Habit Lab: The Quest to Get Back on the Cushion

Several weeks ago my friend Matt Walrath challenged me to share more about my self improvement and habit forming process. He’s collecting a log of his own journey on his site. Call it a ‘Habit Lab’ of sorts. Below is my contribution to the Habit Lab and first step in my journey to get back on the meditation cushion consistently. 

Picking the Habit:
One of the critical first requirements to developing habits is to pick one and pick only one at any given moment. If I remember one thing from Charles Duhigg’s Power of Habit, it’s that the best way to develop no new habits is to try and develop a million new habits. 

This is a beautiful limitation. For overachieving, Ivy grad, people pleasers like myself, the economizing of habit formation begets a precise prioritization of what matters most. I struggle with this. After my friend let me know about his Habit Lab, I spent this past week thinking of habits I wanted to explore and improve:

  • decrease my phone usage
  • increase the number of books read each month
  • eat less on the go/prepare meals more frequently each week
  • create more down time
  • meet and engage with acquaintances more

The truth is that my general theme for 2017 is paradoxical to the themes of productivity, life hacking, and output. Why? Because over the past year I’ve recognized that for me, much like a spotlight in a dark room, I only have the ability to shed light on a specific area of focus at any given time. Energy spent on production and output has created for me plenty of extra time. What I haven’t focused on is using that surplus of time to self reflect and increase my self awareness. In other words, I am much more quickly able to add on to my plate rather than recognize when my plate is full. This has ultimately led to a feeling as if my world is one of scarcity rather than abundance.

So I’ve decided to re-develop my meditation practice. My initial goal will be to meditate once daily. At my peak following my ten day silent Vipassana retreat I was able to sustain an hour long sit each day, sometimes twice a day. I now often find myself skipping days or even weeks without sitting for even ten minutes. 

By developing a better meditation practice, I’ll (hopefully) also better enable myself to endure periods of long focus. In other words, by focusing on a sustainable consistent meditation practice, I’ll enable myself to more easily decrease phone usage and stay focused when reading books. Fringe benefits :)

Engineering the Habit:
Duhigg is a big proponent of using cues to engineer behavior (fig 1).

Figure 1


For this reason, I love listening to the same playlist when I walk into the gym before what I know will be a difficult training session. In similar fashion, when I think about some of the reasons why I’ve fallen off my meditation habit I recognize that my frequent trips for work to Seattle, San Francisco, and New York have interrupted a morning ritual that was rooted in a process that started in my own home, after first drinking a glass of water in my own kitchen. Preparing and hand pouring my first cup of coffee, staring out the window for the first minutes of the day, and making breakfast primed myself for my meditation session. In 2016 there were just four weeks out of the year where I didn’t find myself on an airplane. Just me and my good friend Delta chumming it up. Waking up in a hotel or an AirBnB changed that ritual and priming process for my meditation and slowly over time I lost my habit and practice. 

I believe this is where I faltered in the past. Because of my changing environments, I feel the need to create two cues for a meditation practice: one for the home, and one for the road. 

At home:
I wish I was so good that I could say I maintained a consistent practice for the weeks I spend at home. But I’d be lying if I did. The good news is that because I’ve engineered a meditation habit for my life at home, I can use the same cue, routine, and reward as I did before:

Cue: Immediately following my morning cup of coffee, I’ll spend twenty minutes (twenty minutes to start, I’ll play around with the length of the sit eventually) sitting on my meditation cushion.

Routine: I tend not to use my phone until after I’ve had my cup of coffee. Once I do, I’ll use the Insight Meditation timer app to accompany my twenty minutes of meditation. Directly next to my bed I have a meditation cushion and a blanket. I’m always freezing cold in the morning so as part of my routine I’ll sit down on the cushion and drape the blanket over the front of my shoulders. The Insight Meditation timer app begins with a bell (another cue) and I meditate. 

Reward: I don’t know if this is cheating, but I genuinely feel clear and safe after a twenty minute meditation. That is the reward. I don’t plan on including any other external reward with this habit. When 99% of my day is spent fielding calls or attending meetings or performing in some variation for another person, I truly enjoy the feeling after twenty minutes of indulgence in my silence. 

On the road: 
When I am traveling I usually stay at hotels. Most hotels have a surplus of pillows for one person. In fact, often times when in a hotel room I say to myself with the flow of Kanye: no one man should have all these pillows. But no more! 

Cue: I won’t have a cup of coffee to prepare in the kitchen. But I will use a glass of cold water to prime myself. I also plan to place two pillows in the corner upon first checking into the room. This mimics the meditation cushion in my bedroom and by placing the pillows there the night before I failproof myself from cheating that step the next morning. 

Routine: I intend to employ the same routine as home, using the Insight Meditation app to guide me through my meditation. My specific meditation practice is Vipassana which emphasizes a focus on the breath and body awareness. Good news: whether I am at home or on the road, my breath stays with me. So long as that doesn’t change, neither will the actual meditation routine. 

Reward: Contrary to my on the road meditation routine, this will change. Because I haven’t had a cup of coffee, I plan on rewarding my on the road meditation practice with my cup of coffee immediately after my meditation. This will usually result in a saunter down to the nearby Starbucks before I go about my day. All of this, of course, comes in addition to the reward of clear headedness that accompanies any meditation sit.

Well…I don’t have any of these yet. I am at day zero. Over the course of the few weeks I aim to use this site to document my experience. What were the unexpected barriers? Did I adjust to get around those barriers? Or did I utterly fail? Aside from accountability, I think this will help me learn how habits are either won or lost. 


Reflections on a Wedding

I spent this last weekend at the wedding of one of my best friends. I was Best Man, in fact. The weekend concluded my ninth wedding in a 12 month period. That time of life, I suppose.

Over the course of the weekend I couldn’t help but find myself thinking about the importance of communities. I thought about how these communities change over time and how one’s communities are colored by very distinct decisions they make in life. My friend is a surgeon and thus, many attendees of the wedding came from his med school or had a medical background. In contrast, the few of us from high school found ourselves talking about the same things we talked about as teenagers - indie rock bands and general shenanigans.

I was reminded of a pretty simple equation: the decisions that my friend Charles made to become a doctor and to go to med school, shaped the community he had. In turn, the communities he continues to choose to be a part of today influence the way he processes information and experiences.

Thinking back on my own life, the communities that I am a part of are a direct effect of these decisions (not an exhaustive list):

  • the decision to go to Brown University
  • the decision to play tennis throughout high school
  • the decision to pursue a BA in Race and Ethnicity
  • the decision to work at Google and Amazon
  • the decision to leave NY and move to Los Angeles
  • the decision to pursue Olympic Weightlifting competitively

I wrote this list out as a quick exercise. I find it helpful for a performance oriented workhorse like myself. While many of these decisions were made because of the achievements they promised, today I reflect on them with a focus on the communities they provided.

Thinking about the driving forces behind what makes strong communities is important because having strong communities is what makes me feel human. It’s what makes me feel explicitly connected to something that is larger than myself and thus, allows me to be more present. The farther away I feel I am from communities, the smaller my world becomes and the more I feel I need to be at the center of that very small world. The closer I am to my communities, the more space I have to be present. That is not an ‘achievement’. That is something different and it feels nourishing.