We are what we repeatedly do.
This is part of one of my favourite quotes, formulated by Will Durant in 1926 but most often attributed to Aristotle:
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence therefore is not an act but a habit”
But it’s a simplification. Truth is, we are what we repeatedly have done. And we become what we repeatedly do today.
And the fact is that we are forever changing. We are constantly adapting to our surroundings. If you ask me “Who are you?”, the truthful answer ought to start with “At this moment in time, I am…”.
Western science used to think that the brain was “set” during youth, and then just kept repeating its old pattern like a programmed computer. But neuroscience is showing us that the brain’s ability to change and adapt – the neuroplasticity – is greater than we previously thought. No matter how old you are, your brain is still re-wiring itself and adapting.
This is an interesting fact to ponder for a bit. Really let it sink in.
Even as we age, we are constantly adapting to our current environment.
And who you are today is a result of the environment you have been exposed to.
In that sense, trying to change who you are today is like trying to change the result of past actions. It’s a futile effort because you cannot change the past.
Honestly, we even can’t really change ourselves directly.
What we can change is our current environment – our surroundings, habits, thoughts and actions – and thus change who we will become in the future.
I’m not alone in thinking in this way. This is a tweet from James Clear, author of Atomic Habits:
The shape of the body adapts to your actions
When I started to study the fascia – the connective tissue in our body – I learnt that the fascia is constantly regenerating itself. The fascia consists of layers of a web-like structure, threads and threads of sticky, rubber-band-like tissue surrounding and connecting the muscles, bones and organs together.
Along these threads move cells called fibroblasts. Like little slugs, they move along and across the fibre structure and leave a trace of more/thicker threads behind them. This is how the fascia is (re-)created. They never stop. They move slowly (for a cell), just like slugs. But they never stop.
This is both good and bad.
You see, healthy fascia is supposed to glide and stretch.
Take a piece of fascia that is connecting and separating two adjacent muscles. The fascia layers will glide next to each other when the muscles move. The elasticity of the tissue helps determine the possible length of the movement.
If you are still for a long time, elasticity is lost and the fibroblasts will begin to stick the layers together. Aka you’re becoming stiff.
Scientists have also been able to compare the fascial structure between people who are more active and those who are not, and active people generate fascia in a lattice like structure while the fascia of people sitting still is more unstructured and chaotic.
You can’t stop the fibroblasts but you can affect how they do their work through the way you move.
Your posture becomes permanent
What’s more, fascia forms the containing structure for all of our bones and muscles. This means that when you are spending a long time in a certain position – like sitting hunched over the desk in front of a screen – the generated connective tissue will adapt to that form and reinforce it for you.
It might become painful to try to straighten up or you might get a “permanent” bad posture. And because the sense of yourself in space (called proprioception) is also handled through the fascia, the hunched over position becomes a new normal and standing straight will feel like leaning backwards.
Thus, you have adapted to your environment and what you repeatedly do has now become a physical part of you. Take up a certain position for a long enough time and it will literally solidify.
This is of course nothing new. We all know that sitting still for prolonged periods is bad for our health, and in more ways that just affecting the posture.
Thankfully, because the fascia is so slow to build you would have to sit very very still for a very very long time before you become a statue. But the saying “use it or lose it” applies here.
If you want to keep a range of motion you have to visit the edges of that mobility from time to time. The fascia is a key factor in the immobility and stiffness that often comes with age.
You can only change the body indirectly
Basically any work we do on our body is done by proxy. We can’t work on your body, but rather affect how it adapts through controlling what it is exposed to.
I can’t make my body stronger, I can only expose it to doing heavy work and it will respond by developing muscle mass accordingly. I can’t increase my oxygen uptake, but when I regularly expose the body to becoming out of breath it responds with exactly that.
This principle of change through adapting to the environment works on all levels.
Your environment controls your genetic expression
On the cellular level, the cells in your body will switch the expressions of genes on or off according to the environment they’re in. The fact that diet and lifestyle choices changes the expression of your genes is studied in the field of epigenetics.
I’m not going to go into details here, but the knowledge that how we take care of the internal physcial environment, like the gut microbiome, affects everything from brain chemicals and mood to disabling cancer genes, is yet another piece of understanding of how we adapt to our surroundings.
There is no way to turn the adaptation off
On the cognitive level, the brain is constantly adapting and learning from its environment. When you spend hours per day in the sofa watching Netflix, you are training the brain to do just that. When you bombard the brain with distractions, you are training the brain to react on stimuli.
We think that we set aside time for “studying” or “working” and spend the rest of the time relaxing, socialising and/or playing, but for the brain it’s all the same. It considers everything to be input data.
Your external surroundings, what you hear, what you see, what you read and what you think are all inputs. What you feel, what you do, and other’s reactions to your actions are input data to the brain as well.
There’s no button that says “stop processing inputs”. Even sleep itself is just a very large background process, during which the brain works through and makes sense of what happened during the day.
There is however a kind of off and on state, which is regulated through the sympathetic/parasympathetic nervous system. Aka your stress level.
In this case, I’m not talking about the run-away-from-the-lion kind of adrenaline rush stress. Cortisol, one of the stress hormones, is constantly produced in different quantities during the day and is responsible for regulating your levels of awakeness and alertness.
Shifting between taking in information and processing it
You can see the “on” and “off” state as shifting focus between outwards awareness of sensations and stimuli, and inwards focus of processing what you’ve experienced and building up things in response to them.
One reason constant distractions and notifications are bad for us is that they are putting us in the sensing and alertness mode. The body learns from this environment that it needs to be “on”. All the time. And because it adapts so well, it will adapt to reacting faster and bigger on each stimuli. Stress can become a self-perpetuating spiral, where the final stage makes you react to a notification on your mobile as if a lion actually was chasing you.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have the “off” state. Remember, there is no “stop processing inputs” alternative. Instead one could say that “on” means gathering all of the inputs and “off” means taking care of them and making sense of them.
This happens in the downtime, during reflection, daydreaming and sleep. Sometimes, doing nothing is the most important thing you can do.
One reason mindfulness and meditation is all the rage is because they are tools to help your mind release the “on” button in the head. Yoga too. All kinds of contemplative practices. Working with the hands. Exercise. Hiking in nature. Human touch. Rest and sleep.
All these things will help the mind and body enter and stay in a state of “off” – processing stuff in the background, building resources up in response to what happened. Connecting the dots. Generating ideas. Recuperating energy and building strength.
What you repeatedly think is the environment of your brain
Environmental adaptation works on the neurological level too. The thoughts you think form neural connections in your brain. The more often you think them, the stronger the connections become and form a neural network that predisposes you to think them again.
To re-wire your brain takes conscious effort but it’s possible.
Breaking a thought habit involves daily practice, to repeatedly tell yourself the story you want to replace the old with. Pat Flynn interviewed Dr Shannon Irvine about this in the Smart Passive Income podcast, and if you are the slightest interested in changing the stories you tell yourself this is a mandatory listen.
According to Shannon, the common statement that we need 21 days to form a new habit isn’t true. After 21 days, the old neural network and the new are equal. If you want to replace it completely you need daily practice for at least 60 days.
Again, it’s what you repeatedly do that makes a difference.
Just thinking a thought once will leave a tiny temporary trace. But doing it repeatedly will make a lasting trail that in time becomes permanent. Re-wiring your brain in a way that then turns to auto-pilot.
This also has a bearing on creativity. If you’re always feeding your brain with the same old, it will keep strengthening the same pathways in your brain and you will continue to go around in the same circles. It will be harder to think new thoughts and get new ideas.
Some things are great to make into a habit, other things are better off with trying to avoid habitual patterns.
Through consciously choosing what to make a repeating habit and what to explicitly keep changing and switching up, you can choose what kind of person you want to be.
It’s both a comforting and terrifying fact.
We have more power that we think, but because the changes happen slowly over time it’s hard to see them in the moment. This also means we need patience and perseverance before getting visible results.
What shape do you want your character to have?
So we adapt to our environment, like cake batter that you pour into the mould. And unlike that cake batter that fills the shape instantly, we adapt slowly, gradually and iteratively.
You can’t simply switch the shape of the mould in a drastic way and expect instant results. You have to keep the mould in place, until things have adapted to the new reality and filled it out.
Every seven years, each cell in your body have been completely replaced. And every cell has adapted according to the circumstances it was in when it was created. In time, the small things you do every day over time become permanent. And the large intervention you tried once won’t stick.
This is why the choices you make every day matters. And why one mistake, misstep or hiccup in your habit streak matters very little in the grand scheme of things.
If you want to change something about yourself, start with changing the environment around it. The hard part is keeping that environment in place. But the rest is just a consequence of nature.