Things I wish I’d known when I was a teenager — Part 3.

Holidays are here, so I will try to describe some things that might help you in a period when you have much more free time. The form of this post will be a bit different than the previous ones in the series, but I hope you’ll enjoy reading it anyway.

Choosing what to do in free time is not an easy task for all people, not just for the teenagers. There’s so much you can do. But why do you do certain things? You probably think that you yourself decide and have full control over what you are doing on a daily basis? Let’s dig a bit deeper in that topic, because it’s actually very interesting. I really wish I’d known more about habits and how they mould our days in my teenage years.

What might help us understand these kinds of things is widely described and explained in a book by James Clear. It’s called “Atomic habits”. The author writes about how our habits are created, what it takes to make or break a habit, how the habits affect our days and much more. The thing I wanted to take away from the book and bring to your attention is what James calls “decisive moments”, as he writes:

“Every day, there are handful of moments that deliver outsized impact. […] Decisive moments set the options available to your future self. For instance, walking into a restaurant is a decisive moment because it determines what you’ll be eating for lunch. Technically, you are in control of what you order, but in a larger sense, you can only order an item if it is on the menu. […] Your options are constrained by what’s available. They are shaped by the first choice.”

Sounds interesting and right, no? If I have a habit of taking my smartphone out of my pocket and unlocking it every 15 minutes or whenever I don’t have any clear task to do then that habit is strongly influencing what my next decision will be. I will most probably choose to open one of the apps that I see on my home screen. Even if I didn’t have any concrete intention while unlocking my phone, I might find myself scrolling through Instagram feed 10 minutes later. You could say that it was your decision to do all that. But you could also say that if you left your phone in another room and didn’t let your habit of taking it out of your pocket every 15 minutes get executed then you would spend those 10 minutes differently and you might actually consciously choose what you would do. It’s just an example, but the truth is that we have hundreds or even thousands of those little habits that actually make us go on the auto-pilot for 40-50% of the day based on the research. That’s a lot! And if you suddenly have 5-7 additional hours to organise your day on your own, you might find yourself being on the auto-pilot way too much and it can lead to days when you feel that you didn’t do too many things that you consider productive or “good”. If you want to do something with it and have “good” days, you need to take action. There’s no other way. I really love how it’s presented in the book:

Media from „Atomic Habits” by James Clear

I think it’s a fantastic illustration of how our days may look like. It obviously doesn’t directly take the “weight” of a decision into account, but on the other hand it kind of does because we could say that the first choice is the most important one, the second is the second to first most important and so on. That brings us to the importance of our daily routines. Especially our daily routines and habits that we have during our mornings. What actions are you taking within the first hour of your day? Are you making sure to get off to a great start so that throughout the rest of the day you feel energized and motivated to continue getting those “good” things done? I find it really fascinating that we can be in full control of how good our days are — no matter circumstances and situations that might occur. Going for a walk with my 8-month-old daughter in the early mornings has lately become one of great opportunities that I help me nail a perfect start to my day. Besides seeing her happy face, I get to move and exercise early plus I get the natural sunlight which I won’t get too much of later during the day at the office. That’s like 3 enormous benefits of just one action and I could probably find more benefits (buying fresh bread rolls, being able to meditate when there’s no one around to disturb etc.). After such a start to my day, I feel motivated to prepare breakfast for the rest of my family, brewing coffee is just a pleasure as well, I am able to thoughtfully plan my workday and the tasks that I want to finalise today — I could go on and on.

The point is that starting your days strong can be really underrated because we tend not to pay attention to details. Especially in the mornings when we sometimes (or always?) are still tired and aren’t thinking as clearly as usual. We don’t care about starting our days strong, so we don’t care about going to bed earlier the previous day and not watching “just one more” episode of a TV show. We don’t care about starting our days strong, so we open our phone first thing in the morning, even before brushing teeth. We don’t care about starting our days strong, so we just quickly grab something unhealthy to eat for breakfast and go on with our day. A lot of these things that we tend to do we do because they’ve become our habits. So it’s important to understand how the habits work to be able to control our habits and have more of the good ones and gradually get rid of the bad ones if possible.

I am not going to rephrase the whole book here. If you are interested in this topic, I really recommend reading the whole book. But I wanted to mention two ways of introducing new habits that James describes in his book. These can be a good start for you to consider:

  • We can call the first one “starting small”. So if you would let’s say have an ambition to learn a new language during your summer holidays, instead of setting a daily goal of learning for 30 minutes, you could have a goal to learn for 2 minutes each day. The point is that we are rather lazy by nature. I used this technique to create a habit of reading every day. I’ve set a daily goal of 2 minutes of reading a book and found myself reading for at least 2 minutes every day since the start of that experiment. But what’s the best is that I almost never read just for those 2 minutes. The topic is always too interesting or there’s always just a bit more until the end of a chapter. Try it out with something and check if it works for you!
  • The other thing that I thought might be worth mentioning is what James calls “habit stacking”. So the idea is that you can use your current habits to introduce new ones. “After [current habit], I will [new habit].” In order for it to work you need to identify some habits that you have. I’d just make a list and decide on using one or two of them to implement a new habit. One example could be (something we’ve started doing at the office with some other colleagues): “After I press a button that starts making coffee for me, I will juggle 3 balls that are placed next to the coffee machine”. It’s nothing huge, but we implemented this one without knowing that we are using this technique and it worked like a charm. Now I can juggle 3 balls and I read that it’s good for my brain so that’s kind of cool.

That’s it for now. I hope I at very least inspired you to pay more attention to details of your behaviour during the day so that you can hopefully identify things or areas to improve. Good luck and thanks a lot for reading!

Oskar Pilch