The Holy Grail of Self-Improvement

The holy grail of self-improvement in modern times is a framework for individual experimentation and learning that can be used by the average person. The key question such a framework would have to answer is “How do people change?”


In this essay I will suggest possible answers to this question by looking at the recent history and theory of behavior change, the main obstacles this framework would have to address to be feasible, and a few promising directions from research and practice.

The fall of Neo-Pavlovian behavior change

Every book, seminar, and workshop on self-improvement (very broadly defined) ends the same way: “Do X.”

The topic could be leadership or public speaking, correct running or posture, relationships or spirituality, creativity or productivity. If it operates even partly on the assumption that people can change, period, the “takeaway advice” won’t seek to merely change your thoughts or beliefs. It will seek to change what you DO.

And they never want you to do X just once. They want you to do X…wait for it…repeatedly. They want you to make it a habit. As if doing that is trivial; just a matter of setting the autopilot in the right direction. Somewhere between doing it once and doing it many times, this daily action, however mundane, is supposed to transform your life. Assigning a (preferably odd) number like 21, 47, or 99 to the number of days it takes to “make it” a habit lends both scientific credibility and mystery to the advice.

Thus the current thinking on behavior change is that it boils down to habit formation. I’ll call this theory Neo-Pavlovian Behaviorism (NPB), a throwback to Pavlov and his salivating dogs. We’re back to setting up simple one-way triggering mechanisms, linking cues and rewards to cut out all the stuff in between. You know, the human. This era has reached its peak with the launch of the Pavlok self-shocking bracelet, with its promises to shock you out of bad habits and into good ones. The trendy veneer of “habits” has been added to avoid the connotations (and evidence) of electroshock’s dehumanizing effects, but also in response to people’s hunger for stable routines in the midst of economic and social upheaval.

But I believe the first cracks are starting to form in the NPB edifice, pointing to a new and more fruitful direction: challenging, shaping, and creating mental models on an individual basis.

The enduring power of mental models

Historically, NPB’s rise is closely tied to the rise of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) in recent decades, which shares a similar operating principle — that much of the complexity of the human psyche can be short-circuited or at least ignored, in favor of “retraining” unproductive recurring thought patterns. In other words, changing mental habits directly.

The problem with this approach is that the pesky human resists short-circuiting. It’s becoming increasingly clear that underlying thoughts and beliefs do matter. They matter quite a bit. Specifically, how thoughts and beliefs are structured in the mind to explain how things work — mental models — I believe are the key to understanding not only academic theories of behavior change, but also how to effect it on the level of a single individual.

There’s a sort of meta example of the power of mental models of behavior within the history of psychology itself. As the excellent Guardian article Therapy Wars explains, Freudian psychoanalysis is today widely viewed as debunked. Scientists denounce it with unusually strong words: “Arguably no other notable figure in history was so fantastically wrong about nearly every important thing he had to say” than Sigmund Freud, the philosopher Todd Dufresne says. Nobel prize-winning scientist Peter Medawar describes psychoanalysis as “a terminal product as well — something akin to a dinosaur or a zeppelin in the history of ideas, a vast structure of radically unsound design and with no posterity.”

Yet as the fantastic BBC documentary The Century of the Self tells it, there is a different version of this story. Freud’s ideas were channeled through his nephew, Edward Bernays, who became the father of American advertising. Bernays invented the art and science of public relations, pioneering its use to sell cigarettes (aka “torches of liberty”), recasting consumption as a form of status and self expression, and developing the techniques of engineered consent so familiar to us today. Even if you reject all of Freud’s specific claims and conclusions, his basic premise — that we are driven by deep, conflicting forces that must be controlled or satiated — lived on through his nephew, evolving to underpin modern consumerism.

A traveling exhibition called Disney and Dali: Architects of the Imagination unapologetically traces Freud’s influence on Dalí’s art, and Dalí’s influence and collaboration with Walt Disney, of which the film Fantasia is the most obvious product (it’s coming to San Francisco in July). Freud set the stage of the subconscious mind, Dalí provided the fantastic imagery, and Disney figured out monetization and distribution. This gives new meaning to the Disneyfication of society at large.

The mental model that Freud created as a mere backdrop for his theories outlived those theories, becoming a force unto itself. The resilience and adaptability of this model is highlighted by recent findings suggesting the “fall” of cognitive-behavioral therapy: a 2015 meta-analysis found its effect size across studies declining by half since 1977. Another study soon after found psychoanalysis dramatically more effective in treating serious depression than any other method.

The pendulum swings the other way. Or the tables turn, depending on which model you prefer.

Self-administered Freudianism

As interesting as this history is, it’s not the focus of this essay. I want to turn now to individual application by looking at a technique that, in my experience running habit formation workshops, is among the most effective in changing behavior: Small Wins. It does this by working not at the level of external cues and rewards, but internal mental models.

Drawing from self-verification theory and BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits program, and popularized by blogger James Clear, the technique starts with the criticism that most attempts at behavior change make the mistake of creating “high-stakes” situations. People tend to choose difficult goals, like going on a run every morning, meditating an hour per day, or studying a new language every evening. They choose these sexy-sounding, impressive habits as a way of maximizing the initial boost of energy and excitement that most rely on to get started. The problem with continuing to rely on sustained momentum is that any hiccup or missed day is interpreted as a failure. High stakes means, sooner or later, a long way to fall.

Small Wins is the technique of replacing this binary win/loss outcome with a series of progressively easier versions of the habit. If you can’t run 5 miles, run 3. If you can’t run 3, run 1. If you can’t run 1, run around the block, or walk around your house, or pace the living room, or if necessary, put your running shoes on, declare victory, and then take them off. You do only as much as you can, or feel like, or have time for. Any excuse is valid, as long as you do something. You get as much credit for the easiest version as the hardest version.

This explanation always elicits incredulous laughs. It sounds like a blank check for laziness. But something interesting happens when you try it: by eliminating the “barrier to entry” of even getting started, it calls your bluff that some external force (lack of time, money, or energy) is the true constraint. By reframing the black-and-white choice as a menu of options tailored to any level of effort you’re willing to expend, it calls attention to the fact that the most difficult step is 0 to 1, not 1 to n. Doing something, anything, instead of nothing. The rest is just optimization. This method shines a spotlight on the ways we twist logic into arbitrary “behavioral rules” to justify almost any decision. When you feel resistance to flossing even one tooth (which will inevitably happen), you have to come to terms with the reality that the friction is not between you and the world. It is between your conflicting motives.

We set up false choices: “I can’t exercise. Too busy with this project at work.” We use moral licensing: “I saved so much by not buying X, I deserve to buy Y.” We make questionable assumptions, and then treat them as laws of nature: “I can’t work out if I’ve already showered.” We pretend like we have control over situations we can’t influence (“If I spend a lot of time worrying, the plane is less likely to crash”) while denying control when we actually can (“If there’s free doughnuts in the break room, I can’t resist eating them”).

All the familiar cognitive biases and failure modes are recruited to tame the cognitive dissonance of following our impulses in a conformist world. These behavioral axioms eventually come to seem so real that we can feel trapped by mutually contradictory rules without realizing that both their framing and content is self-imposed.

The goal of this exercise, and where I strongly differ from mainstream authors, is NOT to steamroll your subconscious urges into submission. This shouldn’t become an abstract high-modernist fantasy, rationalizing the unruly child from above. Bad habits often serve equally useful functions as good habits. The goal is to overcome “introspection illusion” — the (often mistaken) assumption that we understand our own motives and fears. Importantly, and unlike behavioral economics exercises like “aversion factoring,” it treats this process as experiential and embodied, instead of yet another intellectual game hobbled by the very beliefs you’re trying to expose.

The point here is that personal mental models are not incidental, or purely theoretical. The model you use to understand a given change powerfully influences the outcome.

Take meditation. It’s fascinating to me to hear how people conceive of what they’re actually doing sitting on the mat in silence. In my experience, the longer they stick to the unhelpful beliefs that they need to “empty the mind” or “find peace,” the less likely they are to stick with it. A more useful metaphor is bicep curls. Every time your mind wanders, the act of bringing attention back to the breath is a repetition, strengthening the muscle of focus. This allows you to greet the inevitable with a sense of progress: just as you need gravity to build muscle, you need distraction to build focus.

Or consider the ego depletion vs. non-depletion debate, which has recently been in the news. Voluminous research has shown that willpower is like a muscle — using it too much makes it tired, leading to poor performance and poor choices. Equally voluminous research indicates that willpower is unlimited, or actually increases with use, or depends on your beliefs about the nature of willpower.

But my favorite model is that willpower is a story. People do what they enjoy, and then narrativize it as self-discipline after the fact. When we see someone with high performance we desire, we extrapolate from the immense amount of effort it takes for us to perform even at a low level, and conclude that if they perform at 10x our level, it must require 10x the willpower. But this ignores the critical fact that they enjoy doing it. It doesn’t take willpower for a hard-core runner to get up at 5 in the morning. It takes willpower for them not to. The hard truth is that no one really does anything they don’t enjoy for long. At most, they focus their efforts on finding the elusive intersection between what they enjoy and what they must do.

I once went to a health conference, where a professor presented his research into the relative efficacy of different forms of exercise. Interrupting the mind-numbing charts and graphs, a bewildered soul raised his hand and asked, “But how do I know which type of exercise is right for me?” “That’s easy,” the professor said. “The one you like.” Apparently the average exercise regimen lasts about six weeks, so sticking to it in any form is far more important than how you go about it, for everyone but elite athletes. Other studies have found that the most important factor in selecting athletic footwear is comfort, and a major reason interval training is more effective is that it is simply more enjoyable.

These conclusions seem radical because they contradict one of the deepest models many of us seem to hold in common: that the more positive and impactful the change, the more painful it must be.

Curiosity arbitrage, via dopamine

You could conclude, based on the above point, that habit formation is simply a matter of finding ways to make unenjoyable activities more enjoyable. There is a limited sense in which this is true. Getting a dog may encourage you to walk more. Listening to podcasts may make cooking more tolerable.

But there is a serious flaw (besides being factually untrue) in treating human motivation as a simple choice between pain and pleasure, with our mind presumably always pushing us toward the latter: there are diminishing returns to pure pleasure-seeking, and a finite number of ways to make something enjoyable. The most durable habits are inherently rewarding, a quality that tends to arise because they are difficult or challenging, not despite of it (think puzzles).

A possible answer comes from understanding the role of dopamine, a neurochemical that pops up in any discussion of novelty, satisfaction, and risk-taking in humans. It’s been labeled the “Pleasure Neurochemical” by popular media, but this isn’t quite accurate. As Kelly McGonigal explains in her book The Willpower Instinct, the feeling that dopamine imparts is more like anticipation or arousal: “We feel alert, awake, and captivated. We recognize the possibility of feeling good and are willing to work for that feeling.”

McGonigal cites studies showing that “…you can annihilate the entire dopamine system in a rat’s brain, and it will still get a goofy grin on its face if you feed it sugar. What it won’t do is work for the treat. It likes the sugar; it just doesn’t want it before it has it.” It’s easy to see how natural selection could have favored the almost happy (thus motivated) individual over the totally content one.

In other words, the voice of dopamine is not “That felt good!” It is “If you do this, then you’ll feel good.” Which explains that “one more…” feeling you get when eating dopamine-triggering foods like chips and fries, which persists right up until you’ve eaten so much that you’re sick. It also explains why you can still crave “junk” — from fast food to action movies to vacuous social media — even when you feel terrible while consuming it and after. The “reward” associated with anticipating the experience is far more powerful than the experience itself. By the time you sit down to enjoy that hamburger and soda, the brain has already received enough of a reward in the form of anticipation to reinforce the craving for next time, even if you don’t actually enjoy more than the first few bites.

Our brains’ ability to trick itself into doing things it doesn’t even like can be a bit discouraging, but also presents us with a promising possibility: making new habits enjoyable not through visceral pleasure, but through finding new ways to be curious about them.

Curiosity is a powerful phenomenon: it is a motivated state of mind that taps directly into our need for novelty, which Gregory Berns claims in Satisfaction is the most fundamental source of life satisfaction. Like anticipation, and using the same dopamine pathways, it points to “what’s next,” focusing our attention and efforts on the “information gaps” between what we know and don’t know. But curiosity has another quality that makes it a much more sustainable, potentially even addictive, source of motivation: the more gaps you fill, the more you see. The more you know, the more you know you don’t know, the fractal nature of your ignorance unfolding endlessly before you.

I call this curiosity arbitrage: how many different ways can you discover to be curious about something? What trades could you make between different versions of yourself through time if you had an infinitely self-replenishing resource; one that grows in proportion to how much you use it?

Habits as emergent patterns

So far we’ve talked about models as being more or less useful, or having different effects. But is there anything I’m willing to take a stand on? Not much, but I think we can understand behavior change a bit more accurately using the idea of emergence.

Emergence comes from the study of complex adaptive systems (ant colonies, networks of neurons, the immune system, the Internet, the global economy). It describes systems whose complex behavior is more than the sum of its simple parts. Think of board games like chess — a couple dozen rules governing just 64 squares somehow produces possibilities that we’re still discovering after two centuries of study. Or a seed — somehow it contains specifications for unlimited variations of structures thousands of times its size. Many of the most important and least-understood phenomena in the world exhibit emergent properties, from consciousness to intelligence to ethics to life itself.

Let’s start by asking “What exactly is a habit?” It has a physical manifestation, but is defined primarily in the mind. It exists in time and through time, but depends equally on past performance and future intention. Thus at least 50% of a habit is immaterial and doesn’t exist according to science. A habit implies continuity but clearly doesn’t require it — you can miss a day and still “have” it. Heck, you can abstain for years and find its strength undiminished (as in alcoholism, or riding a bike), meaning it has no half-life and doesn’t decay, at least in some cases. Which brings up a problem of definition: you can perform a habit 100 different ways and still consider it the same one. And categorization: 100 different habits we still categorize using this one word. You could say that a habit is the purpose it serves, regardless of how you go about it. But that would seem to imply there are no habits, only intentions. Which again, aren’t measurable and thus seem to be outside the scope of science.

Many of the above features can be explained by thinking of a habit not as a “thing,” but as an emergent pattern. An emergent pattern arises from the interactions between simpler parts, but is also distinct from those parts. Think of the curve made by a row of balls being rolled down an incline. The curve doesn’t exist without the balls, but removing any given ball will not destroy it. And curves in general continue to exist even if you have no balls. Emergent patterns persist even with continual turnover in their constituents — think of a standing wave behind a rock, or the human body replacing all its cells every few years. This, of course, accurately describes a habit. It not only tolerates but requires that each day’s manifestation begin and end and pass away, to make room for the next oscillation.

An important feature of emergent patterns of all types — creativity, love, culture, theories — is that they cannot be programmed or dictated to meet direct objectives, like a computer program. They have to be grown, not built, because at every stage of development there is a different system of forces to be balanced. Imagine trying to “build” a human as a fully-formed adult: you’d presumably start with a beating heart because that is a “core” feature, but the blood would pour out on the ground without a functioning circulatory system. Starting with the circulatory system wouldn’t make sense without a respiratory system to bring in oxygen. And so on. You can’t even understand an already existing emergent pattern by analyzing its components — because it is more than the sum of its parts, disassembling the parts will not reveal the essence, the “more.” Thus the pointlessness of all the books and websites chronicling the habits of successful people in tedious detail: success is an emergent pattern of emergent patterns, even more resistant to imitation.

The upshot is that by accepting that habits, as emergent patterns, cannot be directly programmed to achieve certain goals, we are led to an uncomfortable conclusion: that despite being partially defined in terms of future intentions, habits cannot be designed and executed strictly according to upfront intentions. This conclusion neatly sums up the current state of affairs in our understanding of behavior change, as summarized by a 2006 meta-analysis: “Across dozens of studies on behavior change interventions, researchers have found that the conscious mind’s sincere, concerted intention to change behavior has little relationship to actual change in behavior.

It is this grim conclusion that laughs in the face of our best efforts to “convince” people out of bad habits using rational arguments.

Disturbance propagation

An emergent theory of behavior change seems to imply that we have no control, that we’re just along for the ride. If you can’t impose a goal on the system, what’s the point of trying?

But there is a glimmer of light in remembering that the “system” we are discussing here is us, and that of all the “objects” interacting to produce emergent habit patterns, at least a few of those things we have some influence over – attention, intention, free will. There is one idea from the study of emergence that may provide clues as to how we can act within this model: disturbance propagation.

Disturbance propagation describes one way that emergent systems can change — by using an external disturbance as the “seed” of a new pattern, and propagating this new pattern across the rest of the system in a cascading sequence. Think of how the body heals itself after sustaining a wound. It would be difficult or impossible for the healing process to be directed from a centralized source like the brain. There are too many variables, too many ways it can happen, and the transit time for sending updates and receiving instructions is too long for something so potentially life-threatening. Instead, the “disturbance” of the wound activates a locally-directed sequence of steps, coagulation followed by homeostasis followed by repair. This decentralized mechanism has numerous advantages, including that it works when the central executive is offline, and the steps can occur at different speeds in different places as needed. At a higher level, this leaves the brain free to determine the source of the wound, and to integrate this new information into the pattern of how it perceives the environment.

I would argue that a similar mechanism explains how habits are broken and formed. As any product designer will tell you, your main competition is not another new product. It is the status quo. Our existing habits are so stable that it takes an outside force — a disturbance — to destabilize the system just long enough for new solutions to establish themselves. This study reported that 36% of successful changes in behavior were associated with a move to a new place (nearly three times the rate associated with unsuccessful changes). I’m sure you’ve experienced this — moving to a new city or traveling, suddenly all your behavioral axioms become unmoored from their context, and it takes all your energy to fulfill basic needs like food, water, and a place to sleep. It is during these in-between times that new habits are formed and old ones broken almost effortlessly. From the chaos emerges a new pattern of habits to resolve a new set of forces.

There’s even evidence that emergent systems need chaos in order to form stable patterns. Habits seem to be little bubbles of structure in the midst of our chaotic lives; thus many habit formation theories emphasize controlling the environment and reducing variability in a bid to help these bubbles survive. The problem is that it takes a tremendous amount of willpower to control the environment and reduce variability in the first place — the energy required is neither created nor destroyed, just shifted around a little. There is another model of how habits survive and grow in a chaotic environment that highlights a potential alternative: dissipative structures.

The idea is that sometimes the most efficient way for energy to be dissipated is through organized structures. Think of the whirlpool in a bathtub. No one designed it and it doesn’t require any extra energy to be maintained. If you disturb it, it gravitates naturally back to its previous form. This describes the ideal habit — it saves you energy not by preserving some conserved quantity of willpower, but by “sucking” disorderliness from the environment into a stable structure. The more chaos, the more order is created, like crystalline diamonds being formed under intense heat and pressure.

Lastly, disturbance propagation seems to imply that change only comes from outside. Which paradoxically would confirm behaviorism. But computer modeling of emergent systems in recent years has led to a firm conclusion, as described in Growing Artificial Societies: “Bottom-up models suggest that certain cataclysmic events — like extinctions — can be brought on endogenously, without external shocks (like meteor impacts) through local interactions alone.”

We can rest assured that there will be no shortage of “disturbances” to propagate. They can come from the outside (life events), from inside (mid-life crises), and can possibly even be created on purpose, like Josh Waitzkin’s “self-created earthquakes” that high performers call upon for creative inspiration.

Self-efficacy and self-compassion: two sides of the same coin

On the surface, it would seem that an experimental framework for individuals is just around the corner. The military has OODA, companies have lean, teams of programmers have agile and scrum. The trend seems to be going smaller and more decentralized, as the need to innovate diffuses from C-suites to living rooms. But translating such a tool to the level of a single individual is an altogether different challenge.

The main reason is that most people’s risk tolerance is very low, because self-efficacy (defined as “a person’s conviction or confidence about his or her abilities to mobilize the motivation, cognitive resources or courses of action needed to successfully execute a specific task within a given context”) is remarkably fragile. When it comes to trying and learning new things, people have difficulty transferring success in one arena to even highly related ones. Even small failures lead to learned helplessness so quickly, we learn to protect against that eventuality by not trying new things unless success is guaranteed.

The primary risk of entrepreneurship and other free agent lifestyles is not financial or even social — it is the risk to a person’s very self-concept as someone who does what they set out to do. In entrepreneurial endeavors that depend just as much on luck and timing as intelligence and hard work, this feels like a terrible gamble. And it’s a gamble with odds you can’t improve through careful preparation and planning (in fact, too much planning will probably worsen your odds). This sort of risk is not any less threatening in cultures that are relatively tolerant of failure, like the U.S. If anything, it’s more threatening, since these cultures also tend to be more individualistic, with your actions reflecting more directly on your character and abilities. Stripped of risk-mitigating social structures, we are faced with the terror of total accountability. The correlation between individualism and suicide rates in developed countries speaks to the risks of this sort of attribution.

One of the necessary aspects of any experimentation framework is the atomization and disposability of the things being tested. The Scientific Method doesn’t work if hypotheses can’t be discarded. Testing different business models won’t do any good if you’re unwilling to pivot. The reason lifestyle experimentation is so risky for individuals is that, unlike a company or a product, you can’t just fail fast, walk away, and try again. There is no exit— this is your life. Self-concepts are not disposable.

As we reach new speeds of technological and social change, people’s self-concepts and routines get disrupted simultaneously. Adapting to these changes requires more fundamental behavior change. But as we’ve learned through painful experience, traditional approaches to learning such as formal education are simply ineffective at changing behaviors at this level.

Take the example of health. This 2012 AON Hewitt healthcare survey reports that 80% of healthcare costs are accounted for by 15 conditions, which are driven by just 8 risks that are at least partly behavior-dependent (poor diet, physical inactivity, smoking, lack of health screening, poor stress management, poor standard of care, insufficient sleep, excessive alcohol consumption). We pour billions into education and training, but ignore the fact that most health-related decisions are based on habits, intuitive response or assessment, self concept, or heuristics, not rational cost-benefit analyses. When smokers are shown anti-smoking videos, it just triggers their urge to smoke. Adding healthy items to a fast food menu makes sales of hamburgers skyrocket.

What we need if we want to change behavior at this fundamental level is to replace predictive models of behavior change—do this and you’ll get that —with exploratory models. The purpose of an exploratory model would be to guide further inquiry, to help formulate relevant questions, and to identify repeating patterns, whether in the form of habits or new, more helpful self-concepts. Just as importantly, it would also look backward, helping people tell new stories and reinterpret old ones.

Stories may actually be a more accurate way of describing how people think about and use mental models of behavior change. Stories, like emergent systems, only move in one direction. They cannot be rolled back and played again. This irreproducibility suggests the importance of another form of psychological capital that is also highly correlated with successful behavior change: self-compassion. They are two sides to the same coin — you need self-efficacy to believe you can do it, but you equally need self-compassion to be ok when you don’t. Self-compassion aids change by removing the veil of shame and pain that keeps you from examining the causes of your mistakes (and often, leads you to indulge in the very same bad habit as a way of forgetting the pain). Self-forgiveness is the first step in fostering an invitational attitude that is open to feedback and learning, from yourself and others.

There is something about the turning of this coin — between efficacy and compassion — that I believe lies at the heart of the experimentation framework I’m envisioning. And the more I think about it, the more I suspect compassion is the far more radical and important side.

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About Tiago Forte

Tiago Forte is the founder of training and consulting firm Forte Labs. His main interest is the intersection of design, technology, and modern work. Follow him at his blog or on Twitter


  1. You buried the lede a bit, but I hope you’ll get to it in future posts. I think the radical insight in this whole direction of thinking is the idea of “exploratory habit formation.”

    Paradox: exploration implies newly improvised behavior in never-before-encountered circumstances. Will necessarily involve anomie, nausea, unpredictability, unrepeatability etc.

    Habit: established, routinized, even ritualized behavior in predictable environments.

    How you put these 2 together is sort of the central challenge of behavior change. “Order out of chaos complex emergence” sort of covers it as a phrase, but the challenge is figuring out what that phrase means in individual behaviors. How do you pick the right disturbances? How do you make sure the earthquake destroys the status quo and clears room for the new instead of reinforcing the status quo and clearing the exploration slums where new possibilities are being seeded?

    • I had not thought of exploratory habit formation as the model I was getting at here, but it seems intuitively right. Maybe a habit is the minimal viable behavior for testing the lifestyle frontier.

    • Great read. I also love the fact that its a paradox. Once you’ve hit a paradox in your reasoning you’re onto something (that’s the best way i can formulate this intuition so far). Then there’s the practice of making the paradox useful (actionable). Reconciling them and acting upon is part of the HC problem set.

  2. Tangled Z says

    Great article, thanks for writing!

    Like Ven, I also wanted to ask you to elaborate on the idea of “exploratory habit formation”. Intuitively I can see where you’re coming from, but I don’t “get” it in the same way that I get predictive models – probability and statistics, on which prediction is based on, have been my tools of the trade for most of my adult life. What are the tools underlying explorative models?

  3. Nice article. I thought I came down to just one long article in Pocket for this weekend but now have a bunch of things you have linked to :-)

    One quick question: How similar is this ‘exploratory’ method of habit formation to the ‘Systems’ method (vs Goals) that Scott Adams says?

    • Steffen Krogmann says

      I think it would be kind of the opposite.
      The Systems Method is very close to habits.

      • Hmm.. I sort of thought “Goals” are close to Regular Habits while “Systems” are close to “Emergent Habits”, the way described here. Nonetheless, I think we both are telling the same thing with different words so it does not matter :)

  4. “On the surface, it would seem that an experimental framework for individuals is just around the corner. The military has OODA[…]”

    “ […]moving to a new city or traveling, suddenly all your behavioral axioms become unmoored from their context, and it takes all your energy to fulfill basic needs like food, water, and a place to sleep.”

    “[…]most people’s risk tolerance is very low, because self-efficacy […] is remarkably fragile. ”

    I’m surprised you didn’t keep going with this idea of an ‘experimental framework for individuals’, as the dots seem to connect right up:

    – Constant unmooring (via physical moving, ending stale/toxic relationships and social context such as a mediocre job etc) seems like a key ingredient.

    – Could call it the BOODA (-B-reaking/unmooring) and perhaps Adapt instead of just Act.

    – Adapting would include the basic needs fulfillment like you mentioned, but also the next tiers like making loving relationships, being part of a community, creative expression, etc.

    Even if one’s relationships are good, and their job is more than adequate to survival, giving them up to form new ones (and iterate on that n times) may be an attractive concept. At least it was for 21-year-old me.

    I think the same may be true for many in the audience of this site who do have enough self-efficacy to leave everything behind (at least temporarily) and immerse themselves in a new environment. Discovering new ways of finding basic needs, making friendships, and doing all those things that humans do is a good way to live.

    If you took this advice, you’d quit your software development job and go work on an organic farm in Hawaii. Aloha~

  5. “Small Wins is the technique of replacing this binary win/loss outcome with a series of progressively easier versions of the habit. If you can’t run 5 miles, run 3. If you can’t run 3, run 1. If you can’t run 1, run around the block, or walk around your house, or pace the living room, or if necessary, put your running shoes on, declare victory, and then take them off. You do only as much as you can, or feel like, or have time for. Any excuse is valid, as long as you do something. You get as much credit for the easiest version as the hardest version.”

    I wonder if a way to approach “individual experimentation and learning that can be used by the average person” can simply be to dabble. Well, I wonder that because that’s what I do. :)

    When battling a learning curve with complex subject matter, I try to simply move one step ahead every day. TBH, in the face of a steep learning curve (see “The Curse of Development”, having the “one thing” I’ve moved forward is the only way to get the critic in me to shut up and allow me to sleep at night. Dabbling, therefore, is not only not a costly waste of time, it’s productive. I can sleep!

    In addition to allowing me to sleep at night, I find that dabbling within the subject matter allows me to follow my curiosity. This keeps me interested.

    And yet, the real magic happens down the road. By following my interest (and not applying a high-modernist approach), I plot a lot of dots of disconnected knowledge. Over time, lines serendipitously seem to connect. This always feels good to me, it’s exciting. It makes me want to call up and talk to anyone who’ll listen.

    In truth, sometimes these insights aren’t really insights. More like fool’s gold. But sometimes there’s actually something there worth considering. These are original thoughts. And even when I rediscover something that’s already been discovered by someone else, and therefore isn’t original, it’s still mine since I came to the same conclusion on my own.

    Moreover, allowing for dots of disconnected knowledge, and anticipating some future stimulus will either connect them (or that I’ll find use for them individually in some future situation), seems to line-up with the “The Law of Agreement” (Tina Fey?) that’s been written about here on this blog.

    Some of the most fun conversations I’ve ever had are when someone says something and it triggers something in my head that connects previously unconnected ideas. That “oh! that makes me think of this!” moment.

    • “Lines serendipitously connecting” is something I think any creative person has experienced, and relies on. There’s a mysterious quality to it (or maybe emergent quality?) that can be supported/encouraged but not called up on demand.

  6. Equating ECT (high current long duration shocks applied through the brain) to Pavlok (low current microduration shocks to the wrist) is probably not fair.

    • Yeah you’re probably right. Although the Pavlok has a strength setting, which raised to the max and combined with putting it on the underside of your wrist instead of the top produces a surprisingly powerful shock.

  7. I’ve considered the habit of starting each day with 25 pushups for a few years, but faltered many times. In the past week I’ve been able to adopt it consistently for the first time, in part by compromising on the intensity of the pushups to get to some version of 25 pushups (knees on ground, etc.)

    John Oliver looked at this satirically but arrived at some of the same conclusion:

    Defining a goal as a referendum on your identity (run 5 miles everyday) can succeed for some people, but when it fails the source of failure is buried. Is it because you lack the muscles to run five miles, or you fear you lack the muscles, or you just don’t know which shoes to wear? Changing the definition of the habit is a bit like using story points in agile: what matters is you get your best estimate, get going, and roll with the punches.

    • I did the pushups thing, starting with 1 pushup on day 1, adding one per day, all the way to 30 on day 30. More than that requires intervals, multiple sets, different angles, etc. but since I started it as a 30-day experiment from the outset, I made it out with my self-efficacy intact. Downside is I stopped doing them, but I feel confident that if I were to start again, I could get to 30, and have a good idea of what it would take to go beyond.

      I think small wins doesn’t necessarily bury the source of failure. Even if the failure point is not purely in your head, SW focuses your attention on the general area, which makes you more likely to pinpoint causes.

  8. Fascinating article and interesting links to follow up on. In machine learning, this reminds me of the multi-armed bandit problem. Multi-armed bandit models an agent that simultaneously attempts to acquire new knowledge (“exploration”) and optimize decisions based on existing knowledge (“exploitation”). There are various strategies that try to find a balance between exploitation and exploration and exploring too freely, or not enough both have their own costs similar to how forming new habits versus utilizing the ones you currently have.

  9. Tiago,

    Love your writing, I’ve had very similar ideas. You might be interested in these articles about habits and changing habits:

    Keep up the good work!

  10. Great post! I’m in the middle of a career transition right now, and this gives me a lot of think about in terms of breaking/developing habits since I’m going to need to do some of that very soon.

    I think a lot of the self-criticisms we do in the West comes from concepts of original sin: kind of the never-ending pursuit of an ideal situation that we’ve “fallen” from, so to speak. Modern advertising is designed to take advantage of this guilt in order to push a product. Effective, but often very unhealthy.

  11. I recently read Brent’s biography of Charles Sanders Peirce, an American philosopher active around 1880-1910. He had an interesting definition of habit that encompasses more than the human ritual type – he would go so far to say that “gravity” was a habit of nature. He had an evolutionary cosmology, predating complexity theory/emergence stuff, where he looked at everything from physical laws, culture, meaning, and human behavior as all being susceptible to habit formation.

    There’s something continuous and zen-like in that for me – like the universe is just a habit-forming medium I live in, both of us slaves and masters to habits, but mostly slaves :). Then it becomes a different way of thinking about learning and curiosity: they are processes to discover the habits of language, other people, and the universe.

    • I’ve been tantalized by references in complexity theory, chaos theory, experimental physics, etc. to loops, toruses, limit cycles, oscillations, etc., but couldn’t find a way to incorporate them into this post (besides disturbance propagation and dissipative structures). I think some powerful parallels could be drawn between human habit formation and these phenomena, but I don’t know enough about them to make a strong argument.

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  13. There is a sweet spot on the curiosity front. Too large of an unknown and one can flounder or feel discouraged, too easy and the lack of challenge will keep curiosity dormant.

    It’s too bad amphetamines have such an addictive nature, as the careful and moderate of use of something like Adderall can be an exceptionally powerful tool for habit forming. The immediate dopamine surge after consumption is associated with any concurrent activity.

    • This is why I’m so interested in microdosing. Unfortunately all my friends are too straight and narrow so I have no one to introduce me to them (hint hint)

      • Ha! Gotta extend out your social circle. ;)

        I am a huge proponent of micro-dosing, with hallucinogens, MDMA or cognitive enhancers. My recommendation is to take a dosage that doesn’t impair your capacity to function, but still allows you to explore a refactored conscious experience.

        For the first few times I always recommend consumption in a safe and comfortable space, with the assistance of a non impaired guides. I personally have always found such experiences incredibly rewarding.

  14. I had been meaning to chime in on this for quite a while, and never quite found the time to go past a few bullet point style notes I had scribbled down, but since no one else had raised a few key missing points, here they are in raw/unedited form…

    1) Solid post on many of the surrounding concerns, and kudos for keeping it balanced on Freud vs. Mainstream (post-1950s-ish) Psychology. While Freud was wrong about a lot of things, he was also right about some important ones, at least in the aggregate, specifically the overall role of the Unconscious.

    Worth pointing out that he got many of the intial perspectives from the French Psychiatrists using Hypnosis at the Salpetriere hospital in Paris in the late 19th century, but was himself never that adept at the processes, hence his approximation of trance states by way of “Free Association” lying on the proverbial couch (made easier by the therapist sitting behind the client, and her voice thereby appearing disembodied).

    Ultimately, all “GTD” is about alignment of Conscious Mind plans/goals, and Unconscious Mind (UCM) readying of resources & many largely unconscious activities it performs in service of such a plan. You pointed toward this with the 2006 Meta Analysis quote.

    2) Much of the talk about habits remains rather nebulous without a foundation in a substrate, which we actually DO have in the form of Myelination = the coating of much-used Neural Network pathways with fats to act as a sort of “electrical tape” insulation (forming the “White Matter” of the brain), speeding up firing/propagation by up to a factor of 200x if I recall correctly.

    So I was surprised to see it brought up nowhere in the post or on the thread. Myelination is an ongoing, steady process based on behavior frequency, duration, & repetition. At the outset of a totally new learning task, there is none, and every single action feels slow & painful (like at first learning how to drive). Then a very light “coating” begins to stabilize things, but more in the sense of “tender green shoots”.

    With time/repetition, the coating will thicken, and the learning solidify, performance speed up greatly, and likely also some additional synaptic density be formed (= more Grey Matter volume in the responsible areas), though we can ignore this last part here.

    3) So in some ways the whole game is to allow Myelination to set in completely enough to “burn in” the tasks/skill/learning without first running out of Dopamine/motivation to keep going. 2-3 weeks is near the minimum time, but that doesn’t guarantee that things will not get “stripped back down” if the behavior is not pursued further.

    “Habit” probably requires 2-3 months minimum, depending on the *intrinsic perceived value* to the indivdual (=their UCM!). Example: Teenager views car as highly desirable superpower toward independence, asf., hence will be extremely motivated to learn, and keep going even past initial awkwardness & disappointments.

    4) To get a sense of the degree to which Myelination affects performance AND internal mental state, watch this short video of the “Cup Stacking” champion kid – both as to his speed, effortlessness, and near total tranquility of his mind during the process as opposed to a beginner. This is what most Skill / Talent ultimately looks like and is based upon:

    5) Myelination explains your “Small Victories” approach usefulness, because it keeps you going and repeating, avoiding the trap of too much disappointment/punishment “extinguishing” (in Behaviorist parlance) your behavior (initially really just your desire for the behavior). (Too-)Big Goal -> Failure -> Abort.

    6) The Human Mind (greatly simplified) can be thought of as a relatively simple 2-stroke engine in terms of Dopamine -> the powerstroke that provides movement/”motivation”, and then Serotonin as the return stroke that makes youy feel successful / valued / loved, and provides for the next Dopamine push. Without the Serotonin/success part, the feedback loop is interrupted, the engine stalls. (Yes, there can be other “feel good” Neurotransmitters in play, some of which may be even more immediate, and more fluctuating. Let’s keep it simple.)

    You were mostly correct on Dopa, and I would highly recomment the points made by the great Sapolsky lectures on Dopa available on YouTube; specifically the point about Max. Dopa occuring at *perceived* 50/50 odds of success, while low odds lead to low motivation, as do somewhat surprisingly too-high odds (basically: Boredom, less motivation as a denfense against Local Maxima!?). At that level, we give maximum effort, but to get there we have to first get to those odds!

    7) Arguably, the ever-changing (and arguably often suffering from Sensory Deprivation…) task landscape of Modernity leads to a lack of easy-to-lock-in tasks vis-a-vis most of human/pre-human history. And the pay-offs that were supposed to come from our immediate environment become ever more remote, if they come at all… so the Dopa/Serotonin feedback loop “hangs” much of the time. You can learn how to write the same blog post over & over, you can’t quite myelinate/”burn in” writing a totally different one each time.

    8) Risk tolerance is indeed very low, and hence self-efficacy very fragile, because we are most likely programmed this way from Evolutionary Psychology: It made all of the sense in the world for 100s of thousands of years… Why risk completely new taks when there is no near-immediate payoff? Who’s got time/energy for that?

    Arguably, even in later “developed” human history, it largely takes the guidance of prior-task-success-full elders/role models to guide/coax/threaten us through the “uncanny valley” of getting to and then past 50/50 odds and Max Dopa. Serotonin needs to stay high, and love/value of the group needs to be assured through various mechanisms to get your UCM to fire up the Dopamine.

    Self-efficacy is fragile because the initial, predictable “head into the wall” new task failures will otherwise begin to lower your Serotonin enough to send you down into a Depression feedback loop. Self-concepts begin to take a hit very rapidly as you point out, and are not easily replaced/”disposable”.

    9) Self-Compassion can be a mitigating key, though it does go against our natural instincts: Allow for failure realizing the Myelination issue in its inherent trap of –Serotonin -> –Dopa, push past and get to minimum competence. But nearly every bit of our Tribal/Social-Belonging Shame/Guilt schema programming goes against this, as does the fact that (my theory) High Status (= High Serotonin, High Testosterone, etc.) *downregulates* Empathy in predictable, EvoPsych-planned ways: It is better for the Alpha (and from there on down the pecking-order) to not constantly question their standing, and better for anyone below the top few spots to cooperate more!?

    So if you’re setting out with reasonably high-ish status / self-efficacy, you may well be in a poorer position to practice self-empathy!

    10) An example of where the Myelination habit-forming has worked for me of late (and in part due to this post and my initial notes I’ve been monitoring extra closely), is re-learning to play Tennis: Initially extremely frustrating, but some “Myelination-savvy” self-compassion & some incentives like “Well, this is a form of exercise and fresh air regardless”, along with the occasional early successes immediately visible (even if just 10% of the time say) have moved me to a place of beginnings of mild competence over ~8 weeks, and maybe as many outings. I can now feel the most basic aspects firing away on “auto-pilot”, and focus in on special technique aspects. Things have mentally also slowed down enough that I can tell whether a shot is going to work or not even as I set up for it, asf.

    • Thanks for the response Alex. I’d heard of myelination but haven’t read anything in depth on it. My focus tends to be one or two levels up in abstraction.

      Loved the cup-stacking video. It further supports what Csikszentmihalyi and, more recently Steven Kotler describe as hypofrontality, the core phenomenon of states of flow, right?

      I hadn’t heard about dopamine spiking at 50/50 odds. Such a simple peak is surprising and seems suspicious to me. But definitely, the research on variable rewards confirms that too high predictability is not as stimulating.

      Interesting on modernity making most tasks difficult to “lock in.” I’ve noticed this recently, that I enjoy simple manual tasks like washing dishes. The outcome is so clear and attainable, and there seem to be rhythms within the movement that are deeply comforting. Unlike writing blog posts on psychology, which lead every time through a cycle of despair, self-doubt, and only eventually, sometimes, relief.

      I’m not sure evopsych is the best way to explain the fragility of self-efficacy. I can think of many cases where being impulsive, risk-taking, and aggressive would increase fitness, and not only in the long term. Another reason is that this fragility is not getting weaker, it’s getting stronger. My theory is that as our identities become more and more “self-designed,” the risks to our self-concepts failing gets higher.

      I agree that high status downgrades empathy. I’ve also seen that it interferes with habit formation, at least in high-risk areas. Having high self-worth can lead to greater perceived risk in the face of anything that threatens it. Like the classic fragile ego of people with immense self-regard (like Trump).

      Really glad to hear reading the post made you self-monitor more closely. That is really the ultimate measure of how valuable these ideas are. Did you read my most recent ribbonfarm post?:

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