Tsundoku and Kaizen

Tsundoku (noun)
Buying books and not reading them; letting books pile up unread on shelves, floors or nightstands.

I came across this word while browsing the internet the other day, and it stuck out to me. I think partly because I bought several books while studying for qualifying exams to reward myself once I passed, but they’re mostly still sitting on my bookshelves and nightstand [to be fair to myself, I’m halfway through one and I read very slowly]. I also think it stuck out because I’ve been interested in the idea of “wanting to want” for a while and I believe it’s related–at least for me.

Many of us have an idea of who we want to be. For some it may be in the form of a very clear vision and set of ambitions. For others, it might be a vaguer notion of “the ideal me.” We may find our inspiration directly from role models or we may amalgamate the hundreds of articles we passively read about how billionaire entrepreneurs wake up at 3:45am., exercise, and make another million dollars well before the rest of us normal people wake up.

I could tell you about the pomodoro technique to reduce procrastination, I could recommend site-blocking apps to help eliminate distractions, and I could tell you to lay out your workout clothes for tomorrow, but I’m sure you’ve heard all. This is not to dismiss these wonderfully helpful techniques; they work well for some people. For others though, we snooze, disable and laze our way back into our old habits.

Why though? Do we lack discipline? Are we not motivated enough? Is the status quo too comfortable?  Can we not overcome some internal/external obstacles? Are we bad at budgeting our time accurately? Or could it be something else entirely…something we don’t want to admit easily: Maybe we don’t want to be who we think we want to be. Perhaps we don’t want to do what we think we want to do. [Waking up at 3:45am doesn’t really sound that nice.]

I believe this is where I often confuse wanting something and wanting to want something. We may want ourselves to want to cook/exercise/read/meditate/etc, but we rarely find ourselves actually wanting to cook/exercise/read/meditate/etc. Is it that we want the benefits (tasty meals, an attractive body, knowledge, mindfulness, etc.) without putting in the work? From buying that once-used juicer to that treadmill that’s now gathering dust in the garage, we tell ourselves we are going to become a new better person, but too often we stay exactly the same.

So how do people change?

Kaizen (noun)
Change for the better; [now commonly used to mean] continuous improvement or the philosophy of making grand betterment through incremental steps

We’re presented with dozens of small decisions for how to spend our time each day. From my experience, these often subconscious choices are the most honest indication of what we actually want to do and who we want to be. Can it be changed? Yes, but probably not through drastic perturbations to our lifestyles that are difficult to sustain or not calibrated to our actual desire for change. [Sure, some folks have life changing moments–usually as the result of some sign from God type wake up call, but most do not and I would rather not wait for one to happen to me.]

The reasons to try achieving change in bite-sized pieces are many.  One is that by taking smaller steady steps we reduce the risk of failure. Of course some failure is unavoidable, but setting the bar too high makes it more likely that we will experience discouraging failures which can put us in worse positions. Coupled with that fact that habits are difficult to make and break, taking up to 9 months for some individuals, it’s clear that we shouldn’t be too distraught at failing to achieve even the smaller goals we set.

Another reason is that we aren’t as good at seeing the big picture as we think we are. Take climate change for example. Daniel Gilbert, Harvard psychology professor, argues that one of the reasons we have not been responding as well as we need to be is due to our rather poor ability to deal with distant threats. A continuous improvement process allows us to take on immediate tasks, evaluate the direction we are heading, and adjust. This is not antithetical to having big goals, but rather essential to it.

Me (pronoun)
A new method for understanding myself that I’ve recently taken up is to document my feelings and thoughts more. Despite having to work in the land of lemmas, logic, and layered networks for most of my day, I discovered that I use a lot of emotional reasoning when it comes to thinking about myself. Whether it’s perfectionism or impostor syndrome, my mood is quite powerful in deciding how I view myself. By externalizing everything onto paper, I find myself being significantly more sympathetic to myself–something I’ve struggled with for a while.

I hope that as this process of writing about myself (and reading about “myself” through psychology journals, philosophical meditations and other blogs) continues  I learn to appreciate what I have achieved and use it as fuel to achieve even more. I also hope that I learn to accept my failures and shortcomings as reflections of my inability to do something at one point in time rather than my inability to do something ever.

My life has been quite turbulent these past few months. Some old habits are on the way out while others are thriving. I’m realizing that the abstract ubermensch who I thought I wanted myself to be is not the person I am nor can be. And I’m okay with that. I’m not abandoning improving myself in any way. In fact I’m better suited to do it now more than ever.