7 days ago I changed my morning routine: previously I would doom scroll with my morning coffee, but for the last week I’ve been writing my morning pages instead. I had the idea to do this for the longest time, but it is difficult to move myself out of a deep-rooted habit, until I came across this tweet:
I sort of know this already, that the semi-conscious state of the mind in the morning is precious (especially for spiritual development), but who wants to write 750 words the first thing in the morning? Most people don’t desire to do things that are valuable for us in the long term: exercise, eating better, reading books, etc. I think about this phenomenon a lot. I desperately want to be healthier, but I cannot resist things that make me unhealthy, especially food. It is very strange to be living with such a contradiction, yet it is very much part of the human condition. To know something is very different from applying it.
I was tired of doomscrolling. I suspected it was sapping my mental energy (duh), but when things seem so dire around the world, watching cute dog videos are soothing. I was desperate to look for things that are funny, inspiring, heartwarming, or something new I could learn. I could relate so much to this tweet:
For me the question was, out of say a hundred social media posts, how many are truly interesting to me? I have to scroll past a lot of noise or consume quite a bit of garbage information (like fast food, they can be quite delicious and addictive) for the few posts that brighten up my day or my soul. By then I would have been mentally exhausted, and if I’m not careful I’ll end up with an additional eye strain. The irony is, the more mentally exhausted I become, the more I doom scroll.
So I thought I’ll just try it for one morning. In parallel I am also trying to recondition the way I think about my self and the things I do. I recognised the value of simply wanting to try, even if it fails. The spirit of wanting to try is not something that is easy for me to cultivate, because it is just so much easier to roll over and give up.
Finding a true motivator
I know I’ll not be able to convince myself to do things if there wasn’t a deep enough reason for them. It wasn’t enough for me to exercise because it is supposedly good for my health. I had to educate myself on how exercise affects hormones and brain growth in order to truly keep convincing myself to do it.
Writing my first morning pages in years that day, I had a sudden insight on why I keep repeating certain behaviours even though I rationally do not want them. The part of me that is constantly seeking instant gratification is simply a small but very dominant part of me. It is that part of my brain that wants to be quickly soothed. Our brains prefer the path of least resistance, even it is not good for us in the long run. It is probably unable to evaluate results for the long run. All it cares about is to survive now. Survival now means trying to get over nasty feelings. Who cares if the brain and body becomes dysregulated? The body only knows how to send primitive signals like pain and fatigue when things go wrong. It doesn’t have the capacity (yet) to warn us that eating that donut repeatedly will lead to diabetes and heart disease one day.
When I kept reaching for reddit or that delicious carb I wasn’t making a choice. They were a consequence of automatic, default, conditioned behaviour, a consequence of the primal part of the brain. But I am so much more than my primal desires or fears. I want to be able to make choices on behalf of my whole self – the self who has aspirations, hopes; a self who desires to be physiologically well because the rational part of the brain knows that physiological fitness is the key to fulfilling those aspirations and hopes. Do I want to soothe the part of my brain who is always mistakenly believing that it is in danger, or do I want to empathise with the self who wants to live as her whole self? I don’t want to be someone who is always defined and limited by her default responses.
Developing the muscle to make choices
That is where meditation comes in. For the longest time I couldn’t understand why was meditating useful. I did find that it extended my patience and that alone added value to my life. Of course, deep breathing also stimulates the vagus nerve, and that can have multiple cascading health benefits. Some schools of meditation teach practicing the ability to observe and analyse your thoughts. From observing thoughts we can start to see patterns. When we become aware of those patterns we can try to intercept them. Building that capacity to intercept our unhealthy patterns – that is what I consider as the true ability to make choices.
Part of meditation practice is also developing the ability to bring ourselves back to that present moment. What does that mean in pragmatic terms (the “present moment” always sounded so woo woo to me)? It means that we can start to notice that we’re time travelling (thinking about the past and future), or that we’re letting our automatic responses rule us. It is interesting because we’re either obsessed with the past or future, or we are so taken by the immediate desire that we are blind to the true impact of those actions.
To be honest I barely meditate, at least in a traditional manner. But I’ve gone through long enough periods of regular meditation before, and I seemed to have developed something from them. I apply the principles of meditation to my daily life, whenever possible. So before I reach for my phone to doomscroll, I try to find that space to ask myself: do I really want to do this, and why? Even hesitating for a split second instead of defaulting to that patterned behaviour seems to be meaningful enough for me to try to divert my attention to where I really want it to go. I hope it is like a muscle I can build upon.
Working with instead of against
I used to approach trying to change my maladaptive behaviour as though I was an Asian parent trying to discipline my child. It was either through brute-force or guilt-tripping. It is of no surprise that they were unsustainable. Now, I’m trying to see it as trying to make choices for my whole self instead of that narrow part of me who is having so much difficulty with resisting instant gratification. My whole self wants to thrive, to know what it is like to feel well. That self wants to have the capacity to contain and sustain different things. I want to find room for more.
I also think it is important to have compassion for that part of me who wants and needs to be soothed. Instead of self-blame, I try to understand where are the feelings coming from. This is not easy because again, self-judgement has been my default response for most of my life.
Observations for the first week
The first day felt weird and difficult, but the following days felt easier. I thought it would be much harder, but it seems like I just need some separation to disengage my automatic behaviour. I was expecting to crave but I mostly did not.
I didn’t have extreme rules: I just didn’t want to doomscroll first thing in the morning, so I told myself I could do it if I wanted to after I’m done with the morning. The plan is to do the more mentally-taxing stuff in the morning, and once I get my meaningful tasks done I can do whatever I want.
It turned out I didn’t even reach for my phone until late afternoon, and when I did try to doomscroll it didn’t seem as interesting as before? It reminds me of how I used to add extra sugar in everything and now everything tastes too sweet to me.
I did get a lot more reading done, and also I managed to work more on this website for the first time in many months. It turns out that my hypothesis that doomscrolling was mentally exhausting me (duh) was right. I had a lot more mental energy to work on stuff, at least for now. But I need to be careful not to burn out or develop a migraine, so I am trying to take a five-minute walking break every thirty minutes with a timer on my menubar.
Will this sustain? I do not know. I’d been hopeful and enthusiastic about several budding habits but I couldn’t sustain them. Most of the time it is because I lose momentum due to a forced change of routine or a relapse of health issues. But I’ve also successfully changed several of my deeply-rooted behaviour. I think just having a spirit of experimentation – trial and error – would help. For now, I’m just pleasantly surprised to observe the differences.