After not writing anything for like 3 weeks, I think I have some thoughts on habits. I’ve been trying to start a few habits and stop a few others, with varying success. I haven’t read any literature on the topic other than common sense stuff which relates, so do let me know if there’s something I’m missing.

Humans, and most creatures (mammals at least), are creatures of habit. We get into patterns and repeat them. This appears to be mostly an evolved adaptation to preserve resources expended by trying new things and figuring out things from scratch; instead we just record what worked in the past and replay the actions. In a similar vein, when we don’t know how we should act (such as, in response to something happening in front of us), the first reaction of most people is to see what others are doing. It is pretty expensive to do the necessary cognitive calculations and overrides in order to do something not necessarily obvious or normal.

So, it seems that if we can only get something sufficiently embedded into our daily routine it will maintain itself. An object in motion remains in motion, and all that jazz. I have seen a couple methods which are pretty successful at doing just this, such as setting up a reminder or having a calendar where you mark off every day that you perform your desired habit. After a month or two it should be sufficiently ingrained if performed daily. Just beware vacations and other exogenous prolonged breaks which could disrupt your rhythm before it’s truly a part of your life. Also, if something is truly just a chore that you see little/no tangible benefit from, it appears one will have a tendency to lose the habit. You can probably force yourself to eat oatmeal every morning instead of regular cereal, but if you absolutely hate oatmeal you will not keep this up since there is almost no visible or tangible health or other benefit of oatmeal over cereal. Or a more direct example I tried; doing pushups every morning. I was able to maintain it for about 3 weeks. Interestingly, this is right around where I hit a wall and couldn’t increase my number much, if at all (I think it was around 60; yea I’m ripped). More on this later.

There appears to be a direct correlation between visible/tangible results from an action (or attempted new habit) and your ability to maintain it. As long as you perform the action regularly and you are able to shortly recognize the benefits the action is likely to remain ingrained. When I first started flossing (less than a year ago!) the first few days I was shocked at how good it felt and how clean my teeth felt after. This habit took no effort at all to maintain and right away it felt weird when I skipped flossing.

How about exercise? It seems to come easily for some and harder for others. I do get that “good feeling” from exercising, its just my laziness seems to overwhelm it in most cases. That’s obviously not the case for other people. A potential solution could be to give yourself some kind of direct feedback to encourage the behavior. Tracking performance might work, as long as you don’t get discouraged and are knowledgeable enough to change up your routine when you stop progressing. The best thing I can think of here would be doing a set of random lifts and cardio exercises and recording your initial performance (X reps at N weight, Z minute mile, etc.). Then going forward you start to focus on individual areas and record your performance over time. You will see considerable improvement for a short period until you plateau out. Instead of quitting, you could then switch to another area and go right back into improvement. It’s not ideal for building muscle, etc. but its much better than nothing.

Some things are obviously harder to track. I’ve tried to meditate daily for the past 5 months. I have managed to keep it up relatively well; I average 15 minutes per session about 3-4 days a week. I wasn’t expecting much in the way of tangible benefits here although I have been pleasantly surprised with interesting thoughts that come into my head pretty well developed already (like this one), as well as a general feeling of clarity and energy following a session (like now). Another habit which I’ve been hoping to start but haven’t yet is the idea of a personal review. I write down a lot of ideas and thoughts that I start developing but quickly abandon as I run into resistance. I think there is definite value in going over everything I’ve left aside to see if fresh eyes can find a solution to previous road blocks, but its hard to find time when I could be looking at or thinking about new things. Part of this process could be reviewing habits that were attempted and monitor how well they have been maintained, and why or why not.

A major problem with science is that we’re largely spoon fed the process by way of others’ results. It is important to learn to perform science on oneself; perform experiments in your life and try to understand the underlying processes. Record results and form new hypotheses, which again must be tested.

2 thoughts on “Habits

  1. Let’s look at your two cases, flossing vs gym, from an operant conditioning perspective (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operant_conditioning):

    -The “good feeling” from working out is a positive reinforcement of the behavior. By doing sets of push ups you are awarded health and a sexy physique. But if your default level of health and appearance is personally tolerable, you have little to lose by not doing push ups.

    -In the case of flossing, you immediately feel the positive reward of clean teeth. But when you don’t floss you also experience the positive punishment of discomfort in your mouth. So everyday you are both flossing, and also avoiding not flossing.

    I believe experimenters have found positive reinforcement to be most effective for long term behavior when the reward is given at random intervals upon successful completions of the behavior, and at differing magnitudes. Perhaps you’d be more inclined to keep a normal work out schedule if your reinforcement was periodic compliments by random females.

    1. Ya thats true. Dopamine spike for monkeys performing a task in order to get a reward was highest in anticipation of the reward (rather than when they actually receive it) and when the reward was doled out completely randomly (after performing the task, they would only receive the reward 50% of the time)

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