This past month I completed a 30 day No Alcohol Challenge. It was great, I learned a lot, but now what?
Lydia reported seeing that many people, after completing a Whole Life Challenge, went back to bad eating as normal. I found the same case during my No Bread Challenge.
Back in the day I feel many people assumed that after 30 Days you’d get a habit that you could extend indefinitely. We know that’s not true. Nowadays, challenges are supposed to do something - but what? If we don’t harness them, we might as well have not done them in the first place.
The role of a challenge, for me, isn’t to jump start initial change. It’s to extend an already established small habit. If there are three vectors to long-term change - willpower to start the habit daily, habit to extend it and make it automatic, and the grit or deliberate practice needed to push past skill plateaus and increase intensity - then challenges belong to the third vector. Unfortunately this is the vector I know the least about.
I do know that there is a certain amount of …looseness or roominess… I feel mentally when it comes to the idea of ignoring alcohol at a bar with friends. There is a similar sort of freedom with my 8 week progressive HIIT challenge - it’s becoming easier to visualize myself trying something like Crossfit.
And I’ve successfully fumbled into progressive minimums for rowing - I started with HIITs twice a week for 8 weeks, and now I’m doing the entire challenge again 3 times a week. HIITs are now in my program to stay. What is the best way to do this with alcohol?
Lydia is adhering to a once a week drinking rule. I’m thinking of something more gradual, a twice a week drinking rule. It becomes really weird in this case because A) I didn’t have an established drinking habit and B) I don’t know how to concretely record a NON habit, especially one that’s so sporadic.
I’ve also been researching what’s at the heart of all of this - periodization. I’ve mostly been able to look at weight lifting, and it gets confusing very fast - there’s linear, non-linear, and newer undulating models of progression. And the thing that’s challenging - but good - is that it’s based on years of progress - microcycles, mesocycles, macrocycles, quadrennial cycles.
I asked Lydia how Crossfit did it, and she said it was a 6-10 week cycle dedicated either to endurance or power, and that it was based on percentages of a max. And that reminded me of my time in weightlifting where people talk about various programs - Strong Man, 5 X 5, Russian Volume, etc.
My main concern is HOW they came up with these formulas of when and how much to drop down to. For example, if I do NaNoWriMo, I’m writing at least 1600 words a day. Afterwards, do I drop down to 50%? 60 %? If I drop down too low it results in fewer gains over time. If I don’t drop low enough I run the risk of blowing myself out. I have no idea how you’d even begin to calculate that with a large set of athletes, never mind using only myself across multiple skills. It’s something I definitely have to dive into because it’s where all the fruition of my habits comes to.
And how much of this crosses over to other skills? There’s a lot of research to be done.
If the gold prize for behaviors is being able to inculcate them extremely fast, then silver surely goes to being able to maintain and maybe even push habits through interruptions like travel.
Next month, Sept 12 - 17th, I’ll be traveling to Aruba for a conference. Normally when this happens I attempt lowered minimums for a few days, abandon all my habits, then pick them up a few days after I get back.
Doing that is really really good. Progress isn’t made, but my habits continue - and that used to be impossible for me. I’ve done this new behavior more times than I can count now.
But I want to push it. When I normally think about sustaining the same levels of habits through travel I think in terms of the minute - I think about if I’ll have the time, or if I’ll have access to wifi, or space to do pushups or whatever. This time I want to experiment by thinking of it in terms of general mechanics.
I see people who do sprints and workout while on vacation - why can’t that be me? Maybe it’s not the details that matter, maybe those are excuses used to cover a lack of willpower?
The next question becomes how can I increase willpower for the duration of that week? In “Sandbagging” I described Lydia’s idea of starting more habits and later losing a few in order to artificially boost the remaining one. In “Skill Pushes and a Looming Problem: Strategies” I describe a “Dragon Ball Z/Kung Fu” Method of pushing skills.
Widening this theory, what if I increased the system load of all my behaviors the week before the trip? Generally speaking I tend to feel the affects of such loads several days to a week later. My theory is that by overloading the system before, I’ll be able to artificially boost willpower in the system by dropping down to my regular habits.
What does that actually look like?
I’d say that 4 or 5 days before traveling I’d up all my minimums. 4 rounds of writing, 45 minutes on the rower for LISS, and additional 20 minutes of LISS on HIIT days, 45 minutes of meditation, extra mobilizations, earlier sleep times.
I have a few ideas on how to juggle the problem of multiple skill pushes:
The Cast Method - making sure everything is exactly the same, or minimal, while ratcheting up a skill. For example, increasing rowing from 20 minutes to 30 minutes while keeping everything the same. This method is usually based in fear for me because I don’t want my whole routine to fall a part (like it has in the past). Another better method MIGHT be…
Sandbagging - I initially viewed this method to implement habits, but I think it could be used as a safe diagnostic tool to discover where the breaking point is. Take two or more skills, push them, and as soon as things start to get wobbly, drop back all skills to normal levels except one. I believe that this will also solidify that one skill’s advanced practice.
Fracturing - Cycling practice. When I had a daily practice of 1 hour of cardio at the gym, I usually did an hour of recumbent cycling. But it was pretty boring. It was actually easier to break it up and do half on the cycle and half on the treadmill, or into 3 with the last 1/3 on the elliptical. I feel this would really work well with practice that involves an extension of time.
Gamification - NanoWriMo, the Flash diet, I feel this is fantastic for 30 day challenges. I actually think it’s better for pushing skills than it is for making skills habits.
Ritual - I keep meaning to write a massive post on rituals. The idea for me is that these small things ease the transition between the normal day and the place in the mind where difficult things happen. For example, when I was trying to establish a non-bracketed habit of recording my food, I made tea. I got to the point where I really enjoyed the process, and so I enjoyed the quiet time before bed where I recorded.
I did the same with writing for a while, and it’s something I still need to fiddle around with. Personally I think Ritual is like a proto- or ur-game or motivation - it just helps to lower that starting threshold, whether it’s starting or pushing a habit.
Changing multiple skill variables to maintain equilibrium- I mentioned one example of this already - my 8 week HIIT cycle, where it folded really well into my already established rowing habit. I think it worked because though it was more intense it wasn’t longer - equilibrium was maintained so there was no real load to the system. I think I have more problems increasing my base time. I like the idea of this best.
The Dragon Ball Z Kung Fu Method - Artificially intensifying practice in order to then lower it to higher base levels, but nowhere near the levels set during the initial push.
In the cartoon DBZ and in many legendary “iron” kung fu trainings a practitioner would weigh himself down, or in the anime, train at weighted artificial gravity. After getting thoroughly used to the weight, they’d take the vest off and then would be able to fly, have preternaturally fast reflexes, or be incredibly light on their feet.
When I did NaNoWriMo, where some days required 13,000 words, going back to my normal writing quotas was incredibly easy. But I haven’t deliberately done this technique very much, so it would be interesting to practice this.
Where does this leave us?
So while my normal “Cast Methodology” relies on a natural growth in willpower to lift the extra load, gamification and ritual seem to lighten the new weight. Sandbagging and the DBZ Method both use comparisons in feeling and temporariness to advance practice. Changing variables and fracturing appear to cause as little load as possible.
And fracturing also uses the feeling of doing multiple things to fool the mind into thinking things are going faster - it’s like hanging out with a friend. You go to one place for an hour, and it may be tedious, but go to three places in that hour and it feels like you’ve done a lot more and you know that person more. Depth of experience or relationship in this case acts as a stand in for depth of practice.
I still don’t know what skills I plan on moving forward, but this at least gives me a bit more clarity on my options.
Based on previous behaviors in this project, it appears that Skill Pushes come in several flavors or vectors:
-Classes -Time (meditating for 10 minutes to 30 minutes) -Reps (flossing one tooth to flossing all of them) -Deliberate practice (focusing on problem areas and working them) -30 Day Challenges (like my no bread challenge or NaNoWriMo, or even the 8 week HIIT thing I recently completed - “30 Day″ is just a catch all)
When I think about it it becomes pretty clear that there is a difference in difficulty or weight with these pushes. Assuming Tiny SkillPushes ™, from lowest system load to highest I’d organize them like this:
1) Reps 2) Time 3) Classes 4) Deliberate practice 5) 30 Day Challenges
Why? When I think of increasing my meditation by 5 minutes versus doing 5 more pulls on the rower, I’d pick the latter. The same is the case with adding another glass of water in the morning or going from flossing 1 tooth to all of them. I think it just has something to do with the active nature of added reps versus just ENDURING more time. Enduring is just more painful (to me).
Those two are definitely easier than classes, where you have to do all sorts of other things like interact with people and do homework. And that is preferable to deliberate practice where you have to essentially come up with your own class. There is a big difference between doing a module where you give over some agency to a program, versus poking and prodding to find what your weaknesses are. When I used to play the violin I used to absolutely hate doing this, and it’s probably why I never got really good at it despite having played for over a decade.
Lastly, I find 30 Day Challenges to be a huge drain on the entirety of the system. When I do NaNoWriMo, I usually reduce other behaviors to minimums, though it’s getting easier. Also challenges are challenging and are not tiny pushes by their very nature.
As an aside, classes used to be incredibly difficult for me. But incorporated as part of an established habit, I sort’ve go on autopilot. Homework? No problem, because I no longer do everything at the last minute. I automatically start doing something, so simply processing what another person tells me to do (rather than trying to figure out where my effort has to go myself) is exponentially easier. It’s also an important reason why all this self-help stuff should be incorporated together as part of a whole system.
But why was my 8 week HIIT program so easy? I think it’s because I was mixing variables. It was a part of an established routine which is based on time - 30 minutes. The HIIT was more intense, but it was for a shorter time.
I think skill pushes can mix and match these variables. If I were to go to a meditation retreat I would consider that a “Challenge” - but it would be a challenge because it’s increasing time of practice to several hours a day. At the same time, I’m presumably not doing ANY of my other routines while on retreat. It’s also not forever, while things like flossing would be an increase for GOOD. Though presumably a retreat would make a time push from 30 minutes to an hour look like nothing.
Until now most of my habits have been quite simple: a solid meditation habit, a steady exercise habit, nano-habits for identity clusters like drinking a glass of water or recording food or sleep.
But I’ll soon be at a point where most habits will need to be pushed - and I have no idea how to juggle that.
I’m not without some knowledge. I’ve pushed meditation time wise to 30 minutes. I recently completed an 8 week HIIT progression in rowing, I’ve taken classes in writing. But since there were so few of these I’ve had quite a bit of space to maneuver. I think when I have a wall of behaviors where the only thing to do is to push - mobilization, eating, writing, meditation, exercising, getting up early, etc. - it’s not going to give me a lot of wiggle room.
I could do the same thing as I am doing now. Keep everything in a cast or reduce daily minimums to conserve willpower while I shift one skill into a different gear. But certain habits are crying out now (or will be soon) for a push. For example, in meditation, it feels as though 30 minutes just isn’t enough, and many books talk about “getting the dosage high enough” to progress. Which means that though my 30 minutes gives me good basic practice, I’m not really reaping more rewards like I would with flossing. One could argue that all exercise is like this - our bodies just adjust and you have to adjust with it or face diminishing returns.
I think one thing I can do is analyze the differences between types of skill growth. Is drinking two glasses of water really going to cause me as much system wide stress as adding more writing? I’m guessing not. What about moving my bedtime curfew from 1:20 AM to 1:00 AM? Should I do this now, even if it’s not fully a superhabit?
I’m also curious to test the limits of all of this. I have a sense sometimes that I’m giving myself too MUCH wiggle room, and tightening and compressing the whole system will give me more forward acceleration. My fear is that everything will collapse, which is a legitimate concern. But I have a series of behaviors that are already in place to prevent complete system wide failure (habit recording comes to mind - I’m always going to recover even if it takes a few weeks). I also have some ideas on how to mitigate such a collapse - like sandbagging, which could actually help the skills that aren’t dropped.
This is all so vague, and I don’t really know anyone at all who is discussing the pushing of skills in multiple behaviors. In the next post I’d like to try to clarify some of the terrain from just my basic intuitions.
I’m pretty sold. If meditation is process oriented skill for all mental interactions in life, then their description of mobilizing and stretching is the process oriented behind-the-scenes skill for all physical activity. And it’s especially necessary for someone like me, who has gone from one injury to the next constantly over the course of decades. Plus, it’s just good for you.
They seem to know what their talking about, they have tons of exercises online that progress, so….
I’m going to start tomorrow with simply researching and attempting one or two stretches. I’m still learning and reading, so I’m hoping a lot of stuff will clarify itself. I’ll do this after my writing and before my exercise/rowing.
Mental Contrasting Positive: It will help brace me for better movement and hopefully prevent injuries that I’ve seemed to constantly get into in the past. It will prevent those long periods of healing where I lose all progress.
Stumbling blocks: I don’t see any except that I’m new to this and will have to read a lot to get to a point of proficiency. But starting small will allow me the time to form a routine and learn at the same time. Luckily it seems so far it will be a habit I can do without specialized equipment in any location - so travel won’t be a problem.
Bedtime Curfew Another small habit I’ll introduce to my greater Early to Rise project is setting a specific time, closing my computer, and heading to bed to read. I have a tendency to just stay up for no good reason. My sleep recording suggests that I generally get a set amount of sleep, I just need to shift over the time period (which is not at all what I expected - I thought I had problems getting to sleep and that I slept too long). So
Implementation Intention On average, from the data I have from my Sleep Recording, I tend to go to bed a little before 2 am. If I’m going to keep with making small changes, I will intend to go to bed at 1:20 am. At that time I’ll close my computer and read.
Mental Contrasting Positive: I hope this will help me wake up earlier, thereby increasing both the feeling and actuality of my productivity.
Stumbling blocks: Initially feeling like I have to stay up because I haven’t had enough time to do anything during the day. I’ll initially feel like I’m cutting short my day by going to bed earlier while not getting up any earlier. At this point, keeping it nice and easy with going to bed at 1:20 am - I don’t see there being any problems with the few times I stay out late since I don’t really do that anymore. I don’t foresee any travel problems except very occasionally. I do worry that I might have problems actually getting to sleep, but I think that’s a problem for a different habit.
A month or so I came across a subreddit called Meal Prep Sunday. It was exactly what you’d imagine - people were making all their meals for the week on Sunday in an effort to automate their eating routines.
I have repeatedly had problems with such automation. One reason involves what I described before in posts like “Syncing with Significant Others” - Lydia and I just have different eating times to our schedules, and if we are off, the likelihood of just cheating increases. The cheating is less about craving and more about convenience. It’s also just plain hard to stick to eating well.
The last three weekends we’ve been trying out meal preparation on Sundays. We bought a bunch of glass jars, we cut up all our vegetables (which is super easy now that we have a good food processor) and I make a stock. We only do lunches right now - either salads or soups - and that alone is working out fantastically.
I see this as a huge step forward in my eating. I can also see this fitting into a larger series of food habits progressing forward. To have a half step like this makes the thought of doing a Whole 30 Challenge almost like an afterthought rather than a true struggling challenge. It’s as though these counterintuitively small habits are foreordaining future successes (as described in “Towards an Identity Model of Habits: Part III”).
This strategy is, to me, a different one compared to most normal habits, where I’m striving for the next level of mastery and automaticity. In this identity model it feels almost like the reverse - nail the small bits and whatever 30 challenge isn’t about enduring - it’s an afterthought, it’s finishing school, it’s icing on the cake.
This is really important, especially for eating, which we don’t really think of as a skill that can be fully mastered. Until now I’ve usually thought of it as binary - either I’m not eating right or I am. Now it’s progressive, and I’ve never really seen that - I’ve heard of people talk about it like it should be implemented in small ways, but I’ve never seen the full progression, and that’s really important for people starting out, or people like me who are just horrible at it.
Meal Prep Sunday also marks the first real non-daily habit I’ve gone after. I’m formalizing it here in this post, and am very curious just how slow it will take to crystalize. It’s also a messy habit - it involves a bunch of routines, and I’m really curious if this is the proper way to encode it for maximum long term success.
Implementation Intention: When I first get up on Sunday, I’ll work with Lydia to make a stock, go to the store to get veggies and proteins, and put the meals together.
Mental Contrasting: -Positive: As I said before, I think this is a very solid half step towards mastering eating for life. This change in identity foreordains success with energy levels, general long term health, and weight loss.
-Stumbling Blocks: Doing anything on Sunday can interfere with this habit. If I travel, there’s really no way to do this, though to be fair I’ll probably be eating out anyways. If I want to meet people up or do a day trip that involves weekends or just Sundays meal prep will be thrown into disarray. Compensating would really work well with getting up early. This just underscores that good habits have a tendency to support each other just as bad habits support each other, making it incredibly hard to make global behavioral identity shifts.
Secondly, there are a lot of behaviors here. The implementation intention isn’t really precise. What is the “if”? I’d say either when I get up, or after my weekend morning routine - so after I do my pantry check, water & bacon, and note down my sleep times, I do this. Ok, fine.
But what is the “then”? Do I go to the store, do I start chopping? Do I just get all my jars out?
A few days ago I was bemoaning my lack of social connections in this city. I am, or used to be, a very social person, and I miss having a solid community after a few years of hopping around from place to place. Now that I’m in a city I love, it’s just not happening.
This wasn’t a normal frustration based simply on not having friends. It was about feeling behaviorally undercut - that I couldn’t develop those connections because I had so many other things to work on that should have been taken care of already.
Then I had a weird sense of deja vu, a sensation I’ve been experiencing more and more during the course of this project - I had felt that particular set of emotions before. When I was in Brazil, slowly and painfully developing my recording habit, I bemoaned the fact that working out and trying to get in shape just wasn’t happening.
Since summer has officially begun in Barcelona and the siren call of the outdoors is singing loudly to me, I recently bemoaned why I can’t already just be an outdoor person. I’ve sensed that feeling - the undercutting - when waking up late, feeling rushed, and knowing that I should have already become a morning person. It’s a weird sense of guilt of not already doing something, like when I feel like I’m not being enough of a traveler here in Europe. I’m working on things, I know, but the guilt wells up when I see people coming for a week and really soaking up the culture in a way I’m not ready to do yet.
But when I set that feeling aside and work on nailing the small behaviors I get somewhere. When I run around from one pull to the next I make absolutely no progress.
Suddenly I felt really happy - I’m nailing my eating, which I bemoaned before. I’m nailing working out, which I also bemoaned before. I have no doubt I will get around to mastering the shift to becoming a morning person, and outdoors person, and eventually a social person again.
But this time around, I will bring all my other habits to socializing - it won’t be staying up late nights, or eating whatever, and having friends with whoever happens to be nearby just because it’s convenient. It will be me becoming the specific type of social person I want to be.
As of last week both my small eating habits became superhabits. My plan was to either start a wakeup plan, advance in eating by doing a meal prep on Sunday, or start a walking/being outside habit.
Lydia and I just got our city bike share card, and had a fantastic day cycling along several beaches, checking out a food festival, and exploring a park. It got us really excited and we sat down and decided we want to become outdoorsy, that we had to do it because of how easy it was. The main problem is that most difficult of freelancer dilemmas: waking up early.
We’ve both been dragging on getting up, and it’s always been on my list in order to cram more things into the day. But, as with eating right, I’ve attempted this habit many, many times and failed. So, as with eating, I’m going to tackle this as an identity based habit.
In my main blog post on how to construct such a megahabit - “Towards an Identity Model of Habits: Part III” - I talk about several methods to hit the problem: -Social Identity -Certifications -Affirmations -Greasing the Groove -Counterintuitively Small Habits -Quantified Self -Falling in Love -…and Miscellaneous Advanced Options
I think, when surveying options, the main thing to remember is that for these types of habits, the one thing you don’t want to do is to yet again attempt the habit you’ve tried to introduce before. We seem to think that THIS time it’ll be different, that this time if we really believe and clench harder, things will change, when we’ve seen our methodology fail time and time again. The answer lies in attempting new strategies.
I have always attempted this habit by just setting an alarm early and buckling down inside and just DOING IT. That has never worked. I’ve more recently tried Flux, a program that changes light on my computer and setting progressively early times to just get to bed. Those worked better, but eventually failed.
The method for identity habits should be the inverse - enacting smaller, less directly connected behaviors and building upon them so that when it comes to do the obvious, direct behavior, it’s almost like an afterthought.
Look, it’s not as though we can’t force ourselves to get up early. If I have to be on a plane, if I have an interview, if I have a job, it’s done. But that’s not what I’m talking about by these deep habits. I don’t want to wake up early, I want to be a Morning Person.
So THIS TIME, I’m going to start with three small habits. The first is recording (from the quantified self option). But I don’t like all the fancy apps and gadgets that attempt to pinpoint REM cycles based on body movements and whatnot. All I want is to keep it simple and record what my wakeup and bed time was for the day before. This is great, because I can build the recording into my food recording superhabit.
The next thing I’ll do is drink a cold glass of water as soon as I wake up. After looking at dozens of websites on how to wake up early, this has been one of the few consistent pieces of advice (I’ll consider this taken from the “counterintuitively small habits” category”).
Thirdly, I’m taking a cue from the “Fall in Love” Category. One other great piece of consistent advice has been to do something that makes you excited to get up. Krissy Brady from Lifehack writes:
One thing we tend to lose as adults is the feeling of freedom we had as kids. When we had no sense of schedule, deadlines, goals, or pressure, we were always emotionally available and our imaginations made us feel like anything was possible.
A lot of websites circled around it, but this is my real issue. I use to LOVE getting up in the morning as a child, and somehow, I’ve lost that. I was thinking about what things I’d love to do that give me that same sense I felt as a kid. Going to the beach, definitely, but it’s too long. Other websites talk about having no pressure mornings, but for habits and willpower, nothing beats tackling your hardest task at the very beginning of the day. And then the most ridiculous thing came to mind: making bacon.
As a child bacon was a treat. My mom made it only a few weekends, but those were the days I’d wake up early, I’d go biking, I had long mornings drenched in sun and anything was possible. It somehow encapsulates that precise spot of childlike glee. And because I’m eating primal, it’s not even cheating. Hell, I could use the cals - in Brazil I only got over a long plateau after I started munching on chicharrones. It’s easy, it’s a treat, it’s ritualistic, it’s in my home and doesn’t take too much time, and I can drink a cold glass of water while I’m frying it up. Done.
So my implementation intentions are:
After I record my food, I will record when I went to bed the night before and what time I got out of bed that morning. I will record this on the same spreadsheet I record all my other habits.
As soon as I get up I will make two slices (let’s not get too crazy here) of bacon. While I’m doing that, I’ll drink a cold glass of water. I will then grab my coffee and do my pantry check.
Positive: Waking up early will allow me the feeling of being a child, the feeling of unlimited energy and potential in the day. I’ll be able to take my time in all my tasks, from working out to writing. Afterwards, I’ll be able to get out and explore my city, which also gives me childlike glee. And it’ll give me the space I need to do more.
Stumbling blocks: I will forget what time I went to bed - I’ll have to have a place to note that down, and I’ll have to remember to write down what time I woke up. I’ll also have to remember to get bacon at the store - OH WAIT, it’s on my pantry check (finally some habits are building off others)! If I’m traveling I might not have bacon or a place to cook it on - though if I’m traveling I’m usually waking up early anyways.
What ratchets everything up is that alcohol erodes that self control. I think I just don’t think about this enough.
Imagine the opposite. If there was a potion that magically imbued you with a top up on willpower with no real downsides, why wouldn’t you drink it?
By this logic, why would I drink a witch’s brew that leaches self control every time I sip at it? And because of my progressively lower tolerance, that factor is progressively increased. It seems totally and utterly counter to this project more than any one thing.
I never drank until I turned 21. When asked “why not?” I would reply “I have little enough control over my life as is, why would I want to give up more?” What changed my mind was a fusing of two distinct sides of my self. Socializing becomes one with drinking, and I think this is quite normal in adults. As I delve into habits I realize just how fused some of them are, and that improvement involves an uncoupling.
How do you socialize without a drink in hand to lower the awkwardness and anxiety of interacting with new people? I had this conversation recently with a friend who was quitting for a month - he had done this the last few years and was thinking of making it permanent.
It started with him waking up with to a bad hangover, and being struck with the visceral realization of it simply being chemical. Why would he choose to feel bad based on a few hours of fun?
The Greek hedonists talk about how certain sacrifices are needed to extend and deepen the joys of life. We could choose to go on a drug and booze fueled bacchanalia, but for how long would that last before we cut short life? How many conversations are forgotten? How many true relationships do you have rather than a filler person that’s simply there? I think I haven’t truly explored what fruits that trade off would entail.
For my friend, it just wasn’t worth it. Sure, he said, he might have moments of awkwardness, the moments of feeling like an outsider at social situations. But in knowing a bit of skill acquisition in social dynamics, I know that’s a pain period that gives way to true social skill - after all, I interacted plenty enough with people before I took a sip of alcohol.
Years ago I was talking to another friend who was having problems socializing. He was reading quite a bit of existentialism, and we were talking about feelings of isolation in crowds - in the midst a party. I told him that when I felt that rising isolation I imagined the party as a ritual. In order to gain connection you have to wait, you have to sip the libation of the rite in order to gain its rewards. It was a combination of all of it - a bit of drink, waiting in awkwardness, and then it usually comes together. It was more of a begging thing, you see. I wanted my friend to stay out, I didn’t want him to be alone and sad like I had so often been.
I’m now beginning to see many sides to that dance. I’m beginning to believe another sacrifice can be made - greater awkwardness in lieu of the drink in order to gain even more - deeper connections that last beyond the rite.
Oddly enough pickup artists are perhaps the greatest advocates of not drinking in social scenarios Initially the subgroup focused specifically on seducing women, but it has grown to cover all elements of social behavior, from business networking to forming a social group in a new city, for the purposes of being a more whole, fulfilled person. Pickup artists treat socializing as a skill to be learned like any other.
Most adults never learned social skills in a methodical manner. We happen across our skills, and so very often we grab for the glass as a crutch to lower inhibitions and loosen tongues. To become truly skilled is to execute behaviors without any such aids.
In this manner I see actually learning social skills methodically as an answer to the awkwardness. Focusing on skill sets rather than any given interaction also means that awkwardness becomes a pain period on an ascending path of refinement rather than you as a person being odd. It’s less personal. And it works a lot like vipassana, where precise noting of the details of a painful experience pushes you to master it.
At several points in this project I’ve dabbled with the idea of giving up alcohol completely. This point reared its head again a few nights ago when I came back home after drinking more than I usually do for an outing. I managed to make a pepperoni mushroom and blue cheese pizza with a herbs de provence crust from scratch, which was funny, messy, and also not at all in my eating plan. I woke up late. I was slow and less than optimal with some of my habits. I almost completely forgot to do one. I had a hangover and drank coke to make myself feel better.
Of course drinking “too much” for me isn’t really an accurate description. Nowadays if I go out my limit is usually one drink, maybe two. Anything more and I’ll start to feel it in the morning. I had a few extra at a nearby craft beer place nearby, so I wasn’t exactly smashing windows and starting fights.But the more I think of it the more I realize that drinking alcohol is a very subtle habit that sinisterly winds itself, much like eating, through many parts of my life in an often detrimental manner for my purposes of self change.
A Tangled Web of Identity
In moving towards an identity model of self improvement, I’m seeing interconnections between certain habits, and the futility of trying to treat them piecemeal rather than as a matrix. One subtle winding of alcohol starts with my social life. When I meet up with people it’s usually at a bar, especially abroad when I don’t know that many people very well.
This all usually occurs at night, often precluding morning activities with morning people. Morning people tend to be outdoor or active, and it’s hard to get the gumption to get out when you’re sleeping the last night off.
This is about percentages. Of course there are hard partiers that go on morning hikes. But is it as likely? My intuition says no. If I’m shifting a paradigm, drinking seems to be, upon analysis, very much like eating in its impact on other behaviors.
How does alcohol affect me as a developing person going into the future? Socializing as a skill should be done without alcohol, according to all the social dynamics gurus. Financial control would advocate lowering expenditures, a complete eating habit would advocate dropping most types of alcohol, advanced meditation starts set meditation periods onwards to life in general, which requires full time control. And again, in general the movement should include the types of people I associate with, namely migrating to ones that have more control of their lives, not less.
When I attempted to do this in the past - and I mean my entire past - it’s almost never worked because my implementation intention is incredibly vague. I just generally think “yeah I’m going to sort’ve go to bed early, maybe, kind’ve…” and of course nothing happens. I end up dithering online until super late because I get a charge of energy, and it just all goes down the toilet.
This time I had a plan. And I wrote it down as an implementation intention:
At 11pm I’ll drink my Valerian Root Tea. I will go into the bedroom and lie down at 12 pm and set the alarm. I’ll read the Kindle for 20 minutes. I’ll listen to a boring recording on meditation for another 20 minutes. I’ll perform Dr. Weil’s 4-7-8 breathing technique for sleep. I’ll perform my own meditation technique.
Planning for sleep, and having it be progressive - first tea, then not looking at my computer, shifting to bed and a kindle, then turning off the light and just listening, etc seemed to do the trick, as well as the formal intention jotted down on a text program on my computer.
And I didn’t even do everything - by the time I got to bed I skipped the book and the headphones and just did the exercises and zonked out.
So, a few things:
1) What’s the minimal effective dose? Does Dr. Weil’s technique even really work? Do I need that much progression? I don’t know, but I like the fact that it’s a ceremony, and there are progressive active tasks for me to do, giving the power to me.
2) What could I do better? Definitely not drink so much before bed - I woke up a few times to go to the bathroom. I drank a bunch of water, then the tea right before…so also maybe doing it a few hours before bed would work better.
3) Can I maintain it? We’ll see tonight - I intend a similar procedure tonight.
4) This is a beginning. I would ideally want to be a morning person, and wake up earlier - but one step at a time!
I ended up waking up at around 8 am today, which has resulted in a much more optimal day for me - one filled with sunlight, a good start, and some free time to get out, rather than feeling utterly rushed.
And quality of sleep is something I’d like to get into in another post. Tonight it was pretty good despite waking up a few times. I’ve historically had many problems with this, but who knows if it’s just not having a formal bed time ritual.
But this is the first time I’ve ever consciously controlled and shifted my sleep without rather drastic measures - like staying up all night or just being forced to get up because of circumstances. I usually feel quite powerless in sleeping, especially as a freelancer, so I count this as a rather big win for me personally.
Implementation Intention: Before I go to bed I will make tea and record what I ate for the day on MyNetDiary. So far I like this app better than the widely touted MyFitnessPal, though we’ll see how it goes.
Mental Contrasting: Positives include having a solid metric and gauge on what’s going into my body. As with pantry checking, food has been a thorn in my side for greater progression in this project and I’ve had to scrap it several times. This is a potential manner in which to nail it down and get on to more interesting things and get the body I want that’s capable of those interesting things. Obstacles include not having my phone charge in order to record my food since it is at the end of the day. Does MyNetDiary have a web correlate? Another is meeting friends late, and coming back and wanting to crash. Travel is always a problem, but oddly enough it’s not the time - usually I get home early. It’s whether or not my phone is charged.
Step ups: Deciding on wether to go the caloric route or the clean route or both and decreasing calories or cleaning up my eating. Also a flash diet for specific difficult to control food items. Another potential is a timed carb cycle or other advanced food control practice.
I like this particular formulation in that it seems to both incorporate multiple buttresses for support and it lays the groundwork to support other behaviors.
For example, it incorporates the ritual of making tea. It’s at night before bed, so it starts a control for when to go to sleep, laying the groundwork for the back end of a bookend and a future early wakeup habit. It also curtails overindulging in late night drinks because I have to go home and do something.
As I said before I’ve already started this informally. I don’t allow any “unclean” food into my kitchen and I do a pantry check every day to make sure I have enough clean staples in my fridge so that I can make a few snacks and meals. In case anyone is curious they are:
Yesterday Lydia and I were completed depleted - her because of a particularly heavy work schedule, me because of bad sleep and an intense HIIT. We were both completely giving each other permission to cheat - “let’s just order some pizza” and comments like that. We were suffering from “decision fatigue” and trying to decide was just becoming painful. Usually that means we’re ordering in - and not anything clean.
What happened was nothing short of miraculous - we made Om Nom Paleo’s “Garbage Stir-fry” (which I know sounds horrible, but is really good, filling, and easy to make when you’re in a pinch).
I’m not joking about the “miracle” part of that last sentence. I was ego-depleted, which, according to all of Baumeister’s experiments, results in lack of self-control. Together things get worse. I wrote about the problem of “Syncing with Significant Others” which I feel causes something similar to habit dissonance, drastically magnifying problems in the decision making process. Furthermore, there was no habit in place, no implementation intention, no gamification or quantification of self going on.
But that counterintuitively small habit of doing pantry checks meant we had the ingredients. And we had this general feeling of knowing that we shouldn’t cheat. It almost made it so that it was easier to just eat clean. I have to analyze this more, but the salient point for this post is that pantry checking has already paid off.
-Recording everything that goes into my mouth -Not bringing cheat items into the house for cooking -daily pantry check -calorie counting -ritual of the same meal or snack once a day -tea ritual with recording food for the day -grocery store trip -Some kind of paleo primal certification -joining a clean eating club in my city -joining a virtual version of the above and taking part in the community -weekly meal planning session -daily meal planning -after x number of drinks we auto ask for check - or order a water between every drink -flash challenges - bread flash challenge -no drink flash challenge -recording what you spend on food -travel protocol -going out protocol -connoisseurship checklist
That’s just a rough list…I think since these are small I can do two at one time and be safe.
I don’t believe that this identity-centric model in anyway replaces the older model. I still think you can use the basics of habit formation to train in specific behaviors. But the behaviors I’d focus on would be different. Let’s look at some of my initial ideas:
Social Identity Definitely the most popular idea is to redefine yourself as, say, a vegetarian. James did this – he established with everyone he knew that he didn’t eat meat. And this almost forced him, via social pressures, to keep up the behavior.
Here’s why I’m very hesitant about this approach. It’s so changeable. You change friends, breakup, move, and your social network is wiped out. You see this with high school athletes – they’re expected to go to practice by their peers, teachers, coaches, and parents. But once they go to college, their identity shifts, and it turns out they never really established that habit to begin with. Hello Freshman 15.
I don’t think we need to toss this out completely. I just think it shouldn’t be relied upon in this manner. There is a potential of forming virtual communities and identities that may have, oddly enough, more lasting forms of identity as opposed to changing social circles.
Barcelona, where I’m based now, has quite a few health and fitness communities. What I was most intrigued by were communities about getting together to go out to restaurants that served “healthy” food. In particular there was a paleo community (I can’t find it now) that was organized around potlucks and restaurants with whole food. What an amazing idea considering the huge difficulty in eating right is the social pressure. You often feel relegated to either being utterly miserable or living a monastic existence prepping everything alone at home.
As an aside I was trying to find out if there were online social sites like Facebook specifically for clean eating and found a Paleo dating site and even a Low Carb Cruise! So I guess you can take identity as far as you like nowadays.
Certifications There is something very identity-driven about having a formal designation given to you by an institution. Complete your yoga teacher training and you are a certified yoga instructor, whether or not you’d consider yourself a full master or not.
A friend of mine back in China was really into kettlebells and wanted to become a trainer. I just found out that Mark Sisson is offering a Primal Blueprint Expert Certification. I think the only danger is erring on the side of endless certifications instead of real progress, which I believe can occur.
Affirmations If social identity has flaws because it relies on other people, then why not move to hammering your identity changes with your own mantras?
I experimented with affirmations several years ago before I got into habits. So my affirmations naturally only lasted a few weeks. But I did feel really good about the whole process at the time.
Nevertheless, I’m very skeptical as to if they actually work. According to a metastudy on the subject they do appear to work for changing health related behaviors. I’m STILL skeptical, and will do an entire post delving into it in the future.
All or Nothing and Pavel’s Greasing the Groove Many of these large habits are all or nothing. James is a vegetarian all the time, not just on weekdays. So far I’ve been very consistent about keeping my habits and superhabits to the weekdays, and made what I still think is a wise decision to take the weekends off. But it may be that habits I want to be larger (megahabits? ha!), and that have identity characteristics over more changing situations need to be working all the time.
Greasing the groove might work to hurry the process up. Instead of starting once a day, do the behavior multiple times a day all the time. This obviously may or may not be easy to do depending the behavior.
Counterintuitively Small Habits Every time I went through a large cycle of clean eating, I came away with a few small behaviors that stuck. I drink my coffee black. I ignore bread when it’s set on the table at a restaurant. I do not drink soft drinks.
These are automatic and there’s not emotional waffling about these behaviors. So maybe the best way to deal with changes is to start with a focus on the small rather than the large.
I experimented with this for a few weeks. I brainstormed a list of really small behaviors that have to do with clean eating: -Regularly going to the grocery store -Stocking up on clean basics. -Planning our meals for the day/week
I selected “stocking up on clean basics” and made it even simpler – every morning as soon as I got up I went through a kitchen and pantry checklist for basics so that if things got busy I’d have options for food at home.
I have done this without the full treatment – no recording, no formal implementation intention. I had a big long break in between for travel, but the week and a half that I did this, it seemed to work really well. And the side effect was that I naturally went to the store and ate pretty well.
I just researched identity based habits and, of course, James Clear has an article on it where he also advocates making small wins and breaking down bigger behaviors in order to become “that” kind of person.
Quantified Self My buddy james started his move to being vegetarian by using a food tracker. The quantified self seems like a great way to prove to yourself that you have indeed changed. Things like the flash diet definitely helped me in my 30 day no bread challenge, and seemed to provide a buttressing effect similar to a social group for staying on track. Looking it over may help with the identity change as well.
Falling in Love I know, it sounds really odd, but bear with me here. The things you love to do are things that tend to stick. I love reading, I used to love bicycling. I didn’t need to think up a methodology for how to increase habituation or push for mastery – it just happened. They don’t take up self discipline points – they give them back because you feel relaxed and rejuvenated just doing them.
Can you deliberately fall in love? The New York Times ran an interesting article on the subject of deliberate love, but this was about people. For activities I think the key rests in ritual, something that’s been coming up more and more in self-improvement circles (and one I need to do a detailed post on in the future).
I love getting into bed, opening my book and escaping to another world. Reading isn’t just a “megahabit” that sticks with me across time and circumstances, it’s something I love to do, I couldn’t do without, and it, in a large part, helps define me. And I think you find the same kind of talk when you encounter people who are enthusiastic about things.
I think there’s something important in ritualizing – you get excited about the preparatory ephemera and it not only lowers starting thresholds, it inverts them. Can you deliberately do this? I have no idea, but I’m curious to try. I’m also curious if this would be a totally different paradigm outside of identity.
Advanced Options I think there are other more advanced options. Buddhist thought talks about meditation as wearing away the concept of a self. The conclusion for me is that if the self is an illusion, and you know it, you might be able to don another illusion more easily. Vajrayana and Tantra deal with visualizations, hypnosis mucks around directly with the unconscious, which presumably is the seat of identity, as does NLP to a degree.
These are all way out of my league, but perhaps the smallest distillation, visualizing myself as another person who is, say, a clean eater, may have some benefit. Though, as with affirmations, I’m not clear if this has actually been proved to make a difference.
I forgot to mention that a week or two ago while traveling I finished a Gotham Writers course on Nonfiction Book Proposals. Specifically for a book on habits and this project. As with NaNoWriMo I was able to successfully fold in work on this class with my writing habit.
I got some great feedback on how to hone my pitch and my message. But on a personal note it is a huge block I overcame. Since leaving graduate school in 2004, it’s the first course I’ve fully completed. I’ve had a huge block in my mind for completing course work - it’s caused me to leave incomplete, let’s see:
Yoga Teacher Training CELTA (Certification for English Language Teachers for Adults) SCUBA open water certification 2 Coursera Classes A MediaBistro Course
And I’m sure there are a several more. Anyway I was able to work through that block with a surprising amount of ease that I lay at the feet of quality habits and regularity. I worked on my course every day, which is worlds and worlds a part from my usual M.O. of procrastinating till the last minute.
I think when change comes, it’s sometimes unnoticeable. It’s why it’s important to note change, so that when we come up against something else we think is insurmountable we can just point ourselves to a string of past victories and believe that what we did before can be done again. But we have to know those victories are there.
So good job me.
I’m in a better position now to see what needs to happen going forward for this book - it’s a lot of work, but I’ve got a much better handle on it all. And now I’m thinking….what other course should I take?
That’s the big question, and it sometimes feels like an unsolvable riddle.
The Greek philosopher Zeno had a series of paradoxes where he posited the impossibility of motion. In one, the Dichotomy Paradox, he states that in order to travel from point A to point B, one has to go through a midpoint, point C. In order to get to point C, one has to get halfway there, point D. One has to do this an infinite number of times, which is impossible. Therefore travel to point B (and all travel) is impossible. Yet we disprove logic like this every day.
I’ve deluged friends like James with questions, but the details come out vague. Somehow, like travel, they just did it, and the same thing applies to me and the identity habits in my own life. It just happened, and how I hate that response!
One methodology around this vagary comes from Neuro-Linguistic Programming. In it the founders, Richard Bandler and John Grinder, advocate taking exceptional people and breaking down their actions into composite parts in order reproduce their resulting….exceptionalness. Although I am as of yet unconvinced of NLP as a whole system, I like this technique. According to Bandler and Grinder many of their models were using tacit techniques, and it was only by breaking them down could they repeat their results. In Patterns of the Hypnotic Techniques of Milton H. Erickson, M.D. the duo dedicate one entire volume to the famed clinical hypnotist’s verbal patterns and a further volume just for his nonverbal cues.
But it’s not as though identity isn’t already a part of habit formation anyway. The Orbell-Verplanken SRHI has several questions dedicated to identity. My move to an identity theory of certain habits is more because I believe ALL the little bits – including gamification and motivation – are cogs in a robust mechanism of self change.
What I want is to use all those cogs to construct a training protocol to make certain behavior’s identities more than just simple if-then grooves in my mind so that I have behaviors that cover radically changing circumstances. For some behaviors, it’s not really that necessary. For some they definitely are.
Milton Erickson was arguably the most famous and successful clinical hypnotist, but his students weren’t necessarily any better than average. But by putting a microscope to his actions Bandler and Grinder were (allegedly) able to reproduce the results. I don’t know for certain if this reducability worked for them with hypnosis, but I have definitely seen it work for other behaviors.
I hope, in Part III, to put people who have developed Identity Habits under the microscope to reverse engineer some plausible methods for this type of change.
My buddy James is a vegetarian. I am not a morning person. I’m a reader of fantasy books.
Remember those statements, ’cause I’m going to reference ’em later.
In the last few years I’ve been experimenting with various models of self improvement. Before I officially started this project I assumed that motivation was a significant catalyst for self change. After seeing it as a perennial problem (I can get psyched up for gym going starting on New Years, but it peters out pretty quickly, and the cycle repeats next year) I switched to other things.
I dabbled in gamification, because I saw its addictive properties as lowering willpower thresholds. Like motivation, it worked, but only for a while.
I’ve since focused on habits for the last two years, and though I’ve had a great deal of success, they’re only foolproof in relatively basic and linear behaviors. When things get complicated that paradigm just isn’t enough.
How are they not enough? The linear model – what BJ Fogg advocates, of starting a Tiny Habit, reaching that hook point of automaticity, then naturally increasing difficulty, repetitions, or length of time until you achieve mastery – doesn’t seem to fully work all the time. Or rather it really falls a part when you’re pushing habits to mastery, which I see as another vector of effort (regimention/willpower and endurance/forming a habit being the other two vectors).
That vector involves plateaus in skill and the maddening frustration of constantly doing a task that is at least slightly above your current level.
It also runs into trouble when you’re dealing with families of skills. I advocate this not only because families can support each other, but in a world where time is of essence (we die, our bodies wear out), skills that have an accrual across time are necessary to start now to gain the benefits of daily minimums across time. If I start a habit of cardio 30 minutes a day, I may not master it. I might not get my goal of a six pack until I nail my eating habit. But for as long as I’m exercising, I’m accruing secondary cardio “points”.
Pushing skills in the vector of skill advancement throws a huge wrench into the equation because of habit harmonics. A dissonance starts – extra effort in one skill affects the solidity of other habits.
But the biggest problem with my current model is that it doesn’t attenuate in more complicated behaviors.
Let’s go back to the original three statements.
My buddy James is a vegetarian. When we go out and eat he avoids meat. In all scenarios. After the bars while tipsy and ordering pizza late at night, when going to a restaurant with friends with crappy vegetarian options, even in one place that had amazing pork tacos.
I do the same thing with fantasy books. It’s not as though I decide to read them – I HAVE to read them. It’s not even a choice. I need to have those few minutes before bed to scratch that itch and if I don’t have at least an option loaded on my Kindle, I start to get all itchy. The world is not right.
The inverse is important to analyze – I’m not a morning person. My waking up early is either a fluke or a deliberate preparation if I need it. Morning people are morning people because they enjoy it or they just are that way – it’s totally independent from fluctuating conditions. If they’re out late the night before, they still wake up early.
For all three – it’s an identity that’s welded in. It’s not what you do, it’s part of who you are, which not only makes it stronger, it also is able to somehow adapt incredibly well to changing conditions. Choice is also almost entirely scrubbed out of the equation.
For me this becomes an issue with eating and getting up early. All the other habits I consider foundational are easy. Working out – no problem, barring travel, it’s once a day at a certain time. Same with writing, meditating, and if I add flossing or recording finances. It’s a matter of if-then protocols – implementation intentions.
For eating that gets insanely complicated – it’s multiple times a day, across changing circumstances, etc. I believe it’s the reason I’ve had to scrap the habit several times, even when I’ve maintained it for close to a year. It just never stuck. And this is a big problem – eating is incredibly important for health, energy, and weight loss. It also has the biggest impact for whether I can socialize well later in the program – I don’t want to go out to meet people and, because of lack of willpower, blow out a previous habit of making good food decisions.
As I mentioned I’ve had visitors - we’ve been hosting visitors to Spain. We took them around Barcelona, and then went on a trip to Andalucia, which was fantastic.
Here’s a pic of Ronda, one of the “white towns” of the region. We started in Seville, got a car, and drove to a bunch of the hill towns.
The countryside was just stunning. The area was the sight of numerous battles from when the Arab invasions and the Christian Reconquista took place. Most of the towns were situated in the hills for defensive purposes, and many had castles. Ronda was unique in that it spanned a huge gorge - on one side was the Arab old town, on the other the Christian town. The Arab side even had Arab baths, which we got to tour.
Another place we stayed at was Arcos de la Frontera.
It was our base while we did road trips around the area. We also got to see a lot of the Easter processions - and there were a lot of them, some going through the night!
But I got a chance to see what I consider the most beautiful of the White Towns…in fact, perhaps the most beautiful place I’ve ever been to - Zahara.
This photo really doesn’t do the city justice. It had views like the Galapagos, a lake to the left of this shot that just glowed blue, and an incredibly beautiful old city with orange trees growing all over the place, and of course the mountains marching off into the distance. This was from the very top of the city, at the very top of the ramparts of the castle.
A really neat article about using network theory and habits.
It’s not particularly ground breaking, but it is a really cool method for showing that dealing with families of habits are perhaps a better way of describing personal development rather than dealing with habits in isolation.
The guy has (perhaps had) a course on Skillshare and has written other articles - I need to check him out because it’s a unique view. I’d love to see more mathematics brought to bear on habit formation.