Habit Tracking August: A Complete Failure

I have previously posted about a new system I have adopted for tracking my habits. In the month of July, I think I did reasonably well in sticking to the habits I have set out to adopt. My system is designed to make it easy to enter data (simply use a marker pen) and to provide an immediate visual overview of how well things are going.

For July, it is easy to see that there is a lot more green than there is red or yellow. I didn’t do perfectly but I managed to exercise, mediate and learn quite regularly as can be seen in the below image.

Alas in the last month, things seemed to have gone horribly wrong:

  • I only managed to exercise four times in the entire month
  • I didn’t manage to wake up at my desired time (5:30 am) even once
  • I only meditated five times and not at all in the second half of the months
  • I didn’t follow through with my learning (a small touch typing exercise) in the last 1.5 weeks of the months.

I think the success in sticking to my habits is a good reflection of how well I felt in the past month. I was struggling with a cold for most of the month and for the past week my wife and I went to New Zealand for business travel which complicated realising my habits.

I think it is very interesting that my ability to stick to habits correlates with my well-being. I wonder what is the cause and effect relationship here; I would assume that it would go both ways; that I am better at sticking to my habits when I am feeling well but also that sticking to the particular habits I choose makes me feel better.

I think I especially need to find a better way for struggling with a cold; maybe do some very light exercise rather than none at all. But I am also conscious that, when feeling unwell, one of the best things to do is to rest and not to stress out about all the things we ought to do.

Interestingly I think I also gained some weight in the past month. I weighed myself at the gym of the hotel were we were staying and I weighed 76 kg, which is I think a few kilograms more than I usually weigh. I am thinking if I should start tracking my weight as well as an additional metric to track how well I am doing overall.

Image credit: The Digital Artist

What Makes Me Happy?

I am currently reading the book ‘Happiness’ by Matthieu Ricard and a small exercise is presented at the end of the first chapter. The exercise is to think about what gives us pleasure and happiness. This question got me contemplating for quite a while. It appears I am not thinking very often about whether I am happy or not, let alone the causes of my happiness. I usually live with the assumption that my life is quite a happy one, unless there is something specific happening that upsets me.

However contemplating this question might not be the worst of ideas, since, as Ricard argues, being happy and content is a skill that can be learned like anything else and understanding what makes us happy seems like a very important step in getting better at happiness. Some of the things that I could come up with that make me happy are the following:

  • My wife: how I can bring good things into her life, and how she brings good things into mine, such as a wonderful smile when I am coming home from work.
  • Work and mastery: being engaged in a task in a field, software development, that interests and challenges me.
  • Beauty: encountering beauty in the natural world or of the mind.
  • Being helpful: bringing goodness into other’s lives.
  • Creativity: the ability to think and create.

I think what also contributes to my happiness is the absence of certain things:

  • Anger: at someone or something I think has wronged me.
  • Jealousy: thinking that someone has something I deserve more than they do.
  • Feeling of being treated unfairly: thinking that someone has taken advantage of me, not paid me back in kind.
  • Tiredness: feeling of having no energy to do something.
  • Sickness: feeling of not being able to do something because I have a sickness or afraid of catching one.

Thankfully I do not encounter these feelings all that often; but if I do, they certainly impact my level of happiness. Ricard calls these ‘mental toxins’.

A subquestion of the question posed is whether the things that bring us happiness could easily be taken from us. I think that is probably the case with what I have identified as contributing to my happiness. However I am not so sure if that should worry me.

I think some things, they make us happy, but they can also be taken away from us; but the happiness they bring outweigh the dangers of loosing them. I think it is thus still wise to embrace them – and ready ourselves for the possibility of loss.

Ultimately, of course, it is most important to find a deep, lasting and unassailable happiness. This I think can be achieved by finding a deeper purpose that provides us with a foundation for happiness. I think that I am still in the process of identifying this purpose for myself; sometimes I feel like that I have found it; and sometimes it seems to slip away from me.

I think it is very easy to live our modern day lives and loose sight of the question of the deeper meaning of existence. We are so busy with other things; so occupied with readily available distractions; and I am susceptible to this admittedly.

I feel like that my deeper purpose is to bring good into this world; to give back some of the blessing of the miracle of my existence. However, I am still unsure how I should go about this and also about what exactly good entails.

Thus I think I still have a long way to go on a road to deep and unassailable happiness. The question that Ricard poses is I think a very good one. I believe thinking about it has been valuable for me and I will try to make sure that I will keep it in my mind and in the process hopefully get better at happiness.

Picture credit: kikatani

Why Does Anything Exist

I’ve recently completed the book Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt. It was quite an entertaining read but also quite unsatisfactory, since I feel it didn’t even come close to giving an answer to the question posed. At most, it provided some interesting examples of philosophical gymnastics such as discussions around if existence might be created by a rule that proves itself.

I think that one of the ways in which the discussions in Why Does the World Exist? were unproductive is that they were looking for a cause of known existence. But it is unclear how cause and effect work, if there is no time. Physics seems to indicate that, before the Big Bang, there was no time; so I think assuming we need to search for a cause might be a fruitless endeavour.

More recently, I came across the article Is There a God? Stephen Hawking Gives the Definitive Answer to the Eternal Question on the popular blog Brain Pickings. In here, I found a few quotes from Stephen Hawking which I find are potentially more enlightening ways to explore the question why anything exists at all:

I think the universe was spontaneously created out of nothing, according to the laws of science.

The moment something was created from nothing would be the Big Bang. An explosion of enormous energy.

The great mystery at the heart of the Big Bang is to explain how an entire, fantastically enormous universe of space and energy can materialise out of nothing. The secret lies in one of the strangest facts about our cosmos. The laws of physics demand the existence of something called "negative energy".

When the Big Bang produced a massive amount of positive energy, it simultaneously produced the same amount of negative energy. In this way, the positive and the negative add up to zero, always. It’s another law of nature.

So where is all this negative energy today? […]: it’s in space. This may sound odd, but according to the laws of nature concerning gravity and motion — laws that are among the oldest in science — space itself is a vast store of negative energy. Enough to ensure that everything adds up to zero.

I like to think of this using a simple equation from Why Does the World Exist:

+1 + -1 = 0

This equation shows that we can create two ‘somethings’ out of nothing, as long as the two somethings balance each other out. One might of course still question: but where did the laws originate from that enable such a creation, specifically the laws of nature. As mentioned above, I think this might be the wrong question to ponder, since there can be no cause and effect without time, and we probably lack understanding (and abilities of imagination) to ponder a state of existence without time.

Picture Credit: geralt

Simple Habit Tracking System

I have long been looking for a system that helps me stick to good habits. I used a time tracking application on my iPhone and also created various spreadsheets. Unfortunately the solutions I found so far turned out to be too cumbersome to enter data (spreadsheets) or too difficult to run reports on (time tracking apps).

I’ve recently read the book Joy, Inc. by Richard Sheridan and one of the interesting points discussed was that the profiled company uses pen, paper and cardboard cards to plan, design and track their work. This gave me the idea that I could try to create a paper-based system to track my success in sticking to a number of habits.

This is the system that I came up with:

  • Create a table where the columns are the days in a month and the rows represent different habits
  • If a habit was successfully practised in a day, mark the corresponding cell as green.
  • If a habit has not been practised in three days, mark the cell corresponding to the third day yellow.
  • If a habit has not been practices for four days or longer, mark all days after the third as red.

For the first month, July 2019, I decided to track the following habits:

  • Exercise: Any form of exercise done during the day (just being active, such as walking or taking the bike does not count)
  • Stretching: Any form of stretching
  • Posture: Any attempt made by me during the day to correct and improve my posture
  • Meditation: Mediate for at least five minutes
  • Create: Work on some form of artifact, such as a piece of writing or code
  • Learn: Spend some time learning to touch type and/or to draw

This is how I tracked for each one of them:

It seems that I have some way to go until I practise all the habits I have set out to do daily. However I have also not completely failed at any of the habits and were able to practice them in 30-50% of the days of the last month. I am particularly pleased at my progress for the Learn habit. I was able to improve my proficiency for typing some tricky constructs required for programming quite significantly. Unfortunately I don’t think I have gotten any better at drawing.

Overall I quite liked this system, it was easy to follow and provided me with a good overview of how I was tracking day by day as well as for the month overall. For the next month, I will follow a slightly modified version with a changed set of habits.

Picture credit: Free-Photos

Consciousness: What is all the Fuss About?

Today I listened to a podcast from the show Waking up with Sam Harris. The topic of the podcast was consciousness and the self the guest was a Anil K. Seth. I haven’t finished the podcast yet (it is over three hours long) but even in the beginning I couldn’t stop wondering why it would be necessary to make such a big deal about the concept of consciousness.

Sam Harris said that consciousness was the most important thing in the universe since everything we perceive we perceive through the lens of consciousness. I think that is an odd way of thinking about it. Sure, for us individually, that is true; but objectively it is most likely well of the mark. The universe is such a gigantic place, filled with wonders we know of, and even more of whom we don’t. That we have any importance at all, apart from being a small piece in something large and beautiful, seems very unlikely to me. In effect, our consciousness also does’t matter much, since we don’t matter much.

I do agree that there is a need for us to find a source of spiritual wealth; to have something we believe in which is above and beyond cold, hard natural laws. However, I think it is misguided to search for this in our consciousness; to see something magical in it with significant spiritual value. I think there is a very easy explanation for the existence of consciousness; that it is something which enabled the long line of our ancestors to find better solutions to the problems the environment presented them. In all likelihood, it exists in all our relatives in the animal kingdom in a modified form; just as our brains, legs and heart.

Philosophers often make a big deal about that we would never be able to ‘know’ what it was to be like a pig, for instance. But I think we do know. Since our brain in many ways is very similar to a pig’s brain it is very likely we have the same feelings and insights. We know when a pig is afraid, we know when a pig is joyous; and we know so only because the pig is a mirror of ourselves in so many ways.

Consciousness is simply a model of the world; an abstraction. Like any abstraction it is more than the physical world but it is grounded in it. It is a wonder beyond comprehension that nature could result in such a mechanism and that our brains are capable of supporting this model. It is however undoubtedly very insufficient for the tasks we set it towards in our modern world (like trying to define consciousness); it was simply not designed for this.

We can marvel at the existence of our consciousness but we must also acknowledge that there is nothing special about it; even that it is lacking in many ways. Thus exploring our consciousness is not a path which leads to truth. Our collective insights, enabled and advanced by technology and robust methodologies, are far more valuable and a better guide for us to build a better self and a better life.

Image Credit: johnhain

Anger

We all know how it feels to be angry. We can be angry in the small, maybe about something we forgot and for which only we ourselves are to blame. We can be angry in the big, as a people who feel that others are taking advantage of us.

It is unfortunately true that to be human, means to be angry. Anger seems to be one of the emotions which emerge with higher intelligence. It is hard to imagine a mouse or lizard being angry; but a pig, parrot, dolphin or ape, they all make the appearance as if they know very well how to be angry.

It often feels as if anger brings about only bad for us and others. Many religions prescribe that we should control and overcome anger, especially Buddhism and Christianity. Other emotions such as compassion or forgiveness, in contrast, are portrayed as something we should seek and nourish within ourselves.

And it is true that anger is a dangerous emotion. Anger can lead to violence and violence rarely brings about good. However, to say that anger only brings about bad goes too far. Anger is the key emotion which drives us to fight injustice, and there is always injustice.

Anger should not be suppressed; instead anger should be seen as an energy source. If we feel anger, we can acknowledge it, we can try to understand its root and use its emotional power to propel us towards more sophisticated emotions and bring about positive change.

I tend to get angry when I feel that I am taken advantage of. I also tend to get angry when I feel that my life is constrained in a way which is not good for me. Thinking about it, this anger is more often than not unjustified. But realising that my anger was misguided often brightens and empowers feelings of love and gratitude.

I am also angry about the state of the world. That we have so much, yet use it so poorly. We don’t use our economic and technological power to make our planet better; we use it to make it worse. We don’t use it to make people happier; we use it to make them more miserable and stressed. Will being angry about this change anything? Most certainly not. But this anger is fuel for my thoughts and actions; some of which will maybe make a very small difference to bring about positive change.

Anger is like a raw ingredient out of which we can fashion our emotional world. By itself it is bitter and spoils our lives; but used with proper care it can enrich our lives and others.

Image credit: Liberty Leading the People

Velvety Chains: Social Values That Bind

Today I came across an article by Steve Biddulph and one paragraph therein really struck a chord with me:

There is something happening, in the new century, to the way we live, which again is harming our basic humanity. Every economy tends to enslave, and ours is the most effective of all, since the chains are invisible, velvety soft against our wrists and necks. We are induced to work, long hours, all of us, without respite for parenthood, or for anything like a natural rhythm in our days, and rewarded with shiny toys and the ability to cross the globe at will for shallow, glitzy experiences of pseudo-wealth. Then back onto the treadmill. We trade away our lives, and we don’t even question if this has to be so.

I have mentioned before that social systems tend to ‘brainwash’ us. In effect, they make us adopt values which are not intrinsically our own and often not in our best interests. Some social rules are enforced through violence or strong obvious incentives; think of capital punishments or tax breaks for home ownership. However, such rules are not as dangerous to our well-being as tacit, implicit rules which we adopt without being fully aware. Biddulph pointedly describes these as invisible, velvety chains.

Using the word ‘chains’ implies that this is something intrinsically bad, and to some degree it is, but not all the social rules we are adopting in this way (without us being fully aware that we adopt them) are bad for our individual and collective well-being. For instance, if we get into a heated argument with someone else, we more often than not refrain from punching our adversary in the face. Often, this option doesn’t even occur to us; although it is arguably one of our natural ways to resolve conflict. We don’t do so because we have a strong set of social rules (not just laws) which guide us to avoid violence.

However, it is in any case better for us to be aware of the rules which we adopt, be they beneficial for us or not. The particular velvety chains Biddulph focuses on though are at the heart of what is wrong with our world today. Our desire for wealth, material consumption and economic growth brings untold misery into the everyday lives of billions of people. It makes those miserable which are poor, but it also makes those miserable which are rich. Biddulph mentions for instance “the astonishing decline of mental health as even the most affluent and secure kids melt down over homework stress and exam results or perfection of looks or achievement.” Our reward for our struggles is “pseudo-wealth”. Why pseudo-wealth? Well, if we can buy an expensive car, it gives the appearance of us being wealthy. But real wealth lies within our body, mind and soul; and to increase this real wealth requires deep contemplation, fostering human connection and community; none of which are aided by a car purchase. This purchase instead only makes us move the treadmill of the self-reinforcing cycle of work hard, spend, work harder, spend more.

We need to become aware of the forces that drive our lives and which bring misery to us and others. Biddulph suggests that “it might be time to quietly, carefully, walk away”. I disagree. We don’t have to walk away quietly. We should shackle our chains with a roar. A roar of anger over what was done to us, and a roar of newfound freedom; a roar which hopefully those around us will hear and join our emancipation.

However we must also do so while preserving some of the best parts of the economic system which drives our world today. In order to house, feed and care for the huge population currently living requires intricate interaction between many different industries and countries. If this system is broken in the wrong way, misery on a global scale will likely follow.