My Know-It-All Backseat Driver

I have recently noticed how my self-awareness incessantly surpasses my self-control.

Physically, this is evidenced by the perpetual superiority of my proprioceptive sense over my motor control.

When typing, I instantly know when my fingers have strayed. I will err, delete several characters, and retype them correctly, all whilst keeping my visual and mental focus on the passage that I am transcribing from.

When bowling, throwing a baseball, hitting a volleyball, or performing countless other physical tasks that require great precision, I am able to ascertain their success or failure with a high degree of accuracy simply by being aware of how they felt, before ever viewing the result of my actions.

This same disconnect between passive awareness and active capability is also present in purely cerebral undertakings.

When playing fast paced games of complex strategy I have lost count of the times where I have made a move even as I know it will get me into trouble. Similarly, in conversations I am often cognizant of any verbal blunders before ever seeing the reactions they provoke. It’s as if there is a smarter ME lounging around in my brain, languidly observing my actions and critiquing them with cruel precision, yet never deigning to come forward and take the reins.

As with many backseat drivers, I wish I could simply throw up my hands and shout “Fine, YOU do it!”

I bet he gets along quite well with my procrastination monkey.

What is the practical result of all this rumination?

Any time I notice my backseat driver being particularly know-it-all I try to pause, think, and analyze the situation. What subtle cues were there that lead to an unconscious realization ahead of my conscious awareness? And can I make a note of them and learn to recognize them in the future in time to incorporate that recognition into my decision making process?

The Easiest Way to Control How Much We Eat

This post is part of an ongoing series of mini-posts entitled Daily Learning, wherein I attempt to convey some interesting factoid that I learned that day and my very brief thoughts on it.

What I Learned

Container size matters. A lot.

Researchers at Cornell University ran a study on 158 moviegoers examining their popcorn-eating habits. The goal was to study the effect of the popcorn containers’ size on the amount of popcorn consumed. Each participant received a giant tub of popcorn—more than any normal person could consume in the span of a 2-hour movie. But for half of them, the effectively-infinite supply of popcorn was twice the size. To rule out the effect of taste, for half of the study they used 14-day-old, stale popcorn; people ate the popcorn because it was there, not because it was delicious.

After the movie, participants were asked “Do you think the size of the popcorn bucket had any effect on how much you ate?” to which there was an almost universal response of “No, of course not.”

The numbers told a different story.

The moviegoers who had been given a double-sized infinite-supply of fresh popcorn ended up eating 45.3% more than their half-sized counterparts. With the stale popcorn this effected was diminished to a still amazing 33.6%.

Where I Learned It

The Invisibilia podcast episode “Frame of Reference.”

What I Thought

This principle can be used for the manipulation of both others and of our own selves. I’ll leave the former to your imagination, but an example of the latter that comes up often (in my life at least) is the consumption of ice cream.

The age-old dilemma: The hour is late. Bed time approacheth. But first—a bit of that sweet, creamy good stuff for a proper send-off to dreamland. But how to eat it? Should I just take the whole container out of the freezer and go to town with a spoon? Or maybe I should do that whole “civilized” thing and scoop some into a cup first?

The results of this study would definitely point towards the couth option as being also the smarter one. Especially if you typically buy the larger tubs rather than the small pints. Even if you know that you don’t plan on eating a whole tub (infinite supply in either case), you will still end up eating more than if you had restricted yourself at the beginning through spooning a set amount into a separate cup.

Conversely, it’s best to eat veggies in large bowls.

What it Relates To

1. Anchoring.

The psychological principle that describes how our brains latch onto the first quantity of something that we see and use it as a set point. One of the most common instances of this is in shopping—if a store initially labels an item as $149, then subsequently marks it down to $69.99, your brain will tell you that you’re getting a great deal. Even if they never actually sold it at the non-reduced price. This works even when what they are doing is completely obvious; the number of times I’ve heard a friend brag about getting three “$800” suits from Men’s Warehouse for “Only $750 in total!” boggles my mind. Or, more accurately, the fact that they seem to believe that each of said suits is actually comparable in quality to a suit that would be SOLD for $800 by another brand is what is doing the boggling.

2. Degrees of infinity.

For those of you nerdy folk out there who care about cool mathematical nuances, this article brought to mind the concept of how not all infinities are created equal. For example, the number of decimal numbers in between 0 and 1 is infinitely times more numerous than the total number of possible integers. These are referred to as degrees of infinity, represented by Aleph-0 and Aleph-1. If you can’t figure out how this makes any sense, see here for a nice explanation.

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?

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). — 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 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





A Proven Way to Boost Performance in Public Speaking and Otherwise Mitigate Social Anxiety

–I hate your psych-babble, just tell me what to do:

Change your self-talk from first to second/third person. No, “I can do this. What they think about me doesn’t affect me.” Instead make it “Avisha can do this. What they think about Avisha doesn’t affect him.”

Research shows that making this change will significantly reduce anxiety and boost performance, particularly in social contexts.

Of course if you use Avisha’s name then the benefits for all those non-Avishas out there have yet to be proven. But feel free to give it a shot and let Avisha know how it goes.

It works for LeBron.



More Psych-Babble Please

The primary mechanism in play here is something called “self-distancing.” We tend to go through our lives extremely self-focused, constantly interpreting everything that happens through the lens of how it could affect us or be because of us. And because we are so self-focused, we instinctively assume that everyone else is focused on us as well.

Imagine that you are about to go out to a party when you realize that you have a distinctive pimple on your cheek. You try to cover it up, and your friends tell you that it’s barely noticeable, but still you end up going through the entire evening just knowing that every person in the room is covertly staring at you and it.

Now imagine that your friend had the pimple, and you were the one telling her that it was barely noticeable. Even if you were lying a little bit to make her feel better, I bet that you would very quickly forget about it and barely even recognize it when interacting with her throughout the evening.

If only you could view yourself not as yourself but as your own friend.

Researchers at the University of Michigan recently published a meta-analysis of 6 other studies on self-talk. Participants in these studies were subjected to social-anxiety-inducing situations and given clear instructions on how to mentally prepare themselves, either with first or 2nd/3rd person references. These situations included meeting someone for the first time and being told they have to make a good impression as well as being instructed to give a public speech with only five minutes of prep-time. Researchers measured performance through a combination of proven emotional surveying techniques and careful live analysis by judges.

Across the board, participants in the non-first-person groups demonstrated lower levels of anxiety before, during, and after the activity. They also were more likely to view the upcoming activity as a challenge rather than as a threat and less likely to spend much time dwelling upon their performance after the fact. Finally, and possibly most relevantly, they actually performed noticeably better on the activity itself.

It may sound a bit silly, especially if you are the type to actually verbalize your self talk, but I highly recommend giving it a try. Avisha knows he will.

It’s even kinda fun.