How to Program Your Habit System

Charlie Ambler
May 6, 2016 · 4 min read

Human-as-machine analogies get shaky, but for the sake of all of this talk about “optimization” let’s briefly forego all the weird dystopic sci-fi connotations and refer to ourselves as machines.

We’ve got hardware— physical bodies.

We’ve got software— psychological predispositions, subjective real experience, and subjective virtual experience (culture).

We’ve got accessories— the stuff we own and consume.

In this respect, we are more machine than we are special snowflake. People are “individuals” only to the degree that their collective subjective experiences and minor biological tweaks differ from others. Besides that, we’re working with a unified mass of very similar machines. These machines get more similar as you group them based on religion, cultural ideology, ethnicity, nationality, etc. Even in the globalized world, people tend to group together based on these identifiers, so I cannot ignore their differences completely for the sake of a more simplistic argument.

So, we’re a bunch of different groups of slightly-varied emotional machines going about our lives. Obstacles arise. Sometimes they arise as pure hardware problems (disease, severe mental illness, disability). Sometimes they arise as software problems (general suffering, acquired minor mental illness [usually circumstantial], addiction, and bad habits). Usually our problems are a mix of complex interactions of these inner-facets of life with our accessories. We worry about feeding ourselves and our kids. We worry about death. We worry about acquiring or losing stuff. We worry about acquiring, losing or keeping people in our lives. We get mood swings, fears, and uncertainties. You get the idea.

When problems arise, what do we do? Some people panic and let the problems slowly convert themselves from surface-level issues into deep pathological issues that affect the actual composition of their software and hardware. Most of us do this to some degree, since only an actual robot could ignore the emotional fragility of the human psyche. Things affect us, both internally and externally.

I use this long-winded analogy to try to elucidate the idea that habits are multi-faceted. A habit like smoking, for example, has endless implications. It has cultural implications. It has health implications, which in turn have financial and emotional implications, and so on. It has psychological implications; ie. someone who forces stress upon themselves through a state of constant nicotine withdrawal is probably a generally more stressed-out person than someone who learns to naturally manage stress without nicotine as a reliably addictive middle-man. These implications all snowball into really important parts of our lives, and so it’s important to reconfigure how we approach habits.

I see this as the reason that people who get healthy sometimes get really intense about it. This happened with me recently when I decided to start eating a basic pre-modern diet of things like yogurt, eggs, salad, organic poultry, etc. My own version of the paleo diet. I started also lifting for an hour every day instead of three days a week. Lastly, I quit smoking in January. Smoking is a definitively modern habit that I think wonderfully exemplifies the absurdity of our post-industrial rationalizations for unnecessary things. Quitting was a symbolic act for me.

In the same way that trauma and tragedy sometimes set off changes in our habits that snowball into crazy new facets of life, the first few positive habit changes I made made me feel really good. So I kept finding positive changes to make. These also made me feel really good, which was incentive enough to stay consistent. Now I am eating healthier than ever, exercising more than ever, and not wasting life and money on bad habits like smoking and trash food.

This is a positive example of learning where problems arise and how complicated they really are, and tackling them with subtle changes in both software and hardware. Every day I fine-tune my hardware with exercise and meditation, which in turn fine-tunes my software in the form of less stress, better health, improved physical appearance, and higher self-confidence. These in turn make me feel generally better, which makes me work better, etc, etc. The snowball proceeds.

This is obviously all sort-of overwhelming, but it should be. Habits are very important. Sometimes we start to let ourselves go and then feel like it’s too late, since the software has been allowed to run with lazy bugs for so long that it’s forgotten what a state of optimization feels like. We deny the fact that people are different and that part of this is by choice. The key here is not to treat ourselves like thoughtless robots, but to realize how much of life really is programmable to an extent once we recognize the relationship between theoretical software, hardware and accessories. If you aren’t satisfied with where you’re at or how you feel, there are changes you can make to optimize your existence. And over time, these small habit changes snowball into larger parts of your life that can, with steadiness and consistently, lead to massive changes and advancements in mind, body, and spirit. As I say to myself before starting a good habit, “You’ll thank me later.”

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Charlie Ambler
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