“Non est ad astra mollis e terris via” – “There is no easy way from the earth to the stars”
Habits, habits make most of your life, if not all. We simply, cannot function without them. Just like you cannot think about breathing and digesting all the time, you cannot think about everything you do every day all the time.
Most of what you do is automatic. You don’t think when you tie your shoelaces, you don’t think when you wake up and walk straight to the restroom or drink a glass of water. You simply do it without thinking. In reality, you don’t even think about what you do every day.
These are really good news and really bad news. Why?
Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to weaken or enforce the different neural connections used to perform different activities. Think about tying your shoelaces, you do it in automatic. This is because the neural highways you use to perform such actions are strengthened every time you perform such activity. By now, tying your shoelaces has been done so many times that you have enforced a freeway of neural connections that make tying your shoelaces so automatic that you don’t even have to think about the steps of making the knot, you just do it.
This is good because any activity can become easy, extremely easy, to the point of becoming automatic. If you play the guitar enough times, you will no longer think in terms of chords and progressions, you will ascend to a higher level and think in terms of emotion and expression because the chords and progressions you need to express yourself emotionally have become automatic in your brain due to intense practice. This is a fact, this is, essentially, how the brain works. You can practice anything so much that it becomes automatic.
Great! Right? It is indeed amazing, a brain is a wonderful machine, but, just as you can become great at anything, you can become lazy and sluggish and bad at anything as well.
The bad news is that our natural tendencies are not towards enhancement and betterment of ourselves but towards the other side, towards the comfortable and easy. The bad news is that every time you make a choice you are strengthening your neural pathways. If your decisions are bad, well, you will become better and better in making bad decisions. Every single decision you make every day counts.
If you’ve been making bad choices, with food, for example, you have been “training” your brain to eat more unhealthy food. This is why it is so damn hard to change.
What is the best, most practical way then to change those pathetic habits like gorging on Instagram or 3-hour Netflix-sessions then?
Stoicism, the seed of change
“How long are you going to wait before you demand the best for yourself and in no instance bypass the discriminations of reason? You have been given the principles that you ought to endorse, and you have endorsed them. What kind of teacher, then, are you still waiting for in order to refer your self-improvement to him? You are no longer a boy, but a full-grown man. If you are careless and lazy now and keep putting things off and always deferring the day after which you will attend to yourself, you will not notice that you are making no progress, but you will live and die as someone quite ordinary.
From now on, then, resolve to live as a grown-up who is making progress, and make whatever you think best a law that you never set aside. And whenever you encounter anything that is difficult or pleasurable, or highly or lowly regarded, remember that the contest is now: you are at the Olympic Games, you cannot wait any longer, and that your progress is wrecked or preserved by a single day and a single event. That is how Socrates fulfilled himself by attending to nothing except reason in everything he encountered. And you, although you are not yet a Socrates, should live as someone who at least wants to be a Socrates.”
Epictetus (From Manual 51)
And he is right, you know he is damn right. What are you waiting for?
Philosophy is great in the sense that it makes our beliefs tremble, it gives us perspective. But sadly, just reading a quote will not make you the best version of yourself, you need to take action and more accurately, you need to change your neural pathways.
Changing your neural pathways is hard, it is hard because you have to think, you have to use your reason, and override the neural pathways of failure that you’ve enforced and have become now automatic.
I am not Epictetus, but this is good for you, because just like you, I struggle with this as well, really hard. This is the reason I write here as well, I write because I need constant reminding of the stoic teachings to keep myself on track.
The first step in changing your habits into the habits of a person that demands the very best of himself is the actual belief that you can change.
“If something is difficult for you to accomplish, do not then think it impossible for any human being; rather, if it is humanly possible and corresponds to human nature, know that it is attainable by you as well.”― Marcus Aurelius
Carol S. Dweck Ph.D., writes in his book: Mindset. that there are two types of mindsets with which people operate: The fixed mindset and the growth mindset.
A fixed mindset is static, either you are good or you are not, either you know how to perform something or not. Either you are good with math or you are not. This mindset shots itself in the foot as it cannot do anything about anything, not even try, and worst, just by thinking this way, you will be using the incredible power of neuroplasticity against you, because you will be reinforcing the belief that you cannot do something.
In comparison, the growth mindset is more malleable, it grows, it changes and develops, it is the belief in the undeniable fact of neuroplasticity. If you believe in growth, then you are going to actively look for things that make you grow. It doesn’t serve your brain to stick with the easy and achievable as a person in the fixed mindset would do, you need problems to thrive and grow, you need challenges to form new neural pathways. You don’t run from challenges, you thrive on them because you need them to grow and strengthen your new neural pathways.
The second step is taking your time.
I know you are now all pumped up and ready to demand the very best in you. You are ready to turn your life around, trust me I know, I’ve felt the same way a lot of times before.
But this approach does not work.
Don’t try to turn your life around in a second.
You may think that you are different and that with just a little bit of willpower you will be able to pull it through. The the thing is that becoming a different version of you in a day does not work because of the simple reason that you only have so much mental energy in a day. Your brain needs the automatic-aspect of your habits to function correctly and if you try to change everything in a day, you will simply overload it and you will stop doing all the things you wanted to change in a week or less.
The best approach then is to start with just one thing, maybe two, tops. If you want to make working out a habit for example, start with that and do just that for 2 weeks, without missing one single day.
Changing one habit at a time is better because you are not overriding your brain. You are changing one thing at a time and what will happen is that it will become automatic after a while. Once that habit has become automatic, you will be ready to change another one, and then another one, and then another one.
Remember, your excellence is defined by your habits, your habits are simply neural connections strengthened or weakened with each decision. The recipe to becoming the very best version of yourself, resides in changing one habit at a time, just like reading and compound interest, you will not see big results in the beginning, but with time, the compound and they become big time changes. With time, you will become able to demand the very best of yourself.
“As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.”
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