Health

Hijacking habits

My college (and then Google) friend [Tristan Harris](http://www.tristanharris.com/) has been doing some great work communicating the dangers of “attention-hacking” and the dark sides of social technology. A recent video he made on [how the instant gratification of smartphones creates bad habits](http://bigthink.com/videos/tristan-harris-how-your-phone-disconnects-you-from-reality) got me thinking about how I’ve successfully stopped bad habits and started good ones in the past.

1. Hijack bad habits with good ones

BJ Fogg, an expert on persuasive technology who taught Tristan at Stanford, runs a “[Tiny Habits]” course that emphasizes creating “triggers” that will remind you to do your new habit. I find that I can often use the urge to do a bad habit as my trigger to instead do my new good habit.

Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, calls this “routine replacement”– hijacking the cue and the reward, and inserting a different routine between them.

In my method, the bad habit isn’t technically “forbidden”–it’s just delayed and distracted enough by the good habit that it usually has no power left.

I also find it’s helpful to use a good habit that’s in the opposite direction as the bad habit–if the bad habit is eating junk food, the good habit is eating brocolli

2. Make those new good habits as small as possible

Right now I have a rule that I will do 1 pushup per day, and take one mindful breath per day.

Now, by the time I get down on the floor to do that 1 pushup, or take the time to have one mindful breath, I almost always end up doing a lot more. But even if I don’t, the success of completing the habit each day is the strongest reinforcement I’ve found to solidify it.

A few small examples of how I’ve applied this strategy:

* Before I check my social media feeds, I take 10 mindful breaths
* Before I read blog posts, I write one (that’s what I’m doing now!)
* Before I eat candy or junk food, I eat a vegetable
* Before I drink a beer or glass of wine, I drink two glasses of water
* Before I say (or write) something bad about someone, I say something good about them

As you might imagine, doing the good habit first usually kills the urge to do the bad one. Some of the good habits address the same core needs as bad ones but in different ways (giving the mind something to focus on; learning something new; satisfying hunger; quenching thirst); others provide a cognitive dissonance that makes it hard to follow one with the other (saying good then bad things about someone).

It sometimes feels trivial to optimize such small things, but they add up. As Annie Dillard wrote:

> How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.

Micro-activities

Since becoming a father I’ve had trouble fitting in all the things I’d like to do, so I’m always on the lookout for ways to combine two activities together, or to squeeze one in between two others. A few examples of these “micro-activities” that have worked out well:

* Meditate while falling asleep
* Pushups as I roll out of bed
* Bodyweight exercise on playground equipment while the kids play
* Mindful breathing while waiting for them to finish things (brushing teeth, putting away toys, etc)
* Squat stretch while brushing teeth
* Naps during lunch break (and related, lunch during meetings)
* Squats and stretches while riding the elevator (alone =)

The way these work best is when the activities are in two separate cognitive or physical categories. I haven’t been able, for instance, to listen to a podcast while working (which both require cognitive attention), or to intersperse pushups with cooking (both require your hands). But a physical activity while doing a mental one can work (e.g. pullups while watching the kids).

Mindfulness in particular is well suited for this. Besides the fact that a single 20-minute session is hard to stay focused for anyway, spreading bits of meditation throughout the day has a nice regulating effect on my mood and attention. Chade Meng Tan encourages people to practice just a single breath at a time, finding that produces a large benefit; I agree.

How to run the fastest marathon ever

[Some fascinating techniques](https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2017/may/06/eliud-kipchoge-misses-out-on-sub-two-hour-marathon-by-2-seconds):

> At the start the three athletes were immediately joined by six pacers, who adopted an arrowhead formation behind a Tesla electric car with a giant clock timer on it. Wind tunnel studies show that this formation would help them as it saves energy…

> Kipchoge was also using a new carbohydrate-rich sports drink, delivered by helpers on mopeds so he did not have to slow down…

> Then there was the use of Nike’s Zoom Vaporfly Elite shoes, which some have suggested should be illegal because they contain a special curved plate that allows runners to roll through instead of bending toes and losing energy.

The new economy and disability

Millions of people are unable to work because of a disability, but [that has as much to do with the changing nature of work as with the disabilities themselves](https://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/490/transcript):

> When I said things like, what about a job where you don’t have to lift people, or a job where you don’t have to use your shoulder or where you don’t have to stand all night long, or just simply, have you thought about other jobs that you could do, people gave me such bewildered looks. It was as if I was asking well, how come you didn’t consider becoming an astronaut…

> Being poorly educated in a rotten place, that in and of itself has become a disability. This is a new reality. This gap between workers who are fit for the US economy and millions of workers who are increasingly not. And it’s a change that’s spreading to towns and cities that have thrived in the American economy.

It’s sadly ironic that while tech workers are proud about the health benefits of their new standing desks, people with real health issues can’t get jobs that allow them to sit.

Thoughts on a year of Headspace

As I mentioned in [my 2015 wrapup](http://bob.ryskamp.org/brain/?p=5467), this past year I practiced mindfulness meditation with [Headspace](https://www.headspace.com/). I wrapped up another “pack” this morning and thought it would be useful to collect some thoughts on the various approaches I’ve learned and the experience overall.

* My main insight was that training the mind really is like training the body. It benefits from consistent practice, varied techniques, planned routines, and even interval training (alternating periods of focus and relaxation). Similarly, the mind can become detrained without regular training, and I noticed a real difference in my mental state after just a few days without practicing.
* That said, I wasn’t very consistent with my practice, averaging a little less than one session every two days, and sometimes going up to two weeks between sessions (often caused by travel or illness disrupting my routine). Contrast that with some people who mention online that they’ve had a streak of 90 or even 365 days straight, and I wonder how their experience differs. I managed to maintain an overall sense of peace that persists even after a few days off, but some of the more advanced techniques and benefits didn’t stick around.
* The only way I was able to fit this into my day is by waking up earlier. If I start my day with meditation (after a few wakeup stretches), I’m much better at staying focused. Once I’ve done much of anything else, my mind is too distracted to have a successful session.
* Meditating on the breath always seemed to me an arbitrary choice–why not on a concept or a sound (like “om“). However, I gradually came to appreciate it, as your breath is always with you (and if it’s not, you have bigger problems than mindfulness), and doesn’t require conscious effort to maintain. When the goal is to clear away distracting conscious thoughts, the breath is a handy aid.
* I was initially skeptical of the “pack” approach unique to Headspace, but it too proved itself over time. It’s nice to break down what could be a lifelong practice into manageable chunks, giving you a tangible goal every 10 or 30 days. And while I started each pack wondering how meditation was supposed to improve a skill like creativity or generosity, every time there was indeed a helpful insight or new practice. A few examples and reviews:
* Focus was the first pack I tried. What stuck with me is the sense that sustainable focus isn’t something static and fixed, but rather the ability to steer your attention to different things at will–a dynamic experience. I wrote about how my son exhibits this trait naturally, but it was a new (or renewed?) practice for me. I continue to use the visualization of a glowing sphere moving through the parts of the body when I’m cycling, especially during hard efforts, to keep my overall attention on the body’s performance and prevent my mind from wandering.
* Anxiety was next, and while this was a natural emotion for meditation to help, the approach was again surprising. The technique instructs you to first name, and then categorize, whatever stressful thoughts enter your mind. You might think of a difficult project at work, for example, which you could then give a title, mark as “negative”, and label as a “thinking” anxiety. The simple act of acknowledging the thought can be enough for your mind to let it go, a bit like how writing down an important todo item lets you relax mentally–it’s no longer your mind’s responsibility to keep track of it.
* Appreciation was a nice shorter one and quite related to Generosity. In both cases you’re instructed to think about who and what makes you the happiest and most fulfilled, and the goal is to cultivate that feeling (rather than, say, translate into direct action). I found Generosity more valuable overall, as you extend that feeling toward others and into the world.
* Creativity was a bit of a slog. 30 sessions, and again the goal was mostly to recognize the “feeling” of being creative. It introduced one nice technique though, the idea of rapidly alternating between focus on the breath and “letting go of the mind”, which trains you in the art of smoothly entering into a focused state at a moment’s notice. During this series I found myself better able to do “micro-meditations” throughout my regular day.
* I’ve only tried 10 days of Headspace Pro, the packs with less guidance and no particular theme. I did find them more challenging, and less motivating, than the themed packs, and haven’t been back recently. Hopefully more consistent practice will make them accessible again.

I continue to find new benefits from Headspace, even after a year and over 150 sessions. Here’s to another year of mindfulness!

Carbs, fat, and politics

After years of pushing low-fat and high-carbohydrate diets, [the federal health agencies have finally flipped their recommendations](http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/09/opinion/why-is-the-federal-government-afraid-of-fat.html):

> Following an Institute of Medicine report, the 2005 Dietary Guidelines quietly began to reverse the government’s campaign against dietary fat, increasing the upper limit to 35 percent — and also, for the first time, recommending a lower limit of 20 percent…the scientists on the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, for the first time in 35 years have sent recommendations to the government without any upper limit on total fat.

The guidelines themselves take a strong stance on sugars and refined carbohydrates as well:

> Higher consumption of sugar-sweetened foods and beverages as well as refined grains was identified as detrimental in almost all conclusion statements with moderate to strong evidence.

And it looks like those egg council creeps finally got to the scientists too:

> Available evidence shows no appreciable relationship between consumption of dietary
cholesterol and serum cholesterol.

I switched to a vegetarian protein- and fat-heavy diet with lots of raw vegetables, oils, eggs, yogurt and nuts this year and I’ve lost significant weight and felt amazing. It’s fascinating to see the tides change as scientists finally have the tools and data to run big studies on nutrition:

> Confirming many other observations, large randomized trials in 2006 and 2013 showed that a low-fat diet had no significant benefits for heart disease, stroke, diabetes or cancer risks, while a high-fat, Mediterranean-style diet rich in nuts or extra-virgin olive oil — exceeding 40 percent of calories in total fat — significantly reduced cardiovascular disease, diabetes and long-term weight gain.

But all of this threatens a huge packaged-food industry that thrives on shelf-stable grain products, and the political deck is stacked against change. Hopefully the evolving scientific consensus will bolster efforts like the ones led by Alice Waters and Michael Pollan to move our eating back toward freshness, sustainability, and health.

Training the mind and body

I’ve been a regular cyclist for 25 years. For the first decade, I was serious, riding every day and following schedules from books and coaches. But if I’m honest, my approach was always based more on “trying” than “training”–I would often skip days, then put out an extreme effort when I did ride to make up for my inconsistency. In the end, this meant I had less fitness than I could have, and races and training involved more pain than they needed to.

Since my son was born, the limits on my time have forced me to focus my riding. I now do most of my rides before dawn on the indoor trainer, and each ride has some structure to it, often interval training. Because of the consistency and efficiency of the indoor rides, I can get up to 5 1-hour workouts per week, and finish before he wakes up in the morning.

A typical interval session sees me spinning slowly at first, then shifting gears to increase the effort for a period of time before going back to spinning. This process repeats up to 30 times per workout. It feels mechanical at times; that I’m treating my body like an IKEA chair durability test. But it’s had a remarkable effect: in just a few hours a week, I’m now close to the fitness I had 15-20 years ago, when I had much more time to ride. And these efforts feel a lot easier than the workouts I did then.

Recently I also started using the Headspace service to practice mindfulness and guided meditation. It struck me today how similar the process is to my cycling training. The Headspace approach is based on short (10-minute) daily sessions. I do them before I ride in the morning–which means getting up just a little bit earlier, but gives more consistency than trying to fit it in later. A typical session spends a little bit of time relaxing and getting settled, then focuses on one or two physical sensations: sound, body tension, breathing, etc.

The part most similar to my cycling is near the end of each session, where the guide encourages you to let the mind go, to let it wander and think about whatever it likes. Since this comes after several minutes of focus, it feels like a rest, giving the mind a chance to catch up to the effort. But every time, after a minute of rest, the guide tells you to refocus, to pull the mind back to center and let go of the thoughts it had wandered to. This feels to me almost exactly like the point in a cycling workout where I shift up and start a new interval effort. The mindful focus is the effort, the wandering the rest interval.

You can’t expect to always be focused, just as you can’t expect to always push at the highest level on a bike. Both processes involve effort and rest. And also like cycling, you can’t make up for an inconsistent mental life by “trying” even harder. The mind requires regular training, just like the body, and the right type of training makes everything easier and more effective.

In a recent Sunset magazine article, a writer spent a day just like a Hollywood celebrity. It involved workouts, special meals, and a busy social schedule. He came away with the feeling that the celebrity life was more like athletic training than hedonistic indulgence. As a celebrity, your image is your livelihood, and it requires regular effort to maintain.

Training isn’t something just for athletes–it’s a process for the mind and the lifestyle as well. It’s been interesting to see how similar techniques can benefit each of those.

AidPod: Truly great design

I love [the ColaLife AidPod](http://www.colalife.org/about/aidpod/):

* Designed to fit in the empty space in Coca-Cola shipping crates, piggybacking on the most successful distribution network in the world
* Provides diarrhea medicine (the Kit Yamoyo) along with literacy-not-required instructions
* The sustainable business model provides value at every step of the supply chain

That’s great design. You can help fund the AidPod project at Global Giving.

Update Interesting follow-up: the founder says that actually fitting into Coca-Cola crates wasn’t important after all… but it drove them to simplify the product in ways that made it successful.

Science | GotChocolateMilk.com

I love that [chocolate milk is now positioned as a sports drink](http://gotchocolatemilk.com/science#overview-1). I’ve [long been a fan](http://www.flickr.com/photos/bobman/7337699168/in/photostream/), actually…

Worry Isn’t Work

> Worry isn’t work. Being stressed out isn’t work. Anxiety isn’t work. Entertaining a sense of impending doom isn’t work. Incessant internal verbal punishment isn’t work. Indulging the great unknown fear in your own mind isn’t work. Hating yourself isn’t work.

> Work is the manifestation of value, and anyone who tells you that a person whose mind is 50% occupied with anxiety is more likely to manifest value is a person who isn’t manifesting much.

Dan Pallotta