Breaking Habits

I am no expert in the field of human psychology, and this article doesn’t aim to be a guide, ‘How to Break Your Bad Habits’. It is a compilation of the various bad habits I have picked up over the years and my attempts to break out of them.

Time and again, I’ve had to reevaluate myself. I have sat down and thought about it, whether on my own or with my parents, and tried to come up with an answer as to why I’ve failed. The reason that has often come up is that it is due to certain habits of mine. Before we begin, let me get a few things out of the way. There is no big, clear reason for my failures. I do not suffer from depression, nor do I indulge in any sort of addiction. I have had a happy upbringing and have no problems related to family or friends. In short, I am a happy, healthy 20-year-old.

I have often met many people – whether at coaching or in college who don’t want to be engineers. They are of two kinds. One is those who accept that they need a solid background before they follow their passions, whether it is economics or dramatics or something they are yet to discover, and thus work hard and do well in academics. The others I have found often say something along the lines of “Since I am being forced to do something I have no interest in, I am unable to do well and that if I really found my passion I’d be doing great”.

While this is true, you are more likely to put in more effort and hence perform better in something you enjoy. It overrides the fact that not everything is easy once you find what you like. I was of the latter disposition for quite a long time. For many years, I’d fallen into this habit of telling myself the very same thing, whenever I was faced with a subject I didn’t like. After all, I was doing well in the subjects I liked! However, what I didn’t realise was that in doing this, I was losing the ability to sit in one place and keep working on something even if I didn’t really want to do it, even for the sake of greater good.

I wanted to be an engineer. I have had the great fortune of growing up on the campus of IIT Bombay, where my father is a professor. Thus, I naturally admired the engineers around me, and aspired to be one when I grew up. I always took it for granted that I’d graduate from there. After all, I’d grown up there, studied there, it only seemed natural I’d leave this place only for a job! However there was one little problem, I absolutely loathed chemistry. I dismissed it to be a boring subject meant only to be mugged up and focused only on math and physics.

By the time I realised that it was absolutely necessary to master chemistry to do well, it was too late! I didn’t have the ability to sit in one place and study. As a result, I performed abysmally in the entrance exam. However, I had not lost all hope and was convinced that given a second chance, I would definitely make it into an IIT.  Thus, with the support of my parents, I decided to take a year off to study again. This was a huge decision to make, to give up a whole year of my life and dedicate it completely to studying for an examination. I had to come up with a plan of action and identify my faults. Evaluating the two past years, here is what I realised:

  1. It doesn’t matter if I didn’t like one or two subjects. To achieve my dream, I would have to study everything whether I liked it or not.
  2. I had to put long-term goals before short-term pleasures. I had to prioritise on what was important for me. This meant limiting my screen time to an hour a day.
  3. There was two years worth of portions to be completed within 10 months time, so I could not afford to slack for even a single day.

You must understand that for someone like me, who had never studied more than 3 hours a day his entire life, suddenly studying 11 to 12 hours a day seemed next to impossible. One of the ways I went about this was by limiting my distractions. I kept my phone away, and all the computers had passwords. Yet I would keep fiddling with my pen, or while away time daydreaming. So, I cleared my table of everything but the book I was using right then, and a single pen. My mom had this way of encouraging me to study hard. She offered some really solid advice in the form of quotes on the walls of my room. Here are a few examples:

It wasn’t easy at first, I started studying six hours a day, then seven, then eight and before I knew it, I was comfortably sitting up to 12 hours a day just studying!

Those who have experienced it will be able to relate when I say that studying for JEE is like being in a pressure cooker 24×7. You are competing against 1.3 million children across the country, it truly is something else! Over the years I have met a lot of people who absolutely loathed this system. They hated the whole process of coaching, the competition, the pressure, the tension. While I relished the competition, even I was not impervious to the pressure. This gave rise to perhaps the weirdest habit I have ever picked up – collecting pens!

The scary thing about habits is that they are not tangible to the person developing them. It is the culmination of many days of following the same routine. There is also a sort of reward that factors in, in the form of a short-term pleasure, either by acquiring something, or doing a certain set of actions, or a reminder which triggers the routine.

There was a huge fancy shop next to my coaching centre, which sold all kinds of pens, from cheap three rupee ones all the way up to Mont Blanc fountain pens. It started off small, buying them only when they ran out of ink. Soon it developed into a coping mechanism of sorts. After spending upwards of 7 hours in my coaching class under high stress, I would spend at least half an hour going through all the pens they had and buying them two, even three at a time. I began inspecting them for ink flow, smoothness, darkness of ink, etc!

It was one of the few things that helped me relax during the day. I became absolutely obsessed with them and things came to head when I convinced myself that I had to find the best pen in order to do well. By the time I pulled myself together, I had upwards of 200 pens in my ‘collection’. The reason I mention this is because I have noticed a similar kind of behaviour in some of my friends. They read all sorts of reviews, comparisons, purchase all kinds of side accessories to help them do their work but never get down to actually doing it!

For example, I knew a guy who spent any amount of time reading football shoe reviews. He had the latest shoes, was fully kitted from head to toe, and even had an original Real Madrid jersey (perhaps the reason why he was so bad at the game!). But he was by far one of the worst players on the field at any given time.

As for my second attempt at writing JEE, I failed. Honestly, I don’t even know why. I actually studied really hard for it. My official excuse is that my nerves got to me when it was show time. Sounds like a lame excuse right? I probably wouldn’t have believed it myself. What I did grow to learn was that, just because you work hard for something and give it your all, things don’t just work out for you. You need to see it through to the very end and perform when it matters the most. Only then can you achieve success. However, there is one thing I know and that is – although I didn’t achieve my dream, I know now what the right thing to do is, which is this:

  1. To be honest with myself, and not blame anyone or anything else for my failure, because there is actually nothing holding me back. Thus, I always know exactly what goes wrong.
  2. Always have a general idea of what to do; a plan of action.
  3. I have to systematically invest in my plan by working hard every day and achieving my goal little by little.

The last is perhaps the reason why I am doing so badly right now! Those small ten minute snack breaks that stretch to one hour, days wasted watching videos online may seem small compromises at first but they add up until I find myself once again outside the examination hall exchanging shaky laughs with friends and saying “lag gai”.

I know that the points I made above are no secret. Everyone knows this, yet not everyone succeeds. Think about it. Why is it that time and again we must compromise on our dreams just because we didn’t do the right thing? If you can relate to what I’ve been saying so far, then I think you’ll understand when I say that we must stop waiting for turning points in our lives. Unless and until we decide to change, it won’t work.  We could change tomorrow, but like my mom always says – ‘Tomorrow never comes’.

So let’s change today.

Image source:

-Siddharth Rao Deb

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