Wednesday, 28 July 2021

Habit or obsession?

When do good habits become obsessions? When does normal behaviour cross the boundary into what society considers abnormal? Obsession is commonly considered to be when one no longer has control over an action - but then habitual behaviour is also a form of autopilot.

At the end of 2013, I set myself a resolution to maintain my health through middle age. Based on a pedometer and spreadsheet, this involved logging my paces and other health inputs every day. My father used to ask me: "What would happen if you didn't do your 10,000 paces today?" I think about his words from time to time when I glance at the health app in my smartphone (which replaced the pedometer years ago) and I see I'm several hundred paces short of my target. So I set off to the end of the drive and back, or go round the garden. Or simply go upstairs and downstairs a few times if it's cold or wet outside. 

Sounds obsessive? I'd justify this to my father by saying that if I were a thousand short today, I'd need to do 11,000 tomorrow, so it's best to get one's duty done now rather than put it off. Makes sense, I'd say. The spreadsheet now has come to play an important - even dominant - role in my life, with daily inputs and regular views telling me how I'm doing. In my eighth year of filling in the spreadsheet, it lets me know when I have to up the pace, do more exercise, walk further, faster - and also when I can slack off a bit - do less of one sort of exercise and still be ahead on last year's total. And have a drink. 

When drinking socially, people are sometimes amazed that I take care to remember how many millilitres of alcohol - and at what strength (I look at the label/ask the barman). Especially on a Big Night Out. And at home afterwards, I'd log the number of units. It's working well - coming up to the end of July, I can see I've consumed 10% fewer units than to the end of July last year - and 60% fewer units than I did between January and July 2014!

Self-discipline can be hard to achieve. What's stopping me from having that cold beer in the fridge or pouring myself a wee dram of single malt? The spreadsheet helps. I look at the numbers. Have that beer now, and it means I'll have to say 'no' at some social occasion next month. Do I need that beer, or is it only out of boredom? Will it help me be more creative if I sip back that Islay whisky? The spreadsheet has quite clearly helped.

So - good habit or obsession? Why bother logging it at all?

One good habit I don't need to log is sugar intake. Other than that which is present in fresh fruit and vegetables, I avoid sugar in the main. Sugary fizzy soft drinks? Literally zero. A rare bar of halva, a cake at a social occasion that would be churlish to turn down, the odd morsel of dark chocolate - very, very rare. Too rare to note - maybe one or two times a month, if that. Similarly for salt snacks, other than nuts (macadamia nuts I enjoy). 

If I'm not noting my sugar and salt-snack intake - why should I do so for alcohol and portions of fresh fruit and veg? Force of habit. Habit or obsession?

Clearing out my father's house, my son and Cousin Hoavis came across my father's daily records of his blood-pressure readings. Like me, he did this obsessively - though on small squares of paper. Because it was not kept in digital form, the dated records are of little value to posterity, with no links to external factors. My blood-pressure readings are kept as a separate sheet on the same spreadsheet file, allowing me to cross-check anomalously high readings with other factors such a exercise, diet, alcohol intake - and indeed, a very important factor - the time at which I went to bed.

These days, wearable devices make all this logging much easier - but the danger is that without conscious input, the data will just pile up, unobserved, unacted upon. 

My father did keep his financial affairs on spreadsheets, in particular the value of his share portfolio. Each day at the close of the trading day on the London Stock Exchange, he'd enter the price of each of the shares that he owned, and would track their performance over time. He'd keep a note of all cheques he'd write out, keeping real-time note of his bank balance. I'm not that obsessive about money, as long as I'm in the black, it's OK.

Obsessions can be traits linked to psychiatric disorders, but this one is very mild; more a harmless quirk of personality, inherited genetically. Harmless? I'd say healthy - keeping habits good and bad under a daily watchful gaze.

This time last year:

This time two years ago:

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