The Habit Puzzle: The 4 Principles of Habit Formation

I wrote the following piece for An Apple a Day Digest – a new digital magazine on diet and lifestyle.

A good path to Lord's Seat


In the annals of human history, there have been few problems as intractable as the “Habit Puzzle”. Everyone, from Aristotle to Jerry Seinfeld, has come up with a unique theory or piece of advice. In recent decades, scientists have joined the fray, working hard to unravel the mechanics behind a successful habit induction. However, as Jeremy Dean lays out in his magnificent book, “Making Habits, Breaking Habits”, when it comes to habit formation, there are no hard and fast rules. Simple habits, such as drinking a glass of water after breakfast, can be fully formed within three weeks. Other, more challenging behaviors, may take months or years to coalesce into a smooth-functioning routine. However, even given this complexity, there is still hope. We must always remember that there are certain fundamental rules that dictate human cognition and behavior, and, arising from these steadfast principles, we can think about habit formation in a methodical and logical manner.

This is why, when thinking about habit formation, we should remember the following dictums:

1. We are lazy.

Energy is a scarce resource, and we have evolved to expend as little effort as necessary. Think of a bird in flight. It flaps its wings vigorously in order to get going, and gain altitude. But, after a brief bout of furious flapping, opens them wide and coasts forward.

We’re the same way. In the interest of getting a rippling six-pack, we may vigorously exercise on the daily basis. However, our initial burst of energy and motivation will most likely come to a screeching halt in fairly short order. Unfortunately, unlike our feathered brethren, we don’t have wings to glide on. Our burnout is going to be met with a quick crash – not a graceful flight forward.

However, there’s a lesson to be found in the bird analogy: an initial burst can be used to travel far and wide. By utilizing the initial energy burst that’s present in any behavior-change initiative, we can change our environments to help us on our quest toward habit happiness. We can make sure that our fridge is only filled with vegetables, and other healthy foods, instead of cold cuts and colas. We can take the time to move all of our sweets into a high-up, hard to reach, cabinet. We can put a hook in the wall, where we’ll hang our water bottle, right next to the entrance to our house. In short, we can use our initial motivation to design our environment so that it makes the behaviors we want part of the path of least resistance.

We can make an environment that makes healthy living easier. Always build your environment for your laziest self.

2. We’re incomplete dreamers.

Try and imagine the last dream you had. What did you look like? What kind of clothes were you wearing? Where did the dream take place? Were you in a green forest? A red room? What did the bed look like? I bet you’re having a hard time piecing together a vivid picture. This is because we systematically overestimate how much we actually know. You may have once read a book on the Revolutionary War, and fully expect to be able to tell me about the historical circumstances that precipitated it. But, it’s likely that you would need to read up on it a bit before you could recall the full story. The inner depths of the mental world is a fuzzy place – even though we think it consists of crisp images and picture-perfect recollections. The same thing occurs with our aspirational fantasies. We may have an internal image of ourselves being quite active and consistently exercising, but it’s unlikely to be very realistic or helpful. This is because our mental image, our mental plan, is too abstract. In order for us to achieve a goal, we need to have a clear image of what we are going to do to achieve that goal. We need break out goals down into specific behaviors.

Too often, I hear that people want to get in the habit of “eating healthier” or “exercising more”. However, these are outcomes, not behaviors. How, specifically, are you going to eat healthier? Perhaps you can eat a salad for lunch each day – that is a specific behavior that you can make into a habit. Similarly, instead of exercising more, perhaps you can go on a 30 minute walk around your block each night at 8:00PM. That is a specific behavior that you can imagine and plan for.

Don’t be an incomplete dreamer – break your goals down into specific behaviors you can do.

3. We’re bad at multitasking.

In today’s hectic environment, we’re often pulled in dozens of directions at once. We have errands to run, work to do, and emails are pouring into our inbox at a breakneck pace. We’re in a reactive state of damage control, not an active state of self actualization and habit formation. When we’re reacting to our environments, it’s unlikely that we’re building the habits and positive outcomes that we want. In the reactive thrashing of today’s noisy environment, it’s hard for us to think clearly about what we want and what we should do. This is why it is vitally important that we fill our homes, and work-spaces, with reminders of what we want.

Do you want to drink more water each day? Make sure that you have water bottles at eye level in your fridge. Put a thermos on your desk at the office.

Motivated to start going to the gym? Place your gym shoes in front of your door. Make a gym back each night and put it next to the shower.

Maybe set up a daily event in your calendar (Google Calendar, Outlook, etc.) titled “Go running” at 7:00PM – with an alert/alarm that pings you thirty minutes before.

Be sure to do this for each of the healthy behaviors you want in your life.

4. Laziness happens for a reason.

As a final point, remember that while laziness is built into our biology to help us conserve energy, it also is our body’s way of telling us something important. It may be that you’re not getting enough sleep. It may be that you’re not getting enough protein, or eating nutritionally deficient foods. It may also mean that you feel overwhelmed and are constantly stressed throughout the day. If you feel a total lack of energy and motivation, it may be your body’s way of telling you that it’s off kilter. Remember, building new healthy habits is a demanding process, and needs to be built on a foundation of health. If you have droopy eyes from  an overly demanding and stressful life, you need to take care of that before you can begin to optimize everything else. Before you start running five miles a day, perhaps you should start making sure you get eight hours of sleep a night, and are eating healthily.

Delayed Social Development: The Cost of Texting Instead of Talking?

This article was featured on BigThink.

Youths_chatting_MAR_Palermo_NI2152 (1)


We’re complex beings. No one denies that. However, there are also some basic laws that explain much of our behavior. One of those laws is reinforcement: specific behaviors that we’re rewarded for will occur more frequently in the future. Those that are ignored, or punished, will fizzle out. A rat that is given a piece of cheese after standing on two legs is more likely to stand on two legs in the future. If that rat continues to get cheese each time it stands on two legs, that behavior will be further strengthened. Traditionally, we received such instantaneous feedback in the social realm. Poor or rude behavior was met with a sneer or furrowed brow, while charming and kind words were met with a smile and, perhaps, a reciprocated compliment. The feedback loops for our social behaviors were tight, and so we grew and matured as civic beings with a staggering speed. Our less than desirable behaviors were shunned while our good behaviors were nurtured.

Today, this development still occurs. However, we have also introduced a large time gap into our social maturation with the advent and frequent usage of asynchronous communication mediums like text messaging, email, etc. While it’s easy to tell whether or not a joke went over well in a face to face interaction, texts are often left unanswered for hours – leaving us to wonder: “Did I say something wrong?”. If that text goes unanswered, we get no true feedback. We can take the lack of a response as a signal that the joke was bad or inappropriate. However, it may have actually been quite terrific, garnering a large chuckle when read; but, in the middle of a busy day, the other person just didn’t remember to respond. Without a positive response, it’s unlikely that we’ll continue to say similar jokes in similar future contexts. Though, this would be a mistake – a mistake created by a newly introduced feedback delay we’ve created in a newly created communication medium.

Whether we like it or not, our behaviors are being sculpted by our peers each and every day. The question becomes: How well can we hear their instructions? When we speak in a face to face interaction, we combine our body language, facial expression, and vocal tonality with what we’re saying. This usually paints a clear picture of what we mean; it gives context and tone to what would otherwise be an ambiguous, or inappropriate, statement. Imagine that we’re having a debate and, after some intense back and forth, I look you squarely in the eyes and, with a big smile, say “I hate you” in a playful tone. It’s obvious what I mean. Now, imagine we’re having a similar debate over text and, after an intense portion, I write: “I hate you”. In this context, the statement is much more ambiguous. While the other person probably thinks I’m just joking around, they could be excused for being unsure. The raw text contains much less information than the embodied words. Surely, this is why emoticons and stickers have become so popular. They add a bit of extra context to the words, mimicking the facial expressions that are usually part and parcel of any statement. As emoticons show, we always bring our old habits into any new technology – hacking it so that it’s a closer fit to our fundamental human needs and expressions.

Even with the rise of asynchronous communication, most of us are eventually socialized properly by a lifetime of experience. If we sit inside for most of the day, we still have minutes or hours of face to face communication with others while we’re running our errands, working, and so on. These encounters allow us to refine our behaviors so that they’re acceptable and pleasing to our social milieu. And, after years of such encounters, we become socially astute and able to confidently navigate the social currents we encounter in our lives. But, as time on screen continues to increase, and as we come to prefer snippets of text to flows of speech, this development will likely be further delayed. As we spend more of our lives staring at glowing screen, and working hard to decipher the ambiguous messages that are coming in at breakneck speed, we need to come to grips with the fact that as our lives become faster and more chaotic, our social education decelerates into a glacial crawl. There is surely no free lunch on this blue dot of ours.

Enduring Envy: Jealousy in the 21st Century

This article was featured on BigThink.


“Envy is a really stupid sin because it’s the only one you could never possibly have any fun at.” – Charlie Munger

We’re social creatures. We spend an inordinate amount of time looking at others so that we can understand them. However, cognition is built on comparison, not absolutes. So, in order to understand others, we use ourselves as a comparison point. And, in the shadow of comparison envy rears its ugly head.

Today, with the advent of social networking, we have access to a lot more envy-triggering material than ever before.  We all present our best selves on services like Facebook. On these digital stages, everything is “good”, “amazing” and “fun”. As Steven Furtick, a popular pastor, states: “The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.” However, life is filled with lulls and letdowns; and, in the glare of social media, we can forget that.

In addition, social media opens us up to the fortunes of those at a periphery of our networks. While we would normally never be aware of Tim, Johnny’s successful friend from middle school, we now collide up against his high flying lifestyle in our morning commute as we scroll through our Facebook feed. Almost all of us have heard of a friend of a friend who just made hundreds of millions of dollars in a business deal, or received a rare and honorable Rhodes Scholarship. However, these types of triumphs were intangible to us in the past; they were abstract tales, existing in the vapors of our imagination. And, as many psychological studies have shown, abstractions are quite poor at arousing our emotions – concrete images on the other hand, are power affective amplifiers. Today, with our social feeds, we are put face to face with undeniable visual proof of these realities that used to be comfortably intangible.

So, why is this a problem? It’s a problem because of how interconnected we have become. All of us, at all times, are three degrees away from people that are currently experiencing great fortune. This is a good thing. Who doesn’t want to be surrounded by prosperous and pleased individuals? However, unfortunately, all of us seem to contain a predilection for resentment. And, so while part of us revels in the reflected glory of our peers, another part of us asks: “Why not me?”. While some people are masters of gratitude and appreciation, envy seems to be the more common phenomenon.

This is not to say that our social technologies are negative forces in our lives. They do us much good, and allow us to build relationships with life changing individuals that we would never have connected with otherwise. But, in order to further refine our products, we need to understand the emotional landscape of our digital homes. Perhaps, with a few select product decisions, we can build a world with a bit more appreciation and a bit less jealousy. While that may seem manipulative, especially in the wake of the Facebook experiment kerfluffle, the fact of the matter is that every product constrains and shapes the behavior of its users. While many of these decisions are done without much thought or haste, we can, with a bit of experimentation and empathy, paint a picture of the world with a bit less green; and watch brighter, more enjoyable, scenes emerge from the palette.

The Floating Brain: Learning in the 21st Century

This article was featured on BigThink.


Each of us, over time, builds a more and more comprehensive image of the world based upon our experiences and explorations. However, while this image of reality was traditionally grounded in tangible 3D experience, today this model is, more and more, getting built with pixels and simulated experience in the form of video and game-play.

If you ask 10 random Americans what it’s like on the plains of the African Savannah, chances are that most people can go on for 30 minutes about the color of the grass, the types of animals you could find there, the intense struggle for survival that persists season after season, and so on. These people could also probably tell you a bit about what it’s like to be in the mob. How mobster families are organized, etc. However, the curious thing is that most of these people have likely ever been to Africa, or met a real live mobster. But, all of these people have probably seen Planet Earth and indulged in Scarface, or at least The Sopranos, a few times.

With all of the video content available today, more and more of us are spending our lives in our heads – simulating the experiences of others from the comfort of our homes. As our lives become more and more sedentary, we need more and more content to watch. Fortunately, there is no shortage of imagination in this world and, when there is, “reality” can be commodified and packaged as television programming.

The result of all this content consumption is that much of what we learn is not learned through first-hand experience, but by observing others. And, unfortunately, much of what we’re observing is incomplete or has little relation to the way things actually are. When we see a TV drama about the meth trade (Breaking Bad), we build a mental model of what things are like in that subculture – even if the series has little relation to the actual workings of the industry. When we watch Lauren Conrad and her friends on Laguna Beach, we think that the life of a young socialite in LA consists of 24/7 parties, Bentleys, and passionate trysts on various darkened beaches. However, in actuality, these unbelievably enticing scenes are constructed by clever producers to make fairly normal and mundane existences seem truly unbelievable .

All of this is to say that our lives today are getting filled with disembodied knowledge – that is, knowledge gleaned by mental machination and simulation, not by active real-world experience. Traditionally, knowledge and information was acquired with our whole bodies in a specific context. We didn’t sit in a room and watch other people doing things, or read about other people doing things. Instead, we went into the world and tried things. When we failed we learned something. When we succeeded we learned something else. Learning, in these contexts, was an expression of our entire organism. It was the manifestation of the combined effort of our muscles, our eyes, our ears, our nose, etc. To learn meant to be as aware and as alive as possible.

Today, however, learning has been re-defined and re-imaged to be a solitary and sedentary process of extreme control and concentration. It’s a process by which we travel inward, into our own minds, and inhabit a simulator in our gray matter. This allows us to gradually construct scenes and scenarios in our minds,  from which we can start to figure out what *might* happen in the real world. However, no matter how good our model is, it will never be complete. The map is never the territory. And, as we construct our understanding of the world, we must be sure that it’s built upon rocks of reality and not wisps of fantasy. The more we rely on models that, however good, will always result in errors and surprises, the more we will retreat from the world and into our safe havens of certainty and control. Models inevitably breed a false sense of understanding and power. Embodied knowledge, however, contains within it the understanding of context and contingency. Everything happens in a specific place and is the specific result of a confluence of of myriad of factors, both known and unknown. When we learn through all of our senses simultaneously, and let experience be our guide, we come to understand this on a deep level.

So, as we continue to live and learn in the 21st century, we must not forget that there is no such thing is a floating brain. While we may love riding the waves of fantasy that course throughout our collective consciousness, we must always be sure to look life squarely in the eyes and know that behind those dark pools is a churning and buzzing cacophony that we can catch a firm grasp of, but never truly control.

 

Airbrushed Sexting: What We Can Learn From Snapchat

This article was featured on BigThink.


When I first learned about Snapchat in early 2012, I laughed it off. It seemed like a fun, novel idea but not a potential staple in our digital lives. As a long time text and chat user, I was used to permanence in my written communication. I wanted my past conversations to have a searchable history. There’s something delightful about being able to sift through one’s past messages and see how relationships have evolved over time. When crafting a text with a new acquaintance, there’s something comforting about reading through one’s past exchanges to gauge the tone of the conversation and to see what past messages worked in tight situations. But these are the ramblings of an over-cerebral nerd, someone who could probably thrive with a prescription of “a little less thinkin’”.

I realized that, in analyzing the specific merits of textual communication, I lost the big picture: Snapchat, and the rest of the ethereal communication apps, is a better model of real, face-to-face interpersonal interaction than, say, SMS or messaging.

Human history, up until about 5000 BC, was an invisible thread. People lived their lives, told stories to their tribes, and passed on. The important information stuck in memory and persisted in the group for weeks, years, or generations. As long as it was immediately useful it was recalled and rehashed. The origin stories and parables stayed alight for centuries and even millennia, providing groups with important life-knowledge and a sense of purpose. But most of what has occurred in this blue dot called Earth has never existed beyond the vibrating neurons of its observers. With the advent of somewhat sophisticated writing in the Bronze Age we started to make our invisible personal experiences visible.

All of this is to say that with the advent of instant, ephemeral visual communication, we have moved away from the relatively recent construction of permanence in our communication, and have created a close approximation to face-to-face interaction. We’ve moved closer to our natural communication preferences; what our perceptual and cognitive apparatus evolved to do. It’s why many describe the pictures and messages in Snapchat as “more real.” As Sean Haufler, a student at Yale,writes:

“Snapchat’s time limits make snaps more engaging. Since snaps disappear seconds after they are opened, users feel comfortable sending spontaneous and personal messages that they would not want ingrained into digital histories. Sending a headshot to a friend via text feels forced, but sending a warm gaze or a silly face via Snapchat is natural. Snapchat pictures tend to be candid and unprepared, which makes the messages feel more personal, morereal. Additionally, since every message has a time limit, users are present when opening snaps. Snapchat attracts its users’ full attention since they have only a few seconds to capture the details of each message. This engagement makes the experience more satisfying – it feels like a real conversation. Interestingly, Snapchat maintains the feeling of a one-on-one conversation even when messaging groups.”

But the question always becomes: Then why aren’t closer approximations to face-to-face communication, such as Skype, FaceTime, etc., more popular? I think there are two primary answers:

  1. Asynchronous communication is convenient: We always have a few moments to spare throughout the day. But we don’t always have unbroken chunks of time with which we can chat.

  2. Staged communication lets us present our best self: Real-time communication, like Skype, doesn’t let us hide anything. People can see our face in its entirety in real time. There’s no chance to frame the shot to perfection, add a filter, and make it as flattering as possible.

So in the modern battle for attention, it seems that ease, convenience, and self-flattery win out over fidelity and responsiveness. With impermanent asynchronous messaging we’re able to have a somewhat uninhibited, free-flowing conversation while simultaneously showing our best selves. This is known as a win-win. As we continue to evolve our methods of communication, we’ll continue to see even more pronounced examples of this same pattern: Authenticity with a sheen. Realism without the worms. Life with all the glory, thanks to a little airbrushing. 

The End of Uncertainty

This article was featured on BigThink.


In my last post, I talked a bit about the fundamental purpose of technology: reducing uncertainty.

Uncertainty is a double edged sword in the human experience – it provides us with excitement, but it also causes us a great deal of stress and discomfort. One of the tricks of life is learning how to stay on this razor’s edge between adventure and catastrophe.

However, the battle between our drive for certainty, and our drive for excitement, is not evenly matched.  We have a cognitive bias towards the negative or dangerous aspects of our experience. This is why we’re taught the “criticism sandwich” (give critical feedback in-between two compliments), and told to do five nice things for every mean/hurtful thing in our personal relationships. The negative grows particularly large in our predictably skewed perceptions.

Yet, from this seemingly unfortunate bias grows much of our drive to create new technologies. In our battle against the dangerous and uncertain aspects of life, we’ve come up with things like bridges, airplanes, spaceships, and vaccines.

But we must also remember that there are no absolutes in human perception. $100 is a large amount of money to some, but pocket change for others. 5’11 is a towering, and overwhelming, height for a toddler, but normal and expected for an adult. Our life situations determine our baselines, and our experience is bounded by these happenstance dimensions. And, in the opening decades of the 21st century, many of the great uncertainties that have been a mainstay of the human experience have been wiped from the modern world.

In developed societies, the chances of dying in the initial decades of life are extremely small, and overall life expectancies have never been greater. Food is so easily available, and abundant, that overeating is the dominant nutritional problem facing Americans. So, when all of the big uncertainties in life have been tamed, which remain? Which new ambiguities enter the spotlight?

That’s when the complex and nuanced uncertainties of life come into focus: social uncertainties, spiritual uncertainties, purpose-driven uncertainties. In other words, the obsessions of modern iPhone wielding, Facebook friending millennials entering the workforce today.

“Am I missing out on fun things to do? Did I get more birthday wall posts than so and so? Am I still popular?” The social realm is fluid and unbelievably complex. We humans are, in many ways, the most unpredictable and complex force on the planet. While we’re getting quite proficient at statistical prediction for simple behaviors, predicting the behavior of any given person is an impossibility. A friendship between two people is an ever-evolving entity that morphs and changes based upon context, mood, and so on. And, that’s just the complexity present in a diad. Now, let’s expand our scope to groups of friends, all interrelating in a larger community, such as a college. The complexity of the social graph at even this scale is astounding. And, since we’re wired to pay constant attention to the social connections, status, etc. of all those people, staying current in our social worlds is an endless job – as over a billion Facebook users can tell you.

In addition, with our general safety guaranteed, we can spend time asking questions like: “What am I really meant to do? What is my passion? Which career would best suit my unique skills?” While these are interesting questions, they are also unanswerable. Each of us is capable of performing thousands, if not millions, of jobs. Each of us can also choose between studying millions of different topics in a depth never imagined before the advent of the Web and Wikipedia.

As a species we have started to unshackle ourselves from the great behemoths of corporeal uncertainty. But, in the same stride we’ve attached ourselves to lesser, but more devilish concerns that keep evolving at a blistering pace. And, as a look around any train or bar will show you, these concerns, while less existentially threatening, have grabbed our attention and have created obsessions just as powerful as those we’ve left behind. 

 

The Social Downside to the Conveniences of Technology

This article was featured on BigThink.

Distracted by a smartphone - securityconference.de


Much of life is, and has been, invisible for most of history. We’ve always understood that people know each other, but there has been no universal ledger showing who-knows-who, for how long, and so on. We’ve always known that people go to restaurants and bars, but we haven’t had a scrolling record of where each person has been and when. This is part of the magic, and the terror, of the digital era. Information and mobile technologies have allowed us to capture and measure so many of the ethereal elements of life.

There is something comforting about concretizing the invisible. It helps us gain a sense of control over the world that has, for all of human life, been an utterly mysterious and intimidating force. Today, with Facebook, the average college student has a better understanding of her social network than the top upper-crust socialites of past eras. This is astounding and empowering.

But, one of the great laws of life is that there are no free lunches – every benefit comes with a definite cost. As I’ve written about in the past, I believe that the purpose of technology is to reduce uncertainty. The advent of farming allowed us to more reliably feed our families and our tribes – it reduced the uncertainty of eating. However, as UCLA Professor Jared Diamond notes, “…recent discoveries suggest that the adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered. With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse our existence.”

Automotive technologies improved our ability to successfully complete mid to long length trips. Though, they also encouraged the rise of suburbs and have contributed to environmental change. Similarly, digital and mobile technologies are coming with their own costs. We can clearly see some of them. Others, we will learn about over time. However, I think that the main cost of the mobile era has been an overall erosion of our ability to cope with uncertainty and a lack of control in our social and communal lives.

Instead of walking down to the store to see if it’s open, we check business hours on Yelp. This decreases the amount of foot traffic, and thus random communal interaction, occurring in our day to day lives.

Instead of talking to strangers at the bar while we’re waiting for our friends, we spend our time in text conversations – letting our friends know where we’re sitting, what we’re up to, and so on.

Instead of stopping by a friend’s house to see if they’re home, and able to get together, we call them up (or shoot them a Facebook Message). Though, in this process, we miss out on talking, and connecting with, their neighbors.

In short, mobile communication technologies allow us to live life as a series of straight lines. We go straight from our house to our friend. We go straight from work to the restaurant- which has our food pre-made and ready to pick up. This may all be in the spirit of efficiency. But, in the name of productivity and greater self reliance, we may lose one of our most fundamental attributes – our communal spirit.

Look into a true artist’s mind.

Quote of the Day

“We do not like to be reminded that, evolutionarily speaking, we are merely stomachs that grew more complicated.”

-Andrew Salter

The purpose of technology.

The purpose of technology is to decrease uncertainty.

That’s what it all boils down to.

Language allows us to less ambiguously communicate (it decreases uncertainty of communication).

Agriculture decreased uncertainty of food acquisition.

Trains/automobiles increase the probability that we’ll make it to a destination by increasing speed (and thus time required for the trek – more time = more chances for something unexpected to derail you).

Computers allow us to build more complex models of different systems, allowing us to more accurately predict their behavior.

Cell phones allow us to call people ahead of time, ensuring that they’ll be at a certain place at a certain time.

etc.