The Twin Freedoms of Choice and Habit

When I started this thing (whatever ‘this thing’ even is anymore), I was, like most zero-wasters, obsessed with numbers; hard data; measurable results. Did I make more trash this week than last week? What’s my carbon footprint this month? Is Amtrak or Greyhound more environmentally-friendly? Does my webhost power their servers with clean energy? Should I get a bidet? If I can’t afford stainless steel, does that make me a bad environmentalist?

Over the years I’ve been blogging, most of these kinds of questions have just become irrelevant, and the few that are left I answer with far less rigor. It’s less about math and more about poetry.

If the journey is a mountain-climb, and if we all eventually plateau, then at some point I stopped looking for more mountain to climb, because I realized that climbing just became an end unto itself. I took a left instead, gunning for the edge, and leapt into the open air. What I found was that I could fly, and that I didn’t need to climb anywhere at all. I could go wherever I wanted.

Let me tell you what I mean.

In a way, this whole thing started with a crisis: I admitted myself to a New York City emergency room because I’d almost fainted while on my way to a college class for symptoms that closely resembled cardiac arrest. I was 20. Only, I didn’t report all of my symptoms, because I had somehow managed to completely forget about the most glaring one: cripplingly acute pelvic pain while I was on my period. What I did was report the side-effects of that pain instead: tunnel vision, black spots, heart palpitations, chest pain, light-headedness, shortness of breath, cold sweats, an inability to keep myself upright. Because I’d failed to mention that I was on my period, and because I failed to notice that the chest pain was secondary to the pelvic pain, the doctors could find nothing wrong with me, and I was sent home.

For months I wondered what happened, and continued to suffer similar attacks without respite. I met this terrifying unknown with the only tools I had: I stopped drinking soda, cut down my sugar and junk food intake, and tried to get better sleep. Eventually someone mentioned that I might find out if a gynecologist would have any answers. Long story short, I was suffering from bad cases of simultaneous endometriosis and rupturing ovarian cysts; essentially hemorrhaging who-knows-how-much of who-knows-what into my abdominal cavity. Twice a month, it felt like a bomb would go off in my gut without any warning, leaving me crippled for hours at best and days at worst.

The problem was that gynecologists don’t really have any idea of what triggers the formation of endometriosis or “benign” ovarian cysts, and the remedies are less than stellar. My choices were essentially: a. pop out a kid, b. take hormones for the rest of my life and induce a kind of menopause, or c. surgically ablate the endometriosis and hope for the best. (The long-term success rate of surgery is less than 25%. Most suffers have to have the offending tissue removed several times throughout their life. This option doesn’t even touch the cysts, mind.) A few unsatisfactory years and one ablation surgery later, and I opted to demand my option d: hysterectomy.

What this experience did for me was plant the seed that maybe, just maybe, authority figures don’t know everything, and sometimes you know what you need better than they do.

Back in 2014 I developed GERD and IBS. It was Easter sunday,  I believe, after a full plate of baked macaroni, garlic bread slathered in butter, short ribs drenched in sauce, and a half-dozen beers, that I jolted awake in the middle of the night with the distinct sensation that I’d been choking and couldn’t breathe.

This was a problem that the medical establishment was very familiar with, though. The remedy was simple, but herculean by the expectations of the average American: eat better and drink less alcohol. Already wary of pills from my years on various medications, I was determined to avoid using chemical shortcuts around what was essentially a bad habit, and only a few days later I swore to eat even better than I had before. I adopted a “3-strikes” policy toward what I was allowed to consume within a 3 or 4-hour period*, and later that year, having avoided most meat products out of necessity, just decided to go full vegetarian.

My takeaway from this was that I had more control over what I could and couldn’t reasonably expect from myself than I’d previously thought. And that once again, maybe its worth it to not take the pills.

I’ve been acid-free for three years now.

*Out of the three main offenders for both GERD and IBS – spicy foods, rich/greasy foods, and alcohol – I could only pick two unless I wanted to be in a world of hurt later. Sometimes a consumable would be so intense that it would count as two strikes by itself. Deep fried stuff usually does it; also, micheladas.

In early 2016, I moved in with my mother when she bought a new house that didn’t come with a washer or dryer, and it would be another year before she could afford one. In the meantime, I chose to do all my laundry, including my sheets and towels, by hand in a large washbasin sink. She chose to use the laundromat most of the time. I found the process to be rewarding and calming, as well as being good exercise, and as a result I still do most of my laundry this way, even after we got a washer (but no dryer) months ago.

This has taught – and continues to teach – me that, even without a crisis, simply sticking to a seemingly difficult choice can be easy. All you need is a little push.

Two weeks ago now, I made the decision to start adopting a low-carb, high-fat diet – LCHF – to try and remedy my tendency to experience hypoglycemic episodes. I feel hypoglycemia a liability for me in the long run, and though I’m pretty thin, I want to do everything I can to avoid any later issues I might develop with insulin: diabetes is very high on my list of things that I want to do without, thankyouverymuch. To make this really work, I also decided to pair the moderate diet change (yep, still vegetarian!) with a modest first step into the world of intermittent fasting – this is the surest way to get your body to start burning lipids instead of blood glucose for fuel, thus bypassing the hour-by-hour risk of hypoglycemic crashing altogether.

So I started. I skipped breakfast on my first day, which is something I’m told to never do, and had a big cup of hot tea with half-and-half instead. No crash: no brain fog, no prickling warmth up my neck as the adrenaline response is triggered to help regulate my blood sugar and blood pressure levels, no stomach aches, and no orthostatic hypotension. When lunch came around, I still had plenty of energy and was no more hungry than I normally am. I ate a big meal, and 6 hours later, I was only just starting to think about dinner.

On the morning of day 3, I experienced crash after crash for a good 3 hours, even after snacking on low-carb foods. I was experiencing the ‘low-carb flu’; a very uncomfortable hurdle that the body goes through as it shifts away from using fast-burning glucose for fuel and switches to slow-burning lipids. I stuck to the regimen, powered through the discomfort, and came through just fine. It’s been a week and I haven’t experienced a single hypoglycemic episode since, no matter how hungry I get.

And I haven’t had much in the way of bread or sugar cravings at all.

Another takeaway: sometimes, doing things completely differently is way easier than you think it’ll be.

What do all these little stories have in common? Well, they’re the story of how many of my biggest habits have formed.

At first, most of them were in response to crises: bigger at first, then increasingly small, until they’re not crises at all anymore but just problems to be solved. Eventually, some of them aren’t in response to anything more than the desire to do something different and see how it works out.

I think what’s happened is that, over the past 5 or so years, I’ve trained myself to make decisions. Making decisions is a lot different than just deciding to want something, or setting a goal. It’s not about what’s easy or what’s difficult, it’s just a matter of doing what you set out to do. If you succeed, great. If you fail, who cares? Decide to walk away, and decide to do something else instead. The important part is that you made a decision. 

As far as habits go, conscious decisions are how I get started. We can make decisions with the help of the aforementioned numbers, hard data, and measurable results. We can also make decisions based on how we feel, but making conscious, informed decisions about our feelings requires quite a bit of skilled introspection. Not everybody has that skill.

For me, the decisions I make that lead to habituation usually start with facts: “I need a truck. I wonder which one is easy to work on, famously reliable, is good in inclement weather, and has no wifi or cell capability to speak of?” Or: “I hear the benefits of this thing I’m not doing are great, and I wonder if it’ll work for me.” The motivation to seek out the change in either case can be a crisis (“I hear the benefits of not having a uterus are great, and I wonder if it’ll work out for me.”), or something much more benignly experimental (“I wonder if I stand more on the balls of my feet than my heels, what that will do for my footstrike and posture?”).

In the case of the hysterectomy, that was a one-time decision I’ll never be able to make again. But, a big decision sometimes takes a big crisis in order to make the mental space for a drastically different status quo. In other cases, the alternatives to choosing otherwise aren’t really choices at all… more consequences, as in the example of ignoring my gastro-intestinal problems and continuing to stuff my face with ribs and macaroni and cake and beer. In still yet more cases, a choice of some sort must be made, but the options available are similar (or similar enough) in outcome, as in how I might do laundry without access to a home washing machine. But some, like with my materially unprompted decision to take up the LCHF diet alongside intermittent fasting, are a good example of pure exercise of will and whim.

At what point does decision-making become habituated? This is pretty obvious: when “temptation” is no longer a problem, and to deviate from the thing chosen requires another conscious decision to do something else.

How do we get there? Well, that’s the rub, isn’t it?

Entire books have been written on the subject, so I’m not going to go too far down that road. How I’ve done it is what this whole post has so far been about, though, so I’ll just summarize for now: use facts (or plain curiosity) to generate motivation, manipulate your emotions to steer you where you want to go (make the Mere Ownership Effect work for you) and maintain momentum, cultivate proud contrarianism where it seems the entire world wants you to go back to what you were doing, and eventually the choice begins to make itself. Rinse, repeat.

I’ve found this to be the most effective way of starting habits, and it gets me the best results. It doesn’t always work, obviously. It doesn’t work where I had no power to make a meaningful decision to begin with, and it doesn’t work where I wasn’t really motivated to do the thing anyways. Manufacturing motivation is its own kind of difficult. I touched on it a little bit with my strategy of psyching yourself out, but there’s other methods that I’m sure a lot of books have been written about. This technique is, essentially, how I do that elusive thing called willpower.

There’s another way for this whole thing to go south, too, though: it really ceases to be a useful tool when we have a hard time admitting that we’re wrong. Why is this bad, aside from the obvious? Because having a low tolerance for being wrong is a kind of cognitive inflexibility. It’s the result of one choice, already made. You can hang your hat on choices, and I highly encourage doing so because it ensures authenticity and honesty. But if a choice isn’t working out, having the capacity to switch hat pegs keeps your mind sharp, your ego humbled, and your confidence firm.  So, the other question: how do we recognize that we fucked up, accept that we fucked up, and move on?

It starts, I’ve found for me, with… well, decisions.

At some point along the way, you have to decide that making mistakes is OK, or at least part and parcel of being a messy, imperfect, human being. And while it’s worthwhile to try and not make mistakes and learn from the ones you have made, especially where relationships or other people are concerned, it’s literal insanity to try and not make any mistakes ever. 

The corollary to this is that, at some point along the way, you have to decide that you’re not here to impress hardly anyone. If the opinions of most people you encounter over the course of your day don’t actually matter, then what’s wrong with being silly? Getting openly excited about something un-cool? Wearing that thing you like so much? What’s wrong with being wrong? Everybody’s wrong about something, and most people are probably wrong about most things.

Don’t let being wrong or fear of making a mistake prevent you from trying things and being authentic. But don’t let them prevent you from being right either. If you know you’re wrong, change your stance. But if you know you’re right, don’t be afraid to be stubborn about it either! Knowing when and how to pick your cognitive battles is a very useful skill, and making the decision to jump ship from a bad idea is one that gets easier to make every time you do it. Eventually, you realize that the world doesn’t come to an end just because you decided differently when the evidence was against you. Being able to change your understanding to match the available evidence, and be confident while also acknowledging that nobody can know everything, can and eventually does become habit. And it is one of the most freeing habits I’ve ever cultivated. Don’t dig in your heels. Be nimble, stay on your toes.

NPR has an excerpt from a book called Mistakes were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions and Harmful Acts. It may be a good read for those who want to explore the thing further:

The engine that drives self-justification, the energy that produces the need to justify our actions and decisions — especially the wrong ones — is an unpleasant feeling that Festinger called “cognitive dissonance.” Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent, such as “Smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me” and “I smoke two packs a day.” Dissonance produces mental discomfort, ranging from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don’t rest easy until they find a way to reduce it. In this example, the most direct way for a smoker to reduce dissonance is by quitting. But if she has tried to quit and failed, now she must reduce dissonance by convincing herself that smoking isn’t really so harmful, or that smoking is worth the risk because it helps her relax or prevents her from gaining weight (and after all, obesity is a health risk, too), and so on. Most smokers manage to reduce dissonance in many such ingenious, if self-deluding, ways.

Psychology Today asks the question “Why is it so vital to be right?”:

It’s curious how mightily our thoughts and beliefs defend their territory. Why is it so vital to be right? Well to begin with, if you’re not right, then you are indeed wrong, with all the accompanying sense of humiliation and failure. But is this a given? Does it have to be this way? Could we accept being incorrect without any loss or embarrassment?

I believe this fixation is more likely wed to highly competitive cultures than traditionally-oriented cooperative societies. In the latter, issues of right or wrong don’t equivalently inform one’s sense of self or identity. The ego may be shaped by other influences such as being honored, respected or altruistic. In first world cultures the drive to be right advances one in the competitive race. In the desire to get ahead this is utilized as a core value. I would actually suggest that this is a highly pervasive fixation attachment that ruins our relationships, derails our mindfulness and erodes our natural instinct to learn.

Now, don’t misunderstand me: your mind shouldn’t be so open that your brains fall out, as the saying goes. Cultivate that humility alongside a heaping dose of skepticism and stubbornness to carry you through situations where you don’t necessarily trust the intellectual honesty of the other party in interactions with others, or to get you through periods of temptation in interactions with yourself.

All in all, habits are easy to develop if we actually want to develop them. Most of the legwork involved is sufficiently convincing both your conscious and subconscious minds that the new habit is something you really, really want. Again, the only thing that motivates such a change most of the time is plain fear: a crisis situation like the one I related at the beginning of this post. But we can’t always afford to wait for a crisis to force our hand. Sometimes its prudent to manufacture a crisis, or something with just as much potential to make the mental space for something new and different by destroying part of our old status quo.

But I promise, as you get better at making real, deliberate decisions, and get better at forming habits, you will need crisis situations less and less to propel you in strange and interesting new directions. The limiting factor isn’t willpower – because what’s willpower but damned stubbornness, which is something we all have? – it’s whether the perceived gains of the new outweigh the perceived gains of the old – a kind of endowment effect. Use a little mental hocus pocus and you might find that your perception of those gains is as easily manipulated by you, to your ultimate benefit, than you could have ever imagined.

There is a lot in life that we are powerless to do anything about. Where we’re born, who we’re born to, and how much money was in their bank account being the situations that make the majority of our life’s decisions for us. Accepting our powerlessness in certain situations is healthy – we don’t have control over every facet of our existence, and to even come close to thinking we do is another kind of insanity. But accepting that there is still a lot we can make meaningful decisions about should have the effect of endowing us with a humble sense of responsibility for those things. And I think you’ll find, reader, that once you accept both your simultaneous inefficacy and power where it is appropriate to do so, that a big weight will be lifted: you’ll no longer be trying to change things you have no control over, and you’ll be empowered to take ownership of the things that were within your purview all along.

I dunno, to me that’s pretty freeing.


2 thoughts on “The Twin Freedoms of Choice and Habit

  1. Absolutely loved the write up. Sad that you had to go through all this but I am sure you are now a much stronger person both body and soul coming back from all this. This line of your just made my day “All in all, habits are easy to develop if we actually want to develop them” How very true and how many times we dont realize it!!!!


    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for reading!

      Stronger in soul, yes; stronger in body… well, I’m still working on that one for sure. And there’s really no stopping for both either anyways. ;]

      It’s quite amazing to have discovered that when a habit I thought I really wanted to develop doesn’t stick because I chose to be lazy instead. And not only that, but I also discovered that sometimes being lazy was the better choice in the long run, and that there’s nothing wrong with admitting that!


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