Why We Erroneously Judge Others and How to Stop

It’s funny how our own judgmental attitudes can catch us unawares.

I was recently hosting a meal in my apartment for a large group of both friends and strangers (a common mix when everyone you invite asks to bring a guest). I had spent all day cooking various types of fish and meat and devising several interesting cocktails to serve. At meal time, when I had just finished bringing out all of the food and drink (including a pitcher of water for those folk not tempted by the stronger beverages), one of the new guests—let’s call him Joe—came over to me in the kitchen.

“Excuse me,” Joe said. “Do you have any soda?”

My initial reaction? Disgust. Judgement.

Why would someone ask for soda? Doesn’t he know how unhealthy that stuff is? And he just supposed that I would have some?

Stop. Pause. Think.

Why am I experiencing these feelings?

Possible options:

  1. In recent years I have been extremely focused on health and nutrition. I view soda as one mankind’s all-time worst inventions and one of the leading causes of health problems in this country.
    1. His desire for it still has no impact on me. Why should it affect my emotional state?
    2. I view the world through my own lens. If I have trained myself to be disgusted by it then I am disgusted by anyone else wanting it.
  2. I was affected by his presumption about me. Why would he think I had soda? Me, who has self -defined as someone who doesn’t drink it? Shouldn’t this person who I just met realize that??
  3. I had worked really hard to prepare a fancy meal, drinks included. Was everything that I made so inadequate that he needed to request something so low-class?

Examining all of these explanations, I realize that the truth is really a combination of all of them.

Here’s why I am a hypocrite.

  1. I did have soda in my fridge. Why? Because I needed it for one of my cocktails. Which means there was in fact some soda out on the table.
  2. Not only was I serving soda, I was serving alcohol. Which, even though I drink it (the complete reasons for which will be left for another post), I acknowledge is not healthy.

How could I have had such a negative, judgmental reaction to his desire for soda when my own beverage choices for the night were arguably worse?

The Problem

It is impossible to be perfectly rational.

Much as some of us would like to make that claim (myself being the first offender), there just isn’t time to stop and think about every situation we encounter in a proper analytical manner. Instead we rely on complex mental models that we build up that are capable or recognizing a given situation, comparing it to the existing model, and instantly spitting out a best-fit answer.

Examples of common types of model-solution situations are “I am a Republican, therefore I will not vote for that Democrat, even though I haven’t closely examined his entire platform and personality in such a manner as to be able to make a well-informed decision.” Or, “I am a strong, independent person—I will instantly reject offers for help even in situations where that help is needed.”

Digging us still deeper into this trench of self-misdirection is our tendency to project our own mental models on others. Rather than make a conscious effort to see a situation from their point of view, we consistently default to thinking “I would never do such a thing, so how could they?”

This is the trap that I fell into.

I have a mental model of myself as a healthy person. Even though that model comes with certain caveats (e.g. drinking alcohol, occasional eating baked goods, etc.), it also comes with certain hard and fast rules. These include avoiding hydrogenated fats like the plague and never drinking plain soda. When I saw Joe breaking one of the rules that I had set for myself, I became angry.

But what if this Joe was also a very healthy person? Maybe during the week he eats even healthier than I do, but one of his personal exceptions is that he allows himself a single glass of soda on Friday nights.

Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t. But why should it matter to me?

The Solution

I don’t believe that it is possible to fully eliminate this type of unconscious judgement from our psyches. We can, however, learn to reign it in and mitigate its effect on our thoughts and behavior.

For a while now I have been working to instill in myself the following habit:

Cue: Any time I experience a negative emotion targeted at someone else.

Routine: Stop. Pause. Think. Why am I experiencing this emotion? Which of my own mental models could I be projecting? Could there be any situation at all that I can think of where if I knew his perspective then I would no longer be upset? If so, assume as the default that that situation is the current one.

Reward: Eliminating negative emotions leads to reduced stress and increased happiness.

TL;DR — Someone asked me for soda. I got mad. Realized I was being a hypocrite. Resolved to eliminate that type of thinking. Gave him soda. Went and drank a cocktail.


5 Weird Things I Do in the Shower: A Masochist’s Guide to Productivity

Ah, the shower. So pleasurable. So relaxing.

So inefficient.

I hate just standing around doing nothing, even when it feels good. To combat this, over the years I have come up with a slew of options for making my shower time productive. Some are fairly simple, others may seem a bit odd to most normal folk out there. But what is “normal” really?

1. Calf Raises

The calves are oft-overlooked muscles when it comes to many workout regimens. But what they lack in glamour they make up for in utility; calves are important for ankle stabilization, generating power for many lifts, and even adding some inches on your vertical jump.

What better time to exercise them than when you’re just standing around doing nothing?

Standing calf-raises are quite simple: stand on one foot, clench all the muscles in your supporting leg to provide proper stability, and start lifting up onto the ball of your foot in a controlled motion. If you really want to work on your ankle stability you can do these without holding onto the wall, but be careful—falling down in the shower rarely ends well (I of course have absolutely no reason to know this from experience).

2. Stretching

There is never enough time in the day to do all the stretching that I’d like to, so this ends up being by far my most common shower activity.

I typically only have time for the standing pike—bend forward, hinging at the hips, and try to touch the ground a few inches in front of your toes while keeping your back flat. I hold the position for 60 seconds, then sometimes throw in a bit of isometric stretching.

If anyone is interested in starting a proper stretching program, here is a great place to begin (at some point I may write about everything that I am currently doing).

3. Meditate

And now we get to the mental side of things.

“But wait!” you say. “My showers are already meditation! I get all relaxed and my mind just floats!”

That is opposite of meditation (of the mindfulness variety at least—I won’t speak for every variation).

The essence of meditation is the process of eliminating all thoughts of the future or past and just existing in the present, reveling in the simple sensations of the body. For most people, the shower is their time to either daydream or just to think.

Thinking bad. Feeling good. Existing.

For those more interested in how to meditate, Sam Harris has an excellent written primer and guided meditation. The Headspace app also has a great, free, 10-day intro course of guided 10-minute meditations.

Oh, and yes I do typically sit down when I meditate. Even in the shower. I find that it makes it easier to focus.

4. Visualizations

I usually reserve these for morning showers.

Research shows that focused visualizations can have a profound effect on your mind and body. This works even to the point of building muscle mass via simply going through a detailed workout in your mind. If this sounds absurd, try going through this 2-minute exercise:

This same principle can be applied to almost any aspect of life. When I want to have a really successful day, if I spend several minutes envisioning in detail what that would entail, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

5. Power Pose

For those of you who are too lazy for the above four activities, here’s something nice and simple that takes only 2 minutes and might boost your testosterone by up to 20%: stand like Superman.

Put your hands on your hips, feet apart, thrust your chest forward, and stick out your jaw. Hold that pose.

Multiple studies have shown this to both increase testosterone and reduce cortisol (your primary stress hormone).

This can be combined with the visualizations for an even greater effect.

BONUS: Cold Showers

For those of you who were already thinking “Man, this guy’s showers seem like a lot of work. I just want to relax and enjoy myself!” this is probably the point where you completely abandon ship.

It’s been months since I’ve taken a hot shower.

I can go on at length about all the different forms of therapeutic cold exposure and their benefits, but to give a brief sampling, cold showers have been shown to:

  1. Increase alertness
  2. Refine hair and skin
  3. Improve immunity and circulation
  4. Stimulate weight loss
  5. Speed up muscle soreness and recovery
  6. Ease stress
  7. Relieve depression
  8. Boost testosterone

To work up to it, try taking a hot shower and then just ending it off with 30 seconds of cold. The colder the better.

Closing Oddities

I almost always use some combination of the above activities in my showers. When I don’t, I have been known to read books, hold long phone conversations, and even do handstands. I really do hate just standing around.

Pro tip: don’t do handstands in the shower.

Does anyone have any interesting ways they make use of their shower time?

The 8-Week Habit Challenge

I have the self-control of a tiger at a bunny convention.

I try to pretend otherwise, and in some instances manage to succeed, but the fact remains: I don’t spend nearly enough of my time and energy on the areas of my life that I deem important.

The time has come for a change. And I need your help.

Rather than try and magically increase my self-control, I will be trying to take willpower out of the picture entirely by instilling within myself a series of productive habits. Research has shown that the best way to successfully train a new habit is to use either external incentives (e.g. financial) or social accountability. I plan on using both.

Keystone Habits

There once was a fat man named Melvin. For years, Melvin had tried everything he could think of to lose weight. His friends watched as he cycled through fad diet after fad diet—vegetarian, pescetarian, Dukan, Atkins, Flintstones, Crazy Chicken—he would stick with one for a few weeks, lose a few pounds, get tired of it, and gain all the weight back. Every New Year’s he would sign up for a gym membership, always on the lookout for that extra perk that might successfully keep him coming back. But no matter how excellent the towel-service, by mid-February Melvin was nowhere to be seen.

One day Melvin decided to try something different: he would start keeping a food journal. Rather than specifically restricting what he ate, he would eat whatever he wanted but make sure to write it down. Each night, he would read over his food intake for the day.

Soon something magical began to happen: Melvin began to lose weight.

Instead of being restricted by some externally imposed, arbitrary set of rules, Melvin was now thinking for himself. Each time he was about to reach for a snack, or order that extra Diet Coke with his meal, he thought about having to write it down and was able to stop himself. The constant health-awareness even began to extend itself to his fitness activities. The small decisions like taking the stairs instead of the elevator began to add up.

For Melvin, this food journaling turned out to be what is known as a keystone habit. A single important habit from which a cascade of others easily follow. Identifying these types of habits is one of the most important parts of making major life changes.

My 3 stickK’ing Keystones

In my article about habit formation I mentioned two apps that I found to be quite useful: coach.me and stickK. The former is great for easy check-ins with large numbers of habits or for hiring a coach, and the latter allows for more social interaction via Referees and Supporters as well as the capability to add in a financial incentive. I have decided to use both—stickK for my keystone habits and coach.me for the rest.

Soon I’ll write a post talking about my overall self-improvement plan and all of the habits that will entail, but right now I want to limit the focus to three (hopefully) keystone habits:

  1. Meditate 10 minutes per day — I’ve been listening to The Tim Ferris Show for quite a while now, where he interviews the world’s top performers (CEO’s, pro athletes, best selling authors, etc). One of the most common similarities that these people have across the board is a regular meditation practice. Meditation is something that I’ve been doing off and on for a while now, but everything I’ve read about it states that after the first 10-15 days of constant practice there is a qualitative change that has far-reaching effects. I have yet to reach that point, but I plan on doing so by two weeks from today.
  2. Work 1 hour before noon — Once I’m in the groove, I can go on working for hours. It’s getting started that I have serious problems with. I know that a single hour doesn’t sound like much, but the point here is consistency + achievability. This habit is designed to get the ball rolling each day.
  3. Blog 3 times per week — And now we get to the whole point of this post: external culpability. I will be blogging primarily about my various adventures on the quest for self improvement, shorter pieces about things that I have learned and find fascinating, and occasionally some bits about my musings on life. By sharing it with all of you I hope to be able to both organize my thoughts better and to force myself to apply everything I learn to my daily life (and help you all do the same).

My Challenge to You

I have signed each of these habits up on stickK, complete with a $5/week penalty that gets donated to an anti-charity if I don’t check in. As of right now I have $200 on the line—the problem is that money by itself has never been much of a motivator for me.

Instead, I want motivation through social pressure and group-accountability.

Do you have some aspect of your life that you’ve been meaning to work on? Something you keep trying to change but haven’t quite managed to do so?

Now’s your chance.

Sign up for stickK.com, make at least one commitment (it’s best not to try too many at once), and add me as a friend. You can use the above three links to join as a supporter for my habits, and I will do the same for yours. If you want I can even be your referee. To increase your number of supporters, comment on this post with your username / link and everyone else can join you as well.

Each week you will be required to check in and report on your progress (or miss it and get fined).

Who’s with me?

When Working is Hard, Let Habit Do the Work – The Science and Practice of Making and Breaking Habits

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”Aristotle

“A man who can’t bear to share his habits is a man who needs to quit them.”Stephen King, The Dark Tower

My belief in my own strong will tends to last just as far as it takes to reach into the freezer for a scoop ice cream after a long day.

But what does strong-willed really mean?

Is a corporate CEO strong-willed because he is able to wake up at 5am every day and work until he drops?

What about a slave who was forced to do the same on pain of the lash?

Research shows that willpower is actually a limited resource. Every time we force ourselves to do something difficult—get out of bed, go to the gym, refrain from eating that entire plate of brownies—we deplete it a bit more.

So how is it then that so many high-performers seem to have a nigh-unlimited store of energy?

One answer is that willpower is more a muscle than a cistern. There are a myriad of both physiological and psychological ways to strengthen it.

But any muscle has its failure point. So how then are some people such unstoppable juggernauts?

The answer—in case the title or opening quotes didn’t give it away—lies with habits.

The most comprehensive coverage of the topic of habits that I have thus far encountered is the book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. It’s an amazing read and the source for much of what I will be talking about here.

Your Brain on Habits

Habits don’t use willpower. They don’t require conscious decisions. When an action is habitual enough, you often don’t even notice that you’re doing it until halfway through. How many times have you been driving to work only to suddenly realize that you have absolutely no memory of the first half of the drive?

Duhigg opens up his book with the fascinating case of Eugene Pauly, a 71-year-old man who lost the medial temporal lobe of his brain to viral encephalitis. This had the astounding effect of entirely removing his ability to store new memories (he was the basis for the “Ten second Tom” character from the movie Fifty First Dates).

Eugene had no memory of his grandchildren, thought Eisenhower was still president, and couldn’t tell you how to find his own bedroom from his living room couch.

Nonetheless, Eugene was quite happy, and to make sure that he got some physical exercise his wife began taking him on 15-minute-long walks around their block. One day his wife came home late to find Eugene gone. She began frantically searching for him only to finally locate him halfway around the block, following their usual path. When questioned, Eugene was completely incapable of pointing in the direction of their home.

The case of Eugene served to demonstrate what scientists had long thought but never managed to prove: that habits operate through an entirely different part of the brain than standard memory formation and decision making.

Once a behavior becomes a habit, it doesn’t just make the choice to carry it out an easy one. It makes it no choice at all.

But how to take advantage of this?

The Habit Loop

All habits can be broken down into three basic components:

  1. Cue – some type of trigger that tells the brain to initiate a habit sequence.
  2. Routine – A physical, mental, or emotional action.
  3. Reward – Any form of positive stimulus that indicates to the brain that this routine was a good one.

For an established habit, the brain begins to anticipate and crave the reward the moment that the cue is experienced.

A common example of this sequence is experienced every day by anyone who owns a cell-phone. The phone buzzes: the cue. You instantly go to check what caused it: the routine. You receive the tiny dopamine rush that accompanies a small burst of social interaction: the reward.

The power of this particular loop is made especially evident by the “phantom cell-phone buzz” phenomena. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve felt or heard something vaguely akin to a buzzing, gone to check my phone, and realized that the phone was already in my hand. Because I was talking on it. That is clearly not the behavior of my conscious mind (or so I dearly hope).

Eliminating Bad Habits

The first step towards eliminating any bad habit is to identify each of its component parts. Let’s take for example a habit that I’ve had for years: getting up in the middle of working to find a snack.

The routine is easy. It involves getting up, browsing through my refrigerator and cabinets (I usually work from home), and potentially finding something to eat (sometimes I catch myself halfway through my rummaging and go back to work).

But what about the cue? The reward? And how do I use this knowledge to eliminate the habit?

Step 1 – From Background to Foreground

The single most important step towards eliminating a bad habit is raising it into your conscious awareness. This doesn’t just mean recognizing that the habit exists (sometimes a necessary first step), but rather becoming aware of it each and every time you enter into the loop. Only once the conscious brain gets involved in the action sequence can it have a hope of changing it.

The first step is therefore to begin training yourself to consciously recognize whenever you are in the middle of the negative routine and simply pause for a second to realize that fact.

Step 2 – Identify the Cue

Merely recognizing a routine is not enough to change it. Once we are in the middle it is often far too late to stop. When was the last time you spat out a mouthful of ice cream? Most people who attempt to change a habit get to this point and then begin to flounder. They realize that they are doing something negative, decide they need to stop, and firmly commit to stopping—next time. They think to themselves, “This one last time is okay… right?”

The question that they need to start asking is not “What am I doing?” but “How did I come to be doing this?”. What was the cue?

Most cues fall into the following categories:

  1. Location
  2. Time
  3. Emotional state
  4. Physical state
  5. Other people
  6. Immediately preceding action

Sometimes the cue might be readily apparent; imagine a pitcher going through the same windup sequence right before each pitch (a clear case of #6). In other cases it may take some deeper thought and experimentation to determine.

Let’s go back to my snacking habit. The easiest explanation would be #4—I’m hungry, therefore I snack. But why then do I find myself getting up for a snack within half an hour of sitting down to work after lunch? I don’t always under-eat at lunch time.

Maybe it’s #1—I don’t get up for a snack when working at a Starbucks, just at home. And it generally happens when I sit down in front of my computer.

Perhaps #3 could explain it—I definitely have negative emotions surrounding work, so maybe whenever I begin to feel them my body decides that it needs a counteracting agent: food.

Even #6 could provide a plausible cue. When I really get into the flow of working I do tend to enjoy it and am therefore less prone to taking a snack break. The most common time that I seem to find myself going for a snack is either right as I sit down to work or right when I return to working after something has distracted me.

Step 2 in a nutshell: whenever you find yourself mid-routine of a bad habit, pause and write down 3 possible cues. The true cue will soon reveal itself.


Step 3 – Identify the Craving / Reward

Once you figure out when you begin your bad habit sequence, the next step is to determine the why.

The key here is to be as specific as possible. It’s not enough to say “I do it because it feels good.” That may be a true statement, but it only tells part of the story.

Sure, when I start eating a sugary snack it triggers a dopamine rush in my brain that makes me feel good. But when you get down to it, just about every habit involves dopamine.  If that were the sole reason for the habit, and I were so susceptible to it, then I would end up spending most of my days locked inside a Costco-fueled Willy Wonka Wonderland. Clearly there is something else going on.

Rewards can come in many different forms. They can be physiological, such as sugar and it’s accompanying positive feelings. They can be social, such as an office worker who frequently gets up to go to the water cooler for the chance to talk to associates. They can even just be positive feelings, such as a sense of accomplishment or feeling of relief.

Regardless of which form the reward takes, once your brain starts linking a particular behavior and reward together following a specific cue, from then on whenever the cue is experienced a sense of craving will emerge. As the habit gets more ingrained, the rush of positive neurotransmitters that accompanies its completion starts to become greater than can be explained away by the reward itself. The habit becomes self-perpetuating.

Step 3 in a nutshell: Just as with Step 2, we let the data decide. Once you have identified the cue for a bad habit and begin noticing every time it comes up, now switch from writing down potential cues mid-routine to writing down potential cravings mid-cue. There are two possibilities for what to do next, one passive and one active.

The Passive – Once you’ve written down three potential cravings/rewards, set an alarm for 15 minutes. Continue with the routine. When the alarm goes off, see which of those cravings you might still have and which have been satisfied.

The Active – Instead of continuing with the normal routine, experiment with a new one that you think will satisfy the craving. If you do this and you still feel the same urge as before, you’ve probably gotten the craving down wrong.

For my snacking habit it took me some time to properly isolate both the cue and the craving. I experimented with keeping both healthy and unhealthy snacks at my desk, but while I did eat them, I still found myself periodically wandering around the kitchen. Thinking it might be the urge to stretch, I tried getting up and doing stretches, jumping jacks, or pushups. This worked a little bit, but still felt off.

My epiphany came fairly recently. I was about to begin working, felt the urge to snack, and did 20 pushups instead. When I sat back down at my computer, I again started to pull up my work only to find myself checking my phone. It suddenly occurred to me that this was all really part of the same habit.

When I am in the middle of a project that I enjoy, and I know exactly what the next step is and how to go about it, it’s easy for me to start working. But whenever I am faced with a large, multifaceted task where I barely even know where to begin, beginning anywhere is very, very hard. So I look for any possible excuse to put it off.

My Cue – Beginning an ill-defined piece of work.

My Craving – Something very specific to do that will provide a distraction (and quick dopamine hit).

My Routine – Getting up to snack. Or check my phone. Or look at email. Or Facebook. Or stop and go out shopping. Or anything else to put off the work.

My Reward – A sense of relief. A very brief sense of accomplishment.

Step 4 – The Swap

Now that you fully understand how your habit operates, the hard part finally begins: eliminating it.

But who likes to do anything the hard way?

One brain imaging study examining subjects addicted either to food or to drugs found that:

“…during exposure to the reinforcer or to conditioned cues, the expected reward (processed by memory circuits) overactivates the reward and motivation circuits while inhibiting the cognitive control circuit, resulting in an inability to inhibit the drive to consume the drug or food despite attempts to do so.”

Ever get the feeling that, when fighting a bad habit, you’ve regressed from “real boy” to “marionette with sadistic puppet-master”?

Unfortunately, modern neuroscience supports the existence of said puppet-master. It’s called your mesolimbic dopamine (DA) pathway, and it doesn’t care about your long-term welfare.

Sure, it’s possible to stop a habit cold-turkey. Some people manage it. Some fewer even manage to not relapse.

For those of us normal humans, there’s a better way.

We’ve been discussing how habits have three parts. The cue, the routine, and the reward. But generally the only part that we really care about stopping is the routine. Instead of eliminating the entire habit, why not swap out the bad routine for a different one with the same reward? Satisfy the craving, but in a slightly different way.

Unfortunately this is not always possible. A heroin addict whose brain expects a dose of morphine to hit its opioid receptors and instead gets an apple won’t find that replacement habit working very well. But even in cases like this, replacing parts of the habit still works far better than trying to eliminate it entirely. At the very least, it is always possible to use an existing cue to start a totally different action.

Step 4 in a nutshell: try and swap out the existing bad routine for a better one that satisfies the same craving as much as possible. If this absolutely won’t work, use the existing cue to start a totally different action. Eventually the new action will begin to overwrite the old one as a response.

For my snacking habit, or at this point maybe it would be better to call it a distraction habit, I am still working on possible solutions. The real pain point behind the habit is the reduction in productivity which comes from following it, so my replacement routine needs to have the following characteristics:

  • Short, rigidly defined length
  • Doesn’t require me to walk around or otherwise provide opportunities for distraction
  • Provides either a degree of pleasure or sense of accomplishment

The easiest solution would be to ration out some type of healthy but tasty food to myself each time I begin working. The problem is that because part of my ‘reward’ is the very time I spend not working—exactly what I want to eliminate—there is no routine that will provide a perfect replacement.

Which leads me to the final option for dealing with bad habits.

Step 4.5: For cases where the cue itself is undesirable, figure out how to avoid the cue.

Lets say that every time you get completely wasted you end up texting your ex-girlfriend. One way to change this bad habit would be to change the routine by training yourself to instead start sending prank-texts to random friends. But wouldn’t it be better if you were to avoid getting so drunk in the first place?

Returning again to my distraction habit, the cue primarily arises when I have a very open-ended task. The wider the scope, the harder it is for me to begin work on it. I have known this about myself for years, but only recently was I able to formulate it so succinctly and to link it to a particular habit chain.

In addition to experimenting with alternate routines, I have also been working on ways to make these open-ended tasks more concrete. If I can break the larger project into bite sized, manageable chunks, it becomes far easier to throw myself straight into them and I am less likely to get the urge to distract myself.

Designing Good Habits

The key to maximizing productivity whilst minimizing effort expenditure lies in transforming your daily routine into a series of good habits.

Now that we understand how habits work, this process becomes fairly simple.

Step 1 – Define the Routine

What is it that you want to do?

Again, specificity is key. It isn’t enough to say “I want to start exercising.” It is far more effective to say “I want to start going to the gym three times per week for 30-minute workouts using exercise program XYZ.” (For those who want to begin working out but don’t know where to start and are worried about hurting themselves, I would highly recommend Mark Rippetoe’s book Starting Strength).

One habit that I am currently trying to train into myself is one of mindfulness: a moment-by-moment awareness of my own thoughts, feelings, and environment.  Rather than just tell myself “be mindful,” I have developed the following routine:

  1. Stop whatever I am doing.
  2. Take three deep breaths through my nose.
  3. Notice something good about either what I am currently feeling or my environment.

Step 2 – Decide on a Cue

The easiest way to develop a new habit is to link it to an existing cue.

It is often helpful to go through your daily routine and create a list of cues that you know you will be experiencing one or more times. Here is a part of my own list:

  • Wake up
  • Get out of bed
  • Check email – repeated
  • Check facebook – repeated
  • Get dressed
  • Go to bathroom – repeated
  • Brush teeth
  • Brew bulletproof coffee – repeated
  • Stop at traffic light – repeated
  • Walk down hallway – repeated
  • Watch a video online – repeated

Given that I work from home my daily routine is more unstructured than structured, but for most people all of the events surrounding going to and returning from work can be excellent cues.

For each habit that you are trying to start, go through this list and figure out which cue would be best to link it to. Is the habit once-per-day or is it repeated? How long does your routine take?

I want my mindfulness routine to be repeated many times throughout the day so I decided to link it to exiting the bathroom.

Step 3 – Assign a Reward

Some habits have intrinsic rewards, others need to be externally assigned. Even the ones with intrinsic rewards might need an added boost in their formative stages.

Going to the gym will produce a rush of endorphins and a sense of accomplishment, but if that were enough to get an exercise habit started then the US might not have such an obesity problem.

One effective way of linking habits to rewards is called temptation bundling, described by Professor Katy Milkman from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania as:

…bundling instantly gratifying but guilt-inducing “want” experiences (enjoying page-turner audiobooks) with valuable “should” behaviors providing delayed rewards (exercising).

In her study she showed that people were 29%-51% more likely to exercise if they had a page-turning audiobook such as The Hunger Games that they were only able to listen to while at the gym.

An added trick is to go through your previous list of cues and identify any pleasurable activities that you find yourself doing every day. These can then be used simultaneously as a cue for a desired new behavior and as a reward.

Having accepted the fact that I will sometimes waste time watching various types of media on my computer, I decided that the only way I would continue to let myself do so is if I were stretching at the same time. (Note: standing on a chair and touching your toes whilst staring at a computer screen can attract some weird looks.)

The difficulty of a routine should be linked to the magnitude of the reward. For my mindfulness habit I decided to link it to a minor action that gives a small endorphin rush: a smile. (Mind-follows-matter: even a forced smile will produce a positive affect on brain chemistry, as demonstrated in a study where participants showed a greater humor-reaction when forced to ‘smile’ via holding a pencil in their mouths.)

Step 4 – Sticking With It: External Culpability and Competition

The best way to ensure the successful formation or removal of a habit is to set up a system of external culpability and incentives / disincentives.

Even once you have developed the perfect cue-routine-reward trio there is no guarantee that the habit will stick. The journey from conscious-effort to effortless action is a long one.

It takes time for the brain to get familiar enough with the new cycle for new neural pathways to form. One study showed that it can take anywhere from 20 days to 84 days or more before the a routine begins to feel habitual, depending on the particular habit in question.

The beginning stages of habit formation are like a wild ride on a rickety unicycle. How many times have you made a New Year’s resolution to diet or exercise, kept it up for the first week or two, then reached a day where for some reason it just wasn’t possible? Once that momentum is broken, getting back up and balanced is extremely tricky.

Unless you have help.

The best way to successfully start a new habit (or kick a bad one) is to do it as part of a group. Let’s examine some of the benefits in the context of exercise:

  • Camaraderie — Humans are social creatures. Facing challenges as part of a group is uplifting, alone it can be depressing.
  • Company — Related to camaraderie but more specific. Rather than the abstract knowledge that others are struggling, with exercise you can go and do the activity together with the other person(s), thus increasing the moment-by-moment enjoyment.
  • Shared learning — Figuring out how to do something new can be difficult. Two people can often figure out best practices and eliminate problems noticeably faster than someone going solo.
  • External culpability — This is the big one. We are wired to do whatever is possible to avoid losing face in the eyes of our peers. If you know that your friends expect to see you at the gym, even if you miss a day that will only redouble your desire to go back the next and show that you had a good excuse for missing it.

Helpful tools

Not everyone can find a workout buddy. And some habits don’t lend themselves well to group activities. But, unlike those poor unfortunate souls in generations past, we have an excellent substitute: the internet.

stickk — This is a website/app that allows you to set up goals, regular check-ins, assign yourself a referee to monitor your progress, compare yourself to friends, and even sign up for a monetary disincentive (you lose $$ if you don’t check in).

coach.me — This app is similar to stickk, but also allows you to sign up for a professional coach and has Q&A discussion groups on all of the major habits.

wayoflife — With an elegant interface and excellent data-tracking tools, this app is perfect for those who like analyzing long-term trends in their own behavior. Note- it costs $5 to be able to track more than 3 habits at once.

21habit — Straight and to the point. For those who don’t need al the social whistles and bells and are just looking to give themselves a monetary incentive for carrying through with a habit, 21habit allows you to sign up, give $21, and get back $1/day that you check in as having met your goal.

Bad Habits Evernote Template  — A simple starting point that I use when trying to analyze my own bad habits.

This is just a small sampling of the tools that are out there for habit tracking, but the nuances of each one are far less important than simply choosing one to use and sticking with it.

I have recently started to use coach.me and plan on writing about the specifics in more detail.

Does anyone have any of their own tricks that they use for forming or eliminating habits?

The Habit Cheat Sheet





Why Facebook is Like a Slot Machine

Facebook is addictive.

I know this, you know this, and almost anyone who has been on the internet in the last ten years knows this.

Brain imaging studies have shown that the neural responses in Facebook-addicted subjects exhibit some similarities with those displayed by cocaine or gambling addicts.

But why is it so addictive? What about it drives us to go and refresh our news feed half a second after we just read through it?

My response to that question has always focused on the interplay between social behavior and habit formation. We evolved as social creatures, and built into us at an instinctive level is a desire to know about and interact with our peers. Facebook lets us tap into our social sphere with barely any effort, and our brain rewards us each time we do so with a little burst of dopamine. This leads to the formation of a habit where every time we open up a web browser or hear our phone buzz we instantly get an urge to check Facebook.

I heard an interesting thought today that addressed the phenomena at a slightly different level, helping me to understand what gives Facebook that added little addictive boost.

In short:

Facebook News Feed = Variable Ratio Operant Conditioning

For those of you a bit rusty on your Psych 101, I’ll elaborate.

Operant Conditioning is the theory that learning behavior is affected by an action’s consequences, e.g. positive or negative reinforcement or punishment.

In the mid 1900’s, Dr. B.F. Skinner showed that not only can the learning process for a behavior be affected by rewards or punishment, but that the scheduling of said factors plays a large role. In a laboratory setup where rats were given food pellets upon pressing a lever, he experimented with a variety of different reinforcement schedules. Varying groups of rats were given the pellets every time the lever was pressed, at a fixed ratio of presses (e.g. one in four), or at totally random presses (‘variable ratio’). Surprisingly, it turned out that the variable ratio group learned the behavior the strongest and retained it for the longest period of time.1

This is the same principle that makes slot machines the most addictive form of gambling. The players at the machines are the same as the rats, pressing the lever and getting instant but variable rewards.

Which brings us to Facebook. How often do you check a Facebook notification only to find that it was some random person commenting on a photo you don’t care about, or talking in that giant group chat that you really should leave but haven’t gotten around to yet? What percentage of news feed perusals turn up a truly interesting post?

These days my feed tends to look like this:

My Facebook Feed

The very paucity of quality content serves to ensure that I keep coming back for more.

But enough of psychology. It’s time for me to go find some of that red stuff.


Good Habits: Lumo Lifting Myself to Knighthood


Perfect posture breeds powerful performance

In Victorian England, babies were often swaddled at birth to keep their arms and legs perfectly straight and in line with the sides of their body. They were left this way for 3-4 months in the hopes that it would to a tall and straight carriage later in life.

When they were a bit older, girls at expensive finishing schools would be made to walk for several hours each day while strapped between two long mahogany boards, again with the goal of inducing perfect posture2.

Thankfully, parents and teachers have moved away from such extreme practices in favor of the simple admonitions: “Sit up straight!” and “Stop slouching!”. But was this change entirely to our benefit?

Medieval knights were lauded both then and now for their regal, upright bearing both on foot and on horse. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all carry ourselves in the same way without having to take such extreme measures to get there?

Exit: mahogany boards.

Enter: Lumo Lift.

Lumo Lift

This nifty little marvel of modern manufacture is like a little shoulder-devil whose sole purpose in life to yell at you every time you slouch.

Consisting of a sensor and a magnetic clip that you attach to the front of your shirt (the little silver or black square being the only outwardly visible portion), it vibrates any time your posture shifts towards slouching. It can be set to buzz immediately or with a specified delay / grace period, the default being two minutes.

As with all pieces of wearable technology these days, it syncs to an app that lets you track your posture on an hourly or daily basis. It can be programmed with set goals for each day and it will let you know whether or not you have achieved them.

I got my Lift yesterday and plan on making it a part of my daily wardrobe. Hopefully I will be able to report back in a week or two that I am well on my way to being deserving of knighthood.

But is it really worth the time and money? Is a bit of a slouch really so bad?

It turns out that this is one of those rare cases where modern science is in line with medieval intuition. The simple act of maintaining good posture has been shown to have far-reaching benefits mentally, physically, and socially.

Who we are is a product of how others see us and how we see ourselves. In both instances, the brain takes the cues from the body.

The Mental Benefits of Posture

One of the key researchers into the psychological effects of posture is Dr. Erik Peper from San Francisco State University.

In one study on sitting, he showed that sitting up straight made it easier to generate positive thoughts and memories in a whopping 92% of participants3.

In another study looking at walking habits, he had one group walk down a hallway with a slumped posture and another skip down it with an upright one. As compared to their initial baseline, the slumped group reported decreased energy levels after the walk whereas the skipping group reported increased ones4.

In a third study where a participant was anxious and crying, he demonstrated how simply causing them to look upwards decreased the crying and looking downwards amplified it5.

Branching out to some different researchers, Dana Carney and Andy Yap from Columbia University and Amy Cuddy from Harvard University studied the differences between wide, expansive postures and narrow, constrictive ones. They gave a group of participants $2 and told them that they could either keep it or roll a die for a 50/50 chance at turning it into $4. Before beginning, they instructed one group to sit with expansive postures and the other to use constrictive ones. The group with the expansive postures reported feeling more confident and in control and were 45% more likely to take the risk and roll the die. Furthermore, they showed that the expansive group had elevated levels of testosterone and reduced levels of cortisol6.

The Physical Benefits of Posture

A 2011 study from Gallup-Healthways found that 31% of U.S. adults suffer from some sort of neck or back pain7.

Unlike for the psychological effects, conclusively linking static sitting posture to incidence of back pain is quite difficult. Mentally, we can show how posture leads to hormonal changes which lead to behavioral changes. These changes are immediate rather than gradual. But our bodies are capable of taking quite a beating before they start giving out. It is therefore impossible to simply put a group in a lab, have them sit poorly for a few hours, and show any sort of lasting back pain from said activity. Instead, researchers have to study people in their daily lives—no easy task—which leads to the second problem: accurately measuring long-term posture. Not everyone can have a Lift.

It is far easier to show the dangers of sitting vs standing or moving. One group of researchers from the University of South Carolina showed a 64% increase in risk of cardiovascular disease from too much sedentary activity8. Another from the National Institute of Public Health in Copenhagan showed that an inactive lifestyle can shave off seven years of your life9.

A comprehensive literature review in 1997 by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) was unable to conclude a concrete link between static posture and lower back pain. This does not however show that it does not exist, as they themselves state “Few investigations examined effects of static work postures, and exposure characterizations were limited.” 10

When I began researching this topic I had expected to find a myriad of studies supporting the link between posture and bad back pain. While I was surprised to find that this was not the case, it does seem like that is more due to a lack of proper research than due to there being no link.

In 2014 NIOSH released a new document entitled “Observation-Based Posture Assessment, A Review of Current Practice and Recommendations for Improvement” which covered in detail the methods with which researchers should study posture in the future. This, combined with newer technological advancements such as seen with the Lumo Lift, should hopefully lead to some more effective research on the topic in the near future11.

The Social Benefits of Posture

Just as upright and expansive posture leads to feelings of confidence, so too does it invoke the image of confidence in onlookers. Since before we had language, before homo sapiens evolved from homo erectus and neanderthals, we have been interacting with each other based on body language12. It is hardwired into us to view those with an erect and confident bearing in a completely different light. It even makes us seem more attractive to the opposite gender13.

I could go on with this topic ad-nauseam, but I will save that for a more complete coverage of body language and its social ramifications (another hobby of mine) at a later date.

What is Good Posture?

Dr. Esther Gokhale from Stanford University has an interesting theory that posits that the bad posture of most modern Americans originates with how we were improperly seated as babies.

Slouched Baby and Slob

She may have a point.

But what is good posture?

A common misconception is that the spine should be straight. Instead, the spine should have three natural curves:

  1. Cervical – an inward curve at the neck
  2. Thoracic – an outward curve at the upper back
  3. Lumbar – an inward curve at the lower back

There are all sorts of techniques and exercises to try and develop and maintain good posture, but my favorite is that put forth by Kelly Starrett from Mobility WOD in his book Becoming a Supple Leopard.

Once you are braced, you can either walk around or sit down. The important thing is to maintain ~20% tension in your abs at all times, and if sitting to get up and repeat the bracing sequence every 10-15 minutes.

The full excerpt from the book discussing posture can be found here.

Finally, here are a couple of nice stretches to do that will help with sitting posture:

A Final Warning

Training yourself to improve your posture should help fight back pain in the long run. But be warned: in the short run you might find yourself in even more pain. You will be using muscles that are unaccustomed to such extended strain.

I started using my Lumo Lift this morning and four hours in my lower back was already quite sore. This lead to a noticeable drop-off in my posture. My hope is that as I train my body to maintain this sort of pose naturally my stats will go up and my pain levels will drop off quickly.

Lumo Lift Poster: Day 1
Lumo Lift Poster: Day 1

I plan on reporting back in a week’s time with some significant progress, but in the meantime I’d love to hear about anyone else’s Lift experiences.