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Action and habit

86 Post author: Swimmer963 02 June 2011 02:59PM

I remember a poster that hung on the wall of my seventh grade classroom. It went like this:

Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
Watch your words, for they become actions.
Watch your actions, for they become habits.
Watch your habits, for they become your character.
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.

It was as a competitive swimmer that these words were the most meaningful to me. Most sports are ultimately about the practice, about repeating an action over and over and over again, so that actions become habits and habits become character. The fleeting thought that I really hate getting up at 5:00 am for swim practice is just that: a fleeting thought. But if I justified it with words, speaking it aloud to my parents or siblings or friends, it became a fact that others knew about me, much realer than just a wispy thought. The action of forgetting-on-purpose to set my alarm, or faking sick, was a logical next step. And one missed practice might not be huge, in the long run, but it led easily to a habit of missing practice, say, once a week. A year of this, and I would start to think of myself as the kind of person who missed practice once a week, because after all, isn’t it silly of anyone to expect a twelve-year-old to get up at 5:00 three times a week? And that attitude could very easily have led, over a couple of years, to quitting the team. 

As a matter of fact, none of this happened. As a child I had a large measure of Conscientiousness, and putting long-term goals, like getting best times and earning my coach’s approval, ahead of short-term goals like sleeping another three hours, came to me without too much difficulty. The cycle went the other way. My habitual response to the brief temptation to sleep in, namely screw sleep, this is how you’re going to get faster, my verbal statements to just about everyone that I loved swimming, and the action of getting up three times a week and trekking to the pool after school another three times all reinforced the habit of working hard...which, over the five or so years that I competed, did become a fairly permanent character trait that generalized to things like school and work.

Of course, the quote doesn’t only apply to hard work. It applies to being generous or to being thrifty, to kindness or anger. A thought that happens once leaves a small trail. If it happens a thousand times, it leaves a deep trench. As positive (I can do anything I set my mind to!) or negative (I always fail, no matter how hard I try) thoughts become associated with given situations, they lend those situations their emotional colour. Swim practice, or school or work, becomes either positive or negative.

Actions and Habits

A lot of what I’ve read on LessWrong about habits is in the context of breaking them. And yes, in some ways habits can act as a cognitive bias, a way of filtering the world that causes us to miss important opportunities, and habits are just as likely to be "bad" as to be good. (Maybe more likely.) But habits are also a powerful tool to get stuff done. As most of us know, an intention to do something doesn't necessarily translate to doing it. However, according to this article1, the strength of habit predicts how much students exercise, which their intention to exercise often to fails to predict.

Habits are routinized behaviors that have been frequently paired with stable environmental contexts and, as a result of this pairing, are automatically rather than intentionally set in motion… Habit theory postulates that the intention–exercise relationship is a function of habit strength with a stronger intention–exercise relationship at lower levels of habit strength.

Imagine the advantages of automatically setting aside an hour a day to exercise! Not only will you experience the health benefits, but if it’s an automatic rather than an intentional behavior, you’ll tend to exercise whether or not you feel motivated on given day, even under stress, even when you're tired and drained after a bad day.2 And yes, this is a habit I’ve (re)constructed in myself after a post-swim-team year of barely exercising at all. Having been active as a child and teenager, it was probably easier for me to build it into a habit than it would have been for a lifelong couch potato, but it would still be possible for them. Likewise, as far as I can tell from anecdotal evidence, it’s much easier to stick to a long-term habit of healthy eating than to a temporary diet.

How can you turn something into a habit, as opposed to a series of intentional actions? This post suggests planning for the long-term rather than the short term. “If I’m really good with my diet this month, I’ll lose weight and then I can start eating whatever I like again” is not a good long term motivational thought. Even in the short term I’ve found that I resent the things I force myself to do with this excuse, whereas I don’t resent my habitual behaviors like “exercise every day” and “never buy fast food or unhealthy snacks.”

Habits and Character

The habit of exercising doesn’t necessarily influence other behaviors, but if maintained for long enough, it segues into the character trait of being a health-conscious person with good self-control. If I have evidence to present to myself that I have healthy habits (“just look, I swam for an hour three to five times a week for a whole year, I must be the kind of person who’s fit”) then it becomes easier to start new “good” habits, like healthy eating. I can correct my fleeting thoughts of how tempting the free baked goods are, tell myself “of course you have enough self-control not to eat those cookies, you’re the kind of person who has healthy habits.” At this point the motivational quote becomes circular; Habits and Character affect Thoughts, which affect Words and Actions. This isn’t a logical paradox if it works, and it seems to work well for me. The more I exercise in a given month, the easier it is to have self-restraint in other areas.

And even the fact that I have good self-control is, I think, partly based on believing it about myself (“I got up at 5 am for swim practice three times a week for five years, I must have good self-control!) This seems to relate to the finding that willpower depletion depends on whether you believe your willpower will be depleted.3

Conclusions

Anyone can develop any “character trait.” The requirement is simply enough years of thoughts becoming words becoming actions becoming habit. If you believe that something will get easier to maintain over time, it will. Not in the sense of time and resources­; to get the continuing benefits of an hour’s daily exercise, you have to pay the opportunity cost of that hour a day, no matter how many years you’ve been doing it for; but in the sense of willpower and motivation. Your actions and habits will eventually change the person you believe yourself to be, which will affect just about everything else. I don’t have any direct evidence that this process works if begun in adulthood, but intuitively it seems that it might work better, since adults are almost always intrinsically motivated in what they do, whereas children often do whatever activities their parents choose, whether or not it’s something they’re motivated to do.

References:

1. De Bruijn, G. J. , Rhodes, R. E. Exploring exercise behavior, intention and habit strength relationships. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports. 2011: 21: 482–491.

2. Schwabe, L., & Wolf, O. T. (2011). Stress-induced modulation of instrumental behavior: From goal-directed to habitual control of action. Behavioural Brain Research, 219(2), 321-328. 

3. Job, V., Dweck, C. S., & Walton, G. M. (2010). Ego depletion-is it all in your head? implicit theories about willpower affect self-regulation. Psychological Science, 21(11), 1686-1693. Link provided by Dr_Manhatten

Comments (103)

Comment author: zxcvbnm 03 June 2011 07:28:52PM 2 points [-]

Too much speculation. Topic discussions on these matters are also biased by all the usual biases that occur in comparing oneself to another.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 02 June 2011 08:18:24PM 29 points [-]

It occurs to me that "couch-potato-ness" has to be an acquired habit as well. How many times does a kid have to be instructed to sit down, shut up, and stop fidgeting — and punished for getting up, making noise, wandering away, getting into things, making a mess — before they are content to sit and watch TV for hours a day?

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 03 June 2011 09:31:00PM 1 point [-]

I've wondered whether carseats and seatbelts end up training some children to accept not moving much.

Comment author: Swimmer963 03 June 2011 10:58:00PM 2 points [-]

You'd have to do a study of whether children were more active before seatbelts became common. Which may be impossible. I would expect that children who spend less time in cars (i.e. who live close enough to school that they can walk) would be less likely to develop couch-potato habits.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 04 June 2011 01:47:15AM 0 points [-]

You could study children living in places with very good mass transit compared to those living in places with little or no mass transit-- the latter would be generally spending more time belted in.

You might even be able to find enough children who'd moved from one environment to the other so that if there's a seatbelt effect, what the critical ages might be.

Comment author: twanvl 05 June 2011 09:31:31PM 0 points [-]

But mass transit has many other effects besides the seatbelts. For example, cars leave whenever you want them to, while public transport leaves at fixed times. In a bus or train there will often be many strangers, while there will usually be none in a car. Places with good mass transit might be that way for other reasons, like population density, terrain, wealth, political climate, etc.

I doubt you will be able to get a meaningful result about the activity of children in relation to seatbeltiness while controlling for all of these factors.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 05 June 2011 09:49:48PM -1 points [-]

It would be complicated, and you might be right.

Side issue: cars leave when the person driving is willing to leave, which isn't the same thing as being the driver yourself or dealing with mass transit schedules.

I've heard for New York and would find it plausible for other places with good mass transit, that New Yorkers do more walking than people in places with little mass transit.

It might be possible to sort out at least some of the confounding factors-- not every city has good mass transit, for example.

Comment author: Nornagest 03 June 2011 11:07:47PM 1 point [-]

That data should be possible to obtain, but there are some confounding factors -- I can definitely imagine a family more inclined to drive than walk passing the factors that led to those preferences on to their children, for example. And I'm not sure how you'd control for that.

Comment author: Swimmer963 04 June 2011 03:02:02AM 1 point [-]

And I'm not sure how you'd control for that.

Most studies that try to separate genetic factors from "nurture" factors provided by the parents will twins that were adopted separately. It's a small-ish subject pool though, and probably not recent since I don't think they encourage separating siblings for adoption now.

Comment author: rabidchicken 04 June 2011 04:13:41PM 0 points [-]

Did they ever encourage it?

Comment author: Swimmer963 04 June 2011 04:18:02PM 0 points [-]

It definitely used to happen a lot, judging by the sample size in twin adoption studies (usually 200-something pairs of separated twins).

Comment author: Hul-Gil 11 June 2011 06:56:02AM 0 points [-]

Seems doubtful to me. It isn't like you'd be walking around if you didn't have a seatbelt on.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 11 June 2011 07:28:40AM 2 points [-]

A seat belt considerably limits one's ability to shift and turn, and a car seat is even more limiting than a seat belt.

Comment author: sdenheyer 07 June 2011 01:28:35PM *  6 points [-]

There's a simpler explanation then either this, or seatbelts, that I've discovered in my field research as a parent ;). Television, for young kids, is a super-stimulus that completely captures their attention. For parents, this means you don't have to attend to your kid - you can do other things without being interrupted with questions or requests, and because their attention is fully occupied, you don't have to monitor that closely. It's easy to imagine that using TV in this way is a great temptation for some types of parents (or, arguably, most types) - there's always chores around the house to do, and you need a break every so often, etc. After a while, I'm sure both parents and kids forget there's other fun stuff do to, and you now have a TV habit. It's hard to break, too - kids tend to flip out when you turn it off on them.

Comment author: Swimmer963 07 June 2011 03:02:21PM 7 points [-]

Another reason that I'm so glad my parents didn't have a TV when I was growing up, although sci-fi books provided an adequate superstimulus. I'm pretty sure my parents figured out by the time I was 8 that giving me tons of books for Christmas and birthdays was the best way to keep me out of trouble.

Comment author: sdenheyer 07 June 2011 03:45:25PM 1 point [-]

My kids are still very young, so they're not self-sufficient readers yet, but they really like story-time, so it's looking good that they'll grow up into book lovers (and I'm sure they got book-lover genes from my wife and I ;).

I don't see TV as inherently bad - in fact, some of the kids programming on Treehouse in Canada is quite good! It's just a tool that is particularly prone to misuse.

As an aside - one of the shows "Guess with Jess" teaches a kid-version of hypothesis formation and testing and inferential reasoning.

Comment author: Hul-Gil 11 June 2011 06:54:14AM 1 point [-]

I feel TV is inherently bad in some ways; one of my biggest concerns is that the way things are presented is artificial, designed to manipulate the viewer into thinking the way the creators of the show or commercial want him or her to think. Commercials are particularly bad.

Studies show (I don't have the links, but I bet Google will find them) that there's correlation between TV-watching time and propensity for violence and other bad behavior in children. I want to say it's correlated with poorer academic performance as well, but I'm not sure if this was included or not.

Comment author: sdenheyer 13 June 2011 05:12:23PM 1 point [-]

one of my biggest concerns is that the way things are presented is artificial, designed to manipulate the viewer into thinking the way the creators of the show or commercial want him or her to think

This is true, but I'm pretty sanguine about it. The reality is, my kids are going to live in a world where they are exposed to media manipulation - protecting them from it at a young age isn't going to encourage the kind of skepticism required to combat it later. Already, my almost-4-year-old seems to discount how awesome things look in a commercial due to past disappointments.

Comment author: Dreaded_Anomaly 11 June 2011 07:25:42AM *  3 points [-]

That's not causation, though. Parents who let their kids watch a lot of TV may also be less likely to act against bad behavior (by disciplining them, providing better models for behavior, and so forth). A large amount of TV-watching time could simply be an indicator of poor parenting, rather than the actual cause of bad behavior. I don't know whether or not this is the case, but I'm wary of studies that only look at surface-level correlations.

Edit: However, after a bit of searching I found this page which summarizes several results that go beyond basic correlation.

Comment author: Swimmer963 07 June 2011 04:01:08PM 4 points [-]

I don't see TV as inherently bad - in fact, some of the kids programming on Treehouse in Canada is quite good!

I've sometimes regretted not watching TV for this reason. When I was in seventh grade, my friend called me 'culturally deprived'. A lot of kids watched the same TV shows and talked about them, and I didn't get the references. Whereas up until high school, hardly anyone had read the same books that I had. In a way, I was excluded from pop culture. And my general knowledge in areas that don't specifically interest me, like politics, is probably much lower as a result of not having been plunked in front of educational shows.

Still, I think that not having the habit of watching TV to relax outweighs those downsides. I'm able to get a lot more done in the time I don't spend watching TV.

Comment author: CronoDAS 26 January 2012 06:30:12AM 2 points [-]

I have trouble watching TV by myself without getting bored. It's not interactive enough, or something. I need a book or a video game instead.

Comment author: Jebdm 03 June 2011 02:13:04PM 10 points [-]

Not all people are automatically and naturally active. I certainly am not, and my parents in fact did the opposite of what you are saying. That said, "couch-potato-ness" can certainly be habitualized even in "natural" couch potatoes, making it even harder for them to do other things.

Comment author: ugquestions 11 June 2011 12:03:53PM -1 points [-]

Do we ever act or simply react according to our habits. I do believe habitual thoughts about our own character determine the basic principles at play in our decisions/actions. Our actions re-enforce habits, habits re-enforce actions and so on. Rarely, it seems, do people allow the possibility within themselve to act in a way that is "out of character" and are thus reduced to being vertual automatons, reacting to their established habitual proclivities. Perhaps this is true for everyone. Occassionally acting "out of character" may be just another habitual response. To change requires us to be stimulated either internally or externally, by thoughts or experiences, in ways that seems more desirable than the pre-existing conditions.

Comment author: DavidAgain 09 June 2011 08:29:27PM 7 points [-]

Very interesting post: but I wonder what counts as a 'habit'. 'Getting up at 5am for swimming three times a week' is very different to 'eating healthily', and I think they need to be distinguished. The first sort is more specific and rigid: you know WHAT you're meant to do and (more importantly?) you know WHEN you've failed to hit it.

As an example of these two kinds of habit:

I have tried to cut down drinking by 'drinking less' or 'only drinking when it's a particularly special occasion', and within weeks this went back to default of 'drinking when I wanted'. Ditto with 'eating less meat', 'eating healthier food' etc.

On the other hand, I have also had times of quite happily not drinking AT ALL, or not eating meat AT ALL: within a few weeks, I get to a point where I'm quite content with this, and only start drinking or eating meat because I've reached the end of the intended time of 'fasting' or because of more external events.

Now, I'm not sure whether the latter sort of habit is actually more sustainable or just easier to sustain right at the start - or possibly it depends on the purpose. For me, the absolute terms make the system feel external: I can't think my way round it and make excuses on individual cases.

Other people have the same experience?

Comment author: pnrjulius 05 July 2012 01:57:33AM 1 point [-]

It's about ten times easier to become vegetarian than it is to reduce your consumption of meat. Becoming vegetarian means refusing meat every time no matter what, and you can pretty much manage that from day one. Reducing your meat consumption means somehow judging how much meat you're eating and coming up with an idea of how low you want it to go, and pretty soon you're just fudging all the figures and eating as much as you were anyway.

Likewise, I tried for a long time to "reduce my soda drinking" and could not achieve this. Now I have switched to "sucralose-based sodas only" and I've been able to do it remarkably well.

Comment author: Skepxian 21 June 2011 02:40:20PM 2 points [-]

There are a lot more things that people can consider a 'habit' than most people would consider, I would expect. It's easy to think of 'getting up at 5 AM' or 'eating well' or 'exercising' to be a habit. I've witnessed exercise as a habit, to be sure, when I watched my siblings - who were very active in sports - get downright surly if they didn't have time for their morning jog.

But there's a lot of small habits in everything we do, that we don't really notice. Necessary habits. When someone asks you how you are, the habitual answer is 'Fine, thank you,' or something similar. It's what people expect. The entire greeting ritual is habitualness, to the point that if you disrupt the greeting, it throws people off.

The most important habits this can be used to engender and train yourself, relative to this site, are the habits of rationality. For instance, the habit of asking 'why?' Amusingly enough, this is the habit of breaking habits.

I feel bad. Why? I'm not that sort of person. Why? I don't like that. Why? I do like that! Why? I don't believe you. Why?

This can also be the habit of listening. It's so easy to cross something off a list of things that you'll consider - for instance, aliens, or ghosts. Someone claims that they believe in aliens. I see many people who absolutely refuse to even consider that. It's stupid. The arguments are all the same. No one's ever actually seen one, they just know someone who's seen one. The arguments for not listening are many and varied...

But it takes only a couple minutes, when someone tells you that they believe in aliens, to listen and actually appraise their reason. And I mean, really listen. Tell yourself, "Well, it's possible I'm wrong. Let's hear." The thought, in your head, is more vital than the act of listening.

If you act like you're listening, but your thoughts are saying, "There is no possible way they are right, I'm just listening because rationality demands it, and I'll be able to dismiss their arguments in a moment," then you're closing your mind. But if you truly let yourself listen, and tell yourself, in the silence of your mind, that there's a chance they're right, then you open yourself up to amazing things... even if it's not something that supports what they're arguing, you might come across some stray fact, some mental structure, that you hadn't considered before, and it could open up some level of understanding on an otherwise unrelated area of consideration, such as, "Ah, wait... what if this is why people act in this way?"

What I find the most important part of this article is not 'how can we use our thoughts to create habits,' but instead 'be more aware of the thoughts you have - are they the thoughts you want to become word and act?' Just having a thought does not guarantee it will become word or act, but if you find yourself in the habit of evaluating the thoughts running through your mind ... you will be far more able to encourage the good habits and destroy the bad habits.

Only then can you move forward to 'create' habits... for instance, what you were saying about sustainable habits, and coming up with exceptions for 'new habits' - you need an all or nothing approach, or else you think your way around it and make excuses. That suggests that your thought was not controlled, and that you think you're the sort of person who makes excuses. What if, instead of trying to get into the habit of eating less meat ... you instead had a goal of trying to create a habit of not making excuses for yourself?

Not trying to target you specifically, but more thinking about the topic on a much more general level and tossing out some general ideas that might apply to a number of different people.

Comment author: pnrjulius 05 July 2012 01:59:31AM 1 point [-]

Not critical to your point, but I can't stand this habitual exchange:

But there's a lot of small habits in everything we do, that we don't really notice. Necessary habits. When someone asks you how you are, the habitual answer is 'Fine, thank you,' or something similar. It's what people expect. The entire greeting ritual is habitualness, to the point that if you disrupt the greeting, it throws people off.

When people ask how I am, I want to give them information. I want to tell them, "Actually I've had a bad headache all day; and I'm underemployed right now and really lonely." Or sometimes I'm feeling good, and I want to say "I feel great!" and have them actually know that I feel great and not think that I'm just carrying through the formula.

Human speech is one of the most valuable resources in the universe, and he were are wasting it on things that convey no information.

Comment author: Alicorn 05 July 2012 05:55:38AM *  3 points [-]

Human speech is one of the most valuable resources in the universe, and he were are wasting it on things that convey no information.

It is not a scarce resource on the relevant scale. Water is valuable in the sense that you can do a thousand things, some essential, with it; this does not mean that flush toilets are an abomination.

Comment author: Osuniev 12 March 2013 04:42:37PM 0 points [-]

Arguably... They could be.

http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1857113,00.html

It is really easy (and almost costless) to reduce the quantity of water they use. It might indeed seem an abonimation to continue using them.

Comment author: Swimmer963 21 June 2011 07:53:53PM 2 points [-]

What I find the most important part of this article is not 'how can we use our thoughts to create habits,' but instead 'be more aware of the thoughts you have - are they the thoughts you want to become word and act?'

I think that's one of the most powerful messages of the quote. A thought doesn't have to become word or action, but an unquestioned thought, a thought that is allowed to determine what kind of person we think we are, is much likelier to become word, action, habit, character...etc. Whereas if a thought that is stopped in its tracks and corrected, then it will stop there. And yes, that has a lot to do with asking 'why'.

Comment author: Hul-Gil 11 June 2011 06:49:35AM 5 points [-]

Yes. With smoking cigarettes, for instance: "smoking less" didn't work, but "this is my last cigarette EVER" did. I've seen it occur in other areas, too: it seems to be easier to be entirely abstinent than merely moderate - probably for the reason you list; you can't make excuses.

Comment author: CaptainOblivious2 21 June 2011 01:49:18AM 1 point [-]

I definitely think that overeating is one of the hardest habits to break (and I've never been significantly overweight), because of the reasons you say. Any other bad habit you can simply say "no more" (possibly excepting situations where physical withdrawal symptoms become severe). Note that I'm not saying it's EASY to say "no more", just that it's possible and very well-defined. With eating, on the other hand, you've GOT to eat several times per day, so it becomes all too easy to overeat.

Comment author: Benquo 21 June 2011 02:05:30AM *  0 points [-]

Yet another good reason to do intermittent fasting. It's comparatively easy to execute skipping 2 of your 3 meals by default once you get used to it, and then you only need conscious self-control for one meal a day.

Or 1 day out of every 2, if you do it that way.

Comment author: CaptainOblivious2 22 June 2011 12:28:29AM 1 point [-]

Actually for me it's all mental. Normally I hate being hungry: that gnawing feeling in your stomach that says "FEED ME NOW". But if I'm trying to lose weight, I somehow flip my mental state such that the gnawing feeling is a GOOD thing: that's what losing weight feels like. As long as you've got that feeling, you're losing weight. However, if you eat enough that the gnawing feeling goes away, that's a bad thing: you're not losing weight any more. And god forbid you should eat enough to actually feel FULL - that's the absolute opposite of losing weight! Whatever happens, you don't want that!

Because of the mental flip, I don't feel like I'm depriving myself of something - instead I feel like I'm moving towards a goal, which is a positive feeling, not a negative one.

I wish I could tell others how to perform that mental flip, but I really wouldn't know how to start - it's one of those things you just DO.

Comment author: Swimmer963 22 June 2011 12:33:50AM 0 points [-]

I have definitely achieved that state before and I know exactly what you mean. Unfortunately, it was while I was a) not especially overweight, only thought I was, being 14 and self-consciously trying to be anorexic so I would be "less ugly and more popular", and b) swimming 7 times a week. I now associate making myself hungry with that not-especially-healthy period in my psychological development, and also with constantly feeling like I'm about to pass out. Also, when I've used that technique in the past, once I've either lost the weight I wanted to lose or given up, I tend to stop caring and just eat high-calorie foods all the time. I can definitely see how it would work in specific circumstances, though.

Comment author: Osuniev 12 March 2013 04:37:00PM 0 points [-]

That sounds like a rather bad idea to me. Not eating means being hungrier next meal, and will probably lead to... overeating. What's more, it seems having many small meals is better than having a few big meals (your glucose level is more stable, and your insuline regulation will be less likely to make you overweight).

Comment author: Vladimir_M 16 June 2011 03:13:37AM 6 points [-]

From Schelling's The Strategy of Conflict (Section II-4):

[A] focal point for agreement often owes its focal character to the fact that small concessions would be impossible, that small encroachments would lead to more and larger ones. One draws a line at some conspicuous boundary or rests his case on some conspicuous principle that is supported mainly by the rhetorical question, "If not here, where?" The more it is clear that concession is collapse, the more convincing the focal point is. The same point is illustrated in the game that we play against ourselves when we try to give up cigarettes or liquor. "Just one little drink," is a notoriously unstable compromise offer; and more people give up cigarettes altogether than manage to reach a stable compromise at a small daily quota. Once the virgin principle is gone, there is no confidence in any resting point, and expectations converge on complete collapse. The very recognition of this keeps attention focused on the point of complete abstinence.

Comment author: Swimmer963 15 June 2011 01:32:47AM 0 points [-]

I have tried to cut down drinking by 'drinking less' or 'only drinking when it's a particularly special occasion', and within weeks this went back to default of 'drinking when I wanted'. Ditto with 'eating less meat', 'eating healthier food' etc.

'Eating healthier food' is not, I don't think, in the same category as 'drinking less'. You can impose it on yourself by, for example, making yourself eat whatever you count as "healthy food" before you go near the "junk food", with the necessary consequence that you'll eat more healthy food, and less junk food because you'll be full. Also, all of those categories can be turned specific. Eating healthy can 'eat at least 3 fruits every day, less than 1 fried thing.'

Comment author: DavidAgain 15 June 2011 10:07:19AM 2 points [-]

True: and you can also impose 'drinking less' through saying 'I will drink a pint of water between each alcoholic drink' or 'I will drink no more than X drinks a week.

When I saw this response, I thought you'd missed my point, but actually I think you've put your finger on the nub of the issue: my successes are to do with highly specific, clear-cut things that involve total abstinence on one front. Obviously the specific side helps in itself, and all-out approaches aren't necessary. But I find it easier to stick to the all-out ones for some reason.

Comment author: Swimmer963 15 June 2011 04:51:28PM 4 points [-]

But I find it easier to stick to the all-out ones for some reason.

In the short run. Until it becomes really, really inconvenient to never drink, even when all your friends are drinking and you're sober and bored to death, or never eat junk food, even when the junk food in question is your best friend's birthday cake. All-or-nothing is much easier for periods of days to weeks, because it stops you from negotiating with yourself. The danger of all-or-nothing, though, is that if you do eat your friend's birthday cake, or drink with your friends, it might be harder to go straight back to all-or-nothing the next day. Whereas a five-year-old habit of 'only drinking when everyone else is, to a maximum of twice a week, and spacing each drink half an hour apart to a maximum of five drinks per night' could accomodate this.

When I try to generate a new habit, I usually ask myself "Do I want to keep this up for the rest of my life?" and "Would it even benefit me to keep it up for the rest of my life?" If not, the initial habit needs re-shaping.

Comment author: DavidAgain 17 June 2011 07:18:33AM 0 points [-]

This is an excellent point. And where the absolute ones often do fall down, as mentioned above.

Comment author: persephonehazard 08 June 2011 04:13:22PM 1 point [-]

I'm pretty sure, come to think of it, that everything I've ever trained myself to do or be has been as a result of "I am the kind of person who" thinking. I suspect that it would be a lot harder to do that consciously with any real effect, but it's an interesting thought!

Maybe "I am the kind of person who can resist those crisps" would work with enough application. Maybe...

Comment author: Swimmer963 09 June 2011 02:28:22AM 1 point [-]

I use this kind of thinking all the time. 'I have done [blank] which was difficult and required willpower, therefore I am the kind of person who can do difficult things that require willpower...therefore I can resist those chips." (Or whatever. Actually I don't usually resist chips if they're free.)

Comment author: TimFreeman 03 June 2011 06:49:45PM *  4 points [-]

Schwabe, L., & Wolf, O. T. (2011). Stress-induced modulation of instrumental behavior: From goal-directed to habitual control of action. Behavioural Brain Research, 219(2), 321-328.

If I'm reading that article correctly, I think they're saying that if you learn something while under stress, you're more likely to make a habit of it than if you learn it while not under stress. The text leading up to the footnote lead me to expect something about a connection between habitual vs instrumental learning and performance under stress:

Imagine the advantages of automatically setting aside an hour a day to exercise! Not only will you experience the health benefits, but if it’s an automatic rather than an intentional behavior, you’ll tend to exercise whether or not you feel motivated on given day, even under stress, even when you're tired and drained after a bad day.

Am I misreading either the OP or the cited paper?

If I did understand it right, the cited paper supports the hypothesis that boot camps are effective. They teach people while they are under artificial stress so the resulting learnings are habitual rather than instrumental. It also explains why PTSD happens.

Comment author: Swimmer963 04 June 2011 01:55:31PM 2 points [-]

Were you able to find the actual article? I was able to access the PDF using my university password, which is why I couldn't post it. What I gathered from reading part, not all, of the article is that behaviours that are automatic, i.e. controlled by habit, tend to take over under stress. Thus, if your decision to exercise is consciously controlled, i.e. it isn't yet a habit, then it becomes much harder to choose to exercise under stress, and you'll tend to revert to actions that are habitual, i.e. going on the Internet and eating junk food if those are your habits.

I did only read part of the article in detail and skimmed the rest. Bad habit.

Comment author: TimFreeman 05 June 2011 12:28:55AM *  2 points [-]

Dr. Manhattan's link worked for me, both at home and at the office, on two different machines.

Reading section 3, right column of page 3, bottom of the page, it seems that the stress is applied at the time the behavior is learned. I don't know how long these things linger, so maybe it's still present at the time the learned behavior is performed, since it's performed just after it's learned.

They acknowledge this ambiguity at section 3.1, left side of page 5. They make it clear that the effect (where stress slows the rate at which unrewarded behavior extinguishes) is still present if the stress is applied directly before performing the behavior, after the behavior is already learned. The effect is stronger if stress is present at both the time of learning and the time of performance, though.

Comment author: Jonathan_Graehl 03 June 2011 01:05:30AM 3 points [-]

Words also become thoughts. Communicating (even to yourself) an analysis or judgment will make you reluctant to gainsay it. I'm hoping to learn to hold my tongue in ways that leave me more flexible, or at least happier (for example: in most cases, why bother expressing contempt or outrage?).

On the other hand, creativity sometimes requires building speculation on speculation (when verification costs too much); perhaps all that's needed is a delight in tearing down what's faulty.

Comment author: rabidchicken 04 June 2011 04:27:50PM 3 points [-]

I make a habit of muttering incoherently and then scornfully rejecting my own opinions to maximize reasonable creativity. Of course, this is a bad course of action in public, but very helpful when I need to make a game engine in two days.

I agree that expressing outrage is normally a bad idea, it generally does not convince the other person and negatively effects my ability to be rational.

Comment author: Swimmer963 03 June 2011 01:13:00AM 5 points [-]

I was thinking about that as I was writing this...I thought I'd mentioned it at some point, but I guess not. Thus telling my friends I'm going to go to the gym or the pool later makes it a lot more likely that I'll actually go, even if they can't verify whether I do or not. Useful tactic.

Comment author: taryneast 04 June 2011 10:07:37AM 2 points [-]

Ya. NaNoWriMo suggests this technique when they recommend bragging as a form of self-motivation. The idea being that if you brag to your friends/family/colleagues about how amazing your novel is going to be, then you'll be too embarrassed to not do it :)

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 04 June 2011 01:29:31PM 0 points [-]

I remember a post describing a study that showed that telling others about your resolve makes it less likely that you'll do it (can't remember relevant keywords to look up the post).

Comment author: Swimmer963 04 June 2011 01:50:45PM 1 point [-]

Someone else linked to that somewhere in the comments. The idea is that if you tell all your friends about your high-status plan to write a novel, and they congratulate you, then it becomes a 'social reality'...you get some of the benefits of having written a novel without having done any work, and so you're less likely to do the work.

I wonder what would happen if you told your friends about your plans and they were extremely skeptical. From personal experience, I think that to a degree you feel more motivated to 'show them' and 'prove yourself', as I did when nearly all my friends and family were skeptical that I could learn to sing. I did learn to sing. However, my friends and family were also skeptical that I could become the youngest person to swim across Lake Ontario (at 14) and I didn't end up doing it...without my parents' material and financial support, it was pretty much impossible.

Comment author: taryneast 04 June 2011 03:42:51PM 0 points [-]

Hmmm - just shows that different people are different. I find that if everybody around me is skeptical then I'm far less likely to do it. I'm demotivated because I feel unhappy that they don't "believe in me". I prefer my friends to be supportive.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 04 June 2011 02:01:08PM *  0 points [-]

Someone else linked to that somewhere in the comments.

Where?

Comment author: Swimmer963 04 June 2011 02:22:36PM 0 points [-]

I went through all the comments and tried to find it. I can only conclude that I saw it somewhere else. I'll keep looking and see if I can find it for you.

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 04 June 2011 02:24:07PM *  1 point [-]
Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 04 June 2011 02:08:26PM 3 points [-]
Comment author: taryneast 04 June 2011 03:48:30PM *  4 points [-]

Interesting. Note: I can't go read the original paper as it's behind login, but based on my guess at what kind of goals they're talking about it's mainly aimed at "identity"-based commitments (though a long-range goal is also mentioned).

eg claiming "I'm a writer / I'm writing a novel" as opposed to "I will write 50,000 words this month"

I speculate that there is a big difference between the two above claims. The first one, you can get away with claiming - and gain social credit for not doing anything to accomplish it apart from carrying a writing journal and... I dunno, dressing bohemian and living in a garret for a while. You can "be writing a novel" for years...

But if you make a very specific claim eg "50,000 words written in November" - a claim that can be backed-up by evidence of regular progress (for nanowrimo... anybody can go see your actual word-count), then I reckon you can't back down quite so easily.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 04 June 2011 06:03:30PM 0 points [-]

Thanks!

Comment author: Jonathan_Graehl 03 June 2011 01:14:11AM *  0 points [-]

You mentioned it. Since it's also true that everything (that you care about) affects your thoughts, consider my post a musing inspired by the first line of the poster, and nothing more.

Interpreting "destiny" to mean "your situation", the poster paints a true (incomplete) picture.

Comment author: TimFreeman 03 June 2011 12:27:43AM 2 points [-]

Imagine the advantages of automatically setting aside an hour a day to exercise!

I set aside an hour a week, or 30 minutes if I focus well, following the instructions in Body by Science by McGuff, but that's weight lifting instead of swimming. Does anyone have good reason to believe you can do better than McGuff's procedure? My goal is to have a durable body and incur a minimal risk of injury while getting there.

Comment author: Swimmer963 03 June 2011 01:07:56AM 1 point [-]

30 minutes a week does something, I'm sure. Not sure if you can get cardio with just lifting weights. I like having good cardio because it allows me to do things like, say, run all the way to the bus stop if I'm late or bike 3 hours in a day if that's what my schedule demands. I'm sure your potential for injuries is lower than mine...I seem to suffer one minor injury after another, and that's with swimming, pretty much the lowest-impact sport ever.

Also I'm pretty sure you can't improve your swimming times with half an hour once a week. Or running, skiing, cycling, etc...

Comment author: handoflixue 03 June 2011 08:41:27PM 2 points [-]

Also I'm pretty sure you can't improve your swimming times with half an hour once a week.

I used to do low-key competitive swimming as a kid, and trained at most once a week. I didn't improve fast, but I definitely improved. Same with pull-ups and jogging now that I'm an adult. I've noticed that once a week actually gives great returns when I'm new to something, and then seems to slope off to a very gradual improvement after a month or two.

Comment author: Swimmer963 03 June 2011 10:51:45PM 0 points [-]

So do my kids in swim team. I guess what I'm saying is that I can't improve my swimming times by going once a week. Maybe if I wanted to improve my running times (something I've never done before) once a week would be sufficient.

Comment author: handoflixue 03 June 2011 11:06:57PM 2 points [-]

This makes me think that one could probably graph result:time logarithmically. At the start, you get much higher results out of just a bit more time, but as you aim for higher goals, it takes progressively more time for each improvement.

Given the diminishing returns involved, it'd probably be a useful life skill to be aware of these curves, and able to work with them. I'd probably be much happier being decent at swimming and four other things, rather than a top competitor at swimming...

Comment author: Swimmer963 04 June 2011 02:59:19AM 0 points [-]

I'd probably be much happier being decent at swimming and four other things, rather than a top competitor at swimming...

That was basically the choice I made when I left competitive swimming at age 16. (In terms of times, especially in short-distance, I peaked at around 13-14 and was actually getting slower in several events despite swimming 6-7 times per week.) Quitting allowed me to coach kids and work part-time at the pool during my last year of high school, which in retrospect was a lot more valuable than one more year of competition. I'm still the fastest swimmer on the pool staff, and the fact that my 100-meter time is almost 20 seconds slower than it was has no practical effect on anything except my ego.

I don't like quitting stuff, and I need to overcome a lot of inertia to start new things, but I'm attempting to this summer for that reason: I think doing something new, where I can see a rapid learning curve, could be really satisfying. (Swing dancing=random men asking me to dance and then touching me=pretty much my worst nightmare. But my boyfriend thinks it will be good for my social skills and he's probably right.)

Comment author: taryneast 04 June 2011 05:02:43PM 2 points [-]

Re: dancing.

There's almost always a surplus of women at dancing-lessons. If you really don't want the men touching you - you can always volunteer to be the "man" to some of the other women. Plus you really get a better feel for how the dance works if you learn it from both sides. :)

Comment author: Swimmer963 14 June 2011 11:58:23AM 1 point [-]

That's actually a really good idea! (Although in swing dancing, it's a lot harder work being the man because you lead, while the woman follows.) Also, the touching thing is getting better with time. It bothered me less the second time I went.

Comment author: taryneast 14 June 2011 01:34:49PM 1 point [-]

it's a lot harder work being the man because you lead

oh I agree - the same with Salsa, Tango and many other dancing styles. But doing that part sure gives you a better idea of what the dance is really like - and you can even better anticipate the man's lead if you know how leading feels from the other side. :)

Comment author: TimFreeman 06 June 2011 07:11:19PM 0 points [-]

I guess what I'm saying is that I can't improve my swimming times by going once a week. Maybe if I wanted to improve my running times (something I've never done before) once a week would be sufficient.

Ya, the 30 minutes a week scheme in Body By Science only makes sense if you're doing their proposed exercises. Specifically, adjust the weights so you reach failure with one set of 90 seconds of time under load. With running or swimming, you can't turn up the intensity enough to reach failure in 90 seconds.

I'm sure there's a plateau, but I haven't reached it yet. I'm gaining more slowly now after doing it for 5 months. I was having plateau (and injury) issues with a different weightlifting regimen at the beginning of those five months. The 90 second sets are great for reducing injury -- with that much time per set, the weight is relatively light and the joints are happy.

Comment author: wedrifid 03 June 2011 10:45:07AM 1 point [-]

Not sure if you can get cardio with just lifting weights.

Lifting weights can give impressive cardio gains if you choose the right kind of lift. For example if you split the 30 minutes into 4 sessions of tabata backsquats you are going to get some powerful cardio improvement.

Comment author: Swimmer963 03 June 2011 12:19:17PM 1 point [-]

Neat. I should try that.

Comment author: wedrifid 03 June 2011 12:24:46PM 0 points [-]

Neat. I should try that.

Sure, if you want an excuse to skip swimming practice. That is, to injure yourself. :P

Comment author: Will_Sawin 03 June 2011 02:37:29AM 0 points [-]

Shouldn't you improve to a plateau? At least in the limiting case where you have not swum at all in a while?

Comment author: Swimmer963 03 June 2011 02:57:57AM 0 points [-]

It's true that half an hour a week is enough to learn a few technique changes that can make the stroke more efficient, and thus faster. But even my adult private lessons, who come once a week for a half-hour of stroke correction plus another few times a week to practice, rarely improve their two-length (50 m) time by more than a second or two. Improving your swimming technique takes more than knowing what to do.

Comment author: Dr_Manhattan 02 June 2011 10:36:44PM *  1 point [-]
Comment author: Swimmer963 03 June 2011 01:04:39AM 1 point [-]

Thanks a million. I was using Scholar's Portal with my university password, but all the clicking in the world couldn't seem to bring me to a page that didn't require a password.

Comment author: paper-machine 03 June 2011 01:07:21AM 3 points [-]

It's a bad situation for science. If only there were something we could do about it.

Comment author: novalis 03 June 2011 11:41:13PM 4 points [-]
Comment author: paper-machine 04 June 2011 02:52:27AM 1 point [-]

I wish the other disciplines the best in their struggle toward this end.

Comment author: Swimmer963 03 June 2011 01:27:02AM 0 points [-]

BTW the first link takes you to a page of gibberish. I posted the second link with the references in the article, thank you.

Comment author: taryneast 04 June 2011 05:04:30PM 0 points [-]

Works for me. You might have just got a bad connection and the download got garbled. Try again?

Comment author: Dr_Manhattan 03 June 2011 03:28:16AM 0 points [-]

Weird- I tested the link working. Nice article, btw.

Comment author: wedrifid 02 June 2011 10:19:04PM *  16 points [-]

Anyone can develop any “character trait.”

This claim struck me as somewhat more strong than can be supported. The neurological and genetic basis for some "character traits" is real.

Comment author: thomblake 03 June 2011 01:33:58PM 4 points [-]

This is at least trivially true - some common human character traits cannot in practice be attained by squirrels or trees, for instance.

Comment author: Swimmer963 03 June 2011 01:26:31AM 7 points [-]

Agreed in that personality traits have some genetic basis, and so it might be harder for someone who is, say, impulsive, to enact a habit of being thorough and methodical. Or someone who is shy and introverted and/or inflexible to enact a habit of being spontaneous. I still think that the brain is plastic enough that even genetically based traits can be modified or at least circumvented to some degree.

Comment author: Mardonius 03 June 2011 02:20:15AM 6 points [-]

I agree, most personality traits can be aquired, even if they are heavily selected against genetically. But it isn't always desirable to do so, even if these habits are considered socially useful.

For instance, I'm naturally a night person, but I developed through self discipline, over the course of holding down a standard 9-5 job, a habit of 'early rising', even on weekends. This had, over a period of time, a seriously negative effect on my health and cognitive ability. Switching to a job that allowed me to revert to a more natural sleep cycle was a much better solution for me and my employers.

It's important to do a cost-benefit analysis when attempting to change behaviour, sometimes a change of environment is more feasible.

Comment author: Swimmer963 03 June 2011 02:34:25AM 1 point [-]

Agreed. Also, someone who has naturally strong self-control and feels guilty when they "slip up" can still develop a habit of not exercising and eating junk food. That doesn't mean it's a useful habit.

Note: I think the "natural sleep cycle" problem might have more to do with social expectations than innate tendencies. For example, I work mostly mornings, including several shifts a week that start at 6 am. My sleep schedule is set at 11pm-7am, although I can fall asleep as early as 9:30 if I know I have to be up at 5:00, and I have a lot of trouble staying up for, say, parties. I miss out on most of the reputation-related benefits of actually going out with people my age...when I do, I'm usually a tired wreck by midnight. It seems to me that anyone who wanted to make more of an effort than I do to be social would necessarily sacrifice the ability to easily wake up early.

Comment author: XFrequentist 02 June 2011 09:24:45PM *  6 points [-]

Currently on the front page of Hacker News. Very nice!

ETA: Never click on Hacker News unless you want a new addiction. Seriously.

Comment author: mail2345 03 June 2011 03:18:59AM 5 points [-]

It might be preferable to link to the comments section instead of the main page, just in case something interesting pops up there.

Comment author: gisely 02 June 2011 08:13:35PM 4 points [-]

Thanks for this essay. I have been struggling a lot to be a better person recently. I makes me want to keep trying.

Comment author: magfrump 02 June 2011 03:40:22PM 6 points [-]

I liked your post; it was well written with good practical illustration of your point. And it is definitely the case that lesswrong needs more posts about creating good habits on a practical level.

However I do have one concern; when you say that it is possible for anyone to acquire any character trait. I know eliezer has repeatedly bemoaned the state of "nothing fucking works," and I can imagine simple physiological mechanisms such that some character traits are practically impossible for certain people to acquire.

Comment author: katydee 02 June 2011 04:19:45PM 6 points [-]

I thought the whole "nothing fucking works" thing was about physical traits, not character traits.

Comment author: magfrump 04 June 2011 07:54:20AM 0 points [-]

Yes; although it seems possible (not necessarily likely) that it could work for character traits as well.

Comment author: Swimmer963 02 June 2011 05:49:19PM 8 points [-]

Agreed. I'm sure it would be harder for Eliezer to acquire the character trait of "being a fit person who exercises an hour every day" simply because his body seems to give less positive reinforcement. He stated in one post that although he tries to walk an hour a day (or something equivalent, I can't remember) he feels exhausted afterwards, rather than euphoric like a lot of people do after exercising. (Then again, the "runner's high", for me anyway, comes at its strongest after very intense exercise. Walking an hour leaves me pretty exhausted too.)

However, I'm sure there are invisible health effects to Eliezer's physical exercise, just in terms of cardiovascular health and aerobic capacity. As far as I can tell, his attitude is "I don't get as much visible benefit from exercise anyway, but I'm going to keep trying anyway." Perserverence is a character trait, too.

Comment author: magfrump 04 June 2011 07:56:34AM 1 point [-]

I agree that in practical terms you are probably correct that things like acquiring the character trait of perseverance will work.

My only objection was that the way you phrased it, you seemed to leave no room for the possibility of something different happening. Perhaps your theory is airtight enough to do so; but I am curious what you would think if someone came to you and convinced you that they had tried to acquire a character trait in this way and failed.

Comment author: Swimmer963 06 June 2011 12:35:12PM 0 points [-]

Perhaps your theory is airtight enough to do so; but I am curious what you would think if someone came to you and convinced you that they had tried to acquire a character trait in this way and failed.

I would say "really? you're not at all better at perseverence than when you started? Not even a tiny bit?" And maybe they wouldn't be, but in that case my theory would be wrong. It seems to me that it would be very hard not to change in a permanent way after following a new habit for a year.

Comment author: magfrump 06 June 2011 06:37:42PM 0 points [-]

Okay; I accept that you are confident enough to be extremely surprised at an exception to your theory.

So long as you are explicitly endorsing that high level of confidence, which seems reasonable but is also I think worth noticing.

Comment author: pnrjulius 05 July 2012 01:55:22AM 0 points [-]

For the most part I agree with this post, but I am not convinced that this is true:

Anyone can develop any “character trait.” The requirement is simply enough years of thoughts becoming words becoming actions becoming habit.

A lot of measured traits are extremely stable over lifespan (IQ, conscientiousness, etc.) and seem very difficult, if not impossible, to train. So the idea that someone can just get smarter through practice does not appear to be supported by the evidence.

Comment author: Swimmer963 05 July 2012 08:10:50PM 0 points [-]

I don't think most people would consider IQ a 'character trait'... However, that's a matter of terminology and doesn't negate your point. I agree that 'fluid intelligence' is probably relatively innate and would be hard to change (although there's some research that training tasks such as the dual n-back can have an effect.) Crystallized intelligence, as basically the sum of your knowledge and ability to apply it, can definitely be increased by practice. IQ in isolation strikes me as something that wouldn't matter as much as IQ and amount of experience and good work habits and openness to criticism and improvement.

As for conscientiousness, I have no idea what kind of research has been done on its stability as a character trait, but I see no reason why someone who was aware enough to make a decision to become more conscientious wouldn't be able to train themselves in habits that would, at the very least, make them able to get more work done and appear harder-working to others.

Comment author: [deleted] 30 January 2012 05:45:37AM 0 points [-]

In my posting "What's morality for?—Integrity versus conformity", I contend that the entire function of moral principles is to form traits of character. I cite to "Action and Habit" because you make the process so plausible.

Comment author: balantine 03 June 2011 11:25:34PM 0 points [-]

Willpower also corresponds to high-amplitude gamma wave activity in the prefrontal cortex.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 04 June 2011 08:11:05AM 2 points [-]

[Citation needed]

I did check Google.