Naval Ravikant on The Power of Habit Loops

On a recent episode of The Knowledge Project Podcast, I interviewed Naval Ravikant, an amazing polymath.

While the conversation lasts over two hours and full of more wisdom than most of us will get in a year, I wanted to share with you this excerpt on habits.

Most of the people that I know that read quite a bit, they have a reading habit like you. You’re described as a very habitual person, where did that come from?

… I don’t think I’m more habitual than anybody else. I think human beings are entirely creatures of habit. Young children are born with no habit loops. They’re essentially born as blank slates. Then they habituate themselves to things and they learn patterns and they get conditioned and they use that to get through everyday life. Habits are good. Habits can allow you to background process certain things so that your neocortex, your frontal lobe, stays available to solve brand new problems.
We also unconsciously pick up habits in the background and we keep them for decades. We may not realize that they’re bad for us until we’re ready to move on them. To some extent, our attitude in life, our mood, our happiness levels, depression levels, these are also habits. Do we judge people? How often do we eat? What kind of food do we eat? Do we walk or do we sit? Do we move? Do we exercise? Do we read? These are habits as well.
You absolutely need habits to function. You cannot solve every problem in life as if it is the first time it’s thrown at you. What we do is we accumulate all these habits. We put them in the bundle of identity, ego, ourselves, and then we get attached to that. I’m Shane. This is the way I am. I’m Naval. This is the way I am. It’s really important to be able to uncondition yourself, to be able to take your habits apart and say, “Oh, okay, that’s a habit that I probably picked up from when I was a toddler and I was trying to get my parents attention. Now I’ve just reinforced it and reinforced it and reinforced it and I call it a part of my identity.
Is it serving me anymore? Is it making me happier? Is it making me healthier? Is it making me accomplish whatever I want to set out to accomplish right now?” In fact, I would argue, I’m less habitual than most people. I don’t like to structure my day. To the extent that I do have habits, I’m trying to make them more deliberate rather than accidents of history.

What’s a habit that you’re trying to change right now? What are you working on?

I did a lot of habit changes over the last few years. I’ve now got a daily workout that I do, which is a great habit. I cut down heavily on drinking. It’s not totally eliminated, but it’s mostly gone. I dropped caffeine. I’m not on the paleo diet, although I’d like to be, so I’m on a variation on it that I call the faileo diet. I try to be paleo, but I fail at it constantly. I don’t beat myself up over it because I feel that even approximating toward it is better than where I’ve been historically. Like that, I tried to build a meditation habit but I failed. I have made a habit of being “meditative.” I’ve gone through lots of habits. Probably the one that I currently would like to cultivate is doing yoga more regularly. I haven’t formulated a plan around that.
By the way, I reject a lot of the stuff that’s being peddled around today about how you perform and break habits. I know there’s this very popular book, one that I even recommended, which talks about the science behind habits. One of its depressing conclusions, I think this came of Stanford, was that you can’t break habits, you can only replace them. That’s BS. I’ve definitely broken habits completely. I think you can uncondition yourself. You can untrain yourself. It’s just hard. It takes work. It takes effort. Usually the big habit changes comes when there’s strong desire-motivators attached to them. The yoga one I’m going to work on. I don’t yet have a great plan on that one. I haven’t tackled that one properly yet.
A big habit the I’m working on, which is going to be really hard to explain in any way that any normal human being will understand this, but I’m trying to turn off my monkey mind. I think, when we’re born as children, we’re pretty blank slates. We’re living very much in the moment. We’re essentially just reacting to our environment through our instincts. We’re living in, what I would call the “real world.” When puberty comes along, that’s the onset of desire, it’s the first time you really, really want something and you start long-range planning for it. Because of that, you start thinking a lot and start building an identity and an ego to go and get what you want.
This is all normal and healthy. It’s part of being the human animal. I think at some point it gets out of control and then we are constantly talking to ourselves in our head. We’re playing little movies in our heads, walking down the street, but no one’s actually there. Of course, if we started voicing this thought in your head that you’re always having, you’d be a madman and they’d lock you up.
The reality is if you walk down the street and there are a thousand people in the street, I think all thousand are talking to themselves in their head at any given point. They’re constantly judging everything that they see. They’re playing back movies of things that happened to them yesterday. They’re living in fantasy worlds of what’s going to happen tomorrow. They’re just pulled out of base reality.
That could be good when you’re doing long-range planning. It can be good when you’re solving problems. It’s good for the survival and replication machines that we are. I think it’s actually very bad for your happiness. In my mind, the mind should be a servant and a tool, not a master. It’s not something that should be controlling me and driving me 24/7.
I’ve taken on this idea that I want to break the habit of uncontrolled thinking, which is hard. If I say to you, “Don’t think of a pink elephant”, I just put a pink elephant in your head. It’s an almost impossible problem. It’s more something that has to be guided by feel, than guided by actual thinking or thought process. I’m deliberately cultivating experiences, states of mind, locations, activities, that will help me get out of my mind.
All of society does that to some extent. In some sense, the people chasing thrills in action sports or flow states or orgasm or any of these states that people really strive to get to, a lot of these are basically just trying to get out of your own head. They’re trying to get away from that voice in your head and this overdeveloped sense of self. At the very least, I do not want my sense of self to continue to develop and become stronger as I get older. I want it to be weaker and more muted so that I can live much more in present every day reality and accept nature and the world for what it is and appreciate it very much as a child would. Then not have to seek happiness through external circumstances, chasing the fits of preconceived notion that I have.

Wow. There’s a lot there I want to ask questions on.

That’s a tough one. That will take years. That’s not a six-month habit. That’s a ten-year habit.

Do you think there’s a difference between turning off versus suppressing your monkey mind?

Absolutely. Suppression doesn’t work. When you try to suppress, that’s the mind suppressing the mind. That’s just you playing games with yourself. I think it’s a very hard problem.

I want to go back to kind of unconditioning. You basically stopped drinking alcohol. How did you work on deprogramming yourself from the social settings and environments that you’re in where alcohol is probably available all the time and what benefits have you seen as a result? I mean, are you isolating these habits when you’re changing them so you know, “Oh I sleep better because I’m not …”

The alcohol one is an interesting case study because the alcohol habit came from two things. One was availability. Just being in situations where alcohol is available and accepted and something you’re supposed to do. The second is the desire. You want to do it because you’re trying to accomplish something else. When I unpacked that, I realized a couple of things. The availability came from, if I’m out at night in an environment where alcohol is being served, that’s the availability. If you want to avoid that, stay in. Staying in is not fun, so what do you do?
I started this daily workout regimen in the mornings. If you’re working out in the mornings, you can’t stay up too late at night. If you can’t stay up too late at night, you can’t be drinking too much. If you screw up a few times, then your morning workout is terrible. You have a headache. You feel bad.
When you’re working out every day, you can checkpoint yourself very easily. This exact thing that I do every single morning is suddenly harder, so therefore I’m weakened for the alcohol from last night. The morning workout checkpoint really helped me understand the consequences of consuming alcohol before.
The more interesting question is why am I doing it? That basically boils down to: I was doing it to survive longer in a social environment that I wasn’t particularly happy in. I essentially had to stun my brain into submission. There are better ways to do that. One of those is only associate with people where you don’t have to drink to be around them. That really narrowed my friend circle and it narrowed the kind of events that I go to. There’s a little bit of a substitution effect. Some of what the substitution effect was I was drinking so that I wouldn’t be thinking. What I went back to is, can I cultivate these states of not thinking too much? If I can get there another way then that will take away some of the urge to drink.
Then there’s some substitution. For example, I switched from hard alcohol to red wine. Red wine is inherently self-limiting. You have two cocktails, the next thing you want is another cocktail. You have two glasses of red wine, at least for me, I usually have a headache. I’m done at that point. It’s very self-limiting.
Some of it is just a function of age. I’m 43 now. I don’t think I can make it through a single glass of wine without having some negative consequence build up. I still drink. I don’t believe in the words like never and always. I think that’s a way of limiting yourself and self-disciplining yourself. It makes me less free and less happy at some level. I just want to be naturally in a position where I don’t need it and I don’t desire it. That’s kind of what I’ve been working more on.

What habit would you say most positively impacts your life?

I think it’s the daily morning workout. That has been a complete game-changer. It’s made me feel healthier, younger. It’s made me not go out late. It came from one simple thing, which is everybody says, “I don’t have time.” Basically whenever you throw any so-called good habit at somebody, they’ll have an excuse for themselves. Usually the most common is, I don’t have time. I don’t have time is just another way of saying, it’s not a priority. What you really have to do is say is it a priority or not. If something is your number one priority then you will get it. That’s just the way life works. If you’ve got a fuzzy basket of 10 or 15 different priorities, you’re going to end up getting none of them.
What I did there was I basically just said, “My number one priority in life, above my happiness, above my family, above my work, is my own health. It starts with my physical health.” Second, it’s my mental health. Third, it’s my spiritual health. Then it’s my family’s health. Then it’s my family’s wellbeing. After that, I can go out and do whatever I need to do with the rest of the world.
There’s a series of concentric circles starting out from me. Because my physical health became my number one priority, then I could never say I don’t have time. In the morning, I work out and however long it takes is how long it takes. I do not start my day, and I don’t care if the world is imploding and melting down, it can wait another 30 minutes until I’m done working out.

Check out the entire interview and read the transcript.

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