Time and Habits

I usually get my hair cut every 4 weeks. And while I don’t want to sound like a crazy person who measures time by haircuts, I’ve noticed that my haircuts are feeling more and more frequent. For whatever reason, it just seems like time is flying by with incredible speed, and the fact that I feel like I see my hairdresser all the time is just one way it’s particularly apparent. And I’ve been of mixed minds about this. In some ways, it seems like time only drags by slowly when I’m bored, so it can’t be all that bad. But at the same time, there’s a sense that life is passing me by. Has anything noteworthy happened since my last visit that I can talk to my hairdresser about? Am I better off than I was last visit? And what about my next visit — will anything be different then?

Tonight I happened to read about something interesting, arguing that the best way to make a change is to take baby steps. And as someone who can sometimes have a lot of half-finished projects, this notion, although simple, seems appealing for a few reasons.

Most simply, baby steps force you to take steps, versus sitting idly by thinking about bigger steps later. I’ve been trying to start to exercise more often for most of the year. The problem is that, for a day, I’ll be all into it. The next day I’ll be hurting pretty bad, and the day after that I’ll think “I wouldn’t want to rush things.” Then the next day I’m just busy, and the day after that I forget. And a few weeks go by before I try again.

Suppose that I vowed to do 5 pushups a day, every day. That’s almost¬†embarrassingly¬†easy. But it means that, in between haircuts, I’ll have done 140 pushups. That’s still nothing overly impressive — but the point is that it’s probably about 120 more than I have done in the past 4 weeks. The baby-steps approach keeps me moving, and eliminates the “I don’t think I have enough time/energy today” excuse. Even if I’m really run down, I can find the time for five.

But the other thing I like about baby steps is that it’s easy to go beyond your goal. Why stop after five? There’s a sense of inertia. I suspect it’s the same reason we get sucked into continuing to pay for stuff after our “free trial” runs out — the hard part’s getting started, but once you’re going, you might as well keep at it. My problem with working out isn’t that I have a hard time keeping up, but just that I have a hard time actually doing anything. But it’s hard to say no to the “C’mon, it’s only 5 pushups!” voice, and once I’ve done 5, I might as well just keep going until I’m tired. And soon I’ll have tricked myself into actually exercising every day.

I also have a whole stack of books I’d like to read, and some more that I’d like to buy and add to the stack. But it has the same problem with getting started. I want to read them, but hey, I only have 45 minutes right now, and I might as well wait until I have more time. (This, incidentally, is why I don’t like watching movies: I have to agree to sacrifice several hours of time without knowing if it’s worth it.)

But what if my goal was to read 10 pages a day? (I’d much rather something like “A chapter a week,” but I think it has to be a daily goal. Otherwise, I can put it off until tomorrow.) That’ll take me what, 20 minutes? (Depending heavily on the book — the RSpec book I’m trying to make myself read is much slower going than, say, a paperback novel, since it requires some degree of concentration.)

Ten pages a day isn’t that much. But it means that, next time I see my hair dresser, I’ll have read 280 pages. And, like with pushups, I imagine it’ll be hard to stop after 10 pages. So many nights, “ten pages” might turn into “a chapter or four.”

When you combine this with the sense of time flying by that I’ve been experiencing, I think it’s exceptionally valuable, because the little bit a day will add up fast.

Of course — lean in close, because this is the secret — this isn’t really about setting low goals for yourself. It’s about tricking my sometimes-lazy habit into developing routines. I suspect that, once exercise or reading become something I actually reliably do every day, the goals can get adjusted upwards pretty quickly. But if you ask me to commit to a chapter a day or 20 pushups a day, I’ll make up excuses why I can’t. But five pushups? Ten pages of reading? Even at my laziest, I can’t argue against that.