For part 1, go here.
There’s an anecdote that David Foster Wallace recounted in an interview that keeps playing on my mind*. He talked about the fact that he didn’t own a TV because of the great anxiety it brought him; he would spend hours in front of it, mercilessly flicking through hundreds of channels, never actually watching anything, continuing to look for something “better” (without any real sense of what that meant) instead of just watching one show [skip to 42:43 if you’re on a tablet/mobile device].
This example resonated with me because perhaps one of my worst habits is spending copious hours idling on the internet. Idling being key here. When there’s no notification activity going on my various social media accounts or email I’m filled with an almost anxious malaise, flitting aimlessly between my various accounts and scrolling, searching for something.
A background motivation is that I’m chasing that rush you get whenever you see all the likes pouring in. I don’t necessitate it but I do enjoy the validation. And without it, there’s emptiness. When I flit about, I don’t get edified but neither do I feel terrible.
If I can figure out why it gets to this point perhaps I can end up doing the things I get upset not doing (including sleep!). I want to write my novel, these essays, go for a walk but I’m just glued to the screens.
This is partly due to the hook of modern entertainment and its ability to tell more nuanced stories that explore a wide range of topics. And, with technological advancements, storytelling is at its most presentable. It’s very easy to immerse ourselves in a variety of mediums.
Games like Uncharted 4 and The Witcher 3 can tell visually pleasing stories with an emotionality that rivals cinema and television. You can argue that the culture and developers always had this desire for this, but now we have the actual means to tell these kinds of stories because our technology has caught up with our vision.
I’m not saying that everyone should write a book or learn violin. Or even that unwinding in such a way is necessarily a bad thing—or at all! “Taking your mind off things” sometimes is necessary to be a functional and rounded person. And entertainment can provide that brief respite. But surely entertainment can come at a cost.
We have options for media, that just begs us to click and Consume. Remember the tabbing issue? The Diamond Age is here.
I always feel like I need to occupy my time in some way. I can’t sit with my thoughts, and have a quiet moment and hear the wind sing unless I’m doing something else. When there’s any degree of loading, like Netflix is booting up on my home console or on my TV, I’ll reach for my phone or, if I’m feeling “intellectual”, my book. It’s not long enough to do anything substantial but I keep doing it anyway.
My suspicion is that we have so much available to us that our minimum threshold of stimulation has been greatly raised and so we need to keep doing something. In other words, the abundance of Stuff makes us aware of how limited our time is. So to make sure we get as much as possible from our 100 blocks per day to spend we need to be doing Something. We know implicitly that we can’t get through everything we want to but boy can we try.
Maybe the motivations don’t match up with my suspicions, but behaviour is certainly shifting more towards pluralism: according to a study done by Deloitte for American consumers of television, a whopping 90% of watchers reported doing something else when watching TV. The most common activity is surfing the internet (32%), followed by email, then texting (both 28%)—some groups doing up to three tasks at once.
And get this: the multitasking isn’t even about the show itself. Any of the generational groups studied (14 years and older) reported less than 30% of the time the multitasking they were doing was related to the actual show they were watching.
When I was reading this study I was sceptical. But then I reflected that it’s at least true for me to some extent. I tend to start with a search that relates to what I’m watching, but then it dovetails into a series of searches and clicks and then I’m on Facebook again and whoops it’s been twenty minutes without paying attention …
What I’m trying to say is that I’ve let bad habits seep into my daily life too readily. Although it feels like more of an inevitability, something beyond my choosing. And in a way, that’s correct. But it’s not a good feeling and I want to help assuage it by doing something about it. I’ll explain soon this supposed “correctness” but we have to zoom out a bit first and get a better feel of habits so that change can occur.
The Power of Habit
In my research about habits, one guy kept coming up: Charles Duhigg. He authored a book called The Power of Habit which inevitably explores this topic in more detail. He indicates that up to 45% of what we do is habit, not decision-making.
Habits can be broken up into three constituent parts, also known as a “habit loop”. Identifying these aspects will help in changing them:
1.) Cue: the trigger for the behaviour to unfold.
2.) Routine: the automatic actions—the habits themselves
3.) Reward: This is what ensures the habit is encoded in neurology; there’s something to be gained from this action. It’s like our brain’s way of saying: “This is good. Remember this for next time.”
So to overwrite a habit, the best way, Duhigg argues, is to target the cue** and the reward.
The cue usually relies on one of five categories:
1.) The time of day.
2.) A certain place.
3.) The presence of others.
4.) An emotional state.
5.) Behaviour that is ritualised.
To get a habit broken, a good thing to do is to write down these five categories and figure out the cue. This will reveal the reward (or the craving). Rewards are pretty complex, though, so part of the challenge will be to locate a specific one.
Let’s take my TV viewing as one example. The time of day varies but it’s usually:
1.) day time;
2.) in my room;
3.) without anyone else;
4.) with some distress and dissatisfaction with my life situation;
5.) and I do this at roughly consistent times of the day [usually in the early afternoon until evening where my activities become more computer-based].
When it comes to how habits are formed, behaviour and routine are the main focus typically, but we should look at the reward to get the why. Why do I want to watch the TV? Because it’s entertaining. That’s a prima facie (on the surface) good reason for a reward. But that might not necessarily be the case. The TV could actually be the distraction from something: boredom? Close, but probably not enough.
The reality is much closer to feelings of a lack of accomplishment and, to not go down the rabbit hole of negativity, I distract myself. For me, TV is a stand-in: it could be any sort of media that is stimulating enough like music, games, writing a stream of tweets maybe two people read ever—whatever it is. The reward is I don’t have to deal with that shit in the moments that I’m doing those activities, although they’re not assuaged, but we’ll return to that.
I mentioned this briefly before but the reason habits are so hard to break is that they don’t really feel like thought. This is what I referred to when I said “correctness” in thinking that this sort of behaviour is inevitable in some capacity. Now there’s two ways this can get cashed out.
The first way is when you don’t realise that you do something in a certain way. Take brushing your teeth. It’s apparently the case that you brush your teeth in the same way every time you do so. If you start from the top then go to the bottom set, for example, you won’t even realise that this is so unless you actively start thinking about it. This is a good thing. It’s so we don’t waste energy having to think about every such action whenever we want to do it. It’s a neurological shortcut of sorts.
The second way is a far more stressful experience. It’s a realisation that this activity is not good but you do it anyway because not doing it is harder than doing it—you can’t turn away. You’re sat watching hours of Daredevil instead of revising for exams, for example, but keep going despite your imminent deadline. When I think of breaking habits, it’s this latter version. You slip into this state like a glove to distract yourself but of course the problem lingers, maybe intensifies. Why does this happen?
The basal ganglia is one of the oldest structures in the brain and is annoyingly and amazingly exempt from the process of what we call “thinking”, which is what Duhigg is getting at. It’s almost as if it’s run on autopilot. It’s the part of the brain that is linked to a lot of things like voluntary motor skills, procedural learning, and of course routine behaviours or “habits” like moving your eyes, cognition, and emotion. Its primary function is to make sure we can do voluntary actions more smoothly. Habit-formation is pretty strongly embedded into our lives and is necessary for us to function as we do.
Duhigg uses the example of complete amnesiacs who remember nothing, but are still able to form habits like everyone else. The “lack of” thought is why habits are so hard to overwrite. Think about walking or blinking. Providing that one is able, these are automatic things that we do and is part of our reality. Have you ever thought about changing your walk or thought about blinking? That’s the moment when those automatic things start feeling weird. That’s because we don’t think about them in normal circumstances. I imagine it would be stressful to think about blinking while doing something else. Our brains are designed to make shortcuts so we can function and do other things like receive new information.
A quick note before we continue: I’m using “overwrite” here in lieu of “breaking” or “getting rid of” habits because overwriting is a more accurate picture of what’s happening when we change our behaviour; we’re encoding new activities that will be part of our passive everyday lives—so normal we won’t have to think about it. The elimination of one habit only allows space for a different—in our case better—habit to take its place.
Okay, let’s quickly take stock. There are three parts to a habit: cue, routine, reward. To overwrite a habit, you’ll need to look at the cue in depth and figure out, from the five categories above, how it came about and what the reward is. If you can do this, the benefits can bleed into many aspects of your life.
A keystone habit, for example, can cause a chain reaction that affects other habits. A common one (almost to the point of cliché) is exercise. Let’s say you spent a lot of time on the computer/phone/tablet/delete-as-necessary-or-until-I-stop-adding-needless-bits-of-this-forward-slash-list-and-want-to-do-that-less. You might consider going for a thirty minute run. As a result, you feel more awake and more productive, which in turn leads to less procrastination in general (it works, annoyingly). Identifying one of these might help in restructuring your relationship to a nebula of habits that you want to change, in rewriting your neurological code.
In psychology, there’s a term called “quantum changers” which refers to someone who is very specific about habits and their relationship with them, usually changing something in a pretty dramatic way, as the name implies. My Dad, for example, lost a lot of weight for his health in what seemed like all of a sudden. He did this through reshaping his diet alongside the exercise he did. What he and many other quantum changers have tapped into is the structure of habits. Once you understand that, it’s much easier to change things.
And it needn’t be big things, either. Incremental adjustments, in fact, are the things that change you; they are parts of a larger goal. The end result comes about because of these small steps. Remember stretch goals and a specific plan to get there? Well shit, we’ve come full circle.
In fact, not only is it a more realistic way of looking at habits, it’s probably the best. This is why you target the reward. The reward is the craving, a desire to be sated. The habit is just filling in the gaps, one way of many in order to achieve the same thing. It should stand to reason therefore that you can overwrite it by getting the same reward through a different habit.
And you need to actually do it. This sounds trite but how many times have you said that today’s the day you’re going to read 100 pages, write 1000 words, do the seminar reading, go for a run, etc. and end up not even starting? It’s upsetting isn’t it? Being in the right frame of mind is only a tiny fraction of it, but it is along the right lines. My research has revealed a lot of things and while intentions aren’t the be all and end all, they are an important stepping stone to overwriting habits.
In fact, it’s been shown that the more you believe you can, the more you can actually change it. Take Alcoholics Anonymous, a support group to overwrite the habits of alcohol with something like work. The reason it works is not because of its scientific basis (the famous “Twelve Steps” were created not from psychological expertise but a combination of spirituality and philosophy), but because it operates as a machine for habit change through the simple method of looking to others for support. And not necessarily in the “Friend, help me for I have lost my way” sense. No, it’s more like “That dickhead is well-adjusted? Him?! Well if he can, I sure as shit can too.” The effect of watching others to help us change is astonishing.
Here are three principles which will help in cultivating positive habits:
1.) Derail existing habits: where you make space to act on new intentions (see my point about overwriting, not destruction? It’s a replacement, homie.)
Moving city, for example, is a great way of doing this. Part of the call to move city must be tapping into the notion that a new place = significant change, of which existing habits will be a part.
Of course, this is an extreme reaction. Few my age*** have the kind of capital to all of a sudden move city, unless there’s a specific reason (i.e. university, a job or family.) On the more affordable end of things, going on holiday can actually help in rewriting habits. The cues (and as result rewards) are going to be different because of not only the setting but the context of them as well. It’s a good chance to change the habit. You’re not thinking in terms of your daily routine, but away from that all.
Smaller changes go a long way too, though. Let’s take phone use. Suppose your goal is to reduce phone-usage, try reducing your access. Some people lock themselves out of their phones. There are apps that do this sort of thing if you think that will help. I’ve found that having a lock code (that I have access to!) diminishes my access purely for the fact that I can’t as easily get to my phone. This means that I will only reach for it if I need it for certain purposes. That’s a tiny act but has put me on the right track.
2.) Repetition is key: It takes time to master but take heart because any goal can be subdivided again, stretch goals and specific plans. If you can do something for a little bit of the intended goal, over a longer period of time you will achieve it. Again, sounds simplistic, but the size of a goal is often enough to detract real effort.
The best way that I trained my thinking in this aspect is by doing NaNoWriMo which is when people challenge themselves to complete 50,000 words in a month, usually November****. The way forward is seeing the goal is over 30 days and 50,000 divided by 30 equals 1667 words (rounded up), the daily word count. Seen in this way, it’s still challenging but much more manageable. The task itself hasn’t changed, your thinking towards it has. The notion of writing daily, especially towards such a large goal, is quite daunting but once you get into it the actual process it becomes more manageable.
NaNo needn’t be the only way you can change your thinking. There are other practical means with which you can apply this conceptual framework. Let’s say your room needs tidying and one of the tasks is to pick up the pile of clothes. The prospect of tidying the whole room is daunting: you haven’t tidied in months and there’s a lot of junk on the floor. But if you set yourself the task of dealing with one pile at a time, then the notion of the whole room being tidied feels a lot more realistic.
3.) Have stable context cues to trigger a pattern: a new cue following an existing one helps. Specific contexts attached to others help overwrite bad habits. Reading during breakfast/around it—either 10 minutes before or 10 minutes afterwards—for example will help in adding more reading into your life because it’s attached to the meal of breakfast.
The initial cue is necessary to create subsequent ones. This is like keystone habits.
If you can master your habits they won’t destroy you/consume all of your time. Some people go to extremes, like taking social media diets. Things like that must have something to counterbalance what they’re dieting. So the assumption is that they go on these diets to invest more time into things that social media is eating into, which tends to be the case. These aren’t the only way in which you deal with hangups, nor do I think they are necessarily the best. But if it works, it works.
For me, it seems I’m escaping in some capacity because I’m in a state that I dislike and I have to learn to be okay with that. I suppose it comes with life: there are bits of it which will be disappointing and painful but that comes with. If I can’t look at that in the face then I need to address why, especially if I just end up in a loop of Copious Entertainment instead of something productive. (Didn’t I say I want to draw more this year?)
To sum up: we learnt about habits, how they form, why they can become ingrained in our psychology and what to do about them. The Diamond Age of pop culture means it’s the most alluring it’s ever been and establishing complex mental frameworks to resist passivity is going to be paramount, especially since this quality will only increase. With better presentation for entertainment, IMAX and 4k, for example, we’re constantly enhancing the experience of entertainment. We need to say no every once in a while, sit in silence and just hear the wind sing.
What about you: do you have any habits that you need to correct?
*I know I know I know I know, another dude talking about David Foster Wallace. But that particular anecdote freaked me the fuck out and will stay with me for a long time to come.
**I kept writing “the Cure” instead of cue. I feel a new habit forming.
***Dare I say: MILLENNIAL?
****How many times have I written this is in cover letters in the past year I wonder? I’ve lost count.