Friday, February 12, 2016

Habits: my new favorite form of behavior modification

The other day, I realized that the tools I reach for when I'm trying to solve a problem in my life have changed a lot recently.

I was thinking to myself, "Hmm, I want to go out socially more often. How do I make this happen?" And I briefly considered using something like Beeminder - a commitment device that also helps you track your progress. I've had some success using Beeminder in the past, and systems like it. In fact, a few years ago, the main way I would have tried to change my behavior would be via using an external system: Beeminder, or asking Quasar to remind me to do it...

But using Beeminder felt weird to me now, and I realized the reason was that for the past year or so, I've almost entirely been using habits to change my behavior. And it's worked really well.

An example: I got into Stoicism recently, and wanted to get myself to practice negative visualization on a regular basis. Rather than trying to track this through an external system, I decided that I would remind myself to try and practice negative visualization every time I'm on an elevator. This happens frequently enough, and I don't have much else of value to do during that time, so it's not too hard for me to remember that there's something to do then.

Another example: I wanted to do more writing and introspection, because I missed the sense of clarity I got from writing about my feelings and thoughts. So I set an alarm for every morning, half an hour before I would normally set my alarm, and would wake up then, sit on the couch, and write. This was a strong habit that kept me writing for a long time. The main problem with it was that it wasn't very generalizable - when I went somewhere else, or on the weekends, I usually forgot to write, because the "wake up -> sit on couch" cue just wasn't available. And eventually, my sleep schedule made it implausible. I do think it implanted a more general habit in my brain, though: something like "if I am feeling confused about something, or feel like I want to tell someone something but I'm not sure who, write it down." And much more strongly: "if I am feeling conflicted or like I can't deal with my emotions, write to process." That one's an urge that I've had on some level for a long time, but which I strengthened this way.

I think this has a couple of advantages over a system like Beeminder (at least for me). First, there's a lot less cognitive overhead involved. Once a habit is established, things just happen automatically without you having to think about them. To use Beeminder, you have to establish a special meta-habit just to check Beeminder itself, and to think about your Beeminder goals whenever they're relevant.

Second, it feels less punitive and harsh to me. When I try to set external goals and impose them on my future self, my later reaction is usually to feel rebellious; why did past-me think they were better qualified to make this decision than me, when current-me has more information about the situation? I don't want to punish myself for making different decisions than I want to in the future, because that just hurts, and I find it ineffective. It makes me throw up my hands and say "Well fuck you, past-me; fuck you and your stupid goals!"

Instead, I want to gently guide myself in the right direction, and set reminders that I can trust to bring the right things to my attention at the right time. And the simplest, though not most versatile, way to do that is via deliberately forming habits.

1 comment :

  1. I disagree about the Beeminder meta-habit thing. Personally, I have all my Beeminder goals pop up in my email inbox and on my cell phone from the app. Two of them are daily-maintenance stuff on the level of 'hey, you might forget to eat. Remember to eat.', so this shows up at least once a day, and when I'm in the app or on the site I usually remember which non-daily goals might need action. It has lower cognitive overhead; I don't need to remember, it reminds me.

    And also: I started these as externally-managed, but they've become more ingrained as time goes on. My daily-maintenance tasks are now mostly using Beeminder as a record rather than a commitment mechanism, with the added benefit that when I am extremely low-energy and self-care feels pointless, sticking to my no-derail record on those goals is usually sufficiently motivating. So it's mostly, like the wake-and-write habit, turned into a general behavior I don't really have to work at.

    I think the main difference in effectiveness is probably how we view the external commitment. I've used it mainly for things that I value but forget; I see the reminders and think 'Oh yeah, past me thought was a good idea, thanks for setting up a reminder'. The other part might be how much of a routine we already have; I have no routine to speak of, so injecting a new habit into my routine is not really workable; even my get-out-of-bed procedure is not a regular habit. So an external system that provides hooks and reminders is important.