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.
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Photo is a long staircase path on Hua Shan.