Pep Talk for the Fall Season

While it has been many years since I looked to September as the start of a new school year, I still gear myself up for new activities and initiatives as summer winds down. This year’s “coach” is Ayelet Fishbach, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Her book – Get It Done: Surprising Lessons From The Science of Motivation – served up four guideposts.

4 steps to get it doneChoose Your Goal. The goal should point you in a specific direction and then pull you toward the end game. The most powerfully motivating goals share four characteristics: (i) They are ends in and of themselves, not a means to other ends – e.g., “I want to be financially independent,” and not “I want to make money.” (ii) They are specific and have some uncertainty regarding their success (ergo, you’ll work harder at attaining them!) (iii) They carry a powerful incentive for achievement. (iv) They satisfy meaningful wants or needs that may relate to self-acceptance, personal growth, relationships, contribution, and health. Such goals are inspiring; they don’t feel like chores.

Ideal goal statements emphasize meaning behind the associated actions. They focus on what folks WILL DO instead of what they will refrain from doing. (“Avoidance goals” are harder to implement!) They also provide challenging, measurable, actionable targets (how much, how soon) and suggest the path from point A to point B. A well-conceived path is enjoyable, if not exciting.

What litmus tests might be used to judge the quality of a goal? It serves a noble purpose that aligns with your values. It encourages personal excellence. It compels you to stay on task even when the going gets rough. It stimulates curiosity and creativity; you are eager to solve problems and make progress. It feels like play.

Keep Pulling. Once an initiative gets out of the gate, it takes effort and intention to sustain momentum. Progress monitoring looms large in motivation. As a rule, the more progress made, the greater the commitment to keep going. To that end, breaking large goals into smaller chunks creates an opportunity to attain milestones, take stock of all that has been accomplished, and celebrate. It minimizes “long middles” where motivation tends to sag and cutting corners becomes tempting. It also serves as a check point for actions yet to be taken and a sense for time frames to completion. That assessment may light a fire if things appear to be falling behind. Finally, breaking big goals into smaller units provides “fresh starts” and the boost in energy and enthusiasm they instill.

Failures and negative feedback may accompany the journey from point A to point B. Both can derail momentum when the ego gets bruised. Use the opportunity for learning and growing as the antidote for flagging motivation. Figure out what went wrong and do things differently going forward. As playwright Samuel Beckett said: “Try again. Fail better.”

Navigate Competing Goals. With multiple goals on the horizon, it pays to understand the “goal system” – i.e., the relationship between the focal goal, other goals, each goal’s means of attainment, and how each contributes to the realization of others. Maximum attainment calls for making as much positive progress on multiple fronts while minimizing negative impacts among them. Activities that serve multiple goals rock!

Prioritize goals (and back burner others) when actions express commitment, when they’re integral to who you are, or when you’re getting increasing marginal utility out of them. Consider compromise when you’ve made sufficient progress, you want variety, or you seek a balanced “middle road” for all of your efforts.

Secure Social Support: We are social animals. We pay attention to what our peers say/do/think and find ways to coexist harmoniously with them. We’re also wired for collaborative effort in service of shared goals. Moreover, we tend to work harder when others are watching. Therefore, the best social support consists of those whose values, goals, and actions are compatible with ours and who thrive in a context of mutual support. Step it up further by finding role models whose life choices and comportment help you set your sights high.

The Changeable Brain

“We are all born with a far more adaptable, all-purpose, opportunistic, brain than we have understood.” – Dr. Norman Doidge, MD

I’ve explored aspects of neuroscience in prior blog posts. My latest foray into the subject came through Norman Doidge’s book The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Neuroscience. What I learned from his research made me all the more impressed by this amazing little organ.

cerebral lobesMost of realize that our brains are the master controllers for sustaining bodily functions, processing sensory input, and incubating consciousness. Yet we may not grasp the extent to which the brain alters its structure and function in response to thoughts, activities, and environmental factors. Scientists refer to this phenomenon as neuroplasticity – i.e., the neural network’s ability to change through growth and reorganization. Through it, we can improve mental activities, heal from injury, and establish robust routing systems that bypass blocked pathways as the need arises. With attentive effort, we can sustain this remarkable capacity to the end of our days.

Much like physical fitness regimens, stimulating the brain makes it grow. Brain weight may increase up to 5% through mental training or life in enriched environments; targeted areas may increase up to 9%. This weight gain finds expression in stimulated neurons that increase in size, develop 25% more neural connections, and command increased blood supply. These “beefy neurons” become more efficient, taking less time and resource to perform tasks for which they’ve been trained. Powerful signals have greater impact on the brain.

A leading researcher on neuroplasticity, Dr. Michael Merzenich proved that substantive improvement in cognitive function is possible at any age. The key to success lies in giving the brain the right stimuli in the right order at the right time to drive plastic change. He says:

“When learning occurs in a way consistent with the laws that govern brain plasticity, the mental ‘machinery’ of the brain can be improved so that we learn and perceive with greater precision, speed, and retention.”

For example, through use of specially designed computer programs, users receive specific challenges that target their developmental needs and add difficulty at a pace consistent with their learning styles. Struggling learners at school may take advantage of Fast ForWord, an evidence-based, adaptive reading and language program that boasts 1-2 year gains in 40-60 hours of use. Merzenich’s BrainHQ offers 29 exercises that address attention, brain speed, memory, people skills, navigation, and intelligence.

Brain maps are neither static nor universal; we allocate neural capacity competitively. If one area goes dormant, another area will take it over. As such, if we stop using a skill, that brain map space will be placed in service of an active skill. It’s the law of the jungle: use it, or lose it. For example, a blind person cannot use the visual cortex to receive input from the eyes. That processing power may be repurposed to provide heightened sensitivity in hearing and touch. Unfortunately, if we stop exercising our analytical skills or creative capacities in favor of mindless activities, those vital cognitive resources will also be repurposed. Once a bad habit claims (and sustains) brain space, it can be difficult to dislodge.

The brain can reorganize itself after devastating injury so long as there is adjacent, healthy tissue that can be recruited to take over for lost function. Treatment must address both neural shock and learned nonuse. To that end, motivated patients put themselves through a series of physical and cognitive efforts to support their brains’ rewiring. Legendary actor Kirk Douglas famously worked his way back from his 1996 stroke and continued to act and publish. Actor Christopher Reeve regained a modicum of feeling and movement after sustaining a paralyzing spinal cord injury.

So why do so many of us lose brain function as we age?

Give the right combination of stimuli and experience, we are learning sponges throughout our childhood and teen years. As we grow into adulthood, we lean more heavily on mastered skills in lieu of acquiring new ones. By middle age, we’re settled into our careers and rarely engage in the kind of focused attention that produces long-term neural growth. In a word, we’re comfortable.

We’re also prone to be far less active physically than when we were young. Physical exercise elevates brain-derived neurotropic factor (BNDF), a substance that starts to wane as we age. BDNF plays a crucial role in neuroplastic changes by:

  • Consolidating neural connections
  • Promoting fatty growth around neurons to speed transmission times
  • Helping the brain pay attention (and remember) through nucleus basalis activation

So, if you’d like to hang on to what you’ve got (or add to it), be prepared to challenge yourself throughout your life. Activities that involve deep concentration – e.g., reading/studying, learning a new language, developing proficiency on a musical instrument, playing complex board games, taking up dancing – have been associated with a lower risk of dementia. Effective use of imagination also helps. If hesitant to take action (or temporarily constrained to do so), visualize the activity in attentive detail. It strengthens the cognitive muscles and increases the speed at which you can attain competency when taking action.

Finding Greatness

chess boardI don’t recall how Josh Waitzkin’s book The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance wound up on my reading list. I didn’t recognize his name from the days when he was America’s chess phenom on whom the movie Searching for Bobby Fisher was based. I didn’t know that he’d gone on to win 21 national martial arts championships and several world titles. And, truth be told, I’m not at a stage in my life where I’m seeking peak performance in a competitive arena. However, the book provides an interesting window into the worlds of competitive chess and Push Hands tai chi while providing good advice for high achievement in any discipline. Bottom line: A good read.

Here are my take-aways:

Mastery relies upon a solid foundation in the fundamentals and keen insights into the dynamics of play. Those who get to the top have a well-conceived approach that inspires resilience, the ability to make connections between diverse pursuits, and a genuine enjoyment of daily practice. They have a passion for learning and the heart for continuous improvement.

In accordance with Dr. Carol Dweck’s research, a growth mindset yields substantive benefits over a fixed mindset. The latter views intelligence and competencies as innate endowments that are set at birth. It places limits on one’s potential and (perhaps) leads to overly conservative behavior. A growth mindset views intelligence and competencies as qualities to be developed with passion, toil, and training. It believes in possibilities, instills an appreciation for the value of learning, and encourages relationship with those who have far better skills and knowledge. “We learn by pushing ourselves and finding out what lies at the outer reaches of our abilities.” Painful losses can provide a jumping off point for the next leap forward.

We should expect setbacks, distractions, and disappointments. Progress comes in ebbs and flows. Our environments won’t always be conducive to undisturbed thinking. We’ll make mistakes or get bad breaks that adversely impact outcomes. We can bolster our performance by working in less than ideal conditions (e.g., noise, interruptions) and getting acclimated to them. It helps us learn to flow with whatever comes and use it to our advantage. And when results fall short of expectations, we learn the lesson(s) and move on.

Errors and mental lapses happen. We must regain composure quickly and be present to what is going in the moment. When carrying unrealistic expectations of perfection or getting frozen in the past, we open ourselves up to making more mistakes and moving in a downward spiral.

In any long-standing discipline, it often pays to reinstate “beginner’s mind.” We go back to the basics and take things apart for the sake of identifying and correcting bad habits and creating a platform for long-term improvement. Waitzkin refers to it as a “plunge into the detailed mystery of the micro in order to understand what makes the macro tick.” It may be challenging when internal and external expectations run high for performance. But it’s often what’s needed to break through.

While a certain intensity may be necessary for peak performance, it is not forwarding to sustain that attitude feverishly. Much like interval training, mind and body profit from stress and recovery. Concentration improves when paired with little breathers.

When called upon to perform, it’s really helpful to have a routine that reliably evokes “the zone.” Time permitting, it might contain a light snack, meditation, stretching, and listening to music. A shortened version may suffice when the clock’s ticking. Why does it matter? There are physiological and mental connections that come into play between a performance and the activity that immediately precedes it. And these connections can be invoked by simply visualizing the routine!

Finally, there is much to be said for developing one’s own distinctive expression of a discipline. Successful competitors play the game differently. Successful artists leverage their natural gifts, creative sensibilities, and life experiences to good effect. Great thinkers tackle problems differently. The right combination of passion, individuation, and dedicated effort can produce wonders.

Turning the Tide Toward Empathy

In 1994, a brewing civil war between rival factions in Rwanda erupted into a bloody massacre. Over the course of 100 days, upwards of one million Tutsi and politically moderate Hutu were exterminated via carefully orchestrated attacks by the interim government. As with other modern-day genocides, the perpetrators made effective use of media to demonize and dehumanize their adversaries while whipping up their followers into a hate-filled and fear-laden frenzy. Folks who might otherwise have simply gone about the business of living took up arms and committed acts of unspeakable horror.

welcome to rwandaIn 2007, I traveled to Rwanda with a collective of professors, students, and alumni from the Duke Divinity School. We entered deeply into the history of the country, visited genocide memorial sites, and listened to eye witness accounts of those earth-shattering days. It was hard to fathom the violence that had erupted years earlier given the astonishing beauty, tranquility, and orderliness of the place. But it did happen, and Rwandans have had to find a way forward to pursue justice and community building in its aftermath.

While one hopes that conditions in this country are a far cry from all that, one cannot help but notice the same undercurrents on our political landscape. Our beloved e pluribus unum (out of many, one) has become a frayed tapestry at threat of losing its shape and substance. Where once civil discourse prevailed over national, state, and local policy, we now have threats, insults, and suspicions. We seem to have forgotten our shared humanity, our common goals, and the wealth of benefits we accrue when working together collaboratively and harmoniously.

For those who share my discomfort with the current state of affairs, I commend you to Dr. Jamil Zaki’s book The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World. He provides a crash course in the neurological basis of empathy, the challenges we face in the modern world, and strategies to reclaim this essential building block of civilized society.

Empathy provides the opportunity to “walk a mile in other people’s shoes” and make guesses about what it feels like to be them. Cognitive empathy gives us different perspectives on the world. Emotional empathy engenders feelings that others might be experiencing. Empathetic concern provides a modicum of emotional distance while motivating us to act in another person’s behalf. All such expressions have as their goal an increase in kindness and compassion.

Two schools of thought once pervaded regarding empathy. One school deemed empathy a relatively immutable trait. One was or was not an empathetic person. A second school deemed it a spontaneous, reflexive, unthinking response to external stimuli. Both schools have been proven wrong. While acknowledging some genetic influence, Zaki provides solid evidence that empathy is a skill that may be cultivated. And while empathy may spring forth naturally for some and less so for others, everyone can learn to moderate its expression. Experience, environments, and habits also play a role.

A consistent practice of metta meditation has beneficial effects on the capacity for empathy. In it, we direct loving kindness toward ourselves, someone we love, someone toward whom we are neutral, someone with whom we have difficulty, and toward all beings in a sequence of expansion. For example, one may cycle through these thoughts for each object of our attention:

May [name] be safe.
May [name] be healthy and free from pain.
May [name] be happy.
May [name] be at ease.
May [name] be filled with loving kindness.
[May [name] be at peace.

When university students engaged in this practice, they reported elevated focus, more nuanced emotional experiences, an improved capacity to sense others’ feelings, greater generosity, and a clear recognition of our common humanity.

For communities embroiled in conflict, hatred often buries empathy… but does not kill it. In the 1950s, psychologist Gordon Allport asserted that “bigotry often boils down to a lack of acquaintance.” When people live, work, or play together, divisions between them can melt away given the right kind of contact. Such efforts work best when reversing existing power constructs – notably, giving voice to those who are typically silenced and encouraging those in power to listen attentively. I experienced the healing power of intentional community building in a Rwandan church comprised of perpetrators and victims of the genocide. The local gacaca worked to mete out justice to those who had committed wrong; the church served to heal wounds through the time-honored act of worship and sharing meals.

rwandan worship service

Listening also proves a critical skill for establishing relationship with members of hate groups. These folks expect outsiders to judge them and promote change; they’re very well-defended in rebuffing such attempts. One must listen nonjudgmentally and show a genuine interest in their perspectives. It confers respect and gives them the opportunity to experience compassion. It also opens the door to envision a future in which they see themselves as both caring and cared for. Those who’ve left such groups have referred to themselves as “formers”: former members of a group, and forming themselves into something new.

Arts and literature provide endless opportunities to walk in other shoes. When lost in a good book, I experience the characters’ perspectives and emotions while sharing a slice of their lives from the comfort and safety of my sofa. Theater arts grow its practitioners’ cognitive empathy as they prepare to embody their roles and make them come alive on the stage or screen. Both avid readers and actors have demonstrated above average skill in empathy.

Of course, an excess of empathy can lead to compassion fatigue and its attendant impact on the body – e.g., low-grade inflammation, disrupted sleep, cellular aging, depression, substance abuse. Health care professionals who ignore their feelings increase the risk of making inaccurate diagnoses and taking out their frustrations on patients. When able to draw awareness to their feelings, they are much more likely to express empathetic concern rather than empathetic distress. It allows them to care about others without internalizing their pain. Mindfulness training has proven effective in cultivating this skill.

Finally, Zaki tells us that empathy is personal, but it is also collective. We tend to copy what other people do and think – or, at least, what we think they think. Unfortunately, the loudest voices at the extremes often mute our sense for the abiding kindness of the majority. When tempted to get drawn into the we-they trap, choose to believe in everyone’s highest selves and act in a way that lets their better natures surface.

The Stoic Way

stoicI’m a long-time Star Trek fan. I find encouragement in creator Gene Roddenberry’s future (especially these days) and revel in the close connections forged among the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise. I get a kick out of the tension between the highly sensitive Doctor McCoy and the unflappable Mr. Spock. The latter serves as the model for my sense of a “stoic” – one who endures pain or hardship without showing feelings or complaining. Such persons are seemingly indifferent to pain, pleasure, grief, or joy.

To my surprise, this sensibility doesn’t apply to the ancient Stoics (e.g., Zeno of Citium, Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius). They did not seek to banish emotion but rather maximize pleasant sensations (e.g., delight, joy, awe) and minimize negative emotion (e.g., frustration, anger, grief, envy). While the latter may serve a useful purpose momentarily, a needless cycle of misery should be avoided. Professor William B. Irvine lays it all out in The Stoic Challenge: A Philosopher’s Guide to Becoming Tougher, Calmer, and More Resilient.

Like it or not, life presents challenges and setbacks. Thoughtful folks may make plans and take precautions to minimize their occurrence, but there remains much outside our control. A traffic jam precipitated by a roadway accident. Unanticipated expenses. The unnerving medical diagnosis. The unusually long line at the grocery check-out. Stalled deliverables on an important project. Depending on our response, some challenges can prove beneficial. They help us grow and/or heighten appreciation for things that we previously took for granted. (Indeed, life might be less interesting should we experience smooth sailing all the time!) But we must learn to rise quickly and bravely to address whatever shows up… or, even better, create an alternate narrative from which we don’t need to bounce back.

An effective strategy for “rising up” treats the challenge as a test of our resilience and resourcefulness. In a “Stoic Test”, we take up the mantle to exercise creativity in conjuring up options, thoughtfulness in evaluating them, and decisiveness in choosing the best one. We treat it as a puzzle for which the universe has faith in your ability to solve it. To behave otherwise is a waste of time and energy.

Stoics also experimenting with “framing” when facing setbacks. They’d consider all of the things that were going well in their lives and treat the setback as a minor inconvenience. They’d imagine how much worse things could be and took comfort that their circumstances weren’t all that bad. They’d frame news with a positive spin – e.g., a 60% survival rate for a disease versus 40% mortality. They’d consider how they’d feel in an hour, a day, a week, or a month and ask themselves: Will this setback really matter to me then? They’d try to find the humor in their situations and let a smile or giggle come through.

Bottom line, each setback has the potential for a two-fold effect: the challenge itself, and the negative emotions experienced in its wake. Anger and frustration shatter tranquility and cloud thinking. It can spiral into a “blame game” that amplifies negativity, thwarts effective action, and delays resolution. Rather than wallow in them, turn setbacks into vehicles for transformation. Recognize that we can grow stronger through adversity and become all the more adept at dealing with it. Learn to savor every moment of life and extract every drop of joy to be found even in the occasional stormy sea.

Forecasting Future Happiness

crystal ballIn Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert asserts that choices we make today carry an expectation of benefitting our future selves. After all, we’d like to set up our older incarnations for happiness. In fact, researchers tell us that we spend on average 12% of our waking hours thinking about the future. But are we really any good at anticipating our future tastes, preferences, needs, and desires?

Gilbert’s answer: NO. He uses neuroscience to make the case that we consistently misremember the past, misperceive the present, and misimagine the future. In short, we’re not terribly well connected to reality, and our crystal balls are hazy at best.

We don’t store memories as if they’re live action films with every shot recorded. If we did, we’d need really huge brains! Rather, each stored memory engram captures a few critical threads and small sets of key features. Upon retrieving the memory, our brains quickly “reweave the fabric” to give the illusion of an accurate record and fills in the details under the radar. Our recall of emotional states tends to be weighted heavily toward our sensibilities during the closing moments and theories about how we must have felt. And memories change ever so slightly every time they are retrieved and then stored again.

This bit of “brain magic” applies in the present, too. We fill in gaps in our visual fields in places where our optic nerves would otherwise leave a blind spot. And what we see gets colored by what we already think, feel, know, want, and believe. We interpret the world as much as experience it. Thus, two people witnessing the same scene can have quite different accounts of what happened.

We make the same cognitive error when imagining the future. When a friend invites us to a party, we fill in the gaps on all of the information that isn’t provided – what it will be like, how we’ll feel when there, what the energy in the space might be. And the further our imaginations stretch into the future, the fewer details we’ll register.

We have a very strong bias toward the present. It colors our remembered past and thoroughly infuses our imagined futures. For instance, we can’t feel good about an imaginary future while feeling lousy about a present circumstance. And even when the present is relatively rosy, we’re just not adept at walking in our future selves’ shoes:

  • We pay more attention to favorable information, surround ourselves with folks who provide it, and accept it uncritically. This filtered input does not provide a realistic view of the past, present, or future.
  • The comparisons we make now (and which influence our choices) may not matter to us in the future. We fail to acknowledge that we’ll think differently as we age an accumulate life experience.
  • We don’t forecast our hungers accurately – for food, emotional support, social connection, intellectual stimulation, or sex. We really can’t imagine how we’ll feel.
  • Negative events don’t affect us as badly (or for as long) as we think. Our psychological immune system mitigates against unhappiness by helping us find silver linings and effective action. It also helps us craft narratives that diminish emotional pain.
  • When considering the past to foretell the future, we remember the best of times and the worst of times… but not the most likely of times. Unusual events come to mind easily, so we tend to think that they’re more common than they really are.

So, if we’re not very good at predicting our futures, to whom or what should we turn to for our “crystal balls”? Gilbert suggests that we talk to people who are currently living in the state that we might imagine for our futures. Studies have shown that such “surrogates” provide a far better indicator of our future emotional well-being than the portraits our imaginations paint. Unfortunately, few of us act on that advice as we consider our experiences and vantage points to be so distinct from everyone else as to render such feedback useless. But the truth of the matter is that we’d profit from their insights.

One other piece of sound advice… When weighing the choice between action and inaction, lean toward action. Nine out of 10 folks regret not have done things more than the things they did. Moreover, our psychological immune system has an easier time rationalizing an excess of courage than a surge of cowardice.

Let Habits Do the Heavy Lifting in Reaching Goals

let habits do the heavy liftingAs Dr. Wendy Wood tells us in Good Habits, Bad Habits, most of us set goals and intentions and then effortfully control our actions to attain them. Behavior control through self-control is not as effective as behavioral change through altering contexts.” Contexts provide cues that trigger habitual behavior. Rather than work against the contexts and cues that give rise to bad habits, use thoughtfulness and creativity to establish contexts that work in your favor.

Arrange your life to reliably, unfailingly cue your desired habits. Locations, people, time of day, and/or other actions trigger habits.

  • Set aside the same time every day for exercise. Better yet, make a date to exercise with a friend or sign up for a group class at the appointed hour.
  • Tie an activity that you really enjoy doing to a behavior that you want to become automatic. For example, give yourself permission to indulge in an hour of pleasure reading (or embarrassingly mindless TV) while working out on the treadmill. Restrict that indulgence to treadmill time. Make it something to which you look forward.
  • Swap a good habit for a bad one – e.g., make your midday snack a deliciously healthy protein shake instead of a bag of chips.

Set yourself up for success.

  • Get a pill box and set up a week’s worth of vitamins at the start of each week. Take vitamins with every meal.
  • Load up the refrigerator with heathy snacks – carrots, celery, cherry tomatoes – and keep the cupboards free of junk food.
  • Plan recipes for the week, make a shopping list, and make sure you have all the ingredients on hand for meal preparation. To save time and energy, create “set lists” and rotate among them. (Most of us tend to operate off the same basic meal plan.)
  • Pack a lunch for work. It’ll ward off temptation and save you money.
  • Surround yourself with people who share your goals and stand ready to cheer you on. Tap into their wellspring of ideas to adjust your patterns and stay the course.

Leverage friction.

  • Use cash instead of credit or debit cards to elevate consciousness about every dollar you spend. When out of cash, don’t make any more purchases.
  • Remove temptations from the house and workplace. Make it really inconvenient to succumb.
  • Move the TV to a room that is as far away from the kitchen as possible. Have crosswords, sudokus, jumbles, etc. available for distraction when bored.

Break bad habits by getting out of ruts.

  • Take a walk with a friend or partner after work rather than immediately veg in front of the TV. Use stimulating conversation to unwind.
  • Turn off all screens 1-2 hours before bedtime and read a book, take a soothing bath, meditate, or the like. Don’t disrupt a good night’s sleep by binge watching your show d’jour. It’ll be there tomorrow!

It may take a little effort initially, but once you consistently repeat behaviors in response to cues, your desires will start to change. You’ll prefer the things that feel familiar, predictable, and easy. And it won’t feel like a “death march” to get where you want to go.

Beyond the benefit of supporting goals, habits keep us steady during times of stress. The familiar routines help us cope with our feelings and give us a sense of control. And as we get through the waves of anxiety, we think more clearly and act consciously and wisely.

Three Pillars of Habit Formation

“The more of the details of ordinary life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher power of mind will be set free for their own proper work.” – William James, psychologist

In my last post, I introduced readers to Dr. Wendy Wood’s book Good Habits, Bad Habits and the concept of two minds – one geared toward active cognition, and the other driven by force of habit. The latter are forged when we inculcate a behavior in response to a specific context/cue in anticipation of a reward. In time, the behavior becomes so automatic that our reasons for acting and the expected outcome become unimportant. We get triggered and go on autopilot.

context, repetition, rewardIf we want to get rid of a bad habit, neither knowledge nor willpower provide much help. Context is king. As a case in point, roughly half of all American adults were smokers in the 1950s. A Reader’s Digest article published in 1952 warned of its deleterious effects. The Surgeon General published a damning report in 1964 which gave rise to warning labels on all cigarette packs. Yet by the early 1970s, 40% of American adults still lit up. With the passage of the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act in 1970, cigarette manufacturers were prohibited from advertising or selling their products via vending machines. Airplanes, public transit services, and commercial buildings gradually migrated to nonsmoking status making it inconvenient to smoke. This sea change in context drove the smoking population down to 15% today.

Contexts create forces that trigger cravings and/or habits. We’ll use up a lot of energy if we try to resist. Or, we may succumb to old patterns before noticing that they’ve engaged. It turns out that we’re so obsessed with the power of decision-making that we underestimate how much our actions are affected by our environments.

Proximity wields tremendous power. We’re drawn to what is visible and easily accessible. If you want to quit smoking or eat less, steer clear of temptation. Don’t walk down the grocery aisles that feature forbidden foods. Steer clear of the hors d’oeuvre table. We’re also profoundly influenced by people in close orbit. We do what they do (or don’t do). If their example chronically sabotages our efforts, it may be time to adjust our social circles.

We can also serve our best interests by making effective use of friction. We can reduce the friction that holds us back from exercising good habits – like exercise. Either roll out of bed and get it done without thinking, or find a gym that’s on the flight path to or from work. We want to increase friction toward things we don’t want to do. For example, I don’t keep ice cream in the house. When those cravings strike, I’d have to make the effort to go to the store to buy it, and, far more often than not, I won’t bother.

Repetition is our friend when establishing forwarding habits. We must willfully decide to repeat a behavior again and again and again until it becomes second nature. Contrary to popular belief, it takes more than 21 days to lock and load a new behavior. For example, habitually eating healthy food takes ~65 days, on average; exercising regularly takes longer (~91 days). The more complex the habit, the more time and effort it takes to get in the groove.

Of course, we’re not blank slates when trying to forge new habits. Wood describes our days as “a squabble of contradictory habits happening just under the surface of our consciousness.” As such, we need to fight off the pull of old habits while trying to install new ones. Changing contexts works in our favor because it disrupts the cues that otherwise send us headlong into action. If that’s not possible, we can slow down the pace of life to notice what we’re doing (and why we’re doing it) before taking action.

Rewards matter. As Wood says, “context will smooth the way, and repetition will jump start the engine, … but reward gets habits to operate on their own.” When experienced right after the associated action, rewards set up a neural basis for habit formation through the release of dopamine. It stamps the details of the rewarding experience into memory. In the best case scenario, rewards are an intrinsic part of the activity itself. Preparing savory, healthy food delights the palate. Exercising releases endorphins that elevate mood. Exercising with friends  combines a wonderful social experience with an activity for which our bodies will thank us.

So, rather than relying on knowledge or willpower, let’s exercise our creativity in setting up our contexts, behaviors, and reward systems to achieve our goals on autopilot!

The Human Brain Has Two Minds

Dr. Wendy Wood opens her book Good Habits, Bad Habits with a familiar story. A woman wanted very much to lose weight. To bolster her efforts, she set a firm intention, made a public declaration of her goal, and secured support from her peers. Unfortunately, this seemingly well-conceived plan did not produce the desired result. The excess body weight remained along with the added burden of defeat.

I’ve lived through that disheartening cycle many times. I’ve set out to lose weight and/or exercise regularly under the assumption that the right combination of motivation, willpower, and social supports would get it done. I’d tell myself: How hard can it be to push yourself away from the table or find 30 minutes a day to work out? As it turns out, harder than I thought…

behavior influenced by our two mindsOur minds are composed of two separate but interconnected mechanisms that guide behavior. Our executive control function provides the resources most of us leverage in pursuit of goals – e.g., planning, working memory, attention control, problem solving, progress monitoring, and willpower. These energy-intensive faculties are well-suited to tasks that require substantive mental lifting – e.g., learning new skills, navigating unfamiliar circumstances, sifting through complex problems, setting goals and crafting action plans to meet them. We don’t need them for the myriad of routine tasks that fill our waking hours: brushing teeth, getting dressed, walking, even (by and large) driving a car. For life’s mundane activities, we rely upon subconscious habits that receive signals and cues from the conscious mind and then go to work on their own.

Dr. Wood studied college students to measure the amount of time they were engaged in activities without thinking about them. Overall, they spent 43% of their time on auto-pilot. Some activities proved more mindless than others: taking care of hygiene (88%), completing tasks at work (55%), watching TV (48%), exercising (44%). A subsequent multigenerational study (ages 17-79) revealed the same 43% of habit-driven activities with no material difference among age groups or personality profiles. However, longer work days and higher stress environments heightened use of mindless habits.

This bifurcation makes evolutionary sense. There are limits to our executive capacity. We get tired. Our attention wanders, and motivation wanes. To conserve our thinking power for the truly consequential, we use shortcuts to trigger behaviors without going through the effort of thinking about them intensely. In fact, we can pretty much make any behavioral habitual so long as we do it the same way repeatedly in response to a cue. But here’s the rub: The same mechanism that inculcates healthy behaviors also codifies undesirable ones. And once habits have been formed and seated into the deep recesses of our minds, they have real staying power.

Because habits work outside our conscious awareness, we fail to recognize the power they wield. Our overconfidence in our ability to act on thoughts, feelings, and intentions renders us blind to unconscious influences. For example:

  • We tend to eat most or all of what’s on our plates; bigger plates encourage more caloric intake than smaller ones. The same holds true for bags (or buckets) of popcorn at the movie theater.
  • If unhealthy snacks stare us in the face every time we open the pantry, we’ll be primed to think about them and face an overwhelming desire to partake.
  • When engaged in social activities, we tend to eat the snacks that are closest to us. (Word to the wise: Find a seat by the crudités!)
  • If we follow the same patterned response after work – drop the keys, grab a cold drink, plop on the sofa, check the iPhone – we probably won’t throw on our running shoes and go for a jog. It’s taxing to ask our tired minds to exercise decision-making and willpower.

A fascinating study revealed that persons who scored the highest in self-control seldom reported having to resist temptation. They forged habits in which beneficial actions became their default choices. Their environments and life patterns supported their high level goals without creating a sense of deprivation. By contrast, folks who scored low in self-control constantly battled desires that conflicted with their goals. Their habits did not work in their favor. They had to work hard to keep their impulses under control.

Recognizing the efficiency with which the unconscious mind works, Dr. Wood advocates forging habits that align with our goals. This strategy preempts the battle between conscious decision making and habitual, automatic responses. But we need to understand how habits work if we want to harness their power… a topic I look forward to covering in next week’s post.

Reconnecting with Ourselves Through Pineal Gland Meditation

Before the pandemic disrupted life as I knew it, I was a regular at the local Body & Brain Studio. A national chain founded by Ilchi Lee, it focuses on mind-body training and features a blend of Yoga, Tai Chi, meditation, and breath work. Lee is also a New York Times best selling author. I finally got around to reading one of his books, Connect: How To Find Clarity and Expand Your Consciousness with Pineal Gland Meditation.

meditationLee argues that a loss of connection to ourselves gives rise to most of our seemingly intractable problems. Through pineal gland meditation, we can empty ourselves of thoughts, emotions, and information that give rise to disconnection and fill that space with abundant energy and bright consciousness. In so doing, we reconnect with our true selves and gain insights regarding what we really want, how we might solve problems and make decisive choices, and set a direction for the future. Reconnecting with ourselves also enables us to forge connection with our bodies, with others, and with the world.

To connect with ourselves, we must turn away from all the stimulations and desires of the visible world and turn our focus inward. Pineal gland meditation accomplishes this end through a three-step process.

The first step establishes a connection with the body. We lie on the floor with our arms set perpendicular to the body facing upward. We then tap our toes together for 5 sets of 100 taps with a brief break between sets. As we tap our toes, we breathe deeply and imagine that we are releasing stagnant energy out the bottoms of our feet starting with our legs and moving up gradually to the tops of our heads. Having released this energy, we visualize pure divine energy entering our bodies through the crowns of our heads and filling us up. (Note: This is a great exercise to prepare for sleep!)

The second step establishes a connection with the soul. This exercise endeavors to separate soul energy from emotional energy as the power of emotion decreases as the power of soul increases. Sitting in the lotus position, we close our eyes and breath deeply to induce a relaxed state. We tap our fingertips together 50 times, rub our palms together 10-20 times, and then hold our hands about 1” apart, feeling the radiant energy between them. We alternate spreading our hands apart and bringing them close together while sensing feelings of heat and magnetism multiply. As we breathe through the nose and exhale through the mouth, we move the hands roughly 2” away from the chest, palms facing the heart, to send warm, pure energy from the palms to the heart. We move the hands all over the body’s energy field, eventually returning the hands to the heart.

The third step stablishes a connection with divinity. Once again sitting in the lotus position, we activate the hand energy by tapping our fingertips together 50 times and rubbing the hands together 10-20 times. We then move the hands all over the face and the sides, back, and top of the head. When finished, we place the hands on our knees facing upward. We then slowly raise the hands to shoulder height, palms upward, and imagine energy and heavenly blessings descending upon us. As we let our consciousness grow, we establish a connection with the universal brain for two-way exchange of information and energy.

Lee asserts that this methodology not only enables us to connect with our true selves, but also allows us to experience everything as interconnected. The brighter and broader our consciousness, the greater our empathy for all beings.