Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 10

Habit Friendly Behaviors

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Hi, this is Reinhard from everyday systems.com. Last week I tried to make a case for thinking of self improvement in terms of behavior and habit rather than results. But you can't turn every behavior into an unconscious habit, and this week I'm going to talk about some of the elements that make certain behaviors more habit friendly than others.

This biggest issue is: does the behavior inherently require a lot of conscious attention? Some examples of popular but usually doomed self improvement behaviors that are like this are having to look up stuff all the time: counting calories or carbs or consulting lists of forbidden foods) and having to write down stuff all the time (like food journaling). You can't look up stuff or write stuff down unconsciously. So you can't make it a habit.

Another big issue is behaviors that are really unpleasant. Like a diet that forces you to eat disgusting food or completely cut out the foods you love most. Or an exercise plan with physiologically really effective but boring and unpleasant movements. It's possible to make self torture like this into a habit. But, understandably, it's harder. And why would you want to? There is almost certainly a solution that doesn't require self torture.

Another issue is behaviors that conflict with other behaviors. The biggest cause of conflict is time. Your new behaviors have to fit in, and there are a couple good ways to help them do this. The most obvious step is to choose behaviors that don't take much time. Behaviors with a small temporal footprint will bump into each other less. And perceived time is almost as important as actual time. For example, the schedulistically insignificant 14 minutes of shovelglove seems like even less than it is because it shouts out "this is not a lot of time."

Another way of avoiding temporal conflict is regularity of behavior. Doing the same thing every day (or every weekday) at the same time. If your behaviors are predictable, it's easier to plan, and there will be less conflict. Regularity, routine is important not only for conflict avoidance, but it's hypnotic, almost. It's how you condition yourself to start unconsciously doing these things. And every behavior that you make into a predictable routine is not only easier to do in itself, but it gives you a scaffolding on which to hang other behaviors. You can start making unconscious associations between things. If stuff is moving around all the time you can't do this. I think the two most fundamental elements of this scaffolding are sleeping and eating: go to bed and get up at the same time every day and eat regular predictable meals and you have a firm foundation on which to build other habits. I'm amazed at how many people don't even have these two basics down and are then surprised that they can't manage more sophisticated stuff.

Behaviors you want to habitualize should be simple and clear. You don't want to agonize all the time about whether your behavior should or shouldn't kick in. That means drawing some arbitrary lines. For example, on the no-s diet, I don't eat snacks, not even healthy snacks. Would it really be so bad if I ate a pomegranate right now, before dinner, meals, just this once? Pomegranates are the super health food, it would be fine, right, it would be good for me, probably, in itself. But I don't. Because nothing is in itself. If I ate the pomegranate, I'd start having having to wonder all the time about whether this food or that food was worth making an exception for. Even if I tended to make good choices (which I doubt), it would just be too expensive in terms of mental resources. I've got better things to think about. And even if I didn't, there's no way I'm going to be able to train unconscious habit to make sophisticated decisions like this.

Habit is powerful. But dumb. So you're going to have to dumb down your problems a bit so it can deal with them. This may be unsatisfying for perfectionists, but perfect isn't necessary. In fact, perfectionism can be dangerous. It can even be an excuse. Don't indulge it.

Finally, don't overload yourself with new self improvement behaviors. While it's true that your unconscious capacity to do stuff is greater than your conscious capacity, it's still not unlimited. When you add a new behavior, you should think of it not so much as an addition of something new, but as the permanent allocation of part of a finite resource. Is it worth it? Can you afford to allocate as much as you are tempted to give?

That's all for today. Next week I'm going to talk about another aspect of habit management, which is keeping track of your habit, whether to do it at all, and if so, how. Thanks for listening.

By Reinhard Engels

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