Habituate yourself

I am really looking forward to reading “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg. Its on my kindle, slowly making its way up the list. Here is an extract from an interview with Neurotribes:

In his provocative and brilliantly written new book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg — a reporter for the New York Times — pries open the box with the help of recent research and finds surprising good news: Even the most thoughtless and self-destructive cycles of behavior can be changed, if you understand how habits are formed and stored in memory.

Duhigg breaks down the sequence of ritualized behavior (which he calls the habit loop ) into three component parts: the cue, the routine , and the reward . The cue is the trigger that sets the sequence in motion. Perhaps it’s a certain time of day when you tell yourself it’s time for your daily chocolate-chip cookie (that was Duhigg’s particular jones). Perhaps it’s email from your boss that makes you want to dash out for another smoke. Perhaps it’s the chiming bells and flashing lights of a crowded casino, designed to make a room full of incremental losers look like winners who are hitting jackpots all the time. The routine is the behavior itself, which can be positive (like a daily running habit) or harmful (like gambling away the family savings). And the third part is the reward — the goal of the behavioral loop, which your brain’s pleasure centers gauge to determine if a sequence of behavior is worth repeating and storing in a lockbox of habit.

A pint of butterfat and sugar with a Ben and Jerry’s label, a spurt of oxytocin when you see that @jayrosen_nyu or @ebertchicago has retweeted you, that tingling in your legs after a strenuous workout, the numbing rush of a fix, the first puffs of an American Spirit… it’s all the same to the basal ganglia, four lumps of gray matter in the forebrain that encode highly rewarding behavior for easy repetition.

Though routinized behavior is often framed in terms of the problems it can cause, Duhigg points out that habit formation is an evolutionarily keen strategy for managing the limited throughput of our conscious awareness. If we couldn’t even brush our teeth or drive without having to ponder the nuances of every action, our brains would require more real estate in decision-making areas like the prefrontal cortex. One advantage of “chunking” behavior into automatic sequences stored in memory — Duhigg tells us in a typically enlightening aside — is that our skulls can be smaller, ensuring that more mothers survive giving birth. Darwin FTW.

But when you become a slave of your most destructive habit loops — blowing through the last of the family credit at Harrah’s, or watching yourself down another half-dozen martinis like a hipster robot, though you know it’s wrecking your marriage — it’s time to make a change. Duhigg explains why our usual way of tackling the problem — telling ourselves “I’ve got to quit doing this, now! ” and berating ourselves when we don’t — is often doomed to failure. Then he maps out a more effective path toward enduring habit change that focuses not on trying to scrap the routine all at once, but on becoming aware of the cues and manipulating the rewards. The encouraging news is that success in making modest alterations in behavior (which Duhigg calls “small wins”) creates a ripple effect into other areas of your life. Sometimes the most effective way to quit smoking might be to start walking the ten blocks to the office every other day instead of taking the subway. Small wins beget larger ones.

Read more at http://blogs.plos.org/neurotribes/2012/03/20/breaking-the-habits-that-enslave-us-qa-with-charles-duhigg/

Tim Ferriss’ recipe for hacking any topic

This is from an old but good interview with Tim Ferriss on his blog:

Avi: Do you have a generic method for hacking some advanced skill set. You seem to have hacked so many advanced topics that you must have a method to your madness!

Tim: Well, I do have a method and it’s really a series of questions more than anything else. It’s almost a Socratic process but I would say that, first and foremost, I have to have a very clear, measurable objective, whether that’s in language acquisition or in power lifting.

The common element is measurement, so you need to know when you have succeeded and how to measure progress to that success point, whether that’s a 500 pound dead lift or a 50 kilometer ultra marathon or getting to the point where you can do, let’s say, a single lap in an Olympic pool with 15 or fewer strokes. These are all real examples. The number of footfalls, meaning stride rate, per minute in endurance training and how long I can sustain that for say with a goal of 20 minutes at a time. Or a 95 percent fluency in conversational German as measured through different metrics. Again, all real examples.

So the first is measurement. I have a clear idea of what success looks like and how to measure it.

Secondly, I will look at the most common approaches, which are, oftentimes, the lowest common denominator but have some thread of efficacy. I will ask, “What if I did the opposite?” I’ll look at the established common practices, the established dogma, and ask myself what if I did the opposite.

If it’s endurance training, let’s look at Iron Man training, and the average is 20-30 hours of training per week for people in the upper quartile. What if I limited that to five or fewer hours per week? What would I have to do? How could I make this type of training work, or perhaps be more effective, if I had to focus on low volume instead of high volume? The same could be said of weight training. The same could be said of language learning.

If someone says it takes a lifetime to learn a language or it should take 10 years, what if I had to compress that into 10 weeks? I know it’s “impossible,” but what if? And if they say that vocabulary comes first because we should learn as we did when we were a child, which I completely disagree with – it’s entirely unfounded – what if you were to start with a radicals (Japanese/Chinese) or grammar instead?

So, flipping things on their heads and looking at opposites can provide some very surprising discoveries and shortcuts.

Thirdly, I look for anomalies. For any given skill, there’s going to be an archetype of someone should be successful at that skill. If it’s swimming, for example, it would be someone with the build of Michael Phelps. They would have a long wingspan, relatively tall, big hands, big feet and large lung capacity. So, if I can find someone who defies those anatomical proportions — say, someone who’s 5′ 5″, extremely heavily muscled, like 250, who is still an effective swimmer — I want to study what the anomalies practice because attributes can compensate for poor training. I want to find someone who lacks the attributes that can allow them to compensate for poor training.

Typically, you find much more refined approaches when you look at the anomalies. That’s true for any skill I have looked at, whether that’s programming or otherwise. So, let’s just take computer programming. If the common belief is that someone should start with language A, then progress to framework B and then progress to language C, if I can find someone who skipped those first two steps and is regarded as one of the best programmers in language C, I’m going to look closely at how they developed that skill set. In some cases, it correlates to their use of analogies and background from music or natural languages (for example, Derek Sivers or Chad Fowler )

Then I would say, lastly, is a set of questions related to rate of progress. So I don’t just look at the best people in the world; I look at people who have improved upon their base condition in the shortest period of time possible.

Let’s say I’m looking at muscular gain. I would certainly interview the person who’s, let’s say, 300 pounds and 7% body fat, but there’s a very good chance that I’ll learn more from the person who’s put on 50 pounds for the first time in their life in the last 12 months. So, I always try to establish the rate of progress and, when that person has plateaued at different points, for what duration. I find that exceptionally helpful also for finding non-obvious solutions to problems.

New Mindhacker book released (and I contributed to it)

Mindhacker US edition cover

Completely forgot to announce that the new Mindhacker book was released on 6th September 2011, featuring a very long (over 4000 words) hack by authored by me (“Hack 73: Take a Semantic Pause”).

The book is actually a delight to read, especially for techie hacker types.

Congratulations to the authors Ron and Marty Hale-Evans. They represent an ideal of the polymathic autodidact omnologist.

Mindhacker: 60 Tips, Tricks, and Games to Take Your Mind to the Next Level is  available from Amazon and bookstores.