To train any animal, you follow a simple process. You somehow indicate what you want it to do, and then when it does it, you give it a reward. Maybe in some cases you punish it if it doesn't do what it's supposed to do. Then you repeat until the animal is trained. When it comes to training ourselves, though, we come up with a million weird and ineffective ways to do it.
Why is that? Maybe it's because we don't want to face the truth about what it takes to train ourselves, so we hunt and hunt for shortcuts. As someone who has trained himself to do all sorts of things, I think that the solution is much easier.
The first fix is to drop this idea of looking for a shortcut. Often times people will spend years trying to find that shortcut to losing weight, learning a new language, or developing a sense of optimism. Maybe they save a month or two, but they would have been a lot better off just doing it the hard way to begin with.
When people tell me that they're going to change, the number one indicator I've found to predict whether or not they'll succeed is how quickly they start. If they start right now they have a much better chance of succeeding than if they start, "after this pack" or "on January first" or "as soon as I'm settled in". If you don't want something bad enough to start immediately, you may as well give up and not waste your time on it. Obvious exceptions are when there's a concrete logistical reason to start later like, "I'll start training for skiing in the winter, because that's when there's snow".
So you start now, and then you just start repeating the action. Never believe that you're above the process, because you're not. Gains are won through repetition I wanted to like sardines, because they're pretty much the healthiest food that can be stored easily, so I eat a quarter pound tin of them every single day. It doesn't matter if I don't feel like it or if I want to go out for lunch-- I just eat the sardines. I also won't stop until I really like these things. At first I thought they were disgusting, and now I'm sixteen cans deep and I'm neutral on them. They still gross me out a bit, but I like the taste. Eventually I will like them.
Besides repeating the behavior you want to try to address weaknesses and get on top of them. If you're learning Spanish and you notice that you're having trouble with the preterite tense, then shift your focus towards that. Often times you'll see people do the opposite-- move away from the parts they're bad at and focus on what comes easily. A few days into the sardine eating I noticed that the spines of the fish were freaking me out, and when they were visible I would pull them out and not eat them. To counteract that, I pulled a couple spines out and ate them plain. It wasn't good, but it made me realize they weren't as scary as I thought.
Your reward should be praise for adherence to the process and a glimpse at where that process will lead you eventually. This is where we're different than dogs and rats-- we have cognition that allows us to reward ourselves mentally. If when you first teach a dog to roll over he almost makes it, you still give him a treat. If he's rolling over later in the day and you didn't tell him to, you don't give him a treat. In other words, only process gets rewarded. The same should be true for you-- if you knock out your flash cards for the day, mentally pat yourself on the back. When I ate my first can of sardines, I was proud of myself. When you go to the gym for the first time and can barely curl the empty bar, give yourself credit for getting out there and putting in the effort.
You don't congratulate yourself for the outcome because it's not in your direct control like process is. Kids in school are rewarded for grades more than effort, so they often cheat or blow through homework and get the answers right without really understanding the underlying principles. If you focus on losing weight and not eating healthy foods, you will reward yourself for doing unhealthy things that lead to weight loss. If you only reward yourself on process, you'll eventually get there, and you'll do it in a healthy and sustainable way.
There's nothing fundamentally wrong with rewarding yourself extrinsically saying that if you stick to your Chinese lessons for six months you'll reward yourself by taking a trip to China. Still, the nice thing about rewarding yourself only with praise for process is that this reward is universal and can be applied in any situation. You don't need elaborate structures to get yourself to do things, because you have the motivation within yourself. Doling out that self-praise on a repeated basis helps reinforce the idea of generating your mood from within and strengthens your own standards.
What happens if you fail? The absolute most important thing is that you don't use it as an excuse to stop training. If you do this EVER, your brain will figure out that all it has to do is sabotage you once, and then you don't have to do the challenging new behavior To counteract this, I punish myself by making myself do more the next day. This isn't a punishment meant to make myself feel bad, it's just a method of making my brain sabotage-resistant.
If I mess up I don't get down on myself, either. I note the error, think about what it will take to not make the error again, think about how well I'm doing overall, and focus on the importance of knocking it out of the park the next day to keep momentum up.
The cool meta aspect of all this is that because it's a universal framework under which you can train yourself, you will actually get better at the process itself. I'm so obsessed with training myself that I now find it pretty easy. I stay consistent, I subconsciously reward myself for good behavior and I set appropriate challenges. If you don't train yourself regularly, you will find this process difficult at first. Stick with it.
What does this work for? Pretty much everything. You can train how you think, what you do, and how you react. Here are some examples:
Language learning (flashcards every day, language tape everyday, talk with language exchange partner every day)
Physical fitness (eat properly every day, work out X days per week on a schedule, do yoga every day)
Meditation (meditate every day, do slow breathing once per day)
Optimism (find positive aspect of every negative thought for 2-3 months, think of 5 things you're grateful for every day)
Punctuality (try to be 2-5 minutes early to every single thing you commit to)
Social skills (talk to X people per day, host one event every week/month, write one personal email every day)
Work habits (write top three things to do every day and complete them, work for X hours every day, plan your day for 15 minutes every morning)
Sleep Schedule (turn off computer at X time every day, wake up at the same time every day, no caffeine after 5pm every day)
Personal finance (check bank accounts every day with Mint, budget every week, spend 24 hours thinking about any purchase over $XXX)
Education (watch 1 Khan Academy every day, read for an hour every day, watch only documentaries)
Abstinence (don't drink, don't do drugs, don't smoke, don't eat sugar)
These are just a few ideas off the top of my head, about 90% of which I've done personally. They all fit into the exact same framework-- repeat the action over and over again, praise yourself for adherence to the process, refocus to keep your repetitions effective. Just about any change you want to make can, and probably should, be made this way. If you're new to this sort of thing, just pick an easy one and do it for a couple months. Then pick two easy ones or one slightly harder one. Eventually you morph into a freight train of personal change and you have the ability to load on as many of these things as you can think of, staying 90%+ consistent with all of them.
A bunch of people have emailed me asking for SETT invites. Sorry, but I just can't deal with these on a case by case basis right now, and we want to make sure we grow in a way that doesn't overextend our servers or our ability to guide people through issues that pop up.
If you want to make sure you get an account as soon as possible, go to http://sett.com and sign up in the box at the bottom. It only appears if you're logged out.
Photo is a long staircase path on Hua Shan.
I had a similar experiment with sardines, and I found I'm a fan of King Oscar brand.
Also, in my quest for sustained motivation, I read a book I'd recommend. I'm pasting my review below. It's long.
"Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet." - Young St. Augustine
I recently read Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister. This is my book report, and I think you should check it out.
Why did I read this book? I realize at thirty-four that I have not succeeding in reaching personal goals of which I know I'm capable. While I have no complaints about my quality of life, I want more satisfaction in my accomplishments. The cause of my shortcomings has become clear. After searching several related book sites, the reviews pointed me here.
Is this another preachy self-help book? No. It is remarkably story and data driven; it's a series of entertaining anecdotes tied into historical and current scientific studies on human and animal self-control. Baumeister balances findings from hundreds of research studies with biographical stories and direct interviews with the likes of David Blaine (Magician and endurance performer), Henry Morton Stanley ("Livingstone, I presume?"), David Allen (Getting Things Done), Amanda (Fucking) Palmer, and Aaron Patzer (mint.com).
In my summary below, I'm skipping the science and personal accounts and picking only my favorite bits of directly practical information. These tips are the results of repeatable behavioral studies, so they should be applicable and helpful to most people with few exceptions.
What is willpower?
Psychological perspectives on this have shifted historically, but real life studies show that Freud was wrong. Willpower is a single and limited reserve, a bank of self-control, and it is depleted through all forms of stress and then restored through time, rest, and glucose. The capacity of the reserve can be stretched through self-discipline, and the refilling sped by nutrition and mental peace.
How does willpower become used up?
We use willpower when we force ourselves to get up when we want to sleep, by commuting in traffic, putting up with coworkers we don't like, not eating everything we want to, trying to be nice during conflict, or exercising when we'd rather lie down. Even making decisions such as choosing which phone to buy depletes willpower. Retail stores are designed with this in mind. We become compulsive after a session of making brand and price choices.
How do you build and conserve willpower?
• Pick your battles. Limit your time doing chores that feel like drudgery. You'll put off starting chores if the time to completion seems indefinite, and you'll most likely exhaust your willpower reserves and derail your productivity by trying to power through a long task in one sitting. Quitting from mental exhaustion leaves you with a negative feeling about your progress. Consciously decide to stop before overexertion and pick up the task later just as you would with any other healthy exercise.
• Instead of creating a long "to-do" list; make a "to-don't" list. Know what drags you down most, and plan to avoid those chores at times which you regularly have poor self-control. Instead of dissecting your task list and setting a granular level of prioritization, pick the top three items and focus only on them. Put the rest out of your mind. Instead of listing large, complex goals like "Learn Objective C", list only the next practical step towards the goal such as "Log into Lynda.com and click the 'programming' category." Having simple, non-vague steps in mind reduces the stress of planning that often intimidates us to the point of procrastination. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suspense#Zeigarnik_effect
• Procrastination isn't necessarily related to perfectionism as is often assumed. Research shows a much stronger connection to impulsiveness. Procrastinators tend to put off a difficult chore that may offer a long-term reward in favor an easier action and an immediate reward. I've come to think that I work best under pressure, such as waiting until the night before a paper is due, but this is a common self-observation among procrastinators. Again, studies show that work done last-minute is of lower quality than that of people who distribute work over time.
• When estimating the time and effort needed to complete a task, realize that people generally err positively when judging their own potential. Our personal best and worst case scenarios tend to have an optimistic bias and disregard our own historical behavioral tendencies. "I can do this in like ... two hours. Sure." We tend to judge other's potential less favorably. Get an outside perspective to overcome this planning fallacy.
• Successful people don't use their reserves of willpower to rescue themselves in emergencies; rather, they use it to develop safe strategies and routines. They use it to create good habits. These people arrange their lives so that they avoid problem situations. They prepare to play offense so they don't need to react defensively. Set up your life accordingly. Don't expect that you'll magically have more time in the future. Don't be over-confident with expectations of your future willpower.
• Sleep deprivation has a nasty effect on willpower.
• To break a habit, change your daily routine. Even if the habit is not directly related to the routine, facing the day with a fresh and conscious approach derails your behavioral pattern. You can also use purposeful procrastination to keep yourself from a negative habit without depleting your self-control. Instead of telling yourself, "No, I won't do this thing I'm itching to do", say that you'll do it a little later. This strategy has proven to be successful because it causes less mental stress than simply asserting self-denial.
• Studies show that people exhibit better self-control in an orderly environment. Clutter and filth has a negative effect. Simple but frequent tidying can help break a cycle of poor self-control. If you just can't make yourself clean up, go somewhere that's already clean and uncluttered when you need a boost to get your work done.
• If you find yourself avoiding your current priority task by choosing other, lower priority tasks, it may help to set a limitation of "this or nothing". Tell yourself that you don't have to perform the priority task, but you can do nothing else productive during the time specified. Rather than jumping from task to task because your lack of focus allows you to quickly rationalize new priorities, choose to only be lazy - or - perform the designated task. Remove other less important tasks as options that can excuse you from the primary task.
• Sabotage your weaknesses. Recognize them in spending, eating, web-surfing, drinking, shopping, etc, and create a strategy during your moments of personal strength to save yourself during weakness. Put away the credit card and take only a measured amount of cash when going out. Buy health food in bulk and junk-food in single-serving packages. Use a self-restricting surfing access timer. Decide to drink only on certain days or only X days/week. You may override these limitations from time to time, but they can help you to create positive habits that become routine with practice.
• Track yourself and make the information public to friends. Get in the habit of recording metrics of your activities. Record daily weight, spending, time, etc and let friends review the data on a consistent schedule. Self-accountability is much less effective a motivator than accountability to your roommates, your church-group, Twitter or your Facebook wall. Knowing that your activity will be monitored not only gives momentary strength, it will later give you an unambiguous view of your past and allow for honest future planning.
• I like bullet points.
• When planning steps to reach your goals, include frequent, small rewards. Even a seemingly paltry pat on the back gives the brain the measure of validation needed to repeat the behavior and form a positive pattern.
It has taken me a long time to realize that I need practical help building discipline. I've always had a reluctance to using mental tricks or changes to my environment designed to improve my concentration. I idealized a self who would be able to overcome his limitations purely and by sheer will. I wanted to reach this perfectly controlled self the "right" way instead of finding cheap loopholes to productivity. Fortunately, I've come to understand that I'm not that special; I'm like most people in this regard, and these studies of human behavior are applicable to me.
Is this working? It's only been a few weeks since finishing the book, and my story can only be anecdotal, but yes. I started running every other day. I'm cooking more often and eating my greens. I'm spending more time reading, and I finished this damn report!
Just wanted to let you know that whatever you're doing with SETT/your website/whichever is causing my RSS feedreader to flip out. Your articles - from this one to your latest one - keep popping up as being 'changed'. Look into it if you would, or just keep making the adjustments you need to, to work on SETT :-) Just wanted to let you know
Also, when I posted this as 'guest' the popup message is missing a word: "Now we need to who you are to post this."
All the best!
Please, please, please remove the line "Maybe in some cases you punish it if it doesn't do what it's supposed to do." Please don't promulgate this dangerous misconception. Training is encouraging a behavior, and there are 2 ways to do it.
Notice that in negative reinforcement, the reward takes place after the behavior has already happened. Also notice that in negative reinforcement, you are encouraging the subject to do the behavior more, not stop the behavior. A classic example of negative reinforcement has a constantly electrified floor, and when you see the desired behavior, you turn the electricity off. You don't turn on the electricity if you don't get what you want, you turn the electricity off when you do get what you want.
Can you see the difference between negative reinforcement and punishment now? Negative reinforcement is a training technique that encourages a behavior. Punishment is not a training technique, and can never successfully make a behavior occur, nor encourage more of a behavior.
When they train rats for experience, I believe they punish them to enforce behaviors. No?
I remember my college psychology lab in which we trained rats to press a bar for a drop of water. The focus was on positive reinforcement. Give a reward (drop of water) as aspects of the behavior were exhibited - first heading in the direction of the bar, then moving towards bar, pressing bar one time, pressing 10 times, etc. I don't remember negative reinforcement (punishment). If there were, I probably would have had to switch labs :)
Ask yourself if you could be completely wrong about this concept: "To train any animal, you follow a simple process. You somehow indicate what you want it to do, and then when it does it, you give it a reward. Maybe in some cases you punish it if it doesn't do what it's supposed to do. Then you repeat until the animal is trained."
I'm guessing you've never had complete responsibility for an animal, or a child. Following this concept to do so would be a dangerous experiment.
Positive and negative reinforcement are trivialized versions of pop Western psychology. Really not at all how animals or people work. If you want to begin to understand what truly motivates, I would highly recommend watching episodes of the Dog Whisperer - in particular, the shows where Cesar is correctly badly behaved dogs (most shows). You'll see dog owner after dog owner applying traditional concepts of behavior correction (training) who have unstable and even traumatized animals. What is it that Cesar understands that enables him to fix their behavior, sometimes almost instantaneously by simply giving a couple non-verbal clues? Like he says, he trains humans.
These will also help you start to understand: http://nymag.com/news/features/27840/ and http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_on_motivation.html
The truth is much closer to "we are born to work".
Also, I didn't use to like sardines, but I did like anchovies (in oil). After a couple years of having anchovies on crackers for snacks or meals irregularly, one time I couldn't find anchovies in the store and got sardines instead, and found I now liked them. I suspect it had a lot to do with the way that I thought and felt when I ate anchovies. I always pick King Oscar over any other brand.
No, punishment doesn't ever reinforce behavior. Try this article. It's geared toward applying the information in the workplace, but it has a great graphic distinguishing between negative reinforcement and punishment. (Negative reinforcement != punishment), and it also states clearly "positive punishment fails to teach desirable behaviors."
Tynan, this only becomes a simple strategy once you're already Tynan. You have to set immense store by keeping your word to yourself before the thought of breaking it is a huge motivator just by itself. Before that point, you're likely to fail to keep your commitments to yourself, because that's what you're used to and it doesn't seem like it's a big deal to break them. It's much more likely to work if you add several other strategies into the mix, like precommitment and success spirals, until you're confident enough in yourself to always follow through.
You also need to develop the habit of noticing and admitting failure. Failure is really bad. Each failure is another piece of evidence that you can't do this. You already have tons of counter-evidence to suggest that you can, for any value of this, but that's not true for most people. Starting with things like very clearly defined goals, plans for achieving those goals, whitelisted excuses, public accountability, and scheduled review are going to help here to keep you from weaseling out of commitments to yourself. Weaseling is another habit that most people need to break first.
Once you rock at self-motivation and you've sharpened your awareness of your own personal commitments, then yeah, you can get rid of most of those things and simplify it to the mental model you suggest above. A pro swimmer doesn't need water wings or a coach; she just swims. A beginner who tries to just swim will either drown, or come close enough that he'll give up. Meanwhile, the pro swimmer is confused at why the beginner is having difficulty.
Sometimes there is still a place for the extra motivational strategies even when you're already a motivation hero, like when you want to get yourself to do things that are much harder than you have done before. This is what I wrote my book on (The Motivation Hacker). But yeah, I agree that for most goals, you don't need complex strategies once you have the habit of achieving goals.
Great post with solid advice. Few things feel better than achieving something important to you through putting in the hours to do it well. I would love to see our education system reformed to be more conducive to real learning and the strengthening of willpower.
While I agree with a lot of this, I do have a couple of qualms:
1) Looking for a shortcut isn't always a fruitless endeavor. Say you're trying to lose weight. Conventional wisdom tells you to exercise more and eat less. That strategy seldom works in the long term. In this case, the shortcut, whether it be veganism, paleo, or whatever, can serve as both a better strategy than CV and as a motivator. Trying new things is fun!
2) Furthermore, what if your system and your end goals no longer align? For example, I used to study Korean because I lived in Korea. I started my studies as soon as I knew I'd be moving there. And though I had a reasonable amount of success, I eventually gave up. Not because I thought it was an impossible language, but rather, I didn't think the time investment would be worth the payoff. So I stopped training and "failed." Yet in the grand scheme of things, I don't see it as a failure.
Like, it's cool that you're eating sardines, but what's the real payoff? If you're enjoying the process, great — that's enough to make it worth continuing. However, if it's an ordeal you're putting yourself through daily for no reason, I have to wonder what the point is. (Perhaps I'm doomed to failure because I ask too many questions.)
In any case, good luck with the sardines :P
Excellent post and excellent photo. When it comes to training myself, I have a slightly different approach, however. I find that having an element of pleasure inherent in the activity is critical for long-term success. If, for instance, I don't like sardines, I'll just eat mackerel instead. The health benefits are pretty much the same, but the better taste and texture make it more pleasurable to eat. Same thing for exercise. If one form of exercise is pure torture, but another, fun one provides the same or almost the same benefits, I will take number two.
Perhaps this has to do with age. I am 44 and the idea of living a puritan lifestyle in order to gain some future benefit is no longer as tempting as it was when I was 20 or 30. Now, I am more focused on finding a balance between present and future benefits.
Love this. I've thought about and put into practice most of these ideas, but the paragraph on making your brain "sabotage resistant" has never occurred to me. I've found I get one day behind and the daunting task of catching up scares me away until next thing I know it's no longer a habit. Considering catching up a punishment to train your brain is brilliant - killing two birds with one stone.
I recently had to train myself to quit Reddit. I decided it was eating up too much of my life and my addiction to it had been the cause of a lot of problems. So I psyched myself up, telling myself I NEEDED to quit, and convincing myself how bad it was for me, and telling myself that I hated it. Then I logged onto Reddit and started pinching myself REALLY hard. I closed the window (ctrl+w is all in the left hand) and stopped. Then I did it again. And again. I did it til I couldn't bear to anymore.
Later throughout the day, I reinforced the connection occasionally by thinking about Reddit, or lolcats, or commenting, and pinching myself.
That was the last time I ever used Reddit. Even the sight of someone else using it makes me REALLY uncomfortable now. I HATE it. I absolutely hate it, so this training thing works.
Sandines in tins used to gross me out big time, until a few years back I found a brand that I love: Those sandines come without skin and without bones! Is that cheating?? ;) Either way, they are delicious! I sprinkle a little gomasio on top and I'm in protein heaven.
Good luck with your sardine love!
It might surprise most readers to know that I actually had a pretty great time in school. I learned a lot, made great friends, and had some very good teachers. There are a lot of positive aspects of school that should be preserved even in alternatives.
What I don't like about school, though, is the incentive structure it presents to students. School teaches all sorts of bad things like doing work to please others, submitting to arbitrary authority, and my least favorite of all: doing the bare minimum.
The first two I dodged somehow, but doing the bare minimum is ingrained somewhere in my brain. It doesn't rear it's head all that often, but when it does, it's ugly.
And, to be clear, I don't blame school for it. It's my own responsibility to condition my mind and to not fall prey to bad habits, and I failed to do that in school. So maybe I was out in the cold, but it was my own fault I didn't bring a jacket.
It's probably my fault.
Certainly, I've entangled myself quite a lot in what I'm saying. The message and messenger are one?
But, they should not be. Who am I? We could discuss it. It's kind of interesting, to me at least. But who I am is much less important than what I'm saying -
I'm trying to lay it out. True. Sincere. Unfiltered.