Preserving good habits

A habit is, by one definition, “an acquired behaviour pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary”. While acquiring habits takes effort and is quite hard, losing them is easy and can happen surprisingly quickly.

Some habits are often built because of the people around you. And if in the wrong company, previously held good habits can get lost.

This happened to me recently. And although I had a faint realisation while I was losing this habit, it only fully hit me when I had lost it. To prevent this happening again, I have to remind myself to not just actively seek the good from people around me but also shun the bad.

Double the effort, double the reward.

Learning from religion

Alain de Botton gave a very interesting talk at TED. He tried to do what few dare – mix religion and atheism. He called for Atheism 2.0. There’s lot of food for thought in his talk but I’ve decided to do something new with situations like this one. To the many ideas that got thrown at me, I am going to apply my two ideas deal. According to that deal, I am going to share one idea from the talk that I feel very convinced about and one idea that I felt completely repelled by.

Repetition is a necessity

Botton claims that in a secular world we are taught lessons once and are expected to remember them for a life time. Instead, religion understands that our minds are like sieves and they expect us to repeat important life lessons over and over again.

I feel convinced with this idea. Religious or not, people tend to make very similar mistakes in their lives over and over again. I am sure you’ve come across older people who seem to make the same common mistakes that we young people make. This phenomenon has made me wonder many times whether our ability to learn drops so sharply as we grow old that we need to make those mistakes again to remember the lesson we’ve learnt already before.

It seems that Botton’s claim holds a good explanation for this phenomenon and moreover, it also makes me think about a better way of keeping a track of life lessons. It seems to me that as an atheist and a rationalist, I would benefit from something like a self-written guide to good living. A document that I can keep tweaking as I go ahead in life but also something I can refer to on a regular basis to refresh the many important lessons that I’ve learnt.

I also believe that the key to better living is forming better habits. This ‘guide’ could be used to help form these key habits.

Bringing dogma to education

Botton’s thoughts on how university education should be restructured by learning from religion repel me. He claims that currently universities around the world treat us as rational adults who need information and data to be able to understand how to live a good life. Whereas, all major religions treat us as children. Religions believe that ‘we are only just holding it together’ and that we need help. He says that we should bring back sermon style teaching where words are meant for changing lives and not just for giving information.

This idea repels me because, in short, what he is requesting us to do is going to bring dogma to education. Universities are places where people come to learn from their own experience rather than get told what is that they should do. They face opposing ideas and must learn to be able to draw their own conclusions.

The world is a very complex place and not even the combined knowledge of all religion, philosophy and science can yet, accurately enough, set guidelines of how to live a good life. It is definitely much better to let people figure out whether they need help rather than overwhelm them with ‘help’ that Botton thinks is the right help for them.

Best of the two worlds

I am not against the notion that there are certain things that religion does well and that it may well be possible to have the best of the two worlds. Yet, I think that the best of two worlds will be different for different individuals. A one-size fits all isn’t the way forward, and Botton accepts that too.

The Role of Habits

The key to better living is forming better habits. Leo Babauta’s now famous blog Zen Habits started with that motto. Forming new habits or getting rid of old habits is difficult and we know that. Past experiences have taught us that lesson. But it has been shown by many that a period of about 30 days is enough to form new habits or break old ones.

End of the diet and the lessons learnt

Friday was the last day of my four-week slow-carb diet experiment. It has been a great experience and I have learnt many lessons which I plan to implement in my diet for the future.

Stats first: I now weigh 66 kg which is 2.8 kg less than the day when I started the diet. My total inches have gone down to 129.0 from 133.5 (lost 1 inch on the thighs, 2 on the waist, 0.5 on the hip). Even after taking experimental errors into consideration, this is definitely a good enough reduction.

cheat day breakfast

Before I talk about the lessons learnt, I have to admit that I have allowed myself a few deviations from the diet in the last two weeks. I’ve had a few chocolates (two or three in the week) and beer twice in the last two weeks. These weren’t allowed on the diet as I had planned but I happened to have them anyway. Apart from these confessions, I have stuck to pretty much everything i.e. no fruit, no milk, no white carbohydrates and no sweetened drinks.

Here are the lessons then:

  1. Sweets: I need tighter control on my sweet tooth. Normally, I need something sweet after every meal even if it’s something small. Then I tend to have something sweet in between my meals – cookies, chocolates, biscuits, muffins, etc. Now on, I am going to be careful about these. Try to keep to having only one sweet thing a day, if I can manage it.
  2. Breakfast: Before starting the diet, I rarely had breakfast. I was usually in a hurry to get to the lab and that meant skipping breakfast was an easy option. Not any more. A healthy breakfast (spinach and sweet corn is awesome) does plenty to keep me active till lunch time.
  3. Low carb: Too much carbohydrate isn’t good to maintain weight. I am definitely ok to skip french fries, bread and rice. I will have roti but only if I really want to. I will also be restricting my intake of sweetened drinks allowing myself only fruit juices.
  4. Snacks: As I realised at the end of the first week, on this diet I had to have five meals. Usually, my snack used to be something sweet but in this diet I instead chose to have carrots or peppers with humus. I think it’s a much healthier choice. I eat more but take in the same number of calories.
  5. Cheat day: I think it’s a great idea. I will keep up with it. On Saturdays, I will allow myself to gorge on whatever I like (a cheesy pizza, yum!). On the remaining days, I will try to keep my carbohydrate intake low.

One of the important aspects of doing this experiment was to understand the difficulties of keeping control on my diet. I have to admit, it’s hard. I don’t think that a low-carb diet is something I can keep forever even if that’s a healthy alternative. But it’s doable. I know if ever I add those unnecessary kilos to my body, there is a way to get rid of them.

But more importantly, I know the cost of losing just 3 kg is substantial. So it’s better to keep an eye on the diet. Eating habits are amongst the  hardest habits to change. Now that I’ve already spent four weeks trying to adopt a diet, it should be easier to keep the lessons in mind and to continue with the habit that I’ve formed.