How I form habits: the musical experiment edition

I like change. I like to try new things. I like to meet people. I find it difficult to form new habits. I have high ideals I don’t always live up to. I like watching people interact instead of taking part in large groups. I like my comfort zone. I don’t like change.

One month ago while listening to classical music at work I remember thinking the following: “I’m happier when I listen to this kind of music. I don’t want to listen to anything else. I wonder if I’d go crazy if I only listened to classical music and other uplifting* music for a month.”

* My opinion, naturally. I am fully aware that others may not find the Mormon Tabernacle Choir uplifting.

This is not the first time I’ve tried something I thought was kind of crazy as a 30 day trial. In May 2005 I attempted (successfully) to go to bed and wake up early for a month (see here, here, here, and here). In April of this year and again in July/August I lived on a low-information diet in an attempt to simplify my life (it worked). Also in July/August of this year I tried, mostly successfully, to be sugar-free. I’ve also attempted several 24-hour read-a-thons.

While I have not stuck with everything I have tried, I do not regret these experiments. I have learned a great deal from each one and recommend trying it.

Though my experiments aren’t mind-blowing or record-breaking in any way, the responses I get are insightful and can be broken down into a few basic categories:

  • Curiosity: people want to know why
  • Incredulity: people don't think I can do it
  • Apathy: people don't care
  • Excitement: people want to hear all the details

Most people express a combination of these four emotions, the intensity of each varying wildly in each mixture. While I cannot be sure what makes someone upset over my choice to not eat sugar for a month, I have a hunch it comes down to a fundamental attribution error. People assume that because I have chosen to do something crazy I must actually be insane or dogmatic or masochistic. Perhaps I come across as judgmental. Perhaps every time you ate a cookie during the month of August you heard my voice in your head saying, “that’s what, 3 pounds right there?” If so, I’m sorry. I certainly didn’t say that and I wish I hadn’t give that impression.

I really doubt anyone thought that though. The point is that we’re all really bad at attribution. You probably don’t know the reasons I have for what I do (even if I’ve explained it to you), and I don’t know why you react the way you do.

The point of this isn’t to necessarily to defend myself against those who commit attribution errors (and against whom I commit attribution errors in return). The point is that everyone is different. My way of making habits may not be your way of making habits, so you shouldn’t necessarily try to form new habits the way I do.

But hey, if other things aren’t working you might as well try the way others do it.

"Abstinence is as easy to me, as temperance would be difficult." -- Samuel Johnson, quoted in "Memoirs of the Life and Correspondence of Mrs. Hannah More", edited by William Roberts

Abstinence is easy for me. So is indulgence. If I can accomplish a goal by one extreme or the other, all the better. Most often, though, a short period of abstinence (sugar) or indulgence (classical music) is all I need to establish temperance going forward.

So try it, if you want. If not, I don’t care.

P.S. I almost forgot. A month passed without ever really thinking about the classical music goal. I did it, though I wasn’t strict about it. I went swing dancing and listened to jazz music. I didn’t plug my ears in grocery stores to avoid hearing that other music or anything like that. 90% of what I listened to, though, was classical music. I expanded my classical music collection. All in all it went well and I’m glad I did it. I’ll probably continue it, though perhaps to a lesser degree.