Three Concepts I Wish I Understood in College

A reader of mine recently tweeted at me asking how, especially when in the midst of deppression, one can do little things to reach larger goals. I thought his question was a good one, particularly because I’ve spent the past 4 years trying to discover an answer. I’ve already written a post about my tools to stave off depression, and this post can be read as a sequel to that one.

I was an epic hot mess in college. There were many reasons for this: I had recently suffered a severe trauma and wasn’t getting proper treatment. I was struggling deeply with my sexual orientation in a small Christian college. I was, like a huge number of other students, chronically and delibitatingly depressed. I am also deeply learning disabled. College was one of the darkest times of my life – a period when I felt absolutely powerless.

With all of this stacked against me, it is no wonder that, after my senior recital in 2012, I took a four-year reprieve from being a student, delaying my graduation. I’ve dedicated those four years to getting my life back. I wrote a lot, I battled my depression, I came to terms with my sexual orientation, I became certified as a yoga instructor, I went through a series of painful but ultimately life-changing relationships, I found my partner, I became assistant manager of a local business. A lot has happened.

Now, as I am finally on the verge of graduating this summer, some eight years after I first enrolled, I thought I would reflect some on what I have learned that has helped me regain my life – things that I wish I had been taught as a highschooler and a college student.

1. The Habit Loop

I learned about the habit loop from Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit. The basic idea is this: do something enough, and it will eventually sink into a deeper, more primitive part of the brain that manages habit, and it allows the higher brain to focus on other, more important tasks. This is why you can be lost in daydreaming or thinking about supper on your commute to and from work – your commute has sunk to a primitive part of your brain, while your higher brain can be off fantasizing. The habit become effortless and thoughtless.

First, there is a cue – something that tells your brain that it is time for the habit loop to begin. This can be a time of day, an emotion, a sound.  Then, there is the routine – the habit itself. Then, there is the reward – the prize that tells the brain it’s worth doing again.

I use the habit loop for productivity, and I use it to help change unhealthy habits. I quit smoking by realizing that my cue for smoking was less a need for nicotine and more a need for solitude and quiet, so I inserted a different routine (reading a book, doing yoga, going for a run,) while keeping the same cue and reward. I stay productive by keeping a simple habit every morning: finishing breakfast. Then, thoughtlessly now, I sit down to whatever task I have before me that morning.

Perhaps the most helpful skill I’ve learned is utilizing what Charles Duhigg calls Keystone Habits. Keystone Habits are small habits that create a butterfly effect in your life – they generate a ripple that allows you to adopt more habits, and a healthier life over time. This is of great import to sufferers of depression – we may not be to apply for a job, finish school, or write a novel, but we might be able to meditate for five minutes, make our bed, or have breakfast. Such miniscule tasks, when done deliberately, can be a sort of magic that transforms one’s life over time.

A few of my own keystone habits: using the Todoist App to keep track of my life (because of my learning disabilities, I need a “bionic brain” to stay on top of my tasks for me) keeping a diet and mood journal, and reading Tarot every evening.

2. Victor Frankl’s Question

This is something I learned from Donald Miller over at Victor Frankl, the author of Man’s Search for Meaning, would have all his patients start the day by asking a question: “If I could do today over again, how would I do it differently?”

This is a mental trick, a way to bypass our habits and regrets, and a way to reframe the day. Usually, when I start the day, I will tell myself, “If I could do today over again, I won’t push myself too hard and I will stay at ease. I won’t feel guilt over little things. I will choose to enjoy today, because today is good.” It’s little, and it may seem silly, but it really does help, after doing it over and over. It helps me think less in terms of my deficiencies, and what I “should” do, and more in terms of what I can do, and how I can take care of myself.

3. Deep Work

Deep Work is a term coined by Cal Newport in his book, Deep Work. Newport defines Deep Work thusly: “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”

This sounds intuitive and simple, but in this day and age, it isn’t. Cal says the current standard is “shallow work,”: “Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”

Deep Work is how I write one post a week, how I practice yoga daily, and how I’m finally getting close to graduating, all while working fulltime. I always assumed that distraction made my life easier, made the burden of work more bearable. I’ve eventually realized that distraction is exhausting work, and it grinds me down, and makes productivity a sort of torture.

My personal method for engaging in deep work is as follows (and this is another thing I learned from Donald Miller) I write a to-do list the night before. The list can be no more than three things, and each is a primary project that demands my full focus. Each morning, I have an app on my tablet that blocks all social media till 11 AM, so I won’t be tempted to wander away like Alice into facebook and twitter. Each primary project lasts about 30 minutes to an hour, but the amount of work I get done in that short amount of time is equal or greater to the amount I get done for the rest of the day.

We have a misguided belief that all hard labor – especially over the course of many hours – is good labor. Nothing can be further from the truth. Staying focused for 30 minutes is far more productive that flogging yourself for 3 hours.

I believe that Deep Work is a kind of magic – a circle of silence that is necessary, not just for creativity, but for mysticism and transformation as well. Deep Work is a sacred space  where the future is created, like the inside of a star that cooks and expells all the contents of the universe.

  1. Hey there.

    Finishing School is so very important, and I applaud you. Funny, it took me 34 years, and a year clean and sober, to ponder going back to school. which I did, and that was successful. I did not know what that felt like in my early life after high school.

    I understand the “habit loop.” For a long time, I was stuck in the bad habit loop, as well, I was stuck in the idealistic, all about me, immaturity loop as well. I’ve spent the better part of 15 years working on the “Good habit loop.” and that has changed my life.

    I just read Victor Frankel’s book, Man’s search for meaning. I love his words that, “He who has a why to live for can bear any How.” I learned that a long time ago, and having a why, saved me from a serious sick death from Aids, when I was supposed to die. My mentor gave me a WHY every day that I came to work. And I lived. Miraculous.

    I heard Cal Newport interviewed on The Art of Charm, by Justin Harbinger. And he talked about the book, which you referenced above. He has some serious lessons to impart. That was a good read as well.

    Hang in there. Celebrate this academic victory. You deserve it.


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