Actions to habits


Back to the thought to destiny theme, this third installment of the series is about action to habits.

The previous posts about this topic:

Thought drives action.
Action forms habit.
Habit creates character.
Character becomes destiny.
~ Swami Dhanurdhara

When we repeatedly do an action again and again, it becomes a habit. A habit is like a freeway on the brain, an express route. When an action is not a habit yet, every time we want to do the action, the brain has to go through a few processes, just like going through normal road with red lights, speed bumps, intersections etc.

They say it takes 21 days to form a new habit, and some also say it’s one month, 6 weeks, etc. I don’t believe in one magic number, it really depends on our own unique brain, mind, situation & condition. Consistent repetition is the key.

To help the consistency, it helps to tie the new action with an existing habits. Lets say we want to develop a new habit of drinking more water. Choose an established existing habit, ideally is related to the new habit we want to develop, and tie this new action to that existing habit. Example – drink a glass of water after brushing teeth in the morning. After doing that consistently for sometime, the brain will form association between morning teeth brushing and drinking a glass of water, and the action will become more like routine, which is in other word, a habit.

That sounds easy, yes? Then why is it so hard to start good habits and stick with it?

One problem I noticed is that often the new habit is too big, it’s not actually a single action. In other words the new habit is too ambitious. Or maybe not very well defined. Example of a non-effective habit statememt, still with the drinking water thing, is something like this “drink more water every day”. It’s not effective because it’s not measurable and not specific. We don’t know how much have we drank and how much more we have to drink. The previous example of drinking a glass of water after brushing teeth in the morning is measurable (1 glass), and time-specific (after brushing teeth in the morning).

Try breaking down that new habit into small chunks, to several single actions that we can actually act on one at a time. And then choose one action and start with that. When that one is established as a habit, choose another action, and so on. With the drink more water example, after the morning one is established, add another habit like drinking a glass of water after brushing teeth in the evening.

I learned a lot about habits & action from these two blogs:

Head there for a wealth of information about creating and sticking to good habits and letting go bad ones.

Do you have any tips for creating & sticking with good habits? Do share!

Thought to action


We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.
~ Buddha

Have you ever experienced “What was I thinking” moment?

You thought something was a good idea and you signed up for it. After sometime passed, you hardly could believe that you actually thought that was a good idea.

Real example – something I just did last Sunday. When the registration for Jakarta Marathon 2015 opened, I thought it was a good idea to sign up for it and that I will commit to train for it. I ended up not training properly and it turned out to be a slow, arduous and hot marathon. And during the course my mind kept saying, like a broken record “What was I thinking, doing a full marathon in Jakarta? Don’t you know that Jakarta is hot? And air pollution is bad?” and so on. (I did finish it, with a worst marathon timing of 6 hours 22 minutes)

On the other hand, have you ever experienced “Awesome! I’m so happy I thought of it!” moment?

When you have a good idea, and you decided to pursue it, and then the idea manifested into something real, how great the feeling is!

I had this thought when I met this special yoga teacher “I want to learn yoga more than just asana” because he showed that yoga was so much more than asana. I never get to meet that teacher again. After a few years more of joining many variety of yoga styles, I didn’t find the breadth and depth of yoga like that teacher showed, and finally I took a 2 years Diploma of Yoga course from the school where that teacher came from. That course gave me a solid framework to learn more – and since then I met many wonderful teachers whom I always learn something from, and I realized that the key to learning is always come empty and never afraid of asking questions.

So I learned yoga more than just asana, I learned how to instruct a yoga class, and I also aspire to share yoga more than just asana. Now I have people who are looking into doing yoga more than just asana coming to me. I have a weekly meditation group where we practice pranayama, meditation, and discuss yoga-related philosophy.

Some people asked me, how did you make the jump? From a corporate employee to become a yoga instructor & meditation facilitator?

It all started with a thought. And then followed by an action (series of actions – but there’s always the first step).

Often what happens is that the thought is so abstract, humongous, it was overwhelmingly huge, and we don’t know where to start, and the inertia is so strong that it’s easier to just stay where we are.

The key here is to identify an action that we can do to get the ball rolling. To start moving. To beat the inertia.

I learned this from the book Getting Things Done by David Allen, on how to just identify a ‘next action’ item from a project. And project is anything that requires more than just one action to finish. Example: cleaning the bed room is project, because it requires a few steps:

  1. pick things up
  2. wipe all surfaces
  3. mop floor
  4. put things strewn on the bed to its proper place
  5. change bed sheets
  6. etc

When we are not clear of what the next action is, we procrastinate. Yes, that big bad P word. We procrastinate because we thought the situation is not ideal to do something. In the clean bed room example, things are all over the place, so we can’t start doing what’s on our mind when we thought of cleaning (eg sweep the floor). And then we just give up the thought of cleaning the bed room altogether.

The above example is pretty simple, yet this concept can be applied to any projects no matter how big or complex – just divide it into smaller sub-projects, and keep breaking it down until you identify the next actions.

A useful next action list will always start with a verb, and quite specific, example:

  • Call Mom re Dad’s surprise birthday party
  • Look into selling cabinet
  • Buy eggs
  • Read chapter 4 of the text book
  • Email boss re holiday leave
  • Write a draft post before Monday

And so on. Once an action item is done, usually it will generate a new situation/condition/feedback, that will in turn generate more action items. One action followed by another action, that’s how we progress.

So there, everything we do started with a thought, and it’s all within our power to translate the thought to action. A useful skill is knowing if a thought is a data (for reference), a project (with an outcome in mind), an action (do it, or delegate it, or schedule it), or something that you don’t need (trash it).

Up next – from actions to habits.

Image of a Buddha statue at Borobudur Temple – taken by myself November 2014

Thought to destiny


This is something I heard in a lecture recently.

Thought drives action.
Action forms habit.
Habit creates character.
Character becomes destiny.
~ Swami Dhanurdhara

So the notion “Change your thoughts, change your destiny” is actually correct, because thought becomes action, action becomes habit, habit becomes character, and character determines destiny. The key here is the process in between thought and destiny: action, habit, and character.

Thoughts are the basic building blocks. Thoughts are always there – it’s as inseparable from the functioning living brain as heartbeats is inseparable from of a living heart. Can we control thoughts? Yes – it is actually one of the few things that we are in control. How to control it? This takes training and practice.

Untrained mind go all over the place and the resulting thoughts are very random. One of the mind’s main function is survival, and thus the untrained mind will go to the default survival mode, where it operates based on external stimuli, and react accordingly to the stimuli. Good stimuli – come closer. Bad stimuli – avoid. Example: apple pie (good) – come closer and eat it. Snake (bad) – avoid (fight or flight). This basic process is key to survival, and our ancestors who could come up with timely appropriate reaction were the ones who survived. This opportunistic and paranoid tendencies were present again in their offsprings (us) –  and the ones who weren’t opportunistic nor paranoid didn’t survive. So we all inherited this attributes. The untrained mind, operating on survival mode, works wonderfully when we were living out there in the wilderness where scarcity of food or becoming food to other animals were live or dead situation. In this modern world, this untrained mind doesn’t work so well.

Thoughts produced by the untrained mind revolves around pseudo-survival situation… and usually it’s in the form of worrying about the future, or evaluating and thinking about the past. Instead of being fully in the present moment, the untrained mind was busy with “What ifs” scenario and keep producing thoughts that are a few steps a head of the current situation.

Can we change how the mind works? Yes. How? We can train it, and we can make sure the mind only take in good stuff.

Just like the body can be trained by exercise, the mind can also be trained. One of the most effective way I know to train the mind is meditation. In meditation, the mind is trained to focus on one thing. The mind is like a projector – and thoughts are frame by frame pictures projected. Meditation is keeping the projected pictures stays the same. It is not about eliminating the picture – as long as the projector is on, there will be pictures; but we train it to project the same pictures again and again.

The projected picture itself is affected by what the mind consumes. If we let bad things come into the ears (eg gossip, negativity) – then the projected pictures could be affected by it. If we selectively only put positive things in, then the projected pictures tend to be more positive as well. So if we want good thoughts, surround ourself with good things. Good music, good books, good people, good art etc.

These two things – training the mind and making sure mind only consume good stuff, is absolutely within our control. We can’t control what happen outside, but we can control our mind, and thus we can control our action towards what happen outside.

Image: Close up of The Thinker by Todd Martin