Side Note Haiti: Habits

There are certain patterns that I have developed, unconsciously and unconscionably. Some of them have been harmless 99% of my life. Like the routine and mindless manner in which I flush a toilet. And some of them, I now realize, have been a bit more insidious, like the way in which I form impressions of other people. One of these seems a bit flippant and the other a bit more serious. But depending on the context, they can both amount to missteps with very real consequences. So both examples can be used to make a case for mindfulness. And I also, for once, have some suggestions about how to fix things rather than just going on endlessly about the problem.

Being in Haiti has taken me out of my normal routine. So this country is once again, the source of my insight.

The human condition is such that many important tasks go completely unnoticed. We have evolved neurological and physiological mechanisms to that end. If you had to remember to take a breath, it’s unlikely many of us would be here today. If you were to focus on every little thing, the day would be fragmented to a degree that would render a person completely ineffectual in modern life. But it never hurts to take stock of things, unless you’re living in active denial. Then maybe get some counseling first. As a quick, and goofy little exercise, look down at your shoes. Do you remember which one you put on first today? Do you always put the same one on first, or just whichever one you find? Tomorrow, if you can remember to remember, put one on first and pay attention to which it is. Then the next day, do the opposite. It will feel different. Only slightly. But it will be noticeable. It may even feel a little “wrong.” Patterns inform the texture of your life, the way you feel about a given moment without you even realizing it. And this is something you have done mindlessly, if you are 40 years old, probably more than 13,000 times. But which shoe on which foot is really inconsequential except as an exercise in paying attention, or as an illustration.

So how could the process of flushing a toilet matter? In the US, in most places, it doesn’t. Or at least we fool ourselves into thinking that water will always be there, unlimited and clean, despite strong evidence to the contrary. But change the context a bit. Say you have to carry two buckets to a pump well, wait in line, fill the buckets, then carry them 3 stories to a tank on the roof. Suddenly you have an investment of time and energy in that water. It’s not unlimited. It can’t be taken for granted. Now imagine you have the incredible luxury of a flushing toilet. One catch: the flush handle doesn’t return to a closed position on its own. You have used and flushed a toilet probably 4 times as many as you have put on a pair of shoes in your lifetime. And if you live in the US, the whole toilet mechanism faithfully does what it’s supposed to do the vast majority of the time. So the pattern of flush and walk away with confidence is ingrained. Therein lies the problem when the context changes. For the exercise, most days, I would make ten or so trips to the roof with two buckets each time. Each bucket weighs between 45 and 50 lbs. full of water. I would never fill the tank. But I would put a lot more water than I would use in a week. It would usually take about 2 hours. Of course, the greater issue is that of simply wasting the water. But I’m just trying to illustrate that this was consequential on a personal and communal level.

And then disaster would strike. I would flush the toilet as I have tens of thousands of times before, and walk away. Every bit of water that I had collected would go straight down the pipes. I would wake up in the morning to wash my face and hands to a dry faucet. After a couple days, it was no longer a mystery. I tried for a few days after that to just remember to return the toilet handle to a closed position. Memory works great. Until it doesn’t. And no matter how many times I succeeded at remembering, the one time I didn’t would be the only time that mattered. Dry faucet.

Brute memory wasn’t working. And I realized it was a problem of habit. I read a book about this a few months ago, about the neurology and power of habits. At the time, I didn’t realize the book would have such a strong impact on my daily life. The question was, how can I interrupt this habit that I’ve built up over 40 or 50,000 repetitions. And how can I interrupt it immediately. Because as much as I like physical exercise, the monotony of carrying water to the roof was wearing on me given that I was turning it into a fool’s errand with my oversight.

The answer was simple. And the answer was the same answer to most of life’s problems: duct tape. I took a piece of duct tape and put it over the handle on the toilet. I haven’t forgotten once since then. The simple act of adding a step to the process of flushing a toilet completely reset the habit. Now it’s something I think about. It’s not flush and go. It now goes: remove duct tape, flush, what the fuck do I have duct tape in my hand for?, oh yeah, return handle to closed position, replace duct tape, water available for washing in the morning.

I’m not a total idiot though. It wasn’t only me. The kids around here will use the toilet and leave the handle down. Same end result. I can hardly get mad because I repeatedly made the same mistake. But the duct tape confuses them enough that they make me come fix it. Two problems solved. One solution. Duct tape. 100% success.

Your bad habits are no different than the innocuous habit of flushing the toilet. You can change them. You would be hard pressed to find a habit more repeated than toilet flushing, though the reinforcement (emotional, chemical, psychological) may be a bit stronger. Be it smoking, watching too much TV, or your addiction to japanese fish porn (I may be projecting a bit there), these habits persist because simple willpower is rarely effective. The habit loop bypasses your ability to even access willpower. You have to find a way to interrupt the normal, muscle memory, neurological pathways that allow you to cascade effortlessly from a trigger to the resolution of the habit. Unplug your TV and hide the batteries to the remote in your closet. The two extra steps of plugging it back in and locating batteries will give you enough time to consciously determine whether you really want to watch TV. TV isn’t bad. But it’s probably not good to watch it from the time you get home from work until the time you go to bed, neglecting to exercise, cook a healthy meal, or learn to play chess. Maybe duct tape can be used to interrupt the smoking routine as well. Just duct tape your pack of cigarettes like a christmas gift. And then you can’t mindlessly perform your routine. You have to fight through all that duct tape or go to the store and buy another pack. But at least you will be afforded a moment to think about it and make a decision rather than just exhibit a mindless reaction. As far as Japanese fish porn goes, that’s too big an opponent for anyone to take down. Just give in to it’s sweet, scaly, slippery embrace.

These are just suggestions. Use your own creativity. Some things will work better than others. But if you still want there to be water to wash your face in the morning, you need to keep trying until you find something that works. As an added benefit, you will be developing creative and critical thinking ability, something of which I think we could all stand to use a bit more.

The greater insight that I alluded to will be posted shortly. Probably tomorrow. I have extra time to write everyday now that I don’t have to fetch water.

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