Gaining Meaningful Momentum (and How to Stop it When You Need to)

“Boredom is … a vital problem for the moralist, since at least half the sins of mankind are caused by the fear of it.” -Bertrand Russell

We are creatures of habit.  This is true in our love lives, our diets, our jobs, our emotional states… heck, even when we feel like going to bathroom runs on habit.  Many people lament this.  They think to themselves “If only I didn’t do things habitually, I could quit doing all this bad stuff on auto pilot!”  But this is incorrect.  A great deal of good comes from being able to use our tendency toward habit to our advantage.  In fact, every great thing done can be reduced to the daily habits that brought it into being.  So it is not worthwhile to whine about our habit nature, instead we must embrace it and learn how habits are made and broken in order to bring about positive change in our lives.  Let’s take an example.  Recently I have started blogging, and I have already formed habits related to this activity.  One is that my paragraphs are huge and difficult to read, another is that I often feel that I “should” blog even though there are literally no negative consequences for not doing it.  Weird right?  What approaches could I take to solve these problems without using a goal centered approach?

First, for paragraphing I could start chunking smaller ideas together as opposed to taking the entirety of a literary idea and using each sentence in the paragraph to back up the main point.  This behavior is what I like to think of as “vestigial”, left over from another activity that I used to do, but now apply where it doesn’t belong.  A prominent example in my life would be when I first moved back into my parent’s house for real.  Every depressing thought and feeling I used to have in high school CAME FLOODING BACK for no good reason after about a month or so of being back.  I went manically depressed, until I realized… “That guy doesn’t live here anymore”.  In fact, he doesn’t live anywhere anymore.  He is, for all intense and purposes, dead and remembered fondly.  “Past Josh” for those that watch “How I Met Your Mother”.  In that case, as well as the paragraphing one, insight into why I was doing a behavior led to it changing.  I felt like crap because that is how I used to live here, and I type in huge paragraphs because that is how academic papers are written.  Knowing that allowed me to just get over it and think/act (thinking and feeling are acting… I promise) differently and reduce my suffering.  You would be surprised how many undesirable behaviors can be changed this way.

However, those behaviors were easy to change because they didn’t fulfill any real human “needs” that I had.  Vestigial behaviors are easy to change.  You just become present to them, think about why you do them and BAM, take life up a notch.  If behaviors fulfill needs, or heaven forbid create NEW NEEDS that need to be filled (drugs can do this, so can destructive relationship behaviors) then it can be more difficult to change them.  One way that works well for me is still to firstly determine the real, deep, human need that is being fulfilled by the behavior I want to change.  Boredom is a big one.  The desire to be socially accepted is another that I have to tackle quite frequently (this one is a trip, and we all deal with it, some of us much more than others).  Since it is unlikely that I am going to stop desiring being accepted, or be able to sit in a blank room all day and not feel bored (this is actually a thing to work toward if you are a minimalist… which I am if that isn’t clear yet.) then I take a new approach.  Instead of removing the ultimate trigger to the behavior, I replace the behavior with a new positive one that fills that same need at the same time that the old behavior occurs. For example, I used to play mafia wars.  That game is retarded.  I stopped by realizing that I did it because I was bored, then when I was bored after that I would do anything else that I felt good about that fulfilled that need.  This took time, and energy, and patience, but now I don’t play that stupid game anymore.

The mafia wars thing also taught me another lesson.  That sometimes you can remove a behavior’s ability to fulfill a need, and thereby make it less powerful and easy to change. Before I stopped playing that game, I found a program online that would play it for me.  That’s right.  You read correctly.  My computer would play a game for me.  A game…  For me.  Games, which are for fun, which computers can’t have.  Anyway, that decision (as irrational as it was… I learned later that no one is rational at all anyway, so that didn’t matter) allowed me to stop playing for a long time, which was key because then I never played just out of habit.  What I did start doing was managing the computer program out of habit, but then it slowly dawned on my what a huge waste that was and I stopped.  But the program took some of the sting away by removing the ultimate cause of the behavior: “for mindless fun”.  It turns out my need for efficiency is greater than my need to not be bored… go figure (robot alert).

So those two things work great for me for behaviors that I know are a waste and I can’t really remove the ultimate causes for… but what if the behavior creates its own ultimate cause?  Drinking too much soda, for example.  OK, let’s examine this action for  moment.  Why do people drink soda to start with?  That is different for everyone, but a lot of it has to do with the way we are raised I think.  People who grow up around soda drinkers tend to also drink soda. This was certainly my case.  When I was going to Snow College, I drank about 6 or 7 Mountain Dews a day.  It was so bad, that I eventually wore down my teethes resistance to acidity and gave my self pretty considerable acid reflux.  I don’t lament it though, or blame myself, I had no idea at the time it was having such a negative impact.  When the time came though, it was really hard to give up.  It felt like there was this new driving need in my life “the need for mountain dew”  right up there with “the need to be accepted by peers”.  This need was self-created, that is the first realization.  I drank it because I had created this need, and because I created I could also un-create it.  This knowledge is key.  You aren’t a product of your past habits, they are the product of a past you.  “Past Josh” had screwed me over, now it is up to “Present Josh” to deal with the cards he has been dealt.  Other than the aforementioned ways, one thing that helps when dealing with a powerful addiction is to take it one step at a time.  Go from 7 Dews, to 4 Dews, to a Dew a day, then every other day, until it is weak enough to just kick altogether.  Another thing that is huge is to take on a new behavior that you value more that the current one.  For me, this was Drum and Bugle Corps.  It is impossible to march and drink soda all the time.  The summer of ’09, I had one MD, and the next day I felt like such trash that I almost developed a residual sickness to the beverage.  Corps stayed, Dew went.  It was easy choice when put into that perspective.

Presence has a lot to do with it.  Before you do the behavior, take a quick second to take a deep breathe in and a deep breathe out.  When you pause and listen to the moment, you can sometimes see how silly what you are about to do is, and how it is not the way you want to live your life anymore.  This is the method for behavioral change I recommend the most, because presence will not only allow you to change behaviors you already know are causing you and others suffering, but will also point you in the next direction you need to go in to reduce the general suffering of your life.  That is how I build momentum for activities, like the one I am doing now.

When I sat down to write this, I had a thought.  “I should blog”.  Then, that thought turned into a feeling: self-evaluation and judgement.  Then, because I just happened to be there to recognize that I feeling, I remember that I do this for fun.  I have few readers, and I don’t advertise.  My blogs are about stuff that care deeply about.  This is just an enjoyable activity, and I was adding a behavior to this that literally served no function.  This realization allowed me to pull my favorite trick out, “Just write once sentence, write the title”  So I did. Then I wrote the rest of this all in one sitting.  Why?  Because I freakin love to write.  That is how I write poems too.  I often just think of the last rhyming couplet, and then write the poem backwards from the end.  Two lines turns into four, which turns into two stanzas until I am done.  This is also how tunes are written.  And academic papers.  “Just write the thesis.” or “Just work on the conclusion for 5 minutes”  the work is a self-reinforcing behavior because it is fun, but starting it is not.  Momentum is an important concept for behavior change, and starting it can be just as difficult as stopping it.  But just as necessary!  Many of the ideas I mentioned earlier can be used in reverse to gain momentum.

Sometimes it is difficult to start a process that is goal oriented because the goal fulfills a different need than the process.  Many musicians start playing to become famous and soon realize that while you are practicing, no one is paying any attention to you at all.  This goes against the natural order of things, and will not last long.  For me, music these days is a way to communicate with my friends and one of the ways I reach the present moment and the peace that is there.  The process of practice fulfills these needs, and therefore is not difficult to start or maintain.  If you are progress oriented, it is difficult to improve because you can become easily frustrated with how slowly improvement comes.  Change the reason you play, and you will play more often (and achieve those old nasty goals, even though you don’t care about them any more… you are too busy having a great time!).  Real quickly, while I am thinking about it, the two blogs I learned most of this stuff from are zenhabits.net and Ramit Sethi’s blog: IWTYTBR.

Often though, there are behaviors we have such an adverse reaction to even THINKING about doing that we are blocked significantly from doing them, even if we are truly motivated to get them done.  Applying for jobs, going to the gym, starting a diet, all these are great examples. But I have a better one.  “Mitch, you have no idea how hard it is to quit smoking.  Yes I do.  It is as hard as it is to start flossing” -Mitch Hedburg (who died on April Fool’s day… weird right?).  Flossing is stupid.  And it used to be that all my cavities were in between my teeth, because I never flossed.  This is irrational.  It costs a lot of money to not floss, and almost no money or time to do so.  But literally everyone hates it.  How do you stop hating it? You turn it into a habit.  How?  Floss just one tooth.  That’s it.  Every night, or morning (whenever you brush most often, try to link those behaviors) floss one tooth.  If you continue flossing that is a bonus.   But you are required to floss the one.  Do this every night, and you will pretty surprised to find how quickly you manifest the whole behavior.  Starting a behavior that you “need” to do by chopping it into digestible chunks is an essential practice in my book, and one I would not be able to live without.  I am positive I have known this intuitively my whole life, but being present to it has made me happier and more productive than I have ever been before.  That’s it! You are the gardener, go get rid of some weeds and plant some neat flowers!  They all start from seed!

“Though we all know what boredom is, most normal adults do not experience sheer boredom very often. We are stressed, rushed, and worried, but we are seldom purely bored–in part because we are so stressed, rushed, and worried. Time without anything we must attend to usually feels like a breather, not like a monotony. To get a feel for what sheer boredom is like, we must hearken back to childhood. Children and adolescents are frequently bored, so bored they can hardly even stand it. Their perfectly normal developmental need for constant stimulation, for exploring and ongoing learning, is often thwarted in a world of long trips, rainy afternoons, and study halls. In childhood, boredom can be excruciating, like a chronic spiritual headache, or a powerful thirst with no beverage to be had. It can hurt so bad that the poor kid feels like yelling out loud, or throwing something noisy at a wall. Extreme boredom is arguably a form of pain.” -Martha Stout


Goal-lessness and musical practice

Once I was a Blue Knight.  This was in 2009, and I went to the audition camp in December, and the trumpet tech said something that camp that would take two years to really hit home for me.  Kevin, at the end of my audition, said to me “It takes as long as it takes.”  It didn’t make sense at the time, but that statement made me feel like anything could be done.  I know now why.  When you place expectations of progress onto your musical practice, it alters the way you work.  You change from one tactic to another rapidly, you move on from tunes before they are internalized, you avoid working on things that you are bad at because “There isn’t enough time!  I have to get to all this other stuff!”  Your goal (getting better) is standing in the way of making true progress because it is altering your practice.  Imagine with me a quick scenario.  You think you don’t know enough tunes.  So you set a goal.  “I am going to learn x number of tunes by y”  and for a while you are very gung-ho about learning tunes.  Perhaps you even learn tunes the entire duration of y!  But most of us, by the end of y haven’t learned the x number of tunes we said we would, or we have taken severe shortcuts to our learning in order to “meet our goal”.  But the whole thing was absurd anyway.  Learning the tunes wasn’t the real goal, getting better at playing music was.  Now we just have more tunes that aren’t totally absorbed, so soon they will fall by the wayside of our subconscious, never to return.  Let’s take a moment and consider an alternate approach.  Let’s say we have the axe out (getting the axe out to begin with can feel like a very goal oriented activity for many musicians)  and we think to ourselves “what shall we practice?”  the answer is clear, though it may be clouded right now to you by some goal.  You practice what ever the hell you want to.  If you like Giant Steps, you work on Giant Steps. If you like Bach, you work on Bach.  If you like R&B, you work on R&B.  The moment will tell you what you want to practice, if you are listening to it.  Many people who are goal-oriented with music deny themselves this fundamental right under the impression that they can work against the grain and become famous or rich if they just learn everything that people like these days.  The goal is flawed.  The true “goal” is to reduce suffering in your life, and if you play a brand of music you aren’t fond of, chances are you are playing it for and with people you aren’t fond of, and being around people you aren’t fond of increases the suffering in your life.  PLUS getting paid to do ANYTHING changes the way you approach it.  In my life, I learned harshly that doing music professionally is not the catch all boon you think it is when you are in music school just because you can afford a sandwich.  Music as a job is mostly just like having any other job with the added garbage of someone telling you have to play even when you don’t feel like it at all.  We do enough of that thing inside our own heads.  It takes a great deal of mental energy and practice to learn to deal with those feelings.  There is a simpler way.  Go a ahead and just play Giant Steps and stop caring who is listening and judging.  If you want fully diminished scales on every dominant chord, then play em!  If you want to cake the whole thing in blues, DO IT!  Who cares?  Is there a legitimate, correct way to play?  No! There is only music that hits you and music that doesn’t, and those two categories are as fluid and flexible as the tide.  And you aren’t god.  You don’t control the tide.  You only control how open you are through practice, but in the present some musical phrase is trying to speak it self through you.  Just let it.  I promise that it will feel great.  And if it feels great, it is more likely that you will spend more time doing it.  And if you spend more time doing it, it is more likely that you will learn to go slowly, and get better.  The material of you practice should be to fulfill a different kind of goal: none.  You aren’t practicing to get better when you do things this way.  You don’t practice for the gig you don’t even have yet.  You do much less scale-chord/ calculus oriented practice (GOOD!).  You practice for practicing’s sake.  “When you are breathing, just breathe”  -Thich Naht Hanh (more on him later I think… I try not to have goals so I don’t really know).

The main problem with this approach is that the world is filled with people who have incorrect conception of how happiness works.  You aren’t happy because you have things.  You aren’t happy just because your needs are met.  Without meeting your needs, it is difficult (if not impossible) to be happy, but your needs are actually pretty easy to meet, especially if you are sitting at a computer right now.  As a result, our needs being met, most of us try to keep from getting bored.  This is the cause of most of life’s problems.  So we invented a little game to keep ourselves busy, unfortunately the game is constraining.  Goals have a tendency to change as time goes on as well, and then they invite comparison to the world you expected and reality.  Comparison invites doubt and self-loathing and a great host of horrible feelings.  No goals means less comparing.  Also, no goals means you free to pursue what ever project interests you.  Whether it be the drums or the harmonica or poetry or drawing, you will no longer be forced to be “just a saxphonist” or “just a painter”, the world is your oyster.  It is also faster to make progress this way, and more permanent.  Practice is the act of changing and creating habits.  Most of our daily lives are comprised of habits.  Our habits in the present are what truly build the future.  Smokers don’t die because they smoke one time.  Alcoholics don’t get liver disease because they drink one beer.  Lonely hearts aren’t lonely because they skip one dating opportunity.   We do it every day.  And we justify it.  If only we were here to see it… we would see how ridiculous it looks.  “I will go to class next time, I am too tired right now” or “I don’t have time to keep repeating this exercise!  I Have to get to new stuff!”  When in truth, there is nothing but time.  Endless, wonderful time, but you are bored.  Stop being bored.

This can seem like a selfish way of looking at things, until you realize the following.  Every great musician you can think of operates this way.  Miles was famous for not caring at all about what you or I thought about the way “Bitches Brew” sounds.  And that is one of the many reasons people like that album so much, it feels like Miles knows something you don’t!  Like there is some secret in there that makes the whole thing palatable, and he knows what it is but you can’t hear it!  He is so centered and confident with his purpose and his musical vision, that all kinds of forms and notes that widely considered “wrong” sold a great many copies.  John Coltrane did nothing but change people’s minds about which rhythms were the “right” ones.  When he plays a bunch of notes that, when transcribed, have tens and fourteens and fifteens above them, he is so familiar with them that they just sound like regular ‘ol eighth notes.  Nothing special.  He has been friends with those rhythms for years.  You have phrases and songs and harmonic choices and high notes that ARE DYING to become good friends with you.  But you ignore them for the sexy girls.  Which would you rather have, a meaningful relationship that removes a great deal of the suffering from your life or a hot girl for just one night?  The issue here is the same.  It is more attractive to play things for others, and to place expectations on the future.  We want others to see us as “starving artists” in order to feel that we have taken the acceptable path.  There is no acceptable path.  For every path you take there is a HUGE number of people that hate hate hate what you are doing.  Screw ’em.  It’s your life and you need to “get right with yourself” -Sonny Rollins.  And part of that is admitting that you love polka, and playing polka until you cute ‘lil tuba tongue bleeds.  It is like Steve Marcus said, “Improvisation is a garden.  You can plant whatever you want in your garden.”  He also said “You too” after I told him he had nice hair.  He is gone now.  So is Joe Zawinul, and Michael Brecker.  Precious irreplaceable gardens.  But yours is just as precious, just as unique, just as valid, even if pretentious music folk like me sneer our noses at you.  We have a bad habit of critically analyzing every little note, and we need not to.  The word itself, analysis means to separate and destroy.  Where is creation in that?  No where.  You need not know at all to create, and you need merely go to any poor town in any poor country to see that, and see the happiness and contentment it brings.  Peace is created, not found, just like freedom and happiness.  We are so stuck in the thought that we are going to “find freedom” and purchase happiness with drinks and fast food meals and movies.  But we can’t.  Just like you can’t buy friends, you can only be friends to them.  That is all there is.  Freedom is right here, right now, and you needn’t put it off any longer.  The future has you and me in chains, but we needn’t be like this.  It reminds me, selfishly, of a poem I once wrote.

John Johansen was a man,
Eating his daily bread,
When suddenly a murderous plan
Formed in John John’s head.

John Johansen took his time
Planning his murder out.
No precious face or death bell’s chime
Would give Johnny any doubt.

John Johansen left no detail
Uncovered, untouched, unturned;
“Oh soon I will set my sail,
My foe will see what he has earned.”

I watch and wonder,
Thinking suddenly of a priest
And they who govern least.
The thought comes up
That men aren’t free
Not because of christian cup,
Oh wishful blunder…
We just choose not to be.

So John takes his hurried thought
Swiftly to the murder’s place,
Building quietly a rage quite hot,
But not to show it in his face…

Because a free man
Must be void of any plan
For good or ill
Or any bill…
No monk will ever stand
Darwin’s question grand.
John Johansen though,
He’ll be at the final show.

I take my gun in hand
(My thoughts too weary spread
“Huh, guns are manned”)
Now John Johansen’s dead.

Boy, I was bit of a lament heavy 19 year old huh?  Any way, that is the end of this post.