have rules, create boundaries. It’s easy to criticize the person who says, “oh I don’t eat pizza.” The arbitrary line-drawing, the flawed reasoning. But while the statement appears absurd, if I stopped eating pizza, I’d be a much healthier person. So for me, what’s more important that the habit itself, is the act of doing it. The consistent practice. Pick something, anything. What’s far more important is the experience. Deciding where to go matters less than the steps, miles, and calories you spend getting there. Give your mind a break, and keep it simple.

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