Often it is characterised that our personality is the sum of the closest people we interact with and/or the result of the books we read (broadly, the art we consume). I believe, while these are essential factors in shaping our mindset, they can only have a peripheral influence in defining our personalities. Instead, I would assertively point to the habits we inculcate and imbibe into ourselves.
Habits can make or break us.
Inculcating habits is harder than sustaining them. There are several factors that can hold us back from not ingraining into a new positive habit or letting go a negative one. If self-discipline is the most important internal factor, the complacency that comes attached to being “settled in an environment” is the most important external factor. That we are expected to just be, and be consistent, but not throw a surprise in our personality is the main characteristic of settling down. This sort of a social lethargy and a comfortable monotony, if you will, can take up substantial effort to break out from. It is within this realm where making or breaking habits becomes harder.
In my experience, I have successfully converted change of environments to mould new, hopefully positive, habits, more than once. The most recent instance of it was when I moved to The Netherlands, as part of my “change of research environment” part of my PhD project. And the habit I seem to have inculcated is running!
I have been a wanna-be runner for a while now. By this I don’t mean a professional runner, but at least someone who would not procrastinate and would WANT to run. After one year of (intermittent; ~2 times a week) running with my colleagues in Copenhagen, I had improved from running barely under 30 minutes for 5 km to about 26-27 minutes. The fastest until then was during a relay run in September last year, when I ended up running at 25:50 minutes. My first coveted milestone was to run 5 km under 25 minutes. And it had been evading me.
When I moved to the lovely and lively city of Rotterdam for two months in a house with three other flat-mates, I had the rife conditions to get into a new habit. And I chose to run. As I was not running with a peer group I already knew, I could exert or relax myself without any inhibitions. Also, most importantly, all I wanted was to get into the mode of enjoying runs; so it ended up being more relaxing than trying to match up when running in a group.
It was still early in April and spring was far from setting in. Nevertheless, taking advantage of the flexibility of having to develop a new routine, I started running in the morning. As Princess Elsa would sing, the (Dutch) cold never bothered me anyway, and I was enjoying my 6:30 AM runs with thin rains and temperature hanging around 5 degrees.
During the first two weeks I ran ten of the days, which was quite big a leap for me. I was already enjoying the runs and also the associated attention I was getting at my new home. Encouragement, delivered in adequate dosage, can help a long way. My flat-mates had assumed, to my pleasant surprise, that I was a runner. And that incentivised me to live up to that tag. I was already beginning to enjoy running, the adulation only made it better.
In the first couple of runs, I was still lingering at around the 26 min mark, and I started improving my stamina by doing interval training. Within a handful of these sprint-infused interval training runs, I was able to break under the 25 min mark! And the sense of accomplishment that ensued helped me sustain those runs through my stay in Rotterdam. By the end of it, I was thoroughly enjoying the runs, almost easily running under 25 minutes and was also pushing others to run.
Now, it has been two weeks since I returned to Copenhagen, and I have continued to strive and improve my runs, while also enjoying them. I set a new goal of running 5k under 22:30 by the end of this year. That would be doing an average of 4:30 per km, and based on my previous performance a reduction of 30 seconds per km took about 6 months. But, that was not to be the case. Even to my surprise, it turned out that I was able to break into the year end mark already! In fact, my last two runs I have been doing just under 22 minutes.
The new goal now I have set is to be able to finish a 5k under 20 minutes.
As you see, with this example of getting into the habit of running, facilitated by the change of environment, I have moulded that aspect into my personality and it affects my routine massively. My focus and energies are way different these days, and I have also started to believe that I am a bit more self-disciplined than I gave credit to myself. It also now defines some aspects of my personality, and it is not by chance.
PS: The numbers on these runs aren’t anything great and I am not attempting to brag (it is only slightly embarrassing) when seen in comparison with other serious runners. The point of using these numbers is only to tangibly present my progress.
A technical note at this point is due: unless otherwise specified I am talking of 5k runs.