This site is about finding ways to improve your ability to improve yourself. Integral to this is utilising meta-habits; habits that enhance your ability to adopt other habits.
To get started, here are five meta-habits that can serve as a foundation for continuous growth.
The Romans said that a virtuous life required "mens sana in corpore sano" -- a strong mind in a strong body. Exercise is a worthwhile habit in itself, for obvious reasons. But there's three ways in which it serves as the foundation for other positive habits.
The first is energy: as your general fitness increases, you'll find you have the pep and power to take on bigger challenges, both mental and physical. Intense exercise also releases endorphins, making you calmer, and (if you're male) testosterone, making you more motivated.
The second is inspiration: sometimes self-improvement feels like an endless slog with no progress. With exercise, you can literally see yourself improving in the mirror. Discovering that something as fundamental as the way you look is not a fixed constant, but is under your control, is enormously liberating, and you'll soon start wondering other parts of your life you can fix.
The third benefit is learning to avoid common obstacles that arise when trying to change your habits. At first, you learn to stop reading conflicting advice, to pick a single teacher, and to just get started. Later, you learn to develop the discipline to maintain your training when it gets boring or difficult. You learn that visualising success (or failure) is far more powerful than you might have expected. You learn that pushing yourself too hard is often counter-productive. All these lessons translate to other domains.
If you want to get started with exercise, the consensus is that strength training is the best place to begin. (This is true for both men and women). Starting Strength is the program everyone recommends, though you have to buy the book if you want the complete breakdown (it's worth reading though). The Stronglifts program is very similar, and there's lots of useful (and free) information on the Stronglifts website.
Let's be honest: there's a lot of bullshit self-help advice out there. There is some gold mixed in with the shit, but it's often hard to tell the two apart.
There's a lot of bullshit schools of therapy, too, but there is at least one good kind of therapy, which gets consistent results. It's known as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), and it focuses on replacing negative thought patterns with positive ones. The idea isn't to ignore negative thoughts, or push them away, but simply to acknowledge when they become unhelpful and irrational.
So we know that therapy can work if approached the right way. The same is true of self-help, and it turns out that the most useful self-help advice tends to have a CBT flavour. The recurring theme is figuring out how your brain really works, and what it gets up to when it thinks you're not looking. For that reason, I prefer the term *self-knowledge* to self-help.
There's two parts to self-knowledge. The first is observation: developing the ability to watch your own thought processes from "the outside", and observe negative (or positive) thoughts as they arise, how these thoughts effect your emotional state, and how your emotions effect your actions. The best material I've found on this is at Joshua Spodek's site.
The second part is understanding: you need to build an accurate mental model of how your mind really works. For example, if you believe, as most people do, that your rational, conscious mind controls your behaviour, you're going to be surprised when your subconscious lizard brain decides to stuff itself with cake.
Since there are many conflicting theories about how our brains work, learning a variety of self-models is useful. PJ Eby's material on perceptual control theory is one of my favourites, and a good place to start. Here's his ebook, which is very good (despite the over-the-top self-help language), and here's a more cerebral introduction.
The benefit of all this should be obvious -- if you don't know how your brain works, you're going to struggle to change its behaviour when trying to adopt new habits or make other life adjustments.
We just saw that self-observation is beneficial. What if you could really train your ability to observe your own thought processes? That, in a nutshell, is meditation.
If you're reading this site, you might be put off from meditation by its spiritual overtones. But many people have found success by approaching meditation from a purely scientific, rational perspective. The most popular tradition amongst such people is Vipisanna, which stresses two practices, concentration and insight.
Concentration practice trains your mind to focus on one thing, and eventually leads you to cultivate very relaxed mental states. Concentration practice is both pleasant and beneficial, though it's generally seen as merely the foundation for insight practice.
Insight practice trains you to break down your perceptions, and eventually helps you to see how your brain translates raw sensory data into your perception of reality. If you thought Buddhists were going off the deep end when they claimed that "all reality is an illusion", what they really meant (as I see it) is that although the real world exists, your perception of the world is something created by your brain from moment to moment. Modern neuroscience confirms this.
Meditation trains you to un-see this illusion, along with other illusions created by your mind -- most importantly, the idea that a permanent, unchanging "self" is running the show.
Side benefits of meditation are an improved ability to focus, avoid distractions, and control your thought patterns and emotions. Some meditators also claim a reduced need to sleep.
I see meditation as exercise for your mind. It's hard to change your habits with an untrained mind. Conversely, a well-trained mind makes change effortless.
If you want to get started, this free ebook by Daniel Ingram is easily the best guide to meditation I've come across yet.
#4: Quit Willpower
What do you do when you try and make changes to your life, only to fail and backslide? The usual answer is to use willpower. Force yourself to do what needs to be done, and beat yourself up if you fail.
This is the wrong approach, and it's wrong because it's based on an unrealistic model of self-control. As I said in tip #2, you need an accurate model of yourself to manage yourself. How does willpower really work?
Scientific research has shown that willpower is a limited resource -- the technical term is ego depletion. Surprisingly, it's not just exercising self-control that draws on this resource; making difficult choices and completing taxing mental challenges also appear to drain your willpower.
For example, one study found that people who were offered chocolates, but resisted the temptation, subsequently performed worse on a difficult puzzle task than those who didn't have to exercise self-control. The same effect happens in reverse -- if you've had a difficult day at work, for example, you're more likely to slip up on your diet in the evening.
There are a few techniques which promise to improve your self-control. It appears to be closely correlated with blood glucose levels, short-term memory, and hand grip strength -- which suggests that boosting any of those three things could also boost your willpower. I'll analyse these possibilities in a future post.
Still, I think of willpower as a one-shot superpower in a video game. It takes a long time to recharge, and is unreliable even then. Use it in an emergency, maybe, but don't rest your entire battle-plan on it. If you want to change your habits, it's best to assume that willpower doesn't exist, and plan accordingly.
So, what's the most effective way to make changes to your life?
#5: Dispassionate Debugging
Here's a thought experiment. Imagine you're an engineer who has been hired by a company to fix one of their systems. This system happens to be operated by a trained monkey. The monkey's pretty smart, but it's still a monkey, and it doesn't always do what it's told. The company tells you they've tried everything to make the monkey more reliable -- they've tried punishing it, they've tried yelling at it, they've tried reading it inspirational quotes -- nothing works. The monkey just does what it wants.
As a rational, practical-minded engineer type, what do you tell them? You tell them that instead of getting mad at the monkey, they should treat it as just one component of the system. It's an unreliable component, true, but you can't fix the system by hoping that particular part will become more reliable. You have to build a robust system which doesn't put too much pressure on that one flaky component, and can cope even when said component fails.
In this analogy, you are the monkey. Your life is the system. The key to adopting positive habits is to make systematic changes to your life and create an environment that keeps your inner monkey on its best behaviour.
The alternative is to keep telling yourself "I'll just try and be more disciplined tomorrow. It didn't work before, so I must try harder". How's that working out for you?
One obvious example of debugging your life is removing temptations -- you can't eat unhealthy snacks if you don't have any in your house. Another example is keeping track of which environments help you do your best work. A third example is delegating time management to an external system (such as Getting Things Done) so that you can focus on the task in hand. You get the idea.
This post is just a starting point -- in future posts, I'll dig deeper into some of the subjects mentioned here, and also introduce many more positive habits (and meta-habits). If you want to keep updated when new articles come out, you can subscribe above.
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A particularly great comment by "Zeid1" on the post "Willpower Isn't Enough"; here's Zeid's comment in full -
The idea of Willpower being the answer is dangerous. An example I think of is 12-step programs for fighting addiction. In almost every 12-step program there is the need to submit to a higher power which can help you stop your habits. This leads to some consternation from those who don't believe in a higher power, but the programs themselves are very effective.
In my view this is hugely due to our cultural idea that the correct way for us to deal with something like addiction is to "Man Up" and will ourselves to stop doing whatever destructive behavior we're trying to avoid. However, in the process of manning up, we're exhausting our ability to continue to do so, and in effect putting ourselves at a prime risk of relapse.