Here’s Don Norman in The Design of Everyday Things on fighting the incredible power of social pressures on behaviour. What kind of social pressures? The social forces that cause “otherwise sensible people to do things they know are wrong and possibly dangerous.”
When I was in training to do underwater (scuba) diving, our instructor was so concerned about this that he said he would reward anyone who stopped a dive early in favour of safety. People are normally buoyant, so they need weights to get them beneath the surface. When the water is cold, the problem is intensified because divers must then wear either wet or dry suits to keep warm, and these suits add buoyancy. Adjusting buoyancy is an important part of the dive, so along with the weights, divers also wear air vests into which they continually add or remove air so that the body is close to neutral buoyancy. (As divers go deeper, increased water pressure compresses the air in their protective suits and lungs, so they become heavier: the divers need to add air to their vests to compensate.)
When divers have gotten into difficulties and needed to get to the surface quickly, or when they were at the surface close to the shore but being tossed around by waves, some drowned because they were still being encumbered by their heavy weights. Because the weights are expensive, the divers didn’t want to release them. In addition, if the divers released the wights and then made it back safely, they could never prove that the release of the weights was necessary, so they would feel embarrassed, creating self-induced social pressure. Our instructor was very aware of the resulting reluctance of people to take the critical step of releasing their weights when they weren’t entirely positive it was necessary. To counteract this tendency, he announced that if anyone dropped the weights for safety reasons, he would publicly praise the diver and replace the weights at no cost to the person. This was a very persuasive attempt to overcome social pressures.
Normal, regular people — just like you and me — are out there every day risking drowning over a set of diving weights. Don Norman’s instructor is a genius and probably a hero. I hope you’re not going to get into life-threatening situations every day but you’re going to get into potentially life-worsening ones pretty often. It’s probably worth asking what potentially life-worsening or bettering behaviours you’re rewarding in your life.
I was in a reflective mood when I wrote it so to accompany it I chose a painting of mountain climbers surveying a new landscape after reaching a summit.
I’ve been trying to add photos to all my blog posts lately so they’re a bit more engaging when they hit Facebook. Pexels is a great choice for free stock photos but the amount of free art online is pretty staggering. Why not take advantage of it?
I friended as many of the trolls on Facebook as I could and began to observe their ways. Most of the content they shared was drawn from a network of other pages … clearly meant to produce entertaining and shareable social-media content. There was the patriotic Spread Your Wings, which described itself as “a community for everyone whose heart is with America.” Spread Your Wings posted photos of American flags and memes about how great it was to be an American, but the patriotism rang hollow once you tried to parse the frequent criticisms of Obama, an incoherent mishmash of liberal and conservative attacks that no actual American would espouse. There was also Art Gone Conscious, which posted bad art and then tenuously connected it to Obama’s policy failures, and the self-explanatory Celebrities Against Obama. The posts churned out every day by this network of pages were commented on and shared by the same group of trolls, a virtual Potemkin village of disaffected Americans.
After following the accounts for a few weeks, I saw a strange notification on Facebook. One account, which claimed to be a woman from Seattle named Polly Turner, RSVPed to a real-life event. It was a talk in New York City to commemorate the opening of an art exhibit called Material Evidence.
It starts to turn into something more like a paranoid pulp thriller when the author visits the Material Evidence art show and finds out that the show is somehow connected to the same trolls who put on the Columbian Chemicals Plant explosion hoax that started the whole investigation off. Then it just gets crazier.
Russia’s information war might be thought of as the biggest trolling operation in history, and its target is nothing less than the utility of the Internet as a democratic space.
The whole thing is fascinating. It might not be a bad idea to check the About page of those Facebook pages you’re following and make sure they’re pointing back to real organizations made up of real people.
Moreover I hate everything that merely instructs me without increasing or directly quickening my activity.
Nietzsche prefaces his “untimely meditation” on “the use and abuse of history for life” with this quote. He thought it could stand in as a ceterum censo — a call for total warfare — in his mind against something like what he conceived as history, or research, without purpose and correct action. “We need it for life and action, not as a convenient way to avoid life and action.” It’s a tough ideal I’ve been thinking about and one I’ll be thinking about more now that I’ve seen it expressed so well.
Many of my friends and family know this already but for the past three months I’ve been on vacation from work. Everyone that works at Automattic (What’s that? You’ve probably heard of our biggest project, WordPress.com) can take a 2-3 month vacation, or sabbatical, every five years. That’s a lot of time to take off work! I haven’t had that much time off since I was four or five. “What are you going to do with all that time off?” One thing you could do with some time off like that is try and make some changes in how you live your life. One of the best ways to do that is through habit-forming.
You’re probably most familiar with how important habits are in their bad form. The things we all do that we can’t help doing. Things like procrastinating or always interrupting people or even addictions like gambling. A good habit being something like always saying “please” and “thank you” or exercising. Both types compound. The bad ones are easy to form and are destructive, eating away at every part of your life to some degree more or less. The good ones are hard to form and improve every part of your life. Some habits are foundational, or keystone, habits. These have the greatest chance to compound and have the greatest reach into every part of your life. Procrastination is a good example of a negative keystone habit. Exercise is commonly cited as a positive keystone habit. (For a good introduction I recommend The Power of Habit and Better Than Before.)
So with all this time off I figured, “what the heck, I’m going to try and build as many positive habits as I can and see if I can reshape my life in a really rewarding way.” Or something like that.
First, I’ll get some math out of the way for the careful reader who has noted that 100 days is more days than there are in three months. I started this project before my 3-month vacation. This was probably the smartest thing I did and is the biggest “secret” for building good habits: you can start anytime. I started with one push-up one day in May. I didn’t wait for a special event like a holiday or the start of the week or the right time. I just started doing a small thing where I wasn’t doing something before. I also learned this from my colleague Lance when he told me, after finishing his sabbatical, that he started doing things he could have started doing at anytime. He didn’t need to wait.
To start things off, I spent some time thinking about where I wanted to be 1, 5, and 10 years from now. Conversely, and just as important, I spent some time thinking about where I didn’t want to be. I wanted to figure what activities were going to get me to where I wanted to be and keep away from where I didn’t want to be. This wasn’t really elaborate. I just wrote some rough notes down in the spirit of “something is better than nothing.” I also looked at various people I know and picked out qualities I admire in them. (Attention everyone I know: you’re all doing something I admire.)
With this list of activities and qualities in hand I tried to pull out some key daily activities and processes that were good in themselves and were likely to reach out and improve other things. What are the keystone habits I think I need to live a good life that is always getting better, however I believe that should be defined? (As opposed to always getting worse or even stuck in neutral.)
Exercise is one keystone habit for me. I’ve written before about achieving 30 days of regular exercise. As of yesterday I’ve hit a 100 day streak of daily exercise and I’m hopeful that I’ve baked that habit in. I realized just this morning I can no longer joke about being a person who doesn’t exercise.
Here’s one cool result: on June 19 I put together a chin-up bar in my basement and did exactly 0 chin-ups. That was my best effort: nothing. Zero chin-ups. I couldn’t even lift myself up. A month later on July 19 I did 1 full chin-up around 10:45 in the morning. After lunch that day I was able to do two if you count craning your neck to get your chin to touch the bar. About an hour and a half later I was able to squeeze the bar as hard as I could and pulled out two chin-ups. A month after that on August 19 I was able to do 4 chin-ups. Here’s what I wrote in my Journal that morning.
4 chin-ups! Today was the day!!
And then a few hours later:
Knocked out two more chin-ups for good measure!
I’m able to share those anecdotes because of the other keystone habit I’ve been working on: Journaling. I write in a digital Journal everyday, throughout the whole day (That’s how I know the time of day I’m writing, via a timestamp) but usually just in the morning to record my exercise progress and then later on in the evening.
What else do I write about? I use Todoist to deliver a custom set of daily, weekly, and monthly questions to me. These are journal prompts and challenges, in the form of questions, that I’ve pulled from various sources but primarily from thinking errors defined in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, common mental models and human biases, common logical fallacies, and Richard Wiseman’s Emergency Happiness Diary. (Who couldn’t stand to be a bit happier more regularly?)
My idea here was to do something like mental exercise. “If I can exercise my body to improve my physical health, why can’t I do the same thing to improve my mental health?” I figured it would look like this: spend some time every day trying to figure out all the different ways your bad habits, instincts, and too-quick-for-some-situation System 1 Thinking got you into some sort of trouble recently. Thus the journal driven by a custom series of journal prompts.
Basically, I’m trying to figure out where I was systematically stupid every day so I’m less stupid more often.
How’d he do it? Well, he trained. A lot. And he also kept a journal.
Some of his poise can be attributed to his detailed preparation. He is obsessive about his training, which includes hour-long sessions every other day hanging by his fingertips and doing one- and two-armed pullups on a specially-made apparatus that he bolted into the doorway of his van. He also spends hours perfecting, rehearsing, and memorizing exact sequences of hand and foot placements for every key pitch. He is an inveterate note-taker, logging his workouts and evaluating his performance on every climb in a detailed journal.
I started to wonder what could happen if someone prepared for the ups and downs of life like Alex Honnold prepared for his dangerous climbs. I was already logging my exercise and using that to make progress and adjust goals. And in a way I was logging my efforts to think and act more correctly. Could I review that? The answer was, “probably,” so I made up a daily, weekly, and monthly form and started reviewing my progress in my journal.
Yes, I’ve been filling out a regular self-review form on my summer vacation.
It’s probably unusual but I think that activity in itself is a keystone habit. It’s helped me refine my personal goals on the fly and add continually, to an ever-growing list of daily, weekly, and monthly habits. Habits I’ve been sticking to!
An example: It’s where my recent habit of collecting colour schemes came from. One day while examining some stress I have around my abilities as a designer I started thinking about what parts of that role I felt weak in. One of those weaknesses (there are a whole bunch) is that I’ve always felt I was lacking in my use of colour to create a harmonious design. During my weekly review I literally ask myself if there are any cool ideas or hacks I could implement to correct some of the issues that popped up during the week. One Friday (the day I do my review, on a natural end of the “working” part of the week for me) I realized I could start making daily colour schemes to try and correct this. It’s a small easy to accomplish habit and it’s fun. Better yet, I’ve created 63 colour schemes and now find myself thinking about the use of colour more as I go about my day. That one example may not be a lot but — and I think this is really important — it’s better than nothing. Nothing was literally what I was doing before to improve that.
So, that’s it. I’ve done a whole bunch of other things over the summer too like go on family vacations, read, and just plain take it easy. But I’ve also tried to build up some keystone habits and I’m glad I did. Give it a shot, maybe with something small. You might be surprised at what you could get up to in a 100 days.
It reminds me of investor Charlie Munger’s advice on “having an opinion.”
I’m not entitled to have an opinion unless I can state the arguments against my position better than the people who are in opposition. I think that I am qualified to speak only when I’ve reached that state.
As of this morning, I’ve done some sort of bodyweight exercise for 30 days straight. It’s been mostly push-ups, with some chin-up training, dips, and squats, mixing it up with lighter and heavier days so I don’t over exert myself.
I use the Todoist app to remind myself to do this (and some other fundamental things) every morning. It’s one of a very limited set of Q2 activities I have set as a top priority. After I check off the activity in Todoist I then mark the chain in a calendar using a “chain” app. There’s tons of these. I like the Your Chain! app and that’s where I grabbed the screenshot above.
What have I learned? Probably the first thing to note is that this milestone of 30 straight days of exercise — one I haven’t hit before — is the result of literal decades of failure to do something like this. So, I haven’t actually learned anything in 30 days. It’s been more like, I’ve learned a lot of things just by living, trying, failing, and trying again.
Which brings me to the second thing I’ve learned from trying to build good habits, something that seems really obvious but I don’t think it really sinks home until you face it: you can always try again. Miss a day? A week? A year? A decade? You can just try again.
When you’re trying again, start small. Like, really small. My 30 days of exercise was preceded by another month of haphazard exercise but I started small. With one push-up a day. The next day I took it to two push-ups. And so on. I knew I could do more than that but I also know that I have a tendency to want to ramp up too quickly, get hurt or discouraged, and then stop. So I started small. I missed a few days and then came back to it.
And I was lucky enough to remember why I started. Remember why you started is one of the little inspirational sayings that’ll pop up in the Your Chain! app as you progress. I’ve tried to recall it when I’m tired or rushed with other habits I’m trying to build and it’s helped me press on.
Lastly, I’ve learned that everyone is different. You have to figure out what works for you. What worked for other people in building habits hasn’t always worked for me. And what works for me might or might not work for you. One book that really takes this idea to heart is Gretchen Rubin’s Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. I recommend checking it out. Also good but, in my opinion, more entertaining than informative, is The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Businessby Charles Duhigg. Rubin has read The Power of Habit so if you read Better Than Before you get the best of Duhigg’s book too.