A note on habits from Vitaliy Katsenelson

There are three layers of thinking on changing habits:

First, the most superficial layer: setting goals or focusing on results. But if you look at successful and failed athletes, they had the same goals. Goals do not set us apart, our systems do. (By the way, the same applies to investing). In fact, goals often can be at odds with our long-term success and happiness. Once you accomplish a goal, then what? We should enjoy the journey more than the destination. Goals (destinations) do have value, as they set a direction.

This brings us to the second layer of thinking: systems, creating an environment and processes that help us achieve our goals. For me to start writing, I need to get up early. I go to sleep early. I stop drinking coffee at noon. I have an earlier, light dinner. I take a hot shower before I go to sleep. (I wrote a book review on Why We Sleep; read it here). I set my alarm clock for 4:30.

That is a system that gets me to write for two hours a day. I restarted my writing system two weeks ago. Waking at 4:30 was painfully difficult the first week. I had to force myself to wake up – that was the cost of having interrupted a system that worked. Last week it got easier. I wake up, splash water on my face, make coffee, put my headphones, hit play on my Spotify playlist, and write until 6:30.

One trick I learned from James Clear is stacking one good habit on top of another. After I finish writing I go for a three-mile walk in the park for an hour. I love these walks; I listen to books, music, and podcasts.

One of my favorite quotes from James Clear is, “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”

And finally, we have the third layer of thinking on changing habits: our identity. Your identity is your self-image, your worldview.

Clear writes, “The more you repeat a behavior, the more you reinforce the identity associated with that behavior. In fact, the word identity was originally derived from the Latin words essentitas, which means being, and identidem, which means repeatedly. Your identity is literally your “repeated beingness.”

I am the person who writes. I am a healthy person. I am the person… you fill in the blank. Eating cheeseburgers and washing them down with milkshakes is contrary to the identity of a healthy person. So, lunch at Sonic Drive-In is out if I want to be healthy (sorry, Sonic lovers).

I may have written about this before, but this story is worth repeating. I have a good friend – an orthodox rabbi. He was at my house and he told me that he had gained a lot of weight. He said, “I eat too much bread.” I told him that he needed to change his identity to that of a person who doesn’t eat bread. He was puzzled. I said, “Well, how much energy does it take you not to eat pork?” He said, “None. I don’t eat pork.” Do the same with bread, I said. He did. He called me a few months later, thanking me for the weight he had lost.

Here is another example. You offer a cigarette to two people who used to smoke. One says, “Thank you. I am trying to quit smoking.” The other says, “Thank you. I don’t smoke.” Who do you think is going to continue not smoking, the one whose identity is that he is trying to quit? Or the one who doesn’t smoke?

Another way to look at these three layers of thinking: systems are what you do, outcomes are what you get, and identity is what you believe in. The beauty of this three-layered framework is that you can completely rewire your identity (your perception of who you are) by setting goals, designing a system that is easy to follow and that works for you, and then faking it until you make it. Yes, you may be faking it. If you are 350 pounds and can barely walk up a flight of stairs, you’re faking if you’re telling yourself that you’re a healthy person. However, once you embody the behavior of a healthy person and start losing weight, it will be easier to convince yourself that you’re healthy once you get to 280, then to 250 and 200, and you’re moving with ease.

When writing was a habit, I did not have to force myself to write. Writing was part of my identity. I was the person who got up every morning and wrote. After not writing for a month, I realize that without it my brain is complete chaos. Just like working out is exercise for my body (I feel mushy when I skip workouts), writing is exercise for my brain. It is not a something I do in addition to investing. No, it’s a necessity for me; it’s how I keep my brain tuned and how I connect and organize my otherwise chaotic thoughts.

I guess now is a good time to come out of the closet and admit to myself that I am a writer. It is one of my identities. I always thought being a writer would chip away at my being an investor. Now I don’t see them as mutually exclusive, but complementary. Now that I am thinking about it, when I started thinking of myself as a student of life, I became more open-minded about the world around me.

I now realize that we need to treasure and protect our good habits and not take them for granted. Though I did not appreciate it at the time, it is clear to me now that going to the office provided structure. When I stopped going to the office, I should have mindfully created a new structure that helped me maintain my habits or at least replace one good habit with another. For instance, even though I stopped working out with the trainer, I could have walked in the park and done push-ups, sit-ups, and squats instead.

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