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Elul 5783 Postmortem

A postmortem on my attempt to change my habits over last Elul.

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Last Elul I decided to try to formally set goals for myself and document what happened. Here’s are my thoughts on the results of my experience trying to change my behavior over last Elul. The details of the changes I was trying to make are posted here. The basic list was as follows:

  1. Wake up and daven early.
  2. Read a mussar (ethical teachings) book for at least 10 minutes a day.
  3. Keep up with daf hayomi.
  4. Don’t lie.

What Went Well

Here are the things that went well with the experiment:

  1. By and large, I was able to keep to the program throughout the period I commited to (through Yom Kippur). Since the behaviors I chose were ones that I think are good, this itself is a good outcome.
  2. The increased focus on honesty has lasted, I catch myself in process of obfuscating the truth, equivocating, or changing details of events - and stop myself from lying, more often than before, due to this exercize.

The Upshot

While I was able to change to my behavior for a significant period of time, not many of my habits have changed. Lasting long term change is hard. But I did make some progress and learnt some things for the next iteration. Here are some of the insights I’ve learnt.

We Have Bad Behaviors For Good Reasons

Let’s take waking up early (#1). I would like to wake up early every morning. It is a good practice. If I go to sleep too late, it is hard to wake up early. I often go to sleep late at night for good reasons. There are three ways I can wake up early. I could wake up early and go to sleep late, but only a certain level of sleep deprivation is sustainable for any extended period of time.

I can override all the good reasons to be active at night - and go to sleep early anyways. That is certainly how I did it over the Elul period. This way of doing it, in my experience, is very stressful.

Another way to do it is to change my surroundings and scheduling to make it that I can do the things I used to do at night during the day. This would be great, but it takes more wisdom and insight, and requires an ability to negotiate what you can change and what is immovable. There are many things that I have no power over when they happen. Each situation needs it’s own negotiation.

In order to negotiate effectively, you need to quantify things like - how important is it really that I wake up on time? For example, most people would agree that wanting to wake up at 5am is not a good enough reason to sleep through the night while one’s wife is in labor - or to remain in bed if someone has a medical emergency. Most would also agree that staying up until 3am to binge watch Netflix is not a good reason to wake up late on a regular basis. But everything in between is wherein lies the rub!

Is it ever OK to binge watch Netflix after a particularly stressful day?
How much bingeing is warranted?
What about if a friend from America (7 hours behind) really wants to talk to you about something important (but not urgently time sensitive)?
There’s a lot of gray area here, especially if you don’t have a really good sense of how, and how much you prioritize the virtue of being an early riser.

I think this may be why the honesty one (#4) stuck better than the others. It was a repeat. I had had a year to grapple with how important honesty is for me.

I’m Not Reading The Right Mussar (Ethical) Books

I tried to read a very practical mussar book about waking up early. Reading about how important it is to wake up early, how bad it is to wake up late, demonstrating the folly of not waking up early, giving practical advice about how to wake up early etc. got old really, really fast!! In the end, I felt like I was reading a book full of “bla bla bla bla bla bla bla”! The reading itself felt like some sort of punishment, and I didn’t have the urge to open the book once since the experiment. I need to read something more intellectual stimulating and engaging if I’m going to make up habit of trying to edify myself ethically.

Do One Thing At Time - Then Increment

When it comes to behavioral changes like this, it’s very hard to change 4 things at once. Even though this sounds like the most obvious, I think this is the hardest. It’s hard because, I think to myself, perhaps I’m capable of more, and if I am, why should I limit myself to doing just one thing? Making an honest and objective assessment of your own limitations is important, but it’s not a simple thing to do and you’ll never do it perfectly.

Instead, I think it more makes sense to just pick one thing, and track your incremental progress in that one thing over a longer period of time. That way you can adjust your expectations based on previous performance, instead of deep introspection. I think this is what I will do in my next experiment.

Most of these insights are not super counterintuitive and some might even say they’re ‘common sense’, and yet, here we are! 😅

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