Good advice on discipline from Leo Babauta

My recent re-reading of Dallas Willard clarified something important for me about character development: to successfully shape our characters, we need to go deeper into causes and motivations than is customarily taught. But the good news is that it is within the reach of normal people to do this, and in fact isn’t all that difficult. (As I’ve said before, I may have learned this from Willard in the first place, but if so it wasn’t a conscious thing.)

For a couple of years now I’ve followed Leo Babauta’s blog Zen Habits, and he seems to get this truth—that successful habit formation is not simply a matter of behavioral conditioning (though there are elements of that), but requires thought, and at the right level. Here’s a just-published piece I think is particularly good, on how to wrestle distraction to the ground. (If you have the time, I suggest you read it first in its entirety. Babauta is not only a very good writer, his style is consonant with his message, and I will do some damage to the whole as I pull the essay apart and look at the pieces.)

Digital distractions have also pulled me from reading and meditation in the last week. I think they plague all of us to varying extents. […] This is a guide for my fellow addicts. Those of you who have as much trouble as I do fighting off the temptations and distractions, this is for you. From one addict to another.

Babauta mentions two techniques to use that are fundamental to habit formation. The first is paying attention:

One of the insidious things about the distraction habit is that we often don’t even realize it’s happening. It sneaks up on us, like old age, and before we know it we’re addicted and powerless.

But actually we’re not powerless. The power we have is our awareness, and you can develop it right now. Pay attention to what sites you visit, how often you’re looking at your phone, how long you’re spending in front of a screen all day.

What I did when I wanted to develop an awareness of my smoking urges was carry around a pencil and small scrap of paper, and put a tally mark on it each time I had the urge to smoke. I could still smoke, but I’d have to put a tally mark first.

This built my awareness muscle, and it allowed me to insert a small space between the urge and my subsequent action. Into that space, however small, I could eventually make a choice. That was where the power came in.

This may sound mystical, but it is not. How can we make a choice without first being aware that the choice is available? We are powerless to change as long as we remain ignorant (often deliberately so) of the choices available to us that can lead to a change. But if we develop an awareness of the choices, we now have something to work with. We are still far from guaranteed success—perhaps none of the choices that occur to us are within our abilities, or perhaps we are less motivated to pursue a remedy than we like to imagine. But at least there are new possibilities on the table, and though still potential they are at least real.

My latest effort to lose weight and keep it off started with a one-two punch from Willard and Babauta. Rereading Willard last fall had given me a much-needed dose of clarity about character formation, spurring me on to review my own history in that area and to think seriously about what else could be done. Not much later I read this post on Zen Habits about discipline, which mentions hunger:

  1. Sit with a little hunger. We tend to panic when we get hungry, and run for the nearest junk food. What I’ve learned is that you can be hungry and it’s not the end of the world. We don’t always need to be stuff and satisfied with crazy delicious food. Instead, practice this: don’t eat if you’re not hungry. When you get hungry, sit there for a moment and turn to the hunger, and see how it really feels. It’s not so bad. This practice isn’t to make you starve yourself (not great), but to show you that a little discomfort won’t ruin your life, and that you can make conscious choices about when and how much to eat.

This was exactly what I needed to hear, especially the “it’s not so bad” part. I had long been in the habit of not allowing myself to be hungry. At best I would try to ameliorate the worst effects of that attitude by avoiding really bad foods. But Babauta’s suggestion was enough to not only be hungry for a little while but to contemplate the experience—and surprise, it wasn’t the end of the world!

I should note that I’ve never really had a problem staying on a diet. Starting one, yes, but not staying on one I’ve started. I’ve done it seven or eight times before, each one lasting many months, each one resulting in major weight loss, each one strictly observed. But the diet is not the point, of course. Nor is weighing a certain amount. The point (to me) is to achieve a life in proper balance, and my weight issues are just one visible symptom of many, many interacting factors in need of fine-tuning in my life, some of them connected to my weight only at a very deep level.

What I learned from Willard was that even though the symptoms can help lead you to the deeper causes, it is necessary to study and deal with those causes directly, at whatever level they exist, and let the symptoms take care of themselves. In this case, I needed not to worry about losing weight, and to worry instead about becoming a person who eats properly. Time will tell whether I’ve managed to do this successfully, but I’m convinced of the route I need to take.

Back to the addict’s guide: the second technique Babauta mentions is examining causes. As an example he describes his own study of why he had fallen into distraction while taking on some new skills (cycling, programming). The first cause he identifies is fear, specifically fear of not performing adequately.

After hours of following temptations online (learning all about cycling and programming, for example), I stopped and asked myself, “What’s this all about?”

It was about fear — the fear that I didn’t know what I was doing and was going to screw it all up. I now know that it doesn’t matter if I screw it up. My value as a person isn’t tied to my successes or failures. So I closed all the tabs, and decided to focus on one program, and one bike ride. I’ll learn as I do.

A shortcoming I’ve struggled with, and one I see all around me in others, is an inability to get off dead center. Sometimes it’s because we’re baffled about how to do it, and sometimes it’s because we like dead center way more than we like to admit. One good way to stay on dead center is to invest so much significance in the move that the bar ends up set impossibly high. I had a minor encounter with this when I was thinking about walking for exercise—making into too much of an event was keeping me from getting started—and the solution, of course, was to just take the first walk.

Another thought that has helped me keep proper perspective on changes that are larger—how hard would it be to change my mind again? For example, if you’re thinking about going from not tithing to tithing (or the reverse!), realizing that the decision doesn’t need to be forever or even long-lived can make it easier to give it a try.

My distractions are also often about fantasies — I really hope that I’ll be a great programmer or start doing century bike rides or Ironman triathlons. Realistically, I don’t have time to do any of that. So I have to let the fantasies go, because they almost never come true. Unless you’re willing to devote your entire life to one of them for a year or two.

This perspective comes easier as you grow older—I’ve mentioned that having turned 60 last year was sobering on this score, as I realized I simply didn’t have the time anymore to tackle something new. And I know now there are several things I shouldn’t have attempted not only because it wasn’t likely I could achieve them, but the time spent crowded out things more achievable and more valuable.

Distractions, of course, are often about the fear of missing out. We can’t possibly take part in every cool thing that everyone else is doing, but we also don’t want to miss out on any of it. So we look online for what’s going on, what other people are doing and saying, what’s hot. None of that actually matters. What matters is being content, doing things that make people’s lives better, learning, being compassionate, helping. So let’s let go of what we’re missing out on, and focus on the difference we want to make in the world.

I’d go a bit further and say that because we are afraid of missing out, we are especially susceptible to things that make us feel involved while costing us very little. It costs very little to have a strong opinion on, say, the danger that homosexual marriage poses to the church, and only a bit more to have a sufficiently  “informed” opinion that we can do online battle with others regarding the matter. The delusion that it somehow makes a difference to hold a strong opinion on that issue and a thousand others only soaks up our time and distracts us from doing the few modest but challenging things in our sphere which might actually make a difference.

Jacques Ellul wrote that mediaeval man had a very limited sphere of influence, but within that sphere could actually accomplish concrete things. Perhaps a villager was limited to contact with 150 or so other souls, but it was close contact and lasted a lifetime, both prerequisite to actual lasting influence.

Babauta wins my heart (yet again) by ending his piece with ten specific suggestions of steps the reader can take to get off dead center here, immediately followed by “Of course, there are other things you can do” and giving three broader examples. To me this underlines that he is not telling you what to think about distraction, or how to think about distraction. At most he is simply asking you to think about it, and offering a bit of guidance in case you need it to get started. The ten suggestions are really intended to spur you to create your own list, after having thought through the matter for yourself. And to me that’s the best kind of teaching.

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