Know Thyself: Habits

This is the first of several planned follow-ups to my previous entry on self-knowledge.

As mentioned there, in the last year or so I haven’t had much reason to get out of bed in the morning. Literally — I was in bed until nearly noon most days, despite having gone to bed between midnight and 2am the night before. And despite all that sleep and an otherwise clean bill of health, I was usually tired. The only physical reason that I could come up with for it was a lack of exercise, but adding an exercise regime didn’t make any difference to it whatsoever. That only left a mental reason.

The knowledgeable will immediately suspect depression, but that’s not it. I had chronic depression from early childhood until my late twenties, and I know its symptoms well. I didn’t feel the least bit depressed; if anything, I was content most of the time. The only thing irritating me was that I didn’t have a programming project that I could really get into (Project X didn’t count — its difficulty and tedium kept me from getting into it deeply very often.)

I concluded that I was simply bored. And boredom is not an acceptable excuse for not doing what I want to do, in my book. So, after a few unsuccessful attempts to combat it by finding other interesting side projects to get into, I did what any self-respecting geek does when confronted with a problem he doesn’t know how to solve: I turned to the modern font of all wisdom, the Internet.

And as usual, it didn’t let me down. The top-ranked Google page for getting up early described the exact problem I had, and how the author overcame it. The trick? Habit.

The way to get up early is to make a habit of getting up early.

I had my doubts about that, but I decided to give it a try. I couldn’t bring myself to practice going to bed and getting up, as recommended in that article, but I did start setting a daily alarm and forcing myself to breathe deeply, stretch, and get out of bed when it went off.

To my surprise, it worked. After a few days, it was a lot easier to get out of bed when the alarm went off, and it kept getting easier. I went right back to sleep once, a few days into the process, but other than that I’ve been getting up at the same time for several weeks, and it’s all but automatic now. And to my even greater surprise, it feels good! I don’t feel as tired all the time, and I’m enjoying life more.

Buoyed by this success, I tried it on a couple other small things, both of which were successful. Then the big test: I tried applying this to working on Project X. There, it failed… I got some important things done, but I couldn’t force myself to work on it every day, no matter what I tried, so it never became a habit.

Conclusion: habit is a powerful ally, but alone it’s not sufficient for everything I need. Fortunately, there are a few others I can court. That will be the subject of the next article in this series, probably next week.

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