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There is a lot of bad science and controversy in the realm of how to have a healthy lifestyle. Every week we are bombarded with new studies conflicting older studies telling us X is good or Y is bad. Eventually we reach our psychological limit, throw up our hands, and give up. I used to do this a lot. I knew exercise was good, I knew flossing was good, and I wanted to eat better. But I never acted on any of that knowledge. I would feel guilty when I thought about this stuff and go back to what I was doing. Unsurprisingly, this didn't really cause me to make any positive lifestyle changes.
Instead of vaguely guilt-tripping you with potentially unreliable science news, this post aims to provide an overview of lifestyle interventions that have very strong evidence behind them and concrete ways to implement them.
Some highlights from The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life And Business by Charles Duhigg, a book which seems like an invaluable resource for pretty much everyone who wants to improve their lives. The below summarizes the first three chapters of the book, as well as the appendix, for I found those to be the most valuable and generally applicable parts. These chapters discuss individual habits, while the rest of the book discusses the habits of companies and individuals. The later chapters also contain plenty of interesting content (some excerpts: [1 2 3]), and help explain the nature of e.g. some institutional failures.
Chapter One: The Habit Loop - How Habits Work
When a rat first navigates a foreign environment, such as a maze, its brain is full of activity as it works to process the new environment and to learn all the environmental cues. As the environment becomes more familiar, the rat's brain becomes less and less active, until even brain structures related to memory quiet down a week later. Navigating the maze no longer requires higher processing: it has become an automatic habit.
The process of converting a complicated sequence of actions into an automatic routine is known as "chunking", and human brains carry out a similar process. They vary in complexity, from putting toothpaste on your toothbrush before putting it in your mouth, to getting dressed or preparing breakfast, to very complicated processes such as backing one's car out of the driveway. All of these actions initially required considerable effort to learn, but eventually they became so automatic as to be carried out without conscious attention. As soon as we identify the right cue, such as pulling out the car keys, our brain activates the stored habit and lets our conscious minds focus on something else. In order to conserve effort, the brain will attempt to turn almost any routine into a habit.
However, it can be dangerous to deactivate our brains at the wrong time, for there may be something unanticipated in the environment that will turn a previously-safe routine into something life-threatening. To help avoid such situations, our brains evaluate prospective habits using a three-stage habit loop:
tl;dr: The neurotypical attitude that "You think too much" might be better parsed as "You don't experiment enough." Once you have an established procedure for living optimally in «setting», be a good scientist and keep trying to falsify your theory when it's not too costly to do so.
(Note: in aspects of life where you're impulsive, don't introspect enough, or have poor self discipline, this post is probably advice in the wrong direction.)
Alice is highly analytically minded. She always walks the same most-efficient route to work, only dances tango and salsa, and refuses to deviate even on rare occasions from her carefully planned schedule. She has judged carefully from experience that the expected value of dating is too low to be worth her time, and will only watch a movie if at least 3 of her 5 closest friends recommend it. She travels only when it relates to her job, to ensure the trip has a purpose and to minimize unnecessary transportation costs. Oh, and she also thinks a lot. About everything.
Bob often tells Alice that she "thinks too much", advice that rarely if ever resonates. But consider that Bob may be sensing a legitimate imbalance: Alice may be doing too much analysis with not enough data. He can tell she thinks way more than he does, and blames that for the imbalance, suggesting that Alice should "turn off her brain". But Alice can't agree. Why would she ever waste a resource as constantly applicable and available as her mind? That seems like a terrible idea. So here's a better one: Alice, if you're reading this, don't turn your mind off... turn it outward.
When (analysis:data) looks too big, just try turning up the data. There's no need to get stupider or anything. When it's not overly costly, you should deviate from your usual theories of optimal behavior for the sake of expected information gain. Even in theory, empiricism is necessary... For a Bayesian optimizing agent in an uncertain world, information has positive expected utility, and experiments have positive expected information. Ergo, do them sometimes! And what sort of experiment do I mean?
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