Towards an Identity Model of Habits: Part I

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.

mask by 派脆客 Lee, tack by Zaheer Mohiuddin, welder by Per Hortlund

How To Form an Eating Habit Revisited

A find it interesting that though there are many articles on how to form a habit, there seems to be few articles on how to take the scientific approach of willpower and habit formation and apply it to eating.

In my NaNoWriMo book on this project, I took some time and theorized on how I’d be able to do this if I were advising someone starting from scratch.

To do this there are a few protocols I’d apply:
1) Implementation Intention
2) Sequenced habit chains, or “bookending”
3) Start small - “TinyHabits”

Based on this, my advice would be to  start small - and one small start is focusing on one clean meal a day. I’d also advice to make this automatic by having a clear cut implementation intention that’s in a chain of habits. I start out my days rowing, then I take a shower, then I meditate. I’d tack this on to the end of that chain.

The problem with my habit as it stands is that it’s fuzzy. My habit is essentially “eat clean.” That doesn’t really promote automaticity. Automaticity grows from having a clear time or sequence - an “if-then” parameter in the  mind. By not having it clear cut it promotes confusion - an unclarity in the forming habit.

It’s also all or nothing - if a Tiny Habit is ludicrously easy so that you feel like you’re more likely to do it, then having an all or nothing approach doesn’t really promote clean eating. It can’t be Tiny.

Nor does it incorporate how I prep for eating.  A nested habit would be beneficial for this- something like - on Saturday I go shopping for the week, and then I eat. 

My advice would be to fully master this as a habit, then move on to the next step.

The extension would be really difficult because there’s not really a bookmarking point for, say, eating at 6 pm. It would have to be an if-then based on time of day.

If I were talking to someone else, I’d of course start with smaller steps - removing soda, for example. But that’s not really something I have a problem with anymore - I generally drink almost nothing but water. 

I was talking to Lydia about this and she presented a counter argument. Articles have come out that suggest that things like gluten and sugar act almost like heroin in the brain, causing us to want to eat more. Her question was - would you apply this strategy to a heroin addict, or would your first step be to have them replace the drug fully? In methadone clinics heroin is replaced, then cut down.

So the analogy would presumably result in replacing wheat/sugar with substitutes, and then lowering the substitutes. Of course this is only from the Primal point of view.

I really don’t have a solution to this, except by looking at the past, seeing what I’ve done, and seeing how I’ve failed. I’ve gone the all or nothing approach, and it has clearly failed. My tendency now is to do something different, which seems to be to try to the piecemeal approach.

I do know that automaticity for my clean eating has been all over the place, and at least a portion of it has to be because I haven’t used the tools for habit formation at all in this particular habit. And it hasn’t just resulted in “fuzziness” in eating - it actually has a tendency to mess up other habits.

When I’m not pro-active about eating (pro-active being striking at a prearranged time versus “whenever I’m hungry) eating becomes an interruption in the habit chain of my morning. I believe that striking first allows me to incorporate it into the fold. And if I do this, I have yet another solid portion of the chain to implement another habit - writing or recording, both of which have been adversely affected.

I definitely think that other techniques I’ve used have really helped - especially the Flash Diet, which supercharged my eating during my 30 No Bread Challenge. I feel this can be incorporated into my progression.

TinyHabits, Plateaus and Ratcheting

At some point BJ Fogg talks about how a habit, when properly planted, will grow on its own. He then follows up by talking about how many pushups he does now (I think this is in his TED talk).

I don’t think think this is accurate - and I think a lot of habit researchers make leaps simply because they don’t have enough data. At 321 days of recording my own bodyweight habit, I’ve stalled. 

I started with a basic two pushup habit like BJ Fogg, then it grew - I was doing a pushup progression getting into typewriter pushups, as well as burpees, bridge progressions, etc. Which was great.

But recently I gone back down to two pushups after traveling and introducing other habits. I’m back down to the basic two pushups.  This makes sense considering other sources who talk about plateaus as inevitable. A plateau requires a push to get past.

I understand what Fogg is saying - we do have an artificially created growth cycle when we pass the danger period through making deliberately small habits - it’s as though we’re chomping on the bit but we’ve been forcing ourselves to take it slow. Graphically, the TinyHabit shifts a lot of things over.

But AFTER that initial growth cycle, we need to deliberately push ourselves. Because it ain’t gonna grow on its own.

The problem comes when we introduce multiple habits - also something most habit researchers don’t have data on over long periods. Other habits that are entering a danger zone or a growth cycle will inevitably leach willpower from habits that are floundering. There’s just not enough ambient willpower to sustain growth in all fields.

At the same time the danger is dropping down to the initial TinyHabit for maintenance purposes. You want to drop down to conserve willpower but you still want to keep the habit.

I’ve done this with my pushup habit.  But the thing is, my maintenance level shouldn’t be 2 regular pushups now. It SHOULD be two TYPEWRITER pushups. Going back down to the initial TinyHabit reverses progress rather than maintaining it.

So I think a new protocol for Willpower cycling would be to ratchet TinyHabits for maintenance. At periodic points in a habit’s lifecycle a line must be drawn to determine what a TinyHabit is in each category of habit for the express purposes of keeping up the habit without reversing progress. Maintenance levels for habits have to be progressive across time.

What’s exciting (well, to me at least) is that a TinyHabit has a different graph and lifecycle than a regular habit - and this can and should be mapped out to prevent problems later down the road.

Habit Harmonics

Harmonics is the word I’m using for how two habits interact with each other. I don’t know if it’s truly correct, but it’s what I’m using now.

Imagine two strings in a graph. The two strings represent a habit. Each string plays off one another.

Since willpower is one depleteable reserve, if two habits are draining more than their normal share (when being in a danger zone or through busting through a plateau) they will work against each other in habit dissonance.

To prevent that from happening when training multiple habits, a larger view has to be taken that takes into account the willpower/endurance drains of ALL habits. As more habits get trained (like in this project) this dance becomes more and more delicate.

It’s similar to that moment during the danger zone where the habit seems like it’s going to fall a part. The delicate part is managing any drainage through things like making a TinyHabit.

But when it all works together, habits start backing each other up in habit consonance.

So imagine a scenario - you’re in shape, you enjoy being outdoors. Your friend calls you up, and they want you to come out to play beach volleyball. You say yes and everyone is in swimsuits playing on the beach.

If you are in shape, you are more likely to go along with this. You are athletic so there’s no embarrassment. You have friends that are also athletic, you have no shame in just being in trunks. All of this is less likely to occur if you aren’t in shape. All of your habits - your social circle, your workout habits, your eating, going outdoors - all of this is pushing you to greater amounts of physicality. All your habits back each other up.

Another example of habit consonance is the idea of a habit singularity, where there is an explosive growth in habit formation. All basic habits are taken care of - there’s no question you’re going to workout - but how you do it changes. Habits act as slots that can be mixed and matched smoothly. This is perhaps the apex of habit consonance.

The problem is how to get there if multiple points in a given habit draw more willpower/endurance, and we’re trying to train multiple habits.