Resolutions: How do we form habits? And at a lower level, how do we control what we like?

“When you see patterns in everything, you appreciate the beautiful thing the world is”


Our daily lives are structured in a cyclical fashion. We achieve feats to greater satisfaction and better outcomes when we apply that cyclical mentality. A poor illustration of this is in motion. A “linear” motion (say a man with his leg-ediz benz) between two points is contrasted in both speed and ease by a “cyclical linear” motion (say a man with his bicycle) between said points. Everything around us shouts a similar pattern. Time. History. The world around us bows to that. If we’d excuse imprecision, we may choose to see the shape of the world as a reflection of that. The solar system is an actualization of that. By that, I mean the cyclical pattern. Seasons alternate. And the harsh cold of the winter gets reshuffled through spring to summer. And summer through autumn to winter. At its extreme, we can easily get short sighted by the intensity of a weather condition. We may get impatient and fed-up. But a grand picture of the seasons puts things to perspective. The patterns are ubiquitous and by now, perhaps other concepts have filled that head of yours. Growth and death. The tick in the second hand of the clock as it completes a minute. On some degree we have mastered control over our environment. The question lies in extending that mastery to ourselves.

Can we control who we are and what we do?
I think that’s the intended target of resolutions. Again, our lives have been structured in a cyclical fashion. We have repeating patterns of days, weeks, months, years, and centuries. At every turn, we are given a chance to redeem ourselves so to speak. To restart. To deconstruct and re-evaluate. Because life can be difficult. So we have save points, like in games. For some, it is Ramadan, for others, it is the New Year. But generally, there seems to be an ineffectiveness in application that’s prevalent. These resolutions hardly ever work. And a week after New Year / Ramadan, or 10 days for the more committed ones, we return to whatever we set out to drop or drop what we wanted to pick up.

Why is that and how can we change that?
If we consider a human being in that cyclical fashion, we can underline “action” as an integral part of what becomes of him. We act. Even when we do nothing. And from that line of reasoning, habit is at the heart of almost all our actions.
We are creatures of habit. There is no denying that. And we enjoy doing things we like. What we enjoy form patterns that mature into habits. Our habits define who we are and ultimately what we do. It seems we are largely at mercy to our inclinations and habits. The question lies in the active discarding of old detrimental habits and acquisition of new ones.

How do we form habits? And at a lower level, how do we control what we like?
Acquiring or discarding a habit is a slow gradual constant-effort process. If we evaluate the chain of forming habits, we can easily identify our thoughts as the most-basic building block. What we think defines what we do. What we do translates into habits. And well, habits…
What is important here is that we can, with great discipline, discard old habits and acquire new ones. And the first step is to think about it. To discard, one must understand his/her trigger mechanisms. And his/her routine. Most times, simply changing that routine does the trick. Other times, we may have to will ourselves to firstly break free from the idea in our minds, then slowly withdraw. In all cases, a change in routine helps a great deal. For example, if hanging out with certain friends is the trigger, cut them from your life. If being alone for too long is the trigger, find a way to surround yourself with people of role-model like characteristics. The issue of a role model is very important, but let’s not digress.
To acquire new habits is as difficult, if not more. The first battle is convincing yourself to love that new act. Register in your mind that it is beneficial and you are committed to acquiring it. Then break it down into tiny bits and pieces that can easily be integrated to your life. The goal here is consistency. Consistency is a virtue. It is the most important thing you can hope for in this situation. Then find a feedback system to help evaluate the journey so far and for possible later expansions to fully integrate it all. The feedback system maybe a weekly exercise. And the act may be split into 3 times a week. Don’t take too much at a time. You can make a checklist to keep track of your activities. Something simple to monitor your progress. If your activities are daily in nature, you can consider making a list every morning of what you want to do and reviewing that list at the end of the day. Having faith in your ability to keep track in your mind is one of the reasons resolutions fail. Or so I think.
In a summary we can address the following in hope of forming better resolutions and avoiding its traps:

Why do we need resolutions?
We can better appreciate the reason by examining the definition. Not a standard definition of course.
If the human system is observed through the lenses of diminishing return and a cyclical worldview background, we can see human endeavour as a roller coaster of sort. Forgive my use of that. Let’s use the analogy of chakra. For anime people, I’m sure the picture has painted itself already. Let’s think of life as a series of missions. And at regular intervals, we must recharge and build up our chakras. Then we go out to a mission, and if we don’t die, come back exhausted. And our chakra all spent. Different people have different chakra control. Some exhaust theirs easily. And hence the crashing of resolutions after a week. Others learn, through great discipline to extend their stamina.
Resolutions are akin to building up new chakra. Life is full of chakra demanding missions. And we are forever in a cycle of finishing one mission to start another one. So we have these check points, where we rebuild our lost energies. Our chakra.

Why resolutions fail?
If we put aside the habit argument for a little while, it is obvious that our approach to resolutions is an activity bound to fail. From the description, we usually make ambiguous/vague general statements that are not actionable. Other times, the scope is ridiculously wide that implementation becomes impossible. For example consider this popular statement as a resolution: I want to be a good person. The trouble here lies in the definition of a good person. Even when we can successfully put up a subjective description of one, the fields are way too stretched to guide a fruitful resolution journey. So we end up abandoning the task a few days into it. Even to say I want to be a better person has similar problems. Or I want to have better grades. Instead, say, I want to pray subh on time or I want to have better grades in mathematics. The overall vision maybe to be a better person or a better student through some certain act like praying on time or having better grades. But at implementation stage, precision is necessary. Narrow the field. Make the result observable. In summary, be clear, accurate and precise in your problem definition.
The others are mostly poor practices which can be summarized by our inability to commit. We easily get distracted. We have no documented account of our goals and progress. We usually start too big and end too quickly. We are hardly ever consistent. And there is usually too much gap between two save points. For example, spacing your save points to be one month apart is a little too much. Consider reducing the time to a week.

How to stay true?
In addressing the problems, we have proffered a few solutions. We can itemize the solutions in the following:
Clear and precise definition of objective
Short and long term goals
Start small and build

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