For most of last year I’ve had a nagging sense that I’m not progressing in individual skills as fast as I should. I can now easily establish multi-year habits, but what’s the point if I’m not really leveling them up?
This is infuriating. In the past I’ve demonstrated quick advancement. With bodyweight training I was able to do a full back bridge (something I haven’t done since elementary school) and typewriter pushups within several months. I started NaNoWriMo unable to complete 50,000 words in 30 days to completing it in 5 days. These were things I thought I would never be able to do. Furthermore, I don’t think I’m a special case. We as humans have an extraordinary capacity for improvement when the right training methodology is in place.
However, when I put all of these individual habits together I find myself simply grinding away, paying for the privilege of hovering at exactly the same skill level across the board.
Why is This Happening?
In my old conception a habit reacts very much like a spaceship. If willpower is fuel, a new behavior uses that fuel until it reaches automaticity. At that point, very little fuel/willpower is needed because the ship as reached inertia and continues its flight path at the same velocity. When I push the habit (in time, skill level, or difficulty) I’m accelerating, and I have to draw upon fuel until I reach the next progression. After a time that too becomes automatic.
That model works fine with individual habits. But in combining several it doesn’t. If I do my rowing, writing, mobilization, meditation, and social media in one day – all of which I’ve already leveled up past a Tiny Habit – I’m exhausted.
I believe there are two issues here:
1) The Question of Automaticity with Skill Pushes
When I move from a Tiny Habit to a medium habit, how long does it take for that push to become automatic and drain less willpower? This is sort of a grey area that no one really talks about. If I’ve got a solid habit of flossing one tooth, does pushing it to 10 teeth make it like implementing another habit? Should I then take the SHRI for this new habit before moving on?
This is definitely something that’s clear in writing. When I start to do more complex writing, the daily willpower load is higher, which t in turn degrades the automaticity of the behavior - it takes me longer to start and sometimes I put it off. This is the very definition of writer’s block.
2) Energy vs Willpower
Are these two different issues? Is the sheer amount of work draining on an energy level? If I automatically run 5 miles a day, it may not take willpower to do regularly, but I’m still going to be tired, and that’s going to affect the rest of my day. Is it just the sheer amount of work that’s causing a drain on the system?
(As an aside, the Harvard Business Review did an excellent article on energy management in the workplace. It treats energy as a resource similar to willpower and offers suggestions to manipulate it.)
Happily there might just be a way out. Several articles on learning challenge the normal stance that mastering a skill is a simple matter of amassing hours (like the 10,000 hours rule popularized by Malcolm Gladwell). In this article for Salon, Peter Brown and Henry Roedigger III excerpt their book, Making It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning.
In the article the authors discuss varied and spaced practice. Cross training through varied practice develops deeper learning. And spaced practice, in the case of a study of surgeons learning a specific procedure, showed that they learned more efficiently across time through spreading out lessons with a week of space rather than doing the lessons in one day.
In a test given a month after their last session, those whose lessons had been spaced a week apart outperformed their colleagues in all areas—elapsed time to complete a surgery, number of hand movements, and success at reattaching the severed, pulsating aortas of live rats. The difference in performance between the two groups was impressive. The residents who had taken all four sessions in a single day not only scored lower on all measures, but 16 percent of them damaged the rats’ vessels beyond repair and were unable to complete their surgeries.
This study in particular underscored that it wasn't just improvement in cognitive tasks, but mechanical skills as well.
This is not as surprising as it seems. Mark’s Daily Apple recommends a focus on eating to lose weight with periodic (once a week) HIITS like sprints. My once a week meal prep results in better eating for the entirety of the week. And in an hour I can schedule an entire week’s worth of tweets. There is a lot of room for saving space and cutting work volume on any given day in order to preserve willpower, efficiency, and allow for greater cross training throughout the week. A rolling system of practice, where each habit is extended on one day of the week, might be just what I need.
What Would This Look Like?
Monday - Prepping ALL meals for the week
Tuesday - 1 hour of social media, scheduling out all tweets for the week
Wednesday - Extended practice in writing
Thursday - A HIIT
Friday - An hour of meditation
I can already see how this would improve things dramatically. For meal preps, the power of an extended prep time to do lunches and dinners for the week would mean making real gains. A solid HIIT one day of the week would allow me to go all out without having other habits suffer from lack of energy. Really working on writing would give me the time to move on from my already mastered ability to bust out a rough draft. I could work on global edits and get more efficient at writing one piece from start to finish. I’ve been thinking about longer meditation sits – now I could do them.
Notice I do not include mobilization in this. I believe some behaviors, like mobilization, are ones that need daily practice in order to reap full benefits. In this case I think there are just too many muscle groupings to be hit in one day. But that’s not so bad since, according to Dr. Kelly Starrett, a good daily habit would only consist of 15 minutes a day, which is only a little more than my Tiny Habit of 10 minutes.
One method of implementation is to just nix all my habits but the one I’m extending. Essentially I’d have one habit slot that’s split depending on the day of the week. The other option is to keep Tiny Habits going throughout the week and rotate the pushed habit. I feel that there are still benefits to be reaped from, say, low level cardio, and light writing. However, that doesn’t necessarily apply to social media or meditation.
One solution is to cross train on off days with the latter method. If it’s the case that Vipassana should be spaced at once a week for greater efficiency and progress, then why not do other practices that take less time in that same meditation slot on other days of the week? If doing slow cardio has benefits, then why not do it while walking outside - something that is not only a natural mood lifter, but helps immensely with sleep? For social media why not do other tasks, like reading articles, adding followers, commenting, or generally researching tactics on other days?
I don’t like blindly trusting research. And with habit research I was able to test the techniques on myself with days as my base metric - if I stuck with it then it was working. With this, it’s a bit trickier because I’m just experimenting on myself. I can’t exactly map out how much better my meditation is compared to practicing every day, and the same generally applies to writing because standards and progressions aren’t solid.
But perhaps the best argument for just doing trying it comes from an old self help maxim that goes something like:
“If what you’re doing now isn’t working then why are you repeating it?”
The general feeling of not progressing may well be the best reason to change to a different system. For behaviors like meditation, I know that increasing time is part of the solution. For writing, I’m not even exerting enough time to get the base tasks to progress, and that definitely seems to be the case with meal prep. There’s just not enough energy left in my tank at the end of most days to push everything.
Furthermore, in cases like this paralysis by analysis has always been my problem. The way seems simple - try it now, and see how I feel in a month.