comment by gilch
· score: 5 (5 votes) · LW
I finished the book. It's not that long. I'll try to summarize the thesis.
Your capacity to work is based on three forces: motivation, willpower, and habit. Motivation is too unreliable: sometimes you have it, sometimes you don't. Habits are those behaviors that are easier to do than to not do; habits are the most reliable. But they have a chicken and egg problem. You can't use a habit you don't have. Willpower is the most useful, but you have a very limited supply of it; when willpower is overtaxed you can't use it until it recharges enough.
The mistake of most of the self help genre is to focus on motivation. Forget about motivation. You can't control it reliably. You should instead focus on willpower, but considering its limited supply, you must spend it efficiently by bootstrapping just a few habits at a time. Make a daily goal of "stupid simple" positive behaviors you can accomplish with little appreciable effort, that you can FORCE yourself to do even at the last minute, with a headache, while sleep deprived. The deadline is when you fall asleep. Something like reading just two pages of a book, or writing fifty words, or a single push up. If those sound too hard, think of something even easier. Maybe you just open the book. Maybe you just write a single word.
Your abstract goals may be lofty, but your concrete goals must be humble. When you've established a framework of habit, you are free to surf the waves of motivation to do "bonus reps". Read more pages, write more words, do more push ups. But only when you feel like it. It's very important psychologically to count the stupid simple behavior alone as a success. Because you've maintained the habit. Often the hardest part of work is starting. Your mini habit will set you in motion. At that point it's often easier to keep moving. Over time you'll entrench the habit, build willpower by exercising it, and accumulate some real accomplishment.
Once it's a real habit (i.e. easier to do than to not do), then it's no longer costing willpower and you try to add another one.
There are other details in the book. (And parts of it are probably worthless.) What the mindset looks like. How to avoid certain common failure modes. A particularly important one is about breaking your streak. If you accidentally miss a day, it can be very discouraging. Building a habit is like riding a bike up a hill. It's harder to do than to not do, until you reach the top. Don't think of a missed day as a broken link in the chain. Think of it as sliding down the hill, but not all the way down the hill. You've lost progress, but not all progress. This is not an excuse to skip days. It's an excuse to continue even if you miss one by accident. It's better to keep going.
Does the book seem worth reading? If you can't muster the willpower to check it out, just try the technique on one mini habit for a week. Let me know how it goes.
comment by Viliam
· score: 1 (1 votes) · LW
Great summary, and also great advice!
I would recommend reading Don't Shoot the Dog (a book about conditioning in general), which provides some background for this advice. (But maybe it already is in the book, and you just didn't mention it in the summary.) For example...
It's very important psychologically to count the stupid simple behavior alone as a success.
..this is "obvious in hindsight" when you think about conditioning. If you want the habit to establish firmly, you need to reward it, emotionally, even if it is merely a small part of a large picture. People often make a mistake that they are trying to reward too large chunks of work, but that's wrong -- conditioning works best at small chunks, because timing is critical (the best reward is the immediate reward).
Imagine that your goal is "eat healthy food, exercise and develop huge muscles, improve sex life, find a better job, and make tons of money", but all you actually managed to do during the last month is "do 10 push-ups (almost) every morning". There are two ways to react to this:
a) Say "this is great, I am exercising regularly, and this body is becoming stronger and stronger every day" after each exercise. If you do this, the little monkey in your head, responsible for regularity of exercise, will feel really happy, and will make you want to exercise every day.
Yes, there are more things to do, but you can work on them later. And with the exercise-management monkey working happily on its task, you will have one less thing to worry about.
b) Say "okay, this sucks, I barely do the 10 push-ups, and I completely failed at all the remaining goals" after each exercise. If you do this, the little monkey in your head, responsible for regularity of exercise, will feel sad and commit suicide, so the next day you will have a huge "ugh field" around the idea of exercise.
Now this is strictly worse than the previous option. And yet many people will do exactly this. Why? Something about signalling and status hierarchies... you probably instinctively feel a need to kick yourself, to prevent the alpha of the group kicking you instead. (What could help overcome this instinct would probably be to imagine a "reference group" consisting of people who are not exercising at all -- clearly your habit of doing 10 push-ups a day makes you superior to all of them. A time to celebrate victory!)
bootstrapping just a few habits at a time
If you try to bootstrap 5 habits at a time, and only 2 stick, and the remaining 3 fail, what you should do is reward yourself for getting from level zero to level two. (The remaining habits you can work with in the future, when the two already established ones will be done mostly automatically.)