We are a few weeks into 2022, and amid scary war-driven headlines, pandemic aftershocks, and the demands of everyday life, the majority of us have walked away from any New Year’s resolutions. While it is easy to lose short-term hope for peace, positivity, and progress, I know that the best changes unravel slowly. Global human rights progress and even everyday cooking benefit from small efforts towards a larger positive purpose. A slow-cooked risotto, a gently raised child, and a delicately watered plant thrive from a patient approach. Our personal habits, too, grow from our desire to make our lives just a little bit better, a little bit different day after day.
We are not generally content with the way our lives are; our self-help book craze reflects this desire for change. Last year, the book Atomic Habits was a best-seller. Before that, The Power of Habit. The whole idea of small changes is not new. We are now a few days into the month of Lent. While I do not subscribe to any religion, I am always open to practices that encourage self-development. During the month of Lent, Catholics give up some-X-thing in the name of God. That X can be something well-loved, like chocolate or mindless swearing, or it could be alcohol. The practice reminds me of the few times I practiced fasting during the Islamic month of Ramadan.
What do Lent & Ramadan have in common? First, of course, both are punctuated with a feasting holiday. Lent has Mardi Gras before it, that all-out celebration before a month of disciplined sacrifice. Ramadan ends with Eid, a three-day festival of overeating and family time. Both of these religious practices are reminiscent of our new-aged habit hacking experiments. These short exercises in discipline can profoundly affect our daily lives. They offer the opportunity to mold our character and behaviors through a vital purpose and with relatively easy training in habit change.
Short-term experiments have brought me long-term benefits. I have developed a sense of gratitude, a commitment to writing, and an alcohol-free existence through short challenges. These exercises work because they start off with a determined purpose, are for short periods, and leave me with a sense of accomplishment. In addition, through these small shifts, I have gained a bigger appetite to work towards better self-control and the trust in my capacity to build from minor changes.
The Gratitude Jar
I did not realize then, in 2015, that an empty mason jar could change my life. That year, I spent Christmas with my (then) boyfriend’s family in their enormous Charleston home. For Christmas, my ex-boyfriend’s mother gave each family member an empty mason jar with a set of instructions in it. The task: write down things you are grateful for over the year and stick them in the jar, then, on the following Christmas, open up the pot and read your recollections. I followed the instructions in earnest. I found myself taking moments to jot down sunsets, kindnesses, and kisses. When I shared these moments with the family the following Christmas, we re-lived the joys I recorded together. Beyond that, I noticed a change in myself. I found greater awareness in my day-to-day activities. I became attentive to brief moments of grace and luck. It reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut’s story about Uncle Alex; the moral was to stop and realize, “if this isn’t nice, I do not know what is!” Even today, and primarily through the pandemic, I found space in my heart to notice and enjoy what is beautiful, romantic, and meaningful. Having gratitude is a precursor to any happiness. For that, I have this initially empty gratitude jar to thank.
The work of uncovering my inner artist is still ongoing; it started through daily morning pages, a required part of the 12-week course in Julia Cameron’s The Artists Way. In early 2020, I lived in my less than 200-square-foot apartment in Tokyo. Just as the string of pandemic closures and restrictions shrunk my world, I started this inner journey to expand my horizons. The morning pages, a daily writing practice, gave me room to grow during the maddening and dark times of 2020. I never imagined calling myself an artist. But through the morning pages, I learned to recognize an under-appreciated sense for art. Through regular writing, I realized I had an opportunity to look at my life and see it as a drawing board. I could honestly touch what was working and what could be improved. My social circle shrank without the regular routine of going into work, but my inner life blossomed. The practice of writing regularly, particularly in the morning, has opened me to deeper realms of my inner life. From this course and the morning practice, I sprang into energizing projects (TokyoGround & this blog, among others). I leaned into my introversion and found strength there. I have the small task of morning pages to thank for this significant change.
Just as good habits can grow slowly, my casual drinking sneakily became a norm. Eventually, I realized that drinking had become a fixture of my life in Japan. For the sake of experimentation, I began doing a dry January in 2019 and 2020. Each time, I marveled at how my energy and my skin improved during the dry months. Then, in 2021, dry January turned into dry February. I knew experimentation had developed into resolve when I turned down a glorious aged bourbon among friends. Though the setting was perfect, in the company of my Tokyo family, in a winter log cabin and with the background of heady Tom Waits, I knew that if I could resist a tipple then, I could resist any time. I decided I no longer needed to have a drink to enjoy myself in that cabin. I found the strength and courage to turn down that last round from my practiced resistance. In so doing, those few dry months paved the way to 14 months of abstinence.
The Next Challenge
My self-improvement method involves taking tiny steps from gratitude to writing to abstinence. Habit hacking starts with a small move driven by a significant purpose. Though my first introduction, from the gratitude jar, was an accident, it grew on my past appreciation for Ramadan. In a way, those old religious practices seem a lot like our new-age hacking experiments and challenges. Though I’m not too fond of sweeping and broad commitments, I enjoy the challenge of tiny steps. Beyond Lent & Ramadan, I look to take my hacking into new realms.
I have a pending challenge to try. The 21 day-no complaining challenge is next on the to-do list. My college study abroad teacher called me Llorona, Spanish for whiner. I suspect completing the 21-day no complaining exercise will be good to throw off that ignominious title. A month of Lent or Ramadan can nourish an extraordinary power even without the adjoining religious beliefs. Minimalism, eco-consciousness, and even global progress are accessible to us. With the power of a strong why, we can commit to choosing one small step after another.
I love this idea: What is your personal Lent or Ramadan? is question we can all usefully ask ourselves.