The Simple Science of Habit Change
Simple, but not easy.
I’m obsessed with psychology. Lately, this addiction has led me to study habits and the science of habit change. A habit I’m attempting to ingrain in da brain is the habit of writing at least one post per book I read. I want to do this because I see many opportunities to help people change their lives if they learned what really is a simple science.
The book I finished today is Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. The title may sound grandiose but I assure you, it isn’t. There are two variables that social scientists have discovered are the best predictors for life success; IQ and Self-Control. IQ is hard to improve, but what modern science is coming to understand, is that Self-Control is improvable.
What is even more impressive, recent research is showing that Self-Control is the most important predictor of life success (if you are of the more skeptic and analytic type, satisfy yourself and read the book.) These authors think sharing the science of improving Self-Control is “psychology’s best hope for contributing to human welfare.” I agree with them, and sharing this science is what this post is about.
To frame this in a familiar context: The single most important trait to improve, thus by improving, will make everything else easier or unnecessary is Willpower (the “energy” behind Self-Control.)
Willpower has three laws
- You have a finite amount of Willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.
- You use the same stock of Willpower for all manner of tasks
- Exerting Willpower results in the brain metabolizing glucose or ketones.
So, Willpower is the force behind Self-Control. Willpower is like a muscle and can be improved through training. Your Willpower runs on glucose and ketones. We increase our Willpower by deliberately changing a habit.
If this is unclear, here is what is important; to improve your life, start by changing a habit. Habit change that positively effects glucose or ketone metabolism are the most effective habits to change first.
The Simple Science of Habit Change
Habit change is remarkably easy when you understand how to approach it. If you are interested in the science and the experiments the science arises from, read the book. But, here are the simple laws of habit change.
- Focus on a single habit change at a time.
- Make the habit change simple, small, and measurable.
- Create Implementation Intention (I’ll explain this).
- Monitor your progress.
Implementation Intention is the golden tool of habit change. It is a clear choice we make beforehand, that when we arrive in the context of where we are looking to change a habit, we can fall back on this premeditated choice. It takes the form of “If x, then y.” It is like we are writing an algorithm for ourselves, so when a specific context arises, we can make the right choice automatically (expect to tweak your Implementation Intentions. Science is not on your side when it comes to you accurately predicting how disciplined you will be when the cake is on the table.)
I’ll give examples.
A keystone habit is a habit change that causes many other positive habit changes as a result. I pointed out earlier that the most fundamental habit changes, that if changed create the widest impact, are habit changes that affect our metabolizing glucose or ketones. So, no surprise here, the most important habits we can tweak to improve our Willpower are sleep, diet, and exercise.
I’ll give an example for each one.
Studies abound with evidence that lack of sleep impairs our cognitive functions (including WIllpower). One study found that sleep deprivation of even a few hours can result in the equivalent of mild intoxication.
Focus on a single habit change at a time. Improve sleep.
Make the habit change simple and small. Get 8 hours of sleep.
Create an Implementation Intention. “If the time is an hour before when I need to be asleep to get 8 hours, I will turn off all electronics and read in bed.”
Monitor your progress. Simplicity is elegant. Get a big dry erase board or a large calendar, and put a big X for every day you follow your Implementation intention.
Some of my closest friends and family have horrible diets and I have yet to figure out how to string words together to help them, so take this advice with a grain of electrolyte crystal. This is a huge topic and for brevity’s sake, I’m going to keep this insultingly simple. The purpose is to show how to change a habit, so insultingly simple will have to do.
Focus on a single habit change at a time. Improve diet.
Make the habit change simple and small. Start my day off with Willpower fuel (protein shake.)
Create an Implementation Intention. “If I wake up (sounds morbid so we can say when), the first thing I will do is make a protein shake.
Monitor your progress. I’ll repeat myself. Simplicity is elegant. Get a big dry erase board or a large calendar, and put a big X for every day you follow your Implementation intention.
Studies support the scientific community’s recommendation that the single most important habit one can adopt that will improve almost all measures of their life is to exercise. Again, I will keep this simple and I hope it will be enough to get just one person who has avoided exercise to give it a try.
Focus on a single habit change at a time. Improve physicality.
Make the habit change simple and small. Get 20 minutes of exercise a day.
Create an Implementation Intention. “If I wake up and I drink my protein (again, the if creeps me out a little), I will go on a 20 minute walk.”
Monitor your progress. Simplicity is key. Give a big dry erase board or a large calendar, and put a big X for every day you follow your Implementation intention.
Some Other Stuff
This is the tip of the tower. We, our sense of self and our personality, are a hierarchy of habits. Learning to change your habits is the most important habit if you wish to be more than you are now. I don’t know about you, but I came to age with a fucking mountain of bad habits strapped to my back. I have idyllic dreams of contributing to culture in an impactful way, and this delusion can only be kept alive if I continue bringing my unconscious habits to awareness and attempt reprogramming.
Habit change doesn’t happen in 21 days. This is a popular myth made famous by the fantastic book Psycho-Cybernetics. Habit change varies from a couple weeks up to as many as 260 days. The number of days depends on the complexity of the new habit and the subjective effort the individual has to exert to do the new thing. We drastically over-estimate what we can do in a day and incredibly underestimate how far we can get in a year if we take one small step every day.
The best time to plant a tree is five years ago, the next best time is now. Start metaprogramming today.
Please share with me what habit you are attempting to change, what your implementation intention is, and how it went. Also, if you’d like to change a habit, but aren’t sure how to use this formula, contact me and I’ll help you. I’m looking to gain experience helping people change their habits. Thank you for reading and good luck.